What’s the difference between sauteing and sweating veggies?

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Sweating and sautéing are very similar cooking methods that both involve cooking food in a pan with a small amount of fat (oil, butter, duck fat, bacon fat, etc).  Sweating is essentially sautéing at a lower temperature.  Read on for a more detailed explanation of what that means and why it’s important.

Why Chefs Sweat Vegetables

When you sauté vegetables, you’re browning them.  Browning is the caramelization of surface sugars, and it’s usually a very good thing.

The benefits of browning are:
A) imparts extra flavor and sweetness
B) adds color
C) develops fond (the little browned bits stuck to the pan), which is a delicious foundation for sauces and braising liquids once it has been deglazed (what is deglazing?).

To see the full effect of caramelization on food, try slow-caramelizing onions.  It takes a long time, but they become incredibly sweet, rich flavored, and dark brown.  Classic French onion soup gets its pronounced sweetness purely from the natural sugar in onions, slow caramelized until they’re as sweet as possible.

However, sometimes you’re looking for a different effect.  Sweating is cooking vegetables in fat at such a low temperature that they soften and begin to release their moisture and flavorful essences into the pan without browning.  Often sweated vegetables are finely diced or minced to speed the cooking process, since they are cooked at such low heat.

The benefits of sweating are:
A) better protects the original color of vegetables and doesn’t impart extra brown color to dishes made with them.
B) preserves more of the original flavor without the added sweetness and “nutty” taste that caramelization imparts.
C) leaves no fond on the pan, which could be burned in recipes that do not involve deglazing.
D) requires little to no stirring or tossing, as there’s no risk of the vegetables burning or (unless you overload the pan) cooking unevenly.

How to Sweat Vegetables Without Sautéing Them

1. Prepare your vegetables.  Sweated vegetables are often minced or cut into small or medium dice.

2. Oil a pan just as you would for sautéing.

3. Pre-heat the pan, but on low rather than medium or high heat.

4. Add your vegetables and let them cook over the low heat.  You should hear them cooking as moisture escapes, but they should not be as loud as a sauté.  In addition, if they start to even slightly brown, your heat is too high and you need to turn it down.

5. Depending on how much is in the pan, you may want to give them a stir once or twice to make sure all the pieces get a chance to cook through.

6. When the vegetables have softened (and turned translucent in the case of shallots, celery, and onions, three of the most commonly sweated vegetables), and you can smell their aroma, they’ve been sufficiently sweated for you to move on with the next step in your recipe.

Check out our culinary techniques tutorial collection to learn more nifty chef tricks.

– Question Submitted by Nadia

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