How to Use a Stainless-Steel Pan (Without Worrying Your Food Will Stick)

How to Use a Stainless-Steel Pan (Without Worrying Your Food Will Stick)

Stainless steel is sturdy, sleek, and can be used to cook pretty much anything, making it the cookware material preferred by most professionals. Unlike its nonstick counterparts (which we still love!), stainless steel can handle high temperatures and metal utensils without the risk of damage. Cast-iron pans share many of the same benefits as stainless steel, but they tend to be heavier and bulkier—not ideal for moving around small kitchens or transferring from the stove or oven and to the table.

Then why isn’t everyone cooking with stainless steel? Well, there is one main deterrent: Unlike a seasoned cast-iron skillet or ceramic-coated nonstick pan, things tend to stick in stainless steel, if used improperly. Because of that, many home cooks—especially those who are just getting comfortable in the kitchen—avoid the material entirely. We’re here to say: Don’t let that fear stop you from cooking with stainless steel. Just follow a few key pieces of advice from the pros in our Test Kitchen, and you’ll find that cooking with these sturdy, long-lasting pans isn’t nearly as daunting as it seems.

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The first major rule of cooking with stainless steel is to let the pan get very hot before adding your ingredients. There are two reasons for this: The first is that, when added to a cold pan, proteins are able to create bonds with the metal surface, effectively sticking the two together. Second, stainless steel is a porous (read: uneven) material. When it gets hot, the metal expands and those pores reduce in size, resulting in a smoother, more even surface that’s less prone to sticking. “If your surface is heated enough, the stuff just won’t stick,” says Emily Ziemski, Food52’s food editor. (Keep in mind that because stainless steel is a super effective heat conductor, you’ll usually only need to use a medium-ish flame to get the pan very hot. Moreover, high heat can cause the fat in your pan to break down and lose its nonstick properties.)

To further regulate the temperature of your pan, Emily suggests using room temperature ingredients rather than those straight from the fridge. “Using ingredients that have been brought to room temperature prevents the pan from fluctuating in heat,” she says. Even if you preheat your pan, adding a cold ingredient to it will cause its temperature to drop, making the surface more prone to sticking. Anna Billingskog, Food52’s food stylist, also recommends using an oil or fat with a high smoke point, such as ghee, avocado oil, or peanut oil, to create a slick, nonstick surface—but there is such a thing as too much oil. “Not using too much is key, and you can always pour out what you don’t need into a heat safe vessel,” she says.

While these tips rely on a bit of trial and error, one method for determining if a stainless-steel pan is hot enough has taken off in popularity. Often referred to as the “water test” or “mercury ball test,” it involves adding a few drops of water to a hot, very dry skillet—if the water immediately sizzles and evaporates, the pan’s not hot enough. But if the water droplets remain intact and dance across the surface of the pan—a phenomenon known as the Leidenfrost Effect—you’re good to go.

Lastly, there’s the question of what to do if your food is already in the pan, and you find that it’s sticking whenever you try to flip it—even if you’ve preheated and oiled your pan properly. The best course of action? Wait it out a little longer. Typically, these ingredients will release from the pan when they’re ready—and they’ll have a caramelized, perfect sear to boot.

What are your best tips for cooking with stainless steel? Let us know in the comments!

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