Why Do Pans Smoke +? Pan Smoking Fixes

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Being called a ‘smoke show’ is a funny thing. If it’s coming from your partner, you’ll be walking around feeling like a million bucks. If it’s coming from the IT guy at your office, you should probably set up a meeting with HR. But if your dinner guests are calling your pans a smoke show, well…maybe it’s time to take a step back and address that.

So, why do pans smoke? Once you’ve ruled out other causes of a smoky kitchen (which we’ll touch on), it usually comes down to a few common culprits.

Why Does It Smoke So Much When I Cook?

Before you decide your pan is to blame for your smoky situation, you should make sure there isn’t anything else that could be responsible. 

And even if you see your favorite skillet smoking before your eyes, taking care of these two things before anything else will help you keep a lot of that kitchen haze in check.

Clean Off Your Stovetop

Storytime: Like most first apartments, my first apartment wasn’t exactly neat and tidy. I was young and thought I had better things to do than scour the surfaces of my gas stovetop. That is, I did until the day I went to hard boil some eggs, and a little chunk of old, dry ramen noodles that had fallen into the burner went up in flames.

I’m sharing this riveting anecdote with you to illustrate why keeping your heating element clean is your first line of defense against a smoky kitchen.

Bits of food on or around your cooking surface, no matter how small, are just as likely to make your kitchen hazy as any pan is. And because they’re in the same vicinity as your hot pan, it’s easy to mistake the old food smoke for skillet smoke.

Don’t Underestimate The Importance Of Ventilation

When I was little, I truly thought if someone had a giant industrial hood above the stovetop in their kitchen, they had officially made it. Actually, who am I kidding? I still think that.

But contrary to what little Tia believed, those hoods are more than just a way to show the people who come to your house that you’re living the dream. The ventilation they provide is an important piece of keeping a kitchen from turning into a burnt food hotbox.

Of course, you don’t need to do any fancy remodeling to give your kitchen some airflow. Opening a window/patio door or running a fan works, too.

Detail of a oil on a cast iron skillet

Is It Normal For Pans To Smoke?

There’s no need to feel like you’ve failed in some way if your pan is smoking. As you can probably tell by the fact that this article exists, it’s not uncommon, by any means.

Be that as it may, I wouldn’t necessarily say you should write off the production of smoke as a natural consequence of using a pan.

It isn’t inevitable. It happens for a reason, and all of those reasons have the potential to cause you some grief- whether it be in the form of a ruined dinner, a damaged pan, or a smoke alarm that won’t stop shrieking.

So, Why Does My Pan Smoke So Much?

After you’ve made sure that those smoke plumes are coming from your pan and not residual gunk on your stovetop, you can refocus your detective work and try to find the root cause. 

Chances are you’ll be able to pin it on one of these common errors! And if you can’t, don’t sweat it; some cookware materials have reasons for smoking that are specific to them. We’ll dive into those further on. 

The Pan Is Just Too Hot

This one is kind of obvious, but it deserves to be addressed nonetheless.

If you’re usually cooking under duress from a rumbling stomach and crank up the heat to high so it gets done quicker, then it’s probably not your pan that’s smoking. It’s whatever you have in it! 

Some foods can withstand the blistering power of a burner on high, but a lot of them can’t – especially fatty or dry foods. And if you’re using an especially heat-reactive pan (like one made of stainless steel), using the highest setting on your heat source is a one-way ticket to Toohotsville.

There are also quite a few cooking oils with low smoke points that necessitate equally low heat- for example, butter.

Nicks, Dents, And Scratches

If you don’t regularly try to straddle the line between “cooked” and “scorched” but you notice your pan smokes anyway, then the structural integrity of your cookware should be suspect number 2. 

If your pan is warped, some areas of it will have more contact with your stovetop. You’ll end up with zones on the pan that are much hotter than others- hot pockets, and not the fun kind. 

Unevenly heated pans are a great way to burn food. With that comes smoke.

If you use non-stick pans, even something as small as a little scratch from a utensil could result in smoke. 

In this case, it’s best to toss the pan as it’s no longer safe to use. The smoke you see might be the non-stick coating burning off, ushered in by the damage to the pan. 

Residue From Oil, Soap, or Food

“Well that doesn’t apply,” you thought after reading the last 2 sections. “My pan smokes even when there’s nothing in it!” 

