How to Stop Food From Sticking to Stainless Steel Pan

Tired of your food sticking to your stainless steel pan? Learn how to prevent it!

Cooking Vegetables

We've all experienced the frustration of food sticking to stainless steel pans.

Nobody likes having to turn their sunny-side eggs into scrambled ones. However, swapping your cookware for non-toxic options, such as stainless steel, is crucial for reducing your exposure to toxic chemicals. Many non-stick pans contain PFAS, “forever chemicals” that wreak havoc on your hormones and the environment. So, while swapping to stainless steel pans may take some adjustments, it’s well worth the effort. Here are some tips for preventing food from sticking to a stainless steel pan.

Why is Non-Stick Cookware Dangerous?

child with nonstick cookware

Using non-stick cookware could get you into a sticky situation with your health. Non-stick cookware is typically made of a material called Teflon, which contains poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) [1]. 

PFAS are known to be harmful to human health and the environment because they do not break down easily and can accumulate over time. Cooking with high heat, and/or scratching non-stick pan coatings can release PFAS into the food you’re cooking.

Switching out your cookware can be a big investment. It’s okay to wait until you’re ready to replace the current non-stick cookware you are using. 

warped nonstick pan with eggs

However, if your non-stick cookware gets scratched, these chemicals can leach into your food. To prolong the life of your non-stick pans, avoid using metal utensils, and don't heat them at high temperatures. 

However, when it's time for a replacement, consider switching to non-toxic cookware made from materials like cast iron, ceramic, clay, or our star for today, stainless steel.

Why Should I Use Stainless Steel for Cooking?

Stainless steel is a popular choice for cookware due to its affordability and durability. It's an iron-based alloy that typically contains a mix of metals, including chromium and nickel. The chromium slows down the corrosion of its metals, while nickel increases the heat resistance of the pan. 

Stainless steel is non-reactive, making it a safe choice for cooking. Unlike some materials, it won't release harmful chemicals into your food under high heat.

cooking with stainless steel pots

There have been some concerns raised about nickel and chromium contamination of foods from stainless steel. However, the amounts leached into foods are generally believed to be safe [2]. 

In addition to its impressive resilience, stainless steel excels in browning, searing, and deglazing, making it a versatile choice for many cooking techniques. When properly heated, it can create a beautiful, golden crust on meats and caramelize onions to perfection. Moreover, the fond, or the browned bits left in the pan after searing, can be deglazed to make delicious sauces and gravies.

However, there is one minor downside to stainless steel cookware. Highly acidic foods, such as tomato sauce or dishes with a lot of lemon juice, can react with the metal, potentially causing your food to have a slight metallic taste. This reaction occurs when the acid in the food reacts with the metal in the pan, causing it to leach into the food.

This is also why many canned tomato products contain BPA. BPA liners prevent acidic juices from corroding the aluminum can. However, tomato products have some of the highest levels of BPA, due to leaching from the can lining [3]. 

Fortunately, acidic foods corroding stainless steel pans are a minor concern and can be easily avoided. Don’t leave acidic foods in the pan for extended periods, especially once the cooking process has finished. Simply transfer your food to a dish or glass storage container once it's done cooking.

Reasons Why Food Sticks to Stainless Steel Pain

We've all questioned our inner Giada or Julia Child when our beautifully planned dinner ends up stuck to the pan. Get back in the kitchen, Top Chef. It’s not you. It’s science!

Food sticks to stainless steel pans because of a process called protein denaturation [4]. Most foods that we prepare in a stainless steel pan contain proteins, even veggies. When heated, these molecules “denature” and form bonds with the metal surface of the pan. 

This bond causes food to stick to stainless steel pans. Thankfully, as your food continues to cook, the heat will eventually cause the proteins to release from the pan, making it easier to flip or stir. So, be patient and careful while handling your food to keep your culinary masterpiece intact!

How to Stop Food Sticking to Stainless Steel Pan

Sear up a storm with stainless steel without sticking to the pan. All you need to do is perform a little prep work before you start to cook. Follow this guide to avoid the sticky situation of food sticking to a stainless steel pan.

1. Let the Food Come to Room Temperature

Nothing will freeze your hopes of a stick-free cooking experience more than cooking with cold food. Take your protein out of the fridge for about 15 minutes before cooking to let it get closer to room temperature.

Bringing food to room temperature before cooking can help prevent sticking to stainless steel because of the way heat transfers between the food and the pan. If food is cold or frozen, it can lower the temperature of the pan upon contact. 

This will cause uneven heating, which can alter your cooking times. In addition, it causes different proteins to denature at different points of your cooking experience, which can make for a sticky mess in the pan. 

2. Let the Skillet Preheat Before Cooking

It’s easy to get eager and start throwing things in the pan. However,  a preheated, dry skillet is key for cooking with stainless steel without sticking. 

Preheating your skillet is like warming up before a workout. It prepares the pan for optimal performance. 

Put the pan over medium or medium-low heat to ensure even heat distribution. This can take anywhere from 5-10 minutes. 

3. Perform a Water Test

Before diving into cooking with stainless steel, you need to test the waters with a water test. Simply drop 1-2 tablespoons of water onto the hot pan. If the water sizzles and immediately evaporates upon contact, the pan is most likely not hot enough to prevent food from sticking to stainless steel.

Once you notice the droplets of water morphing into balls that effortlessly glide across the pan's surface, you can pat yourself on the back because your pan is perfectly preheated and ready for culinary action. 

Congratulations, for you have caused the Leidenfrost effect. The Leidenfrost effect occurs when the pan's surface reaches a temperature high enough to instantly vaporize the water droplet upon contact, causing it to skate over a layer of its own steam [5].

