Kitchen Myths

Facts and fiction about food and cooking, by Peter Aitken

Hot pan, cold oil to prevent sticking

This mantra is repeated by many people as the best way to prevent food from sticking to the pan when sautéing or stir frying. The idea is that you heat up the pan first then add the cold oil and almost immediately add the food. This works of course, so it is not a myth in that it is untrue. It is, however, false to think that this is the only or the best way to prevent sticking. What you really want is “hot pan, hot oil” and that’s what you are actually getting because the cold oil heats up almost instantly when added to the hot pan. You’ll get the same results if you heat the oil along with the pan rather than adding the oil at the last minute. In fact some cooks prefer this technique because the appearance of the oil in the pan can give you some indication of when the pan has reached the proper temperature.

There is one situation where you don’t want to heat the oil in the pan, and that’s when you need a super-hot pan for searing a steak or similar tasks. It has nothing to do with sticking, however, but with the oil burning. Your pan is likely to reach 600 degrees and that is well above the smoke point of any cooking oil, so your oil will start to smoke and decompose well before the pan is ready. My approach is to not add oil to the pan at all, but rub it on the steak – patted dry first, of course – just before putting the steak in the pan.

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8 responses to “Hot pan, cold oil to prevent sticking

  1. dw32 August 7, 2011 at 10:00 pm

    But you must watch how long the oil is heating up and not let it heat up for more than a few seconds because when you place something in the hot oil, you risk getting a flash fire. For example, frying chicken-if the oil is too hot, when you place the chicken in the oil, you might get a flash of fire. I did once.

  2. kb77 December 29, 2011 at 9:23 pm

    The origin of this myth is to prevent inattentive cooks from leaving hot fat unattended, and therefore creating a fire hazard, not to mention burning the oil…

  3. Matthew P. Williams February 18, 2012 at 1:49 pm

    Actually, if you heat the cold oil in a hold pan and bring it up to temperature, the pan will never become hot enough; the oil will burn by the time the pan gets to optimal temperature – you are shooting for 600ºF+ for a sauté or sear where grapeseed oil will start to smoke at ~480ºF. The reason hot pan/cold oil works is because when you add the oil to a very hot pan, it starts to vaporize – the oil in immediate contact with the pan creates a vapor layer that prevents it from bonding to the pan. Obviously, it will burn quickly if no food is added. But cold oil bonds to cold metal, you don’t get this floating oil slick effect – food sticks to the oil, oil sticks to the metal, and in my experience, cold pan, cold oil leads to sticking.

    So why would you want a pan heated to 600ºF+ anyway? Simple – the added food is a massive heat sink, so you need to compensate for the rapid heat loss of the pan.

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  6. Zane Tian July 27, 2013 at 1:03 am

    What Matthew P. Williams said is correct and not a myth. The science behind it is termed the Leidenfrost Effect [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leidenfrost_effect]. Mythbusters also did a show on a similar topic [http://youtu.be/yTOCAd2QhGg]

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