Like most of the techniques I’ll cover in this series, sautéing is one that many people use on a regular basis. However, of all the cooking techniques this one is probably the most commonly abused. Some people think cooking anything in sauté pan is sautéing but that’s far from accurate.
Sautéing is a great technique because you get a lot of flavor in a short amount of time. And when sautéing meats, you’re left with a fond that you can use to make a quick pan sauce for even more flavor. Once your mise is ready, you can have your meat cooked and a delicious sauce on the table in under 15 minutes, easily. But first, you need to learn all about sautéing.
sauté: to quickly cook food in a small amount of fat over high heat
Let’s look at that definition again because there are three critical elements that must be met to quantify sautéing: high heat, quick cooking time, and a small amount of fat. If any one of those elements are missing, you’re not actually sautéing. You’re just cooking. Not that there’s anything wrong with that… but sautéing imparts flavors that you can’t get from just cooking.
Any recipe that tells you to “sauté over medium heat for 15 minutes” is missing the point. High heat is necessary to effectively brown your food and achieve the distinct flavors associated with a good sauté.
Quick Cooking Time
Because you’re cooking with high heat, you want to pick foods that cook quickly (help with that below). Thinner meats are often chosen for this reason. You can cook thicker cuts of meat in almost the same way but the process is known as searing. It’s very similar and often confused with sautéing. I’ll save the details for tomorrow’s post.
Small Amount of Fat
In sautéing, the fat does two things: adds flavor and prevents sticking. Because you’re working with high heat, you need a fat that can hold up to high temperatures. The best fats for sautéing are clarified butter, lard, or canola oil. Olive oil will work but only if it’s pure. EVOO is NOT acceptable for sautéing (find out why here). Clarified butter will provide the best flavor, lard will likely provide the best texture, and canola oil is the perfect neutral oil. I like a 50/50 mix of clarified butter and canola oil because I want a little butter flavor but I like the nutritional benefits and high smoke point of canola oil. It’s a win-win. Don’t even think about coconut oil. I know cooking food in coconut oil is the “in” thing to do right now but I will never understand why. I tried it once very recently, just to see what all the hype was about, and I’ll never do it again because my food tasted like coconut. And coconut flavor doesn’t go with everything.
You might think using a non-stick pan is a good idea because you can use less oil and solve the “sticking” issue. It’s true, but then it wouldn’t be sautéing. More about that in a sec.
The Goals of Sautéing
There are two major goals when sautéing: browning food and creating fond. We talked yesterday about the Maillard Reaction and how when food browns, it develops layers upon layers of flavor. That flavor is key in sautéing.
In addition to getting flavor from the browning of your food, you’re looking to create a fond. A fond is the brown bits that stick to to the bottom of the pan. By definition, you can’t create a fond in a non-stick pan because nothing will stick. Fonds become the base for a quick & easy pan sauce (go here for more about pan sauces*) that will take your dish to the next level. So ditch the non-stick pan and stick with stainless steel. (<–See what I did there?!)
*There’s also a pan sauce with the scallops recipe below and it is delicious.
A vast number of vegetables also benefit from sautéing if they’re cooked properly. When sautéing a lot of vegetables, it’s better to cook them in batches than to dump them in all at once. Don’t overcrowd the pan; if a food is not touching the pan’s surface it’s likely steaming instead of sautéing. Which would be fine if your goal is steaming but that’s probably not the case.
When sautéing particularly hard or dense vegetables, you should blanch & shock them first. (More on blanching & shocking later in this series.) Certain vegetables require a long enough cook time that if you don’t blanch them, the outside will break down and become mushy before the inside has completely cooked. Overcooked, mushy vegetables is the reason so many people have a vegetable aversion. Treat them right and you’ll be surprised how delicious they are! Here are a few vegetables that should be blanched before they’re sautéed:
- Green beans
- Potatoes (particularly fingerling or new potatoes)
To sauté these larger vegetables, first place your pan over medium-high heat. Once your pan is hot, add enough fat (I prefer clarified butter for veggies, yum!) to cover the bottom of the pan. Add your vegetables and let them cook. For the green vegetables, you really just want them to heat and absorb a little flavor. They’ll be a vibrant, emerald green after blanching and if you cook them too long, they’ll start to turn more of an army green. Army green vegetables is the equivalent of blackened bread: it’s edible but not particularly enjoyable. For non-green veggies, like carrots and cauliflower, you want them to brown slightly.
When sautéing diced vegetables like mirepoix (onions, carrots, and celery) or shallots, start by heating your pan over medium-high heat. Add enough fat to cover the bottom of the pan and give it about a minute to heat. Add your vegetables in a single layer. Remember, you want all those veggies to have contact with the pan so they all get a chance to brown. Turn the veggies when they start to brown and continue cooking until they’re nicely golden.
Good Meats For Sautéing
When selecting meats for sautéing, you want to choose a cut that is naturally tender and doesn’t require long cooking times. Good examples include:
- Steaks (boned or bone-in)
- Pork chops (boned or bone-in) or pork medallions
- Chicken breasts or thighs (preferably with skin but you can sauté boneless/skinless)
- Duck breasts
- Fish steaks or filets
How to Sauté Meats
- Let your food come to room temperature before putting it in a hot sauté pan. That means you need to set your meat out at least an hour before you cook it. If you start with meat straight out of the refrigerator, the outside of your food will be overcooked before the inside is even heated. No bueno.
- Make sure the surface of your food is as dry as possible. Water and oil are enemies, especially water and hot oil. For better browning and to avoid lots of splattering, dry your meat’s surface. Beef and pork shouldn’t have too much moisture on the surface but chicken, fish, and seafood might. You can allow them to dry, uncovered, in the refrigerator for a few hours or just pat them dry with paper towels. In the case of the scallops I’m about to sauté, I dried them thoroughly with paper towels.
- Heat a stainless steel sauté pan over medium-high or high heat then add enough fat to lightly cover the pan’s surface.
- Season your meat with salt, pepper, and whatever herbs or spices you want right before you put it into your pan (if you didn’t brine it). If not, the salt will draw moisture from inside your meat to the surface. You want as little water escaping from inside your meat as possible so it doesn’t dry out.
- Place the best-looking side of your meat down in the sauté pan first. The side that cooks first usually ends up looking the best. Since we eat with our eyes first, it’s worth doing the little things that make food look as appetizing as possible.
- When cooking meats, leave a little elbow room in the pan. You don’t want your food to touch. Cook in batches, if necessary.
- Let it cook. This is a big one… people have a tendency to keep poking or moving their food around in the pan. Don’t do it. Your food won’t brown properly if you don’t let it do its thing. Just shake the pan a couple times to allow the steam to escape from under your food.
- If your food sticks, don’t panic and tear your meat apart trying to separate it from the pan. Even if food sicks at first, it will release itself when it’s ready to be turned. Let it continue cooking and it will release.
- Carefully turn your food so you don’t splash grease on yourself. Ouch.
That’s the gist of it. Now test out your sauté skills with this delicious scallops recipe.