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Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Stylist: Cyd McDowell
Kitchn Cooking School

How to Become a Cook Who Really Understands Heat and Oil

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Credit: Kitchn

Today we’re going straight to the heart of cooking with heat and oil. Do you swagger up to the stovetop, pan in hand, with confidence? Or do you feel perplexed by oily vegetables, and meat that never quite sears the way it should? Well read on! Today we’re covering the basics of stovetop heat and oil, so you can feel like a pro whenever you’re at the stove.

Why Heat and Oil?

What’s the most common thing you see at the top of recipe instructions? Set a pan over medium heat. Everything from pasta sauce to soups start with heat and oil: sautéed onions, garlic, or vegetables in the bottom of a pot. But this act of banging a pan on the stove and heating it to cook in is where many novice and even experienced cooks get it wrong.

As with knife skills, while this is something that you have likely done many times before, there are revolutionary improvements you can make in your cooking satisfaction and flavor by really mastering your control of heat and oil.

Start Here: Heat and Oil

The difference between a crispy, delicious meal and a soggy, sad mess starts before food hits the pan. Here are five smart learnings.

Use the right oil. Different oils can take different amounts of heat before they start to smoke (and stop being good for cooking). We’ll cover more of that below, but in general canola and vegetable oil are most versatile. Olive oil is great for lower-heat things like sautéing (not for stir-frying or higher-heat cooking), and delicate or flavored oils should be avoided for cooking.

Make sure your ingredients are dry. This is for both temperature and safety reasons. If your freshly washed ingredients are still dripping or damp, the water will immediately cool down the pan and oil. And the water will also burst into steam, causing the oil to splatter everywhere — ouch!

Get your pan hot. Some cooks recommend heating the pan before putting oil in. Others put the oil into a cold pan and heat both together. Either way, you want to get both nice and hot before food goes in. If the oil isn’t hot enough, the food will soak it up instead of sizzling in it, and it won’t taste as good. If you’re heating the pan separately, you can use a splash of water to test whether the pan is hot enough, or too hot: Watch the video above for a great visual explanation.

Test the oil before putting in food. There are several easy ways to test the oil in a pan. First, when you lift the pan and swirl the oil around, it should move quickly, almost like water. Second, you should see “fingers” in the oil — meaning it should look like the oil is stretching in places when it swirls — and the oil should shimmer. Finally, when something does go into the oil, small bubbles should immediately appear. You can test this with a small piece of food — or if you have a wooden spoon, you can simply dunk the tip of the handle in. (Note: Do not try this with another material, like plastic or metal!)

What to do if the oil begins to smoke. One benefit of putting the oil into a preheated pan is that it’s less likely to get too hot and start to smoke (especially when stir-frying). But if your oil does begin to smoke, don’t worry: Simply remove it from the heat, pour out the oil into a heat-proof (glass or ceramic) container, turn down the heat, and start again.

Sauté & Sear: What’s the Difference?

Next, let’s talk about some common terms. There are a lot of different ways to describe cooking food with a little oil in a pan. And many people use them interchangeably. (Some recipes even just call that “cooking.”) But there are some subtle differences in each technique:.

Sauté: It literally means “jump” in French. Applied to cooking, this describes the motion of your food in the pan, so do lots of stirring and some tossing as the food cooks. The basic idea here is quick cooking over medium-high heat, stirring frequently.

Stir-Fry: When stir-frying, everything gets kicked up a notch. Stir-frying usually happens over very high heat — as high as your stove can go. The ingredients need to move constantly in the pan so they don’t burn.

Sear: Searing is like sautéing taken down a few notches. You don’t move the food around as much, because the goal is to develop deep browning and caramelization on the underside of the ingredient.

Brown: Browning applies to meat and refers to cooking it just enough to turn it, well, brown. This usually happens over lower heat than searing or sautéing.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

How to Achieve the Perfect Sear

When searing meat or even vegetables like potatoes, what you’re looking to do is to create a crispy exterior. This comes when the dry food hits the hot oil in the pan and begins to crisp. It’s actually a chemical process called the Maillard Reaction, and is what gives seared food so much flavor. Here are a few tips for doing it well.

