Have you ever brought your trusty frying pan from the back of your kitchen cabinet only to find it warped? I’ve had this happen to me, too, and I know just how frustrating it can be.
Not only do you lose a piece of cookware that you know so well, you can use it with your eyes closed, but you also have to select and buy a replacement frying pan (and the good ones don’t come cheap).
Warping is most typical for non-stick pans, which, to cut costs and boost their profit margins, manufacturers tend to produce from lower-grade metals. But stainless steel frying pans are in no way immune to it.
In this article, I will tell you about the most common reasons why stainless steel pans warp. I’ll also share helpful tips on what you can do to prevent that from happening.
Why Do Stainless Steel Pans Warp?
The answer is in something physicists call thermal expansion, or the tendency of materials to expand when heated and contract when cooled.
When you turn up the heat on your stove, the metal in your frying pan heats up and expands as a result. When you turn down the heat or take the pan off it, the metal cools down and contracts.
The atoms and ions get charged with energy from the heat, so they start aggressively moving around and taking up more space as a result. As the metal cools down, these particles go back to standing still, so they become more compact.
Thermal expansion is typical for most materials—and the metal in your frying pan is no exception. It usually isn’t a problem unless the forces of expansion and contraction are so sudden and so intense that the frying pan warps in a way that permanently damages its structure.
Stainless steel frying pans will typically warp when they’re heated too quickly or come into contact with a cold surface while hot. To prevent this from happening to your pan, bring it up to heat gradually and wait for it to cool down before handling it.
Warped cookware is a problem because it forms cold spots and no longer heats up evenly, causing your food to stick to it and burn.
To tell if your frying pan has warped, place it on a flat surface, like a glass-ceramic cooktop or your dining table, and look for signs of rocking and wobbling.
Are Some Frying Pans More Prone to Warping?
Though it’s not that common for stainless steel cookware to warp, you’re more likely to experience this problem with some frying pans and pots than with others.
The things to watch out for are build quality and overall weight.
Modern cookware consists of one or multiple layers of stainless steel. Since steel is a poor conductor of heat, most vessels have a base made of a more conductive metal, like aluminum (cheap but good) or copper (costly but highly performant).
Pans and pots made of fewer and thinner layers of metal are cheaper to make, but they also warp more easily. Their higher-end counterparts will set you back more upfront but are sturdier and last much longer, often for an entire lifetime.
Ironically, the total cost of ownership of higher-end cookware ends up being lower over a lifetime, as you don’t have to buy replacement pans and pots. So buy yours from a reputable brand, ideally North American or European, and look for a thick and heavy bottom.
Those of you looking for my recommendation should consider All-Clad’s USA-made clad stainless steel cookware.
I recently wrote an entire post on the best All-Clad cookware for induction cooktops. My picks there apply even if you cook on an electric or gas stove.
How to Protect Your Frying Pan from Warping
Now that you know why stainless steel cookware warps and which vessels are more likely to do so than others, what steps can you take to prevent that from happening to your frying pan?
I’m about to tell you something for the second time round…
So, apart from the fact that I obviously like to be annoying to my readers (and I never managed to realize my lifelong dream of becoming a teacher), imagine how important it is!
Protecting your frying pan from warping starts with the choices you make at the kitchenware aisle in the store. Buy high-quality stainless steel cookware from a reputable manufacturer whose warranty you can count on.
Since I started to share my cookware picks on this blog, a dozen or so readers have emailed me to share how they almost ended up buying one of them—then got tempted by a cheaper deal from a lesser-known brand.
Usually, the story ends in the vessel warping, the guarantee not covering it, and the person reverting to my original pick (which, in 99% of the time, I’m rather proud to say, ends up working out for you all).
Don’t place a hot pan on a cold countertop, wooden cutting board, or in the kitchen sink.
The number-one reason why stainless steel frying pans warp is that their owners mishandle them. And the most common form of mishandling is when you expose the pan to a thermal shock it’s not built to handle.
Just like you experience a thermal shock—and feel the need to squeeze your body when you switch from hot to cold water under the shower—the metal in your frying pan contracts quickly and intensely when it’s exposed to sudden and severe temperature change.
As we already established, most frying pans are made from multiple metal layers, and they tend to expand or contract with a varying force. Warping occurs when those forces are too intense for the overall construction of the vessel.
To protect your frying pan from warping, don’t place it on a cold countertop or wooden board when it’s hot, and never toss it in the sink or wash it under running water. Instead, plate your food with a serving spoon or spatula, letting the frying pan cool down for at least 15 minutes before handling it.
The opposite is also true; you don’t want to expose a room-temperature frying pan to the excessive heat of an already-hot burner or preheated oven.
Stainless steel frying pans are generally oven-safe, but you should still be careful when baking with them. If you want to make sure your frying pan doesn’t warp, place it in the oven before turning on the heat.
The only exception is when you’re cooking up a meal on your stove and planning to finish it off in the oven. Your frying pan is already hot from the stove, so there’s little risk of it warping when you transfer it to your oven.
Last but not least, make sure you’re using the correctly-sized burner on your stove. If you use a burner that’s too small or too big, your pan can warp because the heat was primarily concentrated in a single area (instead of evenly distributed across the bottom).
Stainless steel frying pans can warp, especially if they’re made of thin metal layers.
To prevent that from happening, there are several mistakes that you should avoid making, but the key thing to remember is this: don’t place your hot pan on cold surfaces and heat it as gradually as the recipe or cooking method allows.