Chef Notes: Saute like a Chef

Chef Notes: Saute like a Chef

You see it in recipe instructions all of the time. It’s probably the most common dry cooking method, but most people do it wrong. It’s not that sautéing is difficult but there is a “method to the madness.”  The word sauté is French and means to jump or toss. That’s your first clue. Some people confuse sautéing with pan frying, searing, or sweating. Pan frying is very similar but more oil is used and there is usually some kind of breading involved. Searing is also very similar but you don’t usually finish cooking the item that’s being seared. When you sear you’re just coloring the food before finishing it using some other cooking method. Sweating uses low heat and the food is not supposed to brown. A proper sauté is healthier than pan frying and a wonderful way to preserve the texture and flavor of the food. It’s particularly great for spring and summer vegetables. The idea is to cook quickly so it’s also a great technique for cooking in the heat of the summer.


The trick to sautéing is the pan, the heat, the oil, and the size and amount of the food. For the pan you have to use a heavy bottomed or cast iron skillet. A thin bottomed pan will not heat evenly and it will be difficult to control the heat. Pans sold as sauté pans typically have wide flat bottoms with low straight sides. This increases the cooking surface and reduces the amount of steam hanging around in the pan.

The heat is hard to quantify. Every stove top is different. On my stove it’s medium high. That’s probably a good place to start. Remember you want it hot enough to make your food “jump.”  Ok, not literally but you want a good sizzle sound when you put the food in. The oil is important too.  Not just the type of oil but when you put the oil in.  A phrase I learned in culinary school that I always remember when sautéing is “hot pan – cold oil”.  So get your pan hot before you add the oil. Do you know why???  Well, it will render your pan nonstick. Now this only works if you don’t screw around with the food.  It won’t make it like Teflon but if you give your food a chance and it will quickly sear and release itself from the bottom of the pan. If you try to flip it too soon it will stick.

The type of oil is also really important.  You want oil with a high smoke point, which is the temperature at which the oil starts to burn.  This is not the time to use a delicate EVOO.  Grape seed, canola, and vegetable oil are good. Clarified butter will work. Sesame oil is great too. And you only want to use enough oil to thinly coat the bottom of the pan. If you put in too much, drain it out. If you put the oil in and it begins to smoke, drain it out, wipe out the pan, let it cool for a minute, reduce the heat and start over. Burnt oil is not tasty.

Once the oil is in and spread around add your food. Thin, uniformly cut pieces are important. You want the food to brown and to cook quickly and evenly. That means not crowding the pan. As quickly as this cooking method is, it’s better to do two batches than to try to cook everything at once. If you do you will not get a good sear and you will have too much moisture in the pan causing your food to steam instead of sauté. This method preserves the natural flavor, texture, and moisture. If you are sautéing vegetables and very small pieces of meat you will want to keep the food moving either by using a utensil or by using a jerking motion on the handle of the pan. We’ve all seen that move that chefs make. It takes practice. Larger proteins should be flipped once and only, as I mentioned before, once they release from the bottom of the pan on their own. Then simply season and serve. Or if you are feeling adventurous you can make a pan sauce from the fond (crunchy little brown bits of yumminess) at the bottom of the pan. For that you simply add a finely minced small shallot, sauté until lightly browned, deglaze with wine or stock, reduce, remove from heat, and stir in a couple of chunks of cold butter.

It’s easy.  It’s delicious.  And it’s perfect summer cooking.

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