Why does food still stick to non-stick pans?

Posted: 3 February 2021 | | 1 comment

Czech scientists think they have identified the cause of the irritating problem of food sticking to the bottom of a non-stick pan. It’s all down to convection…

non stick frying pan

Despite the use of non-stick frying pans, foods will sometimes get stuck to a heated surface, even if oil is used. The results can be very messy and unappetising, not to mention irritating to clean up.

Scientists at the Czech Academy of Sciences began an investigation of the fluid properties of oil on a flat surface, such as a frying pan. Their work, reported in Physics of Fluids (published by the American Institute of Physics Publishing), shows convection may be to blame for our stuck-on food.

The experimental investigation used a non-stick pan with a surface comprised of ceramic particles. A video camera was placed above the pan as it was heated and used to measure the speed at which a dry spot formed and grew. Further experiments with a Teflon-coated pan showed the same.

“We experimentally explained why food sticks to the centre of the frying pan,” said author Alexander Fedorchenko. “This is caused by the formation of a dry spot in the thin sunflower oil film as a result of thermocapillary convection.”

frying pan dry spot

The so-called “dry spot” can be seen here Credit: Alex Fedorchenko

When the pan is heated from below, a temperature gradient is established in the oil film. For common liquids, such as the sunflower oil used in the experiment, the surface tension decreases when temperature increases. A surface tension gradient is established, directed away from the centre where the temperature is higher and toward the pan’s periphery.

This gradient sets up a type of convection known as thermocapillary convection, which moves oil outward. When the oil film in the middle becomes thinner than a critical value, the film ruptures.

The researchers determined the conditions that lead to dry spots for both stationary and flowing films. These conditions include a decrease in the local film thickness below a critical size, as well as the size of the deformed region falling below a number known as the capillary length.

“To avoid unwanted dry spots, the following set of measures should be applied: increasing the oil film thickness, moderate heating, completely wetting the surface of the pan with oil, using a pan with a thick bottom, or stirring food regularly during cooking,” Fedorchenko said.

The phenomenon also occurs in other situations, such as the thin liquid films used in fluid distillation columns or other devices that may have electronic components.

“Dry spot formation or film rupture plays a negative role, resulting in sharp overheating of the electronic components,” said Fedorchenko. “The results of this study may, therefore, have wider application.”

One response to “Why does food still stick to non-stick pans?”

  1. Luna says:

    So you need to make sure that it is fully coated with oil and that you have to stir the food frequently so that it won’t stick on the pan. This is also what you do with ordinary pans right? So a non-stick pan is not 100% non-stick pan afterall?

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