Learning how to sauté is easy and is a skill that becomes a valuable bit of knowledge in your cooking repertoire. Used by the novice and professional chef alike, this basic technique offers maximum flavor in minimal time. Using high heat, food is cooked or browned in a pan with fat, oil, or butter to simply create food that is crusty on the outside and moist on the inside. By choosing the right pan, the right temperature, and an appropriate fat or oil, cooks can delight in the satisfying, taste pleasing results of sauté.
Using the Right Pan
A sauté pan should have a wide, flat bottom with plenty of room so as not to overcrowd the food. Long handles are a must since high temperatures will be used and it is necessary to keep the cooking area away from you to avoid getting burned.
Like most cookware, sauté pans are available in a non-stick or regular finish and can be made of stainless steel, aluminum, glass, copper, or cast iron. Cooks all have their favorites, but the most important factor is finding a pan that will evenly distribute heat and is appropriately sized for the amount of food being cooked. Size is crucial as an oversized pan will cause the food to cook too quickly. Pans that are too small cause food to pile on top of itself and traps steam inside the pan, preventing even browning. A good rule is to use a pan that allows food to touch, but not overlap.
For a basic sauté, a lid is not necessary since we are not trying to trap excess moisture in the pan. Of course if sautéing is the first of many cooking steps and additional cooking is required, a cook may want to have a lid handy for finishing the recipes.
Using Butter and Oils
The question of whether or not to use butter, oil, or a combination of the two is a matter of preference and understanding. Pay careful attention to this when learning how to sauté and you'll quickly learn for yourself what works best for your cooking needs.
While nothing beats the flavor of butter, it burns very quickly. But, because it adds a unique richness and depth to a dish, many chefs won't give it up. They've discovered that the secret to successfully sautéing without burning down the house is to use clarified butter or ghee. In clarified butter, the proteins that burn and create the smoke are removed and cooking at temperatures up to 375 degrees is again possible.
If a cook chooses to avoid butter due to dietary restriction or simple preference, oil is a suitable option. Vegetable oils take longer than butter to reach the smoke point (the temperature at which visible fumes or smoke can be seen) so it certainly has its benefits. In fact, by simply using a combination of both butter and oil, cooks can get the best of both worlds: higher cooking temperatures and buttery flavor.
Putting on the Heat
Determining the right amount of heat is also necessary. The pan should be hot enough to sear in the flavor without causing food to burn. There are many variables in determining the proper temperature for sautéing, but, like choosing the right pan and type of oil, there is the need for general understanding to make the best choice. With the idea being to get the oil or butter to a point where it cooks high enough to sear a food, but not too hot as to burn it, it's important to consider the smoke point. See this table of smoke points for oils to get an idea of an appropriate temperature for your chosen fat. Notice where butter is compared to the commonly used refined canola or safflower oil.
How to Sauté in Eight Easy Steps
Now that you understand the role the pan, the heat, and the oil play, let's break the actual process of sautéing down step by step.
- Put the pan over the burner and allow it to preheat.
- Add just enough butter or oil to coat the bottom of the pan.
- Let the butter/oil get hot.
- Add food to be sautéed.
- Let cook until a golden crust appears.
- Flip the food.
- Allow the other side to cook until golden brown.
- Remove from heat.