How to cook with stainless steel pots and pans

How to cook with stainless steel pots and pans

Why foods stick and how to avoid them when cooking with stainless steel pots and pans.
One Skillet Recipes: Easy One Skillet Lasagna

Stainless steel pans can go from stovetop to oven! Photography by Roberto Caruso.

Let’s face it, all home cooks have experienced the frustration of our food sticking to a stainless steel pan. The luxury and availability of non-stick pans has allowed us to cook almost without worry. But there are times when a stainless steel pan is a must. For me, this is a must-have when I’m making a sauce and want to pool the flavors, or when I want to brown or develop color, and sometimes I just prefer to use a non-stick coated pan.

Here are some quick tips for cooking efficiently with stainless steel.

Why does food stick?

The main reason is heat, either too much or too little. When oil is added to a hot stainless steel pan, it acts as a protective barrier between the food and the pan. Although the frying pan’s cooking surface appears perfectly smooth, there are actually many microscopic ridges and gaps that the oil fills. When food is added to the pan, there is a reaction between the hot oil and the natural moisture in the food. This reaction creates a steam-like effect, lifting the food away from the pan and preventing it from sticking.

If the pan is very cold when you add food to it, you won’t hear that sizzle. No sizzle means the food is not lifting off the pan and will stick. If the heat is too high, the food will tend to burn, and the burnt food will stick to the pan. This burnt flavor will also transfer to the rest of your food.

A bowl filled with Spanish shrimp.

(Photo, Roberto Caruso.)

Tips for cooking with stainless steel

The fact is that stainless steel is not a good conductor of heat. Therefore, your stainless steel pan must be properly prepared for best results.

Heat the stainless steel frying pan well

Place the empty pan on the stove over medium heat. Let the pan heat for 2 to 3 minutes at this temperature. It’s up to you if you want to add oil while the pan is heating up, or add oil when the pan is hot. I like to get the pan nice and hot first, then add the oil. (Sometimes, when you add cold oil to a cold pan, the oil heats up faster than the pan – this gives the illusion of a hot pan, but in reality all the heat is in the oil.)

Run the TSS test.

To test the pan’s readiness, drop a very small bite of food or a single drop of water into the pan. If you hear a “tss” sound, the pan is ready. It’s always a good idea to start your pan on medium heat, and then make adjustments from there.

Dry food is best

Water counteracts the heat by lowering the temperature of the oil. If you are cooking with vegetables that have been recently washed, make sure they are well and dry. Also pat the meat dry with a paper towel to remove any surface moisture.

Cold food is a no no

Just as water resists heat, so does cold food. Adding cold food to the pan counteracts the heat you have created. Meats and vegetables should be brought down to — or at least close to — room temperature before cooking them in stainless steel.

Some foods just stick

I don’t know how many times I’ve tried to make an omelet in a stainless steel pan, but it never comes out clean. Some foods — eggs in particular (and proteins in general) — tend to stick. Choose your battle. For me, this means cooking eggs in a non-stick pan.

Clean and care for your fryer

While the pan is still warm, wipe off any remaining oil or crumbles with a paper towel (be careful with the heat and use tongs if necessary). Return the pan to medium heat. When the pan is hot, pour in 1 cup of hot water until it dissolves. Use a wooden spoon to scrape off any stubborn bits. Discard the water. Wipe again with a paper towel and then clean with hot, soapy water. I personally do not consider stainless steel to be dishwasher safe, as dishwasher detergent can be very harsh and may leave a residue.

Two stainless steel skillets we love

Made in 12 inches. Stainless frying pan, $220

This direct-to-consumer kitchenware brand has consistently outperformed larger brands in quality, heat response, and pan shape. The gentle angular slope of the sides provides additional cooking surface area—and 12 inches. The fryer, while expensive, can handle almost any type of job, from a large risotto to a bacon-and-egg breakfast for four.

Shop now

All dressed in 12 inches. Stainless steel skillet, $185

Clad’s reputation for long-lasting durability is well deserved; If properly cared for, this professional grade stainless steel skillet will last for decades. This brand is often sold out at major retailers, so keep an eye out for deals.

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Here are some recipes that are suitable for cooking with a stainless steel pan:
Bacon slices with cremini mushrooms
Hong Kong chicken curry
Lamb pieces with pomegranate bulgur
Spicy Thai fish

Originally published March 23, 2012.

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