Flipping pancakes, omelettes and stir-fries: Learn the science behind the art

Flipping pancakes, omelettes and stir-fries: Learn the science behind the art

We spoke to a physics professor to explain what happens when a chef tosses food in a pan

Tossing pancake
Have you tried flipping food in a pan at home? It's a game of physics. Image Credit: Shutterstock

With a careful flick of the wrist and the omelette is airborne for precisely half a second and lands perfectly back onto the pan. The edges are tucked in delicately. The fiery backdrop only adds to the drama.

It is obvious that a chef flipping food onto a pan is one of the most exciting sights in the kitchen and amateur cooks have long tried to replicate it.

Whether it is flipping a pancake or perfectly coating a vegetable stir-fry with the sauce using the technique, it is a game of mastering the three P’s - practice, patience, and most importantly, physics.

The science behind flipping food

Flipping food in a pan is a cooking technique used to evenly cook both sides of certain foods, such as pancakes, omelettes, and meats like burgers or steaks. While it may seem like a simple and intuitive process, there is actually a science behind it. It involves several principles of physics.

Flipping food
Flipping food involves several principles of physics. The push of the spatula and gravity are at play. Image Credit: Pexels

Matthew Martin is an Assistant Professor of Physics at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYU Abu Dhabi), and he explained the forces at play when food is flipped in a pan.

There are essentially two forces, the spatula’s push or whatever is used to flip a food item and gravity

- Matthew Martin, Assistant Professor of Physics

“There are essentially two forces, the spatula’s push or whatever is used to flip a food item and gravity,” he said.

To successfully flip food in a pan, the cook needs to start with applying force to the food. One of the ways this force is applied is using a spatula or spoon, which pushes against the food and lifts it from the pan. The speed and angle of the flip also affect the success of the manoeuver.

However, there are more aspects to keep in mind. “With food, many things matter when moving it. Think of the hardness or softness of the item. It matters whether it’s eggs, steak, or a pancake. Now let’s say it’s a pancake, think of putting a spatula under it. The different angles you move it in, decide whether it would flip away from you or towards you. You also need to be aware of the centre of mass of the item,” Martin said.

As Martin mentioned, working with different foods requires different approaches. “You cannot flip a pancake into the air when it’s completely raw and wet on the top. It would splatter everywhere due to the force it lands on onto the pan. With something like that, you would have to turn it over very slowly using a spatula,” he said.

Flipping food
The texture of the food you are flipping matters in the technique to use. Image Credit: Pexels

An easy way to visualise the movements could be to think of flipping a coin versus when you turn a page of a book.

Martin said: “Always remember if something is soft and wet, for example, scrambled eggs, use the book method.” Whereas when it’s something more solid, like a nearly-cooked crepe, it could be flipped into the air directly from the pan without the help of a utensil.

Ah but it’s not that easy. This flipping technique requires skills, practice, and mastering the forces of physics. According to Martin, cooks need to be “faster than gravity”. While all of this sounds like stuff straight out of The Last Airbender, it can be learnt.

Maintaining control is the most important thing when flipping food into the air directly from the pan

- Matthew Martin, Assistant Professor of Physics

“Maintaining control is the most important thing when flipping food into the air directly from the pan. First, you need enough momentum and torque (a twisting force. Think of the curving wrist motion a chef makes when flipping a stir-fry). Then, you need to perfect your speed and timing due to the force of gravity – and gravity is fast,” said Martin.

Basically, once your omelette or pancake is in the air, you need to move the pan under it before it lands, beating gravity.

Is the technique even necessary?

We now know what goes behind the action of flipping food but why do chefs do it?

According to Martin, it’s the even distribution of heat. “It leads to even cooking as the heat is being applied to both sides of the dish. Especially when it’s something thick, this matters a lot in the end result. For example, a thick two-centimetre steak. If we don’t flip it, it might be overcooked on the bottom but almost raw on the top,” he said.

