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Stick Around

August 9, 2010

Recently I wrote a piece for Simpler Living about cookware basics, and the comments were really eye opening.  It seems a lot of people have a problem with food sticking to the bottom of their pans.

I say it is eye opening because this isn’t a problem for me. Really, for two reasons:
1)    Food generally doesn’t stick to my pans.
2)    When it does, I put it to very good use.

And the answer is not that I am using super-secret non-stick technology.  It’s not even that I’m necessarily using a non-stick pan.  It is just that I have a good working understanding about when stuff sticks and why.  And subsequently, what to do about it.

So I thought I’d share.

Here is the basic rule:  Food sticks to pans when the pan is very hot or there is not enough fat or liquid in the pan.

For the most part people are loath to put a lot of fat in their pans.  If you are skittish about using tasty butter, or the even tastier rendered bacon fat, use cold pressed extra virgin olive oil or expeller pressed safflower oil (if you can find it).  But a spritz of cooking spray isn’t going to give your food the buffer it needs from the heat, and will result in food scorching to your pan, especially if you are cooking on high heat.

High heat has its place.  Let’s say you are cooking a thick piece of red meat on a hot skillet to get a good char.  You try to move it with tongs and it won’t budge.  That’s because it isn’t ready yet.  You can try to force it off, but invariably you will tear some of the flesh off the steak, and it will continue to caramelize on the pan.  Or instead, you can wait until the crust has finished forming, and it will lift right off.  The other option would be to take the pan off the heat and let it cool down before carefully trying to lift the meat.

But many things, especially eggs, benefit from a more gentle heat.  Every piece of cookware will perform differently on a different stove.  It takes a while to really get the feel for your tools.  My father-in-law’s pancakes are cooked with a more gentle heat.  And he used the same pan at three different Bay Area apartments to make us these delicious morsels.  Every time we moved, it would take a good couple of visits for him to triangulate the proper stovetop setting to get the pancakes perfectly golden.  Too hot and they would scorch before setting.  Too low and they wouldn’t pick up enough golden color.

I’m not going to delve into the science behind this, but it is available on the internet for those who are truly interested.

But suppose despite your best efforts, food has stuck to the bottom of your pans.  You have two options:
1)    You can put the pan aside and commit yourself to an evening of scrubbing until your fingers are raw and tired, or
2)    You can remove your food, and hold it on a plate, while you make a quick and delicious pan sauce.

I go for number two ever time.  Even if the pan sauce turns out bad, I don’t have to use it, and it has saved me a tremendous amount of clean up work. But generally the sauce is pretty tasty.

All you need to do is add liquid to the pan.  It can be wine, stock or even water.  Some combination of the three would work well too.  Turn the heat up to high, scrape the bottom of the pan, and watch those beautiful brown bits dissolve into a tasty slurry of flavor.

These brown bits on the bottom are called the fond, and if you let them get black, the sauce will be bitter and nasty.  Deep brown is entirely different than black.  But fond should never be discarded, it should be cherished.

Cook down the liquid over high heat until it is concentrated, add butter, any herbs and seasonings you like, and drizzle the precious little pan sauce over whatever you had just been cooking.  Or, should you decide not to use it, grab a piece of bread and gobble it up yourself as you are plating.

It’s the most delicious way to clean pots ever.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. August 9, 2010 10:28 am

    I remember introducing BK to deglazing. What a revelation :) Truly, the most delicious way to clean.

  2. August 9, 2010 11:27 am

    In my house, things stuck to the pan are little bits of gold. I’m not 100% awesome at it yet, but I’m getting there. My mother can somehow make delicious sauce out of anything.

    We all had a good cry yesterday because something that was being reduced to greatness got thrown out by accident. Tragic :(

  3. August 9, 2010 11:51 am

    I love making pan sauces. I agree that it’s one of the best use of of “accidents” there is. I seldom have trouble with food sticking when I don’t want it to, and I cook almost entirely using stainless steel, not non-stick pans. The exception for me is eggs, which as you said, benefit from gentler heat. I have the pan’s temperature the slightest bit off, they stick.

  4. Stevo permalink
    August 9, 2010 12:35 pm

    Yes, the stuff that sticks to your pan is called fond. And you should indeed be fond of it. Nothing adds flavor to a pan sauce like a good bit of fond, red meat especially.

    I like my steak pan fried very quickly on high heat and then finished in the oven. While the steaks are continuing to cook in the oven, that your chance to whip up a quick sauce. I prefer a sauce of red wine, shallots, a little fresh thyme and dijon mustard, salt and pepper. But the possibilities and variations are endless.

    Just don’t drown your steak, you want the sauce to enhance the flavor of the beef, not cover it up. I pour it over potatoes and let it run down around the steak. Yummy.

  5. Sarah M. permalink
    August 9, 2010 12:52 pm

    Deglazing is pretty much the one thing I can do in the kitchen that can even approach looking impressive, or suggest (incorrectly) that I know what I’m doing. But I cancel it out by making the Pioneer Woman’s super trashy faux chicken piccata. Mmmm, heavy cream! I think that’s too gross even for you.

  6. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    August 9, 2010 12:53 pm

    One reason things stick is cheap thin pans. They should be thick and heavy.

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