Quickness is key for sauteed and fried dishes -- you should have everything ready to go and at the right temperature before you begin, so that you can remain focused during the actual cooking time. The goal is to produce foods that are golden and crisp on the outside, and juicy on the inside. Aside from getting the timing right, neither sauteing nor frying is terribly difficult. And mastering them will bring very satisfying -- and speedy -- rewards.
Sauteing and frying are considered dry-heat cooking methods, since oil and other fats do not contain any water. They do lock in moisture, however, when they are heated high enough, so long as the heat remains constant. It is just as important not to overcrowd the pan, which can cause the food to steam rather than fry, and can make the oil's temperature drop significantly.
Sauteed foods are cooked in a sizzling-hot pan in just a small amount of butter, cooking oil, or other type of fat. The best cuts for sauteing are tender, portion-size, and of an even thickness. The method is well suited to cooking just a few pieces at once, since you can quickly prepare and serve without having to worry about keeping things warm between batches. Many sauteed dishes are served with a sauce made from drippings left in the pan.
A saute pan is shallow and wide-mouthed, and has tilted sides that make it easier to toss items such as onions and other vegetables. Choose a pan made of a metal that conducts heat well, and with a heavy bottom. Make sure your pan or skillet is large enough for everything to fit comfortably, as the meat will not brown correctly if overcrowded.
Pan-frying (also called shallow-frying) requires that foods are only partially submerged in fat, while deep-fried foods, as the name suggests, are completely submerged in cooking fat. Both pan-fried and deep-fried foods are usually coated with a breading or batter to create a deliciously rich and textured crust.
The best cuts for frying are of uniform size and naturally tender, such as pieces of poultry, fish, and some shellfish. Despite the large amounts of fat used, properly fried foods should absorb very little oil, most of which is retained in the crust. If fat is a concern, you can always remove the crust before eating and still enjoy the juicy meat -- though some would say you'd be losing the best part.
For pan-frying, choose a pan with straight sides higher than those of a saute pan, if possible, to hold more oil and contain spattering. The pan should be heavy-gauge, able to withstand high temperatures, and big enough to hold the food in a single layer. For pan-fried chicken, a wide cast-iron skillet is the traditional pan of choice.
Try these simple cooking techniques by making delicious Chicken Piccata and Pan-Fried Chicken Cutlets. For more information about sauteing, frying, and other essential cooking techniques, check out "Martha Stewart's Cooking School: Lessons for the Home Cook."