Pan frying is a form of frying characterized by the use of minimal cooking oil or fat (compared to shallow frying or deep frying); typically using just enough oil to lubricate the pan. In the case of a greasy food such as bacon, no oil or fats may be needed. As a form of frying, pan frying relies on oil/fat as the heat transfer medium and on correct temperature and time to not overcook or burn the food. Pan frying can serve to retain the moisture in foods such as meats such as fish and seafood. Because of the partial coverage, the food is typically flipped at least once to ensure that both sides are cooked.
A pan fry takes place at lower heat than does a sauté. This is because the food to be pan-fried, such as chicken breasts, steak, pork chops or fish fillets, is not cut into small pieces before cooking. Pan frying requires a lower heat so that the exterior of the food does not overcook until the interior reaches the proper temperature, and can keep foods in a moister state.
The same amount of oil is used as for a sauté – just enough to glaze the pan – but the temperature should be lower during a pan fry. The oil should always be hot enough to ensure that the moisture in the food can escape in the form of steam. The force of the steam keeps the oil from soaking into the food.
Generally, a shallower cooking vessel is used for pan frying than deep frying. (Using a deep pan with a small amount of oil, butter or bacon grease does reduce spatter.) A denser cooking vessel is better than a less dense pan because that mass will improve temperature regulation. An electric skillet can be used analogously to an electric deep fryer and many of these devices have a thermostat to keep the liquid (in this case, oil) at the desired temperature.
Foods to be pan-fried are sometimes covered with a batter or breading. Batters consist of dried ingredients such as flour or cornstarch in conjunction with liquids such as milk, water or other beverages. Breading can be as simple as dusting the food in flour or more commonly what is called the "standard breading procedure." The standard breading procedure involves first dusting the food in flour, (taking care to shake off the excess), then dipping it in beaten eggs, and finally into bread crumbs or some other form of outer coating. Season the food with salt and pepper prior to coating. Allowing the food to rest for 15–30 minutes before frying enables the breading to stick to the food with greater tenacity.