Learn How to Saute, Common Sauté Mistakes & How to Avoid Them
If I asked you to tell me the mental picture you have of a chef, chances are good that you aren't going to describe a guy grilling burgers, putting a roast in the oven, or drizzling truffle oil artfully on a finished dish. But in this article, I will show you how to saute and why professional chefs use this cooking technique daily.
The image is most often of someone sautéing food. And why is this?
The sauté method is one of the most hands-on dry heat cooking methods. You can't walk away from a sauté the way you can a braise or a roast. You must be right there, adjusting the cooking temperature, keeping small ingredients moving, and tossing to ensure even cooking.
Sauté comes from the French verb "to jump." Saute describes the tendency of small pieces of food to "jump" a little in sizzling hot oil.
It also describes that quintessential chef maneuver of jumping* the food in the pan to promote even cooking. You've seen it. You may have even tried it, but take it from me. It takes practice to master "the jump" without making a massive mess in the kitchen!
Sautéing is an excellent cooking method for thin or small cuts of meat and diced vegetables. However, sauteing is done over relatively high heat. Therefore, ensuring that the ingredients to be cooked are small enough that their outsides don't burn before the insides are cooked is essential.
Like any other cooking technique, there is a right way to sauté and a wrong way to sauté. Unfortunately, many home cooks are steaming their food when they think they are sautéing, so it's time to take a look at the sauté technique and learn precisely how to do it so you will get the desired results.
Mistake #1 Not using the correct type of pan
If you don't have the right pan for sautéing, you can very quickly end up with burnt food. Have you ever tried to "jump" food in a straight-sided pan? It doesn't work so well.
Since sautéing is a quick, high-heat cooking method that requires much attention, it is best to set ourselves up for success rather than get discouraged after trying our hands at it.
The Fix - Use the Right Pan
The proper pan to use for a sauté is a small to medium pan with low, sloped sides. Most of us know this as a "frying pan."
What can be confusing is that there is a pan called a "sauté pan" that has straight sides. Sometimes, kitchen language is confusing. That is the best explanation I have for you.
You will want a "frying pan" with a heavy, flat bottom that is not nonstick. The former is to promote even heating and to minimize the chance of "hot spots" in the pan.
You might find the former a little counterintuitive, but there are two reasons for it. First, we often build a pan sauce using the browned bits (fond) on the bottom of the sauté pan. If the pan is nonstick, it will not have as much fond built up, and our sauce will not be as good.
The second is for health reasons. Teflon breaks down and emits poisonous gases at high temperatures. Since sautéing is a high-heat cooking method, it's best not to tempt fate and only use our nonstick pans for omelets and scrambled eggs cooked over lower heat.
Mistake #2 Putting Food in a Cold Pan
When I first started cooking, I can't tell you how many times I ended up with foods hopelessly stuck to—and sometimes burned onto--my pans. I couldn't understand why it happened so frequently.
How can a nice, smooth surface grab onto and hold food that way? Unfortunately, I had violated one of the Commandments of Cooking: Thou Shalt Not Cook in a Cold Pan.
If you were to look at a smooth metal pan under high magnification, you would see that the surface is covered with microscopic scratches and nicks. These microscopic scratches provide plenty of surface area for food to stick to.
Now, consider that many foods we sauté are proteins (meat and fish) and that glue is made of proteins. So it becomes evident that putting food into a cold pan and heating it together provides ample opportunity for some proteins to sink into those microscopic scratches and then set and stick there.
The Fix - Preheat the Pan
Always preheat your pan. When a pan heats up, the metal expands, and most microscopic scratches and nicks "fill in," providing a much smoother surface than when the pan was cold.
Then, when you add food to a hot pan, the proteins start to cook and form a crust. Once the crust is set, foods release from the pan. Once I learned this simple technique, that was the end of my struggle with foods sticking in the bottoms of my pans.
So, how do you know when your pan is hot enough? The most straightforward test is to add a few drops of water to the pan. If it evaporates immediately, you know that the pan's temperature is at least 212° F (the boiling point of water).
Proteins start to brown at about 330° F, and that's how hot you want your pan. If the water evaporates immediately, it's a safe bet that your pan is hot enough.
If the water sits there for a few seconds before boiling away, heat for another minute, and then test again. With my pans on my stove, I've learned that a preheat of 4 minutes is perfect, and I set the times.
