Sautéing is a method of cooking food that uses a small amount of fat in a shallow pan over relatively high heat. Ingredients are usually cut into pieces or thinly sliced to facilitate fast cooking. Food that is sautéed is browned while preserving its texture, moisture and flavor. If meat, chicken, or fish is sautéed, the sauté is often finished with a sauce made from the pan's residue sucs.
Sautéing is often confused with pan-frying, in which larger pieces of food (for example, chops or steaks) are cooked quickly, and flipped onto both sides. Some cooks make a distinction between the two based on the depth of the oil used, while others use the terms interchangeably. Sautéing differs from searing in that searing only cooks the surface of the food. Sautéing is also different from stir-fry in that all the ingredients in the pan are cooked at once, instead of serially in a small pool of oil.
Olive oil or clarified butter are commonly used for sautéing, but most fats will do. Regular butter will produce more flavor but will burn at a lower temperature and more quickly than other fats due to the presence of milk solids, so clarified butter is more fit for this use.
Performing a sauté
In a sauté, all the ingredients are heated at once, and cooked quickly. To facilitate this, the ingredients are rapidly moved around in the pan, either by the use of a spatula, or by repeatedly jerking the pan itself (sauté literally means "jumped", a description of the motion of the ingredients as they are being cooked).
A sauté pan must be large enough to hold all of the food in one layer, so that steam can escape - which keeps the ingredients from stewing, and promotes the development of fond. Most pans sold specifically as sauté pans have a wide flat base and low sides, to maximize the surface area available for heating. The low sides allow quick evaporation and escape of steam. While skillets typically have flared or rounded sides, saute pans sold for home use also typically have straight, vertical sides - this keeps the ingredients from escaping as the pan is jerked or stirred.
Only enough fat to lightly coat the bottom of the pan is needed for sautéing; too much fat will cause the food to fry rather than to slide, and interfere with the development of fond. The food is spread across the hot fat in the pan, and left to brown, turning or tossing frequently for even cooking.
The sauté technique involves gripping the handle of the saute pan firmly, and using a sharp elbow motion to rapidly jerk the pan back toward the cook, repeating as necessary to insure that the ingredients have been thoroughly jumped. Tossing or stirring the items in the pan by shaking the pan too often, however, can cause the pan to cool faster and make the sauté take longer.
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