Sauteing & other dry heat cooking methods

When you cook food, you are either using a dry heat method, a moist heat method or sometimes both. If you understand these methods, it will help you get better results with less frustration. In this Cooking Tip, I want to discuss Dry Heat Cooking Methods.

Let me first define two terms – conduction and convection. The first refers to cooking food by direct heat transfer. Examples are broiling, grilling and sautéing. Convection cooking involves indirect heat transfer such as you find with roasting, baking, frying and smoking.

Sauté

One of the most commonly used dry heat cooking methods is sautéing. In this method, you cook food quickly in a small amount of oil (or other fat) in a skillet or sauté pan over a relatively high heat. Since the word “sauté” comes from the French verb “sauter” meaning “to jump”, this is a type of cooking where you are stirring or tossing the food in the pan and cooking it quickly.

It is an ideal method for foods that only need brief cooking, such as tender vegetables, steaks, and chicken breast. It is also how we brown aromatics (onion, garlic) that are then going to be used to make a soup or stew.

Here are the steps to a proper sauté.

  • Preheat a dry pan until hot. Use a pan with short sides and one that is wider than it is tall and preferably with sloped sides rather than straight.
  • Add just enough oil to coat the bottom and swirl for even distribution. Since you are cooking over a relatively high heat, you want to use a fat with a high smoke point.
  • Continue to heat until the oil is shimmering or looks rippled but not smoking.
  • Put food into pan and cook until done.
    • Make sure food is dry before putting into pan.
    • Cut food into similar sized pieces.
    • If the food is cut into pieces, toss them intermittently so they cook evenly. You want enough contact time to brown the food.
    • If it is one large piece, you won’t stir/toss the food. Rather, turn when it is browned on the first side. Finish cooking on second side. Turn only once, if possible. (Some would call this pan frying – see discussion below.)
  • Do not overcrowd the pan; keep items in a single layer. If the pan is too full, the food will steam rather than sauté.
  • Sautéing is often followed by making a pan sauce in the same pan.

Stir Fry

Although similar to sautéing, it differs in that the food is constantly being moved and tossed in an intensely heated pan. With sautéing, the pan is only over moderate high heat and the food is not constantly in motion. Finally, with sautéing, the cooked food is removed from the pan while you make a pan sauce. With stir-frying, the sauce is usually made in the pan with the food and everything is thoroughly coated in the sauce.

Pan-frying/Shallow frying/Deep fat frying

There is a difference of opinion on how to use the words pan-frying and shallow-frying. Some consider pan-frying to be when you cook a single piece of meat such as a filet in a small amount of oil. (If you are cooking cut up pieces of meat in a small amount of oil, it is a sauté.) These people would define shallow-frying as a cooking method where you use enough oil to reach halfway up the side of the food in the pan.

Others would consider a sauté to be cooking the food in minimal oil no matter whether it is one piece or cut up pieces. They would define pan-frying and shallow frying as the same thing and is when the food is cooked in oil that comes up the side of the food halfway.

No matter which camp you are in with regards to those terms, deep-frying is cooking the food in enough oil to submerge it completely. With both sauteing and pan-frying and/or shallow frying, the food is in contact with the surface of the pan, aiding browning. In deep fat frying, the food does not touch the pan as it is surrounded by oil.

Steps to pan fry/shallow fry (for purposes of the Cooking Tip, we will consider these the same)

  • Dry & season food. Pan-fried food is usually coated before frying (flour, breadcrumbs, cracker meal, cornmeal). Coatings create a crispy crust and insulate the food to prevent over-cooking. Coat in 3 steps: dust in flour, dip into egg wash and dredge in main coating.
  • Heat pan, add oil so it comes half-way up the side of the food and heat oil.
  • For frying, the ideal oil temperature is 350°F. The oil will have a slight shimmer to it at this temperature. You could also dip a corner of the breaded food into the oil. At the correct temperature, the oil will bubble around the food and the coating will start to brown in about 45 seconds.
  • Carefully add the food to the hot oil, laying it in the pan away from you to prevent hot oil splattering on you. Do not crowd food.
  • When the first side is a golden color, turn the food and continue to cook the second side until golden. If the food item is thin, it will cook through on the stovetop. If it is thicker, you may want to place the food item on a baking sheet and finish cooking in the oven.

Deep-frying method

  • Ensure food is cut into uniform size. Dry and season. Coat as desired.
  • Add sufficient oil to a large pot or wok or a countertop deep fat fryer so the food will be submerged in the oil.
  • Heat oil to about 350°F. It is best to use a thermometer as the oil temperature needs to stay fairly steady throughout the frying process.
  • Carefully place food in oil away from you using tongs or put them in the fryer basket if you have a deep fat fryer. Do not drop the food into the oil. Get close to the surface of the oil as you place the food in it.
  • At first, the items will sink to the bottom but will rise to the surface as it cooks. Use tongs or chopsticks to move the food around as it cooks.
  • When food is cooked, remove from hot oil either using a spider or by lifting out the fryer basket.
  • Season food immediately after removing from the oil.

Broiling

Food is heated by conduction from above the food. It is very intense heat and a very quick method of cooking.

Grilling

One source defines grilling as “broiling turned upside down”. It also uses conductive heat but the heat comes from below the food item. It is also a very intense source of heat. Grilling imparts a smoky, slightly charred flavor to the foods

Roasting/Baking

This is a convective type of cooking that results from dry heated air in an enclosed environment (oven). The term “roasting” generally applies to meat/poultry whereas “baking” is used more for fish, fruits, breads, and pastries.

Smoking

A cooking process that uses dry indirect convective heat from smoldering wood chips. It uses a low temperature over a long period of time.

Although it is good to have a working knowledge of all the dry cooking methods, sautéing is probably the method you will use the most. If you learn that skill, you are able to get a great dinner on the table in very little time.