Oh boy. If I had only known of these rules years ago, when I began sauteing. Or, should I say what I thought was sauteing. I often wondered why much of what I attempted to cook looked either under or over cooked. Things just never seemed right – as hard as I would try. After screwing up another meal, I’d find myself scouring through articles and videos online, wondering what I had done wrong. And I knew I had done something wrong because what I ended up with never quite looked like what others ended up with. All I needed was some guidance.
I think I found what I was looking for because I’m now picking up certain vocabulary that’s been fairly consistent across the culinary world. Just yesterday, I watched a video put out by the one and only Gordon Ramsay and noticed a few key concepts. “Just wisps of smoke,” “turn only once” and “let it brown” to name a few. Needless to say, it’s all becoming so much more clear.
As I mentioned in my last post, my online courses are now steering towards sauteing. I was recently introduced to the concept via a nice video and right after that, I took a quiz. The folks who run things wanted to see what I already knew. Some of the questions were tricky while others were straightforward. After the quiz, I was offered a few key concepts. These concepts were written in a very brief manner, so I did what only someone with my voracious appetite for knowledge would do – I studied elsewhere as well and came up with a less, shall we say, brief way to explain things. That’s what I’m going to write in this post. My “rules” of sauteing.
For this post, I think I’m going to follow the same format of the questions in the quiz. But as I just mentioned above, my explanations are going to go into more depth. If you’ve got anything to add, I surely would be interested in hearing it, so please, write what you’d like in the comment area below. We’re all here to learn.
A Quick Note
Before I begin, I do want to mention one thing regarding our props for the photography on this site. I can’t say enough good things about three areas Laura and I tackled before we set out on this adventure. Background, setting and lighting. Without the huge butcher’s block, we’d seriously be lost. It’s in almost every single photo we’ve taken so far. The All-Clad skillet is a winner as well. It was used to take the leading photo for this post and I have to say, it’s stunning. Laura is using some of the other photos we captured for other purposes, but honestly, if you’re into food photography, it’s important to set yourself up.
Lastly, lighting is key. I admit, I edit any photos in Camera Raw and Photoshop before I post them on this site, but without the two professional photography lamps we purchased some months ago, none of the pictures would be as vibrant as they are. Such small areas make the difference.
The Rules of Sautéing
This is the section where I actually get into the meat of this post. There are eight areas of sauteing food that I’m going to cover, one at a time.
1. What’s the best type of pan to use for sauteing?
I, like many of you (I’m sure), have almost every type of pan made. They’re sitting in kitchen cabinets somewhere. The one I use the most often are my 12″ cast iron skillet as well as my 10″ stainless steel skillet. Both have sloped sides. Now that I have a similar 12″ stainless steel skillet, I’m sure that will quickly become a favorite.
Now, from what I’m gathering, it’s best to use a skillet (frying pan) with sloped sides for sauteing. The reason for this is two-fold. First, the “open” sides encourage evaporation, which keeps food dryer, giving it that nice brown color. The straight sides of a saute pan (yes, it’s called a saute pan) inhibit that evaporation and can cause food to either steam or boil, which isn’t good, especially when you’re trying to saute. If you’re confused about which pan is which, you can read this nice article that explains both types:
Now on to the second reason. If you’ve ever sauteed veggies, you most likely know about the “saute snap.” The snap, in regards to sauteing is when you pick up the pan, push it forward and then pull it back fast, causing the food to jump out of the pan, flip over and land back where it was. Pans with sloped sides are perfect for this while those with straight sides aren’t.
If you take a look at the photo below that we took just last night, you can see the curves sides of our new skillet.
2. What’s the best pan finish? Stainless steel? Cast iron? Non-stick?
This is where things get a bit tricky. If you’re looking for browning and flavor development, then a stainless steel skillet is for you. Stainless steel encourages an ever so slight “stick,” which creates browning. If you’ve ever cooked something and later on tried to scrape up the mess left behind, you were trying to scrape up what’s called “fond.” This fond is what good chefs make sauce out of. They mix wine and broth with it and it’s delicious. I used to get upset when fond would develop and do anything in my power to avoid it. I had no idea that it was supposed to be there and was actually sought after by chefs around the world. For years, I hated stainless steel. Now, I love it. It’s amazing what a little knowledge will do for a guy.
I’ve been seeing cast iron skillets everywhere. They’ve become so popular that almost every picture of food I see online has some sort of cast iron element in it. I actually purchased a cast iron skillet last year and plan on picking up a few more variations in a few months. Cast iron is great for a number of things, including sauteing fish and meat. The one thing you can’t do with cast iron though is the snap. These types of pans are fairly heavy and as far as the one I’ve got, the walls are sloped, but not curved. There’s simply no way in the world I could snap anything with my pan. It’s like ten pounds. It is great for frying eggs though and that’s the real reason I initially purchased it. As time went on and my luck continued to grow, I’ve used it for so much more.
I’m going to be honest with you here when I tell you that I can’t stand non-stick pan finishes. Since I was 22 years old, I’ve been buying non-stick pans that have promised me that their finish was the toughest on the planet. I’m rough with my pans and I swear, I haven’t had one non-stick pan last more than six months. When they are brand new, they’re great, but as they age, even if you use plastic utensils, they dull down and don’t perform.
The real issue with non-stick surfaces, though, is that the don’t create fond. So if you’re looking to saute a piece of meat, fish or vegetables and would like to make a sauce afterwards, you most likely won’t get the flavor development you’re after. In my world, cast iron has replaced non-stick.
