Why Does Stainless Steel Cookware Stick?

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If you have a set of stainless steel cookware in your kitchen, you must know why they’re referred to as the chef’s best friend.

Stainless steel pans have plenty of outstanding features that are great for cooking delicious recipes. But everyone can still run into problems with them because they don’t have a non-stick coating, which can be challenging at times!

Food sticks to a stainless steel pan because the metal’s surface has tiny pores that open up when heated. If you don’t know how to get your stainless steel pan to the right temperature, don’t use enough oil, or don’t prepare your food beforehand, these pores will grab onto the cold food and make it stick.

If you find this happening to you, then read on! I’ll show you how to stop food from sticking to your stainless steel pans. No, it’s not magic, but prepared to be awed, just the same.

Help! Everything Sticks to My Stainless Steel Pan

You’re not alone, friend. The reason has to do with the pores in the stainless steel. You read that right. That beautifully shiny surface of your stainless steel pan may seem smooth, but it actually has microscopic small hills, divots, and pores that the naked eye can’t see. 

These pores open up when you put your pan on the stove. When you place cold (or even cool) food in a stainless steel pan, the pores grab onto it and make it stick to the surface, especially if the food isn’t greasy, and you haven’t used enough oil. Yikes!

Sometimes chemical bonds can form between the metal’s atoms and the food particles. For example, your food protein can form complex bonds with the iron atoms in the pan.

How Does Hot Oil Help?

The oil you add to your stainless steel pan fills the crevices and pores and acts as a barrier between your food and the pan.

What’s more, if the pan and oil are hot enough, the food loses its moisture in the form of steam. This steam lifts the food a tiny amount and forms a layer between the stainless steel pan and the food.

Now that the food isn’t completely touching the pan, it doesn’t form bonds with it and doesn’t stick. This is called the steam effect. We love the steam effect!

If the oil gets too hot, it will create a patina barrier layer, where the atoms react with the metal atoms. This coating will prevent the metal atoms from reacting with your food. This layer can be a good thing (see seasoning below). Yet too much, or too thick, seasoning can flake off. It can also give your stainless steel pan a discolored dark “dirty” look.

Not too hot, not too cold. Basically stainless steel is the Goldilocks of the cookware world.

How to Cook With Stainless Steel—Dos and Don’ts

There are a couple of rules that any good cook should know to stop food sticking to your stainless steel pans.

Clean Your Pan

If you don’t remove any excess oil or food bits from your previous cooking sessions, they may burn and make your food stick. 

Get Your Pan Ready

To begin with, you should put your pan on medium heat. Wait 2–5 minutes and do the following test to see if your pan is hot enough.

Every 30 seconds or so, sprinkle a single drop of water on the pan. If your pan is hot enough, it will stay together in one drop and float freely if you move the pan. This is called the mercury ball effect or the Leidenfrost effect. The water shouldn’t bubble or steam, and it shouldn’t fall apart. That means your pan is still cold.

It’s also a good idea to listen to the sound the water makes, which should be a hissing or a “TSS” sound.

By the way, this method is for stainless steel pans and even cast iron. You should never heat an empty non-stick pan, in case it overheats.

Get the Oil Ready

When your stainless steel pan is hot enough, you can add a little bit of oil, butter or margarine to the surface—that should get hot fast and flow immediately. You should bring the oil to the right temperature before adding the food, for it not to stick.

If you overheat it, the oil will start to smoke. You should add the food before that happens. Normally you’ll see small bubbles forming in the oil before it smokes – this is the perfect time to add food. You’ll get the hang of it with a bit of practice.

Just before adding the food, try to spread the oil around the pan as much as possible by turning the pan from side to side. If it’s hot enough it should spread easily.

Don’t use oil that has smoked as it will likely have turned rancid. It’s unhealthy and tastes awful.

Some cooks and chefs prefer to add cold oil to a cold pan. That’s because they can tell when the temperature is good enough by looking at the heating oil in the pan.

If you put cold oil and food in a cold pan, the food will start absorbing too much oil, and your dish will become extra greasy. Some people prefer it that way!

Remember, not all oil is the same. Some are healthier than others. I recommend extra virgin olive oil for normal frying. If cooking at high temperatures, then consider avocado oil.

Get the Food Ready

Your food must be both dry and at the right temperature. Ideally, you should take it out of the refrigerator for about 10–15 minutes before putting it in the pan. It’s best to let your food get close to room temperature before cooking it.

If you’re worried about leaving out raw meat, 10-15 minutes won’t hurt it or make it dangerous to consume. As long as you keep it under two hours (or an hour if the temperature is above 90°F), you should be fine.

Yet I know from experience, with two hungry children, this is often not practical. At least try to let it warm a little before use – even a few minutes out of the fridge will help.

This way, the food won’t drastically decrease the temperature of the pan, thereby making the food stick. Better 10 minutes of waiting than 15 minutes of cleaning up burnt, stuck-on food!

Before adding your food, always make sure it’s as dry as possible, so the moisture doesn’t drop the temperature. Pat any kind of meat dry to get rid of its wetness and use a sieve or colander to shake off the water of any vegetables you’ve washed.

You can also cover your food with a thin layer of oil to prevent it from sticking.

Don’t Overload the Pan

Crowding your pan with too much food releases water and moisture. That moisture will then lower the pan’s temperature and make the food stick to the stainless steel.

Instead of dumping food in all at once, you should divide your food into batches. After a batch is done, reheat the pan, add more oil if needed, and cook the next portion. Patience is key!

Or use two pans!

Cooking a little at a time keeps your stainless steel pans hot and helps prevent them from sticking. It can also allow your food to taste better and have a complex flavor. 

