Sautéing maintains the vegetables’ natural flavors and it lends itself really well to seasoning the vegetables. A little bit of herbs and spices or a tasty sauce can really make your vegetables go from good to outstanding.
The basic sauté method is cook the food in an uncovered pan over medium or high heat, and stirring them often. The higher heat and thinner pieces of vegetables helps them cook quickly, which minimizes nutrient loss. With a high heat setting this method can also be called stir-frying.
In traditional sautéing, oil or animal fat is used to prevent the food from sticking and add flavor. Up until recently most people thought a fat of some kind was a requirement for sautéing vegetables.
However, now we know this is not true. In fact, whether in a sauté or a dressing, oil actually coats our taste buds so that it’s harder to recognize flavor! Oil also brings 120 calories with every tablespoon used, making it the densest food on the planet!
Thus, we have very good reason to leave the oil out of our cooking. Now the question is: how do we do this? Well, we have several techniques to choose from depending on individual preference and what is best for the dish at hand.
The technique closest to the traditional sauté is a water-sauté. This method replaces the oil with water or another liquid, such as broth, juice or wine, and the rest of the process is the same.
A slightly different method, known as a dry-sauté, does not use the oil nor a replacement liquid. Here the only difference with the technique is that you ‘ll need to stir the vegetables often. Without any liquid added the pan is dryer, making it easier for the vegetables to stick and burn. A little browning, or caramelization on the bottom of the pan is ok - sometimes even desirable as it can add more flavor. If there is browning on the bottom of the pan, you can add a touch of water to deglaze the pan and stir in the flavor. This is a fast cooking method, maintaining the integrity and crispness of the vegetables.
Sweating is another form of sautéing with no liquid. However, sweating differs from the dry-sauté because heat is kept to medium, but more importantly the pan is covered. Using a lid keeps the juices released from the vegetables inside the pan, adding lots of moisture to the bottom of the pan. Thus by keeping the pan covered and stirring occasionally, you can cook easily cook oil-free vegetables without any sticking to the bottom of the pan. Most vegetables have a very high water content creating more moisture, or juice, than you might expect.
The goal is to soften the vegetables without browning them and let their flavors start mingling. Look for the vegetables to start glistening and softening around the edges, then move on to the next step in the recipe.
Steam Frying is a mix of sweating and dry-sautéing. The vegetables are cooked in a covered pan without an liquid added, just like in a sweat. The difference is the heat is set to medium-high or high, which causes the vegetables to brown much quicker. Don’t be surprised if you hear the vegetables start to sizzle.
This higher heat requires that the vegetables be stirred more frequently than they would be in sweating. Replacing the lid in between stirring helps maintain a level of moisture and heat in the pan, which is like partially steaming the vegetables in addition to the sauté. This technique delivers tender vegetables with intentional browning for added flavor.
When helping people transition to a whole food, plant-based diet, one of the first moves I recommend is letting go of oil. I believe that between these various techniques, you’re sure to find one that fits your cooking style and taste preferences. You may find you that with certain vegetables you like some techniques more than others. Do some testing and have fun with it!