making fried eggs in pan

The best cookware products should strike the perfect balance of durability and performance. It also helps if the wares are reasonably priced, so that the average cooking enthusiast can afford to stock their kitchen. When it comes down to ceramic vs. Teflon, which one fits the bill?

There is also a well-known - and slightly outdated - reputation of Teflon being potentially toxic and carcinogen. We give you the up-to-date information on this in the Health concerns section below.

Ceramic Cookware Features

If a utensil features a clay-based coating, it's referred to as ceramic cookware. However, this can be somewhat misleading. Not every piece is necessarily 100 percent ceramic—it may have an aluminum base with a thin ceramic outer layer. In fact, these coated pieces make up the bulk of "ceramic cookware" on the current market.

pot and pan placed on table

However, there are cookware sets available that are 100 percent ceramic. This means that they're constructed of clay that's been fired in a kiln, then coated with a food-safe glaze before being fired a second time. These pieces are much more prone to breakage than their aluminum-based counterparts, which is why many manufacturers have abandoned the practice.

Advantages of Ceramic Cookware

Why should you consider investing in a ceramic cookware set? Here are a few of the most compelling reasons:

  • Easy to clean—The nonstick exterior makes the pots and pans easy to wash by hand. Some are even dishwasher safe, taking a great deal of work out of the cleaning process.
  • Fast, efficient heating—The material heats up quickly, making it easier to prepare your favorite dishes in less time.
  • Wide array of choices—Ceramic pieces are available in a variety of colors and styles.
  • Stain-resistant—The glaze comes clean after each washing, with no unsightly food stains left behind.
  • Nonreactive—Ceramic won't react with the acid from ingredients like tomatoes, meaning that no contaminants will leach into the food during cooking

Disadvantages of Ceramic Cookware

Although it has many positive qualities, ceramic cookware has its downside. Here are some of the aspects that give some consumers second thoughts:

  • Not effective at high temperatures—If the pans get too hot, they might crack during cooking. This is especially true of pieces that are 100 percent ceramic.
  • Delicate surface—Wooden or rubber utensils are preferable, as metal may cause the nonstick coating to chip or flake off.
  • Short shelf life—Ceramic pieces won't last as long as their metal counterparts.

Teflon Coating Features

The nonstick coating known as Teflon is a synthetic alloy of carbon and fluorine. The scientific name for the material is polytetrafluoroethylene, or PTFE for short. (1) Teflon is nonreactive and essentially friction-free, making it a good choice for dishes like stir-fries and omelets. It's a popular coating for hard-anodized cookware.

a pan placed on cutting board

Advantages of Teflon Cookware

If you're thinking about purchasing a set of cookware with a Teflon coating, here are a few of the perks you can look forward to:

  • Healthier cooking—The slippery nonstick surface means that you can use less butter or oil when cooking, making for more heart-healthy dishes.
  • Easy to use—Because ingredients won't stick to the surface, Teflon pots and pans are very popular with cooks who aren't yet comfortable in the kitchen.
  • Easy to clean—Similarly, the residue from cooked foods will slide right off in a hot soapy sink. Some pieces may even be dishwasher safe.
  • Inexpensive—Teflon pieces are set at a significantly lower price point than their ceramic counterparts.

Disadvantages of Teflon Cookware

In spite of its positive qualities, Teflon isn't the answer for all cooking applications. There are a few aspects of Teflon cookware that are less than ideal, namely the following:

  • Safety concerns—Teflon will begin to break down at high temperatures, which may cause toxic chemicals to be released into the air (see Ceramic vs Teflon: Health Concerns, below). 
  • Delicate surface—Metal utensils are a no-go for Teflon, as they'll create unsightly gouges in the surface.
  • Stovetop only—Nonstick cookware can't be placed in the oven, which limits its versatility
  • Can't be used for browning or searing—Because of Teflon's unique properties, food won't caramelize or brown properly on these surfaces, making it a no-go for pan sauces.

Ceramic vs Teflon: Health Concerns

As we've mentioned, both ceramic and Teflon have carried potential health risks—at least in the past. Let's take a look at these concerns and how they might affect you.

scratched nonstick pans

Ceramic

Ceramic pieces that were made before 1970 should never be used for cooking. That's because most older ceramics contained a lead-based glaze, which could cause lead poisoning. 

The risk is greater if the glaze is exposed to heat, but cross-contamination can occur even if the pieces are used to store cold ingredients. Any ceramic cookware that's been purchased at an auction or a flea market should be used for display only.

Teflon

Perfluorooctanoic acid (also known as PFOA) was used in the production of Teflon cookware until as recently as 2013. This chemical has been linked to certain cancers and is now considered a toxic substance. Although PFOA typically burns off during manufacturing so only trace amounts remain in the cookware, most reputable companies now advertise their products as being PFOA-free.

a woman is using pan for cooking

In the absence of PFOA, Teflon is generally safe to use for cooking, but only at lower temperatures. When the material is heated to temperatures above 570 degrees Fahrenheit, the coating releases toxic fumes into the surrounding air. 

When people inhale these fumes, they may experience flu-like symptoms such as fever, headache, chills, and body aches. This phenomenon is known as polymer fume fever, or "Teflon flu." While the condition is usually temporary, prolonged exposure to the fumes can lead to long-term lung damage.

Again, if the cookware that you're buying is new, you shouldn't have to worry as long as the cooking temperature stays below 570 degrees Fahrenheit. Following these basic safety tips will also decrease the risk of overexposure:

  • Add a small amount of fat or liquid to the pan before preheating. This will slow the heating process, so the pan won't hit the danger zone as quickly.
  • Stay away from the broiler when using nonstick cookware.
  • Keep the burners set to medium or low.
  • Turn on fans and open windows to keep the kitchen area well-ventilated.
  • Stick to silicone, wooden, or plastic cooking utensils.
  • Always hand-wash Teflon cookware, even if the label claims that the pieces are dishwasher safe. Use a regular sponge or washcloth—scouring pads and steel wool can gouge the surface.
  • If you notice any chipping or peeling on the nonstick surfaces, it's time to invest in new cookware.

Ceramic vs Teflon: Cooking Methods

Neither of these materials are designed for searing steaks or browning mushrooms. Ceramic and nonstick surfaces are best for cooking applications that call for easy release, like omelette pans and pancake pans. So, which of them wins higher marks in this department?

We would give the edge to Teflon, mainly because the compound was designed for this purpose. While only a small percentage of users complain about ingredients sticking to their ceramic pans, it's a higher percentage than those who offer the same complaints about Teflon. If you're making scrambled eggs or crepes, Teflon is very popular, although there are many new ceramic surfaces that can compete.

Ceramic vs Teflon: Durability & Cleaning

Buyers can expect Teflon and ceramic cookware to last up to five years with the proper care. Keeping cooking temperatures low, using only wooden or silicone utensils, and hand-washing the pieces will help the products attain a long lifespan.

As far as cleanup and maintenance are concerned, Teflon requires a bit less time. The surfaces come clean easily, with no need for scrubbing or harsh chemicals. In either case, however, we would recommend washing the pieces by hand whenever possible.

Ceramic vs Teflon: Which is Best?

Clearly, there's a case to be made for either of these materials. We like our ceramic pans, however, new Teflon also represents a good choice. Not only is it easier on the wallet, it's less prone to damage from improper stacking, and cleanup is simple. The material is also perfectly safe to use, as long as it's unscratched and the cooking temperature stays at a reasonable level.

Best of luck with your purchase, and bon appetit!

Tammy Kennedy
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