How to cook with stainless steel pots and pans

How to Cook with Stainless Steel: Lessons from My Kitchen

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Cooking with stainless steel pans requires a few changes in technique, but once you get the hang they’re worth the effort. I’ll never go back!

When I got my first set over 15 years ago, I was used to cooking with cast iron and didn’t realize I needed to adjust.

So, I wound up burning a meal when we had an important guest coming for dinner. Fortunately, he had a good sense of humor.

Since then, I’ve cooked several thousand successful meals, so here are some of the tips about cooking with stainless steel pans that I’ve picked up.

Get it Hot to Start

If you’re frying or sautéing, preheating isn’t optional with stainless steel, because it’s porous when it’s cold.

Even though you can’t see or feel the pores, they’ll grab onto food and make it stick. Preheating makes the metal expand so it closes the pores, and that creates a smooth cooking surface.

Pro Tip

Get your ingredients ready before preheating. Once that pan is hot, it’ll overheat in the blink of an eye.

Test Before Adding Food

It takes a while to recognize when your pan is preheated. One way to tell is by holding your hand. just above the bottom—if it’s too hot to keep there more than a second, the pan is ready.

Or do the water drop test. If a single drop of water turns into a ball and rolls around like a marble, the pan’s ready to go.

Oil in a Hurry

Once the pan is ready ready, add your oil and swirl it around so it spreads evenly then start cooking pronto or you’ll wind up with a layer of cooked on oil. (And VOCs in your home’s air.)

So imagine Gordon Ramsay standing over your shoulder yelling mise en place! and bust a move getting that food into the pan.

It Cooks From All Directions.

Most stainless steel cookware sets feature an aluminum core which heats up the bottom as well as the sides. So food doesn’t cook from below—it cooks all over.

That means it cooks faster, too. Don’t trust your timer until you know how hot and fast your pans cook.

Listen to the Meat

When you’re searing meat, give it plenty of time. As it cooks, the meat’s protein strands shrink, so it pulls away from the pan surface.

Meat is ready when you can easily lift and turn it. If you have to lever or pry it up, it is not ready.

Pro Tip

The trick to cooking eggs in stainless steel pans after you’ve properly preheated and oiled the pan: turn the burner down a little before adding the food—you can always raise the temperature if you need to.

Deglazing is Divine

Those brown bits develop in the bottom of your pan are called “fond” and they’re full of flavor.

Add some liquid (water, stock, wine) to deglaze your pan to create a quick sauce. You’ll find cleanup is easier, too!

Wait to Wash

Let the pan cool to room temperature off the burner after you’re done cooking.

Rinsing or washing a hot stainless steel pan can cause it to permanently warp, then the bottom won’t sit flat and your cooking will suffer.

No Straight from the Freezer

Adding frozen food to a hot pan isn’t good for any type of cookware. It’s particularly bad for stainless steel pans.

If you’ve got to cook food frozen, let it sit a few minutes on the counter to lose the chill then add liquid to offset the temperature swing.

It’s Not a Metal Fan

Metal scratches metal, so use wooden spoons or silicone-covered utensils for cooking.

And when it’s time to clean up, skip the steel pad and use baking soda on a sponge instead.

Pop them in the Oven

Stainless steel pans are great for cooking in the oven! Some lids may not be, though, so if your pan or lid has plastic parts check the owner’s manual.

Don’t Hold the Tomatoes

Stainless steel doesn’t react to tomatoes or other acidic foods the way cast iron or copper pans do. Cook those vinegary, tomato-based dishes to your heart’s content.

Know Your Pan’s Color Codes

One signs you’re cooking with too much heat is finding a rainbow layer in your pan, which happens after chromium reacts with heat and air.

White blotches are another one: those are trapped proteins.

Both of those will come up once you scrub the pan with baking soda, salt and vinegar, or Barkeeper’s Friend.

So, if you landed here after trying to cook with stainless steel pans, give these tips a try and have patience. You’ll be turning out professional-level food in no time even without Gordon Ramsey standing there screaming at you.

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46 Comments

  1. Lynn Woodard says:

    I bought a set of 3 Farberware stainless steel saucepans at an auction for $2.50 about 5 years ago. I thought they would match my Farberware set I’ve had for 35 years. They look the same, but these are real stainless steel, mine are not. Now I know how to use them because they did cook hotter. Saving this. Thank you.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      What a great auction win!

