The other day, I made French fries—and they stuck badly to the bottom and sides of my stainless steel frying pan. I tried to free them with my spatula, but that only made things worse as it cut them in halves.
That’s the thing about stainless steel. Without a doubt, it’s one of the best types of cookware. But if you don’t know how to use it (and you learn something new every day), cooking with it is often a hit or a miss.
How can you keep French fries from sticking to your stainless steel frying pan?
That’s the answer I set out to get.
Enough so that, in the last few days, my cutting board turned white, and the smell of fries in rice bran oil took over my apartment. Here’s what ended up working out for me.
Soak the fries in water for 45-60 minutes, then pat them dry with a paper towel. Cook them in small batches in a preheated frying pan over medium-high heat. Don’t overcrowd the pan, giving the fries enough time to cook before turning them over.
According to a study published in the November 2018 issue of the Nutrients journal, the typical potato consists of 60–80% starch. Most of it is in the form of amylopectin, a water-soluble complex carbohydrate that the potato stores energy in to fuel the activity of its cells.
When the starch granules on the surface of your fries come into contact with the hot cooking oil in your frying pan, two things happen.
First, in a process known as gelatinization, the starch granules absorb moisture, swell up, and leach sticky glue, which causes the fries to stick together, as well as to the bottom and sides of your pan.
Second, in a chemical reaction known as the Maillard reaction, the starch, a complex carbohydrate, breaks down into sugar, a simple carbohydrate, which promotes browning.
While this usually is something you want, too much starch on the surface can cause over-browning on the exterior of your fries while they’re still undercooked on the inside. If you ever thought your fries were done, when in reality they weren’t, you know what I’m talking about.
In other words, you want to get rid of as much surface starch as you possibly can before the French fries come into contact with the hot oil in your frying pan. In my experience, this is best done by soaking them in water for 45-60 minutes ahead of cooking them.
Clearly, this has been a topic that cooks have been pondering on the Internet for a while now. In a 1999 article for The New York Times, food writer and cookbook author Amanda Hesser recommends soaking the fries for 8 hours in advance. I tried it—and the fries came out incredibly crispy—but this technique requires more planning than most of us tend to do for something as trivial as a plate of French fries.
If you don’t have any time at your disposal, you could even wash the fries for 30 seconds in a sieve under running water as soon as you’re done cutting them, but it won’t be as effective as the one-hour soak.
Cooking the fries in small batches is probably the most critical part of this technique.
Overcrowding your frying pan with raw potatoes, especially if they’re not at room temperature, causes it to lose heat quickly and recover that heat slowly. By the time it has stabilized, it’s typically too late, and the fries have stuck irreversibly to your pan.
The jury’s out as to exactly why this happens.
Some attribute it to the ability of steel to expand and contract as it heats up and cools down.
While the cooking surface of your stainless steel frying pan looks smooth and shiny to the naked eye, looking at it under a microscope will reveal a completely different picture: it’s covered with tiny holes and valleys that grow and shrink as you adjust the heat dial on your stove.
The theory is that food can get easily stuck as that happens. And I can see how that’s highly plausible with French fries when you consider the stickiness of the starch granules they’re comprised of.
Others attribute it to a reaction between the hot oil and the food’s moisture when they come into contact with each other.
“A small amount of oil added to a very hot pan almost instantly becomes very hot oil. The oil quickly sears the outside of the food and causes water to be released from the food,” according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, as cited by Science of Cooking.
“This layer of water vapor (“steam”) lifts the food atop the oil film and keeps it from touching the hot pan surface. If the oil is not hot enough, the steam effect will not occur and the food will fuse to the (too) cool pan surface.”
Whatever the cause, never overcrowd your stainless steel frying pan with French fries unless you want to be scraping them off with wool steel instead of eating them with a fork.
How much is too much, exactly? As a general rule of thumb, don’t make more French fries at a time than approximately 3/4 of the cooking surface of your frying pan.
Mine has a diameter of 10 inches. It allowed me to comfortably cook the fries from one potato big enough to fit in the palm of my hand (which, for the servings my wife and I are used to eating at home, was more or less one serving of fries).
If your frying pan is too small for the number of people you cook for, this probably means you’ll have to make fries in one batch too many.
Readers who find themselves in this situation should consider buying a bigger pan, going non-stick, or buying a fry pot (my pick is the Bayou Classic 1101 10-Quart Stainless-Steel Fry Pot with Lid and Basket).
Preheat your pan for 2-3 minutes over medium-high heat. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t really matter if you add the oil before or after, as long as you allow it to get hot enough before cooking in it.
You know that the oil in your frying pan is hot enough when it starts to glisten and shimmer (to be precise, shine with sparkling light and move around by itself in streaks in your pan).
Remember to use cooking oil with a high smoke point, like avocado oil (refined or unrefined), rice bran oil, mustard oil, or safflower oil. Most home cooks make the mistake of shallow-frying in extra virgin olive oil or butter, both of which are not suitable for medium-high heat cooking as they burn and smoke at relatively low temperatures.
What’s my favorite cooking oil for French fries? I used almost always to use avocado oil until a reader (thanks, Amma!) reminded me of the merits of rice bran oil. Since, I shallow-fry veggies and sear meats only with rice bran oil.
Last but not least, don’t hurry too much to turn the fries over. Like I wrote in “How to Keep Salmon From Sticking to Your Pan,” most foods will stick to stainless steel at first—until they eventually cook on one side and free themselves from the pan.
The two missing ingredients, as with most recipes, are time and patience. Keep in mind that, in the beginning, there will be some sticking to the pan. The more the fries brown, the less they’ll stick. By the time they’re done, it will feel as if you’re using a Teflon or ceramic pan.
Learn this technique, and you’ll consistently be able to make French fries in your stainless steel frying pan without having them stick to the bottom and sides.
How did it work out for you? Have any tips and tricks to share with the rest of this post’s readers and me? Leave a comment in the form below.