How to Sauté: Learn This Cooking Technique in 4 Simple Steps
- To sauté, you only need a skillet and some cooking oil.
- The technique is fast and results in healthy, tasty meals.
- You can learn how to sauté correctly by following a few simple steps.
Of all the stovetop cooking techniques, sautéing is certainly one of the most important. It's a crucial step in countless dishes and, well, it'd be hard to imagine the art of cooking without it. Essentially, the technique is cooking food in a small amount of fat in a frying pan. But oversimplifying doesn't do this cooking method the justice it deserves: There's far more nuance to it than just that.
Before we begin, know that the word “sauté” comes from the French verb “sauter,” meaning “to jump.” This term is used for two reasons: first, food tends to “jump” around in a hot pan when it's cooked in a small amount of oil. Second, the technique often uses wrist action to toss food in the pan, making it look like it's jumping. This doesn't mean your food needs to have airtime like Michael Jordan, but it is a useful skill to have.
Follow along as we describe what you'll need to sauté and how to do it.
What You Need to Sauté
Essentially, to sauté you'll need a grand total of three items aside from your food:
- A skillet
- Some oil
- A cooking implement like a spatula
That's all. Note that, despite the name, a sauté pan is not your best bet for sautéing: a large skillet actually is. We know, the term seems like a misnomer, but we didn't come up with the naming conventions. A skillet is better than a sauté pan for sautéing because of its curved edges, as opposed to a sauté pan's straight sides. A skillet's curved edges allow you to flip the food in the pan — a technique we'll discuss later.
Although there are only three items you truly need to sauté, knowing what kind of skillet to use and what kind of oil to use can greatly affect the outcome of your sauté.
Your best bet when it comes to choosing a skillet is either stainless steel or PTFE nonstick. Stainless steel is an excellent choice because, unlike cast iron, copper, or aluminum, it's non-reactive, meaning it can handle acidic foods without a problem. It's also a cinch to clean and can take a beating without complaint.
PTFE nonstick is also a good choice if you're cooking food that has a tendency to stick, like eggs, pancakes, or skillet potatoes. Nonstick pans are forgiving to work with and simple to clean, though they need to be cleaned by hand. You do need to use special implements when cooking with a nonstick pan so that you don't scratch off the coating: Look for rubber or wood tools rather than metal.
Choosing the right oil for a dish is crucial, and the best oil for the job largely depends on what you're cooking. However, one important thing to keep in mind is the smoke point of the oil: the point at which it starts to burn off. If you're using a recipe that calls for high heat, you'll need an oil with a high smoke point.
Butter, for example, has a much lower smoke point than olive oil or canola oil, so it's best used to cook dishes that require a lower temperature. If you're in doubt, choose a neutral-flavored oil with a high smoke point like canola oil, sunflower oil, or peanut oil — the latter of which has an exceptionally high smoke point, making it great for high-temperature sautés.
How to Sauté: Step by Step
There are a few steps for sautéing, but once you get the hang of it, it'll become second nature. After a while, you'll be feeling pretty fancy in the kitchen.
Step 1: Heat Your Pan
The first step is to heat your pan before you add oil. It's best to start on medium-high heat if you're using stainless steel or medium heat if you're using a nonstick pan. If you’re using stainless steel, start with the pan dry, and let it heat for a moment before adding oil. If you’re working with nonstick, add a small amount of oil before you turn on the heat.
You can check to see if your stainless steel pan is ready by adding a small amount of water to the bottom of the pan. If the water turns into a ball and rolls around the pan, the pan is ready to go.
When you add oil to the pan, add just enough that it coats the bottom of the pan: You don't need your food swimming in oil. Pour a splash of oil on the pan and swirl it around so it coats the pan.
If you’re using stainless steel, wait a moment for the oil to heat up as well: You'll need both the oil and the pan to be hot before you can add your food. The oil will shimmer when it's hot enough.
Step 2: Add Your Food
Your food should already be cut into pieces of whatever size you desire: Consider that part of your prep time. Add the food to the pan and make sure it's distributed evenly. The food should be in a single layer covering the surface area of the pan.
One thing you want to avoid is overcrowding the pan by putting too much food in it. This can reduce the efficiency of the pan and lead to rapid cooling, which can lead to sticking in stainless steel or unevenly cooked food in either pan.
Cooking meat and veggies is similar: Sautéed sliced chicken breast or sautéed vegetables use the exact same technique, though their cook time may be different.
Step 3: Flip It (Or Stir It)
As mentioned earlier, the rounded edges of a skillet are perfect for sautéing because it allows you to flip the food in the pan with one hand. It's not just a fancy kitchen technique: It's actually the best way to evenly distribute food in the pan.
When your food has sautéed enough on one side, grab the skillet by the handle. Tilt it slightly away from yourself and flick it upwards quickly. The food should “jump” in the air as you toss it and then you'll catch it again in the pan. You don't need to get serious air time, just enough to move the food around in the pan.
Sautéing is different from stir-frying. You don't want to over-stir, since getting a thorough cook on each side is what you're looking for. Browned sides on vegetables like zucchini, bell peppers, cauliflower, or brussels sprouts helps give them their best flavor. So rather than stirring constantly, let your food cook without agitating it before you flip it. You should only need to flip a few times at most.
Step 4: Knowing When It's Done
You'll need to use your eyes, nose, and sense of feel to know when the food is done. You don't want your food over-cooked or under-cooked. In general, sautéing is a quick technique that should only take a few minutes.
If you're looking to sauté vegetables, for example, you probably want them to be slightly crunchy and maintain their texture. Overcooking them can make them mushy. If you poke them with your spatula, there should be a little bit of give with plenty of firmness and resistance.
Onions are a special example: While they can be caramelized to become completely soft, sautéed onions with a bit of crunch left to them can be an excellent addition to any savory side dish. Similarly, if you're sautéing garlic, you want it to be slightly browned without burning since burning leads to a bitter taste.
Sautéing is a simple yet critical kitchen technique that any cook, from home chef to pro, should know how to do. It can lead to some fantastic, quick, and healthy meals due to the small amount of oil needed to accomplish it.
If you're trying to improve your cooking game, using the best cookware possible makes the cooking experience much more enjoyable. High-quality cookware combined with high-quality ingredients gives you a leg up in the kitchen and helps you impress your family, your friends, and your tastebuds.