Sunday, January 18, 2004

The right way to saute

Proper technique for quick cooking can enhance flavor and texture

By Johnnathan L. Wright
Gannett News Service

Sauteing - the quick cooking of food over high heat in a small amount of fat - seems so fundamental it needs no explanation. Just toss and brown the chicken chunks or what have you in a hot, oiled pan, right?

Well, yes and no. That's the Cliffs Notes version of sauteing. The technique actually involves a series of specific steps that, if followed correctly, will heighten the flavor of ingredients through browning and create pan juices that can be deglazed into a tasty sauce.

"People make mistakes with sauteing, so it never hurts to review the basics," says chef Lee Wilhelm of the Regional Technical Institute in Reno, Nev.

Choosing the pan

"You want the pan to be flat across the bottom and about the size of the burner so you have even heating," Wilhelm says. "You want the pan to be able to just hold a single layer of food. If the pan is too large or overcrowded with food, it will just steam the food, not saute it."

Heavy-bottomed, nonstick pans work best for sauteing. Well-seasoned, cast-iron skillets also do the job if you can handle the extra weight. For small, chopped foods that you saute by tossing side over side, use a pan with sloping sides that direct the food back into the pan. For larger, whole foods you turn with tongs or a spatula, use a pan with straight sides.

Prepping food; the right fat

"Things should be cut evenly. They should be the same size," Wilhelm says. "If they're not, a thin piece of food would be ready to go when a thick piece would still be sauteing."

Sauteing requires just enough fat to keep food from sticking to the pan. Since most sauteing occurs at high heat, you need to use fat that doesn't smoke when things get hot. Whole butter burns at fairly low temperatures, so clarified butter is often used for sauteing. Vegetable, olive or grape seed oil are better yet because they have high smoke points. Use just enough fat to coat the bottom of the pan.

The heart of sauteing

"Sauteing done right gives food the best possible texture, color and flavor because the proteins are caramelized into a crust," Wilhelm says.

The pan must be sufficiently hot or the food will be steamed or sweated instead of sauteed. Water tossed into a correctly heated pan will bead up and "dance," Wilhelm says.

Foods like vegetables and seafood that release a lot of water should be introduced to the pan a few pieces at a time so the liquid doesn't cool the pan. These smaller foods can be tossed by lowering the front of the pan an inch below the level of the back and flicking the wrist quickly upward.

Unlike smaller foods, which should be sauteed over high heat, breaded or floured foods should be sauteed over medium heat because coatings brown more quickly than the foods they enclose. Thick cuts of meat or fish also should be sauteed over medium heat because their thickness reduces the risk of overcooking.


Sauteing doesn't just leave a crispy crust on foods. It also produces caramelized pan juices that can be dissolved in wine or stock to make a delicious sauce. This process is known as deglazing.

To make the sauce, remove any fat from the pan and make sure the pan juices haven't burned. If they have, or if they taste bitter, deglazing will have to wait until the next sauteing session. If not, add a few tablespoons of wine or broth, scrape free and mix in the pan juices and cook the sauce until the volume of liquid reduces and things start to thicken. Adding a few pats of butter, some heavy cream or a couple of spoonfuls of vegetable puree will make the sauce richer.

Sauteed Chicken with Vegetables

1 tablespoon olive oil

4 boneless skinless chicken breast halves, seasoned and dredged in flour

1 pound mixed broccoli, red peppers, onions, artichoke hearts and mushrooms, cooked in boiling water until just tender and drained

1/4 tablespoon minced garlic

1 cup chicken stock or white wine

Heat oil over medium heat in 10-inch saute pan with sloping sides. Cook chicken to internal temperature of 165 degrees, about 6 minutes, turning once, until juice is no longer pink when centers of thickest pieces are cut.

Stir in vegetables on medium-high heat, about 2 minutes, adding garlic at end. Remove chicken and vegetables from pan; keep warm. Add stock to pan juices; heat to boiling and reduce to a sauce, being careful not to burn.

Arrange chicken and vegetables on plate, pour sauce over chicken and serve with rice. Makes 4 servings.

Lee Wilhelm

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