The Secret To Great Saute

January 18, 2013 9 Comments

How to Saute

How to Saute Like a Professional Chef

Probably the most important technique I can share with you is how to sauté properly. When you learn how to saute, you can prepare hundreds of meals with this technique.

What Is Saute?

Saute in French means “to jump” and can be a method of cooking or a way to describe a dish like sauteed chicken breasts. The reason the French called this technique “to jump” is because you are cooking at a very high heat and you don’t want it sitting too long in the pan.

To be successful, you need to move the ingredients either with a pair of tongs or like they do on TV by tossing it in the air.

Saute is a type of frying which is a dry heat method of cooking requiring high heat and some sort of liquid fat to cook with.

What Is the Difference Between Sauteing & Pan Frying?

Although they are both considered dry heat cooking and use a fat to transfer the heat of the pan to the food, the only real differences is the amount of heat and the size of the ingredient you are cooking.

Pan frying uses a little less heat and you cook whole pieces of meat like chicken breasts, steaks or fish fillets. You also don’t move the ingredients around in the pan that much except to turn them over occasionally.

Also, don’t confuse pan fry with shallow fry where you typically use enough oil to reach almost halfway up the ingredient you are cooking. A good example is when you pan-fry eggplant for eggplant Parmesan.

The Advantages of Sauteing

Once learned and in your repertoire, you will be free to be creative and devise your own recipes with whatever ingredients you have around. As a novice, this technique is easy and allows you to prepare meals in a moment’s notice.

This includes sautéing chicken, fish, vegetables, or meat. That’s the beauty of learning a basic technique. Compare it to learning how to read a financial statement. Once you know how, you can effectively read any company’s report. sautéing


The Formula To A Great Saute

Proper Saute = Good Saute Pan + High Heat + A Little Fat + Uniformly Cut Ingredients


The Right Pan For The Job

Some say the pan the pan should have sloped sides, others say straight. To me it doesn’t matter as long as the pan has a dense, heavy bottom that spreads the heat evenly without any hot spots. It has to be big enough to cook your ingredients without crowding so buy accordingly.

Non-stick is ok if you don’t plan to make pan sauces but you need a little sticking to create the “fond” or the brown bits that stick to your pan that are responsible for those delicious sauces served in your favorite restaurants. I use a non-stick pan for my sauteed spinach and broccoli rabe but prefer metal for everything else.

To learn more about what to look for in a good saute pan and how to purchase the best one for you, check out my Choosing A Good Saute Pan.

The Right Fat – Butter or Oil or Both?

It all has to do with smoking points. Butter (350°F) will give your food the best taste and a wonderful golden crust but burns more easily. Oil (375° F – 450° F) produces a nice crust and will not burn as quickly, but also doesn’t leave as rich a flavor or color as butter alone. Most chefs will use different oils depending on what they are cooking.

If they are cooking a Mediterranean style dish, they may choose olive oil, but if they are preparing an Asian dish, sesame oil might be the better choice. You match the oil to the style of cooking but remember much of the flavor will be cooked off because of the high heat so you may just be better off using a generic oil like canola or safflower and add a little of the flavored oil at the end.

The Reluctant Gourmet uses a combination of the two. This way I get some of the flavor from the butter and a higher smoking point from the oil. What you cook and the amount you’re cooking will determine how butter and oil you use.

For example, use about 1 to 1-1/2 tablespoons of each for 2 or more chicken cutlets and 1/2 to 1 tablespoon of each for 2 or more fish fillets.

How Much Fat?

Just enough to coat the bottom of the pan. You are not deep frying so just cover the bottom of the pan. When a recipe tells you to add 2 tablespoons of oil to the pan, how do they know what size pan you are using. If you add 2 tablespoons to a small pan, it may be too much. 2 tablespoons in a large pan might not be big enough. So add accordingly.

Important Tip – Preheating the Pan

The biggest mistake home cooks make when sauteing is not getting the pan hot enough. They take cold ingredients right out of the refrigerator, put them into a cold pan and stick it on the flame. Big mistake – don’t do it. You’ll end with bone dry meat, chicken or fish.

Have you ever asked yourself why your cookbooks and cooking magazines suggest you preheat a pan before adding butter or oil to it? I did and spent a lot of time looking for the answer until I contacted my friends Chef Todd Mohr and Chef Ricco DeLuca. They had several reasons for preheating your pans:

Chef Todd Mohr

If you add cold protein ingredients to a cold pan and put it on the heat, the ingredients will release some of their moisture as it heats up and you end up with dry meats and fish.

It’s hard to watch a home cook put that cold white piece of chicken in a saute pan, slowly releasing it’s moisture, gently simmering in it’s own fat, rather than searing at high heat.

Chef Ricco DeLuca

All pans have hot spots. These are places on a pan that heat up faster than the rest of the pan. If you add butter or oil to a cold pan and then heat it up, it can hit one of these hot spots and start burning.

If you start with a hot pan that is uniformly heated, there is less chance for the fat to hit a hot spot and burn. When sauteing, you want the butter to foam up before you start and the oil to “almost” start smoking.

If it starts smoking, you are too late and the oil will leave a bad flavor to your dish. You want the oil hot but not smoking. Now you are ready to start the saute.

There is an expression, “A watched pot never boils” which means if you stand there and watch a pot of water come to boil, it seems like it is taking forever. Our attention drifts and we get distracted.

The same is true when heating up butter and oil in a pan. Have you ever added some cold butter to a cold pan, pushed it around a bit, became distracted and walked away only to have the butter burn?

