To sauté something is to sear or brown it quickly and briefly 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.
Henri-Paul Pellaprat, co-founder of Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris, described the classic French definition of ‘sautéing’:
“SAUTEING: True sautéing consists of frying pieces of meat quickly in oil in a frying pan or sauteuse. Kidneys, tournedos, escalopes, steaks may be sautéed instead of being grilled. The characteristic of sautéing is that the meat is first browned quickly on both sides so that a crust is formed to keep in the juices; only then is cooking completed. The browning varies in duration according to the size and thickness of the piece. White meat is always floured after seasoning; this forms a thin crust which retains the juices during cooking.” [ref]
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 on the food can work against successful sautéing.