It's true! If you're cooking with stainless steel pans, you'll have better results (and less stuck food!) if you heat the stainless steel before adding oil. I only learned how to properly heat and clean my own stainless steel pans a couple years ago and it made such a difference. I am excited to help spread the word.
In this post I'm talking specifically about heating stainless steel pans like All-Clad's D3 Stainless Steel Cookware and Cuisinart's Chef's Classic Stainless Steel Cookware that have not been treated with a non-stick coating. Many cookware brands sell both non-stick and regular stainless steel pans, so always check before you buy a new pan. Non-stick stainless steel pans require different care, cannot be used with metal cooking utensils, and many are not designed for high heat.
- The problem with online reviews
- Cold oil in a cold pan vs. cold oil in a hot pan (visuals)
- Stainless steel pan FAQ
- Exceptions to the rule
- A quick note on non-stick pans
- Additional reading
The problem with online reviews of stainless steel pans
I actually didn't plan to write this post — I was working on last week's post about college kitchen basics and was doing research into pots and pans when I noticed a curious trend in reviews on stainless steel cookware sets. A lot of the had a pretty split mix of 1 star and 5 star reviews.
At least on one particular site (name rhymes with shmamazon), this usually means that perhaps there was a counterfeit seller lurking and a bunch of people received low quality knock-off products. But the same pattern appeared in reviews on other big box retail sites. Across the board, most of the one star reviews were from people furious that their food had "immediately" stuck to the pan. They were demanding refunds or returning the pans after just one use.
But you can't blame a product for user error. These stainless steel pans aren't defective! It's like when people leave negative comments on recipe posts saying the recipe didn't work after they swapped out every ingredient. The recipe isn't to blame.
At the same time, you can't blame people for not knowing what they don't know. And it's clear that a lot of people, don't know that heating stainless steel pans before adding oil will make a world of difference in the success of their cooking.
I shared this on Twitter a couple weeks ago and got an overwhelming "OMG!" response, as well as confirmation from many culinary instructors and cookware sellers that pre-heating your stainless steel pans is, in fact, a good thing.
The other common response I got was a number of somewhat snarky "Isn't this the same as with any other pan? God, people are idiots!" responses.
To which I say: With pans like cast iron and carbon steel, which have reputations for being a bit fussy and high maintenance, I there's enough of an intimidation factor that most people do bother to read the care instructions. And most people who use them do know to let them heat up first.
But stainless steel doesn't have that same fussy reputation. And with a lot of people learning to cook on non-stick pan sets, it's easy to not know that stainless steel can also be a little bit particular. That doesn't make them idiots, it just means they don't know.
So I thought I'd sum up my Twitter thread in a quick stainless steel pan FAQ for you, complete with visual aids.
Cold oil in a cold pan vs. Cold oil in a hot pan
Cold oil, cold pan:
Cold oil, hot pan:
Heating stainless steel pan — A handy FAQ!
The metal of the pan expands slightly when you warm it up, closing any minuscule fissures, pores, or gaps in the surface of the pan. This creates a smoother, tighter, sleeker surface for the oil to slide on, and prevents your food from getting stuck in those pores as they close when the pan heats up.
It also means the oil is less likely to get trapped in those fissures as the pan cools, and makes the pan easier to clean when you're done cooking.
The consistency of oil changes at higher heat. Adding oil to a preheated pan brings it up to the appropriate temperature faster than if you add the oil to a cold pan. With a preheated pan, you will actually see the oil texture change before your eyes and can add your food almost immediately.
There are lots of reasons food might stick. But the top 3 reasons are: your pan was too cold (as the cold pan expands in the heat with the food on it, the pores and fissures grab onto the food as they tighten and the food sticks), your pan was too hot (the food burns and sticks to the pan), or you didn't have enough oil (on a preheated pan, oil lubricates the surface so the food doesn't stick).
Flick a drop of water on to the surface of the dry pan (aka the "water test"). If it sizzles your pan is at a nice medium heat. If it rolls around on the surface of the pan, you're closer to a medium-high or high heat. It will evaporate almost immediately. Then add your oil.
SAFETY NOTE: Do NOT flick water into oil. The water test is for dry pans only.
I recommend adding oil when the water sizzles on the surface of the pan. You don't need the pan to be SCREAMING hot (aka, the water droplet rolls around on the surface of the pan) but also it's okay if it is — you just need to be ready to add your food pretty quickly!
But in most cases, as long as you give the empty pan just a minute or two over low heat before adding oil is enough. Once you add the oil you can adjust the temp to the desired cooking temperature.
