Tuesday, January 22, 2008

One Food Hack, One Non-Food Hack

The food hack:

To prevent foods from sticking to the pan when pan frying or sauteing, preheat the pan before adding any oil or butter. Use the heat setting you intend to use when cooking (not high heat), and pre-heat for a few minutes. When is it ready? When the pan is about 180 degrees, or until it passes the "butter test": add a dab of butter on the bottom of the pan. If it bubbles briskly without burning, it's hot enough.

Add your oil and allow the oil to heat. Then throw in your food. No sticking to the pan!

This tip ended a long string of bad pan stickiness I've had lately.

Why it works:

I truly thought I read about this in Harold McGee's The Invisible Ingredient editorial, but re-reading it, I don't see it anywhere, so I'm at a loss as to where I heard it. But here's Foodgoat's best guess as to why it works -

When the metal pan is cold, its surface has actually rough, although it may look and feed quite smooth. Heat will cause this metal to expand, which causes the surface to even out and become smoother. But, if you add the oil when the pan is still cold, the oil gets into those surface hills and crevices, preventing it from smoothing out.

Oil added to a preheated surface, however, sits right on top of that surface, so that it acts as the slick, lubricating layer you need to keep food from sticking to the pan.

The Non-Food Hack

If, by chance, you should suck up the Wii Sensor bar with your vacuum cleaner, thereby mangling it beyond all recognition, you can still play with your Wii by lighting two candles, set about 9 inches apart, in front of your TV. Your Wiimote and all the games will work just as well with this super low tech sensor bar stand in. This is how we spent our Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It's really quite romantic.

Why it works:

The sensor bar doesn't actually sense anything, nor does it send any data to the Wii console. It just has two blue lights, one on each end, that the Wiimote uses to triangulate its position. It's the Wiimote that talks to the console. The sensor bar is just plugged into the console to power the lights. Candles provide the needed lights just as well.


  1. Makes perfect sense. Most good cook books require that you heat the pan for 2-plus minutes before you even add the oil/butter. However, I should add that there is always a plus side on getting food stuck on the pan: deglazing with red wine.

    As for the Wii: as I do not possess one, I haven't a clue as to what you are talking about.


  2. This is the explanation pan stickiness I've heard in the past. The technique does work, but the engineer in me thinks that it doesn't have anything to do with how smooth the pan is.

    Teflon works well because it's can't be easily wetted by water. IE, water beads up on it and molecules of water don't adhere to molecules of teflon. When the water boils off and the food burns, it hasn't penetrated into the surface at all.

    Food sticks to metal when that water spreads out and wets a surface. The water boils off and the proteins and sugars in it burn into the surface of the pan. I don't think this has anything to do with how "smooth" the pan is. You could polish it up to a mirror finish and the water would still wet it the surface and the food would still burn onto pan. It might not be as bad, because it wouldn't have as many nooks and crannies to cling to, but it'd still burn on.

    Fats keep this from happening because a later of fat on a pan does the same job as teflon. The water beads up on it and doesn't get through to interact with the metal pan.

    The reason adding the fat to the hot pan is a good idea, is that the fats have less time to break down due to heat and oxygen. If you butter early in the pan heating process, it's going to be pretty deteriorated by the time the pan is hot. Same for other lower smoke point fats. I suspect something like peanut oil could be added in right at the beginning, because it's resistant to breaking down.

    As for stuff not sticking to a really hot pan, my guess is that the liquids coming out of the food are boiling off/burning very rapidly. Liquid never comes in direct contact with metal because it's vaporized very quickly. If you let liquid come out of the food and just sit there without boiling off quickly, eventually it'll displace the oil beneath it (oil floats on water!) and come into direct contact with the pan.

    Deglazing works because the burnt foodstuff is stuck to the fat and not to the pan. It's relatively easy to remove. If you burn stuff directly to the metal, it's not coming off with a simple dash of red wine. On a teflon pan you don't get any fond at all, because the burnt bits stick to the food rather than the pan.

    Anyway, that's my completely groundless theory. Totally made up on the spot. :)

  3. OK, the Wii fact is seriously bugging me out...I am going to try it!

  4. I've read the food-hack comment before... Wish I had a Wii so I could try out the candle thing though. THAT sounds cool!

  5. Hi foodgoat,
    Wonderful blog, exciting to read, and useful as well.. this post is a prime example. Some of it is a little alien to me, having never been to the US. Live and work from New Delhi, but your blog is second best to eating American food.

    Please go through our food blog at http://foodwatchblog.blogspot.com.
    Have added you to our roll.

  6. Anonymous5:51 AM

    That's a nice tips

    All I know about preventing sticky frying is using a lot of oil and I don't think that's healthy either

  7. How the heck did you figure the Wii thing out? I would've never guessed...