Kitchn Cooking School
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Cooking School Day 14: Sauté

updated May 1, 2019
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  • Today’s Topic: Sautéing
  • The Goal: 20 lessons, 20 days to become a better cook at home
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Sautéing is so fundamental to our cooking that most recipes just assume you already know how to do it. But what if you don’t? Never fear because today we’re hitting this basic technique from every angle. Whether you’re a brand new cook or wondered for years if you’ve been doing it right, we’ll make sure that you know exactly what to do when you step up to sauté.

(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

Day 14 Lesson: Sauté

What does it mean to sauté? The basic idea here is quick cooking over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until food is cooked. Sauté literally means “jump” in French. Applied to cooking, this describes the motion of your food in the pan: lots of stirring and some tossing as the food cooks. Sautéing is usually one of the first steps in recipes; vegetables in particular are usually sautéed first thing to at least partially cook them and build flavor in the overall dish.

Use a big skillet to sauté: Whenever you need to sauté, use a wide, shallow skillet that’s big enough to hold your food without two much crowding. This is because you want enough room to move things without worrying that food will fall out of the pan and also to allow moisture in the ingredients to evaporate. If the pan is too crowded or the sides are too high, then the moisture stays trapped and steams the ingredients — not the end of the world, really, but flavors end up milder and less concentrated when this happens.

Use medium-high heat: Film the pan with a little oil, just enough to thinly coat the bottom of the pan, and set it over medium-high heat. When the oil looks shimmery and flows easily when the pan is tilted, you’re ready to sauté.

Sizzle on contact: When you add your ingredients to the hot pan, you should hear them sizzle on contact. If not, no biggie this time, but next time let your pan heat a little longer or adjust the heat slightly higher.

Move the ingredients frequently: Cook as directed in your recipe (until softened, until browned, until wilted, and so on). You don’t need to move the food constantly, but check on it and give it a stir every 30 seconds or so. The food shouldn’t char on the bottom and everything in the pan should cook at roughly the same rate. Vegetables are usually done (or ready for the next step in the recipe) when they are crisp-tender; meat is done when it’s cooked through.

(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

What’s the difference between sauté and stir-fry? These two terms sometimes get used interchangeably, which is confusing. They are quite similar, but when stir-frying, everything gets kicked up a notch. Stir-frying usually happens over very high heat — as high as your stove can go. The ingredients need to move constantly in the pan so they don’t burn. Stir-frying also usually happens in minutes. It’s super-quick cooking!

What’s the difference between sauté, sear, and brown? More terms that often get mixed up! Searing is like sautéing taken down a few notches. The goal is to develop deep browning and caramelization on the underside of the ingredient, so the ingredients get moved or flipped only once that “sear” has formed. Browning only applies to meat and refers to cooking the meat just enough to brown it, but not so much that you develop darker spots of caramelization; this usually happens over lower heat than searing or sautéing.

What’s the difference between sauté and cook? Ah! Here’s a truly confusing one. Many recipes say “cook” when they actually mean “sauté” — the food is getting cooked, so technically this is still correct! In a recipe that uses “cook,” your clues that you’re really about to sauté are if the recipe calls for a wide, shallow skillet, if you’re cooking in a little oil over medium-high heat, if you’re instructed to stir the ingredient as it cooks, and if the estimated cooking time is between 5 and 10 minutes.

Dry-heat cooking vs. moist-heat cooking: This feels like a good time to bring up an important distinction with cooking methods — cooking with dry heat and cooking with moist heat. Dry-heat cooking means the food cooks by direct heat, like the burner under the pan or in the radiant heat of the oven, with little or no liquids other than oil in the pan. Moisture in the food evaporates, intensifying flavors and allowing for things like caramelization and charring to occur. Sautéing, stir-frying, roasting, and grilling are all dry-heat cooking methods. Moist-heat cooking is the opposite: foods cook fairly gently in some sort of liquid; the liquid or its steam surrounds the ingredients, cooking and tenderizing evenly from all sides. Boiling, simmering, steaming, and braising are all moist-heat cooking methods.

Pro Tip!

The goal of sautéing is to cook and remove moisture from the ingredients with dry heat, so make sure the ingredients are dry to begin with. Spin or pat dry vegetables, especially leafy greens, before cooking to avoid getting splattered with hot oil and to remove any excess water that will steam your food instead.

Sautéing different ingredients in a recipe: Ingredients usually get added to the pan and sautéed in a specific order. Some ingredients take a little longer to cook (or can withstand longer cooking), while other ingredients cook more quickly. This is why ingredients like onions and carrots are usually sautéed first, while things like bell peppers are added later. Pay attention to these kinds of instructions when cooking a recipe, as tempting as it may be to save a few minutes and cook everything all together!

(Image credit: Henry Chen)

Every lesson has three homework options. Maybe you’ve already got one down, or you just have time for a quick study session. So pick one, and show us by tagging it with #kitchnschool on Instagram or Twitter.

(Image credit: Henry Chen)

Study: Watch this video of Chef Gordon Ramsay making Sauteed Potatoes and Wilted Lettuce. See how he emphasizes a little oil (ok, in Ramsay’s case, a lot of oil!) in a nice hot pan? That’s exactly what we’re aiming for, no matter what you’re sautéing. Here’s the video: Sautéed Potatoes and Wilted Lettuce with Gordon Ramsay.

(Image credit: Henry Chen)

Practice: Make a quick vegetable stir-fry. Yes, a stir-fry is a slightly different technique than sautéing but this is a really good way to learn the upper limits of sautéing — plus you get dinner in the process! Here’s what to do: How To Stir-Fry Vegetables.

(Image credit: Henry Chen)

Improve: Work on your pan-flipping technique using dried beans! What’s pan-flipping? It’s that little flick of the wrist that chefs when holding a hot pan to make ingredients jump in the air without using a spatula. It’s impressive. It’s fun. You can do it too. Read more about it:

An Easy Way to Work On Your Pan Flip Technique

(Image credit: Izy Hossack)

The Kitchn Cookbook & Sautéing

The Cooking School was inspired by our new book, The Kitchn Cookbookand there’s plenty in the book to help your Cooking School experience.

Today’s tip: One of our favorite sautéed recipes in the book is an unusual dish that calls for pan-frying or sautéing white beans with greens. You’ll get a chance to practice simple sautéing of greens and a harder, hotter sauté of white beans. Check out the recipe on page 232: Crispy Pan-Fried Beans and Wilted Greens.

5 Recipes to Practice Sautéing

The Kitchn’s Cooking School

The Kitchn’s Cooking School is 20 days, 20 lessons to become a better cook at home. Every day we’ll tackle an essential cooking topic and explain what you should know. Each lesson has three different homework options, so you can choose the one that teaches you what you need. Whether you want to refresh your skills or start from scratch, come to school with us!