April 4, 2011
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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.