On properly heating your pan

by Talley

in Methods,Science

As Harold McGee will tell you, controlling heat is one of the most basic challenges a cook faces in the kitchen. We’ve all heard that it’s important to preheat your oven, and heat your skillet before adding ingredients. With regards to preheating a skillet however, I’ve always just sort of put the pan over heat for a couple minutes, added some oil, then added the ingredients. While this approach may work for some things, I learned about a year ago that there is actually a small ideal window of heat that you should be aiming for in order to prevent sticking, optimize browning of your meat, and develop a nice fond on the pan.

All Clad Steel Pan With a stainless steel skillet, there is a cool trick that will help you identify this window. Once you learn this, your cutlets for chicken marsala will never stick to the pan and your pan-seared steaks will release easily, preserving that delicious caramelized outer crust. Here’s a quick video from rouxbe.com that demonstrates the trick quite well.

Crazy right? I almost didn’t believe that water would just roll across this searing hot pan without evaporating until I tried it myself. It actually works. Of course, if you have a crappy electric stove like ours, it will be much harder to get the whole pan to the same even heat without the center overheating (try moving the pan around on the heating element). But once you get that magic mercury-like ball of water in your skillet, wipe it up, throw in some oil and quickly add your ingredients (have them ready beforehand as the heat window is small) and voila: no sticking!

As you might imagine, this ideal window of heat has to do with the atoms in the pan moving around and “opening and closing the pores” in the steel (in the words of the video). In this sense, the “pores” almost act like tiny teeth that bite into your meat and cause sticking. At the right temperature, the “pores” are static, and your food doesn’t stick. Here’s another video explaining this process a little more in depth.

Honestly, do your cooking a favor and take a couple minutes playing with water on your (stainless steel) pan. You will feel empowered by having a more objective measure for identifying the ideal temperature window and your meat, and guests, will thank you.

All Clad Steel Pan

UPDATE (12/13/09): OK, it appears that the explanation above was a bit too unscientific for some (including myself). While the main point of this post was to simply share the water trick, I’ve been trying to find a more scientific explanation. Here’s a bit more info:

The Leidenfrost Effect

The water “hovering” over the stainless steel pan like mercury happens due to the phenomenon known as the Leidenfrost effect. You can read more about it on wikipedia, but the basic idea is this: at a certain temperature known as the Leidenfrost point (roughly around 320˚F for water, but varying with surface and pressure), when the water droplet hits the hot pan, the bottom part of the water vaporizes immediately on contact. The resulting gas actually suspends the water above it and creates a pocket of water vapor that slows further heat transfer between the pan and the water. Thus it evaporates more slowly than it would at lower temperatures. At the proper temperature, a similar effect happens with the food you place in the pan, preventing the food from sticking.  Check out this incredible high speed video of the leidenfrost effect from the people at Modernist Cuisine.

UPDATE (12/14/09):

Stainless Steel Cookware

The idea of “pores” opening and closing in a heated pan is a description that I’ve heard used for years from many sources, but never quite understood (e.g. “heat your wok to open the pores, then add oil to fill them…”). The word “pore” is kind of a misnomer that lacks scientific accuracy. Stainless steel is known to be relatively non-porous in the strict sense of the word, so perhaps rouxbe uses the word lightly (or more for “intuitive” visualization). In the comments below, Brian Geiger offered the mental model of a wavy microscopic steel surface that expands as it heats and then contracts when it comes into contact with the relatively cooler meat, in essence “biting” down onto the tissue and causing sticking. To help you better visualize these expanding and contracting crevices, I found the following scanning electron micrograph of one of the most common types of steel and finish used in cookware (316-2BA).

