Keep Food From Sticking to Your Stainless Steel Pan

Published Categorized as Cooking Tips
Stainless steel frying panJim the Home Cook via Home Cook World

Stainless steel pans are the best choice for the professional chef and home cook alike. They’re well-built, long-lasting, and highly versatile. You can use them to sear meats, sauté veggies, and make pan sauces on your cooktop, but you can also bake with them in your oven.

Since they’re made of bare metal and have no PTFE or ceramic coating to worry about, they’re very low maintenance compared to pans made of other materials. You can use a metal spatula or stir food with a fork and not have to worry about damaging the non-stick coating; it doesn’t have any.

The same thing that makes stainless steel pans so durable and versatile—their lack of non-stick coating—is also what makes them notoriously sticky.

How can you keep food from sticking to your stainless steel frying pan?

To keep food from sticking to your stainless steel pan, preheat it for 4-5 minutes and make sure the cooking oil is hot enough before adding the food to it. Give your food enough time to cook on each side. If you try to move it or flip it over too soon, it will stick.

In this post, I’m going to tell you why food sticks to stainless steel, as well as what makes the technique I just shared with you above so effective.

If I’ve got you curious, keep on reading.

Why Food Sticks to Stainless Steel

There are two things you need to know to understand why food sticks to stainless steel pans: 

  1. The pan’s surface is covered with microscopic cracks and crevices.
  2. When you bring your pan up to heat, the metal expands.

Here’s why this matters (and what it means for cooking with stainless steel).

At first glance, your stainless steel frying pan looks smooth and shiny. Look at it under a microscope, and you’ll notice a different picture: its surface is actually rough and porous.

As your high school physics teacher will gladly remind you, metal expands when heated. The length, surface area, and volume of your stainless steel frying pan increase with temperature.

The tiny cracks and crevices covering your pan expand as you bring it up to heat (and contract as you turn down the heat), trapping food inside them and causing it to stick and burn.

Foods high in protein and low in fat are particularly prone to sticking to your pan. When the proteins heat, they form bonds with metal atoms, such as iron, from the pan.

This is especially true for poultry, less-fatty fish, and lean beef. Since there’s little-to-no fat to melt and drip from the food as it cooks, nothing keeps it from sticking to the pan.

Eggs are particularly tricky to make in a stainless steel pan. They’re not only protein-rich and low-fat (which makes them highly prone to sticking), but also liquid. The liquid state of eggs makes it easy for them to get stuck inside the cracks and crevices on your frying pan.

The more you study the science of food, the more you see how much more humanity has yet to find out about it.

Proteins are complex structures—decomposing their interactions into observable, repeatable, and reproducible experiments is not always possible.

One is a phenomenon in molecular physics called the Van der Waals force, in which weak electrostatic forces attract neutral atoms, molecules, and surfaces to one another. 

The other is a chemical bond from the field of inorganic chemistry called the covalent bond, in which two atoms share electron pairs with each other.

How can you keep food from sticking to your stainless steel frying pan? Apply cooking oil (or fat) using the right technique—and it will feel as if you’re using non-stick cookware.

How to Keep Food From Sticking to Your Pan

To prevent food from getting stuck to your stainless steel frying pan, you need something to act as a barrier between the exterior of the food and the surface of the pan. That something is vegetable oil, like extra virgin olive oil or avocado oil, or animal fat, like butter.

Bring your pan up to heat before cooking in it. That takes about 4-5 minutes on most cooktops (gas, electric, or induction). As a material, stainless steel isn’t the best conductor of heat, which is why you should take your time when preheating cookware made of it.

Don’t cook on high heat. You rarely need to do so. Most of the time, your food will burn on the outside and come out undercooked on the inside. You’ll also heat most cooking oils beyond their smoke point, causing them to break down and smoke.

The best setting for searing meat and sauteing vegetables is medium-high heat. The rest of your cooking can be done over medium heat, allow you to cook your food all the way through while slightly browning it on the outside.

Allow your cooking oil to get hot before adding the food to the pan. When the oil in your pan starts to glisten and shimmer (in simplest terms, to move around), it’s hot enough to cook in. Butter is hot enough when bubbles stop appearing and it turns into a clearer liquid.

Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t make much of a difference if you add the cooking oil to a cold pan or after it’s been preheated. What matters is that you give your oil enough time to heat up—and look for the clues when it’s ready to cook it.

