How to Sauté Almost Everything, from Brussels Sprouts to Chicken Breasts
Say you’re making a batch of cacio e pepe Brussels sprouts (yum), or it’s your first time cooking a (kind of expensive) steak. What do the two have in common? You need to know how to sauté, aka one of the essential cooking methods everyone should learn.
What does “sauté” mean?
Time for a quick French lesson. The word “sauté” comes from the French verb “sauter,” which means “to jump.” What the heck does that have to do with cooking broccoli, you ask? It refers to the way food jumps around slightly when cooked in a hot pan with oil. (It’s also related to that pro-chef motion of tossing food in the pan as it’s sautéing.) By sautéing something, you’re cooking it quickly, using a small amount of oil in a shallow pan over pretty high heat.
When should you sauté?
Sautéing is ideal for quick-cooking, tender cuts of meat (like chicken breast or filet mignon), anything that would benefit from a flavorful outer crust (like scallops) and vegetables that taste best when still slightly crisp and snappy (such as asparagus). On the other hand, you should skip sautéing if you’re working with a large, tough cut of meat that needs a lot of low, slow cooking to become tender (e.g., brisket or pork shoulder).
What’s the difference between sautéing and frying?
Frying is really similar to sautéing: It’s a dry heat method (as opposed to wet heat, like poaching or braising) that involves cooking in hot oil and flipping or turning ingredients in the pan. But with frying, you’ll typically use more oil or cooking fat than you would with sautéing. For example, shallow-frying requires enough oil to reach halfway up the food in the pan; deep-frying requires enough oil to submerge everything completely. Sautéing is also usually done at a higher temperature and involves that impressive pan-tossing we mentioned before. (You could argue that sautéing is a type of frying if you want to get technical.)
What tools and ingredients do you need to sauté?
Luckily, sautéing doesn’t require a ton of special equipment. You’ll want a pan (preferably a large skillet, but more on that later); a spatula, spoon or tongs for stirring and flipping; a cooking fat; and the food you’re cooking, of course. Oh, and you’ll need a stovetop to cook on (but you knew that).
One word of advice about cooking fats: Make sure you choose one with a high smoke point, which means it can stand up to high heat. Avocado oil or vegetable oil are good choices. Butter, while tasty, has a low smoke point and will burn in the pan before you even have a chance to cook the food. It’s best left for finishing at a lower temperature.
Now that you’ve gathered your tools and ingredients, here’s how to sauté vegetables, meat, poultry and everything in between.
How to Sauté Vegetables
- Prepare the vegetables: Depending on what vegetables you’re cooking, clean and prepare them as desired. You can cut or slice them any size you like, as long as they’ll fit in the pan and they’re all about the same size—this way, they’ll cook evenly. Keep in mind that smaller pieces will cook faster.
- Heat the pan: Place the pan on the stove and add enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Adjust the heat to medium or medium-high and heat the oil until it shimmers when swirled around in the pan. Another way to test the heat is to place one piece of vegetable in the oil—if it sizzles, it’s hot enough. If the oil starts to smoke at any point, lower the heat.
- Add the vegetables: Add the vegetables to the hot pan in a single layer so they all have contact with the surface. In other words, don’t overcrowd the pan! Otherwise, the vegetables will steam instead of sautéing and you won’t be able to get a nice brown crust. Depending on how much you’re cooking, you may have to do this in batches.
- Cook the vegetables: The exact cooking time will depend on what veggie you’re sautéing, so rely on visual and textural cues instead. Your goal is to get a seared, caramelized surface, and the best way to do this is to leave the vegetables alone for a little while. We’re not saying you should walk away from the stove, but you don’t need to constantly stir or fiddle with the spatula. Every minute or so, flip a piece of veg to check on the browning. Once it’s caramelized to your liking, you can shake the pan like those pro chefs do. To do this, grab the skillet by the handle, tilt it away from you slightly and flick your wrist in an upward motion. (This can take practice, so don’t get discouraged if a stray Brussels sprout ends up on the floor.)
- Test for doneness: To test for doneness (and seasoning), taste the vegetables. Are they crisp-tender? They’re done. Are they still raw? Keep sautéing. Add salt and pepper as needed.
How to Sauté Meat and Poultry
Sautéing meat and poultry is similar to sautéing vegetables, but you’ll have to focus a little bit more on the temperature to determine doneness.
- Prepare the meat or poultry: Regardless of whether you’re sautéing a fancy steak or humble chicken tenderloins, the first step is to take the protein out of the fridge ahead of time. Give it at least 15 minutes to lose some of its chill—this will help it cook more evenly in the long run. Next, thoroughly pat the protein dry with paper towels so it can develop a good sear. Don’t forget to season it generously on all sides with salt and pepper.
- Heat the pan: Place the pan on the stove and add enough oil to coat the bottom of it. Adjust the heat to medium or medium-high and heat the oil until it shimmers when swirled around in the pan. If the oil starts to smoke at any point, lower the heat.
- Add the meat or poultry: Place the protein in the pan in a single layer, making sure there’s enough space and the pan isn’t overcrowded. (Cook in batches if needed.) One best practice is to place the protein in the pan presentation-side down—it’ll spend more time in contact with the heat and will probably have a better sear.
- Cook the meat or poultry: Here’s where patience is key. You’ll want to leave the protein undisturbed in the pan, adjusting the heat as needed, until it has a generous golden-brown crust. You’ll know it’s time to flip when the protein releases easily from the pan—if it sticks, it’s not brown enough yet. The exact time will depend on the side and cut of meat or poultry, so keep an eye on it (and not the clock).
- Test for doneness and rest the protein: If you have an instant-read thermometer, it’s the best tool to check for doneness. The temperature will vary based on what you’re cooking (for example, white-meat chicken is done at 165°F, while steak varies based on how rare you like it). If the meat has a good sear but isn’t quite cooked through, you can pop it in a 400°F oven to complete the cooking, checking the internal temperature frequently. And to ensure nothing gets dried out or overdone, it’s best to pull the meat or poultry from the heat when it’s about 5 degrees shy of the target temp. You’ll want to cover the protein and let it rest for about 5 minutes before cutting into it, and the temperature will continue to rise as it rests. (That’s also known as carryover cooking.)
Don’t have an instant-read thermometer? You can always cut into the protein to see if it looks done. If you’re cooking chicken, look for clear juices and no pinkness.
Tips for Sautéing
- To achieve the best browning, it’s important to make sure your pan is hot enough before adding anything to it. Test the temp by adding a drop of water to the skillet—if it sizzles and turns to steam immediately, it’s ready.
- Use enough oil or fat to coat the pan, but not so much that you veer into pan-frying or shallow-frying territory.
- The enemy of a caramelized, brown crust is stirring and moving around the food. Resist the urge to touch too much, and try to flip the food only as many times are needed to brown all sides.
- Don’t overcrowd the pan. Giving the food room to breathe will encourage better browning, while overcrowding will cause everything to steam.
How to Choose a Sauté Pan
Almost as important as how to sauté is what you’re sautéing in. Even though you’ll see “sauté pans” on the market, they’re not necessarily the best choice for the job—the straight sides make it hard to shake the pan. Instead, you have two better alternatives:
- A large stainless steel skillet, which isn’t nonstick but will conduct even heat and help create a desirable sear
- A large non-toxic nonstick skillet, which requires less cooking oil to keep food from sticking and burning, but can sometimes be tricky to create a sear since it’s so slick
A nonstick skillet is versatile and good for beginners, but you’ll have to be more careful about heating it. Nonstick skillets aren’t well-suited for extreme temperatures, and you should never pre-heat them without adding oil first.