5 Essential Things to Know About Sautéing

We unlock the kitchen technique that leads to perfectly seared bites of food.

Repeat until sweet potatoes are sliced

The Spruce / Cara Cormack

Sautéing is a simple but highly useful cooking technique generally used to cook vegetables and small pieces of meat. When done properly, sautéing is a reasonably quick cooking step because it uses high heat and only a small amount of fat. You can read more about sautéing, including the difference between pan frying and sautéing, here.

Which Pans Are Right for Sautéing 

To achieve the high heat and quick cook of sautéing, you need to have the right style and size of pan. The pan should ideally be shallow and reasonably wide, to allow the food to be cooked in a single layer. It should also be heavy-bottomed to allow proper heat conduction, but not so heavy overall that it can’t be shaken easily.

Got the right pan in hand? Here are 5 essential tips for successful sautéing:

diced onion on a cutting board with chef's knife and root ends set aside

The Spruce Eats / Julia Hartbeck

1. Cut vegetables uniformly, and cook them “from the ground up”.

When sautéing vegetables, prep and order of cooking makes all the difference. When prepping, work to cut all your vegetables into uniform small diced or julienned pieces so they can cook evenly as a group.

When it’s time to cook, use the “from the ground up” rule: Begin with root vegetables like carrots and potatoes first because these below-the-ground veggies are actually more dense and need a little more time in the pan. Then add in any lighter above-the-ground vegetables such as peppers, zucchini, and broccoli. This extra effort makes sure that all your vegetables are cooked to the same level of doneness.

Pro tip: Save your seasoning for after your veggies are cooked and lightly browned. 

Pat the shrimp dry

The Spruce

2. Pat vegetables and meat dry before sautéing.

Sautéing is a dry cooking method, which means it works best without any additional liquid getting in the way of proper searing and browning. For this reason, it is important that everything you plan to sauté—meat and vegetables alike—need to be patted as dry as possible to ensure that moisture is not inadvertently added to the pan. Because that moisture leads to soggy and no one wants that.

oil in a pan

The Spruce / Diana Chistruga

3. Get the pan nice and hot before adding any food. 

Sautéing is a high heat process, so don’t drop that food into the pan until it’s good and hot.  There’s an easy test: Add a drop of water to the pan and if it immediately starts to sizzle and evaporate, you’re good to go. Now it’s time to add a small amount of high-smoke-point oil (sunflower and safflower are ideal), butter, or ghee to the pan. Oil should immediately begin to shimmer, butter to foam lightly, and ghee to melt rapidly. And keep that heat up: Maintaining high heat at this stage is important as you add the vegetables or meat, to ensure that the food cooks quickly and properly. 

morel mushrooms cooking in a frying pan

The Spruce / Maxwell Cozzi

4. Don't overcrowd the pan.

Overcrowding a pan will ruin a good sauté, and here’s why. First, adding too many ingredients will suddenly lower the temperature of the pan and prevent the food from adequately searing and browning. Second, you want a single layer of food (no pile-ups) so that every piece gets the full contact it needs to seal and brown fully. Finally, you need some elbow room in the pan for any steam to dissipate rather than to build up and soften your sear. We’re not here to steam—we’re here to sauté. If you have a large batch of food to sauté, do it in batches or use multiple pans.  

add lemon juice to the potato mixture

The Spruce / Julia Hartbeck

5. Shake or stir frequently, but not too frequently.  

To ensure even cooking, sautéing requires the food to be moved around the pan frequently, either by shaking the pan or by using a utensil. But don’t go crazy—allow some time for good searing to happen in between the shake-ups. This is a knack you’ll develop quickly with a little practice, so don’t sweat it in advance.