Why Does Food Stick to Stainless Steel Pans? (And How to Prevent It)

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Are you avoiding cooking with your stainless steel pots and pans because, no matter what you try, food sticks to the surface?

First of all, you’re not alone.

I’ve tested and reviewed dozens of stainless steel pans, and food sticking to the cooking surface is a problem across the board.

Even high-end brands like All-Clad, Demeyere, and Made In have this issue.

So, why does food stick to stainless steel pans?

Stainless steel pans look smooth, but the cooking surface actually has tiny pores. Then you heat the pan, the steel expands, and the pores shrink, latching onto the food and causing it to stick. To prevent sticking, preheat the pan to medium, then add ample oil, then add the food.

It takes practice, but once you get the temperature, timing, and process right, you significantly minimize the risk of food sticking.

That’s the short answer, but there are other mistakes you can avoid to prevent food from sticking.

In this quick guide, I dive deeper into this topic. You’ll learn all the reasons why food sticks to stainless steel pans and the adjustments you can make to prevent it.

Let’s get started.

Why Does Food Stick to Stainless Steel Pans?

Stainless steel pans appear shiny and smooth, but if you look at the cooking surface under a microscope, you’ll see tiny pores and crevices.

These pores contract when you heat the pan and expand when the pan cools or comes in contact with cold food.

When you place cold food on a hot stainless steel pan with no oil, the contracted pores will quickly expand and grab onto the food.

If you don’t maintain a stable temperature and properly grease the pan to fill the tiny crevices and create a frictionless barrier, food will stick.

Lean, delicate proteins, such as eggs and fish, are especially prone to sticking because they don’t contain enough fat to grease the pan naturally and easily fall apart once they stick.

Four main factors contribute most to food sticking to stainless steel pans: too much heat, not enough heat, cooking the wrong types of food, and improper cleaning.

Too Much Heat

Too much heat can cause food to stick to stainless steel cookware.

Why?

Remember, heat causes the pores on the pan’s surface to contact. So, when a cold piece of food hits the hot pan, the drastic temperature difference causes the pores to quickly open and grab onto the food.

Also, food can easily burn when you cook on high heat. The burnt bits and particles will stick to the pan, sneaking into all those pores. Not only does this leave you with a mess to clean up, but this burnt taste will transfer to the rest of the food you cook with that pan.

Stainless steel pans usually have an aluminum core or base, and aluminum is an excellent heat conductor. In other words, stainless steel pans heat up fast, evenly, and hold onto heat well. Unless you’re boiling, there’s no need to turn the knob above medium.

Not Enough Heat

On the flip side, cooking at low temperatures can also cause food to stick.

When you add oil to a hot pan before adding the food, a reaction between the oil and the food’s moisture creates a steam vapor. The steam lifts the food above the oil, so it is not in direct contact with the stainless steel cooking surface.

When you place food on the pan, you want to hear a sizzling noise. That means the reaction between the oil and the moisture in the food is happening. If the pan isn’t hot enough, and you don’t hear that sizzle, the steam effect won’t occur, and the food will stick to the pan.

This steam effect also prevents food from becoming too greasy. If you put oil and food on a cold pan before turning on the heat, the food will absorb the oil. But when the oil is already hot, this steam effect creates a barrier, keeping the food and oil separate.

Cooking the “Wrong” Types of Food

Protein-rich foods, like eggs, chicken, and steak, are prone to sticking because the proteins create complex bonds with the metal atoms in the pan. Eggs and fish are especially problematic because they fall apart at the slightest force of friction.

Don’t get me wrong; stainless steel cookware is excellent for cooking proteins. In fact, it’s one of the best cookware types for searing meat. My point is: when you cook proteins with stainless steel, you have to be extra careful and always use the proper cooking methods (which I’ll explain in a second).

Improper Cleaning

Rough scrubbing pads and harsh chemicals can scratch or damage your stainless steel pan’s surface, leaving rough bumps and even more areas that food can cling onto.

On the other hand, not cleaning the cookware thoroughly enough will leave behind small food particles and oils that can burn the next time you cook. Burnt bits add even more friction to the pan’s surface, causing food to stick and imparting bad flavors to your next meal.

How to Prevent Food From Sticking to Stainless Steel Pans

Now that you know what causes food to stick, how exactly do you prevent it? Below are all the steps you can take to minimize food sticking to your stainless steel cookware.

Preheat the Pan

Preheating the pan is key to achieving perfect results with stainless steel cookware. Here’s the best method for preheating your pan:

  1. Place the pan on the burner.
  2. Turn the heat to low medium.
  3. Let it heat up for 2-4 minutes. Keep in mind that it’s during this time that the pores are contracting.
  4. After a few minutes, add a small amount of oil to the pan. If it glistens and gently moves across the surface, this is the correct temperature, and you can add more oil. If the pan isn’t hot enough, the oil will sink into the pores and cause sticking. If the pan is too hot, the oil will begin to smoke.
  5. A few seconds after you’ve added your oil and confirmed it’s at the correct temperature, you can start cooking.

Test to Make Sure the Pan Is Hot Enough

To check if your pan is hot enough, run this quick test. After preheating but before oiling, put a small drop of water in the pan.

When the pan is at the right temperature, the water will bead into little balls and roll around the pan. This reaction is referred to as the Leidenfrost Effect, which you can see in action in this quick video. When this occurs, add your oil and get cooking.

If the pan is too cold, the water will bubble and evaporate quickly. If you add the food at this point, it will stick. Wait a bit and try again.

If the pan is too hot, the water will break apart into small droplets and ping around the pan. Turn the heat down and try again in a minute or so.

The correct amount of heat is crucial to perfect cooking with no burnt bits and no sticking.

