Food that is sautéed is usually cooked for a relatively short period of time over high heat, with the goal of browning the food while preserving its color, moisture and flavor. This is very common with more tender cuts of meat, e.g. tenderloin, pork chops, or filet mignon. Sautéing differs from searing in that the sautéed food is thoroughly cooked in the process. One may sear simply to add flavor and improve appearance before another process is used to finish cooking it.
Olive oil or clarified butter are commonly used for sautéing, but most fats will do. Regular butter will produce more flavor but will burn at a lower temperature and more quickly than other fats due to the presence of milk solids.
To sauté, a hot pan is required, large enough to hold all of the food in one layer. A sauté pan is ideal for sautéing; it has a wide flat base and low sides, to maximize the surface area available for heating. The low sides allow quick evaporation and escape of steam. The sides of a sauté pan are rounded, and flare outward, to allow quick turning of ingredients without a spatula, simply using pan movement to turn ingredients. Many cookware manufacturers mislabel what is essentially a low-sided saucepan as a sauté pan. The top photo used in this article, for example, shows a low-sided saucepan. The lower picture shows a sauté pan. Only enough fat to lightly coat the bottom of the pan is needed for sautéing. Using too much fat will cause the sauté to fry rather than to slide. The food is spread across the hot fat in the pan, and left to brown, turning or tossing occasionally for even cooking. When sautéing meat, a fork should not be used for turning as it will pierce the meat and let the juices escape,, which will dry the meat. Tossing or stirring the items in the pan by shaking the pan too often can cause the pan to cool faster, and make the sauté take longer.
The two most important items to watch are that the pan is very hot, and that the food is not crowded into the pan. This ensures that the food browns well without absorbing the fat or stewing in its own juices. Furthermore, the food must be relatively dry in order to keep the pan from cooling and to keep the moisture from building up in the pan; moisture will steam or stew the food. This is particularly significant in the case of food that has been marinated.
The tossing technique is an element that some prefer while sautéing. The act of tossing involves first tightly gripping the handle of the pan, then pushing it forward to the front of the pan and quickly yanking the pan an inch or so backwards, causing the food to slide up the far side of the pan, into the air, and back to the center of the pan. This requires a fairly non-stick pan with rounded edges, so that the food is curled up and back, rather than jettisoned forward.
When sautéing cuts of meat, the surface of the meat should be dry and the meat should be at room temperature. Pat the meat with paper towels or other material to dry the surface. When the meat is first placed in the pan, it should sizzle, and it may stick to a non-stick pan surface. The meat should not be moved while cooking. When the meat 'releases' from the surface, i.e. when the meat becomes easy to move, it is done on that side and should be turned over, preferably with a pair of tongs so that the surface of the meat is not punctured.
When sautéing mushrooms, many of the same rules apply. The mushrooms should not be piled on top of each other in the pan and should not be stirred or turned until they are brown and the cooking is complete on one side. It is helpful to avoid adding salt to the mushrooms until the end of the cooking process since salt draws out moisture.