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Differences between sauté and stir fry

For the cooks out there, it must be quite clear what the terms sauté and stir fry refer to. They are merely two popular cooking techniques that are used all around the world. It is common to confuse either one for the other but that does not mean that they are the same. There are a few significant differences between the two as we shall soon see. When cooking, one of these techniques are usually used and in some cases both can be used one after the other. The decision about which method to use in order to ensure a properly cooked dish depends on an understanding about the particular method to which the ingredients respond to best and not become over-cooked.

To begin with, the technique of sautéing uses a large amount of heat and that too in a small amount of fat. If cooking is being done on a stove, then sautéing would be possible only if a high flame is used. Moreover, the fats that are used in sautéing are usually butter and oil. In some cases, one of them is used whereas in others, both can be combined and used together. Note that the butter used is clarified butter, the reason being that sautéing is done at a high temperature and plain butter cannot withstand the high heat being provided and burns after losing consistency. The clarified butter, however, can withstand the high heat.

Stir fry, on the other hand, also uses high heat and usually the heat used is greater than that used while sautéing. Furthermore, the amount of fat used is greater than in stir frying technique. The fat used is usually oil whereas butter is rarely used. But once again, the oil that is being used should have a high boiling point due to the large temperatures involved. The oils commonly used are sesame oil and peanut oil.

While sautéing, the food item being cooked is allowed to become brown, at least a bit if not too much, before it is transferred to a pan. Once it is moved, cooking is aided due to the transfer of heat from the pan, in a process termed contact conduction. Stir frying, in contrast, is cooking the food in oil because of which it is possible to move the food around without affecting the browning process.

In addition to these differences, another significant point that makes these two techniques different is the cooking pan that would be ideal for the process. Stir frying is carried out in what is called a ‘wok’. This type of a pan allows the food to be moved around while fully or partially immersed in a layer of oil instead of it being stationary for some minutes. In terms of physics, the heating is done by the process of liquid immersion conduction although contact conduction also has a part to play. Sautéing is usually carried out in a sauté pan. A skillet that is big enough and has sloping ends can also be used. Normally the pans used for sautéing are made of cast iron in order to ensure that the heat is conducted efficiently and quickly.

Another important difference is that usually the pan is sometimes shaken while sautéing. This ensures proper cooking as it makes the food ‘jump’. No such shaking is done while stir frying.

The regions where these two cooking techniques are most commonly used vary a lot. Whereas sautéing is popular in France and is the technique most French dishes are prepared in, stir frying is very popular in China.

Summary of differences expressed in points

1. Sautéing technique uses a large amount of heat; stir frying, also a large amount of heat, greater than sautéing

2. Small amount of fat in sautéing, greater in stir frying

3. Fat used can include butter or oil or both in sautéing; usually only oil in stir frying

4. Process of heat transfer in sautéing: contact conduction; stir frying- liquid immersion conduction and contact conduction

5. Utensils used: sautéing-sauté pan or big skillet (must have sloping ends); stir frying-wok

6. Pan is shaken in sautéing, not in stir frying

7. Sautéing most popular in France; stir frying in China

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