Jullien et al. (2002) J Food Engineering, 56, 77-87 Jullien et al. (2002) J Food Engineering, 56, 77-87

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{ 53 comments… read them below or add one }

deana@lostpastremembered December 13, 2009 at 7:01 pm

That was brilliant. Simple and brilliant. Thanks

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ridley December 13, 2009 at 7:32 pm

I am really impressed. Thank you for making this information available. I am very old school in my cooking techniques. So I learned to listen to the sound of the cooking medium (oil, fat, etc.) and pay attention to the fragrance of the medium. Sound and fragrance change with temperature. Practice (and attention) can teach you the golden time but I have had lots of trouble passing that to another generation of cooks. I learned by watching and listening and smelling and tasting, over and over and over. Until I could do it right without thinking about details. I just know but I can’t always explain how someone else can get exactly the same result.

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Janice December 13, 2009 at 8:43 pm

This is a great tip. But the “pores” explanation doesn’t sound right at all. Should have more to do with the vapor point of water.

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heating & air service December 13, 2009 at 9:13 pm

Thanks for sharing the videos and tips, these will help a lot.

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Come on December 13, 2009 at 9:40 pm

“Pores” in stainless steel? How can a “pore” act like a “tiny tooth”? What in the world are you talking about?

Also: isn’t steel a metallic alloy? What molecules are you talking about?

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Talley December 13, 2009 at 11:31 pm

Hi all, thanks for your comments.

@ridley: I completely agree: using the senses is the best way to cook, and there is no substitute for experience and practice. Little tricks like these are great help along the way, especially for the home cook without an expert to shadow.

@Janice: I’ve updated the post above to explain why the water hovers at certain temperatures.

@Come on: I agree, “pores” is probably not the perfect word to use, but if you watch the second video you’ll see why it was used here. You’ll also see what they mean by “tiny teeth” . . .

Perhaps not a rigorous enough explanation for some, I admit. . . But the important point here was to share the water trick for finding the Leidenfrost point, and knowing when to add your ingredients. I’d be thrilled if anyone could share more information on this phenomenon and how it relates to the heating of stainless steel.

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Irene June 14, 2010 at 2:23 pm

Don’t wipe the droplets with a paper towel in your hand as shown; wear a hot glove.

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JC December 13, 2009 at 11:39 pm

What was the last sentence uttered on the first video?

“This is one of the main reasons that _____ ___ is so important when cooking?”

What word did I not hear?

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Talley December 13, 2009 at 11:45 pm

the phrase there is mise en place. It’s a french term meaning “everything in place”. It’s just to say, when things are moving fast in the kitchen (i.e. if you have a short time window where the heat is optimal) it’s best if you have all of your ingredients setup and ready to go so you’re not fumbling around while your pan overheats…

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Kate at Serendipity December 14, 2009 at 12:09 am

Thanks for this–I never knew!

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Jim December 14, 2009 at 12:35 pm

Thanks – this is helpful. Does the same water-droplet method hold true for non-stick pans?

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Brian J. Geiger December 14, 2009 at 1:37 pm

I’ve been meaning to test this and write about it for a while, but yes, your second explanation is much more plausible. What you’re going for is the culinary equivalent of an air hockey table: you want the liquid in the food to create that steam that you wrote about the moment it hits the oil. The oil, not mixing in the water, will be below the food, acting as the table portion of the air hockey table. The steam acts like the air, and the food is the puck.

Naturally, this isn’t perfect. There will be sections of food that end up sticking to the pan, but that will generally turn into fond, so that’s well and good.

If you have the heat too low, then the food pushes the oil aside, falls to touch the metal of the pan, then the molecules of the food start bonding with the metal (in our analogy, the air hockey table is not on, so the puck just drops). The food can be scraped off, of course, but it takes some doing.

If you have the heat up too high, then all of the water on the surface of the food disappears completely, the food settles, and again bonds to the surface of the pan. This doesn’t fit really well into the air hockey metaphor, but if you wanted to stretch it, it’s as if the air were turned up too high and the puck wobbles and tilts, until parts of it touch the table even if other parts are raised up.

Jim, the water droplet method will work with non-stick pans, but isn’t as crucial. It helps with controlling the heat and maintaining predictability, but it doesn’t really help with the sticking, as you shouldn’t have any.

