This Easy Hack *Basically* Transforms Stainless Steel Pans into Non-Stick

We put a TikTok hack to the test, and it might just change your life.

A stainless steel skillet on a yellow and teal background.


What’s the secret to turning your stainless steel pan into a non-stick pan? Chefs and Tik-Tokers swear by this simple hack that only requires two things: a stainless steel pan and a few drops of water. But does it actually work? We talked to the pros to find out. 

What is the hack that turns your stainless steel pan into *basically* a non-stick pan?

Skeptical of yet another TikTok hack that sounds too easy and too good to be true? Understood. Fortunately this hack, coined the “mercury ball test,” has merit, says John Vermiglio, chef and proprietor of Four Man Ladder Restaurants in Detroit, Michigan. The process involves heating a stainless steel pan and then adding a few drops of water to test if it’s hot enough for cooking. 

If the water beads up and looks like a mercury ball (also called the Leidenfrost effect), then the pan is ready and will essentially act like a non-stick pan, making maintaining and cleaning your stainless steel cookware a breeze. Vermiglio says that the water bead is a clear indication that your pan is hot enough and ready for the oil, followed by the food. “Ensuring that the proper temperature of the stainless steel pan has been reached prior to adding ing your stainless steel cookware clean-upanything is pivotal in obtaining a proper sear and no sticking.” 

How does the mercury ball test work?

How is it possible that the bottom of a stainless steel pan can become a non-stick surface? You have to consider the anatomy of stainless steel, says Bobby Griggs, Vice President of Heritage Steel, a family-owned stainless steel cookware manufacturer in Clarksville, TN. If you look at a stainless steel pan under a microscope, you will see a surface covered with small pores and crevices. 

When stainless steel is exposed to heat, it expands (a process known as thermal expansion) and pushes the holes closed, creating a relatively smooth and less porous surface. Sealing those holes means your oil and food can essentially glide right over the surface of the pan, making it function like a non-stick surface. Now that's kitchen magic!

Here’s how to try the mercury ball test at home:

Ready to give the mercury ball test a try? Here are the steps:

  1. Set your pan over the heat. Both Griggs and Vermiglio recommend setting your stainless steel pan over medium to medium-high heat. It’s the perfect temperature for that expansion!
  2. Wait a few minutes. Allow the dry pan to sit over that heat for 2 to 3 minutes. You’ll be tempted to mess with it, but just let it be.
  3. Add the water. Now it’s time to test your pan’s readiness! Griggs says to add a few drops of water to the pan. If the water splatters and evaporates, the pan is not ready. Wait another minute and try again. If it beads up and runs freely around the pan, the pan is ready for oil or fat.
  4. Get cooking! Add your oil to the pan, swirl it around and let it heat up a bit, then add your food and watch your pan do its thing!

The Bottom Line

Give that stainless steel pan–or your entire set of stainless steel cookware–another chance! Use the mercury ball test so that you can feel confident it’s ready for cooking. When you master this hack, you’ll never look at stainless steel pans the same way.

Was this page helpful?
You’ll Also Love