Why food sticks to stainless steel pans and how to stop it

Stainless steel pans are one of the most common choices for general purpose pans in professional kitchens and by home cooks. The main reason? They’re extremely durable! Whereas a non-stick material can be chipped or scratched (potentially unhealthy), stainless steel can take the beating and still remain the same. In pro kitchens, they’re heated and cooled dozens of times a day without any damage.

But with all their advantages, there’s one major downside. They’re sticky! Now before reaching for your non-stick pan, here’s why they act this way and how to stop it.

Although stainless steel pans look smooth, if you were to look at the surface through a microscope, you’d actually see a pretty rough surface. Food placed on a hot stainless steel pan sticks because of chemical bonds that form between them.

From Surface chemistry of cooking on Wikipedia:

“When meat cooks, the proteins on the surface of the meat denature because of the heat. This means that many of the secondary bonds that give the proteins their shape are broken. The protein molecules want to reform those interactions to return to their most thermodynamically stable state….Meat sticking to the bottom of the pan is caused by the interactions between proteins on the surface of the meat binding with the molecules on the surface of the pan.”

Here’s how to get your stainless steel pan to not stick to food:

  1. Get your pan hot. You can check if it’s ready for oil by sprinkling some water on it (PLEASE don’t do this if there’s oil in the pan). When it's at a good hot cooking temperature, the water will bead up like mercury. This is called the leidenfrost effect in which a thin layer of steam forms underneath the drop and allows it to float.

  2. Add enough fat to coat the pan. Most advice says you should add oil to a hot pan rather than heat up the oil from the start in a cold pan. If your pan is at the right temperature, your oil should ‘shimmer’. Hot oil is less viscous (spreads more easily), which means you can use less of it to coat the microscopic peaks and valleys of the surface of your pan. And since oil heats faster than metal, you’re also much less likely to overheat the oil.

  3. Wait for the food to release. It should form a crust. Once it does, it will be easy to flip or move around. And the bits that still get stuck to the pan? They’re called the fond and they’re perfect for making delicious sauces.

There are a couple foods that everyone agrees should be cooked in non-stick: eggs and fish.

By the way, stainless steel on its own isn’t actually a very good conductor of heat, so if you’re in the market for a new stainless steel pan, you’ll want one that is three layers: stainless-aluminum-stainless.

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