Ceramic nonstick skillets promise to be as slick and reliable as the best regular nonstick skillet, which we like to use when cooking delicate foods such as fish and eggs. Because manufacturers of Teflon and similar coatings have faced allegations that their coatings are dangerous for cooks and bad for the environment, ceramic pans are often marketed as safer, more environmentally friendly options. Unfortunately, we’ve found in testing after testing that most ceramic nonstick skillets aren’t very good. Some of the models we've tested couldn't release food cleanly even when they were brand-new, and even the best nonstick surfaces quickly deteriorated with use. But since kitchen equipment is constantly improving and because we regularly hear from readers who ask us about the performance of ceramic nonstick cookware, we’ve remained curious. We set out to answer two questions: Since our last testing has any manufacturer been able to make a ceramic nonstick skillet that’s both nonstick and durable, and, if so, how does its performance compare to that of our favorite regular 12-inch nonstick skillet from OXO?
We purchased seven 12-inch ceramic nonstick skillets, priced from about $19 to roughly $80, and subjected them to our standard battery of evaluations for nonstick cookware. We ran a test that’s common in the cookware industry: cooking eggs in a dry skillet back-to-back, stopping either when they began to stick or when we had made 50 consecutive eggs. We did this at the beginning and at the end of testing so that we could see if the coatings deteriorated with use. In between those egg tests, we made Beef and Broccoli Stir-Fry, Pepper and Onion Frittata with Arugula Salad, and Pan-Fried Sole with Lemony Herb Butter to help us assess each pan’s capacity, browning ability, and maneuverability. We also recruited three additional testers who were unfamiliar with these pans to use them to make Sautéed Peas with Shallots and Mint. To test the durability of the skillets, we cut in them with a knife, heated them and then plunged them into ice water, and, finally, whacked them three times on a cement block.
The key component in the coatings of traditional nonstick skillets, including our favorite from OXO, is a substance called polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). Its unique molecular structure makes for a superstrong, fairly flexible, and very slippery coating. PTFE is inert (or chemically inactive) once it’s made and applied to a product, but it can degrade and release dangerous fumes when it’s heated above 500 degrees. That is and will always be a limitation of traditional nonstick pans. Also of concern: Until about 2015, PTFE was processed with the help of a compound called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) that was discovered to be dangerous to the environment and human health. It has since been phased out in the United States, and new chemicals have taken its place in the PTFE manufacturing process; research into the relative safety of those replacement chemicals is ongoing.
Ceramic cookware hit the market right around the time that the risks of PFOA were becoming clear. Instead of PTFE-based coatings, the metal pans are sprayed with a liquid material that, when heated, hardens to a slick surface. This glass-like ceramic material is derived from beach sand, and there is no risk of it releasing toxic fumes, even at high temperatures. However, all ceramic surfaces are brittle by nature. As a result, ceramic coatings are more likely to develop microscopic surface cracks during everyday use than PTFE nonstick coatings are. It’s a problem that quickly goes from bad to worse: The rougher a cooking surface becomes, the more likely food is to stick to it, and scrubbing off that stuck-on food can cause further degradation. Although all ceramic nonstick coatings face certain challenges, some companies are able to achieve better results. The biggest variable is the composition of the coating. The term "ceramic" is used to refer to a broad family of materials; ceramic nonstick coatings can contain a variety of ingredients with different properties, so the formulation of one coating can vary widely from that of another. Other variables include the thickness of the coating, how the layers are applied (they can be sprayed or rolled on), and how long the coatings cure. Each of those variables affects the overall quality of the ceramic nonstick coating.
So how did the newest ceramic skillets perform in our tests? Just as we discovered more than a decade ago, most of the ceramic pans in our lineup simply weren't nonstick over the duration of our testing. In our first dry-egg test, we set the benchmark of 50 eggs. One pan released just 28 eggs before they started to stick; the other pans passed the test. When we repeated the dry-egg test after we’d used the pans in our cooking tests, four more pans failed. One of those models, an otherwise well-built skillet that had been among our favorites, failed after only nine eggs. Others called it quits after releasing between 15 and 32 eggs. Since a durable nonstick surface is the sole reason for buying one of these skillets, we automatically disqualified any that failed one or both of these dry-egg tests. Ultimately, just two of the seven pans in our lineup successfully completed those two egg tests. That’s a stark contrast from our most recent review of traditional 12-inch nonstick skillets; in that review, all 10 pans passed both egg tests with ease.
