This is the first piece in a series titled Cooking Basics.
In our store we get customers with a broad range of cooking skills. We get people who are seasoned pros, we get the beginners who have no idea where to start, and we get everybody in between. One common complaint we hear from those shopping for new cookware is that they can't keep meat from sticking to their pans. Usually they complain about stainless steel pans, some cheap hand-me-down single-ply from the '70s or '80s, but sometimes those with much higher quality multi-clad pans note the same problem. "I spent good money on this pan and it's a piece of garbage!" This even happens with seasoned cast iron. So what's going on?
Sometimes the equipment is the problem, and you definitely get what you pay for in cookware. Single-ply heats up fast and cools down fast when meat hits the pan, producing wild variations in surface temperature, which is definitely not good for cooking.
Usually, however, one or more of the following three things is the cause of meat sticking to the pan:
- Meat that's too cold
- A pan that's not hot enough
- Not enough fat on the surface of the pan
Rule #1: LET MEAT COME TO ROOM TEMPERATURE.
This is a big one. Cold protein and hot pans do not get along well together. Maybe you're concerned about food safety (as we all should be), and think the meat should be in the fridge until right at that moment when it's ready to cook. No. That cold steak, pork, or chicken is going to hit that hot pan and immediately start binding to the pan. When you think it's time to flip, if you can separate it from the pan at all, you'll likely leave that wonderful browned layer behind on the pan, and that's where all the flavor comes from! Assuming your meat was fresh to begin with, letting it warm up on the counter for ten minutes or so is not going to make you sick. Pet owners might have to stay vigilant for those ten minutes, but this is cooking. Once you start, you stay present, and alert!
Rule #2: HEAT THE PAN TO COOKING TEMPERATURE.
What's "cooking temperature," you ask? It depends. Cook regularly, and eventually you will develop a feel for this. You can try various methods like putting your fingers under running water, then flicking a little on the pan. If the drops of water pop and dance around the surface, it's ready. Or you can watch the oil (more on that next), and see it shimmering, but not smoking. A good temperature, if you happen to have an infrared thermometer, is around 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Hold your hand over the same pan routinely, and get to know the right temperature by feel. But again, it depends, especially on the type of food and what you intend for the end product. A little cooler, and you will have more time to control the outcome. A little hotter, and you'll get more browning. Above all though, make sure that pan is ready to go before that meat hits it. A cool pan is a surefire way to make meat bind to the surface.
Rule #3: USE ENOUGH FAT
This is another "that depends" rule. If you're using butter, don't let it get too hot, or it's going to smoke. Oil is best, and obviously we prefer extra virgin oils from Olivelle! Yes, extra virgin oils can be used for frying, you just have to watch that smoke point (check out our next blog for more on this). If you haven't done so already, please read Samin Nosrat's wonderful book, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. As she notes, fat serves several purposes in cooking, foremost as a medium to transfer heat from the pan to your food. With fatty meats, this isn't as much of an issue. Hamburger and fattier cuts of steak are going to release their own saturated fats onto the pan, and that will do nicely in most cases. With leaner cuts, such as sirloin and chicken breasts, you have to add the fat. A couple tablespoons should be fine. If the pan is too dry, lean meats will stick.
Give these rules a try next time you cook meat on the stovetop. Cooking is as much art as it is science, and the more time you spend in the kitchen, the more you'll develop a feel for your cookware, for timing, and for heat. Most importantly, have fun, and don't walk away from the stovetop!
Image by planet_fox