Learn How NOT to Saute, Common Saute 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.
No, your idea of chef is likely to be one of a guy standing in front of a huge gas range with pans on each burner, tossing the ingredients in one pan after another.
The image is most often of someone sautéing food. And why is this?
The sauté method is one of the most hands-on of the dry heat cooking methods. You can’t really walk away from a sauté the way you can a braise or a roast. You have to 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.” This describes both 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, although, take it from me: it takes some practice to master “the jump” without making a huge mess in the kitchen!
Sautéing is a great cooking method for thin or small cuts of meat as well as diced vegetables. Since sautéing is done over relatively high heat, it is important to make sure that the ingredients to be cooked are small enough that their outsides don’t burn before the insides are cooked.
Like any other cooking technique, there is a right way to sauté and a wrong way to sauté. Many home cooks are actually steaming their food when they think they are sautéing, so it’s time to take a look at the sauté technique and learn exactly how to do it so you will get the results you want.
Mistake #1 Not using the right type of pan
If you don’t have the right kind of pan for sautéing, you can very easily 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 a lot of attention, it is best to set ourselves up for success, rather than to come away 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” that has a heavy, flat bottom and is not non-stick. The former is to promote even heating and to minimize the chance of “hot spots” in the pan.
The former, you might find to be a little counter intuitive, but there are two reasons for it. The first is that 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.
Second is for health reasons. It has been shown that 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, both of which are 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? It turns out, I had been violating 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 of the foods that we sauté are proteins (meat and fish) and that glue is made of proteins, and it becomes obvious that putting food into a cold pan and heating them together provides ample opportunity for some of the proteins to sink down 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 the vast majority of those microscopic scratches and nicks “fill in,” providing you with a much smoother surface than you had when the pan was cold.
Then, when you add food to a hot pan, the proteins immediately start to cook and form a crust. Once the crust is set, foods release from the pan. Once I learned this one 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 easiest test is to add a few drops of water to the pan. If it evaporates immediately, you know that the temperature of the pan 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 or so, and then test again. With my pans on my stove, I’ve learned that a pre-heat of 4 minutes is perfect, and I actually set the times.
Mistake #4 Putting Oil in 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. It is important that the oil be hot, but how can you get it hot enough without burning it?
The Fix - Add Oil to a Preheated Pan
Sautéing is all about controlling the cooking process while trying to maintain the highest temperature possible. We already know that we need to add the food to a hot pan. In order to keep the fat from burning, wait until the pan is hot before adding the oil.
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 serious burn. To minimize your chances of getting hurt, add the oil after you’ve tested the temperature of the pan.
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
You should sauté in a hot pan, one that is at least 330° F to promote quick and even browning. This is wonderful, but many fats start to smoke and break down well before this temperature is reached.
Here is a very short 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 obvious pretty quickly that, since the smoke point is lower than the temperature that proteins start to brown, extra virgin olive oil is not really the best choice for sautéing.
Choose an oil with a smoke point of at least 400 degrees. Smoking oil indicates that the oil is actually breaking down and may be forming compounds that are toxic, 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 the milk solids in butter burn well before the smoke point of butterfat, so it is not advisable to sauté in straight butter, unless you are using clarified butter.
The Fix, Part 2 - Use a Mixture of Fats
An ideal way to add the rich flavor of butter while making sure that it doesn’t burn is to use a mixture of half butter and half oil. Once the pan is hot, simply add a small amount of oil, and then add a little butter right 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
I know 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 just coat the bottom of your pan, the oil will have depth. That means that, rather than sitting on a thin layer of fat coating the pan, the food will be sitting in hot fat. So now, instead of sautéing, you are really 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 more viscous than hot fat, so it won’t spread out in as thin a layer as hot fat will.
Remember the sequence: heat the pan; then add the oil. Heat the oil; then add the food. You will most likely find that you need no more than a tablespoon or so of fat.
Swirl the hot pan around, and the fat should easily 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 be wondering, “When do I get to jump the food in the pan?” For presentation-sized cuts of meat, you don’t. 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 degree F. onions over a hot stove!