13 Things You Should Know Before You Start
Sauté has always been the cooking method that I’m best known for. It was the foundation that I based my former restaurant on and after 10 years of using and perfecting this art, I wrote a book on it entitled, Simply Sauté. So I couldn’t very well give a tutorial on cooking basics without highlighting sauté…so here it is.
Sauté literally means “to jump” and is a simple, quick, and highly flavorful way of preparing a meal. To sauté means to add any ingredient to a small amount of hot oil to brown or cook it, along with some flavorings, in a sauté or frying pan. Sauté can be done with small, uniform pieces of any meat, fish, or vegetable. It’s not very mysterious. In fact, many of you probably use this technique from time to time without even realizing it. Even so, sauté is not widely recognized as a method that can be used to create an entire meal for two, four, or more people. It can – by following just a few guidelines.
Thirteen Things You Should Know Before You Get Started
1. You don’t need much. The only equipment you need is a sauté pan – also called a skillet or a frying pan – and something to stir with. Sauté pans come in all sizes. I recommend that you use a 7-inch pan for single-serving dishes, a 10-inch pan for double servings, and a 13-inch pan for larger meals.
2. What kind of sauté pan? The best kind is stainless steel, which distributes the heat evenly and cleans well. A coated nonstick sauté pan does not work nearly as well because its surface will not brown and sear the food. (Those pans are great, though, for omelets and frittatas, foods that you want to slide off the pan easily, without browning.) Another reason you don’t want to use a nonstick pan is that bits of the food will not stick to the pan during the cooking process. Those bits, once incorporated into the sauce, will add flavor to the sauces that you will create from the sautéed ingredients. A sauté pan can be straight-edged or sloped. I prefer the sloped pans for two reasons. First, tossing the ingredients is easier in a sloped pan. Second, a sloped pan makes it easier to incorporate into the sauce all the juices and bits of food that may otherwise get stuck in the edges of the straight-edge skillet.
3. Don’t over stir. A common mistake made by inexperienced sauté cooks is overstirring, which prevents meat, fish, or other ingredients from searing and browning and that gets in the way of your locking in the natural flavors. Simply place your ingredients into the hot oil and leave them alone until the undersides of the meat or fish pieces begin to turn opaque (white) and your vegetables brown. Then turn them. All this usually takes no more than two minutes.
4. Give some vegetables a head start. Parboil dense vegetables (broccoli, asparagus, etc.) in boiling water for a few minutes to soften them before sautéing, then quickly dunk them in cold water to prevent overcooking. This will ensure that the insides of the vegetables are cooked without the outsides becoming overly brown or burnt.
5. It’s not frying. Sautéing and frying are vastly different, so don’t use – or think – of the words interchangeably. Sautéing uses a little bit of oil, which becomes part of your sauce. Frying uses lots of oil, which you want kept out of your food. Always start sautéing with a small amount of olive oil, just enough to cover the bottom of the sauté pan. This usually means 3 or 4 tablespoons, perhaps a bit more or less, depending on the size of the pan. Allow the oil to heat, usually for about 30 seconds before you add the ingredients. The sizzle that you hear when you add an ingredient indicates that the oil is ready. If the oil starts to smoke, it means that the oil is too hot, so remove the pan from the heat for a few moments until the oil cools. Return the oil to the heat and add a small amount of the first ingredient. If the oil begins to sizzle, it’s ready. If not, let it heat for a few more moments. I do not recommend using butter at this point, for butter burns easily over high heat and will turn brown before most of the ingredients in the pan are cooked. However, if you are making a quick sauce with ingredients such as spinach, which cooks in seconds, and you want to use butter instead of olive oil, go right ahead. Here’s a tip that all you butter aficionados will love: Adding a small amount of butter, usually a teaspoon or less, is sufficient, at the very end of your sautéed dish. A small amount, at this time will go a long way toward adding butter flavor, without the high cholesterol.
6. Be gentle with garlic. If your recipe calls for minced garlic, add it just before you add a cold or room-temperature ingredient, such as tomatoes, wine, or broth. Finely chopped garlic can burn in less than a minute in hot oil and ruin your entire dish before you even get started. Following with cold ingredients will cool everything down in the pan and prevent burning.
7. Prep everything first. Because sauté is such a quick cooking method, have all your ingredients — broths, sauces etc. — chopped, dredged, defrosted, and ready to go. If something is not ready, remove the pan from the heat while you complete the additional prep.
8. Be uniform. Always cut the ingredients you plan to use into pieces of equal size. That way, they’ll cook evenly. For example, chicken must be cut or pounded into relatively thin pieces, but their thickness must be the same. This will allow the chicken to cook thoroughly in a few minutes without overcooking some pieces and undercooking others (a potentially dangerous mistake with ingredients like chicken or pork).
9. Pasta needs its space. Always cook a pound of pasta in at least 4 quarts of water. It needs room to grow. I like to add a teaspoon of salt, to hasten the boiling time of the water and salt the pasta, and a tablespoon of olive oil when cooking a thin or delicate pasta, such as linguine or angel-hair, to prevent the pasta from sticking and clumping together.
10. Dredging can help. Dredging an ingredient – chicken, vegetables, crabcakes, whatever – means coating it in something, usually flour (bleached or unbleached, white or whole wheat) or another dry ingredient, such as breadcrumbs or cornmeal, before sautéing. Dredging gives an ingredient a wonderful, even coating that browns beautifully.
11. More than a pretty face. Many of the recipes call for fresh, chopped Italian (flat-leaf) parsley. One reason is aesthetic. Parsley adds color and makes almost any dish look great. The other is for flavor. Unlike basil, which also adds color but has a much stronger taste, parsley adds a subtle flavor that will complement most dishes.
12. Adding flavor. A great way to add flavor to your sauces is to deglaze your skillet. Deglazing is simple. It means adding a liquid (usually a wine or liquor) to a pan to lift the browned pieces of meat, fish, etc., that have stuck to the pan. Deglazing adds wonderful flavor to your dish. Normally, you remove the large ingredients from the pan before adding the desired liquid to make a sauce. In most of my recipes, I find it unnecessary to remove the ingredients from the pan to make a sauce. It is easier, and more flavorful, to leave them in the pan, make your sauce, and let all your ingredients begin to absorb some of the juices and sauce before you serve the dish.
13. Have fun. The most important rule of all is to remember that cooking is an art, not a science. So have fun with it. You may like tomatoes, while I like potatoes. You like artichokes. I like asparagus. You like white sauces. I like red. You get the picture. Use what you like and create you own masterpieces.