What is the difference? Actually, a lot! OK, maybe not a whole lot—oil that is. The object of sautéing foods is to produce a flavorful exterior with the best possible texture and color. This technique cooks food rapidly in a small amount of fat over relatively high heat. The juices released forms the base for a sauce.
Because sautéing is a rapid technique and does not have the tenderizing effect of other methods, any food to be sautéed must be naturally tender.
The object of pan-frying is to produce a flavorful exterior with a crisp, brown crust, which acts as a barrier to retain juices and flavor. Pan-frying requires more oil. Although this technique shares similarities with sautéing, it has some important differences. A sautéed item is often lightly dusted with flour and quickly cooked over high heat in a small amount of oil, pan-fried food is usually coated with batter or breaded and cooked in a larger amount of oil over less intense heat. The product is cooked more by the oil’s heat than by direct contact with the pan. In pan-frying, the hot oil seals the food’s coated surface and thereby locks the natural juices inside instead of releasing them. Because no juices are released and a larger amount of oil is involved, any accompanying sauce is made separately whereas, in sautéing the bits that remain in the pan are used to flavor the sauce for the sautéed item.
Alton Brown's Pan-Fried Chicken (worth the 5 minutes).
The following gives you a good walkthrough of a typical sauté dish.
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