Sauté like the Pros
Updated: Feb 16
Want to make restaurant quality dishes? Want to learn the single technique that all chefs know that will wow your family or guest? Sauté. When you learn how to sauté, you can prepare hundreds of meals with this technique.
What Is Sauté? Sauté in French means "to jump" and can be a method of cooking or a way to describe a dish like sautéed chicken breasts. The reason the French called this technique "to jump" is because you are cooking at a very high heat and you don't want it sitting too long in the pan. To be successful, you need to move the ingredients either with a pair of tongs or like they do on TV by tossing it in the air. Sauté is a type of frying which is a dry heat method of cooking requiring high heat and some sort of liquid fat to cook with. The Chinese have perfected this. Wok cooking has been the Chinese cooking method of choice for over 3000 years.
What Is the Difference Between Sautéing & Pan Frying? Although they are both considered dry heat cooking and use a fat to transfer the heat of the pan to the food, pan frying requires more oil and you don't toss or move the food around like you do with sauté. Typically, a pan-fry requires enough oil to reach almost halfway up the ingredient you are cooking. A good example is when you pan-fry eggplant for eggplant parmesan.
The Advantages of Sautéing Once learned and, in your repertoire, you will be free to be creative and devise your own recipes with whatever ingredients you have around. As a novice, this technique is easy and allows you to prepare meals in a moment’s notice. This includes sautéing chicken, fish, vegetables, or meat. That’s the beauty of learning a basic technique. Compare it to learning how to read a financial statement. Once you know how, you can effectively read any company’s report.
The Formula to A Great Sauté Proper Sauté = Good Sauté Pan + High Heat + A Little Fat + Uniformly Cut Ingredients
The Right Pan for The Job Some say the pan should have sloped sides, others say straight. To me it does not matter as long as the pan has a dense, heavy bottom that spreads the heat evenly without any hot spots. It must be big enough to cook your ingredients without crowding so buy accordingly. Non-stick is ok if you do not plan to make pan sauce, but you need a little sticking to create the "fond" or the brown bits that stick to your pan that are responsible for those delicious sauces served in your favorite restaurants. I use a non-stick pan for my sautéed spinach and broccoli but prefer metal for everything else.
The Right Fat - Butter or Oil? It all has to do with smoking points. Butter (350°F) will give your food the best taste and a wonderful golden crust but burns more easily. Oil (375° F - 450° F) produces a nice crust and will not burn as quickly, but also does not leave as rich a flavor or color as butter alone. Most chefs will use different oils depending on what they are cooking. If they are cooking a Mediterranean style dish, they may choose olive oil, but if they are preparing an Asian dish, sesame oil might be the better choice. You match the oil to the style of cooking but remember much of the flavor will be cooked off because of the high heat so you may just be better off using a generic oil like canola or safflower and add a little of the flavored oil at the end. My favorite thing to do is add a little oil, then add butter to the oil. You get the best of both worlds. This way I get some of the flavor from the butter and a higher smoking point from the oil. What you cook and the amount you are cooking will determine how butter and oil you use. For example, use about 1 to 1-1/2 tablespoons of each for 2 or more chicken cutlets and 1/2 to 1 tablespoon of each for 2 or more fish fillets.
How Much Fat? Just enough to coat the bottom of the pan. You are not deep frying so just cover the bottom of the pan. When a recipe tells you to add 2 tablespoons of oil to the pan, how do they know what size pan you are using. If you add 2 tablespoons to a small pan, it may be too much. 2 tablespoons in a large pan might not be big enough. So add accordingly.
