This is Part 2 of How NOT to Saute. You can read Part 1 here.
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 a good way to overheat the pan so that the fat immediately degrades and smokes when you add it to the pan. When that happens, you just 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 by. It is also very relevant in the home kitchen. Literally meaning “put in place,” mise en place means getting all of your ingredients measured, prepped and ready to cook as well as getting ovens preheated and all of your necessary equipment out before you start cooking.
When you sauté, you have to 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 run the risk of forgetting important 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, you add your food. You hear a happy sizzle, which soon turns to an angry sputtering. Then, the fat begins to smoke and your food starts to burn.
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 very important to get your pan hot before adding fat and then ingredients, it is also important 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 sometimes apply the gas, sometimes apply the brakes or sometimes just coast to maintain a constant speed in a car, you have to adjust the heat either 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. When a 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. As you become more confident, you will be able to maintain a constant sauté temperature without thinking about it.
Mistake #9 Trying to sauté big items
Cooking methods are not meant to be universally applied. As a case in point, try to sauté a roast to doneness. What will happen is that 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, and no amount of temperature manipulation will let you keep a true sauté temperature and allow you cook larger 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, make sure that 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 make sure that it is thin enough to cook all the way through without burning.
Cutting larger cuts up 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 that you have chopped them in small pieces or even diced them in no more than ¼” cubes.
Especially when sautéing is the only cooking method you are going to use, cutting the food in 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 there are any issues with the outside getting over-done.
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, flavor develops when the meat is browned during the sauté process.
When sautéing, it is important 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 piece of tenderloin, it is important with items like chicken breasts and fish fillets. In these cases, put the side of the meat that was closest to the skin in the pan first. The other side is generally the cut side, where it was filleted from the bone, and it does 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. Trying to sauté too much food at once to hurry things along, however, will result in not achieving a good sear and in the food actually 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 allow the food to cook above 212°F.
Remember, water boils at 212°F and as long as there is any 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.
When cooking chicken breast, if you have a small pan, only cook one at a time. 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 in the pan and the meat essentially steams rather than browns. This does nothing to help you develop flavors, as those wonderful caramel flavors do not begin developing until the food has reached 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 really can’t see what is going on to the side of the meat that is touching the pan. All you are left looking at is what looks like a piece of raw meat in a pan.
So, you lift up the corners of the meat to take a look. You turn it, sometimes tearing some of the meat that might be stuck in the pan, and you just flip it around from side to side until it “looks done” to you.
What you’re left with is a piece of meat that, while maybe cooked, will have an inadequate sear and might be kind of torn up. Not good.
The Fix—Pay Attention to the Meat
Even though you can’t see what is going on with the “down side” of the meat, you can get a good idea by looking at the “up side.” When you first place the meat in the pan, you’ll hear that satisfying sizzle.
After a minute or so, you will see the very outside edges of the cut begin to turn from translucent to opaque. This is a sign that the proteins are cooking. Don’t touch it; just leave it alone.
Now, there is a lot of moisture in meat, and eventually, you will start to see little beads of moisture welling up on the top of the meat. This is a sign that the moisture is literally running away from the intense heat in the bottom of the pan. Now, watch closely.
What you will see is the “ring” of opaque meat advancing up the edges of the “up side” of your meat. Once your thin piece of meat appears to be cooked about about 2/3 of the way through, it is now safe to turn.
If you haven’t been messing with your meat all along, you will see that it releases quite easily from the pan. This is because, once the food has browned, it will naturally release.
This is one of the main keys to stress free sautéing. Once you learn that the meat will tell you when it’s ready to move, you realize that it is monitoring itself, so you can make sure you are monitoring 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 fairly thin, you will only need to allow for no more than 5°F in carry over cooking. 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 a little dry due to evaporation. The meat will be tasty, but take a look at the pan your sautéed in.
You’ll see some golden-to-dark brown bits of food in there. That is called “fond,” and it is full of flavor that you should exploit to make a great pan sauce.
The Fix—The Quick Pan Sauce
Now, I know that you’ve saved a lot of time by making a quick sauté, so I’m not going to suggest that you make 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 3 chicken breast, one of which you’ll split between your kids. Each piece of meat really only needs one or two tablespoons of good sauce, so you are looking at a total of 4 Tablespoons, or ¼ cup. This won’t take long at all, especially over high heat.
Put your sauté pan back over high heat. Let it heat for a minute or so, but keep an eye on it. You don’t want your 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 1 teaspoon of butter or just a tiny splash of heavy cream. Either of these additions will add a touch of richness and a nice mouth feel to the sauce, but you can also leave that out.
Serve a spoonful of sauce on each piece of chicken.
Now, this is only one idea, and I’m sure you can come up with many more. The procedure will always be the same for these quick pan sauces.