Pan Frying 101

Pan-frying is a fundamental cooking technique that’s easy to master and yields absolutely delicious results; who could resist a crispy, crunchy cutlet with a tender juicy center? It’s less messy than deep frying, too—get the basic information right here and start frying tonight.

crispy chicken pan frying in oil

Besides being delicious, one of the things crispy skin salmon, breaded pork tenderloin, and hash browns all have in common is that they’re the products of pan-frying. This cooking method is a sure-fire way to get everyone to ask for seconds or even thirds. As long as you have the right equipment, the proper oil, and something to cook, pan-frying is a straightforward technique that is used the world over.

What culinary problem is this method solving?

Pan-frying is an effective way to add rich, caramelized flavor to the food you cook, as well as retain its moisture and tenderness.

What is pan-frying?

Pan-frying is a dry heat method of cooking, by relying on oil or fat as the heat transfer medium. The oil creates steam which helps cooks the meat while the exposed topside allows any steam to escape. Direct contact with the bottom of the pan creates greater browning and crisping.

Because of the partial oil coverage, the food must be turned at least once to cook both sides. When pan-frying it’s also important that the heat remains at a constant, medium-high temperature, otherwise any breading will absorb the oil and become soggy, or fall off entirely.

Pan-frying vs. deep-frying

With deep frying, the food is completely submerged in hot oil, so you need a lot of oil and the process can get messy quickly in the average kitchen. However, foods that are deep-fried cook much faster than when pan-fried, because the food is not exposed to air. Pan-frying uses less oil and gives similar results with just a bit more time.

fish covered in sesame seeds frying in a pan

Selecting the right pan

Pan-frying works best with a skillet or sauté pan; make sure it’s wide with slightly sloped or straight sides. Choose a heavy-bottomed pan that distributes heat evenly without hot spots. A nonstick skillet may be best to ensure that coatings stay on the food, rather than stick to the pan.

Generally speaking, when you’re getting ready to pan-fry choose a pan that is bigger than you might think you need. You want room for the food to cook without overcrowding, which is key to getting that browning. Unless you’re cooking for just yourself, consider a 12” pan, which offers greater versatility in the long run.

Enhance crispiness with a coating

Love things extra crispy? Many pan-fried dishes are so loved because of an irresistible coating of flour, breadcrumbs, cracker meal, nuts, or cornmeal. Coatings are used to create the desired crispy crust, but they also insulate the food to prevent it from overcooking.

breaded chicken pan frying in a non stick pan

Selecting and using the right fat

Almost every cooking oil has a smoke point near the ideal temperature for pan-frying. Peanut, sunflower seed, sesame, avocado, corn, grapeseed, and palm oil all have smoke points of 400 degrees or above, while extra virgin olive oil tops out at around 350 degrees. Clarified butter, coconut oil, or any other of the highly-refined oils are the best for high heat frying.

However, butter is a bit too low for pan-frying, unless you’re making pancakes or something that doesn’t need a higher temperature to cook. Whatever you decide, choose a good quality oil that’s within your budget.

How much oil to use

When pan-frying, the oil should reach almost halfway up the side of the food for proper cooking.

The pan-frying technique

Here’s a step by step for basic pan-frying. Keep in mind that different foods may have slightly different requirements, so refer to your recipe if in doubt.

  • Get the pan pre-heated, using a medium-high heat (6-7 on most burners) for several minutes.
  • The oil should be ready (at about 350 degrees) when the handle-end of a wooden spoon or chopstick makes bubbles when dipped into the oil. You can then add the food.
  • Because the side you put down in the pan first will likely look the nicest, place the food in the pan presentation side down. To make sure the coating stays on the food, flip it only once as it cooks. Disturbing it too soon may cause the breading to fall off or stick to the pan.
  • One of the most important things to know about pan-frying is maintaining the correct temperature of the oil, so try not to overcrowd the pan. Even though it’s tempting to load the pan up to maximum capacity, doing so cools the oil down and results in uneven cooking and a potential loss of breading.
  • For professional looking pan-frying, the secret is getting your food deliciously browned and toasty, a result of the Maillard reaction. The surest way to do this is accurate medium-high temperature throughout the cooking process. Food will brown at a high temperature and can be turned down to a slightly lower temperature for thicker items so they cook through.

wonton wrappers frying in shallow oil inside a pan

Absorbing the oil with paper towels

Many people like to place their food directly on paper towels, but I find that placing the food on a cooling rack, over paper towels, keeps things even crispier. The paper towels absorb the extra oil, but they can also make your food soggy when in direct contact with that crispy coating.

Keeping foods warm in the oven

If you’re making batches of food that have to stay warm, like fried chicken, Place the finished food on a cooling rack set over a baking sheet in the oven at a lower temperature of 325 degrees. That will keep everything warm until you’re ready to serve.

Types of food to pan-fry

Your best bets for pan-frying are quicker cooking, thin, lean cuts that aren’t too tough (and therefore don’t have a lot of connective tissue that has to break down): fish filets, veal, chicken or pork cutlets, thin cut pork chops. For vegetables, look for those on the sturdier side: potatoes, green tomatoes, eggplant, and onions.

Benefits of pan-frying

  • Time: Pan-fried food is a quick process, from beginning to end, as long as what you’re cooking is suited for the cooking method and you’re prepped and ready to go.
  • Taste: Few things are better than a paillard of chicken, pounded flat and breaded, then cooked until crispy. Pan-frying gives fantastic tasting results.
  • Texture: Pan-frying retains the inner moisture of the food while making a crispy surface that’s fun to eat.
  • Nutrition: When done correctly, frying food, isn’t necessarily unhealthy. All that bubbling and hissing is the water in your food turning to steam. This also has the added benefit of creating a barrier between your food and the oil.

Tools for pan-frying

 

pan frying cooking tools infographic

  1. Frying Pan
  2. Fish Spatula
  3. Cooking Tongs
  4. Cast Iron Skillet
  5. Splatter Screen
  6. Instant Read Thermometer
  7. Cooling Rack

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Jessica Gavin

I'm a culinary school graduate, cookbook author, and a mom who loves croissants! My passion is creating recipes and sharing the science behind cooking to help you gain confidence in the kitchen.

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10 Comments Leave a comment or review

    • Jessica Gavin says

      I put the paper towel under the cooling rack as it sits between batches. If you’d like you can put it directly on the paper towel first for a few seconds to soak up and excess oil, then transfer to a wire rack.

  1. Darlene Thompson says

    Hi Jessica! I’m making the blackened salmon and have the ingredients for the dry rub but not sure of the measurements, ie., Tsp or tbsp of…! Also do u recommend a cast iron skillet or regular fry pan? Thank you! I’m also going to make the pan roasted asparagus!

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Hi Darlene- I only use teaspoons for the dry ingredients in the recipe. I like using the cast iron skillet, but a regular frying pan works too if you heat it first, then add the oil to prevent the salmon from sticking.

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Typically around 350ºF for pan frying a coated ingredient. But this could range from 325 to 375 degrees as the temperature fluctuates with your stove and when the food is added.

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