At your convenience: non-stick pans

Categories: History of food

Angela Clutton explores how the development of kitchen appliances after 1918 both stemmed from and influenced the changing role of women. This time, non-stick pans

What do fishing tackle, electrical connections and saucepans all have in common? The answer is Teflon, and Frenchwoman Colette Grégoire’s ‘eureka’ moment in the 1950s that was set to make her (and our) life so much easier in the kitchen.

Madame Grégoire’s idea was that magically slippery non-stick Teflon could be handy for stopping food sticking to her cooking pans. Her husband, Marc, was an engineer and saw that she was onto something. He found a way to bond Teflon to aluminium pans; they together launched Tefal to sell non-stick cookware in 1956—and by the time Jackie Kennedy was photographed in 1961 holding one of their pans, the business was ready for the global success that ensued.

Non-stick caught a mood of striving for speed and convenience at home. Before that, pans were primarily made of copper (those gloriously gleaming ones we all sigh over the beauty of) or cast-iron with its fabulous durability. Both would have to be seasoned before using. You couldn’t just take your pan home and get cracking with it, or you’d reap the misery of stuck-on food and maybe even rusting.

Major saucepan relationships
What you had to do was create a protective layer between the pan’s surface and the food by rubbing oil into the pan and allowing it to slowly heat over several hours. Every time the pan was used the layer of seasoning would develop a little bit more and become increasingly non-stick—so long as you were careful with the vigour of your washing-up. These were pans to build a relationship with over years, maybe decades. But women in the 1960s no longer really saw themselves as wanting to have major relationships with their saucepans. The ease of non-stick was hugely timely and welcome.

Not that it is all a good news story for the non-stick pan. There have been concerns about gases the non-stick coating might emit at very high cooking temperatures. Those are strenuously defended by the makers, and newer-style coatings other than Teflon have been developed too. It’s also true to say the non-stick coating does wear away after a while, somewhat defeating the point.

More troublesome to me is that when you cook with non-stick you don’t get the delicious sticky bits at the bottom of the pan that can be deglazed to release their caramelised umami flavour into the rest of the dish. I know, I know. That’s the intention—no sticky bits. Yet sometimes they are part of the joy of cooking too.

Drive for convenience
Which isn’t to decry for a moment Colette Grégoire’s drive for convenience. There would have been precious little of it for her cooking at the time. And largely thanks to her, you and I can now choose to buy non-stick pans, maybe with a spot on the base that can tell us when it’s at its optimum temperature. Or, we can decide to take the time to season a pan. Or—in the supreme modern alliance of function and aspiration—we can even buy a pre-seasoned pan.

The point is, we have the choices that are such a large part of what the last 100 years of revolutionary change in our domestic lives have been for. Frying pans as a feminist issue? I only half joke.