Basic Cooking Technique: Saute

It is correctly written sauté. For the purposes of simplicity, I have written it without the accent mark in the article.

One of the most fundamental skills a professional chef learns is how to saute. Without it, they’re pretty much useless in the kitchen. In just a few minutes with a knife and a saute pan, a handful of raw ingredients is transformed into a complete meal. A skilled line cook can have six or more pans all going at one time, each with a different dish, started at different times and finishing at different times. And the trick of it is not in the pan, or the ingredients. Or even the chef.

It’s all about the timing.

Sauteing is a dry-heat method of cooking that employs the use of a shallow pan and typically a small amount of fat (it’s ‘dry-heat’ because there’s no water involved). Food is moved around the pan either with a spatula or tongs, or by jerking the pan in a quick, controlled motion to flip the food around.

The difference between sauteing and frying is a simple one: how much oil you are using. Just a touch of oil to lubricate the bottom of the pan so things don’t stick is the hallmark of sauteing. Any more than that and you’re probably pan-frying something. And I cannot stress this enough: if you have too much liquid in the pan, especially oil, do not attempt to flip the pan by hand, or you will wind up burning yourself and probably set fire to the stove.

You can either finish the dish completely by sauteing it on the stovetop until done, or you can use it to brown something on the outside, then set it in the oven or under a broiler to finish cooking. You need a watchful eye and patient hand. Once you’re done with the main, you can create what’s known as an integral sauce, again, directly in the pan.

The Need for Speed

Sauteing is a very rapid method of cooking, which is why it is a necessary skill in a restaurant. Direct high heat is applied to the food, and the radiant heat spreads quickly through the food. By flipping the food, you are exposing the other side(s) of the food to the direct heat, allowing it to permeate evenly. When cooking a steak in a pan, Chef Heston Blumenthal recommends no more than a few seconds on a side for a steak, flipping almost constantly, which results in no browning past the surface of the meat. When sauteing something, it is never a good idea to walk away from the pan for more than a few seconds, as food can go from cooking to burnt in a surprisingly short amount of time.

Beyond speed, there is the issue of timing. Practiced cooks know how long food takes to cook

Size Matters

The size of the pan should match the amount of ingredients you have in the pan. If your pan is too full, when you try to move it around you’ll wind up sloshing it over the sides of the pan, making a huge mess and wasting food. If it’s too large, it wastes time heating up and can be a waste of energy. The size of the pan used to flip foods shouldn’t exceed 28cm, since it becomes unwieldy at larger diameters. If you’re cooking for more than just a handful of people, do use a larger pan, but you will need a spoon.

Saute vs. Spooning

Most at-home cooks like to move things around in a saute pan with a spoon or some other utensil. Which is safe and slow. You’re also forever looking for where you put the thing, which wastes critical time and could cause the food to overcook. Not that I never use a spoon when I’m cooking in a saute pan. Usually, it’s after I’ve added a liquid for the sauce, such as wine or stock, where flipping the pan would be impractical, but I still want the food to be mixed.

Practice Practice Practice

With a little practice, you can learn to skillfully flip things in a pan. Practice with a handful of uncooked beans, with one bean of a different color. Set the odd bean at the edge of the rim opposite the handle. With a rolling motion that ends in a jerk back towards you, jump the one bean over all the others, so that it lands somewhere in the center of the pan.

Start with easy things first. Sauteed onions are so ubiquitous, they will probably be the first thing you saute after you read this article. They’re cheap, and they’re very good at telling you when they’re finished cooking.

The Measure of a Master

Do you want to know when you’ve truly mastered the art of sauteing? Two eggs over easy. When you can flip two fried eggs (a misnomer) over without wrecking the yolks, you can consider yourself and accomplished sautier.