If there is one cooking technique you really need to know, it's sautéing. Sautéing is how we can most easily cook a tasty chicken breast, yummy veggies, and quick stir-fries. It's quick, requires basic tools, and is, frankly, hard to mess up.
Sautéing and the closely related technique of stir-frying are methods of quickly cooking food in a little fat over high heat. Derived from the French word sauté, meaning “jump,” sautéing refers to the motion of food tossed in a hot pan as it is cooked.
To sauté a food is to cook a food in an uncovered pan over medium to high heat using relatively little oil or fat. For this method, it is of particular importance not to overcrowd the pan to ensure that the high temperature of the cooking surface is maintained and that foods can be moved easily in the pan in a single layer to ensure uniform browning. Since sautéing and browning rely on the evaporation of moisture from the item, the pan is not covered.
When sautéing meat, the meat is typically turned only once, after a crust has formed. Stir-frying, a similar method, is used in many Asian cuisines. Like sautéing, it uses naturally tender foods, little fat, and high heat. In both methods, the juices released during cooking are most often used as the base for a sauce made in the same pan.
The aim of sautéing is to produce a flavorful, golden brown exterior on foods. Only naturally tender items should be sautéed, and after sautéing they should remain tender. Shellfish, poultry or game bird breasts, and tender cuts of beef, veal, lamb, and pork (from the rib, loin, or parts of the leg) are excellent options for sautéing. Firm and moderately textured fish are easier to sauté than very delicate fish.
Sautéed dishes often include a sauce made with the drippings left in the pan. The base liquid that is used for a pan sauce should suit the main item being sautéed. Depending on the main item, the base could be a vegetable purée or coulis, reduced stock, or a prepared sauce, such as tomato sauce.
Searing is often the first step in roasted, braised, or stewed dishes. Searing and sautéing are very closely related. The difference is not how the technique is performed but that sautéed foods are cooked through, while searing is intended to be used in conjunction with longer, slower cooking methods as an effective way to develop flavor and color, but not to finish cooking the food.
- A dusting of all-purpose flour can help to absorb excess moisture and prevent some foods from sticking to the pan during sautéing. It will also produce a good surface color for light or white meats, poultry, and fish. If you decide to dust a food, be sure to coat it evenly and shake off any excess flour.
- Always season the food before sautéing, because it is more effective than adding seasonings at the end of the cooking time.
- Adding butter, glazes, or pan sauces to a main item after sautéing will add to the flavor and presentation of the dish.
- If your item (especially meats) is not fully cooked through after being browned on both sides, it can either be transferred to the oven to continue cooking or the pan can be covered to maintain a moist environment, using steam to finish the cooking.
- For a healthier option, use healthier fats, such as olive oil, or even a splash of chicken or vegetable broth to sauté the main item. The more natural marbling or fat present in the food, the less fat you will need to add to the pan; well-seasoned or nonstick pans may not require any fat beyond that which is already present in the food.
- Season the food just before cooking. Heat the pan before adding the fat. Allow the fat to get hot before adding any food to the pan. To sauté red meats, very thin pieces of meat, or vegetables, heat the cooking fat until its surface ripples and looks hazy. Less intense heat is required for white meats, fish, shellfish, and thicker cuts of red meat.
Immediately add the food to the pan. Let the food cook, undisturbed, for several seconds and up to 1 to 2 minutes. The food may stick to the pan at first, but it will release itself by the time it is ready to be turned. If it is still stuck, it is not ready to be flipped.
- When the first side has browned, turn the food over and repeat on the other side. To develop the best flavor and color, it’s best to turn most sautéed foods over only once. Sautéed shrimp or vegetables are exceptions to this rule and may be repeatedly tossed or turned. When the food is cooked through and browned on both sides, remove it from the pan and reserve it in a warm place while you prepare a sauce in the sauté pan, if desired.
- Before making a sauce, remove any excess fat from the sauté pan, being careful not to remove the browned drippings, called fond, that have accumulated in the bottom of the pan. If you’re including any aromatic ingredients that need to be cooked, such as onions or garlic, cook them in the pan at this point. Then, add a liquid, such as stock or wine, to release the fond and give the sauce flavor.
Reduce the liquid until the pan is nearly dry. Add the sauce base (such as a separately prepared sauce, reduced stock, or vegetable purée) to the pan and bring to a simmer. If it is called for, add any cream along with the sauce base so that it can be reduced. If the sauce needs to be thickened, add a small amount of a pure starch slurry until the desired consistency is reached. Remember that, in order to thicken properly, the sauce must be brought to a boil after the slurry is added.