Lessons learned the hard way

by Ted on June 6, 2005

Do not, under any circumstances, heat an empty Teflon-covered nonstick pan on the range for more than two or three minutes. At temperatures above 500 degrees (beyond the range of normal home cooking), Teflon will release fumes that cause flu-like symptoms in humans and can be fatal to birds.

(No birds were harmed in the preparation of this post. One human, however, feels like he’s been chewed up and spit out of something big.)



jet 06.06.05 at 11:48 am

Are there warnings on the teflon pots and pans? I don’t remember ever reading anything on my teflon coated pans, but from what little I know about product liability, this would seem to leave DuPont liable. Kind of like creating a seatbelt that only works up to 300lbs and then putting the warning in the owners manual. Even though most people don’t weigh 300lbs and there was a warning in the manual, they’d still be liable. Seatbelts are made to restraing people and pots are made to get really hot.


CalDem 06.06.05 at 12:19 pm

other thing not to do. Don’t, say, take a wooden spatula and attempt to sterilize it by throwing it in the microwave for a minute. The dirty looks your wife will give you for weeks as she opens the microwave and smells the smoke leftovers are much worse than the smoke billowing out of the microwave.


y81 06.06.05 at 12:28 pm

My mother taught me never to heat any empty pan on the stove, ever. You must always put butter or oil in. She never used teflon (neither do I) believing it to be a modern abomination.


Sanjay Krishnaswamy 06.06.05 at 12:42 pm

Yeah, yeah — gives off phosgene actually. Mustard gas. So you got a little WWI experience.


luci phyrr 06.06.05 at 12:50 pm

Also do not, accidentally, drop a mercury thermometer onto a hot pan on the stove. The mercury fumes can definitely harm you/maybe kill you. It’s true!


JRoth 06.06.05 at 1:15 pm

Y’know Ted, if you got Cook’s Illustrated, you would have learned this through painless reading about 2 months ago.

I would hotly dispute y81’s mother on preheating. The only dangers are 1) Teflon poisoning; 2) cheap pan warping; or 3) careless overheating, resulting in the fat burning when added. But for many fats, the ideal is to add them to alread-hot pans, wait just a moment for them to come to temperature, and then add the food to be cooked. With this method, smoke-prone fats like butter and olive oil can be used at higher temps than otherwise possible, and smoke-resistant fats like peanut oil can be used at extraordinarily high heat (as for stir-fry).

I don’t know how luci achieves that special shine to her food without using mercury. Choosy cooks swear by it!


eudoxis 06.06.05 at 1:17 pm

Polymer fume fever, from what we know from rare cases of industrial exposure and contaminated cigarettes, is usually mild and temporary. With severe symptoms as described, you may have serious pulmonary involvement, and it might be wise to consult a physician.


Jasper Milvain 06.06.05 at 2:38 pm

So do copper pans (too much heat and unfortunate things happen to the tin plating, if I remember my opening chapters of old cookbooks correctly) now come with prominent health warnings in the US? Or a manual, indeed?


ArchPundit 06.06.05 at 3:12 pm

Ted–please check in so we all know you are still there…



missgrundy 06.06.05 at 3:48 pm

The part about birds is absolutely true — don’t use any nonstick pans if you have birds you love. Also, it’s a little controversial, but the product Febreeze seems to adversely affect birds as well.


KCinDC 06.06.05 at 7:31 pm

Sanjay, phosgene is COCl2. Mustard gas is (CH2ClCH2)2S. Teflon doesn’t contain chlorine or sulfur, and neither should the air in your home, so heating it won’t make either of those distinct chemicals. What it can make is mixture of other nasty things mostly made, like Teflon, from carbon and fluorine — possibly including tetrafluoroethylene, hexafluoropropene, octafluorocyclobutane, perfluoroisobutane, carbonyl fluoride, and carbon tetrafluoride. Carbonyl fluoride is like phosgene except with F in place of Cl, so maybe that’s what you were thinking of.


Ophelia Benson 06.06.05 at 7:52 pm

Uh, yeah, about the birds. A friend of mine killed his four beloved birds that way. Two huge parrots (I forget what kind – Amazon? Is that a parrot species?) who lived in a cage that was one end of his living room with a cage wall, and two lovebirds. I say about the living room-cage to make clear that these weren’t just any ol’ birds. It was awful.


radcon1 06.06.05 at 10:55 pm

kcindc — you must live in a city with a nice clean power source. I wish the air in my home didn’t contain sulfer :)


Chris 06.07.05 at 12:05 am

Another tip worth remembering; if you are sterilising baby formula bottles in a microwave steriliser, it is very important to remember to put the water in.


Harald Korneliussen 06.07.05 at 9:11 am

I knew this. But only yesterday, when we were making falafel, we asked ourselves why we use that big teflon wok for frying when a regular pot needs less oil and is in general more convenient. Then I remembered this little factoid about teflon and high temperatures, and I thought about how stupid an idea a teflon wok really is, and how stupid we’d been to use it for frying all along. Amazing the things one just never thinks of.


HP 06.07.05 at 12:45 pm

On a slightly related topic, don’t use bleach to disinfect a cat’s litter box unless you’re in a well-ventilated area. /* coughs */


cbu 06.07.05 at 2:14 pm

Reminds me of another little experiment that I tried during my early days in the restaurant world. The floor of the kitchen line was pebbled concrete, and at the end of the night we would scrub it down after pouring either straight bleach or bottle lemon juice over it. One night, when I was closing by myself, I thought “if either one is good, using both must be even better!” If anyone can illuminate me on the chemical reactions I would be very appreciative, but the resulting fumes made me nearly pass out almost immediately. So don’t do that either.


helium3 06.07.05 at 4:29 pm

What he probably accomplished was a simple oxidation of teflon polymer (which is basically just carbon and fluorine). The likely reaction products would most likely have been carbon (AKA graphite) and fluorine gas. Fluorine gas is hideously toxic. It’s definitely possible that he made some kind of short chain fluorinated hydrocarbon, but most of those are pretty inert from what I understand.

As for the bleach and lemon juice, it was probably chlorine or hydrogen chloride. Could’ve been something else, since lemon juice is a pretty complex brew of stuff. Next time, try it with bleach and white vinegar. It’s a much simpler chemical reaction and therefore easier to guess at what the reaction products would be. ;)


helium3 06.07.05 at 4:31 pm

Wait, check that. Oxidation of teflon (which can happen) would have created CO2 and fluorine. Not carbon. My bad.


Antoni Jaume 06.09.05 at 9:20 am

IIRC Oxygen can not displace fluorine from carbone, except in very particular cases, that are not at play here, because it is less “electronegative”. Fluorine oxides oxygen.


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