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Note: Welcome to my Tip of the Week. If there is a tip I found, and I tested it, and it worked, I will share it. If you are just stopping by for the tip and not the story, scroll to the graphic at the end of the post. 

It’s November and there I am, standing in my kitchen. Starring at my sauté pan. Wondering if exchanging diamond earrings for a pan was a good idea. I am unusually quiet. I am waiting for the pan to invite me into its life. Tell me its secrets. Make me the master chef I never wanted to be.

My beau is standing behind me. Respecting my quiet meeting with my pan.

When he proposed to me, he told me I was unlike any woman he had ever met. I think he is finding out how true that statement really is in this moment.

But, it’s just a pan. So the silence wanes on and on. I keep hearing the words from the sales lady, “Stainless steel pans are pretty hard to master. One day I am able to cook a perfect chicken breast in it. The next day, food is sticking and burnt.”

But it was just so pretty. All shiny. Just waiting to be used.

I think that trial and error might be best but this time, unlike others, I am not patient enough for that. I do some research online and find some tips.

If your food is sticking to your pan, it might be:

  • too hot
  • too cold

No one told me I was going to be reading a version of Goldilocks when I went on my search. Then again, Stout is standing in the kitchen with me and he looks just like a little bear.

Stout was named after our favorite beer... A stout. Because he's dark, like a Stout. We're really cool like that. Jer told me we cannot take that approach with our children.

Stout was named after our favorite beer… A stout. Because he’s dark, like a Stout. We’re really cool like that. Jer told me we cannot take that approach with our children.

Back to the pan. So, I am gathering it needs to be just right? And it hits me, I am Goldilocks and this pan is my porridge. Here’s to a fairytale ending.

The thing with stainless steel pans is, there are so many. Big, small, different metals…on and on. So there is no cookie cutter, “Heat for three minutes, no more and no less and you’re ready to rock and roll.”

It needs to be tested. You need to take the temperature of your pan. And here’s how.

TAKING THE TEMPERATURE OF YOUR PAN

First, I start with a little pep talk that goes something like this, “Listen, you beautiful shiny pot, I bought you and I am going to use you. And you are going to cooperate. And I am going to make lots of food in you and I will give you some of the credit. We’re a team ok? Let’s do this.”

And thus the experiment begins.

Turn your stove onto medium heat. If you are using stainless steel you definitely want medium heat or maybe a little less than medium high. Stainless steel does an excellent job at maintaining heat and even cooking. It’s what they’re known for. So if you crank your stove to high, your pan will get really hot really fast and it will be hard to bring it back down to a good cooking temperature.

As your pan is heating, you will be able to check it’s temperature every 30 seconds with a droplet of water. An 1/8 to be exact. Do not try to do this test with 1/4 teaspoon because that is too much water and this test will not work.

The first time you drop the water in, you might see this:

This pan is too cold. The water does not react at all.

This pan is too cold. The water does not react at all.

If the water does not react at all, that means the pan is still too cold and you need to let it warm up a little bit.

Wait about 30 to 45 seconds and try the test again.

If you drop the water in and it bubbles and steams like the below picture, it is still too cold.

Here the water bubbles when it comes into contact with the pan. It is still too cold.

Here the water bubbles when it comes into contact with the pan. It is still too cold.

Again, wait another 30 to 45 seconds. Take a step back. Take a swig of water. Do some yoga poses to maintain peace.

You will probably experience this bubble effect one or two more times (like I did). This is no time to give up.

Jump a few times in the air like you’re in a boxing ring. That always helps. Take a second to mark off “exercise” from your to-do list.

Ask for a few shoulder rubs from your man or whoever happens to be nearby and step back into the ring.

Next, you will probably see this:

Tiny, round bubbles form and disperse gliding along the pan.

Tiny, round bubbles form and disperse gliding along the pan.

These round bubbles are what you are looking for….well, the shape is what you are looking for. But you need to see one, large ball of water glide along the pan to know your pan is ready.

Time for a little lesson.

Stainless steel pans have pores in them and when heated these pores open and close during the heating process. If your pan is not heated properly and you put your chicken (or what have you) in the pan, the opening and closing pores will latch onto your food, causing it to stick when you go to flip it.

When the pan is at the right temperature, the pores are no longer opening and closing. This is why the water test is perfect. When water hits a pan and forms one perfect ball that glides across the pan, the pores are stable. Your pan is heated.

This is the one perfect ball of water you are looking for:

If water hits the pan and forms one perfect ball. Your pan is heated correctly.

If water hits the pan and forms one perfect ball. Your pan is heated correctly.

Look near the middle to the right-hand side and you will see the ball I am mentioning.

Here is another close-up:

This ball of water indicates that the pan is properly heated.

This ball of water indicates that the pan is properly heated.

Obviously at this point I want to do an elaborate, choreographed dance in celebration of properly heating my pan BUT, THERE IS NO TIME FOR THAT.

Maintain composure. Push those feelings of joy to the side, temporarily. (I am not all about suppressing emotions, as my beau can attest to.)

Seeing as the pan is at the EXACT right temperature, you have to act quickly because the pan is still on the heat source and still climbing in temperature. Have your oil by your pan and add it quickly. It is also good to have your food ready to be put in your pan.

When you add anything to a pan, it lowers the temperature. Adding the oil will result in a slight decrease in temperature but only for a few seconds. You will know your oil is properly heated when you see the very first whisp of smoke. Or, if you move the oil around and you see legs form (the kind of legs you see when you swirl a glass of wine).

See those beautiful legs? High kick anyone?!

See those beautiful legs? High kick anyone?!

Once you see this it is time to immediately add your food!

I want to go big or go home. So I choose fish instead of chicken for this experiment. I have never been able to cook fish in a stainless steel pan without it sticking.

In they go. After 4 minutes it is time to flip them. My sweaty palms grab the spatula. It is a moment of truth for me:

Frying fish in a properly heated stainless steel pan.

Frying fish in a properly heated stainless steel pan.

And up she comes. Perfect execution. No fish stuck to my pan!!!

And that is how you properly heat your pan. I have done this water experiment the first several times I used my pan. After repetition you begin to learn the exact time it takes for your pan to heat properly. Then you become a seasoned pro and you do not need the water experiment anymore.

Basically, you’re ready to compete on The Next Iron Chef.

A Note About Stainless Steel Pans

I did not only pick a Tri-Ply stainless steel pan over a non-stick pan because some lady was not confident in my ability to master it. I did it for the following reasons:

  • When I thought about the kitchens of my favorite restaurants or my favorite celebrity chefs I recalled that they all used stainless steel pans. There must be a reason…
  • I am a huge fan of my meat being all browned perfectly with a gorgeous crust and I have never been able to create that in a non-stick pan.
  • I LOVE making reductions. (In cooking, reduction is the process of thickening and intensifying the flavor of a liquid mixture such as a soup or sauce.) In many of the recipes I use, they utilize the little brown bits (also called fonds) leftover in a pan after frying to make a rich sauce. BUT, these beautiful brown bits are not able to be created in a non-stick pan…because nothing can stick.

For example:

Perfectly cooked fish.

Perfectly cooked fish.

And that is why I went with stainless steel!

And now, for the cliff notes:

how-to-cook-in-stainless-steel-pan-without-food-sticking

Any questions?!

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