The Difference Between Saute – Pan Fry and Stir Fry

April 30, 2010 26 Comments

The Difference Between Saute - Pan Fry and Stir Fry

What’s The Difference Between Saute, Pan Fry and Stir Fry

People often ask me about the difference between pan frying and sautéing.  The two techniques are similar in that they are both dry heat cooking methods in which foods are cooked over direct heat.

The differences between the two are subtle, but it is worth making the distinction, just so there is no confusion, especially when reading a recipe.


The Difference Between Saute, Pan Fry and Stir Fry

To sauté means to cook small pieces of food over medium-high to high heat until browned on the outside and cooked through.  I think of shrimp, cut vegetables and meat that has been cut into small pieces. The term sauté comes from the French “to jump.”

The jumping is of two types, one more important to the technique than the other. The jumping refers to the way the pieces of food appear to jump in the pan as the moisture is forced out by the high heat of the pan and oil.

Jump also refers to the very chef-ly manipulation of the pan, allowing the cook to toss the pieces a bit into the air so they cook evenly.

While that maneuver is impressive, it is not necessary to achieve a sauté since all it really does is make the food leave the cooking surface, and therefore slow down the cooking process a bit.  For myself, I make sure that the food cooks evenly while I’m sautéing by moving the food around with a wooden spatula.

Pan Fry

Sauteed Chicken Breasts with Shallots and Garlic

A pan fry takes place at a little lower heat than does a sauté.  This is because the food to be pan-fried, such as chicken breasts, steak, pork chops or fish fillets, is not cut into pieces before cooking.

Pan frying requires a lower heat so that the exterior of the food doesn’t overcook while waiting for the interior of the food to cook.

You still use the same amount of oil – just enough to glaze the pan – but the temperature should be lower during a pan fry.  It’s important to note that the oil should always be hot enough to ensure that the moisture in the food can escape in the form of steam.

The force of the steam keeps the oil from soaking into the food.  This is important, even if you’re just talking about a little bit of oil.

Dry Heat Cooking Method

The thing to remember about cooking in oil, regardless of whether you’re sautéing, pan frying or stir frying, is that it is a dry heat cooking method.  While the oil is a liquid, it is a fat, so there is no water component.  Oil behaves much differently than water.

Water boils at 212°F.  If your oil is boiling, look out –  it’s way too hot to cook in! It shouldn’t even be smoking or the flavor is ruined.

Water is also called the universal solvent for a reason. Lots of the flavor in food can be transferred to the water. That’s why it’s such a great medium for making stocks and broths.

Some flavor compounds are fat soluble, but for the most part, foods cooked in oil have less of a chance of losing flavor to the oil than they do of losing flavor to water.

When we cook with oil, the oil is the medium by which we transfer heat into the food.  The main goal is to cook the food, not to make it taste like oil.

How Hot Should the Pan Be?

Since it takes less time to sauté, and the food is cut in small pieces, precision in temperature is not as crucial in a sauté as is moving the food to ensure even cooking. A good test for making sure the pan is hot enough to sauté is to sprinkle just a few drops of water in the pan.

They should immediately boil vigorously and evaporate within a couple of seconds. In the longer process of pan frying, temperature control is a much more crucial factor. In a pan fry, you’re looking for a gentle sizzle.

See video on how hot should the pan be here

Regardless whether you sauté or pan fry, the pan will still develop a fond – the browned bits that stick to the pan during cooking. In both cooking methods, making a pan sauce is the natural next step.

All that is needed is some deglazing liquid””stock, wine, juice, etc – followed by a quick reduction and maybe some herbs and a bit of butter.

Shallow Frying

Another type of frying that isn’t talked about as much is the shallow-fry.  A shallow fry is what you do when you make fried chicken, eggplant Parmesan, or beer battered shrimp.

The food sits in hot oil that comes about halfway up the sides of the food.  And, it stands to reason that, when food is completely submerged in oil during cooking it is a deep fry.

All of these types of dry heat cooking are very similar.  They all use oil as a medium for heat delivery.  The only true difference between a sauté and a pan fry is that in a sauté, the food is cut into small pieces and in a pan fry, it is left in larger pieces, like a fillet.

The only difference between a shallow fry and a deep fry is the depth of the oil.  In a shallow fry, you have to flip the food to make sure all sides are cooked.  In a deep fry, it is possible to completely submerge the food in the oil, decreasing the necessity for flipping.

How to Stir Fry

Now, where does a stir-fry factor in to this discussion?

As far as I can tell, the only real difference between a sauté and a stir fry is the shape of the pan.  Both techniques require small pieces of food, high heat and a very little oil.  Both techniques generally end with the making of a quick sauce through deglazing the pan.

One difference might be, although I don’t have any solid evidence other than my own experience to back this up, is that in a sauté, the food is generally taken out of the pan and kept warm while you make the sauce.  In a stir fry, the sauce is generally made with all the food still in the pan so it all gets evenly coated.

What’s In A Name

So, while all these frying techniques are similar, the differences are worth noting.  Do remember that different terms mean different things to different people in different parts of the country or the world.

Often, the differences are purely semantic:  what one person might call a shallow fry, another might call a pan fry.  It can get a bit confusing, and I think that’s why there has been so much discussion about the topic.  I hope that this discussion clears things up a bit.

I would love to hear how you describe these cooking terms and what they mean to you.



Last modified on Sat 14 December 2019 5:23 pm

Comments (26)

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  1. emily lorenzo says:

    thanks about the difference between saute pan fry and stir fry

  2. nagpal says:

    A nice lesson to learn.

