Dear Home Ec 101,
I’ve been reading your site for a long time now, and I love it. You’ve answered a lot of questions I didn’t even know that I had, but one thing has been bothering me lately: I don’t know how to sear a piece of meat or fish without making a horrible mess of my skillet. I’m talking about recipes that say heat up olive oil till it’s very hot, and then throw in, say, a tuna steak, to cook it really quickly on both sides. Inevitably, I have burnt-on disgusting plasticky oil left in the bottom of my pan, and burnt-on oil splatters all over the sides that I have to clean with steel wool and/or (everybody’s favorite) Bar Keeper’s Friend. I thought maybe it’s because olive oil’s smoke point is too low so it’s not really appropriate for this type of cooking, but I have the same problem with other oils too. Does searing demand this mess, or am I doing something wrong?
Sticking in Stillwater
The reason your oil is polymerizing (turning into that plasticky mess) is your pan is not hot enough. I know this sounds counterintuitive, but hang with me for the explanation.
There is a very simple trick to learning when it’s time to add the oil and then the meat to your stainless steel pans. The water test will tell you when your stainless steel pan is hot enough to add the oil, immediately followed by the meat you intend to sear.
Sometime before you need to sear your next cut of meat please take the time to conduct this little experiment.
- a stainless steel saute pan
- 1/8th teaspoon measuring spoon
- a cup of water
- and your stove
Place the pan on the stove over medium high heat and add 1/8th teaspoon of water to the pan. Observe how it just sits in the bottom of the pan and then eventually evaporates
Add another 1/8th teaspoon of water to the pan. This time it may bubble shortly after it’s added. You’re going to keep repeating this process until the water no longer sits in the pan but begins to disperse into tiny beads of water that roll around the bottom of the pan. It is very important to understand that this point is past when it sizzles right after dropping, so keep letting the pan heat. When you reach the point where an 1/8th teaspoon of water stays in a single ball and rolls around your pan (thanks to the Leidenfrost effect ) your pan is finally at the perfect temperature to add a good quality extra virgin olive oil.
Swirl the pan, look for the oil to shimmer a tiny bit and then add the meat. That really cool Leidenfrost effect is what keeps your meat (and oil) from sticking to the pan. It takes practice to really get the hang of keeping your pan in this narrow temperature window and you should keep in mind that you’ll probably need to reduce the heat of the burner to prevent from overheating your pan.
The exact amount you’ll need to reduce the heat depends on your pan and your burner. So get in your kitchen and begin experimenting, after awhile cooks get a good sense of this point and no longer need the water test to know when their pan is ready to sear meat.
Remember cooking is a craft and everyone needs practice to get the hang of some of the best practices.
Best of luck!
Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
3 thoughts on “Use the Water Test to Determine When Your Stainless Pan Is Hot Enough to Cook”
Wow, that was really helpful. I consider myself to be a pretty good cook (I even teach about it some on my website) but I’ve always put my oil in the pan while it was still cold! I’m not having the same issue with the plasticky mess but my food sometimes sticks. Can’t wait to try this!
Hi Heather…love the water test…it’s a good one. And your advice about starting with a really hot pan is key. But I don’t know if I would use straight olive oil to sear anything. The smoke point is too low, and besides that..that kind of heat will turn the oil bitter and destroy it’s delicate fruitiness….and it’s especially a waste to use good EVOO for this kind of high heat cooking. A good compromise would be to use safflower oil (the highest smoke point) or canola cut with a moderately priced EVOO to get the best of both worlds…flavor and high smoke point. Another point about pans…I tell my students that I’m a big proponent of cleaning pans while they are very hot…using the idea of “deglazing” to get the pan clean…I take my hot ss pans to the sink as soon as I’ve emptied them of whatever I’ve cooked…steaming hot…and run hot water on them and immediately run a scrub brush or steel wool clutched in a pair of tongs on the surface of the pan…it comes clean as though I was deglazing it with wine!…Or if it’s really bad…fill it with hot water and a little soap…put it back on low heat and “deglaze” once the water comes to a simmer.
I have got to figure this out! I learned through the School of Hard Knocks (LOL!) that scrambled eggs need a nice hot skillet (I use cast iron) to cook without sticking. However, I have never been able to cook well with stainless or porcelain covered pans. I just gave up on them! Thanks for the chemistry lesson! You are awesome!!!