To sauté something is to sear or brown it quickly in a wide, shallow pan on the stove top at medium to high heat. The act of doing this is known as “sautéing.”
You cook the food for a brief amount of time, compared to regular frying.
You shake the pan so that it jumps around (“sauter” in French means “to jump.”) Toss the pan, so that the ingredients go up in the air a bit, or just stir them. But, allow the food to cook a bit before moving it around — don’t constantly move it, this is not a popcorn machine. The food needs time to sear on the side that’s on the heat.
A small amount of fat, usually butter or oil, but it can be goose or duck fat, is usually used, but a very small amount, so sautéing is usually considered a “dry heat method.” Any fat, whether oil or butter, needs to be hot before food added. A little oil added to butter will help prevent the butter browning and burning.
Technically, though, there doesn’t have to be a fat present. Sautéing can also be done in wine, broth or water. These as well need to be hot first to sear the food, or the food will stick.
The Japanese have developed machines for sautéing that simulate wrist action causing the food in the pan to jump.
Heat the pan and the fat or liquid first before adding what you are sautéing.
The food to be sautéed should be small pieces of meat or vegetables, not large pieces, and it should be dry — water in the food works against successful sautéing.