How to make stainless steel pans non-stick

Stainless steel pans are the workhorse cookware in most restaurants. But yours are probably just sitting there, neglected, after your last attempt at roasting a chicken breast somehow stuck the fowl to the metal, resulting in a mangled meal and a burned ring of charred protein stuck firmly to the bottom of the pan.

“There has to be a better way!” you exclaim, as if it were your own real-life commercial. And I assure you it is: with the help of science and proper heat management, you can use the Leidenfrost effect to give your stainless steel cookware nonstick superpowers.

We don’t want to overdo this, so let’s be clear that you’ll never be able to crack a raw egg into a cold stainless steel pan with no oil, fry it on low, and slide it straight onto the plate. But your food moves when it needs to, and you’ll never have to add a chisel to your dishwashing tools again.

How to use stainless steel pans correctly

Unless you’re just heating something up, you should never put food in a cold stainless steel pan – always preheat your cookware before putting anything on it, even oil.

There are mutliple reasons for this. First, when cold, protein-rich food (like meat or poultry) is heated along with a cold pan, proteins combine with some of the elements in the metal, like iron atoms. That’s why your hapless chicken got glued to the pan last time. There is no scientific consensus as to why this is, but some believe the same principle applies to eggs and their shells, which is why you should always cook them by lowering them into boiling water rather than starting from cold. If you drop your eggs in cold water, the protein-rich whites reportedly bind strongly to the outer membrane, making the eggs harder to peel once they’re done. But put them straight into boiling water, the theory goes, and the proteins bind to themselves, allowing the shell to come off instantly.

[Related: How to season a cast iron pan]

The second reason preheating your pan is so important is that, at a microscopic level, stainless steel has a porous surface. But as the pan heats up and the metal expands, those pores get smaller and smaller, resulting in a much smoother surface that’s less likely for food to stick. Preheat times will depend on the brand of your pan and the power of your stove, so knowing when to start adding your ingredients is just as important. This is what the water test is for.

If you throw a drop of water in the pan at the right temperature, it doesn’t immediately evaporate, but instead rolls around like an air hockey puck. Because the principle known as the Leidenfrost effect is the same in your kitchen as it is in the arcade. A thin layer of gas between the puck and the underlying surface renders the disk nearly frictionless, while in the case of your droplet, a thin layer of water vaporizes immediately upon contacting the hot metal, forming a gaseous coating that allows the rest of the droplet to vaporize to drive. While it’s best seen using a drop of water, your food gets some of the same sliding superpowers when the moisture it contains hits the pan.

Now that your pan is hot enough, pour out that drip, add your cooking oil of choice and continue to toss your ingredients into the pan.

But you’re not done yet. The Leidenfrost effect requires a high and constant temperature, so make sure you’re not adding ingredients straight from the fridge or worse, the freezer. If you put a large cold piece of meat in it, the temperature of the metal surface will likely drop enough for the food to bond to the stainless steel, rendering the entire preheating process useless. The same piece of meat hits the hot oil at room temperature and quickly begins releasing its water, audibly sizzling as its moisture turns to steam and isolating its surface from the pan.

Adding room-temperature foods also minimizes the possibility of thermal shock, which is doubly bad news. First, the drastic change in temperature could ruin your pan by warping, but it could also result in dangerously hot oil splattering.

Do I have to season my stainless steel pan?

no Only cast iron and carbon steel pans require seasoning, resulting in layers of slippery polymerized oils. This is not only because they become smoother, but because they are extremely water sensitive and will rust quickly without a protective barrier to seal them in. A stainless steel pan does not react and you can throw it in the dishwasher without fear.

I still can’t flip this burger. Help.

The rule with a stainless steel pan is that you turn your food over if you can easily do so. So if your burgers resist, don’t force them. Assuming you are using a preheated and sufficiently oiled pan, wait and continue cooking your patties as it takes some time for the proteins to bind together. The process practically forces a good searing, so it also has taste advantages.

[Related: 6 metal myths and tips for cooking]

And don’t worry about your burger drying out if you cook it longer. In 2020, a group of Korean scientists at Seoul National University found that searing well has negligible impact on internal moisture and is simply more delicious. Unfortunately, their reported methodology did not specify what type of pan they used, making it more difficult to faithfully reproduce their experiment. That being said, should you decide to try this yourself, a stainless steel skillet would work beautifully.

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