This phenomenon serves as an excellent indicator that the pan has reached an optimal temperature for searing food while creating a non-stick surface. A crucial point to remember is to always thoroughly dry the pan before introducing oil or food to avoid any potential splattering. 

4. Add Fat to the Pan

So, you've perfectly preheated your stainless steel pan, and you're ready to cook. Now is the time to add some fat! 

Don’t let the word “fat” fool you. Dietary fats are an essential part of a healthy diet…and for how to stop food from sticking to stainless steel pan.

Adding fat creates a barrier between the pan and the food, ensuring smooth flipping or stirring. It also enhances heat transfer from the pan to the food, promising even cooking. Not to mention, the right kind of fat can add an extra layer of flavor and help you achieve that appetizing browning or searing on your food.

Something crucial to keep in mind is the smoke point of the fat or oil you're using. This is the temperature at which it starts to smoke and break down, losing its nutritional benefits and possibly forming harmful compounds [6]. Reaching the smoke point can also give your food an unpleasant taste

Here are some excellent fats for cooking on stainless steel:

  1. Butter: It lends a rich flavor to your dishes but has a low smoke point, making it better suited for baking or low-heat cooking.
  2. Coconut oil: A favorite in vegan circles, it's popular for cooking and baking and has a medium-high smoke point.
  3. Olive oil: Ideal for sautéing and dressings. However, its lower smoke point makes it unsuitable for medium to high-heat cooking.
  4. Lard or tallow: These animal-based fats are excellent for high-heat cooking and add a distinctive flavor to your dishes. They have a higher smoke point than coconut oil.
  5. Ghee: This is a type of clarified butter with a high smoke point. It's great for frying, sautéing, and roasting.
  6. Avocado oil: With one of the highest smoke points, it's perfect for frying and other high-heat cooking methods.

Keep in mind, use a fat with a high smoke point for frying or searing and a fat with a lower smoke point for sautéing or baking. Now, you're all set to cook up a storm!

5. Start Cooking!

When the fat in your stainless steel pan starts to shimmer and thin out, it's a clear indication that it has reached the right temperature for cooking. This is the perfect time to add your ingredients to the skillet. 

Whether you're sautéing vegetables, browning meat, or frying an egg, this is the moment when your food will start to cook evenly, ensuring delicious results. Remember, the key is not to overcrowd the pan, as this can lower the temperature and cause your food to steam rather than sear. 

6. Give a Nudge Test with a Spatula

Now is the moment of truth, will your food stick to the pan?  Whenever you think that one side might be ready, test things out by giving it a nudge with a spatula. 

If the food easily slides or moves when nudged, chances are that the food is cooked enough and is ready to be turned over. If it sticks or doesn't release, it needs a bit more time. 

Don’t use a plastic spatula to flip your hot food. Much like non-stick cookware, plastic spatula chemicals like nylon can end up in your food.  Instead, use a platinum-grade or food-grade silicone spatula, wood, stainless steel, or bamboo spatula to give your food a nudge test. Cook a yummy meal without concerns by using Million Marker Approved Cooking Utensils

7. Shine the Stainless Steel

Over time, food residue can build up on the cookware, creating a layer that causes food to stick. This not only compromises your cooking but also affects the quality of the food. By ensuring that your stainless steel is well-cleaned, you are maintaining a smooth surface that's ideal for cooking.

Additionally, proper cleaning helps maintain the quality of the stainless steel itself, preventing issues such as rust, discoloration, or pitting. This means your cookware will continue to look good and perform well for a longer time.

When it comes to cleaning, the products you choose play a crucial role. It's advisable to avoid soaps with harmful chemicals like parabens. These can leave residues that may negatively impact your health over time. Instead, consider safer alternatives such as Million Marker Approved Dish Soaps.

How to Shop for Stainless Steel Pans

shopping for pots and pans

Shopping for stainless steel pans can be a bit overwhelming, given the variety of options available. A few key things to consider while choosing a stainless steel pan are the construction, size, and quality of the material used. 

One common recommendation is to look for cookware that's "fully clad," a type of construction made famous by All-Clad [7]. This means that the heat-conducting core (usually aluminum or copper) extends across the bottom and up the sides of the pan, ensuring even heat distribution.

When it comes to the quality of the material, an 8/10 or 316-grade stainless steel pan is often considered a great choice for its durability. The "316" refers to the type of stainless steel used. This material is also known as marine-grade stainless steel due to its enhanced corrosion resistance [7]. 

The "18/10" denotes the composition of the steel itself, signifying that it contains 18% chromium and 10% nickel, both of which enhance the steel's durability and resistance to rust and other forms of corrosion. 

bottom of stainless steel pan

To find out what your pan is made of, look for this information stamped on the bottom or side of the pan, or check the product description if you're shopping online.

Remember, while stainless steel pans are generally more expensive than their non-stick counterparts, they offer excellent heat distribution, are durable, and, most importantly, are non-reactive, meaning they won't leach harmful chemicals into your food during cooking.

Does Food Have to Stick to Stainless Steel Pans?

Food can stick to stainless steel pans. However, it’s better than PFAS sticking to your food while cooking with non-stick pans. With proper preheating and oiling, food sticking to stainless steel pans could no longer be an issue. Ensure your pan is adequately heated by performing a water test. Add your fat and allow it to thin out before adding your food. Check the food with a nudge of a food-grade silicone spatula to see if it’s ready to flip. Bon appétit!

Resources

[1] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11356-017-0095-y 

[2] https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/jf402400v 

[3] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0308814614004762 

[4] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0260877407003676 

[5] https://www.comsol.com/blogs/leidenfrost-effect/ 

[6] https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1106/1898-plw3-6y6h-8k22 

[7] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0010938X17307837