Food stuck to the pan can be a frustrating issue in the kitchen. Following the proper procedures helps you cook without the sticking, saving you time and elbow grease when it's time to clean up. Preventing burnt-on, hard-to-scrub messes also makes it easier for the kids to help with the dishes.
Preparing the Food and Cooking Surface
Make sure the pan is clean and free of any burnt-on residue from prior cooking. Let food rest at room temperature for a few minutes before cooking. Food, especially meat, that is cold and moist from condensation is more prone to sticking to the pan because it cools the pan on contact. Before cooking, pat moist foods dry, especially protein, to help prevent the problem.
Non-stick pans are very helpful in cooking without food sticking to the pan because they are coated with saturated molecules that prevent the surface from bonding with food. In a pan without a non-stick coating, the metal of the pan forms chemical bonds with the food in it, causing them to adhere together.
When oil is added to a cooking pan, it fills in the small pits in the surface of the metal. When it gets hot, it creates a steam effect, in which the food sears on the outside and releases water that vaporizes on the surface of the oil, forming a steam barrier between the food and the pan. Hot oil also reacts with the metal atoms in a pan, forming a patina over the pan, which reduces the availability of free atoms reacting with the food. Add cold oil to a hot pan, or start with a cold pan and cold oil, and heat them together.
Using a preheated pan is important to preventing food from sticking. When heating a pan with oil, the oil should be hot enough to form ripples and move quickly around the pan, but should not smoke. Small droplets of water sprinkled into the pan should immediately vaporize when oil is at the correct temperature. When you add the food to the pan, it should produce a steady sizzling sound. If you hear crackling or splattering instead of sizzling, the pan is too hot and the food may stick. Also take care not to crowd food into the pan. Adding too much food at one time may reduce the temperature of the pan enough to cause sticking.
Moving the Food
When you add the food and hear a sizzle, don't move the food too soon. Even if it appears to stick at first, at the proper temperature the food will release itself from the pan as it sears and releases moisture -- the steam effect. An exception to this rule is when you are sautéing, especially vegetables. In this case, keep the food moving around the pan to keep it from sticking and burning, and make sure that the pan is preheated, and that the food is adequately coated with oil.