Sauter is French for “jump,” and sautéed food literally jumps when you add it to the hot oil in your pan. Why? Because the water in the food evaporates explosively. This is why the traditional sauté pan has higher sides than a frying pan.
We sauté food in order to develop a crisp, browned surface and delectable smells – the result of the so-called “Maillard reaction.” The sought-after reaction is very complex, the flavor chemists tell us, and depends on the composition of the food (the balance of sugars and amino acids) and the temperature of the cooking method.
Diet books tell you to “sauté in 1-2 TBSP of water.” No, no, no. Only cooking methods that use the temperature range of 230-340°F (110–170°C) can produce the Maillard reaction, and the reaction can’t happen at all if the food is wet. Take an example – roasted veggies, which we all love. Raw vegetables are about 80% water. This water content has to reach boiling point and evaporate before we get browning.
The Maillard reaction doesn’t even start until the water content is down to about 5%.
If you’re avoiding sautéing because you’re trying to limit fat in your diet, don’t fool around with water in your fry pan. Try these methods instead:
- Use a brief spray of oil. Commercial aerosols are the most controllable. Hand-pressurized pumps like the Presto give much bigger droplets, but a better result.
- Get the oil very hot before adding the food. Hot oil is less easily absorbed by food, because it seals the food’s surface much faster.
- Add smaller quantities of browned food, like caramelized onions, to larger quantities of fresh, raw vegetables, before cooking by steaming or microwaving.
- Add a pinch of baking soda. Baking soda increases the speed of the Maillard reaction, by increasing the pH – making the food less acidic and more alkaline. (Don’t use soda in marinades, though – it’s not safe.)
- Brush baked foods with egg wash (protein) or milk (lactose) to get an attractive glazed finish.
Note: Microwaves work by agitating water molecules in food. They bring the temperature up to the boiling point – not high enough for the Maillard reaction. This is why microwaving in general doesn’t add much flavor and why it’s used mainly for reheating prepared dishes.