Another method is to look for some shimmering in the oil. As ridley wrote, the more you cook like this, the more you’ll get a feel for it. But I am a big fan of having a working model of what’s happening in my head before learning all the intuitive stuff.

I think the mental model of pores in the metal goes something like: imagine a wavy surface on the metal, that grows wider when it heats. When you put the food on it, the surface cools, and the waves contract, grabbing the food. Something along those lines. I like the Leidenfrost effect better.

Great post!

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Talley December 14, 2009 at 1:56 pm

Brian: thanks for that comment! I think the air hockey table analogy is a very nice way to think about the Leidenfrost effect.

And thinking of the “pores” in stainless steel as a wavy surface that expands and contracts to pinch onto food is a much better way of visualizing it all.

Thanks for taking the time to contribute that thought! I’ll keep an eye on The Food Geek for more of your enlightening food musings.

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Ted December 14, 2009 at 9:51 pm

So if you had an IR thermometer, could you just read the temperature of the pan? What temperature would that be?

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Beryl December 14, 2009 at 10:48 pm

That’s a really good question. Theoretically, yes. In practice…. kinda. According to a paper we found, there’s quite a range to the Leidenfrost point for water (of course, water is not the only liquid that is affected by this phenomenon, liquid nitrogen’s ability to skitter across a floor is caused by the same forces); the factors that influence it are pressure, the thermal properties of the pan, and the surface material and finish of the pan, to name a few. So, the exact temperature is a moving target, and that’s why in this case, a few drops of water might actually be more accurate, or at least more reliable, than an infrared thermometer. Three cheers for water, the most amazing molecule in the universe

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Dan March 6, 2013 at 12:03 pm

How could an actual temperature be less accurate than observing a phenomenon? Even if the Leidenfrost effect happened at a very specific temperature, knowing that temperature would allow you to reproduce…well, that temperature…which is the point. If, as you say, the effect happens across a range of temperatures, then any temperature in that range is satisfactory, so again, a specific temperature range would be preferable to observation of the phenomenon….right?

The advantage to the water droplet method is that you don’t need an accurate thermometer, but if you have one, surely that’s superior in every way; I can’t think of why you would imply otherwise.

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Talley March 13, 2013 at 10:18 pm

Hi Dan,

The point is, as that paper Beryl referenced above discusses, that “range” of temperatures at which the Leidenfrost effect occurs varies depending on a number of factors (barometric pressure, thermal properties of the pan, surface material of the pan… etc). So yes, for your favorite stainless steel pan, once you’ve measured the temperature at which the effect occurs, by all means: pull out your IR thermometer. But if you were to use that same temperature for a different pan, you might not get the desired result.

In other words, the temperature range mentioned does not refer to an “absolute range” in which the leidenfrost effect occurs for ALL pans (as your post implies), but rather that there is a range of temperatures at which the effect occurs depending on the pan you are using (and some other factors). So I can’t tell you what temperature you should be looking for with your pan in your house. That’s one reason why the water trick is particularly handy.

But yes, as you state, if you have an accurate thermometer AND you know the specific temperature required for your exact pan (and your exact barometric pressure, etc…) based on prior experimentation, then a thermometer works fine too.

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Dan December 15, 2009 at 11:01 am

What about with Le Cruset pans? Same approach?

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Talley December 15, 2009 at 11:22 am

I’m not sure it’s necessary for things like enameled cast iron (Le Creuset) or other non-stick pans. There will be a Leidenfrost point (where the water balls up), but that temperature can vary dramatically with the pan material and surface.

I just tried it with my own enameled cast iron pan and felt like I needed to heat it much higher than my stainless steel pan for an effect. In fact, the pan started letting off wisps of smoke before I was even close to the point where the water balled up. I’m no expert, but I think it’s possible that you could damage a pan with a non-stick or enamel finish by heating it up too hot without anything in it. Given that my enamel cast iron and non-stick pans do a reasonably good job of preventing sticking as is (without intense preheating), I think I’ll probably reserve this trick for my stainless steel.

Does anyone else have an opinion on this?

