Sautéing - Fast, fun, and delicious

Sautéing - the word itself conjures up sounds of sizziling aromatic gormet delights. It's also one of the easiest cooking methods to master. Sautéing is a French cooking technique that involves placing small cuts of food into a scant amount of fat then cooking over high heat. The two primary benefits of sautéing are speed and flavor. The food is cut into small chunks so that it cooks quickly and uniformly. At the same time, the small amount of fat allows for a rich, encrusted flavor to develop on the bottom of the pan, which sets the stage for a fabulous sauce once the meat and/or vegetables have finished cooking.

Whether you were learni to sauté from a cookbook, a TV cooking show, or a fancy culinary arts school, you'd find the fundamentals of the sauté technique are the same. You'll need:

• a sauté pan - this normally has a flatter surface than a regular skillet or frying pan to allow the maximum amount of food to heat at once.
• some sort of fat - depending on what you are cooking, the fat could be an oil or butter.
• meat and/or vegetables cut into small, uniform pieces - this allows for fast cooking. (Many cooks have adapted the sautéing technique for use with whole, thin-sliced chicken cutlets, fish fillets and more.)
• some type of liquid - if you choose to make a sauce (and almost everyone does), you'll need some sort of liquid, so you can deglaze the pan.

Start by cutting your meat and/or veggies into chunks. When you've almost finished, begin preheating your pan over medium-low heat. This is a sufficient amount of heat to begin with. The heat will be increased before you start cooking. You'll want to hear that classic "sizzle" when your ingredients hit the pan. Getting a good sear is vital to creating the rich flavor sautéed dishes are famous for.

Next, you'll want to choose your fat. Butter is a popular option because it browns to a wonderful golden color and also adds a tremendous amount of deep flavor. Butter also brings an eye-catching glisten to sauces in addition to making them silky smooth. However, butter burns the most easily of all fats and, if you're watching fat, butter is not diet-friendly.

Various oils can add a wide range of flavors that complement your meal. While all tolerate heat more favorably than butter, each has its own smoking point (the point at which the oil begins to burn). You may need to experiment to find the oil that provides the flavor you want while also handling the heat. Of course, you can also take the middle ground and combine butter and oil (such as extra virgin olive oil) for a happy medium.

Once your fat is in the pan (you'll only need about one to two tablespoonfuls) and has heated through, increase the heat to medium-high or high then add your meat and vegetables. (If your pan begins to smoke, decrease the heat slightly.) Your goal is to get a wonderful, light, crispy crust on each side, so let the food remain - untouched - in the pan for several minutes before turning. As browning occurs, flip the food, so other sides can cook.

When all meat and vegetable pieces have cooked through and are golden in color, you can create a sauce for your dish, if you choose to. Remove the cooked food from the pan and set aside temporarily. Don't wipe out the pan! (Those caramelized bits of food in the bottom of the pan are the basis for your sauce.) Place the sauté pan back over the heat and add about 1/2 to 3/4 cup liquid. You may opt for chicken stock, white wine or another flavorful brew.

Just reduce the sauce until it is about 1/2 of what you started with. Season it with salt and pepper, and you have the perfect accompaniment for your meal.

Toss your meat and vegetables with pasta, serve over rice or simply pile the mixture high in a bowl and drizzle with sauce for a quick, fabulous meal. That's about it. Once you learn the fundamentals, the technique is easy. Sauté your next meal - its a great way to add fresh vegetables to a meal.

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