Sautéing is the same as pan-frying - to cook quickly in a little fat. It comes from the French word "to jump," because the food in the pan is supposed to sizzle as it cooks and perhaps be stirred around. It's a common cooking method and is very easy to do, but there are some pointers to keep in mind for best results.
- The high heat is necessary to brown the outside and cook foods fast enough so that the inside doesn't dry out. This is especially true of meat. The fibers in meats contract as they cook and squeeze out moisture as they do so. The effect is exactly like wringing out a wet towel. In any dry-heat cooking method, such as sautéing or grilling, the idea is to cook the food quickly before all the moisture is wrung out, but not so fast that the food burns.
- Virtually anything can be Sautéd, as long as it's reasonably thin and isn't too wet. (For example, chicken parts can be Sautéd; whole chickens cannot, because the outside would burn before the inside was cooked.) Dry damp items with paper towels because sautéing depends on enough heat to vaporize the water in the outer layer of foods, which leads to browning. Too much water will prevent the food from sautéing, causing it to steam instead.
- Don't overheat the oil; it should never start smoking. One common test to see whether the pan is hot enough is to drop a minute pinch of flour into it; if the flour bubbles and sizzles rapidly, the pan is hot.
- Cookware with nonstick coatings shouldn't be heated dry for more than 30 seconds. Add the cooking fat before this, because the nonstick coatings will degrade if heated dry for too long.
- What cooking fat should you use? A light-flavored vegetable oil such as canola or safflower oil will work in virtually all recipes, and olive oil works well, too, although make sure your dish will benefit from the taste of olive oil - also be aware that extra-virgin olive oil has a low smoking point. Butter tastes good but can't be heated as much (the dairy solids in it burn), and it contains moisture of its own, so it's best used for eggs, vegetables and other foods that cook fast and at lower temperatures. Animal fats such as lard and bacon fat work especially well, better than vegetable oils, but will contribute their flavors to other foods.
- Sautéing is a quick cooking method, so have everything ready to go and near the stove before you begin.
- Start a burner on the stove and set it to medium heat or higher.
- Place the skillet over the burner and allow it to heat. This is an important step; the skillet should never be cold when you add the cooking oil or the food.
- When the skillet is hot, add enough oil or other cooking fat to thinly coat the bottom of the pan. Sautéing properly depends on the cooking fat forming a layer between the food and the pan, so make sure you use enough. Too little oil will cause food to cook unevenly and probably stick. Yet if you use enough and heat the pan properly, the food won't absorb a lot of fat.
- When the oil is hot, add the food you're Sautéing. Lay it in the pan carefully, because the pan should be hot enough now for it to sizzle rapidly. The sound should tell you whether the pan is hot enough. No sizzle means it's too cold, and if it splatters and pops, the pan is too hot.
- Foods that have been cut up, perhaps for a stir-fry, will need to be stirred regularly so that each piece has the same amount of contact with the bottom of the pan. Larger pieces, such as chicken breasts and fish fillets, are best left undisturbed and flipped only once, so that each side gets the same amount of contact with the pan.
Never touch cooking food with your fingers; always use heatproof utensils such as tongs.