Science

4 Ways to Keep Meat and Fish from Sticking to Your Pan

The key to keeping your proteins from clinging to your pan? Understanding the science that causes it. 
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Published Jan. 26, 2023.

There’s nothing worse than a torn fish fillet or a steak that left its beautiful browned crust behind in the pan. 

Why do proteins sometimes cling so tenaciously to the metal of a pan or grill, then tear if you try to flip them?  

When meat or fish touch a hot metal pan, the heat unravels (or denatures) the muscle proteins, exposing a lot of their surface to the metal. 

The proteins then start to form chemical bonds with the metal, causing them to stick. (In a conventional nonstick pan, where the atoms in the coating are extremely tightly bonded to each other, they’re not available to form new bonds with food.) 

At the same time, the microscopic pits and cracks in the surface of the metal help proteins grip the pan. 

But you needn’t cook all your proteins in a nonstick skillet. If you follow these four tips, you’ll find that any skillet can produce tear-free results.

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How to Keep Proteins from Sticking to the Pan

1. Make sure your pan is hot enough.

Be sure to get your pan sufficiently hot before adding the protein, since heat helps to break the bonds. 

2. Use enough fat.

If there’s enough oil on the food and in the pan to fill in the metal’s micro-cracks, it will provide a barrier between the protein and the metal and inhibit bonding.

3. Be patient.

With continued cooking, the surface of the meat starts to dry out, which causes it to contract and its proteins to coagulate, bonding more to themselves and less to the metal. 

4. Look for browning.

The Maillard reaction that creates browning causes proteins to break down and react with each other and with sugars, which in turn means they are no longer available to bond to the metal. 

To learn more about the science of sticking proteins, check out the below video from Cook’s Illustrated Editor-in-Chief Dan Souza.

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