What Is Nonstick Cooking Spray?

Pam cooking spray

Mike Mozart / Flickr / CC By 2.0

According to PAM, makers of the best-known cooking sprays, the first patent for no-stick cooking sprays was issued in 1957 to Arthur Meyerhoff Sr. and Leon Rubin, who began to market their product in 1959. In fact, PAM is an acronym, which stands for Product of Arthur Meyerhoff. Today, a number of brands exist, and different varieties, too.

Cooking Spray's Many Uses

No low-fat cook worth their salt is without a can or two of non-stick cooking spray in the pantry. We love it because we can slash fat and calories by not using butter or oil in our cooking. We love it because it makes the job of sliding cookies off the cookie sheet a whole lot easier, of pouring molasses or honey from measuring cups less sticky, and the slicing of dried fruit or the molding of rice cereal treats and meatballs so much easier. It prevents tomato-based sauces from discoloring plastic containers and makes the job of cleaning a cheese grater a breeze. We've been quite creative in using it in other ways, too, in the garage and elsewhere, which is beyond our scope here. So what exactly is cooking spray, and how good is it really?

Cooking Spray's Ingredients

Essentially, cooking spray is oil in a can, but not just oil; it also contains lecithin, which is an emulsifier, dimethyl silicone, which is an anti-foaming agent, and a propellant such as butane or propane. Cooking spray varieties are made using canola oil, olive oil, with flour for baking, and with butter flavor. There's also a high heat formula cooking spray that "resists residue build up." More on that below.

Spraying for Just a Second

The advantages of cooking spray, then, seem pretty clear. But there are drawbacks or at least some things to bear in mind. While using cooking spray does indeed save fat and calories, it's not quite as simple as it seems. The small print says "for fat-free cooking," but that works only if you are skilled enough to limit your spray to the stated serving size of a "1/4 second spray."

Elsewhere on the can, it states that a one second spray covers a 10-inch skillet, so four times the serving size. This one-second spray would push the fat content over 0.5g, which means the nutrition facts label couldn't round it down to 0g of fat. Few of us limit ourselves to a one-second spray, however. Most of us spray for two or three seconds, and some of us longer than that, just to make sure! In the scheme of things, we're still talking about relatively small amounts of fat, but the serving size on the can suggest a loophole is being used to make a specific claim.

Sticky Build up

One key drawback of nonstick cooking spray is the build-up of residue due to the lecithin. For this reason, cooking spray is not recommended for use on nonstick cookware. After all, nonstick cookware is supposed to be, well, nonstick! But the properties of cooking spray combined with the coating of nonstick pans makes for a paradoxically difficult clean up. Dark coated pans heat more quickly and cool more quickly, which means that cooking spray gets cooked onto the surface and may adhere or harden before it has a chance to be cleaned. Cooking spray can build up on other surfaces, too, especially if we spray liberally, and if we use high heat. Typically, residue builds up on the sides of the pan or baking sheet, and not necessarily where the food itself is cooked.

If you worry about additives or the sticky residue that simply won't budge, you can always make your own cooking spray using a mister and the oil of your choice.