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Sautéing is a cooking process which involves cooking food very quickly on high heat with a small amount of fat. It is suitable for a wide range of foods, including vegetables, meat, and seafood, and results in a flavorful dish which can be dressed with a wide range of sauces. Most cooks use a sauté pan for sautéing, since this type of pan is specifically designed to meet the needs of this cooking technique. Any type of wide, shallow sided pan will work well for sautéing, if you do not have a sauté pan ready to hand.
When a food is sautéed properly, it will develop a crisp, flavorful crust as well as cooking all the way through. This differentiates the process from searing, which simply creates a brown crust on the food without cooking the interior. The flavors of sautéed food tend to be enhanced through a browning reaction created in the pan. This is why a low, hot pan is important, so that the meat does not steam or cook in its own juices. In addition, the food needs to be dry when it is cooked, as liquids will cause the meat to start stewing instead of sautéing, and this is not desired. Food should also not be crowded into a pan, or it will not brown well.
The word comes from the French sauter, “to jump,” a reference to the fact that the food appears to jump in the pan from the heat, and to the tossing required for a successful sauté. To sauté food, start by preheating a pan on a moderate heat setting before adding oil or fat and turning the heat up to medium high. As a general rule, you want a fat with a high smoking point, so that the fat will not burn. If you want the rich flavor of butter, for example, combine it with olive oil to sauté. When the fat is hot, slide the food being sautéed into the pan.
If you are sautéing a large cut of meat, it is best to leave the meat alone, turning it periodically as it browns. If you are cooking an assortment of objects, such as shrimp or chopped vegetables, use a spatula to toss these items, ensuring that all sides are exposed to the heat of the pan. Some cooks actually physically manipulate the pan to toss foods while sautéing, and while this looks showy, it takes skill and can cause temperature fluctuations which may impact the flavor of the food.
Once you are finished sautéing, the food can be plated and served. It is an excellent idea to deglaze the hot pan with stock, wine, or another liquid to lift up the caramelized bits leftover from the sauté process. The resulting liquid can be used to make a gravy or sauce for the food.