THIS all began when I was trying to come up with a clever idea for a Hanukkah present for my older son. Having exhausted all the sports-themed possibilities, I decided to buy him a griddle since he has become quite the pancake chef.
My son greeted the present with more enthusiasm than I expected. A couple of days later, I realized it would be perfect for making holiday latkes. Usually I use two frying pans, but since we had this nice new nonstick griddle, why not make things easier?
I asked Ben if I could borrow it and he graciously agreed. I fried 89 latkes (but who’s counting) for a get-together. The guests were happy, but the griddle was burned.
I soaked. I scrubbed with little plastic scrub brushes, as suggested. It still looked nothing like new. Before admitting to Ben that I had ruined his present, I looked up “cleaning nonstick griddles” on the Internet.
I came across a lot of advice about cleaning, but also how to use this type of cookware in the first place. And to my surprise, I have been using nonstick pans in an inappropriate manner for, oh, the last three decades or so — in fact, ever since I started cooking for myself.
So as a holiday gift, I am going to share with you what I have learned in hopes of saving you from my mistakes. And as a treat, I’ll throw in a few other cleaning tips as well.
Let’s start with nonstick cookware. Teflon is the patented product made by DuPont, but most people use the term generically to refer to nonstick pans.
For our purposes here, I am not going to delve into the health issues. I did write a column about these concerns about four years ago, weighing the health risks of using pans with nonstick coatings. I didn’t come down on either side, but the reality, according to Consumer Reports, is that non stick cookware accounts for about 70 percent of all such sales in the United States.
So millions of us are cooking with nonstick pots and pans. But in the wrong way.
“A lot of people buy pans and don’t read the directions,” said Reed Winter, director of research and development for Nordic Ware, a maker of household goods and the manufacturer of the griddle I bought my son.
Ahem. I confessed right away to Mr. Winter that that was true in my case. I barely read the manual when I buy a new car. Am I really going to pore over the directions for a pan?
So this is what I should have known. I should have “preseasoned” the pan by rinsing and drying it and rubbing it with a paper towel with a little oil on it. Pretty much any type of oil will do.
It’s a good idea to rub about a teaspoon of oil or butter on a cold pan each time you use it, Mr. Winter said, because despite the name nonstick, most of the cookware needs some kind of lubricant.
Just don’t pour oil or butter on the pan and then slosh it around (my method).
“Then the oil is not adhering to the pan but being absorbed by the food,” he said. Not only will you have butter-soaked pancakes, but after a while they’ll start sticking because there’s no grease.
But what about PAM or other cooking sprays? I often put a few squirts on my nonstick frying pans.
Not a great idea, I was told. After a time, the build-up in the areas where the heat doesn’t burn the spray off — like on the sides of a frying pan — becomes sticky and pasty. I found this to be true of my pans, but didn’t know why.
Mr. Winter said it’s the soy lecithin in the spray that causes that stickiness. Instead, he recommends just using oil or a spray called Baker’s Joy that also contains flour.
For due diligence, I checked in with DuPont, the makers of Teflon, and a spokeswoman said in an e-mail that “it is acceptable” to use nonstick cooking sprays although “not necessary.” And a spokesman at ConAgra Foods, which makes PAM, said, “You should check with your cookware manufacturer” to see if it is safe to use with PAM.
Another thing I shouldn’t have done is put the griddle on a high heat. High temperatures cause the coating to crack, Mr. Winter said, and don’t even cook the food as well. The food tends to be partly burned and partly doughy, he said.
“Using a lower heat means it will turn out perfectly,” he said.
Also, don’t use any metal or sharp objects to stir or turn food, because it can pierce the coating.
Now as far as cleaning, I did scrub with a plastic scrubby sponge (never steel wool). Then I soaked with baking powder and hot water. Then I used some vinegar and water. It looks better, but not perfect.
Although I don’t usually put my cookware in the dishwasher, I did as a last-ditch effort — another bad idea. Most experts I talked to said to hand-wash nonstick cookware, because the high heat and harsh detergents can ruin the coatings.
In the end, the griddle looks, shall we say, well used. I showed it to my son and apologized. He took it with good grace.
A few more tips. Store your pots and pans properly, said Mariette Mifflin, who writes about housewares and appliances for About.com, which is owned by The New York Times.
If you nest them, they can scratch. Putting a napkin between the pots prevents that.
And realize you’ll probably have to replace nonstick cookware more often than other types. Once the cookware peels or looks pitted, you want to get rid of it.
Much depends on how often and how well you use and clean them, but Ms. Mifflin said even with her vigilant care, her nonstick pans rarely last more than five years.
Here are a few more tips regarding questions about cleaning.