I was recently helping with some recipes and was instructed to use water for "sauteing" onions, celery, garlic, etc. in place of oil (scare quotes on "saute" since it involves frying in oil or other fat by definition).

The technique is meant to parallel sauteing in oil, water is measured by the tablespoon in a large pan, and although you replace water as it evaporates the vegetables are never submerged in water. Only enough water is ever used to inhibit sticking of the vegetables to the pan.

The results were good and light but I haven't had much of a chance to push it further and experiment with the upsides and downsides (the three dishes meant to just soften the onions, garlic, celery and I had to follow the directions). Obviously, using oils imparts that flavors that you otherwise won't have present if using water. More importantly though, I would like to know which reactions would be inhibited in some way; for instance, would browning and caramelizing happen at a different rate, or at all? Are there any other preparations that would be impossible without a fat to saute in? What are the limitations when using water to saute?

  • Scare quotes or no scare quotes, what you're doing is not sautéeing, it's boiling or braising.
    – Aaronut
    Commented Feb 17, 2012 at 21:40
  • @Aaronut my scare quotes here are meant to offset a self-aware, inaccurate use of the word. In this case I am misusing "saute" per the instructions written in the recipe. Particularly, since this technique is meant to replace sauteeing, I want to know in what respects and why it will be limited.
    – mfg
    Commented Feb 17, 2012 at 21:45
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    Ok, but why didn't you just say "boiling" instead of "sauteeing with water"?
    – Aaronut
    Commented Feb 17, 2012 at 21:46
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    @aaronut the water is measured by the tablespoon rather than by the cup, there's no straining or submersion of the vegetable, only enough water is used to prevent sticking. While the answer about not browning is semi-accurate, there is still enough surface contact that they do brown
    – mfg
    Commented Feb 17, 2012 at 22:25
  • I have to say that Dave's answer is correct; the "enough surface contact" you're seeing is basically an inefficient version of grilling (i.e. without water or fat). Whatever non-stick effect you are accomplishing with water could almost certainly be accomplished by just grilling at the right temperature.
    – Aaronut
    Commented Feb 18, 2012 at 16:27

2 Answers 2


The big difference is that oil can get to a higher temperature than water can. Water turns to steam at 212F, while most oils won't start smoking until 300-400F. Caramelization doesn't happen until 320F (for sucrose and glucose, 230F for fructose), while browning (the Maillard reaction, to be specific) doesn't happen until 375F. Now when you "saute" like that in water, you'll also be using the steam to cook, and the steam will be somewhat hotter than 212F, but probably not enough hotter (or in enough quantity) to get to those reaction temperatures. You might get high enough temperatures via direct contact with the bottom of the pan, but that's a recipe for uneven cooking, as the part of the food actually in direct contact are likely to be quite small.

  • Your answer has much of the information I am looking for, but there is enough surface contact with the own to cause browning. I have elaborated on the technique in case there was any confusion. Aaronut is correct that the more accurate mechanism at work is boiling or braising, a well as you're x comment about this being more like streaming; but it also cooks sure to direct contact with the pan.
    – mfg
    Commented Feb 17, 2012 at 22:34
  • This is the right answer -- if there's liquid water in the pan that's not rapidly turning to steam, then the pan is unlikely to reach a temperature much higher than 212°F because the water will absorb that heat and use it to turn to steam. If you want browning without fat, then just cook the vegetables in a dry pan and stir from time to time to prevent sticking (or use a non-stick pan). Optionally, deglaze with water, stock, wine, or other flavorful liquid.
    – Caleb
    Commented Feb 17, 2012 at 22:57
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    Might add that this is more like a forced "sweat" than a saute. In normal sweating, you do use some oil, but the temperatures are kept low, and browning does not occur. Salt is put on the surface of the vegetables which draws moisture out. After a few minutes of sweating onions, for instance, you end up with them bubbling along in a few tablespoons of their own juices. What you are doing by adding a little water is clearly not boiling, related to braising, but closest to sweating.
    – Sam Ley
    Commented Feb 18, 2012 at 1:41

An Italian friend of mine always adds some water to the olive oil when sweating onions. The idea is that she doesn't want the onions to brown, nor the oil to disintegrate, and by adding some water the temperature is kept down. (She also turns the heat down almost all the way.)

I sometimes do it myself, if I've got enough time. It takes much longer for the onions to go soft, but I think that the result tastes better.

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