Learn How to Saute For Countless Quick Dinners

By: Chef Todd | Posted: 11th November 2011

When you know how to sauté, then you have power over your food choices. It’s quick, easy, and you can sauté almost anything!

Most cookbooks concentrate on the list of ingredients and forget to tell you HOW to cook. When you can repeat one cooking method, then the ingredients don’t matter.

Certainly there are other very important skills to have in the kitchen, such as using your knives for cutting vegetables, and how to make sauces, but HOW you transfer heat to food makes the biggest difference of all.

Saute’ is a conductive cooking process. This means that the heat is directly transferred to the food via the sauté pan. As opposed to cooking with hot air in an oven, which is convective cooking, conductive is quicker and easier to control.

It’s easy to learn how to sauté, because the steps are always the same regardless of what you’re cooking. Mastering this one method will have you creating dinner without recipes in no time.

The basic sauté procedure is this:
1) Pan Hot First – Always start with a hot sauté pan. The best way to judge the relative heat in the pan is to sprinkle a little water from the tips of your fingers. If the water immediately boils and evaporates, you know the pan is at least 212F/100C.
2) Add Fat – A small amount of fat is used for sauté. It’s not pan frying and it’s not deep frying. Only enough butter or oil is used to barely cover the bottom of the pan. The role of fat in sauté is less about flavor and more about transferring heat.
3) Fat Hot – You must heat this fat to a point JUST BEFORE it’s about to smoke. Once the oil reaches its smoke temperature, it will impart burnt flavors to your food. However, if you start cooking right before it smokes, you’re capturing the most heat. Most fats will change from being perfectly smooth in appearance to moving about the pan and looking streaky.
4) Protein Product – Whether you’re cooking chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, fish, or tofu, it’s all the same. Add your protein product to the hot fat in the pan to promote caramelization of sugars, the nice brown color.
5) Cook 75/25 - Cook the protein product ¾ of the way on the first side so that you can witness the changes that tell you when to turn it over. As proteins coagulate, they stiffen and shrink. A chicken breast will begin to turn white on the sides. When the white reaches 75% of the way up the side of the protein product, finish it on the other side and remove to a warm plate.
6) Aromatics – Now is the time to sauté onions, celery, carrots, peppers, garlic, or any other vegetable you’d like to incorporate in the dish. These items will also pick up the flavor of the "fond", the brown bits of rendered fat and sugars left in the pan by the protein product.
7) Deglaze - Adding a cold liquid to the pan drops the temperature quickly and dramatically, releasing the fond from the bottom of the pan. This is not only the beginning of a flavorful sauce, but also changes the cooking process from dry to moist. The liquid can then be reduced through evaporation or thickened with roux or cornstarch slurry.
8) Return Protein Product - Since we’ve changed from dry to moist cooking, there is less chance of burning the protein product so it can be returned to the pan to steam with the other items. You’ll know when it’s fully cooked when it reaches the desired internal temperature on your thermometer.

If you know how to sauté, you can create a French dish on Monday, a Mexican dish on Tuesday, an Asian dish on Wednesday, and all with the single, simple cooking method. Basic sauté opens up a world of endless dinner ideas because the ingredients are within your control.

See Chef Todd in a LIVE cooking demonstration, "How To Saute". About the Author
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Tags: appearance, flavors, fingers, fats, recipes, food choices, beef pork, vegetables, cookbooks, little water, hot air, tofu, knives, sauces, cooking method