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Into the Frying Pan


FOOD FOR THOUGHT - Sept. 22, 2004
Mark R. Vogel - - Archive of other articles by Mark Vogel

Sautéing is cooking food in a small amount of fat over high heat. A sauté pan, (a.k.a. skillet or frying pan), with straight sides is known as a sautoir, and with sloping sides, a sauteuse.  A high quality sauté pan is imperative for successful sautéing. Heavy gauge stainless steel with aluminum sandwiched in-between is the way to go. Such a pan will distribute heat evenly without burning your food and be highly responsive to sudden temperature adjustments.  Heavy metal plating will also ensure the base of the pan stays flat and does not warp with use. An uneven bottom will produce unevenly cooked food and “hot spots” where food can scorch.

     Considered a dry heat method, sautéing is an ideal means for searing or browning food, a process that imparts significant flavor.  To accomplish this you need high heat and must not introduce the food until the pan and fat have been heated first. If the pan/fat are not hot enough, the food will not sear properly, will stick, and will absorb some of the fat. The fats utilized most often are oil and butter or some combination thereof. I prefer oil since butter will burn quicker.

     Virtually all foods can be sautéed with a few caveats.  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. You might start the shanks in a sauté pan to brown them, but they would need to be finished with a wet heat method such as braising.  Even tender steaks that are thick, (beyond an inch), would first be seared in a sauté pan and then completed in the oven. This is why professional cooks prefer pans without those rubber handles:  so they can be placed directly into an oven.

     You would also never sauté an entire roast or chicken.  By the time the center of a roast or bird was cooked in a sauté pan, the exterior would be burnt beyond edibility.   Sautéing is better suited for thinner cuts of meat, (fish, veal and chicken fillets), or meat cut into pieces or strips. All vegetables can be sautéed although harder ones, e.g., root vegetables, may need to be cut smaller.  Sautéing is quick cooking. You are seeking to sear the food rapidly and remove it immediately or shortly thereafter. Thus, the food must be small and/or tender enough so that the center is done by the time the outside has browned. 


     If you are sautéing a compilation of items, cut them to the same size to ensure even cooking.  But, some foods are harder than others.  A one-inch slice of zucchini will cook faster than a one-inch slice of carrot.  Thus, you will need to compensate by cutting the harder components smaller, or introducing the ingredients to the pan in descending order of cooking time. But of course there are still exceptions to this.  Some recipes begin with aromatic items such as chopped garlic or ginger being sautéed first.  This is to facilitate infusing the ensuing constituents with their essence. Here you must watch the heat since these delicate aromatics can burn by the time you have completed sautéing the remaining ingredients. 

     Finally, do not overfill the sauté pan. Excessive food will drop the heat and cause the items to steam, not brown. It is far better to sauté your food in batches than crowd the pan and produce limp offerings. 

     OK we need to talk about non-stick pans.  Most people don’t realize that a regular pan is almost as slick as a non-stick if used properly. With a few exceptions, most foods do not require a non-stick pan.  The problem with non-stick pans is that they are not conducive to making as flavorful a sauce as a regular pan.  After food, particularly protein, has been sautéed, a highly flavorful, caramelized residue known as a “fond” is left in the bottom of the pan.  Pan sauces are made by dissolving the fond with liquid, (wine, stock, citrus juices, etc.), a process known as “deglazing.” Non-stick pans do not produce a sufficient fond to accomplish this critical task.

     So how do you prevent food from sticking? Let’s assume you wish to sauté a chicken cutlet. Brush the cutlet lightly with oil.  A uniform application of oil will eliminate any sticking spots and produce an equally uniform sear.  Heat your pan over a medium-high to high flame. Heating the pan first achieves two goals.  First, the expansion of the metal will fill tiny scratches where food can stick. Second, adding the fat to an already hot pan will allow the fat to get hotter faster. The reduced thermal trip to target temperature will cause the fat to deteriorate less.  Add the oil and do not introduce the food until the oil starts to smoke.  Place the chicken in the pan and DO NOT MOVE IT until the first side has seared. The seared exterior will prevent the sticking.  Moving the food around will thwart the development of a good sear.  If your pan was hot enough to begin, you will be able to flip the chicken with minimal resistance.  This same technique applies to any other protein you may sauté.  

     An exception to the “don’t move the food” rule is vegetables, particularly if they are diced.  Obviously you will need to move them around so all of their sides sauté properly.  But allow them to cook undisturbed for some time between each stir or flip.

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