Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Nonstick sprays – should you use them?

Most of us probably have a can of nonstick spray in our pantries and some of us will also have a can of baking spray with flour. Should we be using these sprays? If so, when should we use them and when should we not use them? Are there any alternatives? All these questions are the subject of this Cooking Tip.

These sprays are oil-based. For example, one of the most popular sprays, PAM, contains “canola oil, coconut oil, palm oil, soy lecithin (prevents sticking), dimethyl silicone (anti foaming agent) and a propellant”. The same company does make products that contain only one type of oil such as olive oil, canola oil, avocado oil or coconut oil rather than a mixture of oils. Of course, there are many other companies that also make similar products.

Baking sprays are different than cooking nonstick sprays. In the former, there is the addition of flour. This is said to decrease the chances that baked goods will stick to the pan. According to America’s Test Kitchen, the flour particles create an “extra gap between the metal and the pastry”. This helps with release but also (according to ATK) insulates the metal so it doesn’t cook as quicky, an advantage for some delicate baked goods.

Those that advocate for cooking sprays will say that it gives you more control over your oil consumption. A spray covers the entire surface of a pan much more easily than liquid oil while using less oil overall. Be aware, though, that these sprays are not calorie-free. Although the label may say a serving has zero calories, a serving size is a spray lasting only a fraction of a second. In typical usage, it would probably add about 30 calories.

Another use for nonstick sprays is for spraying your measuring cups/spoons before measuring out sticky ingredients such as honey or molasses. Due to the spray, these ingredients quickly and completely slide off. Similarly, you can give a spritz on your cheese grater before grating. A quick spray on your pan will also hold parchment paper in place.

Because of the flour, the baking spray is not recommended for cooking uses. It should be reserved for baking pans. America’s Test Kitchen tested different products on Bundt pans and found that a baking spray with flour worked better than plain nonstick sprays and also worked better than traditional greasing and flouring the pan.

Critics of these sprays point to the additives in the can and they say there are health concerns with these additives. They also bring up that many oils, including those in the sprays, are derived from GMO (genetically modified) crops. If you wish to avoid these, look carefully at the label to see whether there is a non-GMO seal. Some outlets also feel there are possible negative environmental effects from the propellants and antifoaming agents found in these cans.

No matter your opinion of these sprays, there is one time you should never use them. That is with nonstick pans. Such pans are typically coated with Teflon, a synthetic chemical. If you use sprays on top of this coating, it will build up and it is practically impossible to remove. This actually ends up ruining the nonstick quality of these pans. If you feel you need some extra insurance when using your nonstick pans, opt for oil or butter.

If you want an alternative to sprays, the easiest thing is to just use a liquid oil or butter. Some companies have introduced sprays that do not have the propellants. PAM is one such brand but their sprays do contain grain alcohol, which they say is for a uniform spray, and soy lecithin to prevent sticking. Whole Foods advertises their 365 brand as having “no additives or propellants”. If you search online, you can also find other brands.

You can also buy a pump spray bottle and use your own oil. Although these do allow to you to use the oil already in the pantry and do not have any other additives, none of them are going to work as well as a typical can using soy lecithin and a propellant. Cooks Illustrated tested a number of them and rated the Norpro Sprayer Mister as the best. Although not high on Cooks Illustrated list, other reviewers liked the Misto sprayer although they varied on which model they preferred. You might have to try several bottles until you find one you like. That may not be something you want to do as they can cost anywhere from $8 to $30. Make sure you know the return policy from the store before purchasing one.

There are also those who recommend making your own nonstick mixture for baking purposes. One such recommendation is to combine ½ cup vegetable oil, ½ cup butter/margarine and ½ cup flour. Other recipes call for vegetable shortening in place of the butter. When Food 52 put it to the test, they had mixed results. Their take-away was that it worked well for layer cakes or other recipes calling for the butter and flour technique. Here is the entire article if you wish to read it.

I have both nonstick cooking spray and baking spray in my pantry. I must say that I almost never use the nonstick cooking spray for cooking applications. Rather, I use oil or butter, depending on the recipe. I also like to oil my food rather than the pan as it leads to less splattering. I do use the spray products for baking applications if they are called for. What about you? What do you use?