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Many recipes call for things like garlic and spices to be sautéed first before combining other ingredients into a pan. I have always preheated the oil in the pan first to get a good “sear”, but is it possible to achieve similar, or at least serviceable, results from starting the aromatics in a room temperature pan and oil?

I would consider doing this only for the added time flexibility. A slower start could allow me time to focus on a more intensive task elsewhere, without the risk of overheating the oil.

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    Not an answer to your question, but you can preheat pan+oil slowly on a low flame while chopping ingredients with minimal risk of overheating. Then it comes up to working heat much more quickly when you're ready. This is for domestic stoves - commercial ones I've used don't adjust as low but preheat faster anyway
    – Chris H
    Jun 1, 2021 at 9:53
  • I'd say you specifically do not want to sear those. Sometimes you want to sear, sometimes you do not. Also, there's a huge difference between starting with a "somewhat hot" pan versus a "very hot" pan, and as you say the third option is a cold pan. All three are really different.
    – Fattie
    Jun 3, 2021 at 21:33

3 Answers 3

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I prefer to cook aromatics starting from a cold pan/oil, whenever possible. Starting with a cold pan makes it easier to avoid singeing the ingredients. (You really don't want a "sear" in most cases. Garlic, for example, becomes bitter and horrible when over-browned.)

Cooking food starting with a hot pan is important in other situations for two reasons:

  1. To get a higher temperature differential, and thoroughly cook the outside without overcooking the inside (the "sear" you mentioned). Not really relevant for finely chopped aromatics.
  2. To prevent food from sticking to the pan. In situations where you're sweating aromatics, they're generally suspended in the oil, and in any case they lack the starches/proteins that would tend to stick, so this isn't really a problem.
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  • you mean "thoroughly cook the INSIDE without overcooking the OUTSIDE"? Jun 2, 2021 at 5:13
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    @curious_cat No. If that’s all you need, a low temperature will work fine.
    – Sneftel
    Jun 2, 2021 at 6:53
  • @curious_cat: Think of a steak: browned (or even with grill marks) on the outside, still pink on the inside. Ideally with as thin a layer as possible of "overcooked" meat between the flavourful crust created by searing, and the medium-rare inside. You achieve this by searing in a very hot pan, and then turning down the heat or moving to an oven to finish the steak and let heat conduct into the middle to get it sufficiently cooked inside without too much overheating of the parts near the surface. Jun 2, 2021 at 21:53
  • @PeterCordes Fundamentally I don't understand how physics would let you "cook" an inside ever more than the outside? Unless you used microwave heating. Conduction would always be outside in right? So the concern about "overcooking" should always be for the outside rather than the inside right? Assuming it is a uniform block of meat. Jun 3, 2021 at 13:55
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    @curious_cat It's not a matter of trying to make the inside hotter than the outside; it's the opposite. The surface of a steak needs to be around 150 degrees in order to brown properly. But the inside will be overcooked (by anyone's standards!) if it gets above 70 degrees. Using a hot pan lets you get a high-temperature outside without getting a high-temperature inside.
    – Sneftel
    Jun 3, 2021 at 16:05
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It depends heavily on what you're cooking.

For Indian or central Asian styles of cooking, for example, the spices get tempered in the hot oil first, and the oil absolutely needs to be heated first. The aromatics (ginger, garlic) go in after the hard spices (ie: cumin seed, mustard seed, cinnamon stick, star anise, bay leaf, dry chilli, etc), which only take about 10-20 seconds. Tempering just doesn't really work that well if you throw everything in and bring the heat up slowly.

The hard spices have some water content, but you don't want it to all ooze out slowly between 100C and 200C because that water is what prevents the spices from burning. For things like mustard seed you also need the moisture to heat up quickly so that the seeds pop. They should hit the 200C oil with all their moisture intact so that they fizz up quickly - the waning of which really helps with timing when to throw in the wet aromatics to crash the temperature and halt the temper (before things burn).

Southeast asian cooking generally starts with aromatics first (ginger, garlic, scallion), and that's usually done with cold oil added to a hot pan with aromatics following a few seconds later, just as the oil begins to smoke. Adding cold oil to a hot pan also helps prevent sticking, which is nice if you cook on steel. This style of cooking is often fast and very high heat, so you want to get it done quickly before things lose their crisp and colour. You can start with cold oil in a cold pan here, but it makes timing more difficult unless you're cooking through paper-thin steel over 100kBTU. With water in the aromatics the oil never really gets hot enough for that scalding hot initial-contact. Not at least until you've reduced the aromatics to pan stickings.

Really, it's not hard to try it both ways and see what you like. Other styles of cooking will have different needs that may be more or less amenable to a slack approach with the oil temperature.

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For sweating aromatics, I find no disadvantage with tossing everything in a cold pan and slowly heating.

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