Fortunately, we liked cooking with the two top-performing ceramic pans. Both had broad interior cooking surfaces (9.5 or 10 inches across), so there was plenty of room to brown beef for stir-fry and sear long fillets of sole. We noted that food was cooking more quickly than it might in a regular PTFE skillet, but everything we cooked turned out well, and nothing stuck to these pans’ cooking surfaces. While one of these models had fairly steep sides that inhibited our ability to easily maneuver the food in it, the walls of the other were gently sloped, which allowed us to easily remove food. These pans featured handles that were comfortable to grip and felt secure in our hands, but both pans felt a little heavier than ideal. The steep-sided pan is ovensafe to 400 degrees, while our preferred pan, with sloped walls, is ovensafe to 600 degrees.
One question remained: How does the best ceramic skillet compare to our favorite regular 12-inch nonstick skillet from OXO? To find out, we purchased new copies of our top-ranked ceramic and regular nonstick skillets and did five side-by-side cooking tests—Easy Pancakes, Perfect Fried Eggs, Caramelized Onions, more Beef and Broccoli Stir-Fry, and Pan-Seared Salmon—taking care to standardize the burner and heat level and strictly adhering to the cooking times listed in the recipes. The two batches of pancakes and eggs, both of which cook at fairly low heat, were hard to tell apart. But the recipes that called for higher heat levels told a clear story: The ceramic pan ran hotter. Foods we made in it cooked faster and were more prone to sticking. Some caramelized onions got a little too dark. The sauce in our stir-fry reduced more and formed dark, sticky patches on the skillet surface. The salmon skin stuck and had to be nudged off with a plastic spatula. Cleanup was still pretty easy; a quick soak in hot water was enough to loosen any bits of sauce or caramelized sugars. But the experience was markedly different than using the OXO skillet, in which food never stuck (so the pan was a breeze to clean).
Whether the coatings are made with ceramic or PTFE, all nonstick cookware can become easily damaged if it's not handled properly. To help you extend the life of your cookware, we've compiled a list of dos and don'ts covering all you need to know to use them safely.
Beneath their coatings, both pans are made of aluminum and are of a similar weight and thickness, so we focused on the coatings. Though they’re just a few thin layers applied to the pans, the coatings were the likeliest reason for the performance differences. Ceramic coatings conduct heat, which means that the skillets coated in them heat up quickly and stay hot.. By contrast, PTFE is a type of plastic, and it acts as a thermal insulator, slowing the transmission of heat from the aluminum pan to the food cooking in it. When cooking with ceramic pans, including our favorite, it’s important to follow visual cues and your instinct. You may need to lower the flame or take the pan off the heat sooner than called for in a recipe. Food may stick slightly, and the pan may take a bit more (gentle) effort to clean. For a fairly confident and experienced cook, those aren’t difficult adjustments to make. If you want to avoid PTFE and its potential to release dangerous fumes, you’ll simply have to make that trade-off with ease of use. But if you’re smitten with the superslick, ultrareliable results provided by your favorite traditional nonstick skillet and are careful never to heat it while it’s empty or let it exceed 500 degrees, you’ll probably want to continue using it. Though ceramic skillets have improved dramatically since we first tested them more than a decade ago, they can’t quite match the performance of PTFE skillets.
If you are intrigued by the potential safety benefits of a reliable ceramic skillet and are willing to make some adjustments to recipes as you cook, we can recommend two good models. Our favorite of the two, the GreenPan Valencia Pro Hard Anodized Nonstick Frypan, is especially well designed. It’s shaped exactly like we think a skillet ought to be: There’s plenty of flat cooking surface, so food settles into a single, thin layer and browns evenly instead of crowding and steaming. Its gently sloped walls keep food contained but don’t interfere with a spatula or spoon. Its handle is comfortable; the pan is ovensafe up to 600 degrees; and it’s even broiler-safe, which is unusual for nonstick cookware. The base of the pan includes copper and iron, so it’s induction compatible. At about half the price of our winner, the Kyocera Ceramic-Coated 12" Nonstick Frypan is our Best Buy. It has steeper sides and it felt a bit heavier in our hands, which made it a little harder to use, but its ceramic nonstick surface remained slick and durable throughout testing. One final note: Although we’re thrilled that ceramic technology has improved so much since we last reviewed this style of nonstick cookware, we can’t yet vouch for the long-term durability of these pans. We’ll be stocking them in the test kitchen and will update our findings as we continue using them.