Start on Medium Heat and Adjust Accordingly

When in doubt, start on medium heat and adjust accordingly. Every burner and pan is different, so it might be a case of figuring out what works best for your equipment. Some pans heat up faster than others.

Medium heat won’t be too cold, nor will it be excessively hot enough to burn food. It’s a safe place to start.

The pan is too hot is if the oil smokes. If this happens, turn the heat down and start over (once the oil smokes, you need to discard it).

Season the Pan

Seasoning (or greasing) stainless steel pans with oil or an alternative fat is necessary to prevent sticking. The oil fills the pores and crevices, creating a frictionless surface and a barrier between the pan and the food.

One of the most common mistakes people make is they add the oil to a cold pan. When you do this, the oil seeps into the open pores in the cooking surface, breaks down, and forms sticky polymers—not a good combination if you’re trying to prevent sticking. Plus, the oil is more likely to burn since it’s exposed to heat for longer. 

After you preheat the pan, wait a few minutes for the temperature to stabilize. When you add the fat, coat the pan thoroughly. You can do this by swirling the pan or use a pastry brush to spread the oil around evenly.

A good rule of thumb is to use enough oil to cover the entire pan in a thin layer. For example, cooking chicken breasts in a 12-inch skillet would translate to about 2-3 tablespoons of oil.

With so many oils to choose from, it can feel a bit overwhelming. Here is the list of the best oils and for which purpose:

  • Olive Oil: Oliver oil is the most common cooking oil. It’s versatile and flavorful. Keep in mind that it doesn’t have a high smoke point. So if you overheat it, it can break apart or degrade. Due to this, I wouldn’t recommend it for frying and searing meat, which requires high heat.
  • Grapeseed Oil: Grapeseed oil has a high smoke point, making it a good option for seasoning pans and searing meat. It’s also low in saturated fat and high in omega-6 fatty acids, which is essential for your diet.
  • Butter: Butter is another effective fat to use when cooking with stainless steel. Plus, it adds big flavor. Butter is high in saturated fats, though, so keep that in mind.
  • Avocado Oil: If you love green eating, avocado oil is a great alternative. It contains heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and has a high smoke point. The biggest drawback is the price; it’s pretty expensive.

There are many other oils (including cold-pressed safflower, sesame, and rapeseed oil).

Bring Food to Room Temperature Before Adding to the Pan

Here’s a little known trick to prevent food from sticking to stainless steel pans. Always bring the food to room temperature before cooking.

Cold meat is especially prone to sticking to stainless steel because it lowers the temperature of the oil (minimizing the steam effect) and causes the pores in the cooking surface to open and latch onto the meat.

Another benefit of bringing your food to room temperature before cooking is that it’s easier to cook more evenly since the entire piece of food will have a uniform starting temperature (instead of being coldest in the middle).

Dry Food Before Adding It to the Pan

Make sure your ingredients are dry. Moisture from the food can lower the temperature of the oil.

When that happens, the reaction between the oil and food that creates the steam barrier (I talked about this in the previous section) is less effective, increasing the chances of food sticking. 

Drying also promotes a crispier sear, essential for cooking delicious steaks, burgers, and pork chops.

Wash and air dry your vegetables before cooking. With meat, pat it dry to remove excess moisture.

Don’t Cook Too Much Food in the Pan at Once

Overcrowding a pan causes the temperature to drop and releases moisture from the food.

Similar to my last point, when this happens, the steam barrier won’t hold, and food won’t lift from the pan’s surface.

By not crowding the pan, you allow the Maillard reaction to occur, providing fantastic texture and phenomenal flavor.

The Maillard reaction happens via a chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugar. In simpler terms, it occurs when the surface of the food comes in contact with hot oils or fats and creates a crusty brown texture.

But when the pan is overcrowded, this can’t happen. Overcrowding lowers the temperature and creates too much moisture. So instead of a nice crispy brown crust that releases the food from the pan’s surface, the meat sticks and boils in its own juices — not appealing for flavor or texture.

Don’t Move the Food Too Frequently

To prevent food from sticking to stainless steel, don’t move it around too frequently.

Meat needs to brown and form a crust for optimum flavor and texture. The crust also helps the meat release from the pan’s surface. If you flip a steak or a pork chop too early, it will stick to the stainless steel. Grab a of tongs and gently lift the food. If it doesn’t pop right off, give it more time.

Cooking protein with stainless steel cookware

With vegetables, go ahead and move them a bit more frequently. They don’t stick as quickly as meat.

Use a Non-Stick Pan for Problem Foods

Sometimes, no matter what you do, certain foods will stick a little. Protein-rich foods, especially things like eggs and fish, are a bit tougher to work with while using a stainless steel pan. There’s no shame in bringing out the non-stick pan for these types of foods.

Clean Appropriately

Lastly, it’s important to clean stainless steel properly. Although most brands advertise that their stainless steel cookware is dishwasher-safe, hand-washing is always preferred.

If you want to ensure maximum cooking performance, and extend your cookware’s lifespan, wash it with warm water, dish soap, and a soft cloth. Dry it thoroughly with a soft dish towel and stack it carefully, protecting the cooking surface from sharp objects and utensils.

Final Thoughts

Food sticks to stainless steel cookware if you don’t follow the proper cooking techniques. It takes some practice, but if you follow the core cooking principles, you’ll master cooking with your stainless steel in no time. 

The most important things to keep in mind are:

  • Control the heat. The pan needs to be hot enough, but not too hot.
  • Use the right amount of oil at the right time.
  • Have patience — don’t rush adding oil if the temperature isn’t right, and don’t move the food too soon.
  • Let the food come to room temperature before cooking.
  • Don’t overcrowd the pan.
  • Clean the cookware properly.

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