How to Use a Stainless-Steel Pan (Without Worrying Your Food Will Stick)

According to our Test Kitchen.

July 18, 2023
Photo by Rocky Luten

Stainless steel is sturdy, sleek, and can be used to cook pretty much anything, making it the cookware material preferred by most professionals. Unlike its nonstick counterparts (which we still love!), stainless steel can handle high temperatures and metal utensils without the risk of damage. Cast-iron pans share many of the same benefits as stainless steel, but they tend to be heavier and bulkier—not ideal for moving around small kitchens or transferring from the stove or oven and to the table.

Then why isn’t everyone cooking with stainless steel? Well, there is one main deterrent: Unlike a seasoned cast-iron skillet or ceramic-coated nonstick pan, things tend to stick in stainless steel, if used improperly. Because of that, many home cooks—especially those who are just getting comfortable in the kitchen—avoid the material entirely. We’re here to say: Don’t let that fear stop you from cooking with stainless steel. Just follow a few key pieces of advice from the pros in our Test Kitchen, and you’ll find that cooking with these sturdy, long-lasting pans isn’t nearly as daunting as it seems.

The first major rule of cooking with stainless steel is to let the pan get very hot before adding your ingredients. There are two reasons for this: The first is that, when added to a cold pan, proteins are able to create bonds with the metal surface, effectively sticking the two together. Second, stainless steel is a porous (read: uneven) material. When it gets hot, the metal expands and those pores reduce in size, resulting in a smoother, more even surface that’s less prone to sticking. “If your surface is heated enough, the stuff just won't stick,” says Emily Ziemski, Food52’s food editor. (Keep in mind that because stainless steel is a super effective heat conductor, you’ll usually only need to use a medium-ish flame to get the pan very hot. Moreover, high heat can cause the fat in your pan to break down and lose its nonstick properties.)

To further regulate the temperature of your pan, Emily suggests using room temperature ingredients rather than those straight from the fridge. “Using ingredients that have been brought to room temperature prevents the pan from fluctuating in heat,” she says. Even if you preheat your pan, adding a cold ingredient to it will cause its temperature to drop, making the surface more prone to sticking. Anna Billingskog, Food52’s food stylist, also recommends using an oil or fat with a high smoke point, such as ghee, avocado oil, or peanut oil, to create a slick, nonstick surface—but there is such a thing as too much oil. “Not using too much is key, and you can always pour out what you don’t need into a heat safe vessel,” she says.

While these tips rely on a bit of trial and error, one method for determining if a stainless-steel pan is hot enough has taken off in popularity. Often referred to as the “water test” or “mercury ball test,” it involves adding a few drops of water to a hot, very dry skillet—if the water immediately sizzles and evaporates, the pan’s not hot enough. But if the water droplets remain intact and dance across the surface of the pan—a phenomenon known as the Leidenfrost Effect—you’re good to go.

Lastly, there’s the question of what to do if your food is already in the pan, and you find that it’s sticking whenever you try to flip it—even if you’ve preheated and oiled your pan properly. The best course of action? Wait it out a little longer. Typically, these ingredients will release from the pan when they’re ready—and they’ll have a caramelized, perfect sear to boot.

What are your best tips for cooking with stainless steel? Let us know in the comments!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • lailahamdani
  • Leonard Britolli
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  • Smaug
Anabelle Doliner

Written by: Anabelle Doliner

Staff Editor


lailahamdani October 7, 2023
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Leonard B. September 8, 2023
Watermelon pizza is a delightful and refreshing summer treat! This creative recipe transforms a juicy watermelon into a pizza-shaped canvas for a variety of delicious toppings. Whether you opt for a sweet twist with berries and yogurt or a savory version with feta cheese and fresh, watermelon pizza is a fun and healthy way to enjoy the season's bounty. It's perfect for poolside snacks, picnics, or any warm-weather gathering. 🍉🍕 #WatermelonPizza #SummerDelights
Leonard B. August 25, 2023
nice recipe, thx
Albert August 2, 2023
Title: "How to Make Stainless-Steel Pans & Cookware Nonstick - How to Prevent Sticking"


Ah, the elusive quest for nonstick perfection with stainless-steel pans! 🍳 This article is an absolute game-changer for home cooks like me who have struggled with sticky situations in the kitchen. 🙌

The step-by-step guide and expert tips on how to make stainless-steel pans nonstick are just what I needed. From seasoning the pans properly to choosing the right cooking oil, these techniques have truly transformed my culinary experience. Now, I can effortlessly flip pancakes and sauté veggies without the dreaded sticking drama. 🥞🥦

The best part is the emphasis on safe and healthy cooking methods, ensuring we don't compromise on taste or health. Kudos for highlighting the importance of using heat-resistant utensils to preserve the nonstick coating and avoid scratching the surface. 🍳🥄

As a bonus, the article also covers how to prevent sticking, which is equally crucial. Learning about the ideal cooking temperature and the preheating process has drastically reduced the chances of food sticking to the pan, making cleanup a breeze. 🌡️🧽

Overall, this is a comprehensive and well-researched guide that I'll keep referring back to. My stainless-steel pans are now my go-to kitchen companions, and I couldn't be happier with the results. Thank you for sharing these invaluable tips! 👏👏👏
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mbobden July 19, 2023
Can a stainless steel pan be used on a gas grill? I can't use my cast iron as I make lemon and lemoncello grilled shrimp and there is an odor and taste from the reaction.
Smaug July 18, 2023
Mostly what makes things stick is that when a wet piece of food is placed in the pan the moisture sticks to the pan; when it heats up the moisture is evaporated and the food is clamped to the pan by 32 psi air pressure. Effective nonstick pans do not attract water; you can tell if a nonstick pan is still good by putting some non soapy water in it and pouring it off; anywhere that it sticks, so will food. If you start in a cool or slightly warm pan with a little oil and start loosening your food as soon as it starts to sizzle, and keep loosening until the surface moisture is gone, you can avoid sticking without resorting to the lethal amounts of oil preferred by professional cooks.