Here's the Reason Food Is Always Sticking to Your Pans

I’m sorry to say it this way’s not your pans, it’s you.

Young Women Preparing Salmon at Home
Photo: kajakiki/Getty Images

There is nothing that can hurt your culinary ego quicker than the heartbreak that is having your dinner cling to the pan. Is it me? Is it my pans? Should I find a new hobby and never cook again? We've all been there — and frankly, it's not only disheartening, but it's a dang headache to scrub the crusted-on food bits off of your precious cookware. If you're ready to live a life where you're not constantly scraping away the remnants of a sear gone wrong, read on to learn how to ensure that your food isn't going to stick to your pans.

When food does stick to your pan, the natural suspicion is that something is wrong with the equipment. Before you write off your pans as garbage and start browsing for a new set, let me suggest to you that your pans are probably fine. Sure, some nonstick pans can lose their coating after time and heavy usage, but even then, you should still be able to cook on them without having your food sticking.

So, if it's not the equipment, what is it?

Not Enough Heat & Time

Well, let's back up for a second. The most common reason that food does stick onto pans (or grill grates) is because the food items have not yet caramelized and naturally pulled away from the pan. Meaning that when you go to move the food around with your spatula, tongs, or other cooking utensil, the food will likely rip or tear away from the pan, causing torn, soon-to-be-burnt bits to accumulate in your skillet. To call it a "huge bummer" would be an understatement.

What this means is that the way to avoid having food stick to your pan is to ensure that it has caramelized and formed a crusty, golden brown exterior before attempting to move or flip the item. The only way that you're going to create caramelization is with ample heat and time (and a little bit of cooking fat, but we'll discuss that later). It's not your pans that are causing your food to stick, it's the lack of heat and time (i.e. patience) that you're giving the food. So, if you're constantly experiencing food stickage issues, try turning your heat up a little and letting the food do its thing before you attempt to move it around. It may take some self control; after all, time seems to pass by exceptionally slowly when you're standing over a skillet, watching it's contents sizzle away.

*Note: This advice is intended to be applied towards food items prone to sticking, such as cuts of meat, fish, certain moist vegetables, etc. This tip obviously does not apply to things like sauces, which do generally need frequent stirring and do not generally require high-heat cooking.

For example, cooking a skin-on salmon fillet may seem like a true nightmare for some. (If you've never tried to grill a piece of skin-on fish only to have shards of burnt skin encrust all of your grill grates, then you are one lucky duck...or you're a vegetarian). I've learned through lots of practice that pan-searing or grilling skin-on fillets doesn't have to end in misery. The key to avoiding a hellish situation is to let your fillet cook skin-side-down until the skin becomes crispy and naturally releases from the pan or grates.

You can gently check by running your spatula under the skin to see if it's ready yet, but if you have any resistance as you try to lift the piece of fish, that likely means that the fish needs more time. In that case, keep on cooking; make sure you have at least a medium to medium-high flame, and let the fillet do its thing. With enough patience, you'll see that the skin eventually pulls away from the pan/grates when it's crispy and golden brown. Magic!

Not Enough Fat

Okay, let's return to that discussion of fat. Cooking with fat not only provides a ton of flavor, but it also acts as a lubricant and helps your food release from the pan instead of simply burning onto it. If your food sticks, there is a chance that you simply didn't use enough oil. That said, you don't need to get carried away with oiling your foods and cooking vessels — a thin layer of fat, combined with heat and time, should do the trick beautifully. Nonstick pans require less oil because of their coating, but as long as you're cooking on a seasoned cast iron or oiled grill grates, then you should still be just fine with a moderate amount of oil (in the pan or applied directly to the food for grilling). Honestly, heat and time are much more crucial than a heavy glug of oil when it comes to preventing sticking.

This sentiment of using high heat and all the patience that you have in order to avoid sticky situations holds true for any food that is giving you issues when you cook it, not just fish fillets. Fried eggs, grilled veggies, seared scallops, chicken thighs, grilled steak — any food that has ever been problematic for you in the stickage department simply needed more heat and more time to do its thing. Your pans are fine and it's possible you even used enough oil. Just turn up your heat, be patient, and your culinary confidence will be back in no time.

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