No nonstick pan; what to do instead?
April 24, 2022 9:35 PM   Subscribe

I don't have a nonstick pan. How important is that, and how can I make up for it?

I do run into recipes that call for a nonstick pan, and I would like to make them anyway.

I have made this salmon recipe a few times. Before, I have just cooked in a regular pan, and it stuck somewhat. Today, I tried using a tablespoon of a butter, and it still stuck, but this time, I smoked up the kitchen.

What do you suggest?
posted by NotLost to Food & Drink (28 answers total)
Cast iron skillet
posted by bradbane at 9:37 PM on April 24, 2022 [9 favorites]

Butter has a low smoke point- meaning, it burns faster than most oils. Use a different oil- one with a high smoke point. Olive oil is better than butter for sautéing, I think avocado oil is supposed to be even better.
Also, turn on the fan over the stove when cooking!
posted by nouvelle-personne at 9:44 PM on April 24, 2022 [11 favorites]

You don't specify what type of pan you have, so I'm going to guess you're using a stainless steel pan.

It's entirely possible to make salmon in a stainless steel pan - but it'll likely take more than a tablespoon of fat. I would usually use two or three tablespoons of fat in a stainless steel pan. You'll want to make sure the salmon is fully cooked on one side before trying to release it. Salmon, like many meats, is "self-releasing" when seared well. One way to help you improve your chances is to use a fish spatula. Despite the name, these are broadly useful; I use them for cooking most meats.

When you say "I smoked up the kitchen", it's likely you're exceeding the smoke point of the butter. Butter has a particularly low smoke point (~300°F). If the heat applied is enough to exceed the smoke point of butter, you'll do so with any pan. I usually cook salmon in vegetable oil (smoke point ~450°F) because I prefer to avoid "buttery" flavors in salmon.

Non-stick pans are, in my opinion, not actually that useful for cooking meat (perhaps with the exception of fish). The non-stick surface interferes with browning. I use stainless steel pans for cooking all meat (again, except sometimes fish) for ease of cleanup. If I was less lazy, I'd use carbon steel pans, but those need to be seasoned. Cast iron is popular, but annoyingly heavy, and I don't think cast iron offers much on top of carbon steel. The weight of cast iron makes it slow to come up to temperature. Once up to temperature, the weight of the cast iron pan makes the pan difficult to change temperature.

I will always use non-stick pans for cooking eggs. It's possible to cook eggs without massive amounts of fat in a cast iron or carbon steel pan, if the pan is exceptionally well-seasoned. However, I'm not willing to put that level of commitment into a pan.
posted by saeculorum at 9:51 PM on April 24, 2022 [11 favorites]

Best answer: Are you willing to get a cast iron or carbon steel pan? When seasoned these are significantly less likely to stick than a stainless steel pan as the layer of polymerized oil on the surface is less sticky than stainless steel.

No matter what kind of pan you're using, if you're cooking protein, you usually want to heat the pan up fairly hot, put in your fat before your protein and then leave the protein in place without moving it at all until it becomes unstuck. Many proteins will stick at first, but then become unstuck once they have browned a little.

How hot should your pan be at first? You'll learn over time what works for specific proteins, but a good starting place is to flick a good-sized drop of water onto the pan. If it bubbles on the surface, the pan is too cold. If it evaporates immediately, it's too hot. If it dances around on the surface, floating on its own vapour, the pan is about the right temperature.

You may also want to use oil instead of butter as butter will burn at the hot temperatures you need to cook something like salmon, which tends to stick and usually tastes better with crispy skin. Any kind of neutral oil is fine (as is olive oil, even though some people will tell you otherwise). You can add a little butter towards the end of cooking if you want butter flavour.

Regarding that particular recipe, this starting a cold pan technique just won't work without a non-stick pan. Your best bet is to add the salmon skin-side down to a hot pan and let it cook completely on that side. You can add a lid after a couple minutes, spoon hot fat over the fish as it cooks or pop it in a hot oven to help cook it evenly.
posted by ssg at 9:54 PM on April 24, 2022 [7 favorites]

go to a goodwill/thrift store and getcha a nonstick pan for $5. heck, go crazy and get three.

cast iron is a great option. expensive and requires care and experience to be good at. again, thrift store, yard sale is best option.
posted by j_curiouser at 10:03 PM on April 24, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Lots of cooking oils have their smoke temperature on the bottle somewhere, and if you dislike smoking up the kitchen it’s worth looking for whatever’s best for high heat in your grocery.
posted by clew at 10:14 PM on April 24, 2022

Best answer: Buy a small, cheap nonstick skillet. An expensive one isn't necessarily better. It's really worth it if you cook fish or eggs frequently and it can also be used as a pancake skillet. Don't use metal utensils in the skillet, which can scratch the coating. If you don't want to get a nonstick skillet just use more fat when you sear and sauté.

