Some pans are stickier than others. However, with good technique, you can fry meatballs without them sticking badly to the pan.
If you’ve ever mangled meatballs because they stuck badly to the bottom and sides of your pan, raise your hand. We sure know we have! Now that you are in good company, let’s talk about the technique that you can adopt today to prevent that from happening ever again.
To pan-fry meatballs without sticking, add a generous glug of cooking oil to the cold pan, turn the heat to medium, and wait until the oil starts to glisten and shimmer before adding the meatballs. Cook in multiple batches if necessary so as not to overcrowd the pan.
Many home cooks wrongly think they must be doing something wrong if food sticks to their frying pan. In reality, it’s quite normal for food to stick, especially to vessels without coating and that don’t need seasoning. You just have to learn how to minimize and control it.
As American author Harold McGee explains in Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of Foods and Recipes, a book everyone should keep a hardcover copy of on their bookshelf, “foods can stick to the pan when they leak sticky starch or proteins, or when prolonged heat turns the frying oil sticky.”
That stickiness happens when the carbs or proteins in your food form bonds, on a molecular level, with the frying surface. Especially in the first few minutes of cooking, they can be notoriously difficult to break. McGee goes on to elaborate that, at the end of the day, there are two types of sticking:
- Desirable sticking, as he calls it, is when food initially sticks but then eventually releases itself from the pan and leaves behind a flavorful residue that can be deglazed into sauce.
- Undesirable sticking, on the other hand, is when the food sticks so badly that it can only be removed by getting mangled.
The vessel that you fry in and the technique that you employ can help to promote desirable sticking and prevent undesirable sticking. In the paragraphs below, we explain how.
Reach for a “Less Sticky” Frying Pan
The least sticky cooking vessels are ceramic pans that release silicone oil when heated; non-stick frypans coated with PTFE, one of the most slippery materials known to man; and well-seasoned cast iron or carbon steel skillets whose seasonings act as a protective barrier between the metal and the food.
The stickiest cooking vessels are enameled cast iron and carbon steel pans; stainless steel skillets; and copper fry pans, no matter if they are lined with tin, silver, or stainless steel. If you are cooking with an inherently sticky pan, you need to use plenty of cooking oil to prevent the proteins from sticking.
Simply put, if you want to use only a little oil, you should cook in ceramic or non-stick pans, or well-seasoned cast iron and carbon steel skillets. Otherwise, you will need to add enough oil to your pan to submerge the surface (and top it up with each batch of meatballs cooked).
Use the Right Amount (And Right Type) of Cooking Oil
As a general rule of thumb, you should use 1-2 tablespoons of cooking oil for each batch of meatballs that you fry in the pan. The exact amount depends on the type and diameter of the pan, as well as the quantity of meatballs.
For example, a compact pan 8 to 10 inches in diameter can fry only a handful of meatballs at a time, so it requires no more than a tablespoon of cooking oil. A roomy pan with a diameter of 10, 12 inches, or more, on the other hand, needs a couple of tablespoons of cooking oil to coat the cooking surface.
While you can use any cooking oil in your pantry, we advise choosing an oil with a high smoke point. Our favorites include avocado oil, rice bran oil, canola oil, and flaxseed oil. Remember that extra virgin olive oil and butter have a comparatively low smoke point; they’re not a great choice for the job.
Preheat the Pan for Enough Time
Add the cooking oil to the cold pan. In this way, you can use the oil as an indicator to determine when the pan has become hot enough to cook in (we will show you how momentarily).
When frying meatballs, you want the temperature to be high enough to promote the Maillard reaction—browning and caramelization of the crust—but gentle enough to cook the meat on the inside before it burns on the outside.
Turn the heat to medium; not higher. Not everyone knows that medium-high heat should be used only for searing meat, whereas high heat should be used for thickening sauces and gravies. For all other cooking methods, the correct choice is low to medium heat.
The pan is hot enough to cook in when the oil starts to glisten, shimmer, and move around and about in ripples. If you put your palm close to the pan, you will also feel it radiating intense heat.
Ceramic and non-stick pans are made out of aluminum, a highly conductive metal, and they take 20-30 seconds to preheat. Cast iron, carbon steel, and stainless steel pans take a good 2-3 minutes to preheat, sometimes more.
Coat the Meatballs in Flour or Breading
If you coat the meatballs in flour or breading immediately before frying them in oil, the coating will act as a protective barrier between the metal and the proteins, preventing them from forming bonds with one another.
As an added benefit, the coat will seal the moisture in the meat and minimize splatter on your stovetop, leaving you will juicier meatballs and less of a mess to clean up after you’re done cooking.
All-purpose flour and basic breading from stale bread run through the food processor work best. If you’re up for experimentation, you can also try corn flour or cornmeal, cornflakes, rice flour, instant mashed potatoes, and even potato or tortilla chips to achieve various flavors.
This is undoubtedly the most effective cooking technique we know of to prevent meatballs from sticking to the pan. However, for it to work, you need to use a lot more cooking oil than you normally would. (As a golden rule, about as much as you would when frying breaded cutlets.)
Cook Your Meatballs in Batches
As food journalist Mark Bittman puts it in his 1998 book, How to Cook Everything: Simple Recipes for Great Food, “food responds best when it comes into sudden contact with something hot.”
Assuming you added 1-2 tablespoons of cooking oil to the pan and waited enough time for it to heat up, the meatballs should immediately start to sizzle as the meat touches the oil and rests on the cooking vessel.
Each meatball will lower the temperature of the pan, albeit temporarily. Place the meatballs in the pan one at a time, not all at once, so that it recovers the heat quickly. Be sure to leave 20% of the frying surface uncovered and cook the meatballs in batches if need be.
Let the meatballs cook uninterrupted for at least 3-4 minutes on one side. First, the proteins in the meat form bonds with the metal. However, as the meatballs brown, they will slowly and naturally release themselves from the metal. This is the time to start maneuvering and turning them over.
Use a Metal Spatula With a Sharp Edge
Every now and then, a meatball or two stubbornly sticks to the pan, even if you apply the cooking techniques described above down to the tee. In such cases, a thin metal spatula with a flexible blade and a sharp edge, such as a fish flipper, is your best friend.
Slide the tip of the spatula under the stuck meatballs and try to loosen them from the frying surface by lifting slowly and gently. Remember: you are not doing the work, you are just helping the meatball come loose. For best results, perform your movements in slow motion and use as little force as possible.
For the same reasons, using a floppy spatula made out of silicone or a stiff spatula made out of wood can be least to say counterproductive. If you don’t happen to have a fish flipper in your kitchen, try a fork.