How safe is food in the vicinity after a Teflon fire?
December 26, 2012 9:48 PM   Subscribe

When you burn a Teflon pan, is it safe to eat the food in the kitchen? Should I reconsider Teflon all together?

I remember reading somewhere that Scotch Brite and Teflon have a similar ingredient and that the former is not too healthy. A web search turns up a lot of information on why not to burn your Teflon etc.

Now I'm really wondering... my wok is totally charred (brown) and the steamer above it is brown/black (it is bamboo) and my kitchen just smells... like burned but not a clean wood smell, almost biological.

Ok, my questions- would food exposed to the fumes be ok to eat? (On counter, near stove...). Potatoes/cereal... Could I give it to my young niece (2?) or should I toss it and buy new stuff?

How safe is Teflon anyway?

Finally can a kitchen fire cause the ahem GI symptoms I have been having? I usually never get sick so am just curious on the off chance it's related.
posted by kettleoffish to Food & Drink (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Is it your wok that's Teflon? Because that's really awful-- woks are supposed to be specialized for high heat. But everything in your kitchen that didn't come into contact with burning Teflon is probably fine. I'd probably keep using the steamer, even. But peel the potatoes. The cereal was in a box, right?

I wild stay away from Teflon for 95% of things at least. Certainly anything with hard utensils (I'd only use silicone) or hard sear/high heat. Maybe scrambled and fried eggs, or really delicate fish (though I usually do my fish in stainless with everything else). I'm sure cast iron evangelists will come along but I find it to be a heavy pain in the ass. Maybe carbon steel if you want something you can season. (I personally like ceramic nonstick for aforementioned scrambled eggs and some delicate fish that I don't want a hard sear on.)

GI symptoms... doubtful.
posted by supercres at 10:03 PM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Scotch Brite and Teflon have a similar ingredient and that the former is not too healthy.

Don't know about Scotch Brite but Teflon has fluoride, which can be dangerous in many of its formulations.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:25 PM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

When I burned my bamboo steamer (no Teflon involved) it produced a really disgusting, but very 'organic', smell that I now think of as "that gross burned vegetable smell". Your description reminds me of that. I have no idea about the safety, but I didn't use that steamer again because I found the smell pretty stomach turning.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:41 PM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

ScotchBrite is the green scouring pad on the back of one of those yellow and green kitchen sponges. You might be thinking of Scotchgard, which was reformulated in the early 2000s due to issues with the chemical PFOS. This is related chemically to PFOA, which is used to make Teflon and is the chemical with the major health concerns. DuPont says that there is no PFOA in genuine Teflon branded pans. However, Teflon can give off its own degradation products at high enough temperatures.

If I understand your question you're asking if the rest of the food in your kitchen, not the food you were cooking, is still okay. In my opinion, yes. The vapor that would come off a Teflon pan should only cause you an issue if you inhale it. I'd wash or peel the potatoes if I were being paranoid. Cereal or anything else in a sealed bag would be totally fine.
posted by cabingirl at 10:53 PM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Are you sure that your wok is teflon? Most aren't. The problem with teflon is that it vaporises under very high heat (much higher than it would ever get with food in it, only an issue when it burns). However, the gas is quite volatile and would be long gone. At lower temperatures (i.e with food in it), and not crappy, flaking old teflon, the pans should be fine to cook in, eat with, affiance, etc.
posted by smoke at 11:36 PM on December 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm a former culinary professional with passable knowledge on these issues.

Toss the pan and the steamer.

Teflon is just plain no bueno (especially at high hear which releases the toxins) and the steamer (burned or not) will impart a funky off flavor into everything you cook in it from now on because the wood is porous and that burnt smell is permanently in there. And yeah, the toxins off-gassing from the Teflon are in there, too.

Stuff on the counter is likley passable and safe if it was sealed in some way.

