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How to Preheat a Stainless Steel Pan

Find out how to preheat your new favorite cooking vessel so it doesn’t stick as much and isn’t as prone to warping.

Stainless steel frying pans heat quickly, transfer the heat to your food evenly, and, unlike their cast iron or carbon steel counterparts, can be cleaned without hassle in the dishwasher. So it’s not hard to understand why they’re so common in restaurant kitchens.

But if you just bought a stainless steel pan for your home, learning how to cook with it can be least to say intimidating. Suddenly, seemingly simple tasks you’ve known how to do your entire life—like preheating the pan—raise more questions than they give answers, prompting you to google for advice.

When in doubt, we wrote this guide to help you figure out the right way to preheat a stainless steel pan… and avoid a few common mistakes as you do. Read on below for the exact steps to preheating a stainless steel pan, and the answers to the questions you didn’t know you had to ask.

How to Preheat a Stainless Steel Frying Pan (In 4 Steps)

Time needed: 3 minutes

  1. Turn the heat up and wait

    Put the stainless steel pan on the burner, turn the heat up to medium, and preheat it empty for 2 to 3 minutes.

  2. Use the water test to tell when it’s ready

    Wet your fingers under running water and flick a single drop of water in the center of the pan. If the drop just sits there, the pan needs more preheating. If it skids on the surface and races around in the pan, it’s hot enough to cook in.

  3. Add oil and swirl it around

    Pour in a dollop of cooking oil. Now lift the pan and swirl the oil around slowly and purposefully, coating the bottom and sides of the cooking surface evenly.

  4. Get cooking

    Put the pan back on the burner, allow the oil a few seconds to get up to heat, then lay the food and start the cooking.

Can You Preheat the Pan With the Oil In It?

Some home cooks don’t want to preheat their stainless steel pans empty because, although they can tell when the pans are hot enough to cook in, they have no way of telling whether they are so hot that they will burn the oil.

To give you the long and the short of it: Yes, you can preheat a stainless steel pan with the oil in it. When the oil starts to glisten and ripple, it’s hot enough to cook in. If the oil starts to smoke, the pan is too hot and you should reduce the heat.

The drawback to this method is that you can’t use the water test. If you flick water into a hot pan filled with cooking oil, it will splatter all over the stove and may burn your hand. The choice, then, is yours.

Should You Preheat the Pan Over High Heat?

Some would say that you absolutely should, but I would argue the contrary.

An empty pan over high heat gets really hot, really fast. And even though stainless steel cookware can take a beating, it is nevertheless prone to warping and developing hot spots.

The thing about hot spots is that, once your pan develops them, they are impossible to get rid of. You can keep cooking with the pan, of course. But sauces will scorch, liquids will boil unevenly, and meats will over/undercook in spots.

Heat your stainless steel pans over medium heat, medium-high at most. It takes longer, but it allows the steel to expand gradually, with a reduced risk of warping.

Is Food Supposed to Stick to Stainless Steel?

In a word, yes. It’s completely normal—and one might say expected—for food to stick to a stainless steel frying pan. But you can make the pan less sticky with the right technique.

By preheating the pan until it’s hot enough to cook in and adding a generous amount of animal fat or plant oil, you make the pan less sticky. The fat/oil coats the cooking surface and acts as a barrier between the bare steel and hissing food.

Here’s the trick: Leave the food alone for a few minutes before trying to flip it. At first, the proteins will adhere to the metal, and it will be hard to impossible for you to turn the food without mangling it. But as browning takes place, the food will slowly release itself from the pan until it’s ready to flip with little resistance.

Know your author

Written by

Dim is a food writer, cookbook author, and the editor of Home Cook World. His first book, Cooking Methods & Techniques, was published in 2022. He is a certified food handler with Level 1 and Level 2 Certificates in Food Hygiene and Safety for Catering, and a trained cook with a Level 3 Professional Chef Diploma.