Friday, August 31, 2012

Back to Basics, Part 1: Sauté

Photo by Daniel Castro
When many of us think of “classical French cooking”, we think of a busy professional kitchen with trained chefs using fancy copper pots to cook dishes whose names we can’t pronounce with ingredients of which we’ve never heard.  But in reality, French cooking can be boiled (pun intended…) down to six basic cooking methods, all of which are attainable by any home cook as long as you understand them.  And once you do, you can use the methods to cook any number of foods, even without a recipe.                                               
My goal is to introduce you to these six cooking methods: sautéing, roasting, poaching, braising, frying and grilling.  I’ll do this over the course of several issues of The Aztec, so this week we’ll start with what I consider one of the easiest and most versatile methods: sautéing. 

The sauté method is a dry heat method of cooking done on the stovetop, meaning that you use very little fat (like vegetable or olive oil, butter or rendered fat such as bacon fat) in the bottom of a shallow sauté pan (commonly known as a frying pan).  This method is also quite hot and quick, so you cannot expect that sautéing will tenderize your protein.  This means you should use tender, thin cuts of meat, poultry, fish, or shellfish (known as “portion cuts”, meaning they are the size of a portion).   Or if you like, you can sauté thick slices of vegetables. 

One characteristic of sautéing is that, due to the high heat, quick cooking and low amount of liquid, you can achieve a beautiful golden brown exterior and juicy interior.  And the best part is that you can make a delicious, flavorful sauce right in the pan after your protein is finished cooking!  All you need for your sauce is some kind of acidic deglazing liquid (such as wine, beer or juice), a little bit of flour for thickening, and a base (such as stock or vegetable puree).  You can also add aromatics (like onion and garlic), finishing ingredients (like butter, cream or pureed vegetables), or garnishing ingredients (like fresh herbs).

 Here’s the basic sauté procedure:

1.       Prepare your food by marinating, seasoning with salt and pepper, or even dredging in a very small amount of flour which will create a very light crust upon cooking. 

2.      Place your food “presentation side” down in the searing hot pan (over medium-high heat) that has 1-2 Tablespoons of hot oil in it.  Cook until golden brown.

3.      Flip your food and cook on the other side until you reach your desired doneness, based on the temperature of the meat or by cutting it open to look on the inside. 

4.      Remove your food from the cooking pan and set aside to rest.

5.      Add any aromatics you are using for your sauce and cook over medium-low heat until soft.  Deglaze your pan (which means loosen the flavorful browned bits, called “fond”) using your acidic liquid.  Allow this liquid to reduce through simmering until your pan is nearly dry.

6.      Sprinkle a little flour over your aromatics and stir to mix in.  Add your base liquid (like stock) and whisk to dissolve the flour.  Allow this liquid to come to a simmer and cook it, uncovered and stirring occasionally, until the sauce reaches your desired thickness.

7.      Finish with butter or cream if desired and garnish.  Serve with your sautéed food items.

  • When sautéing, try to use a pan that is not too large for the amount of food you’re cooking or your food will burn.  Never overcrowd your pan, either, as you will trap moisture and steam your food as opposed to creating a delicious crispy crust.
  • If you’re cooking something very thick like a large chicken breast or thick steak, you may want to transfer your entire pan (but only if it’s oven proof!) into a 350°F/175°C oven after you’ve flipped the meat to the second side in order to cook it more evenly and efficiently.
  • If, while you’re cooking your meat, you notice that the bottom of the pan is burning, turn down the heat.  You want to make sure you don’t burn the fond or your sauce will have a bitter taste.
  • Don't start cooking until you're sure your pan is hot enough!  You won't get that beautiful brown coating if you start with fat that is too cold.