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The Secret to Successful Stovetop Cooking? Knowing How and Why to Fry, Sauté, Steam, Poach, or Sear

Knowing the difference between various cooking techniques—and how to perform them—can be overwhelming. This guide will clear up your confusion.

6 min read

Nothing brings people together like good food. But actually making food taste good can be hard if you’re still wondering about the difference between sautéing and searing—or if you can’t figure out whether you should steam or poach something. Here’s what you need to know about several essential stovetop cooking techniques, so you can get cooking like a pro in no time.

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Frying is the action of placing ingredients in a small amount of hot fat—usually oil or butter—and then cooking them on a medium to high heat. This method is fast and results in a delicious browned, crispy surface. (Just make sure to dry veggies in a salad spinner or blot your meat with a paper towel first, as excess water can cause ingredients to steam instead.)

To fry at home, you’ll need a medium-depth pan and an oil that can withstand some heat, such as avocado or olive oil. (Butter is another option, but it will smoke and burn if the temperature is too high.) It’s easy to cook eggs this way: Simply heat your oil until it’s shimmering, then gently place eggs on a hot non-stick pan. Turn down the heat to let the whites cook until the edges curl and the yokes set.

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Ever see a chef on TV jiggling a pan over the stovetop so the food scuttles around? Yep, that’s sautéing, which actually means to jump in French. Similar to frying, sautéing is all about cooking food quickly in a pan over high heat. However, it uses less fat and relies on movement to help the food cook evenly. This method is best for foods that need to be cooked briefly, such as onions, carrots, or celery that are serving as the base of a soup or sauce. It’s also great for reheating and reviving leftovers. Start by choosing a pan with ample size and maneuverability. Then heat the oil and add your ingredients, which should be cut into small pieces so they cook at the same rate. Keep everything moving by gently agitating the pan until the color of the ingredients intensifies (you want those carrots really orange) or they begin to wilt.


Steaming cooks food by exposing it to the moist heat from boiling water. It’s a great strategy for cooking vegetables because there’s no contact with the water, which can actually leach nutrients. To steam effectively, use a stainless steel basket in a pot with a tight-fitting lid. (Glass lids are perfect because you can monitor the cooking process without opening the pot and losing heat.) But don’t steam too long or your food will become waterlogged and overcooked. Five or six minutes is enough to make vegetables tender but crisp.


You’ve probably also heard of poaching, which uses moist heat too. But poaching requires ingredients to be fully submerged into gently simmering water (or vegetable stock), rather than suspending them above it. Poaching is perfect for delicate foods like fish, fruits, and even eggs, because it doesn’t use extremely high heat or forceful movements, which can compromise the shape of an ingredient. Plus simmering helps infuse foods with moisture. Use a steamer to easily transfer foods from the water to your dish. Next time you’re looking to add succulent chicken, shrimp, or fish to a grain bowl or tacos, give poaching a try.


Searing occurs when the surface of a food (like a juicy steak) cooks at high temperature until browned and creates a crust. Seared items are often finished with a slower cooking method, such as baking, so choosing a pan that can go from stovetop to oven is a good strategy here. Start by getting your oven-proof pan hot, hot, hot on the stovetop. Add your oil and, using tongs, brown each side of your meat before transferring the pan to a preheated oven. You’ll know the meat is ready when an internal thermometer inserted into the center or thickest part reads 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Pro tip: If you like the consistency and flavor that results from searing, you’ll love roasting your vegetables, which produces similar tastes and texture.

Ready to up your kitchen game even more? Then check out these posts for more tips on grilling, pickling, and marinating.


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