A great set of stainless steel cooking pots is a delight in any kitchen — if you know how to use it correctly. While stainless steel pans may not be as forgiving as nonstick pans, they can often produce superior results, and are prized throughout the cooking world for good reason. Stainless steel’s excellent heat retention and durability make it an excellent choice in the kitchen.
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One of the biggest challenges that stainless steel users face, though, is that if the pan is used incorrectly, the food sticks. Food sticks when the temperature of a pan is either too hot or too cold.
However, used correctly, stainless steel pots and pans can be some of your best friends in the kitchen and are long-lasting kitchen necessities. They just take a few unique usage tips to become the stars they deserve to be.
Follow along as we cover some of the dos — and don’ts — of cooking with stainless steel.
DO: PREHEAT AND OIL YOUR PAN
Meat won’t stick if you properly preheat your pan.
Let’s assume you’re using a skillet and either searing or sautéeing some food — be it meat or veggies. The first step you’ll need to take with your pan is preheating it.
You’ll want to begin by placing your frying pan on the stovetop over medium heat, or medium-high heat if you’re feeling ambitious. You’ll know the pan is ready to use when a water droplet becomes a ball and bounces around the surface. Simply splash a few drops of water on the pan and when you see this effect, the pan is good to go.
You should do this before adding any oil to the pan: if you add oil first, you risk the oil heating up before the pan is fully heated. If you’re using an oil with a low smoke temperature, like olive oil, it can begin to smoke before you’re ready to cook. Make sure the water in the pan has evaporated before you add the oil or you risk the oil jumping out of the pan and burning you.
Oil is necessary to prevent sticking because it acts as a barrier between the pan and the food, but you don’t need too much. Enough to coat the bottom of the pan should be plenty, unless your recipe specifically calls for more. If you have too much, wipe out the excess with a paper towel. We don’t recommend using a canned cooking spray since the chemical propellants can stick to your pan long-term. It’s fine to use a spray bottle with natural oil, however.
Once you’ve added the oil, let it heat until it swirls around the pan loosely. Adding your food to cold oil will likely lead to sticking since the temperature of the pan will drop too quickly from the addition of the cold oil and cold food.
Any food you put in the pan should give that classic sizzle — one of the most satisfying aspects of cooking. If your food doesn’t sizzle, your temperature is too low and you risk the food sticking. For this reason, it’s good to test a single piece of food for sizzle before adding the whole batch.
DO: GET YOUR FOOD TO ROOM TEMPERATURE
Make sure meat isn’t directly out of the fridge when you sear it.
Just as your pan should be at the right temperature, your food should be at the right temperature before you cook it. Adding cold food to a hot pan can drastically drop the temperature of the pan and eventually lead to the cook’s anathema of sticking food.
The best way to prepare your food is to have it reach room temperature — or at least close to it — before cooking. Fortunately, the solution here is quite simple, and only takes a little foresight. Remove your food from the fridge before cooking it. How long it takes to reach room temperature depends entirely on the food item: A thick steak will take longer than a piece of salmon or some broccoli, for example.
DO: BE PATIENT WITH A SEAR
Meat like duck breast will release from the pan when it’s ready to flip.
If you’re searing a steak — or chicken, or fish, or anything else — the pan will let you know when the meat is ready to go. That’s because a proper sear will create a barrier between the meat and the pan via the beautiful browned outside it produces. If you feel the urge to check your food item with a spatula, make sure not to forcibly lift it if it feels like it’s sticking — it just needs more time. You should only sear once on each side. Give the pan a shake and if the meat moves around of its own accord, it’s ready to flip.
DON’T: NEGLECT THE STUCK BITS WHEN MAKING SAUCE
A stainless steel pan is ideal for making sauces, soups, and stews.
One of the main selling points of a stainless steel pan over a nonstick or a cast iron pan is that some bits do in fact stick to the bottom of the pan even if you do everything correctly. These bits are called “fond,” a French word that has many meanings when not used culinarily: background, bottom, depth, the core of the issue, the basis. In culinary terms, these ideas loosely translate into the base of a sauce. That’s because the fond is full of flavor. It’s no surprise that chefs are so fond of fond.
Because stainless steel is non-reactive and can develop stuck bits, it’s the best choice for making a pan sauce. You can deglaze the pan when your primary cooking is done. Deglazing is a process that begins with adding an astringent like wine, vinegar, liquor, or stock to a pan. The liquid loosens the stuck bits and this forms the foundation of what could quickly become a delicious pan sauce. If you’d like to make a pepper sauce for seared duck breast or red wine sauce for steak, this is when you do it.
Stainless steel is also perfect for cooking acidic dishes like tomato sauce. Copper, aluminum, and cast iron all react poorly with acidic foods: Aluminum can lead to a metallic taste, copper can lead to illness if it’s not lined with a non-reactive surface, and acidic foods can strip a cast iron pan’s seasoning.
Stainless steel is non-reactive and thus is ideal for making a Bolognese sauce, for example. The flavor won’t be tainted by the metal, and the acidity won’t damage the pan. Sauces, soups, and stews are where your stock pot, saucier, or sauté pan truly shine: The stability of the metal, combined with its durability, make stainless steel an excellent choice for any of these pans.
CARING FOR YOUR STAINLESS STEEL PANS
Your stainless steel pans can take a beating and still stay in great shape.
Taking good care of your stainless steel pans is as important as using them correctly when cooking. By doing so, you’ll ensure that they’ll be in their best possible shape and will be valuable tools long into the future.
One of the major upsides of a stainless steel pan is that it’s dishwasher-safe. Because there’s no delicate non-stick coating to damage, a stainless steel pan can survive countless tours through a dishwasher.
If, however, you prefer the traditional route of hand-washing your pan, a stainless steel pan is happy with that as well. Just make sure to let the pan cool before running any water over it to prevent warping or discoloration. Once it’s cool, you can wash it with soapy water or a dedicated cleaning agent like Bar Keeper’s Friend.
Make sure you keep the pan dry and away from moisture when it’s not being used. Even stainless steel doesn’t like being wet when it’s not necessary.
KNOW YOUR COOKWARE
By knowing how to best use your cookware you’ll get the most out of your kitchen. Stainless steel pans can be an invaluable kitchen ally and last for ages if properly cared for.
If you’ve been wary of stainless steel before, try it again and discover how it can work for you. Upgrade your cookware to stainless steel and find out just how much fun cooking can be.