In our arsenals of cookware, I believe that most people have at least one (or more) “non-stick” pans that they rely on for certain tasks. From non-stick coatings, to ceramic and titanium pans, and even well-seasoned cast iron pans – they are out there. But what about the good old, tried and true, stainless steel pan? Many complain that food sticks to it too much and thus tends to be cast aside.
A stainless steel pan must be of good quality. As with most cookware, you get what you pay for. You need a pan of high-grade stainless steel and a base that provides even heating and good heat retention. Talk to the professionals at your local kitchen supply store as they are a wealth of information and will be able to steer you in the right direction.
The first step is to make sure that your pan is evenly heated before you put anything in the pan. The most common mistake is that food is added at the same time (or shortly thereafter) the pan meets the stove. The pan needs to be hot first, even before you add any oil. Once the pan is hot, add a small amount of high-heat oil (like grape seed, coconut, rice bran, etc. – there are many to choose from) and then the food. The food may still stick at first, but only for a short time. Once the ingredients have been seared briefly, they should start to move around the pan freely with little effort.
Let’s examine this procedure further in the example of cooking a steak, or a piece of meat or seafood A stainless steel pan is the best choice in this example because it allows some of the browning of the meat to stay in the pan to help flavour the perfect accompanying pan sauce. The preliminary steps as mentioned above are the same: you must make sure the empty pan is hot first before you add anything. How hot will depend on many factors like the thickness of the meat and the doneness you are trying to achieve.
I find the best way to test temperature in an empty pan is to sprinkle a bit of water. If the water sits in the pan and does nothing, it is not hot. If the water bubbles, spurts, and evaporates fairly quickly, it is getting hotter. When the water beads and rolls around the pan like little marbles before evaporating, then it is hot. A word of warning – this water test is to be done in a dry pan only with no oil. Do not attempt to add any oil, or fatty ingredients, while the water still exists in the pan otherwise it could spurt and burn you or cause a grease fire in your pan.
Once you know the pan is hot, and the water from testing it has evaporated, add a small amount of high-heat oil, and then the meat immediately after. If you think the pan is too hot, then after the meat has been added turn down the heat and/or temporarily remove the pan from the heat. The most important thing now is to not disturb the meat. It will be stuck at first, but trying to pry the meat from the pan at this point will just inhibit the crust from being formed. Once the meat has seared, and browned thoroughly, it will release itself easily from the pan when you attempt to flip it over. Cooking the other side without disruption at first is also crucial.
The one thing you will notice in the pan, unlike non-stick pans, is that there are browned bits from the meat left on the surface of the pan. This is called fond, and you want this to help flavour your pan sauce. Once the meat has been cooked to your desired doneness, remove it and set it aside to rest. Reduce the heat in the pan and some liquid to deglaze the pan. Deglazing is the process of lifting those browned bits off the pan and into the liquid with the help of some subtle scraping action with a utensil. Add your remaining sauce ingredients and cook until desired consistency has been reached. Serve with the awaiting meat and enjoy.
There are countless pan sauce recipes and variations online for you to try. My best piece of advice to you however, is practice. With repeated attempts you will get to understand how to recognize the heat exchange and how it affects the pan and ultimately the food. If you want to become good at anything… do it more – and cooking is no different.