The word sauté (pronounced "saw-TAY") refers to a form of dry-heat cooking that uses a hot pan and a small amount of fat to cook the food quickly. Like other dry-heat cooking methods, sautéing browns the food's surface as it cooks and develops complex flavors and aromas.
When sautéing, it's important to get the pan very hot, then add the fat (butter or oil) and let it get hot as well, before adding the food to the pan. This hot fat helps coat the food so that the surface will brown evenly.
Another key is to avoid overloading or overcrowding the pan. In order to achieve the desired browning of the food, the pan needs to stay hot throughout the cooking process. Too much food in the pan dissipates the heat, causing the food to steam or boil rather than sauté.
When you sauté, you want to keep the food moving. The word sauté means "jump" in French. Tossing or flipping the food in the pan ensures that it cooks evenly, but it also helps keep the pan hot.
The reason it's important to keep the food moving around is that when a hot thing meets a cooler thing, their temperatures eventually meet in the middle. The cooler thing grows warmer while the hot thing cools down.
How Sautéing Works
To illustrate, imagine a pan with green beans cooking in it. The beans at the bottom of the pan, closest to the heat source, are nice and hot, while the ones on top, where they're exposed to air, are cooler. The longer they sit like this, the greater this disparity in temperature becomes.
You're eventually going to want to cook the beans on top, too. And once you flip them, the ones from the top come into contact with the pan's surface and, because they're cooler, they actually lower the temperature of the pan.
This leads to the same problem mentioned earlier, where the food ends up steaming rather than sautéing. That's why we try to keep everything moving more or less constantly.
To facilitate this, some sauté pans have sloped sides, which makes it easier to flip those items in the pan without flipping them all over the kitchen. However, it's worth noting that this flipping or tossing technique is only really practical with smaller pieces of food, especially vegetables.
For steaks, larger cuts of poultry, fish fillets, and so on, we're more likely to employ a technique known as pan-frying rather than sautéing.
When you sauté at home, you don't actually have to toss the food around in the pan. If you've never done it before, you don't want to end up with food all over the floor, or your kids or your pets. It's fine to use a wooden spoon or heatproof spatula to move the food around. But if you want to practice your tossing, use a cool pan with some dry beans in it.
Pan-Frying Vs. Sautéing
What's pan-frying? It's a lot like sautéing, but with a few key differences. Besides the fact that there's no tossing, pan-frying uses slightly more fat and slightly lower temperatures than sautéing. This makes it a good method for cooking larger pieces of meat that would not have time to cook through because with sautéing, the food isn't in the pan for very long.
For that reason, larger pieces of meat are often finished in the oven after the surface has been cooked to the desired degree.