What Is the Difference Between Saute, Pan Fry and Stir Fry

October 19, 2011
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I have frequently been asked what recipes mean when they refer to “saute” or “stir-fry” or “pan fry” and what the difference is between these. They are all similar in many respects – all are considered dry cooking methods where food is cooked in a pan over direct heat. But there are subtle differences that are worth understanding.

Dry Cooking

Dry cooking means that you are not using water. So for sautéing, pan frying or stir frying you will be using oil. While the oil is a liquid, it is a fat. Oil behaves much differently than water. Water boils at 212°F. Oil can get much hotter which is good for sealing in flavors for meat or chicken. However, it should not be hot enough where it is smoking or it could ruin the flavor.


To sauté means to cook small pieces of food quickly over medium-high to high heat. Think of shrimp, vegetables, chicken or meat or chicken that has been cut into chunks. Some recipes will suggest sautéing but are referring to browning where the intent is not to cook the meat through

The term sauté comes from the French “to jump.” The jumping refers to the way the pieces of food appear to jump in the pan as the moisture is forced out by the high heat of the pan and oil. Jump also refers to the impressive flipping of ingredients by celebrity chefs so they cook evenly. While that is impressive, it is not necessary. Use a wooden spatula to achieve the same thing and your stove will stay a lot cleaner.

Pan Fry

Pan frying uses little lower heat than for a sauté. This is because the food to be pan-fried such as chicken, steak, pork chops or fish is not cut into pieces. Pan frying requires lower heat so the exterior of the food doesn’t to done while waiting for the interior of the food to properly cook. You use a similar amount of oil – just enough to cover the bottom of the pan.

How does a stir fry fit in this discussion?

The primary difference between a sauté and a stir fry is the shape of the pan. Stir fry is usually associated with a wok. Both techniques require small pieces of food, high heat and a very little oil. Both techniques generally end with the making of a quick sauce through deglazing the pan. For the Western style of sauté, the food is generally taken out of the pan and kept warm while the sauce is created. For the Eastern style of stir fry, the sauce is generally made in the pan along with all the food so everything gets evenly coated.

How Hot Should the Pan Be?

It’s important that the oil should always be heated before adding the ingredients. A good test for making sure the pan is hot enough to sauté is to sprinkle just a few drops of water in the pan. They should immediately sizzle vigorously and evaporate within a couple of seconds. Precision in temperature is not as crucial in a sauté as is moving the food to ensure even cooking. In a pan fry, you’re looking for a gentle sizzle; temperature control is a much more crucial factor.

What’s In A Name

So, while all these frying techniques are similar, the subtle differences are worth noting. When reviewing recipes terms can mean different things. The differences are mostly semantic so it is frequently up to the chef to assess which techniques work best for them and for the recipe being considered. Hopefully this reduces confusion somewhat rather than adding to it.

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Updated: October 26, 2011 at 3:16 pm