Help me stop burning pots and pans!
September 17, 2016 2:14 AM   Subscribe

I am new to cooking, burned my stainless steel pan, and want to understand why I did and how to prevent doing it again.

Caveat: I am a complete amateur in the kitchen and have really just started "cooking", if you can call it that. Here's my situation. I've recently been cooking steaks on a George Foreman grill, and then putting it on a hot pan after it's done just to get a sear on both sides. When I used a non-stick pan, I simply got it really hot, threw the steak on it, flipped it after 30 seconds, and all was good. I did the same thing another night using a stainless steel pan instead - got it very hot, threw the steak on...and my pan came away totally scorched and burnt.

A couple questions. Why did this happen? Should I not be using a stainless steel pan for this purpose? If I had put oil on the pan first, would that have prevented the burns? In general, for the sake of my future cooking when it expands beyond searing steaks, what is causing it to burn the stainless steel pan and how can I prevent that?

Any other tips are very much I said, complete amateur here so assume I know nothing (not far from the truth!). Thanks!
posted by anonymous to Food & Drink (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
For something like searing a steak, I would purchase a good cast iron skillet (these require another set of skills, but you'll keep it for a lifetime and will never regret having it). I find Stainless Steel to be a bit difficult to use and maintain, but here's a pretty good article from the food network with some tips.
posted by HuronBob at 2:29 AM on September 17, 2016 [2 favorites]

I agree that a cast iron skillet would work better for steak (in principle: if you maintain it well). Stainless steel is a bit prone to sticking in any case, but if you had added a bit of bacon grease, oil, butter, or a mix, it would have worked fairly well. You can't sear anything without fat in stainless steel (or pretty much in anything else, actually). No matter the material, a heavy bottom gives better results. The good news for you specifically is that steel is forgiving when you need to scrub it clean...

Now as to "very hot" - people tend to overdo this. Especially in nonstick pans, "very hot" is not a good idea, as it might destroy the non-stick layer. It's all in the small print of the wrapper that you've (likely) thrown away.

Your method seems a bit like the reverse-cook method, i.e. cooking the steak until _almost_ done first (easiest done in the oven, actually, but you need to have an instant-read thermometer at the ready), and browning it at the end. Here, it seems unnecessary to use any overly high temperature at all. I have used a 50-50 mix of olive oil and butter and heated it just _below_ smoking point. Still browning fine.

Then again, in J. Kenji López-Alt _The Food Lab_p. 342 I'm finding this: He cooks steaks in the skillet from the start, flipping them often, in smoking-hot but not burning vegetable oil, until a light brown crust forms, then adds butter, reduces the heat somewhat in case of excessive smoke, and cooks the steaks until deep brown, again flipping them over frequently. it did work for me, even if I always hate having to decide when "smoking hot" turns into "burning."
posted by Namlit at 3:35 AM on September 17, 2016 [5 favorites]

If I had put oil on the pan first, would that have prevented the burns?

Yes. Any time you're using something that's non-stick, you have to use some kind of fat - oil or butter*. (Or, if you're wanting to sort of poach/steam things, you can use water or broth - tends to work better with non-stick pans, ime.) Even with non-stick surfaces, you'll still need a bit of oil.

*and butter burns more quickly than oil does, sometimes putting a few drops of oil in there will help.
posted by cotton dress sock at 5:25 AM on September 17, 2016 [8 favorites]

(Cast iron is great for steaks, just know that cast iron pans have to be seasoned [if they're not pre-seasoned] with oil first, and it's better if the steak itself is a bit fatty, too. And usually, it helps to at least brush the steak with a bit of oil or butter first, as well.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 5:34 AM on September 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

Don't worry about cast iron right now. They're best for steaks, and you should pick one up and get comfortable with it in the long run, but they add way more variables than you need to work with right now as a novice cook. There's plenty of time to learn to run once you've learned to walk.

Cotton Dress Sock is right about oiling the pan. Also note that not all oils are created equal for cooking - different oils have different "smoke points" which is the temperature where they start to burn. For example, extra-virgin olive oil has a very low smoke point, so if you try to do any really hot cooking it's gonna smoke the crap out of your kitchen, while non-virgin olive oil has a higher smoke point, and vegetable, peanut, and canola oil have some of the highest. Butter also has a super low smoke point (that's why Indian cooking uses ghee for cooking - it's a type of processed butter that has a much higher smoke point).