Important Tip - Preheating the Pan The biggest mistake home cooks make when sautéing is not getting the pan hot enough. They take cold ingredients right out of the refrigerator, put them into a cold pan and stick it on the flame. Big mistake - do not do it. You will end with bone dry meat, chicken or fish. If you add cold protein ingredients to a cold pan and put it on the heat, the ingredients will release some of their moisture as it heats up and you end up with dry meats and fish. It's hard to watch a home cook put that cold white piece of chicken in a sauté pan, slowly releasing its moisture, gently simmering in its own fat, rather than searing at high heat. All pans have hot spots. These are places on a pan that heat up faster than the rest of the pan. If you add butter or oil to a cold pan and then heat it up, it can hit one of these hot spots and start burning. If you start with a hot pan that is uniformly heated, there is less chance for the fat to hit a hot spot and burn. When sautéing, you want the butter to foam up before you start and the oil to "almost" start smoking. If it starts smoking, you are too late, and the oil will leave a bad flavor to your dish. You want the oil hot but not smoking. Now you are ready to start the sauté. There is an expression, "A watched pot never boils" which means if you stand there and watch a pot of water come to boil, it seems like it is taking forever. Our attention drifts and we get distracted. The same is true when heating up butter and oil in a pan. Have you ever added some cold butter to a cold pan, pushed it around a bit, became distracted and walked away only to have the butter burn? By preheating the pan you are ready to start cooking the moment you add your fat. Your attention is focused.
Why Not Just Pre-Heat the Fat with The Pan You might think it would save time just to heat the fat in the pan at the same time, but this is not a good idea. As fats heat up, they start to degrade once they reach 140° F. So rather than let the fat continuously breakdown from 140°F to your ideal temperature, it is better to add the oil to an already hot pan.
How to Pre-Heat a Sauté Pan? I suggest you put the pan on medium high heat and when the pan is hot enough to evaporate a few drops of water, you know it must be at least 212° F. This is a good starting point to add your fat. If you have the heat too high, you risk the chance of burning the fat. Too low and the fat will not be hot enough. Remember though, once your pan is preheated, you are ready to cook and when you add your butter and/or oil, you may have crank up your heat a little before you start to sauté. The butter or oil will bring down the pan temperature.
Interesting Point About Heating A Pan If you put it on low heat, won't the pan keep getting hotter and hotter? That is what I use to think but the answer is no. The pan will only get as hot as the amount of heat (btu's) you apply to it. If you preheated a pan on low, it would get to a maximum temperature and that is it. To get more heat you have to add more btu's or in the case of a gas stove, more flame.
Equal Sized Ingredients Whether it is chopped up vegetables to be used as aromatics to add flavor to the dish, breasts of chicken, filets of fish or steak medallions, you want them all to be the same size, so they cook evenly. You especially want the aromatics to be finely chopped or minced so they give off more flavor more quickly. If the ingredients are all cut at different sizes, some will cook faster and overcook and some will cook slower and undercook. Culinary students learn right away how to make precision cuts by spending hours cutting up vegetables for different dishes. This will be a subject of a future blog.
Basic Technique If you are using butter, you will know your pan is hot enough and it is time to start when the butter stops foaming and begins to turn a pale brown. If you are using just oil, you will know it is hot enough when it goes from perfectly smooth to lined or shimmering. Be careful, let it go any further and it will start to smoke, and you will need to start over. Add your ingredients but be very careful not to let it start smoking. If it does, remove the pan from the heat for a moment. You may want to turn the heat down a little but as soon as you add the ingredients, it should lower the heat in the pan. Cooking time will vary, depending on what you are cooking. Most recipes give you times for cooking each ingredient, but I suggest you use these only as estimates because there is no way they can give you an exact time without knowing size & type of pan you are using, the btu's of your stove top, the thickness of the fish, chicken or meat you are cooking or your level of cooking expertise. The times should be used as guidelines but in the end, you need to depend on an internal thermometer in the beginning and experience after that. Also, never use a fork for flipping, it pierces the meat and lets the juices escape. Depending on what you are cooking, you will want to let it rest for about 2 to 5 minutes (depending on the protein) to allow the juices to redistribute. This gives you time to make a great pan sauce.
Try this recipe...Garlic Parmesan Shrimp with Linguine.