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Why Does Food Stick to Non-Stick Pans? (And How to Prevent It)

Non-stick pans are designed to prevent food from sticking. The coating on the interior fills tiny pores in the metal, creating a slick, stick-resistant cooking surface.

But, sometimes, food still sticks. And the coating seems to lose its effectiveness over time.

In this quick guide, you’ll learn why food sticks to non-stick pans and the cooking, cleaning, and maintenance techniques to prevent food from sticking in the future.

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Why Does Food Stick to Non-Stick Pans?

There are several reasons why food is sticking to your non-stick pans. This section will go over the more common issues, and I’ll give you some insight into why they occur.

High Heat

High heat is one of the most common reasons for food sticking to a non-stick pan. When you overheat a non-stick pan during the cooking process, food can burn and stick onto the pan’s surface.

why food sticks to non-stick pans

Over time, high heat can degrade the coating, which leads to more sticking.

In fact, most non-stick cookware comes with a warning not to heat it above 500°F. When the non-stick coating is heated above 500°F, it can release harmful chemicals that cause headaches, dizziness, and other issues.

If you need to cook with high heat, consider using a different type of pan, such as cast iron or carbon steel.

Low Heat

Low heat can also cause your food to stick to a non-stick pan. When you put oil in a hot pan and add food, a reaction occurs. The hot oil causes the food to release water vapor, which then forms a barrier between the food and the pan’s surface.

If the heat is too low, that reaction doesn’t occur, and there is no vapor barrier between the food and the pan. That causes the food to sear and stick to the pan’s surface rather than “float” on top of it.

Incorrect Cleaning and Care

If you don’t properly clean and maintain your non-stick pan, you can scratch and degrade its non-stick coating, which results in food sticking to the exposed metal surface.

Non-stick pans should be gently hand-washed with warm soapy water. Even if the pan is labeled dishwasher safe, it’s better to hand wash it.

Stick with silicone, wood, or plastic instead of using metal utensils. Over time, metal spatulas, spoons, and forks will cause nicks and scratches. And a scratched pan is a sticky pan.

Dispersed Oil

Another common reason food sticks to non-stick pans is that the oil isn’t coating the entire surface.

When you pour oil into a hot pan, it sometimes spreads out toward the edges of the pan, leaving the middle of the pan bare.

Oil sliding to the side of a Gotham Steel pan
Oil sliding to the side of a Gotham Steel pan

This can happen if the pan is slightly warped or the stove isn’t completely level. It also occurs frequently with ceramic non-stick pans because the coating is completely smooth without any texture to grab onto the oil and keep it in place.

How to Prevent Food From Sticking to Non-Stick Pans

Now that you understand the reasons behind “sticky” non-stick pans, let’s explore the solutions.

Choose PTFE Non-Stick

There are two main kinds of non-stick coatings: ceramic and PTFE. PTFE non-stick usually lasts longer than ceramic non-stick because it doesn’t wear down as quickly and is more resistant to damage.

Polytetrafluoroethylene, or PTFE, is a safe plastic coating and highly effective at preventing food from sticking to pans. The most well-known brand of PTFE is Teflon, but several other companies produce it, too.

Scanpan interior
PTFE coating

PTFE had a bad reputation in the past, and rightfully so. Before 2013, a chemical linked to major health and environmental issues called PFOA was used during the making of PTFE.

Fortunately, all PTFE and non-stick pans made with PTFE since 2013 are PFOA-free and completely healthy, as long as you don’t overheat them (keep the temperature below 500°F).

Ceramic coatings are silica-based, and they work by utilizing a silica gel known as “sol-gel” to form a barrier between the food and the pan’s surface.

Ceramic non-stick pan
Ceramic non-stick coating

The coating releases a bit of this gel each time the pan is used. Since there’s a finite amount of sol-gel in the coating, it loses material with each successive use. This makes ceramic coatings “self-sacrificing” and results in a shorter lifespan.   

Choose Non-Stick Cookware With Multi-Layer Coating

When it comes to non-stick coatings, not all pans are equal. To avoid sticking, choose a pan made with multiple layers of non-stick coating rather than a pan that only has one.

Multi-layer coatings take longer to break down, and scratches need to be deeper to expose the metal underneath. Examples of quality multi-layer pans include those listed below.

Non-Stick CookwareNumber of Non-Stick LayersView Details
Made In3MadeInCookware.com
All-Clad HA13Amazon, All-Clad.com
Calphalon Classic2Amazon
Calphalon Signature3Amazon

Avoid Metal Utensils

When cooking with your non-stick pan, avoid using metal utensils. Metal spatulas, forks, and spoons can scratch the pan’s surface and damage the non-stick coating. Never use a knife to cut directly in the pan (even a butter knife).

Scratches on the cooking surface of the Misen non-stick pan
Scratches non-stick coating

Choose silicon/plastic, nylon, or wooden utensils instead, as these are less likely to damage the non-stick coating and help prolong your cookware’s lifespan.

Opt for a Heavy Bottom Pan

When choosing your cookware, it’s better to pick a non-stick pan with a thicker bottom. Thicker metal absorbs and disperses heat more evenly.

That prevents hotspots, which cause food to burn to the pan and stick.

