"Food should start cooking the moment it hits the pan, not gradually while the pan warms."
Sautéing is the Way and the Truth when it comes to giving foods a golden, crispy crust and a juicy, tender interior. But there's more to pulling it off than food-to-pan contact. Behold, the commandments of proper sautéing.
1. Honor Thy Pan Choice
You want something wider than it is tall, which encourages fast evaporation, in a size that can fit your food in a single layer without overlaps (the foods on top will steam-cook) or too much empty space (the fat will burn).
The exception: Greens or foods like mushrooms which will cook down in volume as they release moisture. Those you can keep loosely mounded in the pan and add more as you go. Lastly, avoid nonstick pans—the slippery surface will stop a good brown crust dead in its tracks. (But my food always sticks to the pan, you say. Shhh. I'm getting there.)
2. Thou Shalt Pre-Heat Aggressively
To get a good sear, food should start cooking the moment it hits the pan, not gradually while the pan warms. (This will help prevent it from sticking later.) First, heat the pan over a medium-high flame—a little lower is fine for white meats or thick cuts, fish, and vegetables that have already been blanched—before adding the fat; then again for a moment afterwards.
Good signs: You see the fat rippling or hear it foaming (Hark! This pan is ready!). Bad sign: You see smoke or smell the fat burning. In this case, turn off the heat, pour out the fat, and start over. Not sure you're in business? Dip an edge of the meat into the pan and listen for the heavenly sound of a sizzle.
3. Thou Shalt Go Easy on the Fat
Use only enough oil or clarified butter to keep the pan lubricated. (Any more than that takes you into pan-frying territory.) If you tip the pan and see more than a teaspoon or two of fat drip to the side, be a good cook and pour some out, would ya?
4. Dry Thy Food Well
Be sure there's no excess moisture or marinade when you add it to the hot fat. You've heard water and oil don't mix—seriously, listen.
5. Be Present, But Do Not Hover
The tension of holding a spatula can be more than you can bear (it's the human condition). You just want to nudge, flip, lift, or stir something. But, to quote my culinary school chef-instructor, unless you're Rachael Ray, you don't need to stand there stirring or flipping for the camera.
Instead, let the food develop the color and crust you want on one side before shifting it at all. When it's done, it should naturally release from the pan. In the case of meat or larger foods, flip only once.
Go forth against the evil that is gray, steamed food.
About the author: "Sue Veed" is an editor at a Manhattan-based food magazine and a current culinary student who's trying to learn it all so she can cook it all. She'll take us along for the ride as she makes the journey from home cook to professional. Among things she may never master: looking natural in a chef's hat, and acting demure whenever a pork product hits the table.