When life hands you a sticky frying pan, try fixing it. We’ll help you find out how.
Recipes have step-by-step instructions and measurements, and celebrity chefs show you the ropes in their shows. And yet, in the heat of cooking, unanswered questions can, and often do, come up.
In “You Asked,” we answer these questions for you. Tell us your name, city, state, and question at email@example.com
Patrick from Belgium asked: “Why is everything suddenly sticking to my fry pan?”
Thank you for getting in touch, Patrick, and good question!
The frying pans that you and I cook with are built from various metals such as aluminum, cast iron, carbon steel, and stainless steel.
Some makes and models have a cooking surface coated with ceramic or non-stick film. On others, the cooking surface is bare metal. This makes certain pans much stickier—and cooking with them quite trickier—than others.
Let’s shed some light on the most common reasons why food items become stuck to frying pans. Along the way, we will talk about tips on how to reduce or prevent this from happening.
Before we get to the details, give your frying pan a good soapdown and scrub the cooking surface clean with a soft sponge. Rinse it with warm water, as warm as you can handle, and pat it dry.
Rub the bottom and sides with 1-2 tablespoons of cooking oil using a paper towel and try cooking with it again. Oil and food residue can bake onto the cooking surface and cause foods to stick. Nine times out of ten, this trick is enough to bring the pan back to good condition.
If this trick doesn’t solve your problem, read on. When that’s the case, your frying pan getting sticky could be a sign of a bigger problem that you need to address—and how to best address it depends on the metal and coating. The specifics, below.
Ceramic and non-stick skillets keep food from sticking, making cooking and clean-up a cinch. But, as we are about to find out, ceramic skillets eventually lose their slickness, and the film on non-sick skillets sooner or later develops cracks and starts to peel off.
Cause: If your ceramic pan has become sticky as of late, it’s probably because the impregnated silicone oil has worn off. Start cooking with oil. If your non-stick pan has started to stick, check the surface for scratches, cracks, and flakes. Replace it.
Cast iron and carbon steel pans must be well-seasoned, or they will corrode and rust. The seasoning not only protects them from reacting with the oxygen in the air and the moisture in your food, but also gives them a smooth patina on which most foods glide over while cooking.
Cause: If food has started to stick to your cast iron or carbon steel pan, inspect the cooking surface. Spotting and discoloration are signs that the seasoning is compromised and it needs to be applied. Re-season it.
Stainless steel pans, on the other hand, are sticky. There’s no coating or seasoning to keep the food from coming into contact with the metal cooking surface. The only way to counter their stickiness is to bring your food to room temperature, use plenty of butter or cooking oil, and preheat them for 2-3 minutes before you get cooking.
Cause: If food stuck to your stainless steel frying pan, it’s probably because you didn’t bring it to room temperature, you didn’t use enough butter or cooking oil, or you didn’t preheat your pan for enough time.
Then again, some say that this isn’t a bug, but a feature.
When you’re done cooking, you can either wash the browned residue that sticks to the bottom and sides of the pan down the drain—or you can add vinegar, beer, or broth to the pan, bring it to a boil, and simmer it until thickened to make the most delicious of pan sauce.
Why Coated Pans Get Sticky
All aluminum (and some stainless steel) pans have a ceramic or non-stick coating on the surface that prevents food from sticking to the bottom and sides while cooking. Unfortunately, the coating wears off over time, leaving you with a frying pan that doesn’t release food as well as it once did.
Ceramic Frying Pans
A ceramic skillet is basically a metal pan sprayed with sand and impregnated with silicone oil. These pans are “self-sacrificing;” when you heat them, a small amount of the silicone oil gets released onto the cooking surface to keep the food from sticking.
As tests by America’s Test Kitchen have repeatedly shown, ceramic coatings wear out after 20-30 to 50-60 coatings, depending on the make and model (and thus the quality of the coating).
In other words, ceramic skillets lose their non-stick properties in a very short time, especially compared to their non-stick counterparts. You can continue to use them from that moment on, but you will have to cook with oil to prevent your food from sticking.
Non-Stick (PTFE) Frying Pans
A non-stick skillet consists of a metal pan coated with polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). The coating is inert, meaning it doesn’t react with or release substances into your food. It’s so smooth that even the stickiest of food items glide over it—with or without the help of fat, butter, or cooking oil.
The weakness of non-stick coatings is that, contrary to what many home cooks believe, they don’t handle dry cooking and high heat well. After 1 to 3 years of use, the coating begins to flake off, and then the cooking vessel must be discarded and replaced.
Cooking in a non-stick pan without any oil can cause the surface to flake and crack quickly. To prolong the useful life of your non-stick pan, rub the bottom and sides with a paper towel before preheating it, and never heat it empty for longer than 20-30 seconds.
For the same reasons, high heat on the stove or temperatures of 500°F (260°C) and above in the oven can damage the surface and cause off-gassing with toxic fumes known to cause “polymer fume fever”.
What Causes Cast Iron and Carbon Steel Skillets to Stick
Cast iron and carbon steel skillets are susceptible to corrosion and rust and must be seasoned before use. To season a skillet, you rub it with cooking oil on the inside and out, and then bake it in the oven for an hour until a protective patina has formed on the surface of the metal.
This patina bonds to the metal at the molecular level through a chemical reaction called “polymerization.” And yet, as tough as it is, it isn’t resistant to acid. If you prepare highly acidic foods in your cast iron or carbon pan, the acid will eat away at the seasoning and react with the metal of the pan.
The most common cause of cast iron and carbon steel pans becoming sticky is the preparation of acidic recipes with tomatoes, vinegar or wine, which damage the seasoning. For such recipes, use a different pan.
The result is that your food will have a metallic aftertaste and the skillet itself will be stickier when used later. Fortunately, damaged seasoning is easy to spot: If the cooking surface is spotty and flaky instead of uniformly black and slick, it needs to be re-seasoned.
Why Stainless Steel Pans Are Naturally Sticky
Stainless steel makes for the lowest-maintenance frying pans of them all. A stainless steel skillet can move freely from the stovetop to the oven, broiler, or grill. It can be washed in the dishwasher without hesitation, because it doesn’t rust. And it lasts a very, very long time as there’s no coating to worry about.
The disadvantage of stainless steel pans is that, as much as you try to counter that, they’re generally sticky. Tender, low-fat foods such as eggs, fish fillets, and pancakes have the tendency to stick to the bottom and sides, especially if you don’t use cooking oil. Getting them unstuck is nothing short of a nightmare.
With good technique, you can almost make a stainless steel pan non-stick:
- Bring meats, vegetables, and cooking liquids to room temperature before adding them to the hot pan. This is done by taking them out of the fridge and resting them on the countertop for 20-30 minutes.
- Always pan-fry with a generous stick of butter or 1-2 tablespoons of animal fat or cooking oil. If you’re preparing food in multiple batches, replenish mid-cooking as needed.
- Preheat your pan for a minimum of 2-3 minutes before you get cooking in it. Stainless steel isn’t a great conductor of heat, so these pans need a good amount of time to heat up and distribute the heat evenly.
- Be patient. Even sticky foods will release themselves from the pan if you cook with oil and give them enough time. Wait for a few minutes before trying to maneuver or flip whatever it is that you’re cooking.
Thank you for reading this far! By now you can consider yourself an expert on pan stickiness. I hope this guide has helped you solve (or at least identify) your problem. I also hope that the solution isn’t to get a new pan, although sometimes that’s the case.
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