  1. Make sure your food is dry.
  2. Heat the pan until the oil is hot (but not smoking).
  3. Place the room-temperature food into the pan. Cold food will cool down the pan and the oil, and may prevent the reaction from taking place.
  4. Leave the food alone for several minutes. This can be difficult, as the urge to begin flipping the food is strong. But the Maillard Reaction needs a little time to take place.
  5. Don’t worry if it sticks to the pan at first. Especially if you’re using a cast iron or steel pan, this is expected — and is part of the process.
  6. Give the pan a gentle shake. Most foods will tell you when they are ready to turn because a gentle shake will release them from the pan.

Let’s Talk About the Browned Bits

When you sear food, unless you’re using a nonstick pan, you’re going to get bits stuck to the bottom of the pan. (If you’re using a nonstick pan, it’s not going to sear well.) This is okay! In fact, this is great. Those bits are called the sucs (although some people also call them the fond), and they’re fantastically tasty. They’re also quite easy to remove — after cooking and while the pan is hot, you simply pour a little stock, water, wine, or other liquid into the pan, and scrape it with a spatula. Magically, it will clean the pan right up. It also gets you part of the way to a delicious sauce, which we will talk about more in a later lesson.

How to Cook a Variety of Ingredients

Ingredients usually get added to the pan and sautéed or stir-fried in a specific order. Some ingredients take a little longer to cook (or can withstand longer cooking), while other ingredients cook more quickly. This is why ingredients like onions and carrots are usually sautéed first, while things like bell peppers are added later. Pay attention to these kinds of instructions when cooking a recipe, as tempting as it may be to save a few minutes and cook everything all together!

Credit: Kitchn Video

If You Learn Just One Thing Today: How to Heat a Pan

We can’t stress this enough: Get your pan hot enough before putting in ingredients. The goal when sautéing is to get food crispy and crunchy on the outside, and keep it, tender on the inside. When the pan isn’t hot enough, ingredients soak up the oil instead of crisping in it, and they’re more likely to be soggy.

An easy way to tell when the pan is hot enough, is to take a look at the oil. Pick up the pan and give it a little swirl. If the slowly drifts around the pan, it’s not hot enough. If it moves as fast as water would, and shimmers, or leaves behind “fingers” then it’s ready to go! If you see smoke coming up from the oil, it’s too hot: Turn down the heat, or use an oil with a higher smoke point (more on that below). Check out the video for a great visual explanation!

What You Don’t Need to Learn

It’s super fun to learn how to grab a pan and flip a pancake or eggs (or even a big pile of veggies) over without a spatula. But it’s not really necessary! With a good spatula you should be able to turn or flip any food and get it cooked evenly on all sides. Remember: The goal is a delicious meal!

Level Up! Sautéing and Stir-Frying Pro Tips

Learn Your Oil Types

There are dozens of different cooking oils with a variety of flavors and many different smoke points (meaning the temperature at which they begin to smoke).

While we love olive oil for its versatility, it is susceptible to burning at higher temperatures (often, anything over medium heat), especially on gas stoves. (And the heat often destroys the delicate flavors.) So if olive oil is a must for your kitchen, look for neutral-flavored high-heat olive oils for cooking and save extra virgin oils for salad dressings. 

Canola oil on the other hand, is our hands-down go-to for cooking; It is affordable, neutral in flavor and has a high enough smoke point to handle everything from pan frying to steak searing. You can use canola oil for every single cooking school assignment this month, that’s how powerful it is.

Avoid cooking with finishing oils or flavored oils. This includes nut oils like walnut and pistachio oils. These are luxury fats, fantastic for making salad dressings and drizzling over veg, but they tend to have lower smoke points, and the heat can destroy some of the flavors.

Credit: Erika Tracy

Our Favorite Gear

We have recommendations for basic gear on our equipment checklist, but here are a few more tools that can save time, and frustration.

