Most of the cookware sold in the United States is of the non-stick variety. Introduced in the 1960’s, non-stick cookware has become a mainstay in every home cook’s kitchen. But the fact of the matter is, most culinary applications do not require a non-stick pan. There are a few exceptions of course, like eggs. But with the proper equipment and technique most sticky situations can be avoided.
Chefs aren’t crazy about non-stick pans due to their principle drawback: they can inhibit flavor development. This is because they fail to produce a sufficient fond on the pan bottom that can be deglazed and intensify the flavor of the dish. For the benefit of all you non-stick cookware mavens, allow me to expound upon this concept.
Whenever food is seared in a pan in some form of fat the caramelized residue on the bottom of the pan is known as the fond. This applies mainly to proteins but even sautéed vegetables will produce a fond. The fond is loaded with flavor. Chefs capitalize on this flavor by dissolving the fond, a process known as deglazing. Some form of liquid, (water, alcohol, stock, etc.), is introduced, brought to a boil, and the fond scraped off, which meltingly imbibes the dish with its sapidity. This is the time honored method of producing a delicious pan sauce. Non-stick cookware creates a paltry fond at best, thus robbing the cook of a key venue for augmenting the flavor of the final dish. The glitch of course with regular cookware is the dreaded prospect of the food sticking to the pan. Let’s peruse a step-by-step guide to preventing sticking when sautéing food in a regular pan.
1) Use a high quality pan made of heavy-gauge metal. This is first and foremost and I cannot stress this point enough. If you are employing shoddy cookware, none of the remaining guidelines will make a difference. Cheap cookware is inevitably constructed of thinner layers of metal. This will not moderate or evenly distribute the heat like a heavy gauge pan. The lack of metallurgic insulation will cause the food to stick. Throw out the bargain cookware, splurge on a good set, and free yourself of this problem for eternity.
2) Preheat the pan and cooking fat to a high temperature. The by-the-book approach is to heat the pan first, add the fat, allow the fat to heat up and then introduce the food. A common cooking myth is that high heat causes sticking when actually the reverse is true. Of course this doesn’t mean to go to the other extreme and incinerate the fat. But the pan and the fat must be sufficiently hot first. With oil wait until you start to see wisps of smoke before adding the food. If using butter it should be sizzling. High heat is the first step toward properly searing the food. We’ll elaborate on searing momentarily.
3) Use a sufficient amount of fat. The food should not be swimming in oil, (that would be pan-frying), but conversely, this is no time to get wussy with the oil either. At the very least, the entire bottom of the pan should be covered. I recommend just a little more than is required to coat the entire bottom. You can always pour out any excess later prior to deglazing the pan.
4) Brush the food with a light coating of oil before placing it in the pan. Now I know what you’re thinking. If we already have oil in the pan why are we adding it to the food? Food does not have a perfectly smooth and uniform surface. It is beset with tiny nooks and crannies. Brushing the food with oil produces a uniform surface conducive to more efficient searing. We’re only talking about a light film of oil. The food should not be dripping with it.
5) Once introduced to the pan do not move the food until the first side sears. Many people add food to a pan or grill and then start fussing with it. This interferes with the production of a sufficient sear. Ok, what’s all this talk about searing? Searing the food does not “seal in the juices,” which is another cooking myth. Searing the food intensifies the flavor by caramelizing its surface. But the sear also produces a non-stick barrier between the food and the pan. If properly seared in a quality pan you should be able to flip even a skin-on piece of chicken, with minimal sticking. Once you have successfully seared the first side of the food, simply flip it and repeat the procedure with the other side. The second side will take a little less time since the food is now hotter than when it was first added.