    Thank you.- RG

  3. KatieSedai says:

    “Sauté” literally means ‘jumped’ although it does come from the infinitive french verb, “Sauter” which is ‘to jump’.
    Just a clarification on an otherwise great article on making distinctions!

    Thanks for the French lesson Katie – RG

  4. kim says:

    Which methods are optimal to retain nutrients? Sauteing or Frying ?

    I would say it is a toss up, no pun intended. – RG

  5. Julie says:


  6. AndreaL says:

    Loved the article! I’m pan frying salmon in two days for a brunch and unless you’ve done it a thousand times, there isn’t a lot of literature to teach you how. This was most helpful on the basics. Definitely doing a test run tomorrow, though!

  7. gail says:

    thanks. we were looking for new fry? pan and none looked like what i thought i was supposed to have, this clarified it. have to take back however, cuz you taught me i need a stainless steel rather than coated pan to get good bits for sauces. thanks again

  8. gail drake says:

    thanks for article. i was looking for new ‘fry’ pan and now realize i was looking for wrong thing, also reminded me that if i wanted good ‘bits’ for sauce etc. i didn’t want coated pan. i still worry about too high heat on my electric stove gas is better, right?

  9. Ellen says:

    Vey helpful, thanks!

  10. ron says:

    yes,it helps me a lot to understand more in frying..thanks and more power!

  11. jackie says:

    can the same pan I.e. Calphalon Unison non stick covered Fry Pan 12″ by 2/1/4 high be used for searing, frying, or sauteing? I need a new one and want to get a flat bottom large enough one and use for everything….also on a glass top cooking stove I am buying. would appreciate a reply
    also, what does non-induction compatible mean?

    • The Reluctant Gourmet says:

      Jackie, I suppose you could but I’m not a fan of using non stick pans for searing or sauteing when I want to make a quick pan sauce because you don’t that the fond, the stuff that sticks to the pan when searing meat. I don’t know what “non-induction compatible” but induction refers to induction burners.

    • Alistair says:


      Induction is a method of heating food using magnetic induction to heat the pot. For this to work you need a pot which contains something ferrous – like cast iron, some stainless steel, and then other materials which the manufacturer has added something magnetisable to. If a pot is listed as non-induction then it doesn’t have iron or whatever in it so it will not be affected by the magnetic coil in the induction element. You can get induction elemets on stoves ir on stand alone hot-plates. The advantage of induction is you can control cooking temperature much more quickly than an electric element/burner can. Also, you won’t burn yourself on it!

  12. Anil says:

    Thank you so much – loved the pun

  13. dishana says:

    Thanks so much for the real insights to basics of cooking! 🙂

    Loved it…


  14. cheungpakseon says:

    thank you,l learned a lot from your text and knew the differences among all kinds of cooking methods.

  15. TM says:

    Hi. Excellent article. I learned a lot. Where I’m from, saute is a term only used if you’re frying in butter. Pan frying is done with oil. But, no matter what we call it, food is a universal language.

  16. Sam says:

    Thanks a lot for this useful information. I am so happy and thankful to have been introduced to MEC pure clay pans by a friend. I do all kinds of cooking except deep frying sauteing, stir fry, even making eggs and pancakes in these pans. These pots are pure and non toxic, so no fear of contamination in the food.The best part is that the food stays hot for longer periods of time without refrigeration. I got mine from Miriams Earthen Cookware(online) I love these pans… truly amazing!

  17. Eric says:

    The way I learned it, stir fry is very similar to sautee. But stir fry is done at high enough heat that the food risks scorching if it remains stationary for long, so with a stir fry you keep the food in constant motion, whereas in a sautee, you can let the food rest briefly at periods during the cooking (though frequently moving the food around to expose different faces to the hot pan/oil is also an important part of a sautee)

    • Hi Eric, that is how I learned it myself but since then I have changed my definition although I still often use the term saute with pan fry interchangeably. I now see saute also having to do with the size of the ingredient you are cooking. For example, if you were cooking bite sized pieces of chicken in a little bit of oil, it would be saute. If you were cooking a half chicken breast in a little bit of oil, it would be pan fry.

  18. amber barber says:

    I am a school student currently in grade 10 thanks to this I passed thanks actually this wasn’t a requirement but yet I passed thx amberleigh barber

  19. R says:

    My favorite pans are “Mineral B” de Buyer! Heavy but non-stick, dependable and non-toxic! With care they’ll last forever. I like to season with coconut oil.

  20. Victor Lage de Araujo says:

    One must be able to differentiate also the temperatures used in each technique, as well as the cooking oils and its characteristics. These factors should surely have some impact on the taste and health effects of the recipes.

    For example, I fry one egg in a small pan, using just a drop of either unrefined or virgin olive oil. I make this a very slow cooking – so that the loss in its taste is minimal, and I add newly ground linseed to the egg white so that its oils gently seep and mix to the taste.

    Would that be considered pan frying?

  21. Real Chef says:

    This only confirms that pan frying is the same as sautéing.

    This article tried desperately to cling to the romantic idea that sautéing is a different cooking method to frying in order to justify all those chefy restaurant menus and pretentious chefs.

    Of course you are going to lower the temperature for a whole thicker piece of meat, that’s the art of cooking. A slight temp change doesn’t change the cooking method. Grilling is grilling whether my grill is set to 2 or 8.

    Are we saying that ‘frying’ diced onion and garlic must be referred to as sautéing simply because the pieces are small?

    Far too often poor to average food is jazzed up and hidden behind pretentious french words. We need less bull’ in the food industry!

    I’m off to fry some small chunks of beef.

  22. Akhilesh Mishra says:

    This is perhaps the best way to explain dry heat cooking method. It has really added value. Thanks a lot.

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