This Simple Trick Basically Makes All Your Stainless Steel Pans Nonstick

published Apr 15, 2023
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Modern gas burner and hob on a kitchen range. Dark black color and wooden Small kitchen in a modern apartment
Credit: Malkovstock / Getty Images

Once again, I’ve learned an ingenious hack on TikTok, the holy grail of clever tips and tricks — especially when it comes to the kitchen. This trick is nothing new, but since spotting it on social media, it’s one I use just about daily, and often even multiple times a day. It makes my life easier and saves me a good deal of time and frustration while cooking. 

The hack has been dubbed “the mercury ball test,” and it involves a way to make stainless steel cookware virtually nonstick. To perform the mercury ball test, preheat your pan and dribble a few water drops into it. If the water sizzles and evaporates, the pan isn’t ready yet. However, once the water dances on the surface like balls of mercury, the pan is ready. 

At this point, add oil followed by whatever food you’re cooking, and you can enjoy the convenience of food that’s easy to sear, flip, and remove from the pan. (If you’ve turned the heat up to preheat more quickly, turn it down so the oil and food don’t burn. Also, note that once above a certain temperature, the water will return to sizzling.) 

Here, you’ll see the pan wasn’t quite ready for oil:

Credit: Shifrah Combiths

After a little bit more preheating, the pan was ready to go:

Credit: Shifrah Combiths

To understand why the mercury ball test works, we need to understand something called the Leidenfrost Effect, a phenomenon where a liquid close to a surface significantly hotter than the liquid’s boiling point creates an insulating vapor layer that prevents the liquid from boiling. Because of this, a droplet hovers over the surface, rather than making physical contact with it. 

Essentially, the Leidenfrost Effect occurs in cooking when the pan is hot enough to produce the insulating vapor around the food that’s being cooked. It’s when you perform the test that you can actually see it in action. According to Popular Science, if your preheated pan passes the mercury ball test, your food also gets some of the same sliding superpowers as the water droplet did when it hit the pan.

The DIY nonstick phenomenon genuinely makes cooking more pleasant, but that’s not all. I’ve found that it also makes cleaning easier and faster. Not only will your fried eggs remain intact and your burgers flip smoothly, but cleanup also goes from a multi-step process of soaking and scrubbing, to a light scrub with only a soapy sponge. Employing the mercury ball test is a perfect example of working smarter, not harder.

If you’ve been on the hunt for a new favorite stainless steel pan, we love this inexpensive version from Winco. It has an aluminum core for even heating and a stainless steel construction that — you guessed it — is nonstick. It’s a go-to pan for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, especially for foods that can tend to stick like eggs or delicate fish.

Buy: Winco Stainless Steel Fry Pan, $51.06 (originally $54.02)