How to cook on our three favorite pan types
So - you’ve decided it’s finally time to invest in a really good pan for yourself. But if you’re accustomed to cooking all your food in non-stick pans, trying something different can be a bit of a learning curve.
Our three favorite pan types - iron, stainless steel and enameled - are durable enough to last the rest of your life. And they can be quite an investment too, so you don’t want them to be relegated to the back of the cupboard.
To ensure you can use your lifelong cookware with confidence, we’re going to take you through some tried-and-tested methods to cook on these three different pans perfectly. If you’ve got a new pan you’re getting to grips with, or just want to see how one works before making a purchase, read on.
How to cook on a cast iron pan
Cast iron excels at searing. These heavy-duty pans take a while to heat up, but they can climb to screaming-hot temperatures. This is ideal for getting a golden crust on foods like steaks, potatoes and even baked goods, and will also give vegetables a blistered char.
In order to prevent sticking, you have to season cast iron before you start using it. This simply involves wiping on thin layers of oil and heating the pan. You can find our guide to pan seasoning here.
To sear something in a cast iron pan, preheat it thoroughly. Be patient, starting at a low temperature and gradually increasing the heat. Once you can feel a high heat radiating off the pan’s surface, add your oil. Allow the oil to heat up, then add your food.
Resist the urge to move your food around until it has acquired a golden crust. Be aware that cast iron isn’t a responsive material - if you need to turn the heat down, the pan will take a while to lose heat.
- Cook acidic food such as tomato sauces, wine or vinegar in cast iron until the seasoning is very well-developed. The acid can react with the iron, damaging your seasoning and imparting a metallic taste to food.
- Cook delicate food such as eggs and white fish until you’ve built up your seasoning. Even then, make sure to preheat thoroughly and use plenty of oil.
- Stir food around too much when searing. Leaving it alone will help form a golden crust and also help the food release.
- Scour when cleaning. To get rid of stuck-on food without damaging your seasoning, heat a little water in the pan and cook off the residue.
How to cook on a stainless steel pan
Most home cooks have stainless steel pans, but only use them for boiling and stewing. Stainless steel is perfect for this, but many don’t realize that they’re great for frying and searing too. The secret to doing this without stickage is to preheat your pan thoroughly.
If you put food straight into a cold, or even warm stainless steel pan, it will stick. But how do you know if your stainless steel is hot enough? A tried-and-tested method is the water droplet test.
Try throwing a droplet of water on the pan. If it sits there, it’s too cold. If it bubbles and steams, it’s still too cold. If it forms a bubble of water that rolls and dances around the pan before evaporating, it’s time. Add your oil, wait for it to smoke a little and then add your food. Don’t touch it until it’s thoroughly browned, and it will come away easily.
- Use stainless steel for frying, searing, boiling and stewing - these pans are very versatile. All-metal pans can also go in the oven.
- Preheat thoroughly with the water droplet test before searing. Be patient - this can take several minutes.
- Cook with room temperature foods. Adding cold food straight from the fridge will lower the temperature of the pan and might cause sticking.
- Pat dry meat - removing surface moisture helps achieve a good sear without sticking.
- After frying, deglaze the sticky brown bits (the ‘fond’) left in your pan with wine or stock to create delicious sauces. You don’t get fond with non-stick pans.
- Caramelize onions - the ‘stickiness’ of the stainless steel creates fond and makes the process faster.
How to cook on an enameled cast iron pan
Most commonly found in the form of a lidded Dutch oven, enameled cast iron lends itself perfectly to slow-cooked dishes. The enamel layer, which is made of ceramic, protects the iron from corrosion - but it also means you can’t season it. Enamel isn’t as non-stick as seasoned iron, but it’s a fairly low-stick surface - more forgiving than stainless steel.
Because the iron is protected, you can use an enameled pan to simmer foods for hours, including acidic foods like tomatoes (which bare iron would react with). Use these versatile pans to sear meat over medium heat, add liquid and braise it low and slow for hours - either on the stovetop or in the oven.
As well as braising, these pans are ideal for other one-pot dishes such as risottos, curries, soups and stews, and are also great for baking. Like bare cast iron, enameled pans are slow to heat, and hold that heat for a long time. However, it’s not a good idea to heat them to really hot temperatures, as you could damage the enamel.
Take a look at our full cookware range here, which includes a huge variety of top-quality iron and stainless steel pans.
Weighing up different pan options? Read more in our article on how to choose the right pan.