Hello! I'm Alissa, a classically trained chef who is passionate about teaching people how to cook through methods, techniques and basic science principles. I currently live in San Diego, California with my husband, Steve, and sweet dog, Nina. I love learning about food, eating good food, and cooking good food for my loved ones.

Sautéing 101

Sautéing is a dry heat cooking method. To sauté means to cook food in a pan on the stove with medium high to high heat in a little bit of fat. Sautéing is used to get golden brown color on your food as well as soften it.

Sauté in French literally translates to “jumped up.” In cooking this refers to the little dance food makes when it hits the hot pan and hot oil.

The number one mistake most people make when sautéing is not giving their food enough space in the pan to actually brown. This can be fixed by using a larger pan or by cooking your food in batches. 

The second most common mistake is not getting your pan and oil hot enough before adding your food. Like all dry heat cooking methods the goal is to get golden brown and delicious food. A hot pan and hot oil is the best way to get golden brown food.

At a Glance

Why Sauté?

Sautéing is a quick cooking method that produces a lot of flavor. Sautéing is a great flavor builder for many dishes whether its a stir fry, a braise, or soup. Sautéing produces color and flavor while also building fond on the bottom of the pan.

Key Elements to Sautéing

Preheat your Pan and Oil

The goal for sautéing is to brown food and build flavor. Browning is achieved when the pan and oil is hot enough. Preheat the pan first and then add your oil and preheat your oil. Preheating the pan first prevents your oil from burning or getting too hot.

You will know that your oil is hot enough when it easily spreads the entire length of the pan. You can also look for a light source in your oil and look at the surface of the oil for little waves.

If the oil starts to smoke or burn your pan and oil are way too hot. It’s best to take your pan off the heat. Let it cool completely. Then wash your pan and start again. Burnt oil will only add a bitter taste to your food.

Give your food space

Just like roasting, give your food space! The enemy to browning is steam. And if you overcrowd your pan when sautéing you won’t brown your food you will most likely steam it.

If you have a lot of food to sauté, its best to either cook your food in batches or use a large pan to make sure there is enough space and you aren’t overcrowding your pan.

Utilize the oven

Sautéing can be a harsh cooking method that can dry out meat like chicken if cooked fully on the stove. To help with this problem use the oven! The oven will continue to cook food a lot more gently than sautéing will. So brown your food first and then finish in the oven to continue cooking all the way through.

What type of pan should I use for sautéing? 

Use a frying pan or a statue pan. The biggest difference between these types of pans is a sloped side or a straight side. Either will work. The most important thing is to use a pan that has a wide surface area. 

The exception is when you are making a soup or a braise and you are sautéing your ingredients first to build fond and flavor. You can sauté in a pot that you are going to build your soup or braise in.

Sauté Vs. Sear

Sear typically refers to browning a piece of meat where sauté is cooking and browning smaller pieces of food like vegetables.  

The cooking method and basic principle is the same behind each. Hot pan with a little bit of fat. The difference comes down to a technicality where searing refers to cooking meat.

Sauté Vs. Sweat

What happens most often when your pan is overcrowded is your food releases steam and your food steams or sweats instead of sautés. I see this especially when sautéing onions when you use onions as a base for soups, stews, or other dishes. Onions typically have a lot of moisture and it’s easy to overcrowd a pan with onions so they end up sweating or steaming rather than sautéing.

It’s one of those things in the culinary world that overlaps in terminology a lot. For example, when a recipe says to sauté onions until translucent. That is really meaning sweat your onions until they soften and become translucent. True sautéing should produce browning on your food.

What type of fat can you saute with? 

Sauté is a high heat cooking method so stick with a high smoke point oil. You can check out this blog post here to learn more about smoke point and see which oil has a higher smoke point. 

I stick with my classic 50/50 blend. You can read more about that here

Sautéing with other methods

Sautéing is a great way to start other cooking methods. Sautéing produces a lot of flavor, helps start the cooking process and builds flavor in the pan by establishing fond.

But sautéing can be a harsh cooking method because it uses direct heat contact. So starting with a sauté and ending with a different cooking method is a great way to cook.

Braising, stewing, roasting are all great companion cooking methods to sautéing. Sautéing begins the flavor building process and the other methods can gently cook food to cook them perfectly.

The most helpful idea I hope you take away from this post is that sautéing is a quick method that uses a hot pan and hot oil. Understanding that makes all the difference when it comes to sautéing.

As always I welcome any questions you may have!


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