  2. Is it ok to make spaghetti sauce or any sauce with tomatoes in the SS pans?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Yes, acidic foods like tomatoes and sauce are fine.

  3. Brilliant – thank you Katie! 🙂

    1. Katie Berry says:

      You’re welcome!

  4. Katie – thx so much for your quick reply. You’ve also helped me figure out the best way to deal with frozen home made soup and stock – think ahead and defrost and bring to room temperature!

    I’ll check your other pages for household tips 🙂

    1. Katie Berry says:

      You’re so welcome! I know it’s difficult thinking ahead like that sometimes, so don’t forget you can also fill the pot with a couple centimeters of warm/hot water to cover the bottom then add your frozen soup or stock to it. So long as the icy lump isn’t sitting directly on the base of the pot when you turn on the heat, you’ll be fine.

  5. Thanks for your SS tips / REALLY helpful!!

    When you want to heat a pan of cold water to boil pasta, how do you do it? Preheat pan and add room temperature water? Or something else?

    And if re-heating some leftovers……(eg chicken pasta dish…?!) …. again pre hear and food at room temperature?

    Thanks so much 🙂

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Hi Michelle!

      I’m glad you’re finding my tips on cooking with stainless steel helpful! As far as water for boiling pasta, I fill the pan with lukewarm or hot water out of the tap then put it on the burner, and then turn the heat on. Using lukewarm water keeps the burner’s heat from warping the pan.

      For reheating leftovers, pull them out of the fridge long enough to take off the chill a bit. Ten to fifteen minutes usually does the trick.

      🙂

  6. margaret chemutai says:

    Am glad I found this blog.
    Very helpful info.thanks a lot.
    I purchased my SS pots and pans three months ago and haven’t use them because I didn’t know how , but now I will start using the following your guidance .unfortunately am fro a remote country and can’t find the bar keepers cleaner but anyway I ca use vinegar or bicarbonate of sofa.thank you

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Bicarbonate works, as does salt.

  7. Best advice I’ve read for stainless steel cookware. I’ve had my Le Creuset stainless steel cookware set for a while and struggled to get the best out of them. Once I tried your advice no more sticking, perfectly cooked food and so easy to clean. I can now get rid of all my non-stick pans and roasters.

    Thank you.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Glad to hear it, Henry!

  8. Thanks for the great info!

    1. Katie Berry says:

      You’re welcome!

  9. Dear Katie,
    We just ordered a glass top rangesince our old one got tired. All of the stove manufactures recommend flat bottom stainless steels cookware to prevent scratching the top.
    This morning I ordered all clad pots and pans due in this Thurs. I plan to use your blog to look for answer’s to any problems that I may run into or any that some of your other readers face.
    Thank you for being there for us

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Hi Ray,
      I love my glass top range, and stainless steel works beautifully with it. Be sure to check my homemade soft scrub recipe for a good, safe scouring powder to eliminate the burned-on bits such range tops develop. (Or maybe I’m just a particularly messy cook?) Enjoy!

  10. Thanks for the informative article. This might be a silly question, but is preheating & oiling necessary for the pots if you are cooking with liquids? For instance, heating a can of beans, boiling veggies, making rice, etc. Thanks for your reply.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Hi Ashley! That’s not a silly question at all. Preheating isn’t necessary for cooking the things you mentioned, just for frying or sautéing. ?

  11. Hello,
    Thank you for this informative post. My question is about salt and SS, I read that I shouldn’t add salt to cold water in a SS pot, but then what about salted meat sitting on the bottom of the pan?
    I want to cook stuffed wine leaves in my new SS pot and to do that we layer (in a cold pot) olive oil, seasoned meat, stuffed wine leaves and then immerse all in salted water and lemon juice.
    I can use boiled water and dissolve the salt prior to adding to pot, but I am just wondering if the salt on the meet will damage the bottom of my pot?

    Thanks

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Hi Nora,
      I’ve heard that about salt and SS, too. My understanding is that the concern arises when high concentrations of salt come into direct contact with the pot. Since cold water doesn’t dissolve salt quickly, there’s the potential for salt grains to sit on the bottom and cause problems. I’ve been using my SS set for years and haven’t encountered this problem at all.

