Why Am I Burning Food?

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?

Signed,

Crispy Critter

Heather says:

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 helpme@home-ec101.com

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Comments

  1. Oh my, I have had this same problem lately! I got used to cooking on a hotplate that I almost always had to turn ALL the way up, but now I'm using an electric stove that actually works like it should. Must break that habit — already turned some stew meat halfway into charcoal briquets. Turned it on high, put in the meat, walked away to do something else. Came back when I smelled it, but by then it was half burned. Meat's too expensive, so I cut off the really black bits (which was most of it) and had the rest of it for supper. With LOTS of ketchup. :-P

    • That stinks. It's one thing if it's a cheap meal that gets ruined, it can hurt if it's not. You are proof though, that even experienced cooks screw up from time to time.
      I forgot I had some rice on the stove last week. That's always fun to clean up. All but the very bottom was usable.

  2. Learned a great tip years ago regarding how to tell if the oil has heated sufficiently. Stand a wooden spoon's tip end in the oil. If the oil is heated enough then the tip should "bubble." Wood takes many years to totally dry out and the moisture in the spoon will steam in the oil. Voila!

    • Jess, I had never heard that one, but it does make sense. If I need to check the temp of oil I usually sprinkle a TINY bit of water into the pan. If it sizzles, it's ready, if it pops it is too hot.

  3. I usually watch the oil to see the “waves” in it from heating. I don’ t know what it means, really; I just know it works for me.