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Using Stainless Steel Cookware for the First Time

So you bought a stainless steel pan or pot, or maybe a whole set, and, now you want to learn how to use it?

Let’s just say you’re in the right blog. I’ve been cooking with stainless steel for as long as I can remember. And, in this post, I’m about to give you my top tips.

Before we get into it, here’s how this is going to go. To use your stainless steel pan or pot for the first time:

  • Clean it, by hand or in the dishwasher;
  • Preheat it for enough time and add plenty of cooking oil;
  • Let your food cook uninterrupted until it has released itself from the pan;
  • Make the most delicious pan sauce from the sticky brown stuff left on the bottom;
  • Clean your pan after using it easily with the technique that I’m going to tell you about.

In the rest of this post, I’m going to walk you through the specifics of each of these steps. So keep on reading if that sounds like what you came here to find out.

Clean Your Pans and Pots for the First Time

The first thing that you need to do once you’ve brought a brand new set of stainless steel pans and pots back home from the store is to unbox and clean them.

Cleaning your pans and pots before using them for the first time is a must. It will not only remove grease or dirt that’s leftover from manufacturing, transportation, and storage but sanitize the cooking surface.

After all, you have no way of telling whose hands these cooking vessels were in and whether those persons had good hygiene habits or not.

There are two ways to approach this.

You could clean them by hand and with soapy water, a.k.a. the old-school way. Or, knowing that stainless steel cookware is dishwasher-safe, you can load them up in the dishwasher and let it do the grunt for you.

I recommend cleaning your pans and pots by hand, at least for the first time. Doing so will help you get to know their size, weight, handles, and lids before you get cooking.

A driver needs to know his or her car in order to drive it. Similarly, a cook should know their cookware to make the most of it.

As you clean your stainless steel pans and pots, observe them. Are they light or heavy? Do the lids fit tightly, or are they a little too loose? How well-bolted or riveted are the handles? Do they allow you to hold and lift the vessels comfortably?

I encourage you to get this done as early on as you can. It will help you make a call whether to keep them, lean on the retailer’s return policy, or, if you want to keep a certain piece of cookware but spot a defect on it, make use of the manufacturer’s warranty.

How you clean your stainless steel cooking vessels from the first soap-down on is completely your call.

Some people prefer to do so by hand to protect the bolts, rivets, and lids from corroding and rusting. I’m more of the lazy type, so, nine times out of then, you’ll see me putting mine in the dishwasher.

Learn the Basics of Stainless Steel Cooking

In contrast to their ceramic and non-stick counterparts, stainless steel frying pans and pots come with an uncoated cooking surface. Unlike cast iron and carbon steel skillets, they don’t need to be seasoned and won’t develop a non-stick coating with time.

Basically, you’re cooking on bare metal.

Foods with a high protein content tend to stick to stainless steel cookware. This includes eggs, omelets, steak, chops, salmon fillets, whitefish, sandwich bread, or pancakes. To keep them from sticking, cook with plenty of butter or cooking oil.

How much is enough, some of you may be asking? At a minimum, you need enough fat to cover the cooking surface completely and act as a barrier between the bare steel and the exterior of your food.

Stainless steel is also a poor conductor of heat. In fact, it’s a whopping 16.5 times worse than aluminum, the metal that most ceramic and non-stick pans are made of.

To counter this, manufacturers usually bond a more conductive metal, like aluminum or copper, to the bottom of their pans or pots. On higher-end models, that aluminum or copper core is layered inside the vessel.

Still, you need to preheat your stainless steel frying pan for at least 2-3 minutes before cooking in it. Me? I preheat mine for 4-5 minutes. I let the pan get up to heat on my stove and go about doing something else so that I don’t have to sit there and wait for it.

To recap what you need to remember so far:

When cooking with stainless steel, preheat your pans and pots for at least 2-3 minutes and add plenty of butter or cooking oil to keep your foods from sticking to them.

