What's The Difference Between Sauté, Pan Fry and Stir Fry
There was an interesting discussion over at The Reluctant Gourmet Cooking Community a while back regarding the difference, if any, between pan frying and sautéing. The two techniques are similar in that they are both dry heat cooking methods in which foods are cooked over direct heat. The differences between the two are subtle, but it is worth making the distinction, just so there is no confusion, especially when reading a recipe.
To sauté means to cook small pieces of food over medium-high to high heat until browned on the outside and cooked through. I think of shrimp, cut vegetables and meat that has been cut into small pieces. The term sauté comes from the French "to jump."
The jumping is of two types, one more important to the technique than the other. The jumping refers to the way the pieces of food appear to jump in the pan as the moisture is forced out by the high heat of the pan and oil. Jump also refers to the very chef-ly manipulation of the pan, allowing the cook to toss the pieces a bit into the air so they cook evenly.
While that maneuver is impressive, it is not necessary to achieve a sauté since all it really does is make the food leave the cooking surface, and therefore slow down the cooking process a bit. For myself, I make sure that the food cooks evenly while I'm sautéing by moving the food around with a wooden spatula.
A pan fry takes place at a little lower heat than does a sauté. This is because the food to be pan-fried, such as chicken breasts, steak, pork chops or fish fillets, is not cut into pieces before cooking. Pan frying requires a lower heat so that the exterior of the food doesn't overcook while waiting for the interior of the food to cook.
You still use the same amount of oil - just enough to glaze the pan - but the temperature should be lower during a pan fry. It's important to note that the oil should always be hot enough to ensure that the moisture in the food can escape in the form of steam. The force of the steam keeps the oil from soaking into the food. This is important, even if you're just talking about a little bit of oil.
Dry Heat Cooking Method
The thing to remember about cooking in oil, regardless of whether you're sautéing, pan frying or stir frying, is that it is a dry heat cooking method. While the oil is a liquid, it is a fat, so there is no water component. Oil behaves much differently than water. Water boils at 212°F. If your oil is boiling, look out - it's way too hot to cook in! It shouldn't even be smoking or the flavor is ruined.
Water is also called the universal solvent for a reason. Lots of the flavor in food can be transferred to the water. That's why it's such a great medium for making stocks and broths. Some flavor compounds are fat soluble, but for the most part, foods cooked in oil have less of a chance of losing flavor to the oil than they do of losing flavor to water.
When we cook with oil, the oil is the medium by which we transfer heat into the food. The main goal is to cook the food, not to make it taste like oil.
How Hot Should the Pan Be?
Since it takes less time to sauté, and the food is cut in small pieces, precision in temperature is not as crucial in a sauté as is moving the food to ensure even cooking. A good test for making sure the pan is hot enough to sauté is to sprinkle just a few drops of water in the pan. They should immediately boil vigorously and evaporate within a couple of seconds. In the longer process of pan frying, temperature control is a much more crucial factor. In a pan fry, you're looking for a gentle sizzle.
Regardless whether you sauté or pan fry, the pan will still develop a fond - the browned bits that stick to the pan during cooking. In both cooking methods, making a pan sauce is the natural next step. All that is needed is some deglazing liquid"”stock, wine, juice, etc - followed by a quick reduction and maybe some herbs and a bit of butter.
Another type of frying that isn't talked about as much is the shallow-fry. A shallow fry is what you do when you make fried chicken, eggplant Parmesan, or beer battered shrimp. The food sits in hot oil that comes about halfway up the sides of the food. And, it stands to reason that, when food is completely submerged in oil during cooking it is a deep fry.
All of these types of dry heat cooking are very similar. They all use oil as a medium for heat delivery. The only true difference between a sauté and a pan fry is that in a sauté, the food is cut into small pieces and in a pan fry, it is left in larger pieces, like a fillet.
The only difference between a shallow fry and a deep fry is the depth of the oil. In a shallow fry, you have to flip the food to make sure all sides are cooked. In a deep fry, it is possible to completely submerge the food in the oil, decreasing the necessity for flipping.
Now, where does a stir-fry factor in to this discussion?
As far as I can tell, the only real difference between a sauté and a stir fry is the shape of the pan. Both techniques require small pieces of food, high heat and a very little oil. Both techniques generally end with the making of a quick sauce through deglazing the pan.
One difference might be, although I don't have any solid evidence other than my own experience to back this up, is that in a sauté, the food is generally taken out of the pan and kept warm while you make the sauce. In a stir fry, the sauce is generally made with all the food still in the pan so it all gets evenly coated.
What's In A Name
So, while all these frying techniques are similar, the differences are worth noting. Do remember that different terms mean different things to different people in different parts of the country or the world. Often, the differences are purely semantic: what one person might call a shallow fry, another might call a pan fry. It can get a bit confusing, and I think that's why there has been so much discussion about the topic. I hope that this discussion clears things up a bit.
I would love to hear how you describe these cooking terms and what they mean to you.