One of the simplest and quickest ways to cook tender meat, poultry, and fish is to sauté it. The key to making sautéed foods taste truly delicious is to encourage a savory crust to form on both the food and the pan. The caramelized crust on the food gives it a wonderful texture and deep flavor; the crust in the pan, when deglazed with wine or broth, provides a flavorful base for a tasty sauce.
Begin with tender meat, poultry, or fish
Because sautéing cooks food rapidly without much tenderizing, whatever you sauté must be naturally tender. Meat and fish cut into steaks and fillets are good candidates, as are pork, lamb, and veal chops and chicken breasts. Paillards (pronounced pie-YARDS; also called cutlets and escalopes) are literally made for a sauté.
Dry the food and season it before it hits the pan. If the surface of the food is moist, it will release steam, which prevents the formation of a crust. Pat dry both sides of the item with a paper towel. Sprinkle both sides with coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper. A spice rub or marinade are also excellent ways to add flavor to a sauté (just be sure to dry food that has been marinated).
Use a Coating to brown and add flavor
Most thick pieces of fish or meat don’t require a coating—they’re thick enough so that the outside will brown nicely and end up with a savory outer crust before the inside overcooks. Thinner meats (such as veal scaloppini or thin fish fillets) brown better when lightly coated with flour, which browns at a lower temperature than the fish or meat.
Pick The proper pan
Two kinds of pans are used for sautéing, one with sloping sides and one with straight sides. Sloping sides make it easier to toss small items by jerking the pan up and towards you so that the pieces of food hit the rim of the pan and roll back, shifting their position.
A straight-sided sauté pan is good for sautéing larger items, such as pieces of meat or fish, which would be difficult to toss. Because you turn these foods with tongs, the sloping sides aren’t important. Whatever pan you use, it should have a heavy base, which retains heat and cooks food more evenly.
Choose a size to fit the food in a single layer. If the pan is too large, the areas of the pan not covered by food will overheat, causing the juices to burn. If the pan is too small, any food not in contact with the pan will steam.
For making a sauce, pass on the nonstick. Nonstick pans are great for sautéing very delicate food, like fish, but the savory juices—those flavorful brown bits—won’t adhere to a nonstick pan, and so you’ll have nothing to deglaze if it’s your intent to make a sauce.
Don’t cover the pan. A cover traps steam and prevents juices from caramelizing into a savory crust.
Choose A flavorful fat
When choosing a fat to use for sautéing, consider its smoking point as well as its flavor. Because these foods cook quickly, you can often get away with using a flavorful fat with a lower smoking point, such as butter or animal fats, instead of less flavorful vegetable oils, which can withstand higher temperatures. Olive oil gives you the benefit of both great flavor and a relatively high smoking point.
Clarifying butter to get rid of its milk solids allows it to tolerate higher temperatures, but doing so can be a nuisance. If you’re sautéing foods that cook quickly, you can sauté with whole butter as long as you watch the pan and quickly lower the heat if the butter threatens to burn.
Heat the pan and the fat before adding foods. A pan that’s not quite hot enough will cause the foods to release juices but won’t be hot enough to evaporate and caramelize them. Instead, the liquid will flow out into the pan and the food will steam and boil instead of sauté, so be sure to get your pan quite hot. The fat needs to be hot, too, before you add the food. Vegetable or olive oil and clarified butter should be heated until they ripple in the pan. Whole butter should be heated just until its foaming begins to subside. Add the food immediately.
Decide when it’s done by touch
Determining when a food is cooked through is a matter of touch, sight, and experience.
By gently pressing against the food’s surface, you can judge its doneness. White meats and fish feel fleshy during the beginning of cooking. As they cook, they begin to feel firm. As soon as there’s no hint of fleshiness, take the food out of the pan. A similar test works for red meat, but you’ll have to learn what your steak feels like when cooked the way you like it.
You can also cut discreetly into the fish or meat and take a peek. But don’t forget to feel the food as well; you’ll quickly learn how to equate texture with doneness.
Make a sauce from the browned bits
After pouring off the fat, deglaze the caramelized juices with a flavorful liquid—white or red wine, meat or fish stock, balsamic vinegar, or a fruit juice. You can use this simple pan-deglazed sauce as it is or as the base for a more involved sauce, which might include sautéing shallots in the pan and then adding cream or butter for body, and herbs, spices, and mustard for more flavor.