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The recipes I cook usually use either butter or 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil. With butter, everything is fine and the pan gets an 'even' coating of small droplets of fat. But whenever I use olive oil, it tends to all form a single big puddle at the edge of the non-stick frying pan, even if I empty the measuring scoop in the middle of the pan. One of those puddles recently splashed when I added vegetables to the pan, and I burned my finger quite badly, so I want to prevent something like it from happening again.

I found this post asking why oil does this, and the answer there gives some ideas on what to do, but the circumstances there aren't really applicable: I checked and my frying pan is level which makes sense as the butter also doesn't run off to the sides. Also, I've been using my frying pans for close to a year now, so more than the 'few months' the answer there mentions as being needed to build up damage and allowing oil to spread more evenly. So neither of the two things mentioned there already seems like a possible solution for me.

How do I prevent my olive oil from forming a single puddle at the edge of a frying pan?

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    If you turn the pan 180° does the puddle follow the pan or the stove direction. Pans do warp over time - usually to a dome or a dent in the middle. This can affect which way it pools.
    – Tetsujin
    Oct 14, 2022 at 15:33
  • Are you checking if it's level when the pan is warm? My frying pan was bowing in the middle (causing the oil to form a ring) but only noticeably so when the pan was very hot.
    – Richard
    Oct 14, 2022 at 21:04
  • I had this issue with a nonstick skillet I purchased from Target. The pan was manufactured with a very slight convex shape that caused oil to always slide down to the sides and not spread evenly. I replaced it with a ceramic nonstick pan from Amazon and haven't had issues since.
    – Banjoe
    Oct 14, 2022 at 22:26
  • @Banjoe - I fixed mine with the old trick of hitting it quite hard with the heel of my hand, pushing the convex into a slight concave.
    – Richard
    Oct 15, 2022 at 5:08
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    @Richard - I put them on a carpeted floor & stand in the middle - I'd rather have a central pool than a moat ;) See cooking.stackexchange.com/a/105629/42066
    – Tetsujin
    Oct 15, 2022 at 8:04

4 Answers 4

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There isn't a way to keep doing everything the same way you listed, and not have the puddle. But if you are willing to make some changes to your cooking process, you can get to cook without the puddle.

The important thing to understand here is that, if you are frying in a strict sense*, the fat is key. If you aren't (and with one or two spoons of fat, you aren't), you are very flexible in how you use it, or even whether you use it at all.

  1. Don't use any oil. As this is roasting, there is no actual need for any fat. The roasting will happen anyway, through the heat transfer from pan to food, and because the pan is nonstick, the food won't stick to the pan.
  2. Use much more oil. On a nonstick pan, the oil is not needed to prevent sticking, but it has another role: it prevents empty areas of the pan from overheating. If your food doesn't cover the pan surface, for example if you are making a steak, you should use enough oil to get a single pan-sized puddle, 1-2 mm deep, to not burn your PTFE.
  3. Don't use nonstick pans. You can make your roasted food in pans of other types too, like cast iron or enameled steel. The oil won't puddle on these surfaces.
  4. Coat your food The above methods assume that you are using the oil for its physical properties, to protect your pan. If you want the taste and texture provided by a thin coat of oil, you shouldn't be coating the pan in oil, you should coat the food. For steaks and other types of single-piece food, use a brush. For food cut into chunks, put it in a large bowl (2-3 times the volume of the food), pour the oil on top, and toss. This method is not suitable for liquid food (e.g. crêpes).

And at last, as dbmag9 suggested, you can just do nothing and live with the puddle. This will turn out to be equivalent to one of the above methods, depending on the food you are making.

Update If you were using a nonstick springform pan for baking, you would also have the option of using a lecithin spray. FuzzyChef pointed out in comments that this will ruin the pan if used on stovetop. So I removed the option from the list above.


* Explanation of what I mean by "frying in the strict sense".

The common use of the word "frying" nowadays covers several processes with different physics and usually rather different results in taste.

First, you have your deep frying. This involves your food floating in a very large bath of liquid fat, not touching the bottom of the pan.

Second, there is shallow frying. In this case, you carefully position chunky food on in the pan, filled up with oil to the middle of the chunks, so that the heat transfer is still coming mostly from the oil, and no juices can accumulate.