Butter isn't great for high heat, as you've found. If you still want some of the butter flavor use a combination of butter and oil, which will raise the smoke point a bit.

Some of the best neutral flavor oils that are good for high heat cooking are avocado, canola (aka rapeseed), sunflower, and safflower. The latter two should be high oleic versions and the labels will say that or say that they're meant for high heat. Many people also like rice bran oil, but it can be harder to find. There are lots of other oils that are good at high heat but also have more distinctive flavors (they aren't "neutral").

Extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) is ok only for low-to-medium heat sautéing, as it'll smoke up your kitchen at higher temps. It's also kind of a waste since EVOO can be expensive and the distinctive flavor will often be lost in cooking. The type of olive oil that's better for cooking is "light" (aka "pure") olive oil, which is also cheaper than EVOO. Save the EVOO for salads, sauces, dipping, or drizzling over stuff after it's been cooked.
posted by theory at 11:59 PM on April 24, 2022 [2 favorites]

On cast iron pans, you can find them for less than $10 at thrift stores, flea markets, and the like. Strip it to shit with steel wool, re-season it, and you've got a pan that will be reasonably non-stick and will last you to the grave. Also, you can still find a new 8" Lodge pan for less than $30.

There's 70,000 YouTube videos about re-seasoning and maintaining cast iron. Find one that isn't too precious and doesn't turn cast iron into a weird fetish object that requires special expertise. It's just fat and fire at the end of the day--the "seasoning" is a bit of a misleading misnomer, as seasoning is about creating a surface and not about imparting "seasoned" flavor to the food.
posted by kensington314 at 12:33 AM on April 25, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Some things really are tremendously easier and dare I say better in a nonstick pan. For example, many egg preparations are better in nonstick. You can, of course, do them in a stainless steel or cast iron or whatever else, but you’ll need to add a lot more fat, and be very informed about the heat you’re using and how even it is on your pan and so-on.

A fried egg in a nonstick pan can be done many different ways, but if you want to do it I butter, over easy, you can do so with a single pat of butter and medium-high heat. In any other kind of pan you need to use significantly more butter, and to get the egg to a flippable but still runny yolk state you need to have the heat right on the cusp of browning the butter. Or, you can use an oil with a high smoke point and fry the egg so it has crispy whites, which again takes much less oil in a nonstick, whereas in stainless steel or similar you end up with a hot pool of oil. You can get creative and use this extra oil to fry aromatics like scallions and ginger and pour the hot aromatic oil over rice or greens, but if you want basic breakfast, nonstick is better. Omelettes are also a lot easier with a nonstick. Even fancy French chefs use nonstick for their omelettes.

However, you could get really good at poaching eggs, which doesn’t need nonstick, or do soft boiled, which is similar. Scrambled eggs are fine in a stainless steel pan, as long as you’re okay with some sticking and an annoying cleanup. Frittatas and quiches and such rely on you buttering the dish so it releases, maybe it is worth it if you bake things often to get some nonstick baking dishes that are also good for egg recipes, like a pie pan.

For fish skin you can practice and usually do okay getting it to release from a stainless steel pan if you are searing the skin. But it depends on the thickness of fish and how you want it done, so it can be very fussy. With nonstick you can fudge it a lot more successfully.

Another thing I use nonstick for is to heat up dumplings. This applies to both something like a premade frozen gyoza as well as a pelmini or gnocchi kind of thing. Nonstick will be much better at finding that point of crispy surface and tender interior. To get similar in a stainless steel pan I have to drown it in oil and get my dumplings over cooked in the middle.

If your concern is storage space, maybe get a flat nonstick griddle, which you can store vertically in some sneaky spot somewhere, or hang on a wall without it sticking out too much. A flat griddle pan will do fish, fried eggs, flatbreads, burgers and more, and you can use a bowl or domed lid if you want to steam things.
posted by Mizu at 12:35 AM on April 25, 2022 [1 favorite]

Nthing to get one nonstick pan. I don’t love them either overall, but for certain recipes or techniques they really do make a difference and are the best choice.
posted by needs more cowbell at 2:12 AM on April 25, 2022 [2 favorites]

I don't have a nonstick pan. How important is that, and how can I make up for it?

I grew up before nonstick pans existed. They make life easier, but it's possible to live without them.

A lot of people here have written about smoke points, and that's important. The other option if you'd prefer to cook with butter is to use a lower temperature - we always cooked meat and eggs using butter when I was a kid. With butter, you really need to keep an eye on it. If it's starting to turn brown, lower the temperature. Unless you were cooking at an extremely high temperature, you would only smoke up the kitchen if you stepped away and weren't watching.

