When explaining the sauté technique, it's important to remember that language is a living thing and sometimes a word can migrate from its original meaning. It may even happen to the same word more than once. That's kind of what happened to the word "sauté"; there is a specific culinary definition that few home cooks know and a looser common usage that seems to have suplanted the actual meaning. Even television celebrity chefs seem to have conceeded to the popular use rather than use up valuable air time to sway the tide. The challenge here is to reconcile the common use with the technical definition and perhaps even reign it in a bit so there is less confusion.
The literal meaning, of course, is "to jump". It's an appropriate name for a technique that frequently tosses ingredients in a controlled loop to promote even cooking and cool things down. But, long story short, Auguste Escoffier redefined the technique with these basic rules (paraphrased and abridged):
This is a dry heat method for cooking food rapidly in a small amount of fat over relatively high heat. Because it is a fast technique and does not have the tenderizing effect of some other methods, it is best suited to naturally tender foods that are thinner in size for a quick cooking time. Any juices, sugars or bits of protein released during cooking will caramelize onto the pan and form the base for a sauce made in the same pan and to be served with the sauteed item. A critical element to saute is to capture flavors in the pan by "deglazing" (the addition of a lightly acidic liquid, usually wine) and from them, create an accompanying sauce. In this method, the sauce is an essential element for three reasons: it captures the flavor lost during cooking; it brings additional flavors (important because tender foods have delicate flavors); and it counteracts the dryness resulting from high heat searing.
And since then, professional line cooks have been banging out Sole Meuniere like nobody's business. But that was a long time ago. And while the above definition is still correct in restaurant kitchens, out in the world where the rest of us live, the meaning has broadened.
Too often "sauté" seems to refer to any kind of frying done in a small amount of oil, be it in a sauté pan or soup pot. But that's an overly casual, if not lazy, misuse of the word. Perhaps a more accurate new definition would be: The spirited or high heat searing and sizzling of vegetables, cutlets or other foods in a sauté (or similar) pan, using a small amount of fat. Integral sauces aren't a defining factor (but certainly welcome) and sometimes liquids are used to control temperature and add moisture.
This is a flavorful and fast method for cooking vast combinations of tender vegetables, fish fillets. meats, or chicken cutlets. If you take the time to learn this technique, a really good meal is never more than 20 minutes away, and that includes prep! Since this method requires that you add foods to a hot pan, make sure to either pat food items dry with paper towels or dredge them in flour to reduce the surface moisture that can cause the hot oil to spatter. It is also important not to overcrowd the pan- this will lower the pan temperature too much and your "sauté" will turn into a "stew"! Even under its new definition, sauté is still a fast technique.
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