Third, there is stir frying in a wok. Here, you have very small pieces of food floating in the central puddle of super hot oil, they spend in it very short time, just to get a crust, and then get pushed up onto the hot walls to have some time in which the interior gets cooked through.

The fourth option is to use a minimally thin layer of oil between the pan and the food, and plop a few single pieces of food onto the pan or griddle - this can be a steak, or an egg, or American pancakes. The heat transfer happens almost directly from the pan to the food, since there is too little fat "to get in the way". I don't know an exact term for this preparation, and when I tried using "stovetop roasting" descriptively in the older version of this answer, people protested. Anyway, it produces a minimal crust that is more comparable to oven-roasted or to grilled food than the two other types of frying.

The fifth thing you can do is to use very small amounts of oil, and crowd your pan with a large volume of small pieces of food. Soon, the food exudes its own juices, which don't evaporate instantly, the way they would do in a fat bath, but pool around, and become the actual medium in which the food sits. This is technically equivalent to braising, even though many people nowadays don't use the word when they do this kind of dish.

(There probably are more techniques about which one can argue how they relate to the above ones, but these are the widespread ones which are relevant to thinking about the problem in this question.)

As noted in comments, all these five are covered by the same word, "frying", in current usage. I would consider the first three types to be "frying in the strict sense". They were historically the widespread ones. Anyway, each of the five works differently, and is a separate skill that a cook needs to learn to do well, so it makes sense to think about them separately and keep in mind which one is meant, even if the word used for them is the same.

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    @Tinkeringbell I would still call what you are doing 'frying' – there are certainly definitions which would not include it, but it is a very common practice which (certainly in British English) is referred to as frying. No comment on rumtscho's advice but don't worry about your language use here.
    – dbmag9
    Oct 14, 2022 at 12:08
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    ... experiment between the different solutions suggested above, including the "let it pool" option. I don't doubt that some people do it "because that's how I've always done it" or "because that's what the recipe says", and that's OK, you can keep doing it that way, and just accept that there will be some pooling (which is not actually a problem) and you may shorten the lifetime of your pans.
    – rumtscho
    Oct 14, 2022 at 12:43
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    I don't think "roasting" is the word you want here. Roasting implies that the food is surrounded by hot air, which would only happen if the pan is covered and the ingredients are dry. "Searing" might be better -- and it's "braising" if there's any liquid.
    – FuzzyChef
    Oct 14, 2022 at 18:57
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    Also, let me recommend strongly AGAINST using baking spray with nonstick pans. Baking spray will burn onto the pan, becoming impossible to remove and eventually ruining the nonstick surface.
    – FuzzyChef
    Oct 14, 2022 at 18:59
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    I disagree that a small puddle of oil doesn't count as frying. When you fry an egg, for example, you don't need or want that egg to be half-submerged in oil. Just a little bit, or maybe a pat of butter is all you need. With a good non-stick pan, you can fry an egg without any oil at all. Oct 14, 2022 at 20:51
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Generally this shouldn't be too much of a problem; by moving food around once it is in the pan you will naturally spread the oil across both the food and the pan. You can also use a spatula to spread the oil a little before putting the food in, and tilting the pan to get the oil to run to the far side also helps.

If the puddle of oil is significantly splashing you that might be a sign there is too much oil for what you need, but you can also reduce splashing by gently lowering food in (possibly using tools like a spatula or tongs) and putting the side closest to you in first so that any splashing is away from you.

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You cannot prevent the oil from accumulating like this. Olive is fairly homogenous compared to butter, and so its surface tension keeps the droplets together. That also makes butter a bad test for whether the pan is level or not, try it with water on a cold pan. You could try to spread it with a basting brush, if it's really worth having to cleaning just for frying food.

Take note that oil does not 'splash' on its own - it will only do that when it's hot and there is water mixed in it. I regularly make steaks with a little bit of olive oil and there is no splashing.

So your pan or oil must be dry. Once you heat it up, don't yeet the food in the oil, drop it next to the puddle and slide it in carefully. Once it's covered in the oil, drag it around the pan and you're good to go.

Also, do you really need 2 table spoons? I'd say what I use most of the time is more like half a spoon for frying food.

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Get a squeeze bottle or a spray bottle for your oil. You can get them on amazon. I use plastic ones. Squeeze or spray your oil around the pan. Problem solved.

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