Sautéing 101

If you make up your mind to master one cooking technique, you simply cannot do better than start with sautéing. It’s versatile, fast, and produces deliciously browned meat and vegetables every time.

all about the saute cooking method

Sautéing is most likely something you’ve already done without really thinking about it. If you’ve ever caramelized onions or softened some cherry tomatoes and peppers to throw on top of pasta for a quick and healthy dinner, you probably sautéed them first.

It’s an interchangeable term to some, associated with pan-frying, but in reality sautéing uses considerably less oil to cook food and a lot more action with similar, tasty results. Let’s dive into the ins and outs of this incredible, versatile culinary method!

What Culinary Problem is this Method Solving?

Sautéing is a way to cook food and give it a lot of flavor in a short amount of time.

What is Sautéing?

Sautéing is a dry heat method of cooking food that uses a small amount of oil or fat in a shallow pan over relatively high heat. Not only is it an ideal way to sear or brown food before some other method of cooking, but it’s a great way to cook smaller, even-sized pieces of food as well, by tossing them in the pan and shaking them up over the curved lip until cooked through.

Sauté comes from the French verb sauter, which means “to jump.” The jumping refers to the way the pieces of food appear to jump in the pan as the moisture is forced out by the high heat of the pan and oil. Jump might also refer to the motion chefs use to manipulate the pan, tossing the pieces a bit into the air so they cook evenly.

diced carrots and celery sautéing in a skillet

Sautéing vs. Stir-frying

Sautéing cooks large or small pieces of food in a wide, shallow pan in a small amount of hot fat over medium-high heat, turning often or just once. When you make a stir-fry, you usually keep the food in constant motion, but when you sauté, you can let the food rest at times during the cooking.

Selecting the Right Pan for Sautéing

Technically speaking, sautéing is done in a pan with straight sides is known as a sautoir. You need a pan that is wider than it is tall, and that will distribute heat evenly without burning your food and be highly responsive to sudden temperature adjustments. Look for a solid bottom; an uneven bottom will produce unevenly cooked food and hot spots where food can scorch.

  • Skillet: A skillet is a pan with sloped sides. It’s also sometimes called a frypan or frying pan. The slanted sides make this pan perfect for stir-frying and quick cooking techniques where you’re moving ingredients around in the pan.
  • Sauté Pan: A sauté pan has straight sides, with a larger surface area, which makes it a good choice for searing meat or reducing a pan sauce. Look for one that’s made of heavy gauge stainless steel, ideally with aluminum sandwiched in-between the layers.
  • Wok: If you have a wok that you love, by all means, use it. It does a great job of cooking small pieces of food and vegetables.
  • Cast Iron: A cast-iron skillet can be used over high heat to brown foods beautifully, and if well seasoned, it’s also nonstick.
  • Nonstick: Because of their ultra-slick surface, non-stick pans is that they are not conducive to making as flavorful a sauce as a regular pan. They still work well if you’re not worried about making a sauce.

Importance of Pan Size

What size of a pan do you need for all this sautéing? First of all, you need a pan large enough that encourages fast evaporation, in a size that can fit your food in a single layer without too many overlaps (which encourages steaming) or too much empty space (which can burn the oil). However, if you’re cooking greens or mushrooms, which cook down considerably in volume as they release moisture, you can choose a smaller pan.

green beans sautéing in a skillet

How to Properly Prep the Food

  • Uniform Sizes: If you’re cooking a number of different items, cut them up into the same size to make sure they’ll cook evenly. Since some foods are denser than others, they may cook at a slower rate. For example, as a carrot is harder than a mushroom, cut the carrot smaller than the mushroom.
  • Meat Temperature: Allow the meat you’re cooking to get up to room temperature before cooking it, by letting it sit out for 15 minutes or so. This will help it brown in the hot pan more effectively.
  • Dry Your Food: In order to avoid steaming your food, make sure there’s no excess moisture or marinade when you add it to the hot fat. Blot off any excess with paper towels.
  • Properly Heating the Pan: Heat your pan over a medium-high to high flame. Pre-heating allows the metal to expand and fill any tiny scratches in the pan, making food stick less. Also, adding the fat to an already hot pan allows the fat or oil to get hotter faster.

Selecting and Using the Right Fat

Any good quality, neutral vegetable oil with a higher smoke point will do the trick: grapeseed, olive oil, canola, peanut, safflower or avocado oil. Butter works well, and so does clarified butter, which has a higher smoke point.

