To sauté is to cook food quickly in a minimal amount of fat over relatively high heat. The word comes from the French verb sauter, which means “to jump,” and describes not only how food reacts when placed in a hot pan but also the method of tossing the food in the pan. The browning achieved by sautéing lends richness to meats and produce. And because the food is cooked quickly, the integrity of the flavor and texture remains intact; asparagus, for example, retains its slightly grassy punch, as well as a pleasing crisp-tender bite.
Sautéing is similar to stir frying, but not quite the same. Both methods cook food quickly in a small amount of fat, but stir-frying cooks food over intensely high heat, stirring constantly. Sautéing uses moderately high heat, and the food is not in continuous motion.
You want to choose a pan with a dense bottom that evenly distributes heat. A cast iron skillet or a thick stainless steel pan works well. Depending on what vegetables you are sautéing and how you are going to use them, you start with slicing your vegetables. If I’m making a pan of peppers and onions, I like thicker slices. Mushrooms, I will leave them whole or if they are very large, will slice them in half. Squash? I like a “medium” slice. It’s up to you! The thinner the slice, the quicker they will cook, but of course! Just remember that the slices need to be uniform in size so they cook evenly. Warm up your pan over medium heat for a minute or two. Add your oil and let it warm up. Use an oil that can withstand higher heat such as olive oil, canola oil, coconut or avocado oil. Don’t use butter! Butter will burn and nobody likes that! How much oil? About a tablespoon. You want enough oil to coat the bottom of your pan, but you don’t want your vegetables swimming in oil. Add your vegetables and seasoning. Let your vegetables hang out and brown a bit before you start stirring. Then gently give them a stir. Let them cook another minute or 2 (depends on your vegetables and how thick they are sliced), stir them again and done! Use your eyes, use your judgement – you cook your vegetables to the desired level of doneness that you want. The beauty of a sauté or stir fry is that it’s simple and there are no hard and fast rules – you can’t really mess it up as long as you don’t walk away from your pan. NEVER walk away from the pan. If you make a skillet of vegetables that didn’t end up 100% perfect the way you envisioned – that’s ok! Trial and error = WIN.
Things to be aware of and utilize if you want: Vegetables, when cooked, will release water. If you overcrowd your pan, you could end up steaming your vegetables instead of straight up sautéing. I actually like to do a hybrid sauté-steam. I also like to overcrowd my pan. (Ok, those are my dirty secrets revealed!) Overcrowding = more than 1 layer is in the pan. I typically load up my skillet because I want to make a big pan and just be DONE and I also like the texture and taste of a sauté-steam and I can get away with using less oil. I let my veg brown a bit, stir them, let them cook a couple of minutes, stir again, I put a lid on the pan for a minute or 2 to let the vegetables sauté-steam, then I uncover the pan, crank the heat up just a bit and finish it off.
Sautéing a big pan or pans of vegetables each week is something I do as part of my weekly meal prep. It’s easy to make yourself a one dish meal at the end of a long day if you already have ingredients ready to go in the fridge. Consider having vegetables, beans and rice in the fridge ready to grab and go! You can also have rotisserie chicken, browned and seasoned ground beef, polish sausage, etc. on hand that you can also add to your bowl.
ENJOY! ~~ Jen Sturm