If that was you, ask yourself: Am I sure about that? 

Because if there’s any residue left over from the last time you used it – I’m talkin’ soap residue, food residue, or oil- then you can expect your pan to send you smoke signals.

While the material your cookware is made of might be able to withstand high temperatures, any leftover oil, food, or soap on its surface can’t. Enter kitchen haze.

Detail of a oil on a cast iron skillet

Why Does My Cast Iron Pan Smoke?

In a world that’s trending towards lightweight non-stick cookware, it’s safe to say that cast iron pans are in a league of their own. 

So it figures that when cast iron pans smoke, there’s a whole other set of possible explanations. 

If your cast iron pan is smoking, it could be because of any of the things we just talked about. But It could also be something else. That’s for you to figure out! 

Because let’s be real: it wouldn’t be cooking with cast iron without a test of your instincts and patience, would it?

The Pan Isn’t Seasoned 

Those with enameled cast iron cookware can rule this out since it’s pre-seasoned. 

But all my uncoated cast iron folks, listen up: make sure your pan is well-seasoned! Seasoning gives cast iron a much-needed protective coating of polymerized oil.

Food gets stuck quickly and easily if it’s being cooked in unseasoned or poorly seasoned cast iron. Anything that gets stuck to a cookware surface is much more likely to burn and that leads to- you guessed it: smoke. 

The Seasoning Oil Has Too Low Of A Smoke Point

Maybe you’re religious about slathering your beloved cast iron skillet in oil after every use. If you scoffed at the idea that you would have underseasoned your pan or even (gasp) didn’t season it all, fair enough. 

But have you made sure you’re using the right kind of seasoning oil?

When it comes to seasoning, not all cooking oils are created equal. Every different type of oil has an equally different smoke point. 

Whether you’re using an oil with a low smoke point to season your cast iron or heating your pan beyond the smoke point of its seasoning oil, you may want to investigate this as a potential cause for a smoking pan. 

If you do, my guide to cast iron seasoning oil is a good place to start. 

Why Is My Pan Smoking On Low Heat?

If you’re a cautious cook who always remains mindful of your temperature, a smoking pan can be a confounding experience. It’s not even that hot – what could possibly be burning?

If this is the scenario you’ve found yourself in, you have less of a challenge than other folks because you can eliminate a lot of the common reasons right off the bat. 

Most likely, your pan has some kind of residue on it, and that residue has a low smoke point (i.e. excess soap, or fat from sauteing meat). 

It’s also an easy fix! Provided it’s not a cast iron or non-stick pan we’re talking about, all it takes to remedy the situation is a good wash.

How To Stop A Pan From Smoking

If you’ve identified the cause of your pan’s smoking habit, then what you can do to stop it is pretty easy to deduce.

If it was a scratched non-stick pan, throw it out! 

If it was because your cast iron was unseasoned, season it!

But I can also give you some general guidelines on how to eliminate any chance of it happening at all. I hope these are helpful and that you enjoy smoke-free cooking for a lifetime (mostly, anyway….nobody’s perfect)!

  1. Low and slow: It may take a little bit longer, but you should never use more heat than you have to. Heating your pan slowly will give you more control over the pan’s temperature and ensure it doesn’t get too hot. Your food will be nice and tender, too!
  2. Leave no trace: If you’re nodding off, wait til you’re more present to do your dishes from dinner. If you don’t want your pan to smoke, it’s important to be thorough when you clean it. No soap, no grease, no food. 
  3. Mind your cookware: Pay attention to your cookware’s physical form. Are there dents? Scratches? Is it properly seasoned? By keeping up with your cookware, you’ll know when it’s time to fix/replace cookware before it smokes out your kitchen. If you’re in the market, check out my personal tried-tested-and-loved cookware options.
Detail of a smoking cast iron skillet

Smoking Pans: My Final Thoughts

Plumes of smoke coming off of your pan shouldn’t be an inherent part of your cooking process. If it is, something is going on that you should address. 

Not only is smoke unpleasant and dangerous (in large enough quantities), but it’s also often indicative of damage to the pan or temperatures high enough to burn the dinner you’re cooking.

Fortunately, it’s a really easy problem to solve with a little observation and troubleshooting.

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!