Shallow Frying & Sautéing Techniques

Shallow frying and sautéing are quick cooking methods suitable for small, tender pieces of meat and other foods. The difference between the two methods lies in the amount of fat used: frying involves cooking food in 5 mm (0.25 in) of fat, whereas sautéing uses an almost dry pan with no more than 1 tablespoon of oil.

1. Shallow Frying

Shallow frying techniques vary depending on the size and texture of the food. However, in general you should:

  • Fry in an uncovered wide pan.
    A lid tends to trap steam, causing the food to stew or steam rather than fry crisply.
  • Preheat the fat.
    If the fat is not hot enough when the food is added, the food will not brown properly. It will also lack flavour and become greasy.
  • Fry a little at a time.
    If you add too much food to the pan at one time, the fat temperature will reduce, hindering the production of flavour and colour.
  • Fry fast until the food is browned.
    When the food is completely browned on all sides, turn the heat down to medium to cook the inside through. However, some food such as liver, shellfish and salmon can become tough or grainy if fried too fast, so should be fried gently without browning or at most, to a very pale brown.
  • Serve as quickly as possible.
    Never leave fried food standing for too long before serving; potatoes lose their crispness and become leathery, meat toughens and other food may become soggy and will lose its newly fried shine.

Choice of Oil

As some of the fat or oil will be eaten with the food, it is important to take into account how the flavour of the oil (or lack of it) will affect the taste of the dish. Safflower, corn, peanut and other vegetable oils have little or no flavour, whilst butter, beef dripping, lard, bacon dripping and olive oil all have their own very distinctive flavour.

You should also consider that certain fats may be heated to higher temperatures than others before they break down and start to burn. Bacon or beef dripping, lard and solid frying fat can usually withstand more heat than butter, margarine or vegetable oil.

Coating Food

Some recipes may call to coat the food in a dusting of flour before frying to add crispness and to prevent the food sticking to the pan. For example, fish may be cooked a la meunière by dusting it with flour and shallow-frying in butter until brown on both sides. Chopped parsley, lemon juice, salt and pepper are added to the butter in the pan and, once sizzling, served with the fish.

2. Stir-Frying

Stir frying in a wok offers a large cooking surface area at the same temperature, which enables the food to cook fast, retaining all of its texture, flavour and colour. The food should be added in the order of the amount of time it takes to cook; so meat should be added first, followed by the firmest vegetables, then the more tender ones after that. All the food should be stirred continuously using a Chinese ladle, strainer or spoon, whilst shaking the wok.

3. Sautéing

Sautéing is used to cook and brown foods so that they develop colour and flavour. Whilst the method can be used in its own right to cook food such as mushrooms, onions or chicken, it is most often used in combination with other forms of cooking. For example, onions may be sautéed before they are added to a stew or a sauce, or potatoes may be sautéed after boiling to add flavour and colour.

Sautéing can be used to create a well-flavoured sauce using the following technique:

  • Fry the main ingredients, browning them in minimal fat.
  • Remove the browed food from the pan and keep it hot.
  • Deglaze the pan with a liquid such as stock, wine or cream.

Deglaze: To loosen and liquefy fat, sediment and browned juices at the bottom of a pan by adding liquid (stock, water or wine) and stirring while boiling.

  • Add the flavourings for the sauce.
  • If the main ingredients require further cooking, return them to the pan and simmer them in the sauce until they are tender.
  • Reduce the sauce by rapid boiling and serve with the main ingredients.