Contrary to what most of us think, it doesn’t make a difference if you add the oil to the pan when it’s cold or preheated. You can do it both ways, and each has its own advantages and disadvantages that you should consider.

As the fat in your frying pan gets hot, it loses viscosity and becomes thinner. This happens almost instantly when you add butter or oil to a hot pan, so it’s easy to add just the right amount—without overdoing it—if you pick that method.

The problem is that an empty frying pan can get really hot, really fast. More often than not, it can easily exceed the smoke point of butter or whatever cooking oil you’re using without you even suspecting it.

When that’s the case, the fat will start to break down and burn as soon as it comes into contact with the scorching-hot cooking surface of the pan or pot, emitting a steady stream of bluish smoke and forming harmful compounds. That’s not something you want to happen.

So the advantage of preheating your pan with butter or oil inside it is that it’s easy for you to tell when they’re hot enough to cook food in. You know that’s the case for butter when it stops bubbling, and for oil when it starts to glisten, shimmer, and move around in ripples.

I’ve written an entire post about the smoke points of cooking oils and fats, where I’ve shared everything that you need to know on the topic. Be sure to check it out.

Let Food Cook on One Side Before Flipping

One of the biggest mistakes that first-time owners of stainless steel cookware make is trying to move, flip, or turn the food in their pan too early. This is especially true when talking about “stickier” foods such as sunny-side-up eggs, chicken breasts, or salmon fillets.

The result?

Most people will panic, so they try to get the breasts or fillets unstuck. So they reach for the spatula or, worse, a fork or a knife, and attempt to scrape them off even more aggressively.

Unsurprisingly, they end up mangling them and leaving a scratch or two on their pans (which isn’t as big of a deal as they think). How do I know? Many years ago, that’s exactly what I did!

Assuming that you’ve preheated your pan for at least 2-3 minutes and have added enough butter or oil to coat the cooking surface, let your food fry on one side uninterrupted for at least 3-4 minutes before flipping it over to the other.

Thanks to the miracles of chemistry, the proteins in your food form a bond with the bare-steel cooking surface at first, so they will stick to the pan in almost any case. As the food cooks, those bonds will slowly weaken, until it virtually releases itself from the pan.

Check out my article, titled “How to Keep Salmon From Sticking to Your Frying Pan,” to learn more. The photo above is from it.

Turn the Brown Residue Into Pan Sauce

That sticky brown residue left in your skillet after you’re done cooking?

It packs A TON of flavor that you can easily turn into the most delicious pan sauce you’ve ever had by adding beer, wine, sherry, beef broth, mushroom stock, or a solution of water, vinegar, salt, and a teaspoon of honey—and simmering it until it’s reduced down to a thick and creamy consistency.

This cooking technique is called deglazing, and it’s what professional chefs use in their restaurant kitchens to prepare the sauce that they pour on top of steak, chops, and fillets.

The best time to deglaze a pan is shortly after you’re done cooking with it and after you’ve given it 5-6 minutes to cool down.

If you add the cooking liquid to a scorching-hot pan, it will start to splatter as soon as it comes into contact with the heated fats inside it, and you’ll create extra cleanup work for yourself by making a mess of your stove and counters.

Cleaning Your Cookware After Use

That stainless steel cookware is hard to clean is a myth. If you know what you’re doing, cleaning your pans and pots is not any harder than wiping down carbon steel or cast iron.

To clean stainless steel cookware, deglaze it. When you don’t plan to make pan sauce, pour enough water into the pan to cover the stained areas, add a tablespoon or two of white vinegar, and bring to a boil.

It takes no longer than two or three minutes of simmering for most of the residue to release itself from the bottom and sides of your pan. The rest is easy to scrub off with a soft sponge as soon as you’ve let the pan cool down.

In Conclusion

That’s it! You now know what you need to do to use your stainless steel pans and pots for the first time.

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Jim is the former editor of Home Cook World. He is a career food writer who's been cooking and baking at home ever since he could see over the counter and put a chair by the stove.