April 4, 2021

When to Start With A Cold Pan

When should you preheat your pan vs leave it cold?

I remember watching the Food Network as a kid and everyone making a big deal about preheating your pan. It was all about that sizzle! It became my mantra. Teenage me would see people start food in a cold pan and smile at how I knew more about cooking than they did. 😏

But yeah I was wrong.

To be honest, there are few truly right and wrong ways to do things in the kitchen. Many people, myself included, will say one technique is better. And in those cases, I’m usually right. 😉 Just kidding. But that doesn’t mean that another way of doing it won’t give you a great result. You’ve got to figure out what works for you and master it. Okay, off my soapbox.

Let’s get back to preheating pans. Today, I’ve changed my mantra. Sometimes I start cooking with a hot pan. Other times a cold pan. My friend Katy tells me I’m hot then I’m cold. I’m yes then I’m no. I’m in then I’m out. I’m up then I’m down. But, I am not wrong when it’s right, at least when it comes to deciding between using a hot or a cold pan.

When to Cook With a Hot Pan

There’s value in a searing hot pan. The Food Network wasn’t wrong. I preheat my pan whenever the goal is to achieve browning without overcooking. From chicken breasts to steak to green beans, if you’re searing or sautéing, you want a hot pan. 🔥

A heated pan, with the oil shimmering, makes sure the outside browns before the inside overcooks. If you start a steak in a cold pan, it will cook past well-done before it has a chance to fully brown on the outside. And we need that browning. Browning equals flavor.

So how do you know if your pan is plenty hot? Use water. The water drops that come from the flick of a wet hand will evaporate in 1-2 seconds if your pan is pretty hot. You’ll hear that sizzle. If you want it even hotter, like when reverse searing a steak, the evaporation should be even more violent. The water will barely last a second, and you’ll hear a crackle, not a sizzle.

When I’m preheating a pan, I leave the oil out until the last 30 seconds or so to reduce the chance it burns. That doesn’t apply to cooking with non-stick pans though. Why? The non-stick material can burn without the oil. But I don’t sear in a non-stick pan anyway since you can’t heat them up as high.

When to Start With a Cold Pan

Starting to cook food in a cold pan gives you more control. You can more easily cook something all the way through before it burns. You don’t have to worry about your pan being too hot—which is a frequent problem of mine. This approach is great for foods that easily burn or fatty ones that need the extra time to render.

🧄 Garlic is a great example. It burns notoriously quickly. If I want to start off the base of a dish with garlic, I start it in a cold pan. The garlic develops a subtle, sweet flavor when slowly cooked through instead of the acrid flavor that comes from half burnt, half raw garlic.

🥓 Bacon is another one. Whenever I cook bacon for beans or pancetta for pasta sauce, I start the pork in a cold pan and then turn it up to medium. This slow start allows all the fat to heat through and fully render (aka melt). After enough rendering, the bacon swims in its own fat. And cooking bacon in bacon fat doesn’t get any better. On the other hand, if you start with a hot pan, it’s harder to cook the bacon evenly. Some parts may end up crispy and others chewy.

Here are other places to start with a cold pan:

  • Browning butter reduces the chance the milk solids burn before the rest of the butter browns. 🧈
  • Caramelizing onions get more even caramelization and color in your onions 🧅
  • Toasting spices and nuts give them extra time to cook through before burning on the outside. 🌰
  • Cooking with the skin on works best when you start with the skin down in a cold pan. I learned this one recently from America’s Test Kitchen. You’ll let the fat underneath the skin render slowly and crisp up. Adding it straight to a hot pan can cause the skin to shrink before it crisps. 🍗
  • Blooming spices in fat slowly infuse the oil or butter before the spice burns. (Learn more about blooming spices.) 🌶️

Takeaways

Here’s what you need to know. Starting with a hot or cold pan affects flavor and doneness.

Flavor: I learned this in a Milk Street cooking class. Subtle, soft, and sweet flavors develop better when you start in a cold pan—think caramelizing onions or toasting nuts. Sharp, bitter, and robust flavors often come from a hot pan—think searing a steak.

Doneness: Food cooks more evenly when you start in a cold pan. Which may or may not be a good thing. A cold pan is a useful tool to prevent burning. But it also prevents browning. And proper browning happens when the exterior is more cooked than the interior—which makes a chicken breast flavorful but not tough.