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As the title says...

I personally heat up the pan first, then put the oil in and after it's heated up add the ingredients. I go with the line of reasoning that doing it this way gives the oil less time to burn, thinking that if you do it the other way, by the time the pan and oil has heated up, the oil could already be starting to burn.

I've never experimented, but I think this is more of an issue with electric stoves since you can modulate the heat more quickly with gas, ie turn it off if the oil's starting to smoke.

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An related question with excellent answers: cooking.stackexchange.com/q/5815/91 –  JYelton Aug 29 '11 at 18:03
    
It's interesting that with all this attention and discussion, I see no one actually discussing which approach achieves better tasting food. Except perhaps B Nerone. Who cares about the non-stick pans you bought at WalMart or J.C. Penny? I think the question is incomplete as we don't know whether OPs motives are to simply to preserve his skillets as well as possible, or if OPs intent is to actually produce the best-tasting food. Those two things could very well be at odds. –  Ryan Ries Mar 21 at 3:17
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11 Answers

up vote 40 down vote accepted

The typical rule of thumb is that if it's a non-stick pan you do add a little oil to the pan first before heating. Most manufacturers usually recommend this to extend the life of the non-stick coating.

For regular pans (those without non-stick coating) you should heat them dry until you can feel the radiating from the surface when your hand is held about 6-inches above the bottom. Add your oil at this point. You'll actually need to use less oil because the same amount will spread across a greater surface area due to its decreased viscosity as it heats. Plus your oil will heat up instantly and when you add your food it's less inclined to stick. Most people get impatient waiting for pans to heat (and in general) and this also ensures that the food isn't going into a pan with oil that's cold or not hot enough. When cold oil goes into a pan and cold food ends up on top of it you'll end up with one big sticky mess. As for adding oil before heating the pan, the longer fats heat without anything else in the pan, the quicker they'll break down and burn.

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i will not question the final results of this method, but the why goes against physics knowledge. The sooner you add it the 'hotter' it will be. maybe the only cause here is the time when food is added to the mix, not the time oil is added to the pan? –  gcb Nov 2 '12 at 1:57
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Always heat the oil with the pan.

Heating pans dry damages the pans (especially non-stick ones). Also, there are no warning signs that the pan is hot when you set something else on it or bump into it.

Adding cold ingredients to hot pans also damages the pan, and can scald the ingredients. Even oil. If you guessed too hot, you can damage several things at once, including the meal.

Oil doesn't significantly degrade through normal heating, and certainly not in a single heat cycle getting up to saute temperatures. If the oil starts smoking (with nothing else in it) yes it's started to degrade but you're also a bit too warm.

Tip: Add some minced garlic or scallions to the oil as it heats. Gives you a nice base for sauteing, and lets you know the oil is up to temperature as they start to cook.

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Introspecting, I've never...in my entire life...heated a pan without putting oil in it first. How do you know when it's time to put food in, without something to sizzle? –  Satanicpuppy Jul 22 '10 at 13:53
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splash a little water in the pan. if it sizzles, you know –  Ocaasi Jul 28 '10 at 17:07
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Be careful with splashing too much water, but if you stick your finger under the running water a drop will suffice to know if its ready. –  Chris Sep 7 '10 at 17:03
    
I use my $20 Amazon infrared thermometer every time I heat a pan. –  Jeff Axelrod Dec 23 '12 at 14:39
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Use caution with the Tip, garlic burns easily, and anything that sits in the oil as it heats is going to absorb a lot of oil, rather than be cooked by it. –  heathenJesus Mar 20 at 23:09
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Heat the pan first.

In addition to all the things other people have mentioned, if the pan is slightly damp for whatever reason heating it dry first ensures the oil won't spit as it heats.

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If the pan is wet, dry it. But it shouldn't spit anyway. Spitting is caused by water rapidly evaporating. If the moisture is gradually heated along with the oil and pan, evaporated gasses will leak out rather than explode. –  Scivitri Jul 22 '10 at 2:26
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Pan first. Heating oil slowly up to temp can degrade the oil. And oil heats faster than metal.

