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Culinary Term of the Week: Sauté

November 24, 2009

By Chef Gusteau

Ah, seemingly among the easiest of cooking techniques in any kitchen, right?  Well, while sautéing is quite easy, it is also one of the most incorrectly performed cooking methods.  Basically there are four components involved in sautéing: the pan, the food, the fat, and the heat.  For the pan, you want a shallow, wide bottomed stainless steel pan.  This will heat up quickly, allow steam to escape easily (steaming is another method for another time), and allow for the ingredients to be easily moved within the pan.  Could you use another type of pan?  Certainly, but the ideal pan is actually called the sauté’ pan, go figure.  You want to sauté in a Crockpot, that’s fine…I’ll be having the salad.

For the level of heat, I recommend med-high to high.  Now for those of us with gas burners, I don’t mean have the flames completely engulfing the pan and pouring over the top.  The key to the heat is to get the pan hot enough that you actually caramelize the food that is being cooked.  Caramelization is the oxidation of sugars and occurs at 110 degrees.  The food releases its sugars and browning occurs. What does this mean…food looks and tastes better!

Ok, now the fat discussion.  I recommend sautéing in either clarified butter or extra virgin olive oil.  Both have high smoking points and won’t break down before you are done cooking.  You can use regular butter, but it will brown quickly and break apart (butter solids separate from fat) and not work as well.  Other oils work, but just be sure they have high smoking points.  For example, you are not going to sauté in coconut oil and expect good results.  I have had health conscious individuals ask me if they can sauté in water.  Well sure, but I guess that’s kind of like steaming, right?

Now the best part, the food ingredients.  The secret here really is in the preparation.  All the ingredients being sautéed together should be of uniform size.  For example, if you are sautéing onions, carrots and celery (classic mirepoix), they should all be diced to the same size and fit easily in the pan.  If you put too much food in the pan, you will in fact be steaming instead of sautéing.  Remember, the goal was caramelization.  High heat and fat will bring out the sugars from the food.  Once the food hits the pan you can quickly stir the ingredients to ensure each piece is coated with the fat.  At that point, let everything sit for just a bit.  Now, I know everyone will tell me “But Chef Gusteau, I happen to know that sauté means “jump” in French” and will insist I start shaking the pan like a crazed man, flipping the ingredients high in the air, waving the pan in mid-air and catching all the ingredients again like some Tiger Woods golf ball commercial.  Sure, it may look cool and impress the ladies (or men), but it has its LIMITED purpose.  Let me share a story that one of my chef instructors told me when I first sautéed in front of him.  “Gusteau, if I place your bare hand in that hot sauté pan, what will hurt more, if I keep picking up your hand in and out of the pan, or if I just leave it there?”  There you have it.  The flipping motion is great for rotating the ingredients in the pan, but get that pan back on the heat.  Remember, as another chef once told me, anymore than two shakes and you’re just playing with it.

There you have it. Simple and effective.  In another discussion we can talk about that beautiful mix of caramelized food that remains on the sauté pan when you are done.  This “Fond” is a great basis for a great sauce with your food.

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