6 Essential Tips For Cooking With (But Not Sticking To) Stainless Steel Pots and Pans

Why food sticks and how to avoid it when cooking with stainless steel pots and pans.

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One-pan recipes: easy one-pan lasagna
Stainless steel pans can go from stove-top to oven! Photo, Roberto Caruso.

Let’s face it, despite how good of a cook you are — or claim to be — we’ve all experienced some frustration when our food gets stuck to a stainless steel pan. The luxury and availability of non-stick pans has allowed us to cook almost worry0free. But, there are times when a stainless steel pan is a necessity. For example, a stainless steel pan is a must when I’m building a sauce and want to accumulate flavours, or when I want to brown or develop colour, and sometimes I just prefer using a pan that isn’t coated with a non-stick treatment.

Here are a few quick tips for cooking efficiently with your stainless steel:

Why does food stick?

The main culprit 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 your pan looks perfectly smooth, there are actually many hills and divots that the oil fills. When food is added to the pan, a reaction occurs between the hot oil and the natural moisture in food. This reaction causes a steam-like effect, essentially lifting the food away from the pan, and preventing it from sticking.

If your pan is too cold, you will not hear the sizzle — which is the reaction between the heat and the moisture. No sizzle means the food has not lifted away from the pan and will stick. If your heat is too high, food has a tendency to burn, and burnt articles will stick to the pan. This burnt flavour will also transmit to the rest of your food.

Pot filled with Spanish shrimp fideuá.
Spanish shrimp fideua. Photo, Roberto Caruso.

Tips to avoid a sticky mess

The reality is, stainless steel is not a great heat conductor. Therefore, we have to make sure we prepare our pan properly in order to get the best results.

Heat your stainless steel pan well

Place an empty pan on a burner over medium heat. Let the pan heat up for 2 to 3 minutes at this temperature. It is up to you if you want to add the oil while the pan is warming up, or add the oil once the pan is hot. I prefer to get my pan good and hot first, and then I add the oil. Sometimes, when adding cold oil to a cold pan, the oil heats up faster than the pan – this gives the illusion of a hot pan, but really all the heat is in the oil.

Do the “TSS” test

To test if your pan is ready, drop a very small morsel of food or a single drop of water into the pan. If you hear the “TSS” sound,  your pan is ready. It is always a good idea to start your pan at medium heat, and make adjustments from there.

Dry food is best

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

Cold food is a no-no

As water combats heat, so does cold food. Adding cold food to a pan works against the heat you have worked at establishing. Meat and vegetables should be brought down or at least close to room temperature before cooking in stainless.

Some foods just stick

I don’t know how many times I’ve tried to make an omelette in a stainless steel pan, but it has never come off cleanly. Some foods — eggs in particular (more generally proteins) — have a tendency to stick. Choose your battles. For me… eggs = non-stick.

Clean and care for your pan

While the pan is still warm, wipe out any residual oil or crumbly bits with a paper towel (mind 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 to deglaze. Use a wooden spoon to scrape away any stubborn bits. Discard the water. Wipe again with a paper towel and then clean in hot soapy water. I suggest not cleaning your stainless in the dishwasher. Dishwasher detergent can be very harsh and may leave a residue.

Here are a few recipes that suit cooking with a stainless steel pan:
Seared pork chops with creamy mushrooms
Hong Kong chicken curry
Lamb chops with pomegranate bulgur
Spicy Thai fish

Originally published March 23rd, 2012.