How Much Heat Should I Use When Sauteing?
I recently received an email from a reader asking about the type of heat to use when sauteing. They wanted to know if I use medium, medium-high, or high heat. They also wanted to know about the heat of the pan and the fat you cook with.
Great questions so I wanted to share my response with you. Be sure to read my post How To Saute. It will give you a better idea of the whole process of sauteing so this will make more sense to you.
Factors To Consider
How hot you get your pan before you add your oil or butter and start cooking depends on several factors:
- What type of pan you are using.
- What type of fat you are sauteing with.
- What you are cooking.
- Your cooking experience level
The Hands Over Pan Technique
You may have seen in cooking magazines or cooking shows where the chef holds his hand over a hot pan and when they can no longer take the heat, the pan is ready.
I find this technique amusing because I know I can hold my hand over the heat longer than my wife and my brother, who works with his hands can keep his hands over the pan a lot longer than I can. It may give you an idea but there is an easier way to tell when the pan is hot enough to add your fat.
Water simmers at 185°F but turns into steam at 212°F. so the best way I know of to tell if the pan is hot enough to add your fat is to sprinkle a few drops of water onto the hot pan. If the water evaporates immediately, you know the pan must be at least 212° F and a good starting point to add the fat.
It’s a great visual clue and safer than seeing how much heat the palm of your hand can take. Another way you can tell the temperature of the pan is using a infrared thermometers but I doubt many of you have one of those in your kitchen drawer.
Once you get your pan hot and add the cooking fat to it, the next question is how hot do you want the fat to be before adding ingredients. Just because the pan is hot doesn’t mean the fat (butter or oil) is ready for cooking.
If you add cold butter to the pan, it can actually lower the temperature and may take longer to heat up to the proper temperature.
How to Properly Heat a Fry or Saute Pan Video
Check out my short cooking video at the top of the page describing a great way to determine how hot the pan should be before adding your fat to it using a simple water test. It will make a huge difference when you pan-fry or saute ingredients so they don’t stick to the pan.
The Ideal Temperature
There really is no ideal temperature. It really depends on what you are sautéing and what you plan to do with the ingredients when you are done. Most of the time I want to sear a piece of meat, chicken or fish and begin the caramelization process (actually the Maillard Reaction) to get that wonderful brown crust but that may not always be the case. Chef Todd Mohr told me:
Caramelization of sugars may not always be the goal, so the pan needn’t be 320°F all the time. That’s just my target zone to get a nice brown color on a protein product for plate presentation. Caramelization may not be the goal if you’re going to use the chicken in another preparation where color or texture isn’t important.
Let’s say you’re making chicken burritos. A caramel “crust” on a chicken breast that is going to be shredded, wrapped in a tortilla with sauce, and baked again, may not be the best method. Then, 320°F isn’t the goal. However, you certainly always want to make sure the pan is above 165F, where proteins coagulate and cooking begins.
Caramelizing and the Maillard Reaction
I am not a food scientist so I will not try to get too scientific explaining this but from what I’ve read, home cooks often confuse Caramelization with the Maillard Reaction, a process called the Maillard Reaction, named for the chemist who first studied these reactions in 1912.
The Maillard reactions, of which there are many, are a series of browning reactions that occur when certain sugars react with the amino acids found in proteins. These reactions are accelerated by heat and also the pH of the food being cooked.
Caramelization is the process where sugars react with sugars in the presence of high heat but without the proteins. I suppose if you are sauteing just vegetables, it would be called caramelizing.
That’s as scientific as I’m going to get but I’m sure there are many great sources out there if you want to learn more about these processes. Whether you call it the Maillard Reaction or Caramelizing, this process is what gives you that wonderful brown and flavorful crust that we are looking for when we saute.
So How Do We Know When The Fat Is Hot Enough?
As mentioned above, we want to start when the fat in the pan is approximately around 320° F which in most cases is just below the smoking point for butter, lard and the various cooking oils. You never want to actually reach the smoking point because at this point the fat is ruined and will add a bad taste to whatever you are cooking.
So the question is how do we know we are approaching the smoking point of the fat we are using and not hit it?
For butter, I suggest when the butter stops foaming and begins to turn a pale brown, it is ready to start sauteing. With oil, you will know it is hot enough when it goes from perfectly smooth to shimmering or forms striations (lines) in the pan. Chef Todd explained to me:
In saute, you heat the oil until “just before it begins to smoke”. Oil will begin a convection process before smoking, going from perfectly smooth in the pan to striated, getting ripples.
Sesame oil will smoke immediately in a 320°F pan. Peanut oil can handle it. So, I heat the pan to around 212°F before adding the oil.
This should give you plenty of time before reaching the oil’s smoking point and now you’re cooking with your eyes watching for those striations. As always, be careful when heating oils or any fats over a hot stove or in a hot pan. Be ready for any possible flame ups that can occur.
Have you ever added oil or butter to a pan, put the pan on the flame and got involved in something else only to turn around and see the pan smoking? What do you do? Take the pan off the heat and use it anyway? Not a good idea.
The smoking point of fat is the temperature where the heated fat begins to breakdown, degrade and start smoking. At this point the fat is shot and you need to wipe the pan clean with a paper towel and start all over again. If you don’t, the degraded fat transfers its unappealing taste to whatever you are cooking.
WARNING: Hot oil is very dangerous and can burn you. Most home cooks rarely get their pans and the fats they cook with to the proper temperature so if you do start heating your pans and fats to optimum levels, be very careful not to burn yourself.
You may even want to start at slightly lower levels than discussed here until you are comfortable before taking them a little higher.
Practice Makes Perfect
I’m predicting the first time a home cook tries cooking at the proper pan and fat temperatures they are going to burn whatever it is they are cooking. I suggest you start off by practicing with a diced onion in a small saute or fry pan and get a little experience before attempting anything more.
Get the pan hot enough to evaporate some drops of water, watch as the oil begins shimmering in the pan and notice what it you see when you add the diced onion to the pan.
You have to be on your game when cooking like a professional. You can’t be working on ten different things. Staying focused is critical for great outcomes and for your own safety.
Just like your chopping skills that take time to develop and get better, sautéing skills are the same. Most home cooks don’t sauté 100 meals a night, six nights a week like a professional cook so they don’t have the skills to work at the highest heat.
For us mere mortals, it’s best to start off using medium to medium-high heat until you build up your speed.
With some dishes where there is a lot of liquid to reduce, it’s fine to crank up the heat to high, but as you get close to finishing the dish or when the sauce is at the right consistency, you may want to turn the heat down a little so it doesn’t get away from you. And by all means, don’t walk away from the stove.
There have been times when I am finishing a pan sauce and something else that needs to be done distracts me and the sauce reduces too much. If this happens, you can try to save it by adding a little more stock but it will turn out better if you stay with the sauce from start to finish.
If you must walk away, (like when one of the kids need immediate attention) just remove the pan from the stove-top and finish it later.
The other factor is the sauté pan. If you are using a well-made, heavy bottomed sauté pan, there is more room for error. That’s because when the pan is doing it job properly, it disperses the heat evenly throughout the bottom and sides and the heavy bottom will prevent burning.
With less expensive pans that are thin and made of inferior materials, hot spots develop that cause one part of the reduction to heat faster than another resulting in uneven cooking and burning.
A good example of how to sauté quickly is Chef Ricco’s Garlic and Oil.