Dear Home-Ec 101,
I have an All-Clad stainless steel skillet, and I can’t seem to cook anything in it without burning the food. Last night, I cooked pork chops in it. I heated the pan on high, put a little olive oil, and put the pork chops in. The areas between the chops turned black quickly, and started smoking. This happens every time I cook in it. What am I doing wrong?
Cooking food is a balancing act. You’re trying to find a point where the heat is transferred to the center of mass -the center of the pork chop in your example- before the outside burns. Most food has a high water content and water is a great insulator, this means that it doesn’t conduct heat very well. Comparatively, metal is a great conductor, this is why your pan gets hot. I’m not going to get too technical right now, some metals are better conductors than others. To read more about relative conductivity in cookware, check out this post comparing cast iron, stainless steel and enameled cast iron.
Your goal is to find a heat low enough so there is time for the heat to be transferred all the way to the center of the pork chop before the outside burns and high enough so it doesn’t take all day. Your secondary goal, when cooking meat is usually to create flavor through heat driven reactions like the Maillard Reaction.
Transitioning from non-stick pans to stainless steel has a learning curve and pretty much requires a person become more aware of how they are using their cookware. The beauty of nonstick is that it forgives a lot of sloppy practices.
Resist the urge to turn that burner to high.
Set your skillet on the burner and turn it to medium high. Allow the pan to heat for a few minutes and use the water test to determine when your pan is hot enough to cook.
Then add your oil, tilt the pan to coat the bottom with the fat and then add your food. If there is a lot of sizzling and popping, the temperature is probably too high, reduce the heat just a bit and lift the pan from the heat source momentarily. Once you hit that magic point, it’s easy to go past it.
Please remember that the above directions are not for nonstick cookware. Never heat an empty nonstick or teflon pan. If the pan reaches high temperatures, which can happen very quickly without the additional mass of food, you may create fumes that can kill small house pets. If it can kill small house pets, those fumes probably aren’t the best for us, either.
Good luck and let me know how your next batch of pork chops turn out.
Send your questions to email@example.com