  • Squeeze bottles for keeping oil. Keeping a small amount of oil in a squeeze bottle gives you a great deal of control over exactly how much goes in the pan, and lets you store the rest in a cool, dry place away from light, where it’s likely to last longer.
  • Grease storage container. Over time, oil and grease can clog a drain, causing immense problems. The best way to avoid that is by putting your used cooking oil into a container and recycling or disposing it.
  • Spoon rest. Cooking with a pan means using a spatula or flipper to turn food. To avoid messes (and give you a place to put it), try using a dedicated spoon rest.

Know Your Pans

Whether you choose to use nonstick, stainless steel, or cast iron pans (or a variety) is largely a matter of choice. 

Nonstick pans are ideal for (obviously) keeping food from sticking. However they can be expensive, are not particularly durable, and many shouldn’t be used for high-temperature cooking like searing or stir-fries and/or aren’t oven-safe. 

Stainless steel pans often last much longer, and are far better for browning and searing (where you want food to stick — see below). They’re also more versatile (read: able to transition between stovetop and oven). But they can be tricky to learn how to use, and it’s hard to keep certain foods, like eggs, from sticking.

Cast iron pans are incredibly durable — one of the reasons vintage pans are a thing — and when fully seasoned, have many nonstick properties. But they can be a pain to season (another reason vintage pans are a thing), are heavy, and are a little harder to care for (they don’t do well in a dishwasher). Carbon steel pans are lighter, but have a lot of the same properties.

5 Recipes to Practice With

All of our assignments have three options, depending on how much time you have today. Do what you can; come back for more later!

15-Minute Assignment: Watch & Read

If you haven’t yet, watch the crash course video above. After that, read these basic primers. If you could pick just one thing from all this information, what would you like to try first?

30-Minute Assignment: Practice!

Following steps 1 through 4 in the “Before Food Hits the Pan” section above, test out the various smoke points of oils in your house, and practice different methods of testing whether the oil is the right temperature. Then take some of the onions and other veggies you chopped up yesterday (or chop up some new ones) and pat them dry, make sure the oil is the right temperature, and sauté them! Cook the vegetables, stirring occasionally, and removing a portion at five minutes, 10 minutes, and 15 minutes.

Check your work: At what temperature on your stove does olive oil start to smoke? Medium heat? Medium-high heat? How about vegetable oil? How about corn oil? Now take a look at your sautéed vegetables. How do they look after being cooked for different times? How do they smell? How do they taste?

60-Minute Assignment: Stretch Yourself

Cook a stovetop dinner for yourself (or your family): Follow the recipe for pan-seared salmon and the recipe for caramelized eggplant & onion orzo, which require cooking a lot of different vegetables in the same pan. Focus especially on letting the vegetables properly caramelize, and on scraping up the sucs when deglazing. For the salmon, see if you can get it to release from the pan after searing, without breaking apart.

Check your work: How did you do? Caramelizing several kinds of vegetables — in order, without anything burning — can be tricky. And fish, being delicate, is a difficult protein to sear. Don’t fret if it doesn’t turn out perfectly! Luckily, in cooking school, mistakes are typically edible. Keep practicing!

What It Takes to Be an Expert Cook with Heat and Oil

These basic techniques may seem simple, but mastering them can take time. Food cooks very fast on the stove, and it’s easy to make mistakes. Be sure to pay close attention when sautéing, searing, or stir-frying — this is not a time to multitask. And get to know your own equipment and ingredients’ idiosyncrasies. The brand of oil you buy, the kind of stove you have, and the particular pan you use will all affect how long it takes the oil to get to the right temperature, and what happens to the food. Paying attention to the way the oil looks, smells, and even sounds when it’s heating up will help you learn to gauge the ideal moment to put food in the pan (and how long to leave it there) in your own kitchen.

Meet Your Classmates

Follow your fellow classmates and share your questions and progress on Instagram and Twitter with #kitchncookingschool.

You can also join your Kitchn Cooking School cohort in our Kitchn Facebook group, which is devoted to all things Cooking School this month.

Credit: Kitchn
Credit: Kitchn