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Although the term sauté is used colloquially in the US to refer to other types of frying, it is a specific cooking technique that involves high heat and constant movement of the ingredients in the pan.

According to Wiktionary's entry for the word sauté:

Definition: To cook (food) using a small amount of fat in an open pan over a relatively high heat, allowing the food to brown and form a crust stopping it from sticking to the pan as it cooks.

Etymology: Borrowed from French sauté, past participle of sauter, to jump, in cooking, diced onions jump in the pan from the hot oil, resembling a ballet dancer performing a "saute".

Sauté - Wiktionary

So the word sauté comes from the French verb "to jump".

Did this high-heat, constant-movement cooking technique actually originate in France, or did the English language just borrow the word because it was popular there? Do we have any records of where and when this cooking technique originated historically?

  • It's used much more in American than British English (we use "fry" more for shallow frying). I wonder if this gives some hints. – Chris H Jan 18 at 8:15
  • Maximillian: i've expanded my answer, please check if it answers your question. – FuzzyChef Feb 7 at 19:50
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According to The Oxford Companion To Food (1999 ed.):

Originally, in France, a sauté was a dish of meat of poultry cut into pieces and cooked only in fat, but the French now also use the term for dishes which simply involve browning a food before adding a liquid.

It also says:

The word ... has succeeded in migrating to English in both [noun and verb], with the same accent.

So, the answer is that it did come from French, because it was a word in French for a cooking technique, and crossed over to English for the same technique.

The Oxford doesn't give a year for when this crossover supposedly occurred, but my guess is sometime in the mid-19th century. This is because the word originated in French supposedly in the early 1800's, so it couldn't be older than that. And the English version is likely to be younger than the popularity of the dish Sauté d’agneau, because that dish uses the later French meaning of the word, to fry and then cook in liquid, which is "braising" in English and definitely not sauteing.

But we can narrow it down further. The first mention of the word I can find in an English-language cookbook is in the 1827 edition of The Art of French Cookery. It does not appear in the 1822 edition of The Cook's Oracle, nor in the 1823 edition of Domestic Cookery. So it seems to have appeared as a French term in British & American recipes the 1820's and been appropriated as an English term sometime later.

ADDED TO ANSWER:

There's good reason to believe that the sauté technique, at least as a widespread practice, did not exist for more than a few decades earlier than the word in French did.

The reason for this has to do with cooking technology. Through most of the 18th century, a majority of cooking was still done on open hearths, using a spider pan rather than a frying pan on a stove. Moving the pan to make ingredients "jump" -- an essential element of sauteing -- is very difficult with a spider.

So sauté as a common cooking technique would not have preceded iron stoves as common cooking surfaces, which didn't happen until the end of the 18th Century.

  • Of course you can't rule out that Sauté d’agneau has evolved in parallel, but more importantly the noun for the dish and the verb (usually) for the technique used as a step in making that dish don't have to carry the same meaning. But these are minor doubts, +1 – Chris H Jan 18 at 8:14
  • ... Sauté potatoes (probably the most common use of the word in Britain) use the original meaning of rapidly frying (par-cooked) ingredients, which is an example that runs counter to yours (I'm trying to think of something specific that I've had in France that omits the liquid, as that's optional in your Oxford quote) – Chris H Jan 18 at 8:20
  • Chris: I'm not a French speaker, so I'm going entirely off of Oxford here which claims that both the frying and the braising usage are concurrent in France, but not England. – FuzzyChef Jan 18 at 17:57
  • I don't disbelieve Oxford, but I think, from visiting France with only tourist-grade French, that the frying usage is much more common than the braising. I must admit, these quibbles would be more appropriate on English.se - and that's where I thought this question was at first – Chris H Jan 18 at 18:45
  • Updated my answer based on some research about cooking technology. – FuzzyChef Feb 7 at 19:47

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