When I posted “sautéing basics” in 2008, I thought I had it all covered. Seems not. A reader emailed me a couple of days ago asking why, in some recipes, the onions and tomatoes are sautéed ahead of the garlic. That’s very wrong, according to her, because the garlic always goes in first.
The same issue was raised in a comment thread in one of the recipes, I just can’t remember which one exactly. And, if I remember correctly, I have answered the issue in the comment thread. But since the question has been raised again by another reader, I’m now pretty much convinced that there are more than two persons in the world who believe that, when sautéing, there is a strict order by which the vegetables go into the pan — garlic, onion and tomato.
I understand that in Filipino cooking, sautéing often means frying garlic, onion and tomatoes in a little oil over high heat. That’s the way so many of our local dishes begin. So, I understand the mindset. Some people even think that every dish, to be correctly cooked, must necessarily begin with sautéing — like this high school teacher in my daughter’s school… But never mind.
First of all, sautéing is a cooking method — not a trinity of ingredients — and it is not exclusive to Filipino cooking. A cook can sauté ginger and nothing else. Or garlic and chili without onion nor tomato. What happens to the strict order of garlic-onion-tomato then?
Secondly, to answer the question about the onion and tomato going into the pan before the garlic, well, you see, garlic burns faster that onion and tomato. Over very high heat, minced garlic will burn in less than a minute.
Now then, how does one sauté properly? First, you heat the pan. Then, you pour in the oil. When the oil is hot, you add the ingredients to be sautéed. Heat the pan before adding the oil? Yes, to prevent the food from sticking to the pan. I wrote about that back in 2005: “To avoid food sticking to the cookware, heat the cookware first before pouring in the oil. To test if the cookware is hot enough, sprinkle a few drops of water. If the drops sizzle and evaporate immediately, the cookware is hot enough. Then, make sure that the oil is hot enough before adding the food…”
There is a “scientific” explanation although I did not learn about it until much later.
Feel free to put a cold pan onto a cold burner before turning it on, but do not put cold oil into a cold pan and then try to heat. The reason is subtle: heat will eventually break down the chemical bonds of the oil and it will lose its lubricating properties. If that happens, your ingredients will stick to the hot surface and one side will blacken and burn, and the other side will remain raw or underdone… [Alan’s Kitchen]
So there. I think that’s enough information for anyone to be able to sauté anything properly.