      With salted meat, or with the recipe as you described above, there’s a layer of oil between the salt and the pot. Since both the pot and the oil are already heated, the salt begins to dissolve immediately. I wouldn’t leave the SS pot sitting with salty oil, wine, and lemon juice for hours afterward, but who wants to leave a dirty pot sitting around all day, anyway?

      Since SS pots and pans have excellent resistance against corrosion, if you do see any discoloration (usually from the metal’s “pores” closing and trapping food while the pan cools), gentle cleaning with Bar Keeper’s Friend and a sponge or dishrag should clean it right up.

      And, by the way, your recipe sounds fantastic!

  12. What can be done for a ss pan, using heat 7 to boil water, that has a heat bump on the bottom?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Hi Deb,
      Unfortunately, it sounds like the pan has warped. There’s no easy fix for that.

  13. SG Anderson says:

    I just lucked into a fantastic buy at a yard sale…a full 1950’s Presto Pride copper clad cookware set for $30. I have been looking at new sets, biding my time until the right set caught my eye. This set is in perfect condition, looks brand new, and is very heavy! I am sooooo excited to get rid of all of the old pieces I was holding on to (your know, for my husbands benefit – Mr. Metal utensil, steel wool scrubby). I plan of filling the trash-can. Finding your blog has been a god-send! I knew cooking with SS was different, but now I have the scoop! I printed out your guidelines and I am going to laminate them and put them on the inside of the cabinet so he sees them EVERYTIME he takes a piece out to use. I will get him trained, I swear, he is a work in progress, we have only been together 25 years. Stainless steel and cast iron are the only way to go!

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Hi Susan,
      What a great yard sale find! Those copper bottom pans are amazing, and the weight means they cook more evenly than the newer stuff, too. Congratulations on your great deal!

  14. Kathy Chapman says:

    Hi My loveable husband got me a set of SS cookware. Every time I make fried potatoes, all they do is stick it pan and burn on bottom. They do not brown on top. Should I soak the potatoes in cold water before I cut them or is my pan just not hot enough. Or does it matter what oil you use.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      It sounds like you need to use more oil and flip them halfway through.

  15. Hi. Just purchased a set of SS fry pans. Am having ALOT of trouble not getting eggs to stick. Also just curious – I feel like I’m using a lot more oil than non-stick?? Thank you

    1. Katie Berry says:

      I’ve found that I need to heat my fry pan for several minutes, add oil and swirl it around, then let the oil heat another minute before adding the eggs. Once I have, I turn the heat down to medium so they don’t burn.

  16. Irma Ashayagori says:

    Thank you so much for all the tips from all of you. I just bought a SS set and my first meal came out so bland my 13 year old son was so dissapointed. Taking all these tips and starting again. Way scared to learn to cook again after 27 years. But got tired of buying pot set after pot set.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the tips! Getting used to cooking with (and cleaning) SS pans takes a bit of time but once you get the hang of it you’ll never look back. Like you said, it’s wonderful not having to replace set after set!

  17. What about using cooking sprays instead of oil? I don’t use oil when cooking 9 out of 10 times. I do not want the extra fat ((don’t need to hear about sprays being bad, lol.)

    I just got an all clad stainless steel set for christmas and after cooking one time and having to spend 30 min cleaning the pan I’m already ready to send it back 🙁

    A chef friend of mine suggested bringing baking soda and water to a boil to clean it. You mentioned letting it cool before cleaning. So … after boiling the baking soda and water … would I then let it cool before moving it to the sink to scrub/wipe?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Cooking sprays do work but you need quite a bit more than with Teflon pans. It’s still fewer calories than if you were using oil, though.

      Bringing baking soda and water — or vinegar and water — to boil in stainless steel does help to loosen cooked-on foods. Then you kind of scrape around with a wood or rubber spatula to get as much of the gunk up, dump it, and wash. Since you’re using hot water to wash and rinse (right? right???) you don’t have to wait.

      I know it can be kind of a steep learning curve to switch to stainless, but once you get the hang of it they’re fantastic. I’m on the same set of pots and pans and they look brand new.

    2. Thank you for your reply!!! I came across your blog by googling and didn’t expect a reply since this is an older post!

