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Searing vs. Sautéing

By Cook's Illustrated Published November 2008

Searing and sautéing both involve cooking food in a shallow pan on the stovetop, but their similarities end there. Searing is a surface treatment used to produce a flavorful brown crust on thick cuts of protein. Sautéing is used to cook smaller pieces of food or thinner cuts of meat all the way through.

Searing

Objective

  • Produce a flavorful, well-browned crust on thick steaks, chops, fish, or poultry before the interior of the food is finished with a gentler method. It does not “lock in” juices, as is commonly believed.
  • Create fond (brown bits stuck to the pan) for use in a sauce or braising liquid.
Keys to Success
  • Use a conventional, rather than nonstick, skillet; it helps fond to develop.
  • Use high heat and preheat the pan properly; the oil should just start to smoke.
  • Do not move the food until a browned crust develops.

Sautéing

Objective

  • Quickly cook thin cuts of meat and fish all the way through, as well as small pieces of food such as chopped vegetables.
  • Soften onions, garlic, or other aromatics to build a flavorful base for a sauce, stew, or braise.

Keys to Success

  • Use a slope-sided skillet to facilitate flipping and stirring.
  • Use moderate heat to ensure even cooking; higher heat can cause the ingredients on the bottom of the pan to overbrown or burn before the ingredients on top have a chance to cook through.
  • For smaller ingredients, stir and shake the pan to make sure exposure to heat is even.