Week 9: The secret to heating your pan (and prevent food from sticking)

For some of you, this may not be  huge news.  But for me, it was a game changer in the kitchen.  When you are self taught, you often miss out on these important techniques unless you take the time to learn.  That’s what I’ve been focusing on for the past few years as I strive to become a better cook in my home – and that is why I am so inspired to share these things I learn – they really make a difference!

When you read most recipes, the method for the recipe includes vague instruction for heating your pan.  Heat your pan over medium high heat.  Heat the oil until it is shimmering.  Heat your skillet.  But how do you know when the pan is properly heated?  Do you just add your food when the pan seems hot?  Can you add your food as soon as you add the oil, or should you heat the pan with oil in it from the start?

Of course, these instructions are usually assuming we already know how to heat a pan.  It seems so elementary.  Most of us have been cooking our whole lives, so heating a pan should be a no brainer.  Right?

I thought so too.  I always put the pan on medium high heat, added my oil, waited until the oil seemed hot or sizzled when I flicked droplets of water in the pan and went to town.  While that did prove successful some times, I found complete success and saw that the food I cooked in a properly heated pan looked so much better.

The two big things that made the biggest impact on me when I was learning how to properly heat a pan for cooking methods like pan frying and sauteeing was: heat the pan before adding fat, and use the right kind of oil/fat for the job.  I also learned what the best kinds of pans are for these applications.

Due to the nature of non-stick skillets, this article does not apply to their use.  This article focuses on stainless steel and cast iron pans.

There are a variety of pans. Stainless steel are preferred in most kitchens because they are durable, lightweight and also create great brown bits for pan sauces.  I personally love my heavy bottomed stainless steel pan, though I most often cook in my cast iron skillets because I enjoy them as well.  The method I am going to show you for heating your pan properly won’t apply to cast iron, because it doesn’t react to heat the same way stainless steel does.

To Properly Heat Your Pan: Heat your pan over medium to medium high heat. As metal heats, the molecules expand and move all around. This causes the pores in the metal to open and close. If food is added to soon, during this part, food will stick or tear. Its not hot enough. Pores will bite and latch on to food tissue causing sticking. When metal reaches high enough temp movement of pores subsides, preventing the sticking of food.

A properly heated pan will make all the difference when pan frying or sauteeing!

How do you know its hot enough?

There is a simple water test you can use to determine if food is at the right temp before adding the oil. As the pan heats up, add 1/8tsp of water every 10-15 seconds. If cold, water wont do anything. As the pan heats, water will heat then bubble. As it continues to heat, it will steam and bubble even quicker with each addition. Soon bubbles will evaporate as soon as water hits the pan.  While at this point we might think it’s hot enough (this is usually when I’d add food), it’s not.  Eventually when water is added, it will evaporate and disperse into smaller beads of water. As pan heats to proper temp, the water will form a ball and float on the surface. The ball should form immediately with no or very few other balls of water. This means the pot is ready for oil and food wont stick – like the ball of water, the food wont stick either. If water disperses into multiple balls and moves very quickly, the pan is too hot. Let the pan cool and try again. Pan will overheat very quickly at this point so be sure you have all of your ingredients ready before you start heating the pan and be ready to proceed right away.

A note about cast iron:  Because cast iron holds heat so well, you must be careful to heat cast iron up slowly or it may warp.  You may want to start on medium to medium low and let it heat gradually for about 5 minutes or so before heating the pan much higher.  If you are cooking over an electric stove, temperature changes will take much longer than with a gas stove.  Combined with cast irons great ability to absorb and hold heat, you may have a recipe for disaster if you heat the pan too hot because it won’t cool quickly if you over cook your food.  Many cooks have never had need to heat their pans above medium.  I have found that just as many people say the water test works in cast iron, as those who say it does not because cast iron is too porous.  I find that on my well seasoned pans, it does work.  However, many also suggest just watching the pan for the first wisp of smoke means it is hot enough to cook meat and turn out beautiful browned foods.  Keeping in mind the temp of the pan will cool slightly as soon as you add cold oil (let the oil heat before adding food) and cold food, you may take that opportunity to lower the heat setting of your stove to avoid over cooking.

Adding oil to a heated pan

It is important to use an oil with a high smoke point. That is, an oil that can be heated to at least 400F.

After the water test, don’t wait for the water ball to evaporate because the pan will overheat. Wipe the pan dry, as any water will cause oil to splatter. Lower the heat slightly before adding the oil to prevent the pan from overheating. Many people are under the impression that it takes a lot of oil to prevent sticking – this is not true. With a properly heated pan, you need only enough oil to lightly coat the bottom of the pan. There should be no more than a teaspoon of oil that pools on the side when you tilt the pan. The oil should shimmer and create little wave marks when you shake the pan. Also look for small wisps of smoke. The food should be immediately added.

If the oil smokes immediately, or too much, the pan is too hot. Remove pan from heat source, remove oil, let the pan cool, wipe clean and then try again. Over heated oil can add an off taste to your food. and your food will end up burnt.

Now, add the food before the pan gets any hotter.  You may need to adjust the heat at this point to prevent over cooking.

To see this in action, I recommend this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ye1hqMjV5k

Note:  I will get into the specifics of pan frying and sauteeing food, but its so important to note here: do not move your food very soon after adding your food.  If you are heating a chicken breast, allow the side of the breast touching the pan to form a crust – it will release its self from the bottom of the pan and be easy to move around.  You can flip it at that point, and allow the other side to develop a crust as well.  If you move it too soon, your food will appear as though it has “stuck” and will tear.  Don’t’ move the food too soon!!

120 comments to Week 9: The secret to heating your pan (and prevent food from sticking)

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>