The cooking method we call “sauté” is really very basic, but needs to be done properly to achieve the perfect outcome. To sauté, use a small amount of fat in a shallow pan over very high heat. Start with small tender cuts of meat, followed by a garnish of pre-cut vegetables and the addition of spirits or a good local wine. Re-hydrating the reduced wine with a flavorful stock and then adding a few finishing agents helps create a meal fit for a king “a la minute.”
Sometimes people confuse sautéing with pan-frying or deep-frying, but each one is a different technique. With pan-frying, the meat is dropped into a thick layer of hot oil, which comes about halfway up the meat. The meat is seared on one side then flipped and seared on the other side. Pan-fried items are often finished in the oven.
Deep-frying calls for the food to be completely submerged in the oil.
My best advice when cooking at a high temperature is to use light-colored oil hot, hot to get a good sear. I recommend staying away from extra virgin olive oil, which leaves particulate from the first pressing of the olives. It gives the oil a low smoking and flash point.
You should sauté in a shallow slope-sided pan, 8 to 12 inches wide. I recommend a stainless steel-coated aluminum core pan, and encourage people to stay away from anodized aluminum or nonstick. When you sauté, the food particles that stick to the pan, called “fond,” are what you use to make the sauce. In fact, it’s the backbone of your sauce-to-be. The wide flat base and low sides of the pan allow steam to escape and the fond to remain.
What I’m describing here is more a technique than a recipe. By following the simple steps of sautéing, you can mix and match ingredients to create your own unique dishes. You’ll find that all the garnishes are cooked at once, and the ingredients are moved around by flipping and “jumping.” A jump is a rapid flip of the ingredients to sear, cook and caramelize them.
Dry the meat with a paper towel. This is a very important step if the protein is wet. The water could react with the hot oil to cause massive splattering or even a fire. Heat the pan on high until it’s hot, then add the oil. Heating the pan allows the pores to open widely so the oil can coat the pan all the way to the bottom of the pores. This creates a non-stick surface.
Prepare the meat. When choosing a protein, be sure to select a tender cut such as chicken breast, pork loin, veal cutlet, flank steak, sirloin, tenderloin, scallops or fish (skin on fish normally works best to prevent fish from flaking). The meat should be cut thin and seasoned just a few seconds before you put it in the hot pan to sear. When seasoning, I suggest using kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper.
Sear the meat vigorously until a caramel-colored crust forms on the entire side, then flip and repeat on the other side. Remember: Searing is important to ensure flavor, texture and moisture.
Remove the meat from the pan and place it on a towel to drain any extra fat.
Dump the extra fat from the pan into a disposable container – not plastic, since the fat is very hot.
Sauté the garnish by squirting a little fresh oil in the pan to coat the bottom, then tossing in your desired vegetables. Vegetables should be cut into uniform, bite-sized pieces. The choices are endless – try onions, garlic, peppers, mushrooms, artichokes, scallions, leeks, spinach, tomatoes, asparagus and/or Swiss chard. Remember that onions and garlic become bitter if too much color is added.
Deglaze the pan. While most of the fond might have come up on the vegetables, the rest will come up in the de-glaze process. This is normally done with wine, liquor or other spirits. When deglazing it is very important to remove the pan from the flame. Wine and spirits contain alcohol, which is flammable.
Reduce the sauce by about half a few seconds after the flame has gone out. When reducing, the excess water from the sauce evaporates, enhancing the flavor of the wine or spirit.
Re-hydrate the sauce using a stock, juice or cider to add flavor to your finished product. Common combinations include pork with apples, brandy with cider, chicken with mushrooms, Marsala wine with chicken stock, scallops with tomatoes, or white wine with tomato juice. Cook until sauce consistency, or until it coats the back of the spoon.
When you run your finger through it, it should make a track. The sauce at this point is “au sec” or “almost dry.” The French culinary term refers to the amount of liquid left after the wine, for instance, has evaporated. As a rough measurement, au sec is when the sauce is reduced to one-quarter of its original volume.
Finishing is the final and most important step. First, “mounter au beurre” or “mount with butter,” which means adding a small piece of cold butter to sauce at the last minute. Finishing agents used after the mounter au beurre are Tabasco, Worcestershire and vinegar. Adding these ingredients is what trained chefs call “popping the sauce” or seasoning it without adding salt.
Note: Never boil the sauce after mounter au beurre, or the sauce will break, never to return.
Place the protein back into the warm sauce, flip a few times to coat, serve immediately and enjoy.
Here is a simple recipe for practice.
• 4-6 boneless skinless chicken breasts cut in half or filet
• 1/2-pound mushrooms, sliced thin
• Kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper
• Fresh thyme, chopped garlic and a few pads of butter
• 3 cloves garlic, chopped
• 1 cup Marsala wine
• 2 cups chicken stock
• a few pads of butter
• a splash of white wine vinegar
Place a large sauté pan on a high flame and heat until hot. Meanwhile, dry the chicken breast with a paper towel and season with kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper.
When the sauté pan is hot, add enough vegetable oil to coat the bottom, then drop in the chicken and sear. Don’t overcrowd the pan; cook in batches if needed.
Cook the chicken until golden brown, then flip and sear the other side. Place fresh thyme and crushed garlic on top of the chicken breast and baste with excess fat. Turn off the flame. Toss in a few pads of butter and continue to baste.
Discard the excess oil and basting butter using a spoon or fish spatula. Add another splash of oil, toss in the mushrooms and cook until golden brown, the flip. For best results, try not to stir them.
Pour in the Marsala and begin to reduce. After a few seconds, add chopped garlic to the wine and reduce by half. Add the chicken stock and reduce to au sec.
Finish with the butter and vinegar. Season to taste with kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper.
by Chef Eric K. Smith, New York Wine & Culinary Center