Eggs are trickier, and you just have to accept a certain amount of sticking to the pan - especially with scrambled eggs. Fried eggs can be cooked with butter with minimal or even no sticking. You need to use a lot more butter than you would with a nonstick pan. Also, this is something you just get better with over time as you develop a feel for it. So if you have a lot of sticking at first, don't assume it will be that way forever.
posted by FencingGal at 4:08 AM on April 25, 2022 [2 favorites]

Unless you're unable to afford one or philosophically opposed to them for some reason, just get one. You can get a brand new T-Fal for $20.
posted by jonathanhughes at 5:02 AM on April 25, 2022 [2 favorites]

I agree with all the people who say just buy the non-stick. I have one for all the reasons listed above.

BUT, I am trying to wean myself off it and only use it for eggs and pancakes. They are bad for the planet, which I might be able to deal with if they weren't so short-lived. But even the most expensive non-stick pan has a very limited life span, even if you always do the right thing. So yours is a good question.

First of all: non-stick or not, if you had smoke from frying fish in butter, your pan is too hot. If you had non-stick, that would contribute to its fast decline. Otherwise it just changes the cooking proces, which you might even like, because it will then be more cooked on the outside and less inside. But recipes where you cook fish gently generally aim to cook the fish evenly through. TBH, I found the directions unusually random -- how do they know how long your burner is at getting from cold to medium? And at least with my gas burners, medium is too hot for this. Also, when starting from cold, it would make better sense if the cooking time was longer on the skin side and shorter on the other side.

I like sagg's idea of only cooking it on the skin side and then putting a lid on it after a while. Might even try that tomorrow, out of curiosity. If so, I'll return.
posted by mumimor at 5:44 AM on April 25, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I only have and use a cast iron pan, since over 20 years.
The trick working for me is using a high temperatur suitable oil, and, for eg fish or egg, sprinkle a tiny amount of water into the pan Just before it is done (No more than a teaspoon), and close the lid for 30 seconds. This creates steam, which helps to get it out without sticking. Take the lid off, and pan off the heat and let it sit for about 30 seconds to 1 minute more.
You can also skip the steam part and simply let the pan sit off the heat for 2 to 3 minutes or until what you are frying comes out easily.
It takes practice until you know how this affects your result/done-ness of food you prepare.
posted by 15L06 at 5:45 AM on April 25, 2022 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I have cast iron skillets, stainless steel skillets, and anodized skillets. But, my every-day go-to skillet for damned near everything is my affordable ceramic-lined skillet (Kitchen Essentials by Calphalon). It’s a workhorse that I can do pretty much anything with, is nonstick, and requires no special treatment, prep, or maintenance.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:02 AM on April 25, 2022 [1 favorite]

I'm a cast iron user and I personally feel no need for a non-stick pan. But, from your question, it sounds like you would be best served by just acquiring a non-stick pan. As others have said, they are cheap new and cheaper used, so whatever your price range is, you should be able to find one.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:26 AM on April 25, 2022

The only time I care about sticking is if I make an omelet, which is seldom. otherwise, it just creates a bit more cleaning. Nonstick pans are toxic to manufacture, and release some PFAS(forever chemicals) when used, mostly into water. The non-stick coating doesn't last. I have an excellent, vintage cast iron pan with a ground surface; I make scrambled eggs with some oil; they don't stick.
posted by theora55 at 6:44 AM on April 25, 2022 [1 favorite]

Use ghee instead of butter. Higher smoke point and, IMO, better flavor.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:57 AM on April 25, 2022 [1 favorite]

We have specifically moved away from nonstick pans because of the need of PFAS ‘forever chemicals’ used in their production (they’ve gotten better, but not great). We use cast iron and carbon steel skillets. Once you learn their nuances they require only minimal differences in care from regular pots and pans.

When a cast iron or carbon steel pot is seasoned you actually create a layer of polymer on the pan. This is not affected by regular soaps (if you throw it in a dishwasher, yeah that’ll fuck up the seasoning, but not the pot). You can wash one with a little bit of soap, as long as you dry it well and drop a dollop of oil on it and spread it around with a paper towel.

I will say, that lodge cast iron pans are the easiest to find, and even new are cheap, but they have a pebbled, rougher surface than some nicer more expensive (new or used) pans. A ‘machined finish’ like on old wagners and finex pans mimics nonstick much, MUCH closer than the pebbled surface.

Carbon steel is newer to our kitchen, but works basically the same. Restaurant supply stores are gonna be your friend here. Carbon steel I would say has surpassed cast iron in fetishization, with retail price points to match. These are old technologies, and cheap as hell to produce. Any pot or pan in a restaurant supply store will last in a home kitchen for decades of typical use.

