How to Sauté Just About Anything In the Right Pan

Sautéing veggies, meat, or fish in a small amount of fat, until golden is a cooking method simple enough for busy weeknights, with really tasty results.

What does sauté mean? The word is culinary-speak for browning or cooking a food quickly over fairly high heat, using a small amount of fat in a wide, shallow pan. The word "sauté" comes from the French word sauter, which means "to jump." Imagine a toque-capped (a toque is that classic puffy, white hat worn by chefs) chef shaking a pan of vegetables back and forth, while making the food jump in the air, and you get the idea. Fortunately, you can get the same jumpy, nonstick effect simply by stirring the food with a spatula or flipping it with tongs. Best of all, no matter how you choose to sauter, dinner will be done quickly, as sautéing is one of the fastest cooking methods around. Here's everything to know about how to sauter comme un chef de cuisine. (How to sauté like a chef, that is, and now we're done with today's vocabulary lesson.)

saute pan with oil ready for cooking

BHG / Crystal Hughes

What Is a Sauté Pan?

Start with the right equipment. While you can use a frying pan to sauté, the best option is a real sauté pan. A sauté pan (Bed Bath & Beyond) has sides that are a little higher than the sides of a frying pan. This helps keep food from spilling out as it's shaken, stirred, and flipped.

Sauté pans come in a variety of materials, including aluminum, stainless steel, and enameled cast iron. The key is to select a sturdy, heavy pan that will cook evenly. Sauté pans have straight sides (a skillet has flared or slanted sides) and often come with lids, since some foods, such as larger pieces of meat, benefit by finishing the cooking process covered.

sautéed vegetables on plate

BHG / Crystal Hughes

How to Sauté Vegetables

The best sautéed vegetables have a crisp-tender texture with caramelized surfaces. Here's how to sauté vegetables to perfection.

  • Choose the right size sauté pan: The pan should be able to hold the food in one layer. If it's too small, the food will steam rather than brown.
  • Prep the vegetables: Wash vegetables and pat them dry. If possible, cut them into uniform pieces so they'll cook evenly. Note: Mushrooms require their own style of prep. Find out how to trim and wash mushrooms for sautéing.
  • Heat the sauté pan: Lightly coat your sauté pan with 2 to 3 teaspoons oil, such as cooking oil or olive oil—or you can spray the unheated pan with nonstick cooking spray. Preheat the pan on medium high until hot.

Test Kitchen Tip: Butter adds a nutty, rich flavor, but the drawback to using it for sautéing is that it burns more quickly than cooking oil or olive oil at higher temperatures. If you're using butter, watch it carefully and lower the heat if necessary. You can also combine butter with cooking oil or olive oil, which allows cooking at a higher heat than with butter alone.

  • Add the vegetables: Carefully add the vegetables and reduce the heat to medium. Don't add liquid and don't cover the pan. Stir the food with a spatula ( Sur la Table) or wooden spoon (Williams Sonoma), or use the pan's long handle to shake it in a back-and-forth motion, making sure the food is coated with the fat and cooks evenly without scorching.
  • Cook until crisp-tender: The sautéed vegetables should be just tender but still somewhat crunchy. At this stage, a fork can be inserted with a little pressure.
sautéed chicken in pan

BHG / Crystal Hughes

How to Sauté Meat and Poultry

When it comes to beef, lamb, pork, and veal, sautéing works best for tender cuts, such as steaks, chops, and cutlets. As for sautéing chicken, good candidates include chicken tenders; skinless, boneless chicken breast halves, and skinless, boneless chicken thighs. Here's how to sauté meat and poultry:

  • Choose the right-size sauté pan: Be sure the food can easily fit in the pan in one layer without overcrowding.
  • Heat the sauté pan:
    • For meat: Lightly coat the unheated sauté pan with nonstick cooking spray or use a heavy nonstick sauté pan. Preheat the pan on medium high until very hot.
    • For chicken: Lightly coat the sauté pan with 2 to 3 teaspoons of oil, such as cooking oil or olive oil. Or you can spray the unheated pan with nonstick cooking spray. Preheat the pan over medium-high until hot.
  • Cook until done: Add the meat or poultry to the sauté pan. Do not add any liquid and do not cover the skillet. Reduce the heat to medium; cook until done as determined by a meat thermometer (The Home Depot), turning the meat or poultry occasionally. If the food browns too quickly, reduce the heat to medium-low. Use these guidelines for minimum internal meat temperatures: chicken 165°F, pork chops 145°F, beef 145°F for steaks and 160°F for ground, lamb 160°F, veal chops 145°F.
  • Let meat stand: Tent the meat with foil and let it stand 5 minutes (for beef steaks and lamb and veal chops) or 3 minutes (for pork chops).
  • Make a pan sauce: This is entirely optional, but once you're done sautéing meat or chicken, you're already well on your way to making a great sauce to go with it. Find out how to make a sauce for sautéed chicken or steaks using those tasty browned bits left in the pan.

There you have it, the ins and outs of sautéing explained. The only other tip to remember is that sautéing and multitasking don't mix well. Unlike the watched pot that never boils, sautéed vegetables and meats are done in a flash. So keep your eye on what's cooking, and you'll achieve sautéed perfection in a flash.

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