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I see it done by TV chefs, or just people who are more experienced at me with cooking; as they're cooking they rarely use a spatula to turn or mix the contents of their frying pan, but rather toss the contents of the pan instead.

Are there any techniques to tossing food in a frying pan well? I'm talking about food in general – be that vegetables, bits of meat, rice (not necessarily something obvious like pancakes).

I guess the main outcomes you want from tossing a frying pan include:

  • Turning the food and doing so that it is cooked on both sides.
  • If there is a lot of contents in the pan, moving it about so different parts of it are in contact with the surface of the pan.
  • Moving different parts of the food from hotter bits to cooler bits within the pan so they are all fairly evenly cooked.

Is there a technique to it, or am I over-analysing the process?

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3 Answers 3

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I don't know how to explain this well in words, but there's at least two different methods for flipping stuff in a pan, because you have either curved or straight sides on the pan. I personally find it easier to do in a curved sided pan:

I extend my arm forward, then quickly flip the back of the pan up while pulling back at the same time. The curved side basically acts as a ramp to propel the food up and over.

For a saute pan (straight sides), follow the technique that ElendilTheTall explained, where you tip it first.

A few things to remember when trying to flip your food : if the food's stuck to the bottom, it's not going to flip. Give the pan a quick shake first, to see if you need to stir to loosen any stuck bits.

And for the practicing -- besides just practicing with dry things first ... I'd suggest you start with just a little bit, get used to it, then add more ... and add more of something else, as with more than one color in the pan, you can see how well you're distributing things when you flip. (eg, lentils, other beans, rice, dry pasta, etc.)

Start with a mid-sized pan, as larger pans are actually more forgiving when catching, but too large makes it heavy and difficult to get a good flip. (ie, don't start with your cast iron).

If you have a grill, or a table outside to practice on, the cleanup's even easier. (although, use a cold grill, just for practice). You can also practice with just water, if you're outside, without as much worry.

As for when to do it -- lots of small things; stirring risks keeping the bottom bits on the bottom, and the top things up top, so things cook unevenly. Even if you use a spatula to flip, like you might for a larger item, the middle stuff stays in the middle.

The other advantage is that it only takes one hand -- I generally keep my right hand clean when cooking, and stirring sometimes takes two hands -- one to keep the pan still, while the other one stirs. It's also quicker to get a more thorough mix than stirring.

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As for practicing: I've used dried legumes before and they're great. To get a nice visualization of how well it mixes, add some raw rice to it and toss it a few times. –  Erik P. May 19 '12 at 12:32
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Perhaps a bit of over-analysis going on yes. Generally I'd toss the pan if I was frying a lot of small items such as croutons, or toasting nuts, in order to turn a lot of them over at once.

To toss the pan, first tilt it up so that some of the contents slide to the opposite end and rest against the lip of the pan. Then tilt it back level while simultaneously drawing your arm back. The food should flick up and land back in the middle of the pan (approximately). Practice with a cold pan and a couple of dry ingredients like nuts or pulses.

Bear in mind that tossing the pan generally means the pan loses heat, as you are raising it off the heat source, so if you're cooking something like steak or chicken breast that needs quick cooking, you're probably better off simply stirring it or using tongs.

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+1 for practicing with dry beans or lentils. –  bikeboy389 Jan 18 '11 at 14:10
    
I'd echo @bikeboy389's comment :) I find it's easiest to do well by essentially moving your hand, and the pan, in a C-shape when viewed from the side: move forward, flick up, move backward. One final note: be sure to spread the food out over the whole area of the pan after you're done, to make use of all of the heat and avoid "empty" spots where the fat can burn. –  Erik P. Jan 18 '11 at 14:24
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Ming Tsai has a great video that demostrates exactly this: youtube.com/watch?v=noizuQwvL0M –  talon8 Jan 18 '11 at 16:03
    
Nice explanation, thanks! :) –  Alex Rozanski Jan 18 '11 at 22:26
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I have found that pan size, shape, and amount of food in the pan makes a big difference in how you can toss and roll the pan.

I find myself most comfortable tossing omelette pans (I use the Calphalon line - like this one). The shape of the edge of the pan makes it very easy for me to toss anything from large to small, thick to thin.

I still find it rewarding when I can make a thin omelette, tossing it once perfectly with no help of a spatula or utensil.

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