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Conflicting Rules of Cooking

There's a conflict between two cooking rules:

1. "Never heat an empty pan."

2. "Hot pan then add cold oil."

If you follow rule 2 then you must heat an empty pan. Which rule is the right one, and why?

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  1. No one's ever told me not to heat an empty pan. Or use cold oil, for that matter. I think just how hot depends on the pan. Non-stick? Not too hot or the coating will burn off in a haze of carcinogenic smoke. Cast iron? Pretty hot, but not nuclear, or the lovingly buil-up patina of bacon fat will carbonise.
    Steel? When I worked in restaurants, the general rule was if the oil combusted on impact, the pan was too hot.
    Better still use good-quality, free-range fat. That stuff can get REALLY hot!

    1. "Hot pan, cold oil, food won't stick" was the mantra of Jeff Smith The Frugal Gourmet. I've never heard a rule about not heating an empty pan, unless it's just insurance you won't go off and leave it. Not that I have ever done that.

      6 Replies
        1. re: blated0101

          I ALWAYS heat my cast iron first. It's how it's done. Lodge does NOT impress me. My eggs slide freely on my preheated pans.

          1. re: blated0101

            That's not a cooking rule. That's a warning that manufacturers include with their pots and pans so a consumer doesn't leave a pan empty on high heat for 20 minutes and then demand a refund when there is damage to the pan or their stove.

            You can heat an empty pan, no problem. Just don't overheat an empty pan (food gives the pan an avenue for its heat to dissipate).

          2. re: Samalicious

            I"ve also rarely found Smith's mantra to be fully operative.

            1. re: jmckee

              With SS pans, I find adding the oil once the pan is hot does make a difference as far as sticking....I always thought Jeff just meant room temp oil not actually "cold."

          3. It depends. If you are only adding a little film of oil, heat first, then add the oil just before beginning cooking. If you are adding enough oil that it could not smoke too much by the time the pan was at the right temperature, then add it to the cold pan.

              1. re: Uncle Bob

                I guess I've always heated the empty pan first because if I walk away for a bit too long, at least the oil hasn't burned and made that awful brown coating in the pan.

                1. re: escondido123

                  +1 Escondito123 often in the kitchen I'm juggling two or three things and I've learned my lesson by burning the oil once or twice.

                2. re: Uncle Bob

                  The cold oil thing IS dumb. But don't add the food until the oil is hot.

                  1. re: sandylc

                    I would think *cold* oil = room temperature/out of the cabinet oil...not actually *cold* oil ~~ Cold as opposed to Hot!

                3. Got no great respect for Jeff Smith, but Shirley Corriher is to me a reliable fount of wisdom, being not only a hell of a cooking writer but a credentialled food scientist as well. I heard "Heat the pan and then add the fat" from her very lips. She was speaking specifically of iron skillets, though there are good reasons for doing it with any pan if you don't want to overheat your oil or butter or whatever. As for heating an empty pan, iron will go to red-hot without hurting it (as long as it's allowed to cool undisturbed), but thin aluminum can melt, and if you're using tinned copper, as I often do, the tin melts at around 450º.

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: Will Owen

                    How can someone measure the temperature of a pan?

                      1. re: babette feasts

                        Or from experience. If you've used a pan often enough, or (better yet) a whole lot of pans long enough, you won't necessarily know what the temperature is in ºF, but you'll recognize when it's ready. I've been using my copper skillet for just a couple of years, but I can tell when I should drop in the butter for an omelet; this morning, I recognized that it had gotten too hot and pulled it off the flame for a while before dropping in the butter. I think it's useful to learn to recognize heat as a perceptible phenomenon, rather than as a measured quantity; I have no idea how many degrees that thing was heated to, and if I did know that I'm not sure it would have added any accuracy to my cooking. I do know that it was a good bit less that 450!

                    1. re: Will Owen

                      "...but thin aluminum can melt, and if you're using tinned copper, as I often do, the tin melts at around 450º"
                      Thinner pans have a tendency to warp when too much heat is applied. Disc-bottom and clad pans can also separate, since the different metals in them don't necessarily expand at the same rate WRT high heat.