How Much Oil to Use in the Pan

Unlike pan-frying, use only enough oil, clarified butter or ghee to keep the pan lubricated, so lightly coat the bottom of the pan. Too much fat will cause the food to fry rather than just to slide and may interfere with the development of fond. A uniform coating of oil will eliminate any sticking spots and produce an equally uniform sear.

How to Tell the Fat is Hot Enough

Here’s a good test for making sure the pan is hot enough to sauté is to sprinkle just a few drops of water in the pan. The drops should immediately boil vigorously and evaporate within a couple of seconds. However, if your oil is boiling, look out – it’s way too hot to cook in! It shouldn’t even be smoking; it’s ready when you see the fat rippling or hear it foaming.

Searing pieces of meat in a skillet

The Sautéing Technique

If you’re cooking a single cut of meat like a fish filet or cutlet, let the food develop the color and crust you want on one side before shifting it at all. When it’s done, it should naturally release from the pan with little effort. In the case of meat or larger foods, flip only once.

The vigorous sauté technique involves gripping the handle of the sauté pan firmly, and using a sharp elbow motion to quickly move the pan back toward your body, repeating as necessary to ensure the ingredients have been thoroughly “jumped.” Tossing or stirring the food in the pan by doing this too often, however, can cause the pan to cool faster and make the process take longer. This might take a bit of practice!

Don’t Overcrowd the Pan

Too much food will lower the heat you worked so hard for and cause the items to steam rather than brown. It is far better to sauté your food in batches than crowd the pan and risk mushy, limp food.

How to get Maillard Browning

Sautéing is one of the best ways to achieve the Maillard reaction, which as you may know is the key to the browning of food that we know and love. Letting food have direct contact with the bottom of the pan is one way to get this. But a tiny pinch of baking soda can work wonders to up that browning, too.

Sautéing butternut squash and apples in a cast iron skillet

A Fabulous Trick for Quick Caramelized Onions:

If you love caramelized onions, but don’t make them as often as you’d like because of the time they take, add just a pinch of baking soda to the oil and onions in the pan and they will caramelize perfectly and quickly.

Deglazing

When you sauté, the pan will develop what is known as a fond – the browned bits left on the pan during cooking. If what you’re cooking calls for it, making a pan gravy or sauce using a process called deglazing could be your next step. After you remove the food, pour some stock, wine, beer, or juice into the pan and allow it to reduce and thicken. You can add fresh herbs, season it to taste, and add a little butter to finish the sauce and give it a velvety texture.

zucchini noodles cooking in a skillet over a flame

Types of Food to Sauté

Virtually all foods can be sautéed with a few exceptions. With meat, only use tender cuts without a lot of tough connective tissue. Because it is a dry heat method, sautéing will definitely make tough cuts of meat even more so.

For example, a lamb shank or brisket, which needs braising for a longer period of time, is not a candidate for sautéing. Even tender steaks that are thick, over one inch, could first be seared in a sauté pan and then completed in the oven. Sautéing is a better method for thinner cuts of meat like fish, veal, pork, and chicken fillets, or meat cut into smaller pieces or strips.

Any vegetable can be sautéed, especially the more tender vegetables: green beans, asparagus, mushrooms, zucchini, and peppers. Harder varieties such as potatoes and other root vegetables may need to be cut smaller or par-cooked in boiling water beforehand. Keep in mind that sautéing is quick-cooking, so the food must be small and tender enough so that the center is done by the time the outside has browned.

Benefits of Sautéing

  • Time: There may be no quicker way to cook up dinner because sautéing uses relatively high heat and motion to quickly brown meats and vegetables.
  • Taste: High heat means more flavor, due to that increasingly famous Maillard reaction, which caramelizes the sugars in the food and makes everything taste fabulous.
  • Texture: The dry heat method of cooking makes food cook quickly without turning it mushy
  • Nutrition: Sautéing involves using small amounts of oil to cook food in a short amount of time, retaining its nutrients.

Tools for Sautéing

infographic of kitchen tools used for sautéing

  1. Sauté Pan
  2. Spatulas
  3. Tongs
  4. Skillet
  5. Pot Holders
  6. Wok
  7. Wooden Spoons

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Jessica Gavin

I'm a culinary school graduate, cookbook author, and a mom who loves croissants! My passion is creating recipes and sharing the science behind cooking to help you gain confidence in the kitchen.

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2 Comments Leave a comment or review

  1. Dennis Murphy says

    Very well written. Perfect reference material for our cooking course. I also have your book as a course reference. Thank you, Dennis

  2. Jessica Bentson says

    I just found your blog and I am so excited! I have already learned a lot from just reading a couple posts. I feel certain I will be coming back repeatedly!

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