The Trouble With Non-Stick Pans

I have to admit it. I'm in a dysfunctional relationship.

I'm speaking of my long and tumultuous affair with non-stick frying pans. Yes, I have my stainless steel pans and cast iron ones, but I love nonstick for the ease of use, especially for making breakfast. I'm not too worried about the talk of them being carcinogenic, because the top-of-the-line ones are FDA-approved. You see, I want to make this relationship work.

In fact, I've been with one or another nonstick pan for close to 20 years now, but I still don't feel like I'm getting as much love as I'm giving. Maybe I expect too much. They're called non-stick pans, right? I expect them not to stick. But they never last.

Is it so wrong to expect a reciprocal relationship to last more than a couple of years? But they don't. They wear down. And I then enter months of denial. I keep using them and thinking of the good times, when they were new, and the coating was so slippery that onions and eggs and butter would just glide on the surface.

When I first bought non-stick pans, I would buy the cheap kind, like the $20 specials you'd find at Target or in Chinatown. Those might last a year. I quickly wised up. I moved on to Calphalon, the standard-bearer in non-stick pans. Their pans cost twice as much, but those, too, would disappoint me, lasting no more than a couple of years.

Then, I was given a fancy Le Creuset non-stick pan that must have cost about a hundred bucks. I thought I'd have it forever. It lasted three years—four years at most.

Since then, I've returned to using a series of Calphalon pans; and each and every one has eventually disappointed me.

I know what you're going to say: It takes two to tango. Maybe it's my fault. Maybe I'm the problem.

The makers of non-stick pans certainly seem to think so. Like a mother-in-law taking sides in a domestic dispute, they always say in their promotional material that if I take good care of my non-stick pans, then they will last.

I got in touch with a Calphalon representative, who repeated this tsk-tsk position. Here's our dialogue:

How long do you think it's reasonable to expect a non-stick pan to remain in good shape?

Calphalon cookware is built to last. The life expectancy of a pan really depends on the care of the products, as improper care can shorten the life of any pan. To give consumers that extra peace of mind, all of our cookware is covered by the Calphalon warranty program, whereby we will replace any item found defective in material or workmanship when put to normal household use and cared for according to the instructions.

I had a pair of Calphalon pans that lasted about three years, and then they began to lose their non-stickiness. If that's too soon, what did I do wrong?

Pans that are used frequently and not properly cleaned can lose non-stickiness on the surface due to build up. With proper soft scrub and adobe pad cleaning, the build up should be removed and the pan should perform well. Please refer to our video for proper care instructions.

There are several other reasons why pans can lose their nonstick capabilities. Use of metal utensils, sharp instruments or appliances such as electric mixers to cut, chop release or whip foods can scratch and damage the nonstick finish on the pans. In addition, most nonstick cookware is not dishwasher safe, although Calphalon does have products like Calphalon Unison that are 100% dishwasher safe.

Calphalon carefully controls its nonstick coating process to maximize the durability and resilience of the cooking surface. The nonstick coating is designed for long-term use when used properly and at the recommended cooking temperatures.

Thank you, Calphalon, but I've heard that all before. And you know what? I do everything you've asked me to do! OK, the one thing I don't do is use Soft Scrub on my pans; I use the even more gentle Seventh Generation dish liquid. And, if I'm being really honest, perhaps I use too high heat every once in a while. But nobody's perfect.

And what exactly do you mean, when you say, "built to last," and "long-term," or, as in the video link, that the pan should last "many years?" (As for that bit about the warranty; am I really going to go out of my way to spend $12 dollars on shipping a $40 pan, just to get a new pan that'll inevitably disappoint me again?)

I went to a Williams-Sonoma store and asked a very knowledgeable sales clerk about the true life expectancy of a Calphalon pan. He was very resistant to giving me numbers, but I twisted his arm until he quietly said that I should be happy if one lasts 3 to 4 years, and that I'd be lucky if they last 5 to 10. He then assured me that Calphalon's new Unison line is built with a non-stick bonding process, as opposed to a coating, so it could last longer.

But I've been using a Unison pan for a year now, and it's already beginning to show wear and tear!

Look, I learned the concept of blaming the victim from a Marxist professor in college. It basically describes the dynamic of blaming the victim for being responsible for a crime, like saying someone was asking to get robbed if he or she was flaunting his or her wealth. I wonder if this is happening here. I think I'm the victim.

Or, perhaps, this is all just a big misunderstanding. Maybe non-stick pans are just not built to last as long as I want them to. Maybe if I change my expectations, then we can live happily for the three good years we have together.

I'm putting this out there to the Food Republic public for some relationship advice: Is it me? Should I cut bait? Or should I accept nonstick pans for what they are?