For example, the Made In non-stick pan has a thick 5-ply stainless steel base.

Made In Non-Stick Frying Pan Exterior
Made In Non-Stick Frying Pan 5-Ply Stainless Steel Base

Give It a Thorough Cleaning

Any food residue left on a non-stick pan will harm the integrity of the non-stick coating. Make sure to clean your cookware between uses thoroughly.

The best way to do this is with a soft cloth and warm, soapy water. For any stubborn residue, mix baking soda and water and heat the pan over the stove. Once the pan and the mixture are warm, gently scrub and rinse.

Season the Pan

Most people associate seasoning with cast iron or carbon steel pans, but it’s also helpful to season your non-stick pans. Proper seasoning seals the pores in your pan and fortifies the non-stick coating.

Here’s how to season a non-stick pan:

  1. Place a completely clean pan on the stove and turn the heat to high.
  2. Heat the pan for a few minutes until it’s hot.
  3. Add canola or vegetable over the surface of the pan. Spread it with a clean paper towel. Use tongs or an oven mitt to avoid burning your hand.
  4. Heat the pan over medium heat for another 1-2 minutes.
  5. Let it cool down completely.
  6. Wipe off the excess oil with a cloth or paper towel.

I provide more details about the seasoning process in this article.

Add Oil or Butter

If your non-stick pan is starting to show signs of wear, you can use a touch of oil or butter to prevent sticking and prolong your pan’s lifespan.

Even if your pan’s non-stick coating remains effective, it’s always good to use oil or butter when cooking (especially for eggs, fish, and other ingredients prone to sticking).

Cooking Salmon in a Made In nonstick pan
Cooking Salmon in a Made In non-stick pan

These fats form a barrier between food and the non-stick coating, protecting its integrity over time.

Use the Right Temperature

Use medium heat to get the best performance out of your non-stick cookware. Avoid cooking at temperatures that exceed manufacturer recommendations. Doing so can damage the non-stick coating and release harmful chemicals into the air.

Check the cookware’s packaging or the manufacturer’s website to learn the recommended temperatures for your pan. I created this guide that shows the oven-safe temperatures of 19 different frying pans, including 13 non-stick pans.

Don’t Overcrowd the Pan

When you put too much food in the pan, too much moisture is released, and the vapor barrier between the food and the cooking surface I described earlier cannot form.

Overcrowding also causes the pan to heat unevenly, so some parts of the food overcook while others undercook. The overcooked parts are more likely to burn and stick to the pan.

Don’t Move Food Before It’s Ready

Certain foods, like meat, must form a crust before they release from the pan. If you try to flip these foods too early, they’re likely to stick to the pan and leave behind residue.

Cooking shrimp in a Made In nonstick pan
These shrimp formed a crust before I flipped them and I avoided sticking.

Foods that are liquid or almost liquid need to solidify at the bottom before removing them from the pan.

For example, when you cook over-easy eggs, wait for the bottom to solidify (like in the picture below) before flipping or removing them –– otherwise, the whites will stick to the pan.

Cooking an egg in a GreenLife pan

Final Thoughts

Now you know why food sticks to non-stick pans and how to prevent it from happening.

To recap, here’s how to prevent food from sticking to non-stick pans.

  • Medium Heat: Food often sticks to non-stick pans because of improper heating. If the heat is too high, the food will burn onto the pan’s surface. Low heat means that food won’t form the vapor barrier necessary to prevent it from binding to the pan’s surface. It’s best to use medium heat when cooking with a non-stick pan, and you should avoid exceeding the heat recommendations provided by the manufacturer.
  • Avoid Scratches: Metal utensils can scratch the surface of your non-stick pan and should therefore be avoided. Use wooden, plastic, or nylon utensils instead.
  • Avoid Overcrowding: If you overcrowd your non-stick pan, food will heat unevenly and burn onto the pan’s surface.
  • Be Patient: Certain foods need to form a “crust” or solidify before removing them from the pan.
  • Clean Thoroughly (but Gently): Incorrect cleaning and poor maintenance can scratch, wear down, or otherwise damage a pan’s non-stick coating. Clean your pans by hand using a soft cloth. Thoroughly cleaning your non-stick pan between uses will prevent food residue from damaging the non-stick coating over time. You can use a baking soda mixture to remove burnt-on food from your pan.
  • Buy the Right Pans: The best non-stick pans have a multi-layer, PTFE coating. Ceramic non-stick pans break down and lose their effectiveness quickly. Pans with heavier bottoms tend to heat more evenly, preventing hot spots and keeping food from sticking.

If you’ve followed these tips but are still experiencing issues, your pan likely needs to be replaced. Most last between one and five years, but it depends on how well you treat them.

If you’re looking for high-quality non-stick pans that are less likely to stick, check out the brands in this guide.

Andrew Palermo Founder of Prudent Reviews

Andrew Palermo - About the Author

Andrew is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Prudent Reviews. He began his career in marketing, managing campaigns for dozens of Fortune 500 brands. In 2018, Andrew founded Prudent Reviews and has since reviewed 600+ products. When he’s not testing the latest cookware, kitchen knives, and appliances, he’s spending time with his family, cooking, and doing house projects. Connect with Andrew via emailLinkedIn, or the Prudent Reviews YouTube channel.

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