From Albania to Zimbabwe, much of the world's cooking boils down to a few core techniques. Sauteing is an important one, and there are a few basic steps involved in getting it right.
To saute is to cook relatively thin, tender pieces of food in a small amount of fat - basically a film - in a hot pan. (If the fat reaches a measurable depth, then you're pan-frying.) The goal is to brown the surface of the food while cooking the interior just enough for it to remain juicy and tender.
Boneless pork chops or tenderloin medallions; boneless strip, rib-eye, or shell sirloin steaks; skinless, boneless chicken and turkey cutlets; thin fish fillets or steaks; shrimp and scallops - are all good candidates for sauteing. The meat, fish, or poultry should be cut into pieces that are about the same size and thickness, so they will cook at a uniform rate. Each piece of food should be dried with paper towels before hitting the pan, because moisture inhibits browning and causes splattering. Season the food with salt and pepper just before cooking - salt draws out moisture, and the food will be damp if it sits too long.
The right pan is critical. For even heating, invest in a heavy-duty pan with an aluminum disk in the base or, better yet, a full aluminum core. It should be large enough to hold the food without crowding - if the pieces bunch up against one another, they may steam while they cook, which inhibits browning. Ideally, each piece should have about 1/2 inch of space all around it. Cook in batches, if necessary, to avoid crowding. Conversely, don't choose a gigantic pan for two or three pieces of food, as the pan can overheat and the drippings can burn, giving everything an off flavor.
Use a neutral-flavored oil, such as vegetable, corn, or canola. These have higher smoke points than olive oil or butter, so there is less chance of burning.
It is essential to preheat the pan. Food will stick to a pan that's too cool, and you'll rip off the brown crust when you try to move it. Start with a cold pan, add the oil, and let the pan and oil get good and hot (the oil will just begin to smoke) before adding the food, which will cause the temperature to drop immediately. Maintain enough heat so that the food sizzles, but not so much that it scorches.
Don't mess with the food in the pan! All cooks want to stir, poke, and turn food as it cooks, but resist the urge. It must lie undisturbed in order to brown. If it is not browned enough, it can stick to the pan and tear when you try to move it.
When the bottom is browned, grab the food gently at the edges with tongs (a spatula may damage the crust). If browned properly, it will lift up from the pan easily. Turn it over and again leave it alone. Cook until tender-firm - that is, much firmer than raw, but nowhere near as firm as well done.
You can serve your food plain or with condiments - but it's easy to make a pan sauce, which can add flavor and individuality. Just remove the sauteed food to a plate, tent loosely with foil, and keep warm. If the pan looks dry, add a teaspoon or two of oil, then 2 to 3 tablespoons of finely chopped shallot or onion or a teaspoon or two of chopped garlic, or a combination, and stir until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Next, add about 2/3 cup of low-sodium broth, or broth in combination with red or white wine. Turn the heat to high and use a wooden spoon to scrape up the brown bits left on the bottom of the pan. These drippings are called fond, and adding liquid to the pan to dissolve it is called deglazing. Also, add any juices that accumulate on the plate holding the food. Allow the liquid to boil until it's reduced by half. Reduce the heat and stir in flavorings and garnishes such as mustard, capers, sliced olives, or fresh herbs. Stir in about 1 tablespoon of unsalted butter to give the sauce body and sheen. Season with salt and pepper, spoon over the food, and serve.
SAUTEED CHICKEN CUTLETS WITH TARRAGON PAN SAUCE
5 teaspoons vegetable, corn, or canola oil
4 skinless, boneless 6- to 8-ounce chicken breasts, tenderloins removed, then cut in half horizontally to make 8 thin cutlets
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 large shallot, chopped very fine (about 3 tablespoons)
1/3 cup dry vermouth
1/3 cup low-sodium chicken broth
2 teaspoons chopped fresh tarragon
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
In a large, heavy skillet set over medium-high heat, heat 2 teaspoons of oil. Dry the cutlets with paper towels and sprinkle with salt and pepper. As soon as the oil shows signs of smoke, add 4 cutlets to the pan and cook, undisturbed, until the bottoms are lightly browned, about 2 1/2 minutes. Turn the cutlets over and cook until the bottom sides turn white and the cutlets appear cooked through, about 30 seconds. Transfer the cutlets to a plate, tent with foil, and keep warm. Add 2 more teaspoons of oil to the pan and repeat the process to cook remaining cutlets; transfer them to the plate with the first batch when they are done.
Reduce the heat to medium and add 1 teaspoon of oil to the pan if it looks dry. Add the shallot, stir to coat with oil, and cook, stirring constantly, to soften, about 30 seconds. Add the vermouth and chicken broth, turn the heat to high, and scrape the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to loosen and dissolve the fond. Add to the pan any juices accumulated on the plate of chicken and boil vigorously until the consistency is slightly syrupy and the volume is reduced by half, about 4 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium, add the tarragon, and stir. Add the butter and stir constantly while it melts to incorporate it into the sauce. Season with salt and pepper. Place 2 cutlets on each of 4 plates, spoon the sauce over the cutlets, and serve at once.
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