3. What’s the best fat for sauteing? Butter? Oil? Which kind?
This is actually very interesting. Forever, I’ve used extra virgin olive oil for all my cooking. Forever, I’ve had horrible luck. I’ve rounded the bend over the past few months though, which is encouraging. I’ve also learned that I’ve been making some pretty grievous errors in regards to the fat I’ve been using in my frying pan.
The primary area of consideration when it comes to which fat to use is smoke point. Extra virgin olive oil, because of its purity and goodness, has a relatively low one (325 degrees). It’s not good for sauteing. A few weeks ago, I found a really great article that talks all about smoke points and oils and even offers a chart that displays the smoke points of many popular types of fats. If you’d like to take a look at that, you can find it here:
Temperature and sauteing go hand in hand. If your pan isn’t hot enough, you’ll have a really terrible time sauteing. Just about everything will stick and you’ll surely want to throw the entire setup out the window. I know this because I’ve felt this way far too often. The reason my pan wasn’t getting hot enough is because, as my extra virgin olive oil was heating up, it would begin smoking way too soon. The pan wasn’t hot enough, but I dropped my food in anyway. I didn’t want all that smoke in the kitchen. Basically, I was cooking at the wrong temperature, which is a big no-no, especially with stainless steel.
Butter and coconut oil are almost as bad. Their smoke points are 350 degrees – far too low for a nice sear.
Refined vegetable oils have much higher smoke points. It’s the refining that takes out much of the flavor and health benefits, but in return, you get a fat that won’t pollute your working area and that will allow your pan to heat up to the proper temperature before adding your ingredients. I now use light or refined olive oil, which, if you look at the chart I linked to above, has a smoke point of 465 degrees. It’s been much better.
4. What’s the best oil temperature for sauteing?
Obviously, different foods require different temperatures. The way I learned it was if you’re sauteing vegetables, chicken or fish, place your oil in a cool pan and turn the heat onto medium-high. Once the oil heats up to cause some “web-like” movement, it’s hot enough to add your ingredients. If you’re going for a darker brown or a crust on something like steak, wait for the oil to heat up a bit more and to give off a hint of smoke. When that happens, add the ingredient.
I was practicing some sauteing last night. I worked with skin-on salmon fillets and as I was cooking, Laura and I grabbed some photos. One of my goals was to see if I could brown the skin so it was crunchy, but not burnt. I was successful, so I’m going to share a photo with you.
Now, I know one doesn’t traditionally turn salmon with tongs because of the risk of the fillet breaking apart, but I wanted to hold it up as an example.
If you’re looking to learn more about temperatures when sauteing, I found a fairly thorough resource for you:
5. How should you cut vegetables for sauteing?
I already covered this topic in my many posts on slicing, dicing, chopping and mincing vegetables. To view those posts, please visit them here:
As I mentioned in the posts above, size consistency is the key to even cooking. If you chop an onion or a clove of garlic so you’ve got some large and some small pieces, you may be in for a rude awakening when it comes time to eat what you’ve prepared. No one wants to bite into a raw piece of either of those. That’s why it’s important to take your time during food preparation. I enjoy prepping because it gives me a chance to practice my knife skills. I’m unlearning bad habits and the more I can cut, the more I encourage proper muscle memory when holding my knives.
Remember, the same is true for meat, fish and pork. If you’ve got some extra large pieces and some small, you’ve got to be very careful about how to cook. You may end up with some pieces that don’t exactly look or taste like the others.
6. Should meat and fish be dry or wet when you put them in your skillet?
Dry. The answer is dry. If you pull a fillet or steak straight from its package and toss it into your skillet, it’s going to pop and crackle like crazy (water and oil don’t mix well). This, in turn, is going to make a serious mess all over your stove. I’ve done this so many times I can’t count them all. Also, by using an ingredient directly from its package, you’re introducing all of its juices to the skillet, which will need to be steamed off. Remember what I talked about above? You want to brown your food while sauteing, not steam or boil it.
The best thing to do is to wash your ingredients and then to blot them with paper towels before placing them in your skillet. This will ensure that they’re as dry as possible. Just be sure to take your time with this. Moisture likes to hide.
7. Crowded or evenly spaced? How should you arrange your food in a skillet when sauteing?
I can remember attempting to saute some cod fish I purchased a few months ago. I had a huge fillet that I cut into strips that I wanted to use in fish tacos. I jammed all of them into the same pan and after a few minutes, each and every strip was swimming in its own juice. I was basically boiling them, which wasn’t good at all.
The answer to this question goes hand in hand with the previous. To encourage evaporation of moisture and to keep things as dry as possible, it’s important to keep enough distance between every item in the pan. Without even spacing, moisture will have no place to go and you’ll have a situation like I did.
Also, when food touches each other in a skillet, some parts are bound to lift off the pan, causing uneven cooking. Even spacing and some distance is important in this respect.
8. When sauteing, when should you turn your food?
If you don’t get this answer correct and you happen to be on the TV show “Hell’s Kitchen,” you’re sure to get a verbal lashing from the show’s host, Gordon Ramsay. And actually, this is the one single mistake most new home cooks and chefs make when sauteing food.
To maximize browning and flavor, you need to let your food sit still long enough to create a specific condition. If you continuously flip food over, it’ll never have enough time to brown correctly. Also, as I’ve found out far too often, by playing with food while attempting to cook it, it’s much more likely to fall apart. Have patience and let the food cook. That’s the best route to take. Only turn it once.
If you’re interested in learning more about sauteing food or if you’re just in search of some great tips, please feel free to check out the resources below.
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