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Talley December 15, 2009 at 11:28 am

Yeah, I was just looking around on the Le Creuset website and they advise against using high heats at any time with enameled cast iron. They encourage gently preheating the pan on low for a couple minutes before adding oil.

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zested December 15, 2009 at 11:14 am

What a fascinating post (and who knew heating a pan could be such a controversial topic!) Thanks for sharing.

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Dawn December 15, 2009 at 11:58 am

Thanks for the props. Great information and post!

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Talley December 15, 2009 at 12:01 pm

Likewise! Thanks for the excellent videos (and the rest of Rouxbe).

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Bailey December 15, 2009 at 1:56 pm

Thanks so much for the info. I have been having trouble with my pans ever since I made the switch from non-stick to stainless steel. This is going to help so much :D

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Cliff December 15, 2009 at 2:29 pm

Would you use this trick to make eggs that won’t stick?

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Dawn December 15, 2009 at 2:51 pm

I use non-stick to cook my eggs because I cook them over lower heat. In fact, I have one pan that I use just for eggs.

Here’s a bit more info on cooking eggs (if you are interested) – http://rouxbe.com/how-to-cook/how-to-cook-eggs
.-= Dawn´s last blog ..Torchiette with Bacon, Beer & Cheese Sauce =-.

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Talley December 15, 2009 at 2:57 pm

Good question Cliff. I just got out my pan and tried to fry an egg with this trick . . . and . . . it’s still a sticky mess! :). I’m not really sure why… the whites are around 88% water, so the moisture’s certainly there. Maybe the nature of the proteins are different. Or maybe it’s just my pan or my crappy stove. Does anyone else know why it would work for meat but not eggs?

However, as Dawn mentioned… even if it did work, I’m not sure you’d want to use this method. The proteins in eggs can turn rubbery when cooked at high heat. The link provided by Dawn has some good info.

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Georgia June 15, 2010 at 8:55 am

I have All Clad, and eggs were a disaster for me. I did a little research and found something (unfortunately, I didn’t bookmark it) that said if you let your eggs sit out and get to room temperature before you use them, they won’t stick as much. I usually forget to take them out, but the few times I have remembered, there was a difference.

Also, what heat do you use on your crappy electric stove (we have one too) when doing this? I always use the medium heat to warm up the pans.
.-= Georgia´s last blog ..Portabello-Spinach Strata =-.

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Talley June 15, 2010 at 9:05 am

Hi Georgia, thanks for that tip!

I generally preheat our pan on our electric stove over something between medium and medium high heat as well. too low, and you obviously might not get it hot enough, but too hot and it won’t heat evenly enough across the pan (the part of the pan touching the heating element will get way too hot before the outsides of the pan are ready). One thing I like about this water trick, is that it really helps you determine the temperature of the pan itself, regardless of how hot your flame or element is. . . so in a sense it helps get around our crappy stove!

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Leo December 16, 2009 at 12:12 am

This is really an awesome post! Although I may have to explain to my friends why I’m boiling water so inefficiently :-)

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Poppy December 17, 2009 at 11:24 am

I don’t know if this will help those who are trying to stay away from fat, but my eggs don’t stick when I cook them in about 1/2 -1 TBL of melted butter in my stainless skillets. Also will the meat stick if I turn the heat down after my meat is browned because if I cooked say a chicken breast on med.-med. high it would be black by the time it was finished cooking.

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Talley December 17, 2009 at 11:34 am

interesting. so you cook your eggs on medium low or so? how big is the pan (for 1 Tbsp of butter)? I’ve never been able to cook eggs in stainless steel without sticking…

In my experience, you can turn the heat down to where you’d like it once you’ve added your meat to the pan and it still won’t stick as long as you introduced it at the proper temperature. depending on the heat however, it might stick when you turn it over (so you could sear one side, flip without changing heat, and then reduce heat to finish cooking). Perhaps Dawn has a thought here?

