Non-stick pans prove their mettle in exhaustive tests

HAPPY EATER

January 10, 1993|By ROB KASPER

WILMINGTON, DEL. — Wilmington, Del.--Until I got clued in on "fluoropolymers, substrates and coatings," I pretty much believed that the only way to keep the slipperiness in a non-stick pan was to hide it.

If the pan was tucked away in a kitchen cabinet, a chicken fryer couldn't grab it, fry a mess of wings in it, then scrape the bottom with a metal spatula and clean it with steel wool and scouring powder.

After one of our old Teflon pans got that kind of treatment, its non-stick days were ended. It still cooked, but, like an old dancer with stiff joints, its slippin' and slidin' career was over.

Nowadays, original Teflon is considered old tech stuff in the cookware business. I learned this recently during a quick visit to Wilmington and Philadelphia, where Du Pont officials bombarded with statistics, chemical equations and information on the world of non-stick pans. Some of the concepts I grasped. The "substrate," for instance, is the bottom or guts of the pan.

But other concepts, such as the difference between mechanical adhesion and chemical adhesion, didn't stick with me. In the lingo of non-stick, these concepts had "excellent release characteristics."

What all the high-tech talk boiled down to, I think, was that Teflon and the other non-stick surfaces have gotten tougher. New Teflon is twice as durable as old Teflon, according to Du Pont researchers.

Sometime when I was poking around in the kitchen cabinets looking for pans, the pan business got complicated. Buying a slippery pan has become like buying a car, with prices ranging from $15 to $60 for the same size pan. Now there is the basic entry-level pan coated with Teflon -- the Chevy, if you will, of nonstick pans. The next step up is the SilverStone, now the new, improved SilverStone. It is the Oldsmobile of pans: The coating is a little thicker, the features a little finer. Then for those who "invest" in cars, or cookware, there is new, improved SilverStone Supra, the Cadillac of coated pans. And finally, for the professionals, there is the "Autograph" line, the Corvette of non-stick cooking.

These slick terms apply only to pans covered with Du Pont coatings. There are competing coating companies, like Whitford Co., which puts its Excalibur non-stick coatings on various pans made by Nanam and Farberware.

A variety of people, including Kenneth H. Leavell, research supervisor for Du Pont's slick cooking surfaces at its Marshall Research and Development Laboratory outside Philadelphia, tried to explain to me what exactly they had done to make the new pans more slippery than the old ones. I listened, nodded, took notes and at times actually thought I understood what was going on. But then comprehension slipped away.

However, when I walked into one lab and saw pans being attacked by ballpoint pens, I felt much better. Pan abuse was something I understood. These pans, heated to 400 degrees, were being scratched by several ballpoint pens. While not many folks cook with a pen, it provides a good test of abrasion, researchers said. When a non-stick surface gets too hot, Leavell said, the coating can soften and become vulnerable to sharp objects, like metal utensils. The pans I saw warded off the pen assault very well.

Next, in an adjoining room, I met Dr. Kenneth Batzar, senior research associate, who walked me through the "AIHAT," or the "accelerated in-home abuse test."

First, the pan is heated from 500 to 525 degrees, and an egg is fried in it. The egg is flipped five times with a metal spatula, then chopped into nine parts with a knife. Next, high-salt scrambled eggs are cooked in the pan with the technician being sure to scramble the egg 60 times with a fork. Then a hamburger is fried in heat of 475 to 500 degrees and flipped with a metal spatula. When the hamburger comes out, the technician carves a Z with his fork, or attempts to, in the bottom of the heated pan. After 10 Z's are attempted, the researcher makes a reverse Z 10 times on the bottom of the pan. Finally, tomato sauce is tossed in the heated 475-degree pan and whisked 50 times.

The idea is to see how the new non-stick coating lasts in the worst kind of home, like mine. Batzar said the results of these toughness tests have been encouraging.

People buy an average of one new pan a year, I was told. This year, when I buy ours, I am going to check out these no-nonsense non-stick pans, which should be in stores by Mother's Day. But if I buy one, I still am going to hide it.

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