As oil heats its viscosity changes. It thins out and moves in a looser, more fluid manner. If you tilt the pan it should slide across the surface of the pan in one glistening layer. Think of it like an oil slick or like when you see heat waves rising off the sidewalk.
If tilt or shimmy the pan slightly and see long single droplets of oil moving slowly across the surface of the pan, the oil is not shimmering yet.
Shimmering oil will very easily coat the bottom of your pan in a nice even layer with just a little bit of shimmying the pan back and forth. If the oil doesn't coat the pan, you likely don't have enough oil.
If you're cooking something in a shallow pan fry with ⅛" oil or more in the bottom of the pan, inserting the end of a wooden spoon or a chopstick into the oil is a good way to check. If the wood bubbles, the oil is hot enough.
If you put an empty stainless pan over high heat and leave it alone with nothing in it for a prolonged time, the shock of the sudden temperature change can cause warping or pan damage, but a minute or two over low-medium heat just to warm up? You're heating it slowly enough. Even on an induction burner, your pan will be okay.
While you're still cooking, the best way to get any stuck bits (also known as "fond") off the bottom of the pan is to add a bit of water, stock, or wine to the pan.
This is called “deglazing” and it’s used to make pan sauces, but you can also use it just to get any stuck bits to release! Just scrape them up with a wooden spoon or spatula. As long as it's not burned, they add a ton of flavor to your food.
If your food is sticking to the pan because it is burned, you can still use this method to help dislodge it. Maybe just don't use the wine for it.
The annoying answer is: enough. You need enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan in an even layer. It will also depend on how much fat is (or isn't) in the food, and what cooking method you're using.
Sometimes I feel like the low/no fat movement has people conditioned to use as little oil as possible in their pans. The truth is you do might need to be a bit more generous with it — the oil, heated properly, is what will help things not stick!
When you put cold food, say a piece of steak or a chicken thigh, into a properly heated pan, the temperature of the pan drops. This increases the chances of your food sticking.
It's better to let your food rest at room temperature for a bit (within food safety guidelines aka less than 4 hours) before putting it in your properly heated pan.
Even if you pre-heat your stainless steel pan properly, if you have your heat TOO high or heat the oil too high, the food can burn onto your pan. Make sure the oil is heated according to the recipe's instructions — if the recipe includes a "deglazing" step, the food might be stuck on purpose so you get a nice flavorful fond to scrape up into a sauce.
If the recipe doesn't include deglazing and you realize you've heated your oil too high, turn the burner off and let it cool slightly before adding your food. If your oil is smoking, it's probably too hot. You can also add a little more oil to the pan — the new oil will help cool down the oil that's already there.
Exceptions to the rule — what food you can start cooking in a cold pan
Of course, there are always exceptions to any rule. In this case, skin-on chicken, duck breast, and bacon can all start in a cold pan without any oil.
You'll get super crispy bacon and super crispy chicken and duck skin this way because more of the fat has rendered out by the time the meat is done cooking. It does require patience bc you’re including time for the pan to heat up in the cook time. You want the fat to render out gradually and will need heat the pan more slowly than you would if you were adding food to it once it was hot.
(This tip via America's Test Kitchen)
A quick note on non-stick pans
When I shared my Twitter thread, I got a lot of responses from people disparaging anyone who uses non-stick pans. These responses are elitist, classist, and make broad assumptions about health and perceived "laziness" that I just can't let slide. I'm not here to shame anyone for the convenience and ease of non-stick pans.
I also don't think you can make a blanket statement about what kinds of pans are "healthier" than others. Health is way more complicated and personal than that and other people's health is none of my business. I also have a non-stick pan I love for frying eggs, tyvm.
I want to mention non-stick pans here specifically because a lot of people don't know that most non-stick pans (even the green/non-toxic ones) are not designed to be used over high heat. And those concerns people have about Teflon non-stick coating letting off toxic fumes? That happens at very high temperatures, and while they're not great for humans, they're mostly toxic to birds.
So once again the lesson here is: always read the instructions when you buy a new set of pots and pans. Heating them properly can make a world of difference.
tl;dr — what take away from this post
Warm your empty stainless steel pans over medium heat before adding oil, then let the oil reach "shimmering" consistency, before adding lukewarm food to the pan.
If your pan has been properly heated, the food will release from the pan when it's ready. Don't try to pry it up too soon. And if anything does stick to the surface of the pan, you can add a splash of water, stock, or wine to the pan to deglaze it. Scrape the browned bits up with a spoon.
If your stainless steel pans do get greasy or oily and you just can't get them clean with regular dish soap, give Bar Keepers Friend a try.