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Poppy December 17, 2009 at 12:31 pm

I cook them usually in about a 12 inch on medium and I’m not a gourmet cook so my eggs don’t always turn out pretty either, but they don’t stick :)

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Dawn December 18, 2009 at 1:05 pm

Talley you are correct, once you add the food to the pan it won’t stick, as long as you added it once the pan was at the proper temperature. Essentially the non-stick service has been created. You can turn the heat down if needed and you will be fine. Even the sucs (browned bits) underneath the food will act as a barrier between the meat and pan once flipped.

Pan frying is such an essential part of cooking, learning how to do it properly will change the way one cookes forever. There is also more to pan frying than just pan temperature. In fact, we did an entire lesson on Pan Frying in the Cooking School. Here is the link for anyone that is interested. http://rouxbe.com/cooking-school/lessons/170-pan-frying – in this lesson we cover, things like “adding the ingredients to the pan”, “controlling pan temperature” etc.

Cheers Everyone…keep up the great dialogue!

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Christopher Cashell January 1, 2010 at 4:52 pm

Another great trick for knowing when a pan is hot enough is to throw a couple kernels of unpopped popcorn into a pan with a bit of oil. The popcorn will pop at a temperature of around 180 °C (356 °F), which is usually just about the perfect temperature to introduce food.

This is a lot more convenient than throwing water on the pan every minute and the constant attention that requires.

Picked this up from Alton Brown in an episode of Good Eats, and I’ve used it successfully a number of times now.
.-= Christopher Cashell´s last blog ..The BEST player in College Football in 2009: Ndamukong Suh =-.

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Talley January 3, 2010 at 6:59 am

Thanks, that’s another very interesting trick!

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Dawn January 3, 2010 at 12:10 pm

I have to say that testing a pan with water is actually much less hassle than oil and popcorn, as you really only have to test the pan once or twice to know when it’s hot. We only showed doing it every 10 seconds or so, just to show the process of a pan heating. Once you get the hang of how long it typically takes to heat a pan, it often only takes one test with water to confirm that the pan is indeed hot enough.

Cheers dawn!
.-= Dawn´s last blog ..Torchiette with Bacon, Beer & Cheese Sauce =-.

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Jon January 7, 2010 at 8:58 pm

You do want a “little” to stick so you get some nice bits in the pan sauce. All-clad pans work the best for me. They hold the heat very well.

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Peter June 15, 2010 at 8:39 am

Fabulous lesson, thank you very much!

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johanna June 15, 2010 at 8:46 am

not too worried about the scientific explanations as long as it works. i still don’t know why the stone in the avocado prevents the browning of my guacamole, but i am happily using this trick picked up when i lived in mexico.
yours is another invaluable lesson that i will try out the next time i take out my ss pan! thanks!

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melancholyaeon September 20, 2010 at 9:50 am

Hi T:

Nice video, nice post. But on eggs, I feel with all due respect you guys are re-inventing the wheel here. The best pan for eggs is the classic French tinned copper omelette pan. There’s a reason why this is a time-tested classic! ;) I’ve had mine for 25 years now, have re-tinned it twice, and eggs will never stick when the surface is lightly brushed with a small amount of oil or butter, which you’d be adding for flavor anyway. :D Again, temp control is key.

M

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Talley September 20, 2010 at 10:02 am

Thanks M,
yeah, we agree. we don’t suggest this method at all for eggs. As Dawn mentioned above (and I definitely agree), using this kind of heat when cooking eggs would just destroy the eggs. A pan devoted to eggs, such as your French tinned copper omelette pan, or a simple non-stick pan (for those without the cash to drop on a tinned copper pan), is definitely the way to go.

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Tony January 8, 2011 at 11:57 am

As a culinary instructor my job is to empower students to cook. Doing so successfully often involves simplifying a novice’s path to success, a “less is more” approach to how things work. Though science is fascinating in explaining how cooking works at a microscopic level, in a kitchen the key is to put people into action without overwhelming them. My grandmother, an amazing cook, learned by seeing. My demos are more about providing excellent visual cues. My words supplement, but my actions are what empower.

