How To Keep Food From Sticking To Stainless Steel Pans

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You could probably guess this from taking, like, the briefest of glances at my post history, but I’m a die-hard stainless steel cookware devotee. So much so that my Roman Empire is thinking about how many people I know don’t know how to keep food from sticking to stainless steel pans. 

Trust and believe, that’s not coming from a place of judgment! It’s super tricky if you go into it blind; I’ll never deny that. And because we’ve been conditioned by Big Teflon to expect food to just slide right off cookware, it’s hardly surprising that it’s one of the lesser-understood cooking techniques.

Well, friends, I’m here to tell you everything that non-stick pan manufacturers try to keep you in the dark about. YES, it is possible to keep food from sticking to a stainless steel pan.

And you wanna know what’s even juicier than that? It’s actually really, really easy. 

Why Does Food Stick to Stainless Steel Pans?

Before we jump into the meat and potatoes (two things that won’t stick to your stainless steel pots and pans after you know what you’re doing), let’s run through the reasons why food sticks to stainless steel cookware in the first place. 

While you’re mastering this technique, you’re bound to have some bloopers and near-wins. Knowing why food sticks will help you diagnose what you need to do differently the next time around.

Scrambled eggs sticking in a stainless steel pan.

Not Enough Heat…Or Too Much

If there’s one thing you take away from this how-to, I hope it’s this. Heat (or lack thereof) is THE end-all determining factor in whether your food sticks or not.

You can do everything else right: use the right kind of oil, have the cleanest, newest pan, and cook only the right kind of food. Absolutely none of it will matter if you don’t heat your pan to the right cooking temperature.

That’s because of a little thing called the Leidenfrost Effect. 

The Leidenfrost effect occurs when a liquid or moisture from a substance reaches its boiling point on a heated surface. The vapor from boiling creates a barrier.  

If there’s not enough heat to produce this effect, then the surfaces are free to bond. That’s almost always what’s responsible for stuck-on food. 

But don’t think you can just crank that knob up to high and make your stainless steel cookware non-stick. Too much heat isn’t good either! 

That precious barrier won’t form if the moisture boils off too quickly, and you’ll be in the same sticky situation you would have been in if your pan wasn’t hot enough. 

Or a little worse off, because you’ll have burnt AND stuck food to contend with. 

A stainless steel pan with brunt food.

The Food Was Too Cold, Delicate, or Crowded

Food that’s fresh out of the fridge will lower the temp of your pan’s surface on contact.

I know It doesn’t seem like cold food should be enough to throw off that precise ratio of surface heat to boiling point, but trust me, it is. I’ve underestimated the power of a cold chicken breast more times than I’d like to admit.

Once the surfaces of the food and the pan have bonded, even if it gets back up to temp quickly, there’s no going back.

Similarly, delicate foods can be difficult to cook in stainless steel. Especially protein-rich foods- lookin’ at you, eggs and fish.

Note that I said difficult, though- not impossible! Once you’ve had a little bit of practice, you’ll be able to cook pretty much anything.

Finally, let’s talk about overcrowding, the mistake I made time and time again when I first started cooking. When food, especially meat, doesn’t have enough breathing room to release moisture, it can steam the food around it before it gets that goal-worthy brown. Ugh, mush-fest. 

And with stainless steel, that can lower the temperature of the pan enough to make food- you guessed it – gets stuck. 

Scrambled eggs not sticking in a stainless steel pan.

The Pan is Damaged

Did you go a little too hard with that brillo pad the last time you used the pan? Have you been using your dad’s hand-me-down barbecue tongs every time you cook? Did you take your skillet off the burner and immediately douse it in water? 

Then there’s your culprit. 

When the surface of a pan is scratched, as it can be with metal utensils and abrasive scrubbing, the resulting grooves can make an already clingy surface that much clingier. 

And warped stainless steel cookware, often a consequence of rapid temperature changes, heats unevenly– bad news when you’re depending on steady heat to get your dinner from the pan to the plate.

And there’s no going back from a damaged pan. Just cut your losses and buy a new stainless steel skillet (this one is my go-to).

How Do You Keep Food from Sticking To Stainless Steel Pans?

Once again: it’s all about the heat, baby. Well, mostly. There are a few other important steps that I’ll touch on later, but if you want the answer in a nutshell, it’s heating your pan to the right temperature. This begs the question: how do you know if your pan is at the right temperature? 

It seems like something you should be able to time. No such luck, though. Since there’s a big range (no pun intended) in the power of stovetop burners, it would be almost impossible to pinpoint how long it takes a pan to get to temp.

There’s a much more accurate way to know if your pan is hot enough, and it’s actually really simple. All it takes is a couple drops of water. 

Once you think your pan might be hot enough, wet your fingertips and flick a water droplet onto its surface.

If the droplet becomes a sphere and dances around in the pan, you’re in business. If it runs or just sits there, give it some more time. And if it splits off into a bunch of tiny droplets, give your pan a rest- it’s too hot.

Stainless steel water drop test

Food Sticks To Pan Even With Oil? Here’s How To Cook With Stainless Steel Without Sticking, Step-by-Step

If you balked at me reducing the whole process of cooking successfully with stainless steel pans down to “make sure the pan is the right temperature”, don’t worry. You didn’t really think I’d leave it at that, did you?

For all you methodical queens out there, here’s a more detailed explanation of how to cook with stainless steel without sticking.

