Nonstick Cooking Sprays
How we tested
There’s no denying that cooking spray is handy: A spritz from a can is far faster than greasing by hand, and sprays help limit the amount of oil for lower-fat cooking. But many consumers have questions about the health effects and environmental safety of cooking sprays, particularly regarding propellants and antifoaming agents—the chemicals used to force oil out of the can. Manufacturers have responded to these concerns by launching innovative sprays with different formulations or designs that allow them to avoid the standard chemicals. How do they perform compared to traditional aerosols?
To find out, we tried four top-selling traditional aerosol sprays and three innovative sprays. We chose each brand’s canola oil product or “original” oil blend. Throughout the testing we compared each product’s performance against plain canola oil sprayed from our winning refillable oil mister, the Orka Flavor and Oil Mister with Filter.
What makes a cooking spray innovative? Most are aerosols; “aerosol” simply means small particles dispersed in air or gas. The particles in traditional aerosol cooking sprays are oil, an emulsifier called lecithin, and an antifoaming agent; the gas is usually a liquid propellant such as propane. Two of the innovative products make a “cleaner” aerosol by eliminating the antifoaming agent and switching the propellant to a natural gas like carbon dioxide. The third product uses a nonaerosol technology called “bag-on-valve” where the gas and oil never mix in the can. When this product's trigger is pushed, compressed air squeezes an oil-filled bag inside, forcing out just oil without any chemicals.
We set to work oiling Bundt pans and muffin tins; coating waffle irons; and spraying stainless-steel skillets for fried eggs, omelets, and chicken stir-fry. (We used stainless-steel instead of nonstick skillets so that all release, or lack thereof, was from the sprays.) All of the products were perfectly adept at preventing sticking—until we got to the fried eggs. While both traditional and innovative aerosols easily released eggs from skillets, eggs made with plain canola oil or the nonaerosol spray stuck to pans. The reason? Neither of those two products contain lecithin, an emulsifier found naturally in soybeans, eggs, and milk. All six of the other products add lecithin to increase the oil’s nonstick ability. Lecithin acts as a binder between the oil and the pan, helping adhere the oil to the pan’s surface, so in the stickiest of situations, products with lecithin released foods more readily than plain oil.
But there’s a trade-off for better performance: Lecithin causes oil to darken at a lower temperature, which can impart off-flavors to food. Our instructions for making chicken stir-fry call for heating oil in a skillet until smoking. While plain canola oil is still clear at its smoke point (around 500 degrees), five of the six sprays with lecithin turned almost black before they started smoking. In addition to being unsightly, we thought food cooked in darkly browned cooking spray tasted like “burnt popcorn” or “spoiled margarine” compared to the fresher flavor of plain canola oil.
The two innovative aerosols with lecithin browned faster and darker than other products. Here the main issue was a lack of dimethyl silicone, an antifoaming agent also found in Silly Putty and hair conditioner. Traditional aerosols contain this chemical, in part, because it acts as an antioxidant, offsetting some of the browning caused by lecithin. Unlike the traditional aerosols, innovative aerosols do not have dimethyl silicone, so they darken at lower temperatures.
This antifoaming chemical also explained why some products sprayed more effectively than others. Foaming causes oil to spray in puddles rather than a mist, and products without dimethyl silicone pooled and dripped, turning food oily and counters greasy. We preferred the products with dimethyl silicone, which sprayed in broad mists that coated pans in just a few sweeps. Since sprays (ranging from about $0.50 to roughly $1.00 per ounce) are more expensive than plain canola oil (about $0.15 per ounce), we also gave higher marks to products that kept working until the can was completely empty.
In the end, we weren’t convinced that innovative aerosols are better than traditional aerosols; however, we found one nonaerosol spray that doesn’t contain any chemicals and won’t cause unwanted darkening. Unlike an oil mister, this product sprays in a continuous stream without the hassle of constant pumping and refilling, but because it doesn’t contain lecithin, this spray is slightly less effective at preventing sticking.
For stickier tasks, our winning spray perfectly released foods, sprayed in an expansive even mist, and browned 20 degrees after its smoke point. Why the higher browning point? Our winner's oil blend includes palm oil, a highly saturated oil that, along with dimethyl silicone, helps further discourage browning. For an all-around great spray, we’re sticking with our winner.