Mistake #4 Adding Oil to a Cold Pan
It is very frustrating to preheat your pan only to have your oil smoke and burn before the pan is hot enough. Of course, the oil must be hot, but how can you get it hot enough without burning it?
The Fix - Add Oil to a Preheated Pan
Sautéing is about controlling the cooking process while maintaining the highest temperature possible. We already know we need to add the food to a hot pan. Wait until the pan is hot before adding the oil to keep the fat from burning.
There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is a safety issue. Sprinkling water into a hot pan containing oil is just asking for trouble. The oil will spatter, and you could receive a severe burn. To minimize your chances of getting hurt, add the oil after you've tested the pan's temperature.
Another reason to add oil to a hot pan is that it will take less time to heat up. Less time heating means less chance of burning.
So, the rule is: Get your pan hot, test to make sure it's hot enough, and then add the oil and let it heat up. You will know that your oil is hot enough when it starts to shimmer in the pan. Add the food once you see the oil shimmering, as the shimmer is the precursor to smoking.
Mistake #5 Using The Wrong Fat
It would be best if you sautéed in a hot pan, one that is at least 330° F, to promote quick and even browning. This is wonderful, but many fats smoke and break down well before this temperature is reached.
Here is a concise list of some common fats that most of us have in our kitchens and their smoke points:
Extra virgin olive oil = 320° F
Butter = 350° F
Vegetable shortening = 360° F
Refined canola oil = 400° F
Peanut oil = 440° F
The Fix, Part 1 - Use Fats With High Smoke Points
After looking at the list of fats and their smoke points, it becomes apparent that, since the smoke point is lower than the temperature that proteins start to brown, extra virgin olive oil is not the best choice for sautéing.
Choose an oil with a smoke point of at least 400 degrees. Smoking oil indicates that the oil is breaking down and may be forming toxic compounds, or at the very least, compounds that lend off-flavors to food. Canola and peanut oils are safe bets for sautéing.
Butter provides excellent flavor, but butter's milk solids burn well before butterfat's smoke point, so it is not advisable to sauté in straight butter unless you use clarified butter.
The Fix, Part 2 - Use a Mixture of Fats
An ideal way to add the rich flavor of butter while ensuring it doesn't burn is to use a mixture of half butter and half oil. Once the pan is hot, add a small amount of oil and a little butter on top of the oil. Swirl the two together until the butter has melted and the oil is hot, and then add the food to be sautéed.
Mistake #6 Using Too Much Fat
You might feel like a chef as you liberally add fat to your frying pan for a sauté. The thing is, though, that too much oil will produce completely different results than using just a bit of fat.
If you add more fat than is necessary to coat the bottom of your pan, the oil will have depth. That means that the food will sit in hot fat rather than sitting on a thin layer of fat coating the pan. So now, instead of sautéing, you are pan-frying.
The Fix - Use Just Enough Fat
I think that one of the reasons home cooks often end up adding too much fat to their pans for a sauté is that they usually add the fat to a cold pan. And cold fat is denser than hot fat, so it won't spread out as thin a layer as hot fat will.
Remember the sequence: heat the pan, then add the oil. Next, heat the oil, then add the food. You will likely need no more than a tablespoon or so of fat.
Swirl the hot pan around, and the fat should quickly spread out to coat the pan with no problem. The fat will help to conduct the heat to the food. So, in the case of a sauté, the fat is a cooking medium more than it is an ingredient.
*You might wonder, "When do I get to jump the food in the pan?" For presentation-sized cuts of meat, you don't. However, you can jump your food when you're sautéing your vegetables.
I strongly suggest you practice outside with dried beans in a cold pan before you try jumping 350 degrees F. onions over a hot stove!
Mistake #7 Not having the ingredients prepped ahead of time.
One of the worst things you can do when you prepare to sauté is to wait to chop your ingredients before you heat your pan. Thinking that you have plenty of time to dice some onion, carrot, and celery while the pan is heating is an excellent way to overheat the pan so that the fat immediately degrades and smokes when you add it to the pan. When that happens, you have to start all over again.
The Fix—Mise en Place (Prep ahead)
Mise en place is the rule by which all professional chefs live. However, it is also very relevant in the home kitchen. Meaning "put in place," mise en place means getting all of your ingredients measured, prepped, and ready to cook and getting ovens preheated and all necessary equipment out before you start cooking.
