What’s the Difference Between Searing and Sautéing?

Pan-searing a steak

Sear the steak before baking it in the oven. Sauté the mushrooms in a pan. You’ll read and hear about searing and sautéing over, and over, and over again as you look up recipes on blogs and YouTube.

But what do they really mean? And what’s the difference between searing and sautéing?

Searing and sautéing are both cooking techniques that involve pan-frying food in as little oil as possible and for as little time aspossible. The similarities, however, end here.

Searing is a technique that’s used to form an aromatic, flavorful, and crispy crust on foods over high heat. Once seared, the food is usually finished with a gentler cooking method. Sautéing is a technique for cooking small slices (or pieces) of food all the way through and on moderate heat.

Here’s the thing about home cooking. You don’t really need to be a scientist to make great food. If that were the case, we’d all be eating at NASA instead of following food trucks on Twitter and dining at Michelin-starred restaurants every now and then.

But if you know enough about the science of cooking — and understand how it applies to the techniques that you use every single day to make your food — you can take your homemade meals to the next level.

So here’s everything you need to know (and nothing you don’t) about searing, sautéing, and the difference between them.

How Searing Works

Searing is a cooking technique that chefs and home cooks use to enhance the taste, aroma, and texture of meat. It’s done by pan-frying meat at high heat, as quickly as possible, until it forms a deliciously crispy and golden-brown crust.

Searing works best on thick red meat cuts, like beef steak, pork chops, lamb chops, or whole birds. Once seared, the meat is usually finished with a gentler cooking method like frying it at moderate heat or baking it in the oven.

The purpose of searing meat is not to cook it all the way through but to obtain an aromatic and flavorful crust using the Maillard reaction. The Maillard reaction is a chemical reaction that starts slowly at 284°F (140°F) and accelerates at higher heat. At 284°F, the proteins and simple sugars in meat clash and fuse, creating hundreds of new compounds that smell and taste meaty, malty, nutty, and caramelly.

As the temperature rises, the Maillard reaction builds up, producing aromatic and flavorful compounds in increasing numbers and at a faster pace. The Maillard reaction reaches its peak at 320°F (160°C).

At temperatures higher than 320°F (160°C), the proteins and sugars in foods start to burn, producing black, acrid, and harmful substances. Most home cooks make a mistake at this stage and continue grilling or frying their food until it ends up tasting burnt and bitter.

Contrary to popular belief, searing won’t help you ‘seal the juices inside the meat.’ The crust that forms through searing meat is not watertight. Since you’re cooking at high heat, the chances are that more fats and juices will drip off the meat. But that’s not necessarily a problem; you’re searing meat to get the crispy crust, not seal the juices inside it.

What Is the Best Pan for Searing Meat?

The best pan for searing meat (red or poultry) is a cast-iron skillet. Thick, heavy, and sturdy, cast-iron skillets heat up slowly but hold on to heat well. This allows you to sear the meat quickly and evenly, getting that crispy crust without cooking the meat all the way through. Sear meat on high heat and preheat the skillet for about 5 minutes before cooking.

How to get the perfect sear on a steak?

  • Using a basting brush, cover your skillet with one tablespoon cooking oil. Use a cooking oil with a high smoke point, like avocado, soybean, or canola oil.
  • Once the skillet has heated up, place the steak on the skillet. If you want to achieve the perfect sear, you need to learn how to be patient with your food.
  • Don’t move the steak around immediately when you add it to the skillet. Instead, give it enough time to brown on one side, and only then flip it to the other.

How Sautéing Works

Sautéing is a technique for cooking thin cuts of red meat, poultry, fish, or vegetables in a frying pan. Small pieces of food are tossed in a pan over moderate heat until browned and cooked all the way through.

The term “sauté” comes from sauter in French, a verb that means to jump. Let me know if you see it the same in the comments, but I find the name very descriptive. When chefs sauté food, they very often do it by tossing the ingredients in the pan.

The key to great sautéing is to use moderate heat and as little cooking oil as necessary. Some cookbooks will tell you to apply one tablespoon olive oil on the surface of your pan with a basting brush. Others will say to you to apply the oil directly to the food so that it won’t stick. There’s no right or wrong answer here. I use the first way.

Sautéing works best on thin and tender cuts of meat like beef tenderloin, fish fillets, chicken breasts — and less so on thick and tough cuts like beef brisket or pork shoulder (which take longer cooking time to render the fat and break down the muscle). The same applies to vegetables. It’s easier to sauté sliced mushrooms than whole mushrooms and halved Brussels sprouts compared to whole cabbage.

Overcrowding your pan vs. cooking just enough food (source)

One mistake home cooks often make when sautéing meats and veggies is trying to simultaneously brown too many slices. When you cook food in a pan, the moisture contained in it seeps out. Add too much at the same time, and the cooking temperature drops from moderate to low. The food ends up simmering in its liquids, and your ingredients don’t brown as well.

What’s the Best Pan for Sauteing Meat?

The best pan for sautéing meat and vegetables is a stainless steel, slope-sided sauté pan. Stainless steel pans are comfortable and lightweight, compatible with induction cooktops, and safe to clean in the dishwasher.

Check out my top frying pan picks on my recent blog post, How to Choose the Best Frying Pan. There, I compare the top materials for frying pans and share with you what to look for the next time you buy one.

Putting It Together

Criteria / MethodSearingSauteing
PurposePan-fry food to form a crispy, aromatic, and flavorful crust on the outside.Pan-fry food to brown it and cook it all the way through.
Best ForThick cuts of meat and large vegetables.Thin cuts of meat and small vegetables.
Cooking TemperatureHigh heat
(450°F to 500°F)
Moderate heat
(212° F to 250° F)
Best CookwareCast-iron skilletStainless steel sauté pan
Get It RightDon’t move the food immediately when you add it to the pan. Let each side brown for enough time.Use moderate heat. Don’t add too much food to your pan simultaneously (cook your food in portions instead).

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