How to keep foods from sticking, on the grill or the stovetop

June 14, 2013

Grilled Pork Chops on Jill Hough.com

A few years ago, my dad and I taught a grilling class together on Father’s Day.

One of the recipes was Dad’s famous soy-, ginger-, and garlic-marinated side of salmon. He requested grill baskets so he could easily flip the salmon without it sticking. I told him he didn’t need to worry about sticking—I, his professional culinary instructor daughter, knew how to prevent it.

Fast forward to the day of class and what did we have? Three sides of salmon, pounds and pounds of the glorious stuff, hopelessly stuck to the grill. We had to scrape and coax it off in bits and chunks and by the time we served it, it looked like something the cat dragged in.

Although it tasted good.

It turned out in the end, though, because I declared—in front of class, God, and everybody—that it was all my fault, that Dad was right and I was wrong. And that’s what every father really wants and deserves on Father’s Day, isn’t it? For his child to acknowledge that he’s right.

Right?

Grilled Pork Chops on Jill Hough.com

So I clearly know nothing about keeping a side of salmon from sticking. For all other foods, like these grilled pork chops, here’s what to do.

1. Preheat your cooking surface.
If you’re grilling, that means getting the grate good and hot and then cleaning it, with a wire brush if necessary, to make sure it’s pristinely free of debris.

If you’re not grilling—in other words, if you’re cooking on the stovetop—preheat your pan. How do you know if your pan is hot? Hold your hand just above the surface and feel the ambient temperature. You can also gingerly touch it.

2. Preheat your fat.
If you’re grilling, that means oiling the grate. I use a pair of tongs to lightly dip a wadded paper towel into some high-heat cooking oil, then rub the paper towel over the grate to give it a light coating. If the grate is nice and hot beforehand, the fat will heat up immediately.

On the stovetop, add fat to your pan and wait until it’s thoroughly heated. How to tell? Watch for it to shimmer ever-so-slightly. Or simply smell it—non-neutral flavored oils, like olive or peanut, will release their scents when they become hot.

3. Then, and only then, add not-cold foods.
In other words, bring your foods to room temperature before putting them on your hot and hot-fatted grills and stovetops.

Grilled Pork Chops on Jill Hough.com

I know, I know. We all worry about food safety (here’s a light-hearted primer by my friend Charmian Christie). But it won’t kill you to leave your pork chop, chicken breast, or steak at room temperature for an hour before cooking it. Honest. (For fish, which is a little more delicate, go for a half hour at room temp.)

And when you add your not-cold food to your grate or pan, if your fat was indeed hot, it should sizzle. If it doesn’t, don’t add more food—wait until the first chicken breast starts sizzling before adding the second.

If you’ve done these three things—preheated your cooking surface, preheated your fat, and then, and only then, added not-cold food—the only reason your food will stick is because it hasn’t yet developed enough of a crust to release. Try pulling up a little corner of your steak and if it resists, leave it alone for 30 or 60 seconds—have a sip of wine or toss a ball for the dog—and try again. Eventually it will release.

If you haven’t done these three things—or you’re cooking a side of salmon—all bets are off. Pull out the spatula and start scraping.

Grilled Pork Chops on Jill Hough.com

Two recipes to practice on, one grilled and one not:
Spice-Rubbed Pork Chops with Grilled Tomato Sauce
Spinach Salad with Chicken, Strawberries, Blue Cheese, and Almonds

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