Don’t move or flip over your food too soon. This is probably the number one mistake I used to make before I started learning the science of cooking. 

It’s so important that if you remember only one thing from my post, let it be this: give your food the time it needs to cook on each side before trying to move it or flip it over. If you don’t, it will stick.

The next time you’re making searing a steak or sauteing asparagus, leave it to cook on one side for enough time before trying to move it around or flip it over. Once your food is well browned, the proteins will have broken down enough to release themselves from the surface.

Those browned bits and pieces stuck to your pan as you cook? Deglaze them to make the most aromatic and flavorful pan sauce. Thanks to its fancy and intimating name, this simple technique is one of the best-kept secrets among professional cooks.

How to Cook Eggs in Stainless Steel

When I say eggs are tricky to cook in stainless steel, I really mean it. 

Just try out the technique that I recommended to you above for an omelet, and you’re likely to end up with half of your eggs burnt on the bottom and sides of your pan.

This is so frustrating when it happens and so hard to clean by hand that I wrote an entire post about it the last time it happened to me. 

The question is, how can you keep eggs from sticking to your stainless steel pan in the first place?

Look up the topic on the Internet and you’ll see that there’s too much conflicting advice out there. After spending a week trying and testing different pieces of advice, here’s what worked for me.

To keep eggs from sticking to your stainless steel pan, bring them to room temperature by placing them in warm water for 5-10 minutes. Preheat your pan over low to medium heat and cook the eggs in 1 tbsp butter (or an equivalent serving of any other cooking fat).

The trick, it turns out, is to use low heat and cook the eggs in enough fat. Since this technique worked out for me three times in a row when making omelets, I can confirm to you that it works.

Food writer Pamela Salzman has shot a good video on the topic:

Why Should You Cook in Stainless Steel?

Now that you know why food sticks to stainless steel frying pans, don’t get discouraged. There’s a reason why most professional kitchens prefer cookware made of stainless steel. And this is coming from someone who used to do 90% of his cooking in cast iron!

Stainless steel pans don’t react with acidic foods like tomatoes, vinegar, and wine. The same can’t be said for cookware made of other materials, like cast iron skillets and ceramic pans. 

If you cook highly acidic foods in a cast iron skillet, the acid will react with the iron and loosen a trace amount of iron molecules that leach it into your food. Through daily use over long periods of time, that trace amount tends to build up in your body.

Ceramic pan makers tell you to avoid using extra virgin olive oil and non-refined avocado oil when cooking because the vegetable oil can easily build up and burn on your pan’s ceramic coating. My problem is that these are two of the healthiest cooking oils you could possibly use.

They’re excellent for sautéing veggies and searing meats. Cooking works best when your food comes into sudden contact with the hot pan. And when you cook it over medium to medium-high heat, which triggers the Maillard reaction.

The Maillard reaction is a complex chemical reaction that starts slowly at 284°F (140°F) and reaches its peak at 320°F (160°C). Professional chefs and seasoned home cooks refer to it, knowingly or not, when they tell you to sauté veggies or sear meat.

When you cook food at relatively high heat, in a minimum amount of cooking oil, and for as short a time as possible, you trigger the so-called Maillard reaction. This reaction produces hundreds of aroma and flavor molecules that get mixed with your food. 

It’s the reason why a seared steak and a plate of sautéed mushrooms taste so good. And stainless steel frying pans give you just the right surface to produce it.

Stainless steel pans are dishwasher safe. Yes, it takes a little elbow grease every now and then to take burnt oil or stuck foods off of your pan before putting it in the dishwasher. Despite that, stainless steel cookware is very low maintenance.

Compare that to cast iron and carbon steel pans, which you can only clean by hand (and that you need to season every now and then). 

Or to non-stick and ceramic pans, which you generally shouldn’t put in the dishwasher because the harshness of the salts and detergent can damage their non-stick coating.

Conclusion

Yes, food sticks to stainless steel frying pans. But if you cook with it using the technique I just shared with you in this post, you can prevent that from happening.

Sure, small bits and pieces of your food will almost always stick to the bottom of your pan. Especially if you’re browning steak or refrying beans. 

After you’re done cooking, deglaze those bits and pieces by adding some cooking liquid to your pan—and you’ll make the most delicious pan sauce you’ve ever tasted.

By Jim Stonos

When Jim isn't in the kitchen, he is usually spending time with family and friends, and working with the HCW editorial team to answer the questions he used to ask himself back when he was learning the ropes of cooking.