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Entropy will disagree that the oil heats faster then the metal in this scenario... maybe it conducts heat better, but the metal is loosing energy to the oil, hence it will heat earlier. About the oil degrading, the oil will get to that final temperature anyways and all the reactions will be triggered the same, does 2min more does much of a difference? (actual question, not smart-ass false question remark. I know nothing about chemistry or cooking) –  gcb Nov 2 '12 at 2:03
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+1 For all who say pan hot first. Let's talk method.

  1. Pan hot -- you can check the heat by dropping a little water in the pan. If it sizzles, you have at least 100ºC in your pan.

  2. Put a little oil in the pan to coat it. When the oil looks striated, it's about to burn.

  3. Put your food in the pan and be sure you'll get a nice caramelization on your food.

Warning: Depending on the pan, put it on a medium flame, if the pan heats too much, when you put the oil in it will burn almost instantly, and that's not good.

Extra Warning: If you want to use butter instead of oil, use clarified butter.

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Heat the pan first so you reduce the risk of kitchen absent-mindedness leading to your walking away from a pan of oil over a fire. If the pan is hot, then sautee quantities of oil will get hot basically immediately and you're ready to start cooking.

Don't get the pan too hot, of course.

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So, rather than smoking oil reminding you about an ignored pan, you're trying to melt a pan down? The first warning sign in a DRY pan is a kitchen fire. –  Scivitri Jul 22 '10 at 2:24
    
I don't know what it'd be about a dry metal pan on a hot burner that'd cause a fire, unless you've got a seriously massive stove or lots of atmospheric combustibles. –  Pointy Jul 22 '10 at 3:27
    
Heat transfer to plastic handles, enamel finish on some stoves or pans, or radiant heat eventually over-warming anything in the vicinity. I didn't say it would be in 5 minutes, but the idea of walking away from a pan and completely forgetting you're heating it is a bit absurd in the first place. –  Scivitri Jul 22 '10 at 9:22
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Well, I agree I suppose, but you'll find no plastic-handled pans in my house :-) –  Pointy Jul 22 '10 at 12:35
    
the silicon under the handle on mines will probably melt after the Al or Cu on the bottom. –  gcb Nov 2 '12 at 2:05
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It depends --

If it's non-stick, I always add the oil early, so I have a warning system if the pan's getting too hot.

For other surfaces, I let the pan heat up before adding the oil.

If I'm not yet ready to use the pan, I typically won't put it on high heat -- I'll put it on medium or medium high (electric stove), so I have less of a chance of overheating the pan (causing instant smoke/burning when I'm ready to use it), but don't have to wait as long for it to get to the optimal heat.

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good answer +1... –  nicorellius Dec 24 '13 at 16:41
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It's my experience that you heat the pan first. There's nothing worse than the smell and taste of burnt oil, especially olive oil.

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Put the oil in first.

A comment on your reasoning — the oil will only smoke when it's up past its smoke point temperature. It could sit for a day 10 degrees below that temperature without smoking. If your pan is so hot that it's going to heat your oil past its smoke point, you shouldn't have heated it that high.

For this reason, (the oil will give you early warning by shimmering when it gets close to its smoke point), and because temperature shocks aren't good for pans, I'd recommend to you that you do them together.

Note that you don't always want to add fats in while cold; there are reasons you might want to pre-heat your pan in other situations, but given your question, I'd recommend you put the oil in first.

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I use a pan that changes color when it's hot enough. I warm the pan first, and then I add the oil, or butter.

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Sorry, late to the game but I think I have some additional insight. No one has mentioned cast iron skillets and pans and pots. We remember when we were young, when we didn't understand cast iron yet, burning the snot out of that poor, nicely cured skillet mom spent years curing... BAD news, indeed. So I would say this answer specifically relates to the type of pan you are using. No right answer for all pans, and this is a common theme in cooking. I think the other answers covered this already, in terms of stainless and non-stick.

To address the comment, I add oil first, and then heat pan, keeping very close attention to not burning anything.

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Um ... so that's a 'oil first' for cast iron, then? –  Joe Mar 20 at 20:53
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