I cook eggs and fish on those pans with zero sticking issues for high temp searing I use butter cut with canola oil at a 1:1 ratio to reduce smoking.
posted by furnace.heart at 7:23 AM on April 25, 2022 [1 favorite]

I use butter cut with canola oil at a 1:1 ratio to reduce smoking.

This isn't helpful in reducing smoking. A butter/oil mix has the same smoke point of butter alone. When you heat the mix past the smoke point of butter, you start burning the milk proteins in the mix, even if the fat in the mix could conceivably tolerate higher temperatures.
posted by saeculorum at 7:57 AM on April 25, 2022 [6 favorites]

Use more fat, specifically oil (eg rapeseed or sunflower oil). That will stop things sticking to your pan. Make sure you have good washing up liquid given the extra oil. That's about it.
posted by plonkee at 8:14 AM on April 25, 2022

Best answer: If you want to keep using stainless steel, or shift to using cast iron or carbon steel (more or less same benefits as cast iron, but significantly lighter if you have mobility concerns - I have a glitchy elbow that really doesn't like cast iron skillets), one of the tricks of the cooking trade is hot pan + cold oil. Get your pan up to heat dry, and then add your high-smoke-point fat (and yeah, use ghee if you want butter flavor but use avocado or grapeseed oil where you don't, or use them first and then add ghee or butter after the initial hot-hit).

For carbon steel in particular, you don't build up the same density of polymerized oil as cast iron; essentially you create your top layer of seasoning each time in the pan with the hot oil. It behaves similarly in stainless steel, in the sense that you are making a nonstick barrier in the moment, not for all time. You need to make sure though that you use enough oil to coat the whole pan pretty quickly - one dump and swirl movement - so you get that full smooth coverage.

You can even get the pan a little too hot, get the oil in and coated so it makes your nonstick surface, and turn the heat down and give that a minute or two before your food goes in so it's not quite so hot.

I still can't do it well enough to cook an omelette, but I can scramble with minimal sticking and I can fry eggs obviously with extra extra fat. For something like salmon I suggest oiling the skin side (or choose one side that's going to go down first and stay there until it releases due to maillard reaction) AS WELL AS the pan, and until you get the hang of it don't salt your first-side-down so less water is drawn out.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:24 AM on April 25, 2022 [2 favorites]

i will literally buy and ship this to you at cost today. memail me.
posted by j_curiouser at 8:55 AM on April 25, 2022

Best answer: A chart of oil smoke points can be very helpful when trying to select an oil that won’t fill your kitchen with smoke (and your food with burnt flavors).

If you’re avoiding non-stick pans because, for example, you have pet birds; then consider one of the ceramic-based solutions instead of the PFA/teflon based products (e.g. scanpan).
posted by whisk(e)y neat at 8:58 AM on April 25, 2022 [3 favorites]

Regarding non-stick pans — yes, do get one. But — I have found that even a high-quality non-stick pan, like an All-Clad, will warp a bit if you use it on the highest heat.* If you're cooking on gas, that's not a big problem. But on a flat surface stovetop, like a radiant electric or induction, it means the pan wobbles, doesn't sit flat, and that affects the heat transfer. If that's what you're cooking on, be sure not to go above 7.5 or so on a scale of 9, or the equivalent. And, on that kind of surface you might find a well-maintained cast iron pan preferable to non-stick for highest-heat cooking.

*There are YouTube videos showing you how you can cure that warp by banging the bottom of the pan with a rubber mallet. That actually works, but only for one or two uses and then the warp returns.
posted by beagle at 8:59 AM on April 25, 2022

Repeating myself from above: non-stick pans should never be used at high heat, ever. Not just because of warping, which is not always an issue, but also because it causes breakdown of the surface, which then releases into the environment.
posted by mumimor at 10:19 AM on April 25, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: It's almost impossible to avoid PTFE (Teflon) if you buy something labeled nonstick. For example, the pans labeled by Thorzdad as ceramic (Kitchen Essentials by Calphalon) are actually PTFE over an anodized aluminum pan. (Aluminum oxide, created by anodizing, is ceramic). But they're very careful not to say this in their marketing. There do exist "non-stick" pans without Teflon but they will explicitly say "NO PTFE". Some will try to trick you by saying "NO PFAS": no pans have PFAS.

I use carbon steel and cast iron, I baked them with a very thin layer of oil in the over upside down three times and have otherwise treated them as nonstick pans from then on (except I always clean them within an hour of cooking -- regular detergent, scrubby, etc -- and dry promptly).
posted by flimflam at 3:24 PM on April 25, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the info and advice. I am leaning toward getting a ceramic pan, and I do need to learn more about oil smoking points.
posted by NotLost at 7:42 PM on April 25, 2022

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