Cooking relies on a relatively small handful of techniques and principles, and cooks from different culinary cultures often use similar skills. For example, the highly refined cuisine of France makes extensive use of sauteing, while the highly refined cuisine of China and Southeast Asia is renowned for stir-frying. The two techniques have similarities, but also some striking differences.
The culinary term saute comes from the French verb "sauter," or "jump," and it gives a vivid mental image of how food should move in the pan. Sauteed foods are always cut into small pieces, then cooked quickly at high heat. The cook shakes the pan vigorously, tossing the foods as they cook. This ensures the foods share the same degree of exposure to the hot pan, cooking evenly. They should be cut just small enough that by the time their surfaces are browned and savory, they're cooked all the way through.
Asian stir-frying uses the same basic technique as sauteing. It is preparation-intensive, relying on foods cut into small pieces so they'll cook quickly. The prepared foods are cooked in small batches in a bowl-shaped wok, deftly whisked in and out of a small quantity of hot oil by the cook. Although stir-fried foods can be shaken like sauteed foods, it's more common to stir them with a spoon, chopsticks or spatula. That way, the small pool of oil in the bottom of the wok doesn't splash the kitchen -- or the cook -- unnecessarily.
The difference in cooking pans is one of the most striking variations between the two cooking methods. The French use two pans for sauteing, a "sautoir" with straight sides and a "sauteuse" with sloped sides. In either case, the food is flipped by pulling the pan directly toward the cook in a sharp motion. Pieces of food strike the lip of the pan and are propelled upwards by their own momentum, arcing through the air and falling back into the pan. The stir-fry technique of stirring with a utensil is less showy, but equally effective.
The sauteing and stir-frying techniques vary in their use of oil, as well. In French-style sauteing, most of the cooking heat comes from the flat bottom of the pan. It's oiled primarily to prevent the foods from sticking, though clarified butter -- a common saute fat -- also adds flavor. The wok used in Asian stir-fry collects and concentrates hot oil in a small puddle, and the foods are cooked primarily by the oil as they pass through it, rather than by the heat of the wok itself. Oil drains from the hot meats or vegetables as they rest on the side of the wok, keeping the end result relatively low in fat.
- On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen; Harold McGee
- Professional Cooking; Wayne Gisslen
- George Doyle/Stockbyte/Getty Images