The first non-stick pans were made using a coating of Teflon (polytetraflouroethylene or PTFE). PTFE was invented serendipitously by Dr. Roy Plunkett in 1938, while working for a joint venture of the Dupont company. The substance was found to have several unique properties, including very good corrosion resistance and the lowest coefficient of friction of any substance yet manufactured. PTFE was used first to make seals resistant to the uranium hexafluoride gas used in the Manhattan Project during World War II and was regarded as a military secret. Dupont registered the Teflon trademark in 1944 and soon began planning for post-war commercial use of the new product.
By 1951, Dupont had developed applications for Teflon in commercial bread and cookie-making, however the company avoided the market for consumer cookware due to potemtial problems associated with release of toxic gases if stovetop pans were overheated in inadequately ventilated spaces. Marc Grégoire, a French engineer, had begun coating his fishing gear with Teflon to prevent tangles. His wife Colette suggested using the same method to coat her cooking pans. The idea was successful and a French patent was granted for the process in 1954. The Tefal company was formed in 1956 to manufacture non-stick pans.
Modern non-stick pans do not necessarily use Teflon. Other non-stick coatings for pans have since been invented. For example, a mixture of titanium and ceramic can be sandblasted onto the pan surface, and then fired to 20,000 °C (36,000 °F).
Non-stick pans are useful in cooking since they require much less cooking oil to allow the food to be moved about the cooking pan. The cleanup process is also made much easier for foods which leave a residue on the pan.
PTFE-coated frying pans usually require the use of a non-metallic (usually plastic) spatula to avoid scratching of the coated surface.
Tony Polombo observes that non-stick pans are not a universal panacea. He notes that, in particular, ordinary stainless steel pans are better for producing pan gravy, because the fond (the caramelized drippings that stick to the pan when meat is cooked) sticks to them, and can be turned into pan gravy by deglazing them — dissolving them in liquid. Non-stick pans, according to Polombo, produce inferior pan gravies.