And sometimes, it’s just to “look cool”, as Dubai-based chef Omar Basiony admits.

Perfecting your technique

Basiony, Head of Culinary at LDC Kitchen and Coffee, describes himself as someone who likes exploring the science behind cooking.

Learning some of the science behind cooking can help demystify the process and make you feel more confident as a cook.

- Omar Basiony, Dubai-based chef

“I think for many people the idea of cooking can be very daunting. Learning some of the science behind cooking can help demystify the process and make you feel more confident as a cook. Whether that be as an amateur or professional,” he said.

So, if you’re a cook learning to perfect your art, here are some tips.

Besides refining your movements, one important factor in flipping food is the temperature of the pan. A pan that is too cold can cause food to stick to the surface, while a pan that is too hot can burn the food or cause it to cook unevenly. It is important to preheat the pan to the appropriate temperature before adding the food.

Another aspect to look into is how lubricated your pan is. “Oil or any cooking fat reduces the coefficient of friction which essentially makes the item you are trying to flip slide and glide more easily across the surface of the pan. Careful not to add too much though as when the item flips it may cause excess oil to splash back on your hand,” said Basiony.

Tossing a pancake
The tools such as the utensils, pans and cooking fat you're using make a difference in perfecting the technique to flipping food. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Tools and utensils are also very important.

“The most important tool is having the correct pan, depending on what you’re are making and by extension, flipping each item will require a different type of pan. Sloped sides also definitely make a huge difference, as a square-sided sauté pan will not lend for easy flipping. If you are trying to flip say an omelette, pancakes, or other egg-based items, try a sauté pan with shallow curved sides. If you are more interested in flipping pasta to make that perfect creamy pan sauce, try a deeper curved sauté pan,” Basiony added.

For those just beginning to try out the technique, Basiony recommends practicing to get the right wrist motion by taking a dry empty pan and filling it with beans or rice, keeping it off the heat, and tossing the grains in the pan. “This helps your body establish the connection to know what your hands should be doing to make the flip happen,” he said.

The actual flipping technique
It is the classic ‘push and pull’ motion. Do not toss the food up in the air. The movement is more back and forth rather than a vertical motion. So you keep the pan steady, almost touching the heat source – if it is heavy, use both your hands, left palm first, followed by the right. Then hold the pan or wok steady, push forward in a slight upward curving motion followed by a straight pull back, keep repeating. Ultimately practice makes perfect!

Starting young

Basiony’s tips come from years of practice. He has been cooking since the age of six. “I was making my own eggs by that time. So flipping was just something that was thrown in the mix while playing around in the kitchen. Definitely, my skills were honed and perfected when I started working in professional kitchens,” he said.

Now, the chef not only uses the technique at work but also at home. “Pancakes are a fan favourite as I have two young kids and when I get good pancake flips it makes them think I’m cool,” he said.

Similarly, Dubai-based French chef Romuald Marie has been cooking for 35 years and learnt the flipping technique at the age of 15, but not in a professional kitchen. It was his mother who taught him as a teenage cook.

I learnt how to perfectly flip crepes in my mother’s kitchen...

- Romuald Marie, Dubai-based French chef

“I come from Normandy in northern France and I learnt how to perfectly flip crepes in my mother’s kitchen there,” the head chef at Bistro Des Arts said, who is also a trained pastry chef.

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Sharing how he likes to practice the technique, he said: “Butter or oil is not necessarily required. Just use a nonstick pan and high heat. But it will definitely take practice.”

When dealing with high heat and no fat to coat the food, the timing of the flip is crucial. Flipping too early can cause the food to fall apart, while waiting too long can result in overcooking or burning. The timing will depend on the type of food being cooked and its thickness. As a general rule, it is best to wait until the food has developed a solid crust on the bottom before attempting to flip it.

Now that you are equipped with all you need to know about flipping food at home, share your experience with us on food@gulfnews.com

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