how to keep food from sticking and burning in thin pans

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Sometimes you’re stuck with less-than-perfect pans—and sometimes your food is stuck on those pans. But there’s one easy way to keep food from sticking and burning in a thin saute pan or saucepan.

Yes, you should make sure you use enough oil, butter, or other fat to help keep food from sticking, and properly preheating your pan before adding that fat is also important.

But if that’s not quite enough to do the trick (or in cases where it doesn’t apply, like making oatmeal or hot cocoa in a saucepan), just try this tip from former Chowhound Associate Editor Roxanne Webber: Use a second pan to diffuse the heat!

This is most useful for long-simmered sauces, jams, oatmeal, and even simmered milk when the bottom is prone to scorching, but you can use it when sauteing meat and veggies in untreated, unseasoned metal pans too (as long as you have two pans big enough to nest).

It’s a perfect hack for vacation home cooking, when you might not have access to high-quality cookware, and a good way to get by at your own home if you’re not quite ready upgrade your equipment—but when you are, we have several resources to help you choose:

Still Getting Burned?

If you still have issues when sauteing in particular, make sure you are actually letting your pan get hot enough before adding fat—when you think it’s hot enough, try dropping a bit of water (about 1/8 teaspoon) into the pan. If the water sizzles, give it another moment or so and try again. You want to see the water disperse in little beads like mercury racing across the surface of the metal (if you’re old enough to remember broken thermometers, you’ll know what that looks like, but if not, there are lots of videos online).

Grace Young Beef Stir-Fry recipe


Then add your fat and tilt the pan so it spreads over the entire surface. Let the fat itself heat up for a few moments and give it another tilt from side to side to ensure even coverage (if your stove isn’t perfectly level, it may have migrated to one side of the pan). Clarified butter or ghee will be fine by itself since all the milk solids have been removed, but if you’re using regular butter, it helps to add a bit of neutral oil with a higher smoke point, or else the butter is likely to burn.

Finally, add your protein or veggies to the pan, and if you’re going for a sear, leave it alone for a while—maybe longer than you think you should—and let the food tell you when it’s time to flip. That means, don’t force it; gently attempt to turn the ingredients over and if they resist, wait a bit longer until they naturally release from the pan. Otherwise, you’ll end up with bits ripped off and stuck to the metal. But at least in that case, unless they’re completely blackened, you can deglaze them for a pan sauce.

Related Reading: 8 Egregious Cookware Sins You’re Probably Guilty Of

And if you still end up with scorch marks or carbonized residue on your pots and pans, you can remove it with vinegar and baking soda! Or try this dryer sheet hack from CNET.

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