Stainless steel pans are the most used cookware in most restaurants. But yours are probably just sitting there neglected after your last attempt to fry a chicken breast that somehow stuck the poultry to the metal, resulting in a mangled meal and a ring of charred protein firmly stuck to the bottom of the pan.
“There must be a better way!” you exclaim, as if you were on your own real infomercial. And I assure you there are: using science and good heat management, you can harness the Leidenfrost effect to give your stainless steel cookware nonstick superpowers.
We don’t want to overdo it, so let’s make it clear that you can never crack a raw egg into a cold stainless steel skillet without oil, fry it over low heat, and slide it straight onto the plate. But your food will move when it needs to, and you’ll never need to add a scissor to your dishware again.
How to use stainless steel pans correctly
Unless you’re just reheating something, you should never put food in a cold stainless steel skillet. Always preheat your cookware before adding anything, even oil.
There are several reasons for this. First, when cold, high-protein foods (like meat or poultry) are heated with a cold pan, the proteins bind to some of the elements of the metal, like iron atoms. That’s why your unfortunate chicken got stuck in the pan last time. There is no scientific consensus as to why, but some believe the same principle applies to eggs and their shells, which is why you should always cook them by plunging them into boiling water. rather than starting with the cold. When you drop your eggs into cold water, the protein-rich white binds tightly to the outer membrane, making the eggs harder to peel once they’re cooked. But put them straight into boiling water, the theory goes, and the proteins will bind together, allowing the shell to come off immediately.
[Related: How to season a cast iron pan]
The second reason why preheating your pan is so important is that at the microscopic level, stainless steel has a porous surface. But as the pan heats up and the metal expands, these pores get smaller and smaller, resulting in a much smoother surface that food is less likely to stick to. Preheating times will depend on the brand of your pan and the power of your pan, so knowing when to start adding your ingredients is just as important. This is what the water test is for.
At the right temperature, if you throw a drop of water into the pan, it won’t instantly evaporate but will roll around like an air hockey puck instead. That’s because the principle, called the Leidenfrost effect, is the same in your kitchen as it is at the arcade. A thin layer of gas between the puck and the surface below allows the disc to become almost frictionless, while in the case of your droplet, a thin layer of water vaporizes instantly when it hits the hot metal, providing a gaseous coating that allows the rest of the droplet to vaporize. Although it’s more visible using a drop of water, your food gets some of the same gliding superpowers when the moisture it contains hits the pan.
Now that your pan is hot enough, pour in that droplet, add your cooking oil of choice, and continue adding your ingredients to the pan.
But you’re not done. The Leidenfrost effect requires a constant high temperature, so be sure not to add ingredients directly from the fridge, or worse, from the freezer. Putting on a large piece of cold meat will likely drop the temperature of the metal surface to the point that the food will bond to the stainless steel, rendering the whole preheating process unnecessary. That same piece of room-temperature meat will hit the hot oil and quickly begin to release its water, sizzling audibly as its moisture turns to steam and insulates its surface from the pan.
Adding room temperature foods will also minimize the possibility of heat shock, which is a double whammy of bad news. First of all, the drastic change in temperature could damage your pan by warping it, but also lead to dangerous hot oil splashes.
Do I need to season my stainless steel pan?
No. Only cast iron and carbon steel pans require seasoning, resulting in slippery layers of polymerized oils. This is not just to make them smoother, but because they are extremely reactive to water and will rust quickly without a protective barrier to seal them. A stainless steel pan is non-reactive and you can safely throw them in the dishwasher.
I still can’t return this burger. To help.
On a stainless steel pan, the rule is to turn your food when you can easily do so. So if your burgers resist you, don’t force them. Assuming you are using a preheated and sufficiently oiled skillet, wait and continue to cook your patties as it takes time for the proteins to bind together. The process practically enforces a good sear, so it has flavor benefits as well.
[Related: 6 metal myths and tips for cooking]
And don’t worry about your burger drying out the more you cook it. In 2020, a group of Korean scientists from Seoul National University found that proper cooking has negligible effect on internal humidity and it’s just more delicious. Unfortunately, their reported methodology did not specify the type of pan they used, which made their experiment more difficult to replicate accurately. That being said, if you choose to try it yourself, a stainless steel pan will work wonders.