If you are reading this, chances are you have burnt something in a pot or a pan.
Or, more likely, both.
The question of why pots and pans burn may seem like a pretty straightforward question with an answer just as straightforward.
Most people will have excess heat and excess time in their answers.
And that is correct.
Cooking with too high temperatures for too long causes burning. But WHY does it cause burning?
That is the question you need to answer to understand the next article, which is about non-stick cookware.
We are going to start this two-part article series with the explanation of how pots and pans burn, as well as how to prevent it.
This article will serve as an introduction to the second article of this series, which is about non-stick cookware and how they work and differ from normal cookware.
In this article I will discuss:
The basics of heat conduction in metals
Metal is the most common material used in the manufacturing of cookware.
And the reason for this is metal’s heat conducting capabilities.
But not all metals are equally suitable for different tasks around the kitchen.
For example, compare cast iron with aluminum cookware.
Cast iron is a poor conductor of heat. It will take longer to reach the desired temperatures.
But on the other hand it will retain heat much longer than aluminum.
So cast iron pots are better suited for simmering and lower temperature cooking where you need lower consistent heat for longer periods.
Aluminum, on the other hand, is an excellent conductor of heat. You don’t need to preheat the cookware since it heats up so quickly.
It doesn’t retain heat that good, though. The moment you take the pot or pan off the stove, it starts to cool down.
You get many different metals in-between used to manufacture cookware, as well as non-metal materials like ceramic and borosilicate glass.
Why do pots and pans burn
Metal cookware conducts heat, as mentioned earlier.
The reason it has to conduct heat is to transfer heat from the cooktop to the food.
Cookware is there because you cannot cook food directly on the cooktop.
You need a container to hold the food together while heating it.
Enter the humble pot.
It holds the food while heating it with heat it gets from the cooktop.
To transfer heat you need contact mediums, preferably a liquid.
That is why you use cooking oils, butter and even water when cooking.
Unfortunately, these mediums evaporate or gets absorbed over time.
At the same time, moisture in food evaporate as well, moreso the closer you get to the heat source.
When you get dry spots due to a lack of these mediums and moisture in food, it starts to burn.
You sit with a buildup of excess heat that can’t be conducted away from the heat source throughout the food.
This also explains why you should not try to cook something evenly with high temperatures, especially in an aluminum pan.
Heat needs time to be conducted away from the bottom of the pan right throughout the food.
If the temperatures are too high, the moisture acting as the conducting medium will evaporate from the bottom part of the food and the surface of the cookware, before it can conduct enough heat further into the food.
The same happens with metals like aluminum that conducts heat much quicker and more efficiently than other metals.
It’s not necessarily high temperatures that causes the burning with aluminum cookware, but the fact that the available heat gets transferred quicker to the food contact surface than it can be conducted away from that surface throughout the food.
How to prevent or minimize burning
Now that you understand that the cookware surface and food will burn due to inefficient heat conducting, you will easier understand how to prevent it.
So there are basically two ways to do this.
Firstly, you need to increase the heat conducting capabilities.
You can do that by making sure there is enough oil or water in the pot or pan to be able to conduct heat efficiently.
You can also move the food around in the pan while cooking to distribute these conducting mediums better and make sure there is as much contact between the food and the cookware as possible.
The second way is to reduce the heat. That way you give the conducting mediums enough time to distribute the available heat evenly through the food without being overpowered by excess heat.
If you cook with these principles in mind, you will be able to efficiently prevent, or at least minimize, burning of cookware and food.
If, however, you did end up with a bit of burning, read our article here on how you can easily clean that up.