Its name is evoked in so many menus. You hear it mentioned in restaurant commercials and see its dazzling and sometimes fiery images in all the current food magazines.
Sauté is, and always has been, IN.
It is beyond a doubt the most popular method of cooking food, especially in restaurants. In fact, most restaurants typically have a station set up especially for items prepared in this fashion and a cook whose sole responsibility is to prepare nearly every dish on the menu with a name or description that has anything to do with “sauté.”
That person is usually in the middle of ALL the action. And with the possible exception of a broiler or grill cook in a steakhouse, this person is THE busiest, most agile and most experienced of all the cooks on “the line.”
It’s not a position for anyone who can’t handle the heat, and he or she better be good at memorization and prioritization too because just one poorly prepared or mistimed dish makes it impossible to deliver all the meals to a table at once.
If you’re working “sauté” in a high-quality, high-volume restaurant, you’re pretty much at the top of the proverbial food chain as far as cooks go.
To make “sauté” is a learned skill, but it’s one with just a few basic requirements.
I say “to MAKE sauté,” and that is technically the proper use of the term because sauté means “to jump,” and when done properly, that’s exactly what happens to the food in your pan.
Otherwise, it lays there and cooks on just one side and then the other. And that method works just fine for larger products like steaks or fish. It works fine whenever you NEED to leave the product cooking in one spot for a longer period of time, but that method is called “pan frying.”
Sauté requires it own style of pan, designed to do exactly what sauté does best, and that is jumping the food about in the pan to quickly and evenly heat multiple surfaces nearly simultaneously. Stir-fry is very similar, except for the fact that the pan stays rather stationary, and you move the product around a wok with a spatula. The results are nearly the same.
A sauté pan’s sloped sides not only assist you in releasing the ingredients toward the pan’s lip and into the air, but the sloped sides also encourage the steam from the foods to release into the air instead of being trapped in the pan, which would prevent the products from browning and cooking as quickly.
There are pans that look similar to sauté pans in the stores, but they are not called sauté pans. They may be called skillets or fry pans, but their design is best suited to pan frying as I mentioned earlier. In French, this straight-sided pan is called a Sautoir; a sauté pan is called a Sauteuse).
To properly sauté, I recommend the following:
- A 10”-to-12” diameter pan with a non-stick surface
- Medium-high to high heat. I prefer gas, but some electric ranges can kick out enough BTUs (heat) to perform well.
- A light amount of oil. Peanut oil and canola are my favorites because they have a relatively high smoke point and are neutral in flavor. Too much oil leaves the finished product oily and greasy looking. A couple of tablespoons will do just fine.
- DO get the pan and oil nearly smoking hot! Your oil should show a glistening haze.
- DO cut your foods to be sautéed into small, bite-sized pieces. Make them small enough that they can be cooked to your preferred doneness in 1 to 2 minutes. Typically, sautéed foods are no larger that 1” or 2” strips or shapes, which allow for quick cooking.
- DO choose meats that are tender. Sauté is quick and requires meats that don’t require long cooking to tenderize. All boneless poultry and seafood qualify, but fish must have firm flesh, such as tuna or swordfish, and red meats should be from tender cuts, such as Tenderloin, NY. Strip or Sirloin.
- DON’T add too much product to the pan. Half full is about it. Too much product in the pan will chill down the pan’s surface and the oil, and NOTHING will cook quickly. It will also encourage the water in vegetables or the moisture in meats to release into the fat. None of that will allow your foods to brown or sauté properly.
- DO slide the pan back and forth, shaking, swirling, or if you’re in the mood, tossing the products quickly as they cook.
- DON’T have so much fun tossing the product about that you leave the pan off the heat and allow everything to cool down. That’s not good.
- DO remember that while sauté means “to jump,” it’s also a cooking method intended to be quick and to produce foods that are not overcooked.
Think quick, crisp, colorful and healthy, which are many of the virtues of this popular (especially in warm weather) cooking method.
When you’re shopping at Nino’s, choose colorful vegetables you enjoy and be sure to ask tell our butchers that you’d like to use your meats for sauté. They’ll know just what to recommend.
Let me know which sauté dishes you’re enjoying this spring in the comments below!