      I used cooking spray last night and it took me 30min to clean one pan 🙁 Problem is it was a skillet and the spray mainly stuck on the SIDES. That wasn’t easy to boil off since I had to fill it so full and it still didn’t really get the rim of the pan. I ended up rubbing bar keepers friend soft scrub all over sides and rim and put it back on heat with just a LITTLE water in the bottom. It formed a “crust” of sorts on the sides when it got hot and came right off when I took it to sink to wash (yes in warm water.) I’m thinking of making my own Cooking Spray. Since TECHNICALLY cooking spray is NOT macro (fat/calorie) free .. especially with the amount you have to use to really see good results. The nutrient difference wouldn’t be any different (if not less) in a homemade version using just oil and water in a spray bottle. Hoping that doesn’t leave a film!!

    3. Katie Berry says:

      Well, I’m glad you found my blog! 🙂

      Sounds like you’ve learned the hard way that you need to spray the sides of the skillet, too. As far as the gunk on the bottom, I usually let the pan cool while we’re eating then wash as much gunk off as I can. To get rid of the rest, dump any water out of the pan and sprinkle on some Barkeeper’s Friend. Scrub with that — you want to scour it, basically — and rinse repeatedly. Boom, the gunk goes away.

      It helps to remember, too, to use a cold water soak for eggs, potatoes, and rice. Hot water will just bind those to the pan even more.

      Making your own cooking spray is a cinch. Be sure to add 1 tsp. water for every 8 oz. oil and swirl it before use. The water will help propel the oil through the spray nozzle without clogging.

      Enjoy!

    4. I am in a similar situation I got some new All Clas from my husband this year for Christmas and the first few times after cooking with them cleaning was a pain. But I think I’m learning what I did wrong and this blog seems to have some great advice that is on point. I think preheating then heating oil is key. The last couple times I cooked that way and it was way way reduced in terms of anything sticking to the pan. And I am using a little more oil than I used to with nonstick, at a little lower temperature also. I think it’s just a learning curve like the blog author mentioned. Good luck!

    5. Katie Berry says:

      I’m glad you found my tips helpful, Candace!

    6. Sean Echols says:

      Sounds like your not preheating correctly or adding oil before pan is at the correct temperature.

      Nothing beats a good set of stainless and this is from a guy who loves cast iron.

  18. I tend to cook quite often with frozen foods. I JUST bought my first set of All Clad D5, since I have been reading about SS cooking. Do I need to stop cooking from frozen?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      If you’re stirring frozen ingredients into already heated ones (adding frozen veggies to a soup, for instance), I wouldn’t change a thing. But I wouldn’t throw frozen chicken breasts straight into an otherwise empty hot pan.

  19. I have had a set of SS since several years ago. I cooked with them a few times and hated it. I either thought I was a horrible cook or that stainless steel just plain sucks lol. Little did I know that you need to preheat the pan then add oil before cooking. My entire life all I have know are Teflon non stick pans. I finally got fed up with my dying set of pans that were cracking and chipping plus full of harmful chemicals.
    I am now learning how to cook with stainless steel and cast iron and so excited about learning new methods of cooking while I also spring clean my house and downsize my possessions from cluttered to minimalist. That way I have only what I need. Things that work great and that I actually use: LOVE to use!

  20. Finally had enough of my teflon pans. The teflon was coming off and although I haven’t read or done any research on the stuff, I just can’t see how ingesting the stuff can be good for my family. So with some Christmas money from my in-laws I bought a new set of SS yesterday. First thing this morning my husband cooked an egg and sprayed it with Pam. Wrong. My beautiful new pan is all grimy and brown. Hopefully with some Barkeepers Friend we can get that thing looking like new again.

    Your cooking tips and information on the SS were very helpful and I cooked a flawless dinner with my new pans, and they cleaned up beautifully after. Thanks for the info.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      So glad to have helped, MaryLee! My husband did the same thing with Pam on ours, and I about blew my top. Now I keep a spray bottle with 1/2 cup olive oil and 1 tbsp distilled water next to the stove. Swirl before use and spray it on just like Pam!

  21. The only thing in the kitchen I love more than my stainless steel cookware is a cast iron fry pan which dates back to my grandmother. Sometimes I feel as though I should use wrist supports when lifting it, but there are some recipes that would not seem the same without this old hand me down.

  22. I love my stainless steel pans and the first thing I discovered was that they do heat faster and maintain heat so much better than anything else I have ever used. The set I have was a Christmas gift from my parents and one of my sons one year. I asked for them. I agree with you about pots, pans, appliances as gifts. Now, don’t get me wrong. If I didn’t ASK for a vacuum cleaner and received one I would be annoyed!

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