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With stainless steel pans you can perform a water test to see if the pan is the correct temperature for frying but how do you tell with a non-stick pan?

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up vote 4 down vote accepted

You shouldn't heat a non stick pan without the oil, because it is too easy to overheat it and ruin the coating.

So, I put oil inside first, and tell by the state of the oil. It smells, looks and flows different when it is hot enough. You can also learn to judge if there is sufficient heat when you hold your palm at a given distance above the pan, but in my experience, you learn to judge by the oil before you have gotten good enough to keep the same distance and to distinguish "enough" from "not enough" heat.

If you don't have enough experience to know when the oil is ready, you have to do it repeatedly until you learn it. It takes a few less-than-great meals if you do it purely by trial and error, and goes better if you use an infrared thermometer. You can also try floating cubes of stale white bread and watch their browning behavior, but I find this method too involved logistically - you have to have the bread, cut it, then deal with messy pieces of oily bread, and end up with slowly charring crumbles in your pan.

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That honestly sounds terrible. I guess I should just buy a stainless steel pan. – Ford Mar 25 '14 at 12:41
@Ford what about it sounds terribe? It doesn't take too long to learn it, and the food you make in the meantime might not be stellar, but it is certainly a good dinner. For some foods (especially eggs or any number of pancake relatives) you also need a fairly non-stick surface, so you have to deal with either PTFE or cast/forged iron, which takes more care. – rumtscho Mar 25 '14 at 12:42
I know this isn't a place for brand recommendations, but Moneta has a little indicator on its ceramic frying pans that becomes white when it reaches 140 C, it could help you learn the way oil behaves at that temp.. – NickW Mar 25 '14 at 16:28
@NickW, true, but many brands do that these days, so Moneta is not particularly outstanding here. – Turion Mar 25 '14 at 17:00
@Turion Just my experience, I don't have that many non stick frying pans :D I think that might be a decent way of getting a baseline before you become one with your oil in a zen sense. – NickW Mar 25 '14 at 17:46

I tend to put some oil in.
Then to test if it is hot, I throw in a few drops of water. Just by running my hand under the sink, and giving it a flick.

If it spits, then it is hot.
I'm not too sure on the exact science of it.
but clearly it does indicate the oil is hot enough to boil a few drops of water.
and thus the pan is too.

Big downside of this method is that you now have oil with water in it, and it may keep spitting. (Esp if you used too much water)

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I, too, do this even though I know there's a better way. – hometoast Mar 25 '14 at 16:21

Just put in a little test piece of whatever you're frying. (e.g. a small piece of onions if you're frying onions)

You'll be able to tell the right temperature from its colour (Is the onion staying white? Too cold. Turning golden? Great. Turning brown/black? Too hot.) and its sound or behaviour (e.g. medium sizzling).

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+1 I use this method too. Plus it's ok if the one piece of onion is over cooked. You can remove it if you're picky. – Pdxd Mar 29 '14 at 12:02

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