I would like to know the difference between sweating and sautéeing? Is the difference between the two, the fact that one uses oil, and the other uses fat, or are there any other aspects to be considered?

1 Answer 1


The answer is a bit complicated, because there is a confusing language issue here.

In standard cooking terminology, there is nothing in common between the two (except that both are stovetop). Sautéeing requires a wicked hot pan, a layer of oil (you can't use nonstick at these temperatures), and constant movement of the food. Basically, you are burning/caramelizing the outermost layer of your small pieces of vegetable while keeping the inside juicy. And if you'd let the food rest for a few seconds in contact with the hot pan, it will burn, so you have to keep it jumping.

Sweating is the process of allowing heat to slowly break down the cell walls of the plant. It is done on medium low temperature, and frequent stirring is counterproductive. In fact, if the pan is not crowded, you can do the whole process without stirring at all. It is usually done with fat, because this produces some very tasty byproducts (I've read of a study found that one of the flavors people found to be most pleasant in meat was in fact produced by a chemical reaction of onions and butter). But the fat is not strictly necessary for the process to take place. The resulting vegetables are soft through and through, and have lost some of their water during the cell wall breakdown. It needs some experience to find the temperature at which the food won't burn, but the juice will cook off quickly enough to not turn the bottom layer limp.

But this terminology is not common among home cooks at all in English speaking countries. I have never seen the term "sweating" in an English recipe meant for home cooks. And for some reason, they use the term "sautéeing" instead, even when they are clearly not sautéeing at all in the culinary school sense. I don't know what has caused this strange language phenomenon, but it has led to a somewhat confusing situation.

The result is that you have to know your source. If it was written for and/or by home cooks, you can assume that there is no difference at all. When you read "sautéeing", you should sweat your vegetables, or brown the meat. If you are using a professional cooking resource, you need to use the other definition. Also, if it's for home cooks but a translation from a language which makes the distinction (e.g. German), it is possible that it uses culinary school terminology. It's a bit like the dinosaur/bird terminology problem in biology: depending on who is talking, it means different things.

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    I agree with everything except for "wicked hot" and the "you can't use nonstick at these temperatures." Maillard reactions begin to happen at significant rates in the 250-300F range, while caramelization happens in the 300-400F range. There's no reason your food surface needs to go significantly over 400F to saute, unless you plan to burn it. That's perfectly within the reasonable operating range of nonstick cookware. Also, almost all oils will be smoking like crazy before you get to bad temperatures for nonstick coatings; burning oil isn't usually the goal for saute.
    – Athanasius
    Commented Jun 28, 2015 at 0:44
  • @rumtscho, when you say "wicked hot pan", what do you mean by wicked? Also, when you say "bottom layer limp", what do you mean by "limp"? Sorry if I am not too familiar with these terms. Commented Jun 28, 2015 at 4:31
  • @Athanasius, what are Maillard reactions, and what is caramelization, from a practical and chemistry perspective? How do you distinguish between these two in professional cooking and home cooking? Commented Jun 28, 2015 at 4:32
  • @Athanasius You are right that you don't need wicked hot for caramelization, but when you do it to the point where it would burn if it doesn't jump (French: saut) all the time, then it is called "saute". It is a very special process of caramelization, just like torching is another special process of caramelization. If you do what you describe, with mid-temperature range and no smoking oil, this is a perfectly good way to caramelize food, but it is not the original meaning of "saute". It is the European equivalent of wokking, if you will.
    – rumtscho
    Commented Jun 28, 2015 at 11:17
  • @JackMaddington "Maillard" is a reaction between a protein and a carbohydrate, "caramelization" is a reaction in which a sugar is pyrolized by itself. Both lead to a tasty brown crust, and there is no difference in terminology between home cooking and chemistry (in fact, most home cooks don't know about Maillard).
    – rumtscho
    Commented Jun 28, 2015 at 11:20

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