When you cook food in a skillet in some amount of fat, you’re either sautéing or pan-frying. Which one you’re doing depends on just a few subtle differences.
• Use only the smallest amount of fat or oil—enough to lightly coat the bottom of the pan and prevent the food from sticking.
• Use medium-high to high heat—hot enough to make the food sizzle, sputter, and even jump a little the instant it hits the pan.
• Keep the food in nearly constant motion, by stirring with a utensil or actually flipping the pan, so that it browns evenly.
• Choose fast-cooking foods: cutlets, vegetable pieces, shrimp.
• Use fats such as clarified butter, vegetable oil, or a mix of whole butter and oil.
• Use about 1/4 inch of fat or oil.
• Use medium to medium-high heat.
• Leave the food relatively undisturbed—except for an occasional flip or turn with a spatula, a fork, or tongs.
• Choose larger pieces of food and those that are coated with breading before cooking, such as thick pork chops, bone-in chicken pieces, and whole trout.
• Use fats with a high smoke point, like vegetable oil or lard—a very traditional fat for pan-frying.