Step 1: Temper the Food

Cold food is a big red flag! Whatever you’re cooking, let it rest somewhere far from the frigid depths of your refrigerator for a little bit before you start sauteing and searing.

You don’t have to do it for an excessive amount of time (I don’t want your family getting salmonella and I’m guessing you don’t either), but you’ll want it to be room temperature. 

Step 2: Turn Up The Heat

After you’ve made sure your skillet is big enough for everything you need to cook in it (unless you’re cool with batch cooking), place it over medium heat or medium-high heat if your range lacks oomph.

Remember, an ounce of patience is worth a pound of cranking up the burner to high. 

Step 3: Make It Rain

Once you suspect that the pan is hot enough, do that water droplet test we went over in the last section. If it’s not hot enough, hang tight for a little bit and do it again. If it’s too hot, adjust the heat accordingly. 

Once you reach the water droplet dance party phase, feel free to move on to the next step.

stainless steel water drop heat test

Step 4: Now, We’re Cooking With Oil

Add your oil of choice to the skillet. Just make sure it has a high smoke point. Light olive oil, avocado oil, or ghee are my favs!

Since the pan will cool down a smidge when you add the oil to it, make sure to wait a few seconds before proceeding to the next step. If it’s hot enough, the oil will coat the surface of the pan easily with a little tilting.

Step 5: Lay Down The Grub

When your pan and oil are up to temp, it’s time to throw in the makings of your meal. Leave it alone to sit. While you wait, say a prayer to your higher power for success and absolutely no stuck food during the rest of this venture.

Step 6: Flip Out

Now, the moment of truth! Once you feel like it’s browned enough on one side, try and flip it using a wooden or silicone spatula (remember, no metal). 

How’d you do? No sticking? Then do a little happy jig and take a second to feel like an absolute boss.

If it did stick, oh well- there’s always next time! Just keep at it and try to learn from your experience.

Fried eggs sliding out of a stainless steel pan.

Step 7: Scrub-a-dub-dub…But Lightly

Old oil on a stainless steel pan is bad news. Like, “throw you off your whole game” bad news, since it’ll leave behind a sticky, burnt residue the next time you cook with it.

Set yourself up for success in the future by cleaning your pan thoroughly after each use.

How To Clean Food Stuck On A Stainless Steel Pan: Do’s and Don’ts

You followed all the rules, but for whatever reason, you still couldn’t hack the “no sticking” part. Now, in addition to your spirits being a little crushed, you have a gluey mess to clean up

Well, first things first, chin up these things happen.

And even if everything went off without a tacky hitch, you might STILL find yourself with a gummed-up skillet. It’s just the reality of cooking with stainless steel.

Luckily, you’ve got options that’ll allow you to keep your pan and your sanity intact. Here’s what to do and what not to do! 


  • Deglaze, deglaze, deglaze! If you’re cooking meat, you can use the little brown bits left over in the pan (the frond) to make a delicious sauce or gravy. Who wouldn’t want a bonus sauce AND an easier cleanup?
  • Use warm water to loosen up those goopy bits and bobs while your pan is still hot. Once the pan and everything on it cools down,  your job will get a lot more difficult. 
  • If you were eager to eat and let food dry onto the pan (understandable), fill the pan with soapy water and let it soak as long as it needs to loosen up the gunk. 
  • Use the soft side of a sponge and a little elbow grease to scrub off those stubborn spots if you need to. 


  • Take a Brillo pad or other abrasive scrubbing tool to the surface of your pan. Not only will it scuff up the luminous stainless steel, but it’ll also lead to more sticky messes in the future. 
  • Use cold water to rinse the pan when it’s fresh off the burner. You could warp the pan, which damages the reliable, even heating properties that make stainless steel worth the extra hassle. And uneven heat begets more spackled-on sludge for you to clean up later on down the line.
A sudsy stainless steel pan being cleaned with a sponge.

Do I Need To Season Stainless Steel?

While I have seen bizarre tutorials for it out there, I would actually discourage you from seasoning stainless steel. 

The reason why cast iron and carbon steel pans need to be seasoned is twofold: for one thing, they rust if you just wash them and leave them be. I can’t say the same for stainless steel. 

They also don’t heat as evenly as stainless steel cookware, which means our good ol’ pal the Leidenfrost effect is much harder to achieve with cast iron or carbon steel. So they need another defense against stuck-on food. Since their chemical makeup allows for the incorporation of oil into their composition, seasoning is the most effective way to do that. 

Stainless steel cookware won’t form a patina like cast iron or carbon steel will, so seasoning them does nothing but waste oil and create a mess. 

Fried eggs sliding out of a stainless steel pan.

How To Keep Food From Sticking To Stainless Steel Pans: My Final Thoughts

Don’t let its steep learning curve fool you! Once you get the hang of it, it’s easy to keep food from sticking to stainless steel pans. 

Being cognizant of both the temperature of the food and pan, along with some basic care and keeping, go a long way. So go forth and beef up your sauté skills – I’ll be rooting for you!

About Author

Tia Goodnight

Hey! I'm Tia, and I started this site to bring you the best information on all things kitchen so you can enjoy and elevate your everyday life.

I love trying new techniques and tools, living for the thrill of pulling off a new skill. On weekends you'll find me at the local farmer's markets or hosting friends and family for an evening of yard or card games and delicious food.

If you're looking for honest, real-world advice on all things kitchen and cooking, you're in the right place!