I use a large cast iron pan as a stand-in for a wok, because I haven't found a heavy steel wok I want or need to purchase. The caveat here is that you do not use acid in a cast iron pan! A scant bit of rice vinegar and the like for a quick stir-fry is OK, but anything tomato or citris based for long high heat is NOT OK, as the acids leach toxins from the pan. To make this work, I do all the oil/veg/protein on high heat in the cast iron, and I have the stir-fry sauce ingredients bubbling away in a small stainless steel pan on an adjacent burner. Turn off the heat in the cast iron, toss to coat the ingredinets - done.

I use a stainless steel sautoir to steam ingredients in a bamboo steamer, since using cast iron there is over-kill.

The cast iron holds and retains heat, and can go to higher temps, than most stainless steel. You can NOT get the same stir-fry effect of a Chinese restaurant burner + wok at home without employing a REAL wok left to heat up for a long time, or a cast iron pan left to heat up for a long time, on a home burner with lower BTU's than a professional range can deliver. Really great Asian Cuisine at home needs super high heat (BTU's) so that's what you are MacGyver-ing by getting the appropriate pan super hot before adding any other ingredients.

Incidentally, very very hot pan + cold oil + ingredients - this keeps the oil from "breaking down" and going carcinogenic - you know this, right? Use a "high heat" oil like peanut or coconut. Cold pressed, not chemically extracted. Don't use olive oil on high heat - ever.

It's 100% a blessing your Teflon pan has bit the dust. Rejoice!

Go forth and use safer equipment in the appropriate way.

I make a MEAN Chinese Fried Rice in my cast iron pan, egg never sticks. A well seasoned cast iron at high heat is totally non-stick. You don't need the teflon. Enough butter or oil on higher heat keeps vegetables and proteins like beef or chicken or fish dried with a paper towel totally non-stick in stainless steel. Eggs in stainless steel require require heaps of butter, patience, and finesse. Eggs and butter always taste good. That rule is ditto for eggs and black steel.

You might try out ceramic or titanium cookware. I've had better results with the old school version of titanium (no longer available as it was originally manufactured, eff you ScanPan) and the newer versions of ceramic cook ware. Go for the ceramic! I doubt there is a wok version there, but I haven't searched it out, so who knows?

Bye-bye teflon and burnt out contaminated bamboo. Start over, is all I'm saying!
posted by jbenben at 12:53 AM on December 27, 2012 [13 favorites]

I use nonstick for stuff that doesn't need to get too hot, like frying eggs, cooking rice, etc. For anything else, it is cast iron, or stainless steel.

Oh, as for acids in cast iron pans' it isn't that it leaches unspecified "toxins" its that it dissolves some of the iron (an essential nutrient), which can result in an unwanted metallic taste.. That said, I've long cooked tomato-based chilli in a well seasoned cast iron skillet while camping and haven't had an issue with off flavors, unless I leave it in there overnight. Lemon juice, on the other hand, will bring out the metallic taste in short order.
posted by Good Brain at 1:46 AM on December 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

Unable to comment on steamer. On Teflon, my information is primarily off the web, but I read up on it for a poisoning seminar. Teflon's nastiness is in the form of off-gassing, so the problem is in breathing it. I doubt any harm can come from eating food exposed to the fumes.

But ask yourself: which is cheaper, a few groceries, or your peace of mind? For goodness' sake, toss anything you're worried about; then you can relax. If it was packaged and thus not exposed to fumes, don't worry about it.

I use non-stick pans only for liquids. Boiling points are lower than the problem temps. Frying in the stuff scares me. Temps above about 500 F cause the toxic off-gassing, and one researcher found bacon was only just starting to get crisp by that temperature.

Supposedly the toxicity is low for humans (much worse for pet birds BTW) and usually causes no more than a "Teflon flu" that lasts a couple days. One report in my state links a fatality to a teen who came home, put water on to boil, then fell asleep on the couch, breathing high concentrations of the fumes for hours. Credibility: moderate.
posted by wjm at 5:11 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

« Older urban design in texas   |   I need a real diagnosis on top of my self... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.