Don’t Be Hasty When Turning Food

You don’t need to move the food around constantly. In fact, trying to move around meat and poultry while it’s still searing could make sticking worse.

First of all, foods like meat should be seared only once on each side. (Remember that some fragile food such as diced vegetables are exceptions to this rule because you have to mix them often to prevent burning.)

Other than that, if you tried to move something and you feel it’s stuck, that could mean it’s not done cooking yet.

It will release on its own if you give it time, and if it doesn’t, lower the heat a little. Shake the pan, and if the meat—or any other food—can move freely, it’s time to turn it around. I’ve found chicken to be one of the worst offenders. It sticks terribly at first contact, but once it’s properly cooked on one side, it’s easy to flip.

Listen to the Sounds

It helps to listen to the sound your food is making. If you’ve done everything correctly, once you put your food in the oily hot pan, you will hear a sizzling sound.

As I’ve already mentioned, when the hot oil touches the food, the steam effect happens, and the sizzling is the sound of water vaporizing from food.

Also, when the temperature exceeds 140°C (285°F), the Maillard reaction will occur, which is the browning that takes shape on the meat. This reaction will produce water as well, and therefore, you can hear sizzling.

Once the sizzling has stopped, it’s definitely time to take your food off the stove. Otherwise, the food will burn. 

Change What You Are cooking

Stainless steel isn’t for everyone, if you can’t fry an omelet in your stainless steel skillet without creating hours of work, perhaps you need a non-stick pan.

Yet there are some things you can cook in stainless steel where it is very hard to go wrong. A great example of this are pasta pots. These pots are normally stainless because it is easy to maintain and durable. And water doesn’t stick to anything.

Liquid foods can be less sticky, this is especially the case for water. So if you get rid of your stainless steel pans because they’re too much effort to clean, consider at least keeping stock pot or pasta pot.

How to Season a Stainless Steel Pan

It’s not technically necessary to season a stainless steel pan, but it’s a great way to help prevent sticking. It requires just a little time on the front end, but it will pay big dividends in the long-run.

Although this method isn’t permanent and you should re-apply the seasoning whenever the food starts to stick again, it doesn’t take much time, and it’s easy to do. Besides, you’ll still have to use a bit of oil when cooking, but this method goes a long way.

Here are some simple steps you can take:

  1. Wash your stainless steel pan. Start by washing your pan with warm water and soap. Ensure it’s entirely clean, so the pores are open and prepared to be filled with oil. Wait until the pan is dry.
  2. Place your stainless steel pan over low to medium heat. This will help open up the pores and ensure it’s completely dry.
  3. Pour a bit of oil in the pan. Choose a type of oil with a high smoke point, like peanut oil or coconut oil. Pour a bit of the oil inside the pan and let it melt. Using a paper towel, wipe the oil around the pan and cover the inside with a thin oil layer. Make sure not to burn yourself! Pour out the remaining oil.
  4. Optional Tip: When adding the oil, you can also add some salt and polish the pan with the mixture. This will help fill the pores better.
  5. Place the pan on a high heat. Open any windows and make sure you have plenty of ventilation!
  6. Remove from heat. When your pan starts to smoke, remove it from the heat and let it cool down. You can wipe out any extra oil—or salt—from your pan afterward.

There’s no need to wash your pan with water and soap after every use. In fact, too much, or too harsh a detergent, can damage the seasoning layer. The best thing is to wipe any extra oil from it. If the food starts to stick again, you can wash your pan and repeat the process.

Taking Care of Stainless Steel Cookware

Like any other cookware, stainless steel pots and pans need special cleaning and care, so they can serve you better and for a longer time.

After you’re done cooking, clean out any remaining oil or food bits with a paper towel. Pour some warm water in the hot pan it to loosen any stuck bits from the surface. If anything remains, you can use a wooden spoon to remove what’s left. Then you can wash it with some hot water and mild dish soap (or even just hot water).

After washing, be sure to let it dry and keep it somewhere without moisture because there’s a substantial amount of oxygen in the water that can cause the steel to rust over time.

With cast iron, I recommend heating slightly after washing to dry it out, and then even applying a light coat of oil. This is to stop the cast iron rusting. You shouldn’t need to do this with stainless steel, as it’s not supposed to rust, this isn’t strictly necessary.

Yet rust-resistant isn’t the same as rust-proof. Stainless steel pans can rust if left damp for a long time. So make sure it’s dry, and consider coating with oil if you will be leaving it for a long time.

If you’ve managed to burn some food on your stainless steel pan, it can be particularly hard to clean. Good thing I’ve written a guide for that specifically then!

So, What Type of Pan Should You Use?

No matter how hard you try, sometimes stainless steel sticks to your food. However, that’s nothing to do with your cooking; it’s just that some foods stick!

For example, you might find lean protein-rich food, like chicken, turkey, and egg, sticking to your pan, whatever you do. This is because their protein content forms chemical bonds with the steel’s atoms.

Yet, a stainless steel pan is excellent for searing meat or fish. So, I recommend that you season your stainless steel pan and carefully follow the tips I gave you on how to cook with them.

Stainless Steel Pans…What’s Next?

Stainless steel pans are amongst the most durable, healthiest and low-maintenance cookware there is.

It’s hard to damage a stainless steel pan, and it can last for years.

Yet it can be a nightmare to clean up when food sticks to it.

I use stainless steel pans some of the time. Other times I use non-stick, or cast iron. Stainless steel is best if you have a little time to get everything warm and make sure the pan has a decent layer of oil.

Or for boiling pasta!

Either way, everything has its place, and if you know how to use it, a decent set of stainless steel pans could be at the heart of your kitchen.

If this article has piqued your interest in stainless steel then check out some of my guides: