Innovation is a wide ranging concept and everyone has a different opinion on what constitutes something being innovative. Some innovations are specifically sought out, looking for a new or better way of doing something, while other ones are discovered by accident. The non-stick coating on fry pans was one of those accidental discoveries.
In 1938, DuPont, a New Jersey research & development company had tasked a team of scientists with researching alternative, non-toxic chlorofluorocarbon refrigerants for refrigerators. Dr. Roy Plunkett produced 100 lbs of tetrafluorethylene (TFE) gas for experimentation, storing it in cylinders on dry ice. The next day, when he went to open a cylinder no gas came out. Perplexed, he cut it open and found polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), a waxy, white substance instead. Being a scientist, he tested the properties of this new polymer and discovered that it was extremely slippery, non-corrosive, chemically stable, and had an extremely high melting point. This new substance was quickly transferred to DuPont’s Central Research Department for further study and Dr. Roy Plunkett was promoted and transferred to another division.
Dupont patented the chemical in 1941 and created the trademark name, Teflon in 1945. Initially, Teflon was only used for industrial and military applications because it was too expensive to produce. It was not until the late 1950s that the first nonstick cookware was created, when Marc Gregoire, a French engineer, found a way to bond Teflon to aluminum. Marc and his wife founded the Tefal Corp. & started selling his non-stick pans in France. With FDA approval, Tefal started selling Teflon pans in the US, popularly known as T-fal pans.
Now for the million dollar question – how do you get an inherently non sticky substance to stick to metal cookware?
1. Start with the metal base of the already shaped cookware. Most are made of aluminum, others from stainless steel.
2. Apply the non-stick coating either by roughening the surface of the metal base first so it sticks better or add a special primer that sticks to both the metal base and Teflon coating. Then add several layers of the non-stick coating and finish it off by baking it at 800 degrees F for 3-5 mins, to harden the coating and adhere it more securely to the metal base.
Dr. Plunkett was honoured for his discovery and inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1985.
An interesting fact I learned, Teflon is actually a brand name so not all PTFE non-stick pans are Teflon. As a future chef I think it’s important that I am educated in the equipment I could be using to cook with and learn about the different options available. Over the years, more non-stick options for pans have become available, such as anodized aluminium, ceramics, silicone, enameled cast iron, and seasoned cast iron. (I realize cast iron has been around for a while, but it seems to be increasing in popularity nowadays.)
I have a few alternative non-stick pans that aren’t Teflon coated.
Non-stick pans are an important innovation because it changes how people cook their food and allows not so skilled cooks to have more confidence and success in the kitchen. The likelihood of ruining their eggs, pancakes, meats or other food by it sticking to the pan is greatly reduced, without needing extra skills or knowledge. Health conscious people would also be happy about only needing a little oil/butter to coat the non-stick pan before cooking, vs other pans that require a fair amount of butter/oil to prevent sticking.
Learning more about non-stick pans interested me because I grew up cooking with them and still use them today; making enticing eggs, fancy french toast, puffy pancakes and classic crepes.
Until next time!