When you sauté, you must be especially mindful of mise en place. Since you need to keep your eyes and ears on the food at all times, you don't have time to stop to mince some garlic or peel and chop a carrot during the process. The sauté procedure should be:
1 - Prep all ingredients: chop, mince, measure, portion—whatever needs to be done.
2 - Heat pan.
3 - Add fat and heat.
4 - Cook.
If you don't follow this sequence, you risk forgetting essential ingredients, burning your food, or both.
Mistake #8 Trying to Cook at One Temperature
Once you have heated your fat over medium-high to high heat, add your food. First, you hear a happy sizzle, which soon turns into an angry sputtering. Then, the fat begins to smoke, and your food burns.
The Fix—Use Your Ears
The sauté is an active cooking method. Unlike a braise which you can leave in the oven unattended for hours, you always have to be right with your sauté.
While it is essential to get your pan hot before adding fat and then ingredients, it is also necessary to know that you must always be ready to adjust the heat, either up or down. In this sense, sautéing is like driving.
Just as you need to apply the gas, sometimes use the brakes, or sometimes coast to maintain a constant speed in a car, you must adjust the heat up or down when you sauté.
You might even need to take the pan off the heat altogether at some points and let some of the residual heat in the pan continue to cook the food. The question then becomes, "How do you know when to adjust the heat?"
This is where your ears come into play. For example, when food is sautéing, there should be a definite sizzling sound.
When the fat or food cooks at too high a temperature, the sizzle will become much louder and sound more like sputtering and cracking. This is a signal to take the food off the heat and to turn down the heat.
Conversely, if the sizzle is very slight, or you don't hear it at all, that is a signal to turn up the heat. Then, as you become more confident, you can maintain a constant sauté temperature without thinking about it.
Mistake #9 Trying to sauté oversized items
Cooking methods are not meant to be universally applied. As a case in point, try to sauté a roast to doneness. The outside of the meat will be hopelessly burned well before the center of the meat reaches the target temperature.
This is because a sauté is a high-heat cooking method. No temperature manipulation will let you keep a proper sauté temperature and allow you to cook more significant cuts long enough without burning the outsides.
The Fix—Sauté Smaller Cuts
If you want to cut "whole" pieces of meat, such as a chicken breast or a lamb chop, ensure the meat is no more than ½" thick. This holds true for beef as well. You can pound a piece of meat with a smooth meat mallet to ensure it is thin enough to cook without burning.
Cutting more significant cuts into ¾" chunks is an option, especially for stir-fry-type dishes.
A mixture of carrots, onion, and celery is sautéed as the first step in many dishes. When sautéing vegetables, make sure you have chopped them in small pieces or diced them in no more than ¼" cubes.
Especially when sautéing is the only cooking method you will use, cutting the food into small pieces decreases the distance that the heat from the pan has to travel to get to the center of the food. Keeping that distance as short as possible is the key to achieving a good sauté, ensuring that the center is done well before any issues with the outside get overdone.
Mistake #10 Using the wrong cuts of meat
Since a sauté is a dry heat/ high heat cooking method, it stands to reason that the food you sauté will lose some moisture.
This is fine if you are cooking thin, lean meats, but if you try to sauté meats that contain a lot of connective tissue—ones best cooked by moist-heat cooking methods—you will end up with very dry meat that is very difficult to chew.
The Fix—Know Your Cuts
Chicken breasts, especially small or pounded ones, sauté beautifully. Other likely candidates include fish fillets, thin-cut beef or pork tenderloin, and pork or lamb chops.
These leaner cuts benefit from quick cooking. At the same time, the flavor develops when the meat is browned during the sauté process.
When sautéing, it is essential to remember to place the side that you want to be "up" on the plate—the presentation side—to go into the pan first. This is when the pan is the hottest, and you will get the best color.
(Cooking the presentation side first has nothing to do with flavor and everything to do with how the food looks once it is on the plate).
While this decision is not vital when sautéing a tenderloin, it is crucial with chicken breasts and fish fillets. In these cases, put the side of the meat closest to the skin in the pan first. The other side is generally the cut side, which was filleted from the bone and did not look as attractive.
