How to use a stainless steel pan: seasoning, cooking, and cleaning explained

You’ve finally done it. You’ve decided to ditch your old, scraped-up, chipped nonstick frying pan. No more potentially toxic flakes of nonstick coating in your food! No more forgetting you can’t use a metal utensil and scraping the pan even more! 

If you’ve ever cooked with a stainless steel pan for the first time and ended up with a burnt mess, you’re not alone. Stainless steel pans require a little extra love, but once you figure it out you’ll be cooking sauces, searing meats and sautéing vegetables like never before. The best news? You won’t even have to wash your pan with soap and water every time- yes, you read that correctly. Why is this? 

Preparing your stainless steel pans

The first step to cooking successfully with stainless steel is seasoning the cookware. You may have heard your grandmother talking about seasoning her pans, or she may have an old pot or cast iron skillet that is ancient but somehow still cooks perfectly. Seasoning sounds intimidating, but really it is just an old-school, professional, and most importantly, non-toxic way of making your stainless steel cookware non-stick.

Seasoning Your Pan

Step 1: Clean

When you first purchase your new cookware, you should wash it with soap and water and dry it off completely. This just ensures that there’s no dust, debris or even adhesive from any stickers or labels. No one wants dusty fried eggs! Once your pan is clean and dry, notice if it can be used in the oven. Higher end cookware will usually have a heavy-duty metal handle that can withstand the heat of the oven, perfect for broiling or browning things under high heat. Most professional-grade cookware will have this feature as many chefs require the ability to brown the top of their dishes without transferring the food to another pan. If you’ve purchased stainless steel cookware with plastic or wooden handles do not put them in the oven! 

Step 2A: Oil & Heat (Oven Method)

-If your cookware can be used in the oven, preheat your oven to 300F

-Meanwhile, put a tablespoon or two of high-heat oil in your cold, clean pan. High-temperature oils could be a vegetable oil, peanut oil, canola/rapeseed oil, or even avocado or coconut oils. Note that coconut oil may impart a faint tropical taste the first few times you use your pan, and nut oils are a bad idea if you plan on cooking for guests with allergies. Avoid using olive oil or butter, which will burn under high temperatures

-Using your fingers, a pastry brush or a flexible rubber spatula, spread the oil around the pan, coating the inside entirely. There may be a little excess oil, don’t worry. 

Step 3: Bake!

-When the oven is ready, place the pan in the middle rack and leave in the oven for an hour. The oil should be slightly smoking but not burnt- if it is beginning to smell burnt take your pan out of the oven immediately. 

-If after an hour the oil isn’t smoking a little, turn up the temperature and leave in oven for ten-minute increments. 

Step 4: Cool & Wipe 

-Next, take your stainless steel pan out of the oven and let it cool completely. 

-Once cool, use a paper towel or lint-free dish towel and wipe the excess oil off. Your pan should be shiny, smooth and just the faintest bit slippery. It is now ready to use! 

Step 2B: Oil & Heat (Stovetop Method)

-If you have cookware that cannot go in the oven, do not worry! Your method is just as easy. Pick a high heat oil from the above list, and just like the oven method, spread the oil over the inside of the pan, making sure to coat the inside of the pan from bottom to rim. 

-Then, place your pan on your stove and set the appropriate burner to medium-high heat. Leave the oiled pan on the burner until the oil begins to smoke slightly, then turn off the heat and let the pan cool to room temperature. 

Step 3B: Cool & Wipe

-Once cool, you can wipe off the excess oil with a paper towel or lint-free cloth. If the pan is smooth, shiny and slightly slippery without any visible drops of oil, you’re ready to cook! 

Tips for Cooking with Stainless Steel

The most important thing to remember with stainless steel is temperature! If you use temperature to your advantage, you should never have issues with quality, seasoned pan. Just remember these two tips:

  1. Make sure the food you are cooking is at room temperature. If you’re cooking meat, make sure it is thoroughly thawed in the fridge, then take out of the fridge for one to two hours so it can reach room temperature (never thaw meat at room temperature or leave outside of fridge longer than two hours!). Vegetables should reach room temperature by the time you’re done chopping them, so don’t worry too much about taking them out of the fridge in advance. If you store eggs in the fridge, take them out before cooking and let them reach room temperature while your pan preheats. 
  2. Always preheat your pans! The pan should be on the burner at a medium to medium-high heat and be hot enough before adding any cooking fat or ingredients. To see if your pan is hot enough, add a few drops of water to the pan. If they sizzle a little but stay as single drops (kind of like mercury) your pan is ready! If they don’t sizzle the pan is too cold; if they sizzle ferociously and separate into tiny drops quickly or evaporate immediately, the pan is too hot and should be taken off the heat while you turn down your burner. 

Preheating the pan properly will not only add a nice brown sear to your foods, but it will also ensure that the seasoning stays in place and your food doesn’t stick- even without added cooking fat! Once your pan is preheated you can use whatever temperature you need for your recipe. Creamy sauces can simmer on low, you can use high heat for stir-fries, or sear a gorgeous piece of meat on medium-high for a crispy brown crust before lowering the temperature to cook it through.  

Cleaning your stainless steel pans

Obviously wait for your pans to be cool enough to touch, ideally room temperature- enjoy your meal before cleaning so you don’t burn yourself! Generally, if you’ve cooked properly there shouldn’t be anything stuck to your pan. Perhaps just some crumbs, some browned oil or residue. 

  1. Take a paper towel and wipe away any leftover oil, juice or debris. Then, if you feel the need, you can rinse it in hot water and even give it a little scrub. Do not use soap or it will strip away all of the seasoning and you’ll have to season it again! 
  2. 2. Wipe the pan completely dry, then add a few drops of oil to the pan, using a paper towel to spread it evenly over the pan. Wipe away any excess oil and then store your pan somewhere where it won’t be scratched. You can stack stainless steel pans without any worry as long as they are lightly oiled. If you’re worried about scratches, put a piece of paper towel or a clean dishcloth between each pan before stacking.

TIP: If you’ve cooked something with a strong smell, after rinsing the pan put in a 400F oven for 15 minutes. Once cooled, follow with a thin layer of oil, wipe off excess with a paper towel and then put away.  

TIP: If you’ve accidentally burned something sticky in your pan, simply add an inch or so of water to the pan and cook on the stove over medium-high heat until the stuck-on food detaches from the pan. Rinse, then add oil to coat the pan, wiping the excess off with a paper towel before putting away. 

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