Panfry or sauté?

There’s a whole lot of discussion around whether cooking in fat makes you fat. Many people have taken to the idea of using water to sauté their vegetables instead of oil. So what is best for you and does it make a difference if you pan fry or sauté, and should it be in oil or water?

Firstly, why do we use oil or water when we’re panfrying or sautéing veggies? Hopefully that’s obvious. If we didn’t use anything the food would stick to the pan. Something is needed to stop it from sticking. So what’s the difference between cooking in oil or water? Water is a solvent. In fact, it’s often called the ‘universal solvent’ because it dissolves more substances than any other liquid*. If you use water to stop the vegetables from sticking to the pan then lots of the flavour and nutrients of the veggies is transferred to the water.

So water is great for making soups and broths, as you still are consuming the liquid, and hence still having the nutrients. You only need a small amount of water, just enough to cover the base of the pan, otherwise your vegetables will boil.

OK, so if you choose not to use water and use oil instead, should you panfry or sauté? And what’s the difference?

Panfry is usually done at a lower heat with just enough oil to lubricate the pan. It is used mostly for larger pieces of of food. I panfry things like tofu strips, sweet potato balls and arancini balls.

Sautéing is done at a higher temperature. It comes from the French word that means jumped or bounced. It is usually done in oil and with small pieces of food i.e. vegetables that have been cut up. Again, just a small amount of oil is needed to lubricate the pan. Too much oil causes the food to fry, rather than just slide around the pan. Unlike water there is no transference of nutrients to the oil, so the vegetables keep their nutrients – as long as the oil is hot.

So when do I use oil and when do I use water?

It depends on my mood at the time. Sometimes I’ll use a little bit of water and sometimes I’ll use a little bit of oil.

And does fat make me fat?

Well, that’s a whole other story. Which we will come to another day. For today, let’s just say that our cells need fats. They need good quality fats and one way to get those good quality fats is through good quality oils.


US Government site – Water Science


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