I sometimes use more colloquial language (pores as opposed to crevices) so the majority of the students relate to the visual. If students want a Harold McGee explanation to the nitty-gritty scientific explanation to why and how, I encourage them to go for it (we have 3 copies in our kitchen, but not the time to go microscopic too often). As a teacher, and experienced one at that with some university background in chemistry and physics, math is actually what I rely on, the the real math here is that most people unfortunately don’t know how to cook (no matter how scientifically educated).

As I get older, and wiser, I’m trying to connect my students, and anyone I want to teach about cooking, including my children, to my grandmother’s hands rather than McGee’s brain. But don’t get me wrong, if science turns on a light, dig in, and McGee’s work has indeed enlightened me and made my work more exciting, if not easier. However, it’s not science that will get people to cook better – it’s action, persistence, time, and eventually well-earned confidence.

I tell my students to be weary of too much information. Trust the fundamentals: your knife, your pan, your stove, your pantry, and your desire to take control of your life and health. And chase the info out there that goes out of its way to empower, to get you to cook well!

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Melissa September 9, 2011 at 7:32 pm

I love love love this and so do my kids! When i get ready to cook, they say “let us know when the mercury ball hits the pan” and then they come running to watch, we’ve added more water to watch what happens and its comical. They also try to teach it to anyone that will listen, when they are around friends/family that are preparing food!!
So, my question is this, in the demo a little oil is added and Im wondering about that. What type of oil are you using? Mine smokes. I’ve experimented with various oils and my current favorite is Spectrum Naturals Organic Shortening. Im contemplating using Grape Seed Oil…We have a peanut/tree nut allergy in our home, so we no longer use peanut oil or sunflower or coconut oil.

Thanks!!

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Talley September 10, 2011 at 12:43 pm

I personally don’t worry too much about the type of oil. This is obviously a hotly debated topic and everyone has a different opinion about it.
In the comments of the french fries post, we discussed the smoking point of olive oil a bit. As I mentioned there, Lynn Rosetto Kasper, whose opinion I generally trust, isn’t too worried about using olive oil for any sort of high heat application. I have to say I agree… But In the end, it all comes down to your tastes. If you feel like you’re tasting something burnt when you use olive oil at high heat, by all means, use a higher smoking point oil like grape seed oil. But just because you see a bit of smoke when you use olive oil doesn’t mean all is lost! A little waft of smoke never hurt anyone, especially if you like how the dish tastes in the end!

I’m so glad you and your kids enjoyed the post! It really is something to watch water roll around on a blazing hot pan!

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Melissa September 10, 2011 at 2:04 pm

Thank you! That relieves a bit of “wondering” over here!
I always thought the “smoke” meant something more severe! :) I can’t say as we’ve noticed a “burnt” taste at all…!!! YaY!
Best Post Ever, btw!
Thanks Again, and thanks for the timely response.

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Prayag March 30, 2012 at 1:41 pm

Man those steel crevice shots from the microscope are awesome.

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Theo September 15, 2012 at 8:00 pm

I never would’ve thought that possible without seeing it with my own eyes. thanks for sharing.

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Gabriel May 26, 2013 at 11:30 am

Very interesting article. I’ll try the water tip when preparing my dinner tonight!

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Best Wok October 3, 2013 at 8:57 pm

Really fascinating piece I have never seen someone go into such scientific detail on this subject. Good to know how heating a pan works on another level.
Best Wok´s last blog post ..Best Wok – Presto 5900 Stainless Steel Electric Wok

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Dawn March 24, 2014 at 10:00 am

Found another video to support the “water test” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zzKgnNGqxMw

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Talley March 26, 2014 at 4:06 am

Awesome video! thanks!

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Marlowe April 12, 2014 at 7:19 am

Talley,
Thank you so much for sharing this. I’ve recently purchased my first stainless steel frying pan and this information enlightens and illustrates the instructions given to me by the employee at the cooking store (who, I might add, misinformed me by saying that I should wait until little beads of water are bouncing all over the place). Can’t wait to try out this little science experiment myself!

Reply

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