A 'little' oil?

Joined Aug 9, 2009
Although I could experiment this evening, an answer here will probably save time and pan washing and some fish fillets ;-)

The instructions were 'add a little oil.' I used two tablespoons of olive oil and the fillets worked. I'm wondering though if simply a heavy spray of PAM olive oil wouldn't also work.

For someone who needs more quantification at this point, just how little is little in this instance?



Staff member
Joined Mar 29, 2002
What it takes to do the job.

Most of the cooking show chefs when they say a little oil, they pour in a tablespoon or more. America's Test Kitchen is the only one that bothers being accurate about oil needed. Not that it's critical either. It will depend more on the pan  you use. Stainless steel will need more than cast iron or non-stick or carbon steel. Skill and experience enter into it too but less so than pan type.
Joined Feb 1, 2007
One of the biggest jokes, to my mind, is when they say "add 1 tablespoon oil to the pan....."

Why? Several reasons. One, as Phil notes, is the type of pan being used. Another, almost always ignored, is pan size. The goal with recipes like that is to create a thin film of oil, just enough to keep the food (fish, in this case) from sticking.

Now consider this. How thick is the film when you pour a tablespoon of oil into an 8" skillet? Let's say that's exactly the film thickness you need. What happens if you pour the same amount into a 10" skillet? A 12?

Obviously, to achieve the same effect, you need more oil in the larger pans.

That's why few cooks measure the oil in such an case. And why, despite Phil's endorsement of ATK, accuracy is unimportant when pan frying.

Mark, if 2 tablespoons worked in the pan you are using, then that's the amount you need. Next time, just try and eyeball the amount.

Will spray oil work? Sometimes. And sometimes not. I'd wait, if I were you, until you get a little more experience under your belt. Then you'll be able to tell, just by looking, whether it's enough or not.
Joined Feb 13, 2008
To saute you want a little more oil than is strictly necessary to keep the food from sticking.  You want enough to sizzle, sputter and pop -- but not much more than that.  By the way, to saute, you always use the same depth of fat no matter what type of fat. 

Same depth, that is, unless you're using butter.  Then you want enough butter to move forward to the next step, at least if a butter sauce using the cooking butter is the plan. 

Ditto if you're making a roux after doing some initial browning.  That is, you want enough fat moving forward to make the roux.

But if you're browning chicken, you probably want to dump the oil or at least most of it, before moving on to saute the aromatics because of all the moisture in the rendered chicken grease.  Just as true for arroz con pollo as an etouffe.

Another thing... if the pan isn't clean, is poorly prepped, the oil not hot enough, or the cook tries to turn a searing protein too soon, even more than enough oil won't keep the food from sticking.

And it goes on and on.  As KY and Phil said, it's totally situational. 

Like conjugating Latin verbs, there's gotta be at least 10,000 "few, basic rules."

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Joined Feb 1, 2007
Well put, Boar.

Mark, I think from this and other threads that there's a basic lesson you have to absorb: you can only learn so much from reading, and watching other people do it (whatever "it" happens to be). But you reach a point where you can only learn by jumping in and doing it yourself. And always asking yourself, "what if?"

Your last fish dish worked out ok. But what if you cut back the oil a little? Next time, try it. What if you added a little more? Experiment and see what happens. Pretty soon you'll automatically know how much oil it takes to pan fry something.

Apply that philosophy to everything you cook, but especially when learning new techniques.

Will you make mistakes? Assuredly. Will things not work out quite the way you expected? You betcha. But that is precisely how you learn.

And keep in mind what is probably Julia Child's greatest contribution to cookery education: Don't be afraid! You can always eat your mistakes.

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