Searing, Sautéing, and Pan-Frying: How to Do It All with Olive Oil

Posted by Olivia on Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

Searing, Sautéing, and Pan-Frying: How to Do It All with Olive Oil

What’s the difference between a sear, a pan-fry, and a sauté? These three cooking techniques create three very different results for your dishes, and the good news is in: They can all be done with olive oil. Read on to learn the basics of these delicious cooking techniques, and how to master them all with olive oil.



When you want your food to have a crispy crust, but still be tender on the inside, you want to use the pan sear method. Think of the classic seared Ahi tuna steak dish, or the flank steak cutlet: it has a lightly caramelized, charred surface, but bite into it, and the inside is butter-soft, tender, and as rare as you want it to be. To master the pan sear with olive oil, start with a stainless steel pan or cast iron skillet (don’t use non-stick; it will never produce a good sear). Heat the pan over medium-high heat with an ample drizzle of olive oil to coat the pan’s surface (usually 1 to 3 tablespoons olive oil, depending on the size of your skillet). After about 1 to 2 minutes, the pan should be hot enough (test by flicking a drop of water from your finger onto the pan; if it sizzles, it’s ready).

Add your cut of meat or vegetable (already salt and peppered) directly to the pan. Let it cook and sizzle until a light brown crust forms on the bottom, usually from 1 to 3 minutes, without stirring or flipping. Turnyour food only once you see the light brown crust has formed on the bottom; once flipped, let your food sear until it’s formed a golden crust on that side. If you’re searing tuna or steak, which you want to still be rare in the middle, your cut of meat may already be done at this point. But if you’re going for vegetables, pork, or another cut of meat that still needs to cook through the middle, there are two ways to easily finish the dish: Add a splash of liquid (wine, stock, or juice) to the pan, cover, and let it cook to desired doneness; or place pan in a preheated oven and allow it to bake to desired doneness.



Pan-frying is similar to searing, with a slightly lower temperature and with more reliance on steam to help cook your foods all the way through. Pan-fried tilapia fillets, chicken breasts, corned beef and hash, or breakfast potatoes are all great examples of popular pan-fried dishes. The cooking method relies on warm oil or fat in the pan, along with the help of constant steam, to cook your foods all the way through. The crust won’t be as dramatic as with searing, and the dish will cook a bit longer in the pan, at a lower temperature, to cook evenly all the way through.

To pan-fry with olive oil, start with a shallow pan large enough to accommodate your foods (you don’t want to overcrowd a pan). Heat the pan over medium heat, adding enough olive oil to cover a bit more than the surface of the pan (usually ¼ to 1/3 cup olive oil for a large skillet). Add your foods to the pan and allow to cook until lightly browned and cooked through, stirring or flipping once or twice as needed. A 4 to 6-ounce cut of fish or meat should cook in about 8 to 10 minutes total; gauge vegetable cooking time by taste and texture preferences.



The sauté method may be most familiar to home cooks. Literally meaning “to jump,” the sauté refers to fast cooking in high heat with small amount of fat, which causes the food inside to jump around from the heat. To prepare a sauté without going above the smoke point of your olive oil, follow these tips:

Cut your foods (whether meat, fish, or vegetables) into small, uniform pieces or cubes. The smaller the pieces, the quicker they cook up, requiring less heat. Heat a large pan over medium-high heat; add an ample amount of olive oil and allow it to get hot—hot enough to sizzle immediately when water hits it, but not to the point of smoking. Add your chopped foods to the pan and cook until heated through and cooked, but still crisp (in the case of vegetables) or tender (in the case of meat); stirring often to keep all sides browning and cooking evenly. If your oil should ever begin to smoke, simply remove the pan from heat and stir your foods quickly to cool the pan down. 

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