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How To Best Use Your Stainless Steel Pan

Updated: Jul 18, 2022

Stainless steel pans offer a certain level of flexibility not seen by nonstick ones, however, they require a bit more attention and forethought.


Food often sticks to the pan due to an incorrect use of heat and a lack of fat for cooking. A nonstick pan provides a security that food won't stick due to some coating or material applied to the pan. This often comes in the form of Teflon and or ceramics (either full ceramic or ceramic coating). These pans are incredibly good at keeping food from sticking, which is convenient and functional, but not perfect for every situation.


There are many reasons why I have moved most of my cooking to stainless steel, one being the fact that I love using metal utensils in my cooking. I don't get to use metal spoons or spatulas on nonstick, and that makes me frustrated. Due to the nature of a nonstick pan, it is close to impossible to make a delicious pan sauce, something I often use to make any standard dish slightly more exciting. I will probably do a primer on nonstick pans and uses for them at a later date, as there is so much more to go in depth on. For now, I would love to see more people using and loving their stainless steel pans as much as they use their nonstick pans.

Heat


Heat is one of the most fundamental elements to cooking, and also one I think is the most understood. Books have been written over the importance of understanding how to correctly apply heat to food, and they could do a much better job explaining that more than I could. I am not here to argue that everything you cook should be in a ripping hot pan, as I don't think that is a good idea. However, bringing a pan up to the correct temperature before adding anything can go a long way to both improving the flavor of an ingredient, and also keeping that ingredient from sticking.


If you are someone who is shy about the temperature of your pans, now is a great time to try out putting a little more heat on your food. If you are cooking everything over high heat, maybe tone things down to medium to allow yourself time to let your food be. A safe temperature for most sautéing or browning is medium to medium high.


My recommendation is to give your pan ample time to get hot before adding your ingredient. This will be different for every skillet and stove, so I can't give you an exact time. There are two easy ways to check if your pan is hot enough. The first is to simply hover your hand over the top of the pan, does it feel hot? If it is hot but not smoking, you are probably at a good temperature for most cooking outside getting a hard sear on a piece of meat. The second is a bit safer and more scientific. Wet your hand and splash a little water in the pan, if it dances across the pan in little balls, you are golden. If the water immediately evaporates, the pan is most likely a little too hot. If the water does nothing, the pan needs a little more time to heat up.


Fat


If you are used to cooking in a nonstick pan, you may have grown accustomed to not adding any sort of fat to the pan when cooking. This lack of fat can work in a nonstick pan, but doesn't quite cut it in a stainless steel pan. The coatings I brought up earlier act as an almost pseudo-fat, allowing food to glide around freely without much worry. I have never much loved that though, as there is nothing quite like browning food in nice hot butter, or olive oil.


The old adage of fat being unhealthy no matter what is mostly gone in our day (look at the rise of the avocado) , but people are still wary of using fat to cook their food. It is time we stop being afraid of cooking in fat, the tablespoon of olive oil that stayed with those chicken breasts is certainly not going to hurt you, it may even be delicious.

When cooking with a stainless steel pan, I like to preheat it (as described in the last section), add enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan, and then immediately add whatever I am going to cook. As long as you didn't get the pan too hot, this is almost foolproof. For even more security, you could heat the fat up with the pan. Although, this option does run the risk of bringing your fat to it's smoking point. As I mention in my video, "Hot Pan, Cold Oil" is a pretty solid rule of thumb.


Time


If you correctly heated your pan, and had the right amount of fat, but your food is still sticking, it may just need another minute for the crust to fully set on that side. Food will often release itself from the pan when it has undergone correct browning. If you give your food a little more time and it still doesn't want to release, grab your favorite metal spatula. Stainless steel pans are tough, meaning you can easily use some force to scrape your food off the bottom without worrying about damaging the pan. This isn't always necessary, but it is sometimes helpful.


Things I Cook in a Stainless Steel Pan

  • Most meats except skin-on fish

  • Any vegetables I am looking to sauté

  • Pan sauces

  • Potatoes that need some beautiful browning

  • Brown butter

  • Finishing pasta sauces

  • Basically anything except eggs


I sincerely hope this has inspired you to whip out that stainless steel pan of yours a little more. There is nothing to be intimidated by, and if you follow some of these tips, you should have no problem getting your food not to stick.

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Hey, I'm Cameron, and I'm glad you're here. I post new recipes every week, all intended to build your confidence in the kitchen, each one with video tutorials to help. Craving something specific? Drop me a note in my contact form! 

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