Before we examine the question, “are grill mats safe?” consider this: The desire to figure out how to cook food without creating a big cleanup problem is something of an ancient endeavor. There has been speculation that an aggressive cultural movement toward nonstick cookware began right around the time men had to start doing dishes, but many historians contradict that theory. The fact is, nonstick pans took a rather roundabout course to find their way to market.
The discovery of nonstick technology was something of an unexpected occurrence that took place in the late 1930s. A fellow by the name of Roy Plunkett was working with a research team at a company owned by DuPont. They were attempting to develop a less toxic chemical gas for use in refrigeration. Mr. Plunkett created a mixture for that purpose, and being a good husband and father, went home promptly at 5:00. He left the mixture sitting in the lab overnight.
What he found when he returned the next day was absolutely weird. The bottle containing the refrigerant gas ran out of the gas before its weight had dropped to the original bottle weight. Obviously, one would conclude there must have still been something in the bottle, but there didn’t seem to be. This happened several times, and eventually Mr. Plunkett decided to cut the bottle in half and take a closer look. What he found inside surprised him.
Are Grill Mats Safe? Introducing Polytetrafluoroethylene
There was a white, waxy material coating the inside of the bottle. It was oddly slick, almost like ice. Chemical analysis revealed that the chemical makeup of the material was polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), and this stuff was indeed, remarkably “nonstick.”
Low Coefficient of Friction
PTFE has what is called in scientific circles, a low coefficient of friction. That term, “coefficient of friction” is a measurement, like a foot or an inch. Only in this case, it doesn’t measure distance. It measures slickness, or to put it a different way, nonstick-ness. The stickier a substance is, the higher its coefficient of friction. Conversely, the lower the coefficient, the slicker the substance, and PTFE has an extremely low coefficient of friction, making it a truly nonstick material. The material is also completely resistant to everything from water to harsh chemicals and solvents. Nothing seems to bother it except temperatures above 500 degrees Fahrenheit.
Are Grill Mats Safe? Plunkett Gets Credit
Plunkett wasn’t formally recognized for the invention until 40 years later when the National Inventors Hall of Fame acknowledged his part in the invention of PTFE, by inducting him as a member.
PTFE was patented with the name of Teflon™. Nowadays, people associate the term Teflon exclusively with nonstick pans. That was not the case back then, because the product we know as the Teflon pan did not yet exist, and Teflon was used for entirely different purposes.
First Real Job
Because of its peculiar chemical characteristics, Teflon was employed by the Manhattan Project (the Atom Bomb development), it was used to coat the valves and seals of the plumbing, which transported Uranium Hexafluoride. It was perfect for this application because of its chemical stability – it is impervious to chemical attack and will not corrode or degrade like metal.
Are Grill Mats Safe? The Invention of the Best Nonstick Skillet
It wasn’t until over a decade later, in1956 that PTFE came to be used in cookware and the Teflon pan came into existence. An engineer in France, Marc Gregoire, started using PTFE to coat his fishing tackle. It was a logical thing to do, since it is anti-hydrous, meaning 100% resistant to water. His wife, Collette (lovely French name) took notice of his excitement over his new fishing lures, and asked him to make some nonstick pans for her. Anxious to please his woman, he figured out how to adhere a PTFE coating to aluminum.
Are Grill Mats Safe? Tefal Cookware
Plunkett and his wife got pretty excited about his invention, and they formed their own corporation, which they named Tefal, to sell their nonstick cooking utensils. Their first pan was known as the Tefal frying pan, and it was extremely popular. Even today it can be found in antique shops, and the famous Tefal frying pan is still sought after by people who used it all those years ago, and still prefer it to more modern nonstick cookware. It’s not a stretch to assume it was well built compared to today’s construction of household items.
This begs the question, if the stuff is so darn slippery, then how did Plunkett ever get it to stick to aluminum? Granted, he was motivated, since it was his wife who asked him to do it, but it was still a remarkable feat.
