How to Saute Vegetables

February 5, 2012 § 4 Comments

In my article, “How to Sweat Vegetables,” I talked a bit about the difference between sweating and sautéing. To quickly recap: sweating releases the aroma of vegetables without changing the flavor. With sautéing, however, the goal is to brown the vegetables, giving them a rich flavor.

Sautéing also requires a slightly different cooking method than sweating. When sautéing, you want to use a higher heat, more oil and a wide pan. I sautee on medium high to high heat, depending on what I’m cooking. Vegetables with a lot of water – such as zucchini, mushrooms or cabbage – cook better on high heat, while vegetables that are more dense – such carrots, fennel or onion – should be cooked on medium high, so they don’t burn before they’re done.

You will also want to use slightly more oil when you sautee. As a general rule of thumb, the higher the cooking temperature, the more oil you’ll want to use. This allows your food to brown. Too little oil means your food will burn instead of cook. If you notice that your veggies are turning black instead of brown, a bit of additional oil will help.

Lastly, you want to make sure to use a wide pan that can accommodate the vegetables in a single layer. Food won’t brown unless it’s directly touching the pan. A wider pan also means that the pan will stay hotter. When you crowd the pan, the temperature in the pan drops, and this will inevitably change the cooking process. Keep the pan hot!

Here’s a recipe for sautéed zucchini and cremini mushrooms to take you step by step through the cooking process. It’s delicious as a side dish, or you can use sautéed veggies as part of this recipe for *penne with pesto.*

2 medium zucchini (about 10 oz), halved and sliced about ¼ inch thick
12 oz cremini mushrooms, sliced about ¼ inch thick
2 ½ tbsp oil
1 ½ tsp salt
½ tsp pepper

Heat a pan on high and add the oil. The oil is ready when you can see streaks or webs when it moves. Add the zucchini and mushrooms, and mix thoroughly to coat with the oil. If the veggies look dry instead of glossy, add a bit more oil; otherwise, they’ll burn.

Once the veggies are thoroughly coated, allow them to sit undisturbed in the pan for a minute or two. There will be some hissing and popping as the zucchini and mushrooms release their moisture, but just let them be. This will allow them to brown. Check periodically, and when they’re nicely browned, give the pan a good mix and toss. Then allow them to sit again and brown on the next side.

By this point, most of the moisture should be cooked out of the vegetables. This is a good time to add the salt and pepper. Sprinkle them around the pan. Hold your hand 10 to 12 inches over the pan when you are the seasoning, so that the spices are evenly distributed. This will prevent pockets of seasoning from forming.

The salt will draw out a bit more water. Allow this to cook off. Your vegetables are done when they are tender but still firm. Or how ever you  like them. Get a spoon and taste what’s cooking. If it doesn’t taste good in the pan, it’s not going to taste good on the plate. Adjust seasoning before serving.

Because zucchini and mushrooms have such a high water content, you’ll want to cook on high heat. This way, the water released during the cooking process will evaporate almost immediately. If you allow the heat in the pan to drop, the veggies will just end up simmering in their own juices. What you will end up with is soggy vegetables sitting in a pool of mushroom water. No good.

Sometimes, however, high heat can get away from you. When I need to regulate temperature for high heat cooking, I will sometimes pull the pan off the burner for 20-30 seconds. If you notice your food is starting to burn, this is a good way to slow down the cooking process. In the meantime, the burner stays hot (important for an electric stove) so you can resume cooking at high heat when you’re ready.

Once you’ve noticed some browning on the veggies, and they’re cooked to the desired doneness, they’re ready to serve. Whether you use them as a side dish or put them in a pasta, I hope you enjoy this recipe and have a better sense of how to sauté vegetables.

Here is a recipe where you can sauté vegetables:
Penne with pesto, zucchini & cremini mushrooms

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