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I've seen multiple recipes which say to saute onions, peppers, green beans, etc. Why not microwave the food to the temperature you want and then mix it (along with the oil previously used to saute) straight into everything else -- skipping the saute step?

In other words, what does the sauteing accomplish?

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up vote 10 down vote accepted

The flip answer is that sauteed food will taste good, and the microwaved version you're describing will not.

A more useful answer, however, would consider physics and chemistry. Microwaving excites molecules, resulting in heat, presuming an adequate supply of water molecules to excite. Sauteeing conducts heat from the heat source to the food by way of the pan.

Microwaving falls somewhere between radiant heating (like an oven) and steaming, though the results from conventional methods are generally superior. Sauteeing can transfer enough heat quickly enough that desirable effects like caramelization and similar effects like browning are effected with the help of fats and sugars (often referred to as a Maillard reaction), which produces volatile compounds that are very aromatic and contribute a lot to our perception of flavor. It's exceptionally hard to create the same effects with a microwave.

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Not only will you be missing the browning, you're likely to get a mushier texture if you're not careful. –  Jefromi Sep 20 '11 at 5:24
    
You can get "browning pans" for microwave ovens, some do a fairly decent job –  TFD Sep 20 '11 at 22:18
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