Rough It Up
In some respects, this is done exactly like you’d expect. When applying a high-gloss paint you need to roughen the surface to get the paint to stick, and the approach is similar with PTFE. When coating metal pans, the surface can either be roughened mechanically, with the equivalent of a sander, or chemically with a compound that eats away at the surface.
Working Both Ways
In both cases, the primer coat of PTFE adheres to the prepared surface, and the additional coats stick to the primer coat. The primer coat is a special formulation, different than the topcoats, and one that can bond to both the metal (or fabric, in the case of a nonstick grillmat) and the PTFE coats that are yet to come.
The layers are sprayed on or rolled on, just like paint. Depending on the surface it’s being applied to, the subsequent coats can be added while the base coats are still wet. Once the PTFE has been layered to the desired thickness, it is sintered. This involves heating it to 780 degrees or so, for around five minutes. This dries the polymer and creates a bond to the substrate, whether it is metal, as with a pan, or fabric, as with BBQ grill mats, or PTFE cooking sheet (often referred to, incorrectly, as a Teflon sheet, or Teflon paper).
Are Grill Mats Safe? New Developments – Safety and Convenience
Nonstick cookware has remained basically the same for over half a century with two developments that stand out. The use of PFOA-based substances will have been completely discontinued by 2015, in pursuit of a safe version. That has lately become a selling point, and most of today’s packaging for these items will carry the label “PFOA Free Cookware.”
Another development is the invention of the baking mat, also called a baking sheet, usually a fiberglass cloth with a PTFE coating, which produces a flexible cooking surface that can be used on either side. The BBQ grill mat is the most popular of these, made famous by the “as seen on TV” miracle grill mat and the Yoshi grill mat.
Grill utensils such as this are handy for keeping the barbecue grates clean and for making it possible to barbecue many previously non-barbecue-able foods.
You will very commonly see a grill mat advertised with the label “PFOA Free Nonstick Mat,” though it is rapidly becoming an unimportant distinction, since all nonstick cookware was required to be PFOA-free by 2015, anyway.
Are Grill Mats Safe? The FDA Weighs In
Because nonstick cookware provided the first use of PTFE with food, the FDA needed to get involved to make sure it was, in fact, a safe idea to cook food on it. Polytetrafluoroethylene was approved by the FDA in 1960 for use with food, with temperature restrictions attached, most notably it can’t be used at in excess of 500 degrees Fahrenheit.
While the term Teflon™ is commonly used to describe all types of nonstick cookware, it’s not an accurate association. Teflon is a trademark, a brand name, not the name of the material itself. Even the term PTFE does not encompass every nonstick formulation, since there are multiple other renderings of fluoropolymers, as these substances are called, that are used for various nonstick applications.
Are Grill Mats Safe? The Answers
All cookware releases particulates and gasses when heated, some more or less than others. Nonstick cookware is certainly a tradeoff between convenience and safety but the safety concerns can be mitigated. The two most important factors in using a bbq grill mat safely are heat and friction. There are other considerations but those are the two most important by far. If you cook on low to medium heat the PTFE in your pans and grill mats remains stable. The main problems with grill mats is that people want to cook with them the way they cook without them – meaning using high heat on the bbq grill. The grill mats, as with other nonstick cookware, require a low to medium heat use.
The other safety consideration has to do with the tools you use on nonstick cookware. Scraping the surface will remove fluorocarbons from the pan or grill mat and it will likely end up in your food. For this reason you don’t use metal utensils. Use rubber, or silicone instead. If using a pan, keep the food in motion by tossing it in the pan rather than flipping it with a spatula. If using a grill mat, turn the food frequently using tongs rather than a spatula.
This might seem like a lot of fuss but it’s just a different set of techniques and the rewards are worth it. If you use your grill mats wisely you will get years of use from them and you will expand your grilling possibilities beyond anything you imagined. Are grill mats safe? Yes, if you use them safely.
Happy Grilling, Chef Caron