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Sautee vegetables properly, without a cover
September 24, 2013 - Anita Hanaburgh
So, when I get my dinner together, I usually have some TV show on. Maybe the Food Channel, maybe Rachael, maybe “Storage Wars.”
Today, I am watching a chef show and listening as I cut up some vegetables. The chef instructs the viewers to sautee the vegetables for a ginger Thai stir fry.
I was only half-watching him, but in my peripheral vision, I saw him cut the carrots, onions and bok choy and place them in the pan to brown. It all looked OK to me until I saw him put the cover over the vegetables, then put the burner on low.
Oh, busboy. Chefie, you are not sauteeing. You are steaming those onions, those green beans, those peppers! That cover traps moisture, and those vegetables won’t be crisp but soft and mushy. Most people don’t sautee correctly, anyway, and now we have a chef teaching them to steam instead.
I started to laugh at all the skills that we all perform all the time and how we don’t think to do it right. Let’s look at how to sautee. Of course you know how (ahem), but I’m just going tell you anyway.
Sauteeing is a dry, quick cooking method that starts with a hot pan, uses a little fat, and browns the food to a crisp crust. This browning caramelizes the sugars, adds flavor and creates a barrier that keeps in the flavor and nutrients. You can sautee many foods. Let’s look at vegetables. Start with a flat-bottom sautee pan with sides that slant out. Do not use a non-stick pan, because you want the food to stick a bit, so it turns brown. You want the pan hot.
When you are preparing to sautee, you want to think of HEAD: That stands for “Hot pan, Even oil in the pan, All items the same size and the food is Dry.”
How hot is hot? The oil should smoke, the food should sizzle. Place the food gently in the pan so it doesn’t splatter on you.
How much oil? I like olive oil, as butter burns at high heat. I coat the pan. Remember — this is a dry method of cooking ... The oil is to assist the browning, not to fry the food or boil it in the fat. For taste, you can use clarified butter, which is butter that has been cooked and the fat solids removed. I usually don’t bother. If I want butter flavor, I finish the food with pads of butter.
What do I mean when I say all the food is uniformly sized? If sauteeing peppers, I would make julienne slices all the same size so the slices cook evenly and brown at the same time. If you are sauteeing a food that cooks faster than others, such as zucchini, it should be cooked by itself or with similarly fast-cooking foods.
Why dry food? If the food is not dry, it will not brown. Tomatoes often are too moist to sautee well. Sauteeing frozen vegetables will steam or boil them in their juices. Salting vegetables before sauteeing will bring out the liquid and have the same effect. And, of course, adding sauce or juice or wet flavoring of any kind will boil, not brown, the food. Cooking the food too slowly or at too low a heat will cause the food to cook before browning. The natural juices will escape, and the food will boil or steam.
Overcrowding the food also will cause it to get cooked and juicy before browning. Each sauteed item must have its own spot. Think of a family — everyone deserves his or her own space. The food will not brown if not spaced correctly. The term “sautee” means “to jump.” When you see a cook moving the items in the pan around with a twist of the wrist, he is causing the food to jump.
The chef moves the pan to keep the food from sticking too much or burning over the high heat. This takes a bit of practice. Start by just sliding the pan back and forth, then work on lifting and rotating it forward.
When just beginning, some cooks shake or stir or wiggle the food too much. The food will not brown if it does not have contact with the hot pan.
Oh, busboy, that sounds like a no-brainer but it is a common mistake. It might look really cool to flip the food around, but stirring the food or wiggling it too much can have the same effect of cooking the food without getting it brown. Let the food rest in the pan for two to three minutes to brown before any fancy stuff.
There you have it. You can sautee your vegetables correctly now. Just don’t put a cover on them.
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