By preheating the pan you are ready to start cooking the moment you add your fat. Your attention is focused.

Why Not Just Pre-Heat The Fat With The Pan

You might think it would save time just to heat the fat in the pan at the same time but this is not a good idea. As fats heat up, they start to degrade once they reach 140° F. So rather than let the fat continuously breakdown from 140°F to your ideal temperature, it’s better to add the oil to an already hot pan.

How Much Heat Should You Use When Sauteing?

This is an import question and one I’m asked a lot so I wrote a short article describing How Hot Should You Heat Your Pan When Sauteing?

How to Pre-Heat a Saute Pan?

I suggest you put the pan on medium high heat and when the pan is hot enough to evaporate a few drops of water, you know it has to be at least 212° F. This is a good starting point to add your fat. If you have the heat too high, you risk the chance of burning the fat. Too low and the fat won’t be hot enough.

Remember though, once your pan is preheated, you are ready to cook and and when you add your butter and/or oil, you may have crank up your heat a little before you start to sauté. The butter or oil will actually bring down the pan temperature.

Interesting Point About Heating A Pan

If you put it on low heat, won’t the pan keep getting hotter and hotter? That’s what I use to think but the answer is no. The pan will only get as hot as the amount of heat (Btu’s) you apply to it. If you preheated a pan on low, it would get to a maximum temperature and that’s it. To get more heat you have to add more Btu’s or in the case of a gas stove, more flame.

Equal Sized Ingredients

Whether it is chopped up vegetables to be used as aromatics to add flavor to the dish, breasts of chicken, fillets of fish or steak medallions, you want them all to be the same size so they cook evenly. You especially want the aromatics to be finely chopped or minced so they give off more flavor more quickly.

If the ingredients are all cut at different sizes, some will cook faster and overcook and some will cook slower and under cook. Culinary students learn right away how to make precision cuts by spending hours cutting up vegetables for different dishes.

Basic Technique

If you are using butter, you will know your pan is hot enough and it is time to start when the butter stops foaming and begins to turn a pale brown. If you are using just oil, you will know it is hot enough when it goes from perfectly smooth to lined or shimmering. Be careful, let it go any further and it will start to smoke and you will need to start over.

The photo on the left show canola oil added to a hot pan that is at least 212° F. I raised the heat under the pan and a few minutes later you can see the oil in the pan on the right begin to shimmer. This is just below the smoking point (435° F) and time to saute. For the record, I added some diced onions and a couple of them literally “jumped” out of the pan.

Add your ingredients but be very careful not to let it start smoking. If it does, remove the pan from the heat for a moment. You may want to turn the heat down a little but as soon as you add the ingredients, it should lower the heat in the pan. Cooking time will vary, depending on what you are cooking.

Most recipes give you times for cooking each ingredient but I suggest you use these only as estimates because there is no way they can give you an exact time without knowing size & type of pan you are using, the Btu’s of your stove top, the thickness of the fish, chicken or meat you are cooking or your level of cooking expertise.

The times should be used as guidelines but in the end you need to depend on an internal thermometer in the beginning and experience after that.

Also, never use a fork for flipping, it pierces the meat and lets the juices escape. Depending on what you are cooking, you will want to let whatever you are cooking rest for the juices to redistribute. This give you time to make a delicious pan sauce.

How To Saute Cooking Video

If you want to see the cooking technique of sauteing in action, I recommend you visit my How To Saute Cooking Video page. You will get step-by-step instructions from Chef Todd Mohr on the secrets to a great saute plus more.

Last modified on Tue 14 June 2016 12:10 pm

Comments (9)

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  1. Janice says:

    Thanks, that was very helpful.

  2. yonni says:

    how do i choose what type of meat if best to saute?

    With red meat, only tender cuts can be employed. Because it is a dry heat method, sautéing will make tough cuts of meat even tougher. Thus, you can sauté a filet mignon or strip steak, but never the shank or brisket.

  3. Sharelle says:

    Anyway to tell what temperature your stove is on without a thermometer, cause I have a gas stove and it only goes by low numbers(2-10). I put it on 4 because 6 seems too hot (or maybe I wait too long), but it still steam immediately. Can it also cause steaming immediately if you don’t put enough of fat?

    • The Reluctant Gourmet says:

      Sharelle, hard to tell without more details but it sounds like what you are cooking is wet. It’s important to dry off any ingredients you are going to saute or they will steam. Also, crowding a pan will cause steaming too.

  4. Dan Huth says:

    Really excellent, specific teaching, yet explained well enough for a first timer like me. Tomorrow will be the test and this stuff is Gold!

    Many thanks.

  5. teeton9 says:

    “The Reluctant Gourmet uses a combination of the two. This way I get some of the flavor from the butter and a higher smoking point from the oil.”

    You realise that the butter is going to burn to matter how much oil you add to it? It’s the solids in the butter that burn.

    • Michel says:

      Use Clarified butter .

      • RMM says:

        Clarified butter is probably one of the most important ingredients to any chef. You will never find a professional kitchen without an abundant supply of this liquid gold! Except for fast food places. If you removed any ingredients from a saute station, that person could make do with something else. Take away their clarified butter and they walk out!

    • Helle says:

      Using half oil and half butter is an ancient frying technique in some regions of Europe (e.g. in Piedmont). My grandmother always used to fry with half-half; so do I, with exceptions. The butter will NOT burn (unless you neglect it, of course).

      Regarding clarified butter: I love it – make it myself (as well as beurre noisette) – but it does not impart he same full flavour that good butter does.

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