You can find lists of oils and their smoke points online. In a nutshell, for want you're doing here with the steak canola oil is probably your best bet, though any high smoke point oil will do.
posted by Itaxpica at 5:46 AM on September 17, 2016 [3 favorites]

If you oil the meat well, instead of the pan, you'll get fewer oil splatters in your eye. You can just cover the steak with oil after you've hit it with the George Forman grill, which you probably don't need unless you're into it.

To make inroads at getting better at cooking, IMO the things to understand are heat, fat, salt, and sugar.

-Knowing how hot a pan is helps you assess the difference between a quick sear that turns the meat a nice brown on the outside versus a slow cook on medium low that turns the meat a nice brown on the outside but also turns the inside gray and chewy. The browning at high heat causes sugars to melt and caramelize and that's what makes a nice steak a nice steak. Most stoves have multiple burners and if you don't know which is which you wind up like Mr. Llama, sometimes surprised by how long something is taking, sometimes dismayed by something burning at light speed.

-A nice steak without salt is gross. You'll want salt on it before putting it in the pan. Also salt draws moisture out of cell walls so if you cover slices of cucumber with salt after it sits for a few moments they'll be quite wet and salty. Meat will work the same way so if it sits there a while you may want to blot with paper towels before cooking to avoid the whole fat splatters in your eye thing.

-I don't know about the grill thing unless you're really into it. You could just sear in pan, then throw the whole thing in the oven, or work at getting a better feel for stove top temperatures and just do it on top of the stove (I like to focus mostly on getting a really nice sear on one side and then flipping for a lesser period of time because I like steak medium rare and this allows me to have that and still have it look pretty.)

-I think you've got the heat cranked up too much before you throw the steak in. Everyone makes it seem like you should be searing your meat under a rocket flame but really it should be medium high and well pre-heated. If drops of water skitter and explode across a heated pan like they have shattered, that's too hot. Drops of water should jump around but maintain some level of structural integrity as they bounce and disappear quickly.

-Don't mix water and fat or you'll get splatters in your eye

-If it goes to hell and winds up overcooked you can make hash and put a fried egg on it.

-That thing about the burners can let you manipulate heat really quickly, without thinking about it. You can have one on a low heat and one on a high heat and you can move the pan from one to the other if you feel like you are frying too close to the sun.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 6:09 AM on September 17, 2016 [5 favorites]

Oil the pan with something with a high smoke point, like canola, sesame, or avocado oil. This will prevent your steaks from sticking. Also, never heat a non-stick pan without food in it; if you make it too hot (which will happen if yoh don't have anything in the pan to help absorb some of the heat) you'll start to break down the non-stick coating which will make it toxic and carcinogenic. It will also ruin the pan fairly quickly.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 7:53 AM on September 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

all of this advice is good (especially eventually becoming comfortable with cast iron).

to add to that - your stainless steel likely gets hotter than your non-stick even at the same stove temperature, so you might back down just a little on the heat. but also - blackening your stainless steel pans really isn't a big deal if your food is coming away tasty. i do find a little bit of olive oil butter is good for my steaks but i've also done them dry and loved the results. to return the pan to it's bright, non burnt or scorched state, just get some barkeepers friend.
posted by radiopaste at 8:35 AM on September 17, 2016

I am an experienced cook and I still have a problem with getting my heavy stainless clad pans too hot (I have a ridiculously hot glasstop stove, I rarely use a setting over 6 except to boil water) and oiled enough *at the right time*. You have to get the pan hot first, then oil it enough but not too much (it can help to oil the surface of the meat as well), and then when you put your protein down it IS going to stick until the fond forms and then it should let go. It takes time to learn to do that so that you get your pan hot enough to form a fond but not so hot that the steak goes straight past fond to burned.

If you are coming from another cooking method and the meat is wet, you should dab it as dry as possible and then oil it. The water disrupts the process.

Cast iron is more forgiving in this particular case, though it still sticks until the fond forms. It turns out that contrary to legend, cast iron pans are actually quite thermodynamically unstable and cool a good bit when something sturdy goes it, but that's actually to your advantage with that fond formation as long as it doesn't cool too much.

