Wednesday, September 26, 2012

When to use Non-stick vs. Standard Pans

Me on Vacation
Q: When do I use non-stick vs. regular pans?

A: Non-stick for eggs, and regular for browning

Browning is a combination of caramelization, plus the maillard (mail-yard) reaction.

The maillard reaction requires heat, protein, and sugar. Heat transfer is the critical difference between non-stick and regular pans.

Fluffy Pans
Non-stick pans are slightly less efficient at transferring heat from the stove into the food. At the microscopic level it's like food is resting on the bristles of a brush. Basically there is an insulating layer of air between the food and the pan. As the food cooks, steam joins the party. This moisture acts as a heat sink (water “steals” some of the heat) and there is less heat available for the maillard reaction, so less browning. The oil used in regular pans displaces the air & steam combination preventing this problem.

Fluffy pans = Less Browning

Nonstick When?
Use for things that don't need browning, very dry foods (nuts/ Spices), or pan-frying (food nearly floating in oil). Non-stick works great for eggs because they don't need browning and it's easier to clean up. Non-stick also works fine to toast spices or nuts because they are naturally dry, so the steam is pretty low. They're fine for pan-frying too, because the oil fills the gaps between food and the pan.

Better Browning
To make perfectly seared and juicy meat start with room-temp meat and dry the surface. Heat a pan THEN add the cooking oil. Drop the meat in the pan, and don't move it until it's browned and releases.

Cold & Damp
Chilled meat drops the temperature of the pan too much, so I put refrigerated meats in a Zip-lock bag and submerge in a sink of very hot tap water for 10 minutes. Pat the meat dry with paper towels because damp surfaces make steam, which steals energy from the maillard reaction.

Hot & Slick
Heat the pan before adding the oil because it makes it easier for the oil it to “spackle” over microscopic surface imperfection that can catch the meat. The oil needs a moment to reach temperature before adding the meat. It will change thickness (viscosity) so that the oil will ripple when you tilt and swirl the pan. This is called shimmer.

Can't Touch This
Sticking happens when you move, stir, or flip the meat before it's ready. Protein contracts as it cooks, basically making the meat grip the pan. If you try to move it too soon, you basically rip the raw meat away from happy part. The meat will release easily on it's own if you give it a couple minutes to cook. I think it's because the meat tightens enough to pull itself back away from the pan... kinda magic if you give it a minute to work.

Thanks Readers - Keep the Questions coming!


  1. Hi Jade! Thanks for the explanation of why and when to use non-stick vs. regular pans. And that tip for not disturbing the meat while it's browning makes perfect sense, too.

    Next question: why does my pumkin pie need to be baked at 450 for 10 minutes, then at 350 for 30 more minutes (or so...)? I'm sure there's a good reason and you probably know it!

    Cindy T.

    1. Cindy,
      Thanks for the question!

      Custard pies (like pumpkin) require special handling so that the bottom crust and the filling are both cooked perfectly at the same time.

      The hot start temp is intended to heat the bottom crust up quickly, then the temp is dropped as heat begins to penetrate into the pie.

      Most baked goods are put in the middle of the oven, but you can put pumpkin pie on the bottom shelf to put it closer to the heating element to help the process along.

      Good luck! Let me know how the pie works out for you!

  2. Good read. Allowing the meat to be cooked properly seems to help avoid sticking. How long should you have one side cooking before you flip it? Thanks for the tips.

    1. Yoshi,
      Thanks for reading! The time depends the meat and the starting temperature.

      I pretty much always bring the meat up to room temperature first, so it can be as little as 2-3 minutes for a thin steak.

      So Check beef around two minutes. I poke at it about first to see if the texture has changed from raw to cooked. With time you will be able to "feel" how cooked the meat is by gauging the resistance.

      For boneless skinless chicken breast at a grocery store regular size of 3 per pound is usually about 4 minutes per side.

      Obviously, if the meat is cold from the fridge or even still frozen in the middle it takes longer to bring up to cooking temperature because the meat has to warm up THEN cook.

      In short: if the oil is hot enough to shimmer but not smoking, check in 2 minutes. Thanks for the question!


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