No doubt you’ve seen one of those Red Lobster commercials where a pan full of shrimp ride a wave of stove-top flames to a waiting dinner plate. (These ads run at every NFL timeout as a sort of Pavlovian seafood experiment.) The visual might not be enough to get you in the restaurant (I’ve never been), but it is instructive on the basics of sautéing: start with a sturdy pan and high heat (no worries, you don’t need the dancing flames); add seafood, vegetables, or meat (or all of the above); sear and toss; and then finish with a splash of booze or a sauce.
That’s the formula, but there are a couple of smaller but equally important steps. Like if you’re cooking chicken or fish, it’s a good idea to give them a rinse to wash off any funk from packaging. Then (1) pat everything dry (even if it hasn’t been rinsed). A wad of paper towels will do the trick and this drying step helps avoid sticking and ensures that the ingredients brown nicely (and browning = flavor).
Next, make sure to (2) cut all the ingredients uniformly. The idea is not to spend hours dicing fussy French food (though have at it if you like), but rather to cut uniform pieces so they all cook at the same rate. If you sloppily slice a chicken breast into uneven chunks, some pieces are either going to over- or undercook when you sear them. The idea is to be precise but not obsessive. Practice will help improve your knife skills. Until then, do your best to balance speed with precision.
Now it’s on to the cooking. The pan you choose is important. (3) Use a sturdy, heavy-based skillet. You don’t have to throw loads of money around to find one. I do the majority of my sautéing in a $20 cast-iron pan. But the vessel does need to be heavy enough to retain and evenly transfer high heat.
Next up is a double step: (4) get the pan ripping hot and open up a window. If you’re one of the lucky few to have a high-powered exhaust hood, forget the window. But if you’re like me, you’ll need to rely on kitchen windows to prevent the smoke alarm from sounding. Even in January, it’s worth cracking open a window for the five minutes or so it takes to conduct the searing step — think of the momentary chill as the price for good food and a fresh-smelling abode.
Once you’ve got the ventilation going, you can heat up the pan. This is a Goldilocks-type task — not too hot, not too cold, but just right. Any culinary crazy can get a pan so hot the food recklessly scorches or lose his nerve and fail to get it hot enough to create a good sear. The real skill lies in guiding the heat of the pan somewhere in between.
It needs to be hot enough that a droplet of water instantly evaporates upon hitting its surface, but not so hot that the droplet nervously skitters around the pan like a Mexican jumping bean hopped up on daytime cold medication. It takes about a minute or two on my electric stove top over medium-high heat to get to this instant-evaporation stage. Keep testing with a water droplet until you’re there.
Now that the pan is hot, add a healthy splash of oil (I generally call for olive). It should almost immediately shimmer (but not smoke) and easily slide back and forth in the pan. At last, it’s time to sauté.
(5) Don’t fuss with the food once it’s in the pan. (This is also known as “playing it cool” in the sauté world.) When you’re staring down a skillet full of sizzling food, the tendency is to make like a Benihana’s grill chef and bang your spatula and tongs all over the place, messing with this and clattering at that. Resist this temptation. The bond between pan and sautéing food will only take if it’s let be for at least one or two minutes. So, hold tight and ignore the itch to fiddle with the food until you can see it start to brown around the edges (and a corner easily releases when you gently lift it).
From this point, we can cruise past the flipping and cooking right to the sauté’s endgame: pulling the meats or vegetables from the heat. A pilot once told me that landing is the hardest part of flying. Sautéing is kind of like that. You can buy the most wonderful piece of meat, prepare a beautiful red-wine reduction to go with it, and if you lose your nerve or get distracted, that expensive cut can go to gray.
No worries, I’m here to teach you how to (6) poke or pare to see when sautéed fare is just done. For every recipe in this book, I take pains not just to give you an approximate cook time, but also what it should smell, feel, and look like when it’s done. And when all else fails, there are always instant-read thermometers (the best $10 searing investment you’ll ever make) to tell you what’s doing inside.
If you want to finish a sauté with a sauce, mix a pan sauce or sauté sauce with the browned crust left on the bottom of the pan from the sear. The French call this caramelized crust a “fond” and it’s these browned bits that serve as the base for a good sauce. (7) Scrape the fond to incorporate it into the pan sauce. I’m not talking hair-raising, nails-on-chalkboard scraping. Just the opposite: a wooden spoon gently incorporates the fond, pulling it clean from the bottom of the pan.
Now that the sauté has safely landed, you can sauce it, arrange it on dinner plates, and serve with a crusty baguette or some sort of side. You’ve got a fine, even fancy, meal in a matter of minutes.
At our table sit many authors: cooks, critics, journalists, memoirists, humorists, and more. Join us here for excerpts from their work.
Want more? Comb the archives.
An American native
A father’s legacy
The vegetarian-cooking pioneer
Cracking a Filipino favorite