(Kenji Lopez-Alt has now moved on to preferring sous vide for steaks, finished on cast iron, a grill, or with a blowtorch. He and Mefi's Own Adam Savage tested it. Serious Eats' Definitive Guide to Steak has more info you may find useful for learning about protein and heat.)

So the terrible news I have for you is that you may be forced to eat quite a few steaks before you feel like you have the hang of it. Keep in mind with more delicate proteins like poultry, you're going to do the same thing but not nearly as hot (especially if it's skinless). And I just don't even with fish, I use nonstick or broiling/roasting for that.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:39 AM on September 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you add oil to the pan, do so after heating your pan, not before. Food sticks more if you add the oil to the pan and then preheat it.

Stainless steel is good for browning food in only if it has a layer of aluminum or copper on the bottom to improve its heating properties. If the pan is only stainless steel, it will generally have hot spots in some places that burn especially easily.
posted by artistic verisimilitude at 8:40 AM on September 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

I find canola no good at all for high temperatures; it smokes and develops a fish taste. I use safflower.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:33 AM on September 17, 2016

On consideration, do you want rough instructions?

-For your average 1" to 1.5" steak, put the pan on the stove, add tablespoon of oil, turn the heat 3/4 of the way to the highest setting.

-Set a timer for five minutes to let the oil and pan heat up.

-Blot the steak with a paper towel then put salt and pepper on it, enough so that it just looks nice and seems about right.

-Put it in the pan for six minutes, then add a second tablespoon of oil if it the pan seems silly-dry, then flip.

-Let it cook for three minutes.

-Put it on a plate with some foil on top of it for five minutes while you pour wine and set a table.

That's it. That should give you a not-at-all-sucky steak at medium rare-ish.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 11:27 AM on September 17, 2016

Ack--one more thing: one thing that really helps is a slavish devotion to a timer. Polder makes a good dual one. I've had a less fancy version of this for ages. I'm a good cook, but it is still comforting to let your brain rest and be reminded when to check something as opposed to a vague anxiety of constantly needing to check something. Setting a timer for five minutes is a really good way to avoid the urge to pry food up to look underneath it, thereby ruining the smooth exterior you'd otherwise be shooting for.

Another thing to pay attention to is sound--splatter and hiss is water doing things, but like an angry dog, silence is worse. Silence = probably burning.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 11:41 AM on September 17, 2016

When I used a non-stick pan, I simply got it really hot

If the non-stick coating is anything related to Teflon, you really shouldn’t be getting the pan searing hot: Polymer fume fever.
posted by D.C. at 11:50 AM on September 17, 2016 [3 favorites]

Also, barkeeper's friend is excellent for reviving scorched stainless steel. I prefer the liquid variety.

Kitchen cleaning magic.
posted by politikitty at 1:19 PM on September 17, 2016

Get yourself a cheap IR thermometer. Point and click and you know how hot something is. Pick a pan and keep using it, pick a burner and keep using it. Use a timer of some sort (I use an app on my phone). Then it's sorta trial and error tweaking.

That IR thermometer is probably the most fun and useful multi-tasking gizmo that you'll ever find and wonder how you ever survived before you had it.
posted by zengargoyle at 2:21 PM on September 17, 2016

Stainless steel can be a pain in the butt - I have struggled to like my expensive All-Clad to the point that I finally just gave it away. I personally think that cast iron is a gentler transition from non-stick as long as you learn some basic rules about cast iron care. Lodge Logic is so cheap! I have also had major success with carbon steel but they are harder to find.

As far as the cooking method, I will second a lot of good advice. Heat the pan then oil it with a high smoke point oil. Make sure your meat is dry on the outside before it hits the pan.
posted by Foam Pants at 2:46 PM on September 17, 2016

So, there are a lot of decent responses here, but I thought it might help to know why this happened. Your nonstick pan is most likely aluminum, and is most likely relatively thin material. Your stainless steel pan is (obviously) steel, possibly with copper in the base, and is most likely thicker material.

Aluminum holds on to less heat than steel. Also, thinner material holds on to less heat. This means that if you have your two pans at the same temperature and then add your steaks, the surface of the nonstick pan will drop in temperature more than the surface of the steel pan. In essence, your steel pan cooks hotter, even if it is the same temperature to start.
posted by Nothing at 8:45 AM on September 18, 2016

« Older One hearing aid and one earbud   |   The Professor is Not Quite In Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.