Searing, sautéing, pan-roasting, and pan-frying are all relatively fast, relatively dry, mostly stovetop cooking methods. But do you know what makes them different?
(One of these days I’ll write a post about cooking methods in general—fast or slow and wet or dry—and what kinds of foods are good for which methods. But this is not that day.)
If not, you’re not alone. In fact, most recipes don’t use those terms in the instructions anymore. My Scallop Scampi with Spring Onions and Orzo, for example. It includes both searing and sautéing but neither word is actually in the recipe lest it cause confusion.
And who needs that? So let’s clear it up—what exactly are searing, sautéing, pan-roasting, and pan-frying?
Searing is using high heat to get a beautiful brown crust on the outside of food, adding flavor and texture. A steak is a good example, and the Scallop Scampi starts out with a tasty sear on the scallops.
Keys to a good sear include preheating your pan so it’s good and hot, adding your fat and preheating it until it’s shimmering or maybe even starting to smoke, and then and only then, adding not-cold food and leaving it alone until it develops that crust and releases. For more details on all that, read this post about how to keep foods from sticking.
Sautéing is something you probably do all the time—it’s cooking over medium-high heat and stirring occasionally. After searing the scallops, the rest of the Scallop Scampi is exactly that, a sauté.
“Sauté” comes from the French for “to jump,” referring to food getting tossed around in the pan. It’s good for smaller, cut-up items like sliced chicken or diced vegetables where you want a little color and flavor but not a crust.
Stirring occasionally is one of the keys to sautéing. Constant stirring will give you stir-fry—crisp-tender food but not flavorful color—while stirring too seldom will result in uneven browning. Read this post for more about over- and under-stirring.
Another key to sautéing is, when you’re not stirring, spread your food out evenly in the skillet for even browning. It’s why you see chefs shake a pan after they stir or flip—it spreads things out.
Pan-roasting is one of my favorite cooking methods because it combines the flavorful crust of searing with the hands-off-ness of the oven.
With this method, you start by searing your food on the stovetop, salmon say, then flip it and move it, skillet and all, into the oven. The second side essentially gets seared because it’s in contact with the skillet. And the more gentle, even heat of the oven helps cook the food all the way through. That’s important with something that won’t cook through if you simply seared both sides on the stovetop—chicken thighs, for example, or very thick steaks. But I like it for almost anything that could also be cooked by just searing both sides—fish fillets, chicken breasts, steaks, or chops, for example. Because the food finishes in the oven, I’m free to clean the stovetop (let’s face it, searing can be messy), finish a side dish, or start a glass of wine. :)
Last but not least, pan-frying, sometimes called shallow frying, is cooking foods in enough oil to reach about halfway up the food. So more fat than a sear or saute, but not so much that the food is fully submerged like with deep frying. It’s perfect for coated foods and crispiness, like breaded cutlets and fish fillets or fried chicken.
I often say that the difference between good cooking and great cooking is in the little things. So now, if you didn’t already, you know a few more of them.
Here’s to a little less confusion in life.
Recipes for practicing searing:
Scallop Scampi with Spring Onions and Orzo
Pan-Seared Rosemary Rainbow Trout with Cherry Tomato Relish
Corn and Crab Cakes with Cilantro and Lime Sour Cream
Spinach Salad with Chicken, Strawberries, Blue Cheese, and Almonds
Spring Chicken and Rice Stovetop Casserole
Pan-Seared Steaks with Boursin
Pan-Roasted Salmon with Cilantro-Scallion Salsa
Fried Catfish (a guest post I created for my friend Christine’s website The Cookful)