Mistake #11 Overcrowding the Pan
As cooks with families, we often feel rushed to cook quickly, so the sauté is perfect for a fast meal. However, trying to sauté too much food at once to hurry things along will result in not achieving a good sear and in the food taking longer to cook.
The Fix—Give the Food Some Space
When cooking small pieces of food, such as diced vegetables, you want to have the food in one layer in the pan. This allows steam (created from the moisture in the food) to evaporate quickly and allows the food to cook above 212°F.
Remember, water boils at 212°F, and as long as there is water in the pan, the temperature will stay at 212°F until it has all cooked away. Only then will the temperature of the food rise enough to brown.
If you have a small pan, only cook one at a time when cooking chicken breast. Again, you want any water in or on the surface of the food to evaporate quickly to encourage rapid browning and cooking.
You may have noticed that when you brown stew meat if you add too much to the pan, a lot of liquid gathers, and the beef steams rather than browns. Unfortunately, this does nothing to help you develop flavors, as those beautiful caramel flavors only develop once the food reaches about 330 degrees F.
Mistake #12 Turning Too Soon or Too Late
When you place a piece of meat in a pan to sauté, you can't see what is going on to the side of the meat touching the pan. So all you are left looking at is a piece of raw meat in a pan.
So, you lift the corners of the meat to take a look. Then, you turn it, sometimes tearing some of the meat stuck in the pan, and flip it around from side to side until it "looks done" to you.
You're left with a piece of meat that, while maybe cooked, will have an inadequate sear and might be torn up. Not good.
The Fix—Pay Attention to the Meat
Even though you can't see what is going on with the "downside" of the meat, you can get a good idea by looking at the "upside." First, you'll hear that satisfying sizzle when placing the meat in the pan.
After a minute or so, the cut's very outside edges begin to turn from translucent to opaque. This is a sign that the proteins are cooking. Please don't touch it; leave it alone.
The meat has a lot of moisture; eventually, you will see little beads of moisture welling up on the top. This is a sign that the moisture is escaping from the intense heat in the bottom of the pan. Now, watch closely.
You will see the "ring" of opaque meat advancing up the edges of your meat's "upside." Once your thin meat appears to be cooked about ⅔ of the way through, it is safe to turn.
If you haven't been messing with your meat, you will see that it releases pretty quickly from the pan. It will naturally release once the food has been adequately browned.
This is one of the primary keys to stress-free sautéing. Once you learn that the meat will tell you when it's ready to move, you realize it is monitoring itself, so you can ensure you are watching the temperature.
Cook the meat on the second side for a minute or two. At this point, the best way to check for doneness is to insert an instant-read thermometer into the meat.
Since the cuts are relatively thin, you must only allow no more than 5°F in carry-over cooking. So, for example, if your chicken breast is done at 160 degrees, you can take it off the heat at 156-158°F, and the temperature will coast the rest of the way while the meat is resting.
Mistake #13 Serving Without a Sauce
Since a sauté is a dry heat cooking method best done with lean cuts, chances are that, while the meat will be flavorful because of the browning, it might be slightly dry due to evaporation. The meat will be tasty, but look at the pan you're sautéed in.
You'll see some golden-to-dark brown bits of food in there. That is called "fond," It is full of flavor you should exploit to make a great pan sauce.
The Fix—The Quick Pan Sauce
Now, I know you've saved a lot of time by making a quick sauté, so I won't suggest making a sauce that will take an hour to prepare. No, you can make a quick pan sauce while your meat is resting.
Let's say there are four of you eating, so you've cooked three chicken breasts, one of which you'll split between your kids. Each piece of meat only needs one or two tablespoons of sauce, so you are looking at four tablespoons or ¼ cup. It won't take long at all, especially over high heat.
Put your sauté pan back over high heat. Let it heat for a minute, but keep an eye on it. You don't want the fond to burn.
Add ¼ cup each of orange juice and low-sodium chicken broth. Cook and scrape the bottom of the pan, incorporating the fond into the sauce.
Reduce by ½ until the sauce is thick and syrupy. Taste, and add a little salt, pepper, or herbs.
Remove the sauce from the heat, and swirl in about one teaspoon of butter or just a tiny splash of heavy cream. Either of these additions will add richness and a nice mouth feels to the sauce, but you can also leave that out.
Serve a spoonful of sauce on each piece of chicken.
This is only one idea; you can develop many more. But, the procedure will always be the same for these quick pan sauces.
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