Get used to sauteing; you’re going to be doing a lot of it. It’s a simple cooking method that is used across a wide variety of recipes.
It’s essentially “cooking ingredients on the stovetop in a pan with a little bit of oil.” The oil serves two purposes: the primary one is to help transfer heat from the pan to the food; the secondary is to prevent food from sticking to the pan (though sometimes we actually want the food to stick, at least for a while). Oil is a good conductor of heat and stays liquid up to temperatures of 300 degrees F or higher, which makes it idea for this purpose – especially compared to water, which will boil off at 212 degrees. That said, there are many different oils with a variety of flavors and chemical properties, which you can read about here, and not all of them are good for sauteing. Oils with a “neutral” flavor are often best for saute because they won’t add their own flavor to what you’re cooking. More importantly, though, the best oils for saute are ones with a high “smoke point,” the temperature at which an oil starts to break down, create its own unpleasant flavors, and unleash some nasty chemicals. Generally speaking, the higher the smoke point an oil has, the better it is for sauteing. Canola, corn, sunflower and safflower oil are all good choices: high smoke point and neutral flavor. On the other hand, extra-virgin olive oil, which is in general a super healthy oil, is bad for saute because it has a low smoke-point.
You don’t need to use a lot of oil to saute; the point is to help transfer heat from the pan to the food. You don’t want the food to be sitting or submerged in a pool of oil, which is essentially deep-frying. Often one or two tablespoons is enough, depending on the size of the pan and the amount of ingredients you are sauteing.
We often casually use the word “fry” to describe cooking things that are really saute. Scrambling an egg, making an omelet, cooking up some bacon or sausage links – or even a hamburger patty – is really sauteing. Also almost everything we would call “stir fry” is really saute.
But by far the most common sauteing you will do is as a step in a bigger recipe for a soup, stew or sauce. Many recipes call for one, two or all three of:
- Browning meat;
- Softening vegetables;
- “blooming” spices.
The point of all three of these is to partially cook an ingredient over high heat to prepare it for inclusion in a dish that will mostly be cooked at lower heat (often involving a lot of liquid). It takes high heat to brown protein (known as the “Maillard reaction”), to soften up the outside of aromatic vegetables to much of their liquid can be removed (concentrating the flavor), and to “wake up” spices to reach their full flavor before they are dissolved in liquid. In these cases, sauteing is a means to an end: one step in a much larger cooking process.
Many recipes will ask you to saute meat, vegetables, and spices one at a time, entirely separately, setting aside the sauted ingredient while you work on the next. While it seems inconvenient, it actually makes a lot of sense because meat, vegetables and spices don’t cook at the same rate; by sauteing them separately you ensure that none get undercooked or overcooked. It uses more dishes, and it takes a bit longer, but it does produce better results.
Sauteing is best done in a thin, flat-bottomed pan, with an edge raised at least an inch to keep the ingredients in the pan. Thin is important because it allows you to quickly change the temperature – or to remove the pan from the heat entirely to stop further cooking. A nonstick surface is also helpful, though not strictly necessary – and sometimes we will want the food to stick a little bit, like when we’re browning meat. You’re going to do a lot of sauteing, so this pan is going to be a workhorse for you; I don’t recommend spending a ton of money on an expensive saute pan, but spending a little more to get one that really works for you is a good investment.
Some tips for sauteing:
- Don’t “crowd the pan.” Your ingredients should be in a single layer, where everything is in contact with the pan, and with some space between pieces so that heat and air can circulate. If you don’t have a bigger pan that you can use, then break up the food into smaller portions and saute them in batches.
- You don’t have to constantly stir; in fact, constantly stirring can produce worse results. As one of my cooking instructors used to say: put the food in, give it one good stir to make sure it’s all coated in oil, then “back away from the pan.” Giving it a stir once a minute (while also checking for doneness) is more than enough.
- Sauteing doesn’t take a long time. A pan of chopped vegetables on medium-high heat will take around five minutes. Blooming spices is only 30-60 seconds. Browning meat takes 3-4 minutes per side. Remember, in most cases the goal isn’t to thoroughly cook the ingredient; it’s simply to get the effect of high heat on it (mostly browning) before you put a bunch of ingredients together to cook at low heat.
- When you are done sauteing and the pan has cooled, take a paper towel and wipe the remaining oil out of the pan, then throw it in your food waste container (or if you don’t have one, the garbage). Oils solidify at lower temperatures and can clog up pipes; avoid rinsing leftover oil down the sink. Once you have wiped out the oil, you can wash the pan as you normally would with soap and hot water.