This 5-Second Water Trick Will Show You if Your Stainless Steel Pan Is Hot Enough To Start Cooking

Photo: Stocksy/ Martí Sans
POV: You just polished off a delicious plate of scrambled eggs and go to clean the skillet only to discover that half of your breakfast was actually glued onto the surface of your stainless steel pan. We’ve. All. Been. There. Before you get out the bristle brush and risk scratching up the surface of your delicate (and pricey) cookware, we’ve discovered a simple hack to ensure that this series of unfortunate events never happens again.

The solution comes in the form of a simple water trick that you'll use to determine if your pan is sufficiently preheated before you add food to it, which helps prevent food from sticking to the pan's surface. In other words, this hack helps inform you whether or not your pan is at a temperature that’s high enough to give you the best results in terms of flavor and cleaning up. Plus, it’ll take all five seconds of your time...which is way less than how long it'll take to clean up a sticky, greasy pan.

How to prevent food from sticking to a pan

Of course, we’ve all seen chefs on TV using stainless steel pans with no problem. They can quickly sear and sauté foods (with an air toss for good measure) without any sticking. During years of training, these chefs have mastered the ins and outs of the kitchen and been clued into the one simple (and essential) technique for cooking in stainless steel: It has to be really hot.

Just like the pores on our skin, the surface of a stainless steel pan—on the microscopic level—has tons of grooves that resemble hills and valleys. Meanwhile, foods (especially protein-rich ones) and steel can form chemical bonds that cause sticking if the conditions aren’t just right. The fix? Turn up the temperature and use oil to seal the open pores and prevent sticking.

How to test if your stainless steel pan is hot enough

According to this TikTok video by @cookingwithangelika, there’s an easy hack to ensure your pan is hot enough to prevent sticking, and it calls for just one ingredient: water. To do so, simply splash some water on a hot pan and observe the bubbles that form. If they sizzle and quickly dissipate, it’s not ready yet. But if the water creates tiny bubbles that seem to dance around on the pan, you’re good to go.

@cookwithangelikaFollow me on IG for more helpful tips and kitchen hacks ?♬ original sound - ang

Then, to help cover the "pores" on the pan, add some oil; It should shimmer but not smoke immediately. (BTW, you can add oil to a cold pan, too.) Next, to prevent food from sticking to the pan even further, the key is to avoid causing drastic temperature changes in the pan, which can cause the pores to contract or expand further. This means bringing your food to room temperature for a little while before cooking, which helps prevent cold food from rapidly reducing the heat in the pan upon contact (and causing sticking).

Additionally, for even crispier and crunchy food, you’ll want to ensure that the pan's surface is very dry before cooking. Water and moisture can drop the temperature of the pan, too. Plus, the drier the surface, the better the food can undergo the Maillard reaction, aka a chemical interaction between amino acids (like protein) and reducing sugars that gives way to a browned color and that classic caramelized taste.

To help invite the best-possible sear or sauté, it’s also best not to overcrowd the pan as you cook or futz around with ingredients. Seriously: Tempting as it may be to sneak a quick peek underneath your salmon filet, you should resist the urge. Once the food has cooked sufficiently, it’ll naturally release from the pan. (However, this doesn’t apply to ingredients like diced vegetables, which should be tossed around to ensure that they're cooked evenly on all sides.)

Feeling a little irregular? These may help:

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