Frying pans can come in all shapes, materials, coatings, and forms. Yet, as diverse as they are, there’s one common thing about all of them: they’re almost always sold with lids, as part of the package, or as an additional accessory that you can buy.
Which leads many home cooks like you and me who haven’t been taught culinary theory to ask, “Why cover a frying pan?”
Here’s everything you need to know on the topic (and nothing you don’t).
Putting the lid on your pan traps heat, which helps bring stews, sauces, braises, and gravies to a boil quicker. But it also retains moisture and steam—and that’s not something you want for every cooking method.
As a general rule of thumb, you should only cover your pan when you want to keep the heat and moisture inside it, such as when you’re cooking sauces, soups, and stews or steaming rice.
In all other cases, like when you’re shallow-frying or deep-frying foods, the better thing to do is to cook with the lid off.
To understand why, you need to know about the difference between “wet” and “dry” cooking, which all boils down to a fundamental fact of physics, which most of you may remember being taught in high school.
Browning works so well because heating most foods above 285°F (140°C) triggers the Maillard reaction, a complex chemical reaction that creates hundreds of new aromatic and flavorful molecules that create the sensation of umami (savoriness).
For browning to occur, you need medium-high to high heat. That’s not quite the case with “wet cooking” methods.
Steaming, simmering, boiling, and braising are all low-heat cooking methods since water, at least in the conditions of your home kitchen, can’t get heated past its boiling point at 212°F (100°C).
When “dry cooking” foods, you want to cook over relatively high heat and let any moisture involved to turn into steam and escape. When “wet cooking” foods, you want to keep most of the moisture in.
It’s as simple as that. Most of the time, at least.
There are exceptions as well as a few intersections between the two, and, for your convenience (I like to spoil my readers with actionable tips that help them cook delicious food), I’ve summarized them below.
When (And When Not) to Cover Your Pan
Cover your pan when you want to:
- Steam rice, quinoa, or other grains;
- Bring water, a liquid, or a sauce to a boil quicker;
- Simmer a sauce, soup, or stew without reducing it;
- Braise (slow-cook) meat as soon as you’re done searing (briefly browning) it;
- Melt sliced cheese on burger patties that you’ve just finished cooking on the stove.
Don’t cover your pan when you’re:
- Shallow- or deep-frying meats and veggies;
- Browning red meat, poultry, or fatty cuts of fish;
- Cooking burgers or sausage, or the meat will sweat;
- Simmering gravies or sauces with the aim to reduce them.
Should You Pan-Fry With the Lid On?
Covering a frying pan can not only protect your hands from the heat of whatever it is that you’re cooking but can also keep oil from splattering all over your stove, cabinets, and such.
It’s a neat trick to use when you want to make less of a mess with cooking. That being said, it may not necessarily be the best thing to do for the texture of your food, depending on the cooking method your recipe calls for.
For example, it seems like a good idea to shallow-fry foods, like chicken breasts or pork chops, with the lid on at first. However, for the reasons I’m about to share with you below, it can actually do more harm than good to their texture.
This is because steam will build up inside your pan, which will prevent the meat from browning properly and cause it to come out soggy and bland (in cooking, browning creates flavor).
What should you do instead if you want to spare yourself the mess and probably protect your hands from the popping oil while you’re at it? Turn your range hood all the way up to high and consider getting a fine mesh splatter screen.
Why Don’t Some Pans Have Lids?
You’ve probably noticed that not all frying pans (or “skillets,” as some of us like to call them) come with lids. Sauté pans and saucepans, on the other hand, are almost always sold with one.
Short and slope-sided, frying pans are intended first and foremost for high-heat cooking methods on the stove—such as searing, sautéing, and browning—that don’t need any steam at all.
As their name suggests, sauté pans and saucepans support cooking methods that must be practiced with the lid off (searing, sautéing, browning) as well as with the lid on (steaming, braising, stewing).
Sauté pans have tall and vertical sides that bolster capacity and reduce splatter. Saucepans are like hybrids between a pan and a pot, ideal for deep-frying or cooking with larger quantities of liquid.
Still, it’s not uncommon to see frying pans sold with lids, by default or as an extra. If you don’t want to own every type of pan and pot out there and want to do 99.9% of your stovetop cooking in a single vessel, extending the utility of your pan with a lid is a good choice.
Storing Pans and Pots Lid-On
Here’s one of those only-at-Home-Cook-World tips that you won’t get to read in every cookbook: covering a frying pan is a great way to store it when you’re not using it.
“Why is that,” some of you may be wondering?
Because how you store your pans and pots determines their useful life. And stacking them one inside the other—especially if we’re talking about ceramic, non-stick, enameled cast iron, or tinned copper cookware—is by far the worst thing that you can do.
Whenever you open the drawer to take one of the top pans or pots out, there’s a high chance that the bottom sides of the cooking vessels sitting on top can scratch the cooking surfaces of those on the bottom. As you probably know by now, a single scratch can render an otherwise good piece of cookware completely unusable.
There has to be a better way, as they like to say in the ads!
Store your pans and pots with the lid on. You can invert the lids so that the whole setup takes up significantly less space—as long as they don’t grind against the bottom of your vessels.
What to Read Next
My editorial team wrote a whole post on the merits of simmering with the lid on or off. If you enjoyed this one and want to dig deeper into this cooking skill, I strongly encourage you to check it out.