What's the Difference Between Searing, Sautéing, and Pan-Frying?
Here's a rundown of every basic stovetop cooking technique and how to make each one healthier.
Sometimes a recipe's directions can be... confusing. When they tell you to sauté, or pan-fry, or sear, what exactly is the difference? And which technique is healthier? Pan-frying (or any kind of frying) is bad for you—isn't it?
Well, it turns out that most of these terms are related to the amount of oil or fat that you use, and all of them can be made more or less healthy (even frying) depending on your technique. So here it is, your definitive list of every open-pan stovetop cooking technique, from toasting to deep frying, and how to make each a little healthier:
This method is used for browning items like nuts, coconut flakes, grains, and dried chile peppers. It’s a low-fat method, since you don’t use any oil in the pan while you toast.
Health Boost: This is an inherently healthy technique. But one caveat: avoid toasting in a cast-iron pan that’s not properly cleaned and seasoned, as bits of char or iron residue could transfer to the food.
This technique puts tasty brown crust on meat. When you heat a cast-iron skillet until it’s smoking hot, then brown a steak or a roast in it, you’re searing. Contrary to popular belief, the method won’t "seal in juices," but it adds delicious deep flavor and crunchy texture to the meat’s surface—here's more on how to do it.
Health Boost: Be careful not to burn the meat. In addition to adding bitter flavors, scorching may introduce carcinogens to the meat, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Here’s a technique you probably use often—heat the skillet over medium-high, add a few teaspoons of fat (or up to 2 tablespoons) to the pan, put in your food and stir or toss every so often. This method is generally low-fat, since you only need enough oil or butter to lightly coat the surface of the pan to prevent sticking—here's more on how to do it.
Health Boost: If using a nonstick pan, you may be able to use even less fat than the recipe calls for since food will slide on the nonstick surface anyway. Also, recipes that call for butter to grease the pan can usually work just as well with a mix of butter and oil, or just oil alone, depending on the intended flavor profile of the dish.
Pan-Frying and Deep Frying:
Pan-frying, a.k.a. shallow-frying, calls for filling a skillet to a certain depth (generally around 1/3 full) with oil heated to a specific temperature—often between 325°F and 400°F. If you fry chicken in a pan with oil that comes halfway up the sides of the pieces, then turning them partway through cooking, you’re pan-frying—here's more on how to do it. Deep-frying, of course, is when your food is completely submerged in the oil—here's more on that technique.
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Health Boost: The best way to keep food from soaking up lots of frying oil is to make sure the oil stays hot enough. That’s because with oil-submersion cooking, food releases water content in the form of steam (the reason for the wild bubbling). The outgoing steam prevents excess oil from seeping into the food.
We find 375°F is ideal for quick-frying items like veggies and dumplings, while 340°F is best for meats. When you first add food to the pan, the oil temperature will drop. Adjust the burner as needed to return to the target temp. It also helps to have the oil 5° to 10°F hotter than the target temperature before you add food, so you won’t have to raise the temperature much after (if at all).