When to Use Oil or Butter for Sautéing

By Marie Rama, Bryan Miller

When you sauté something, even in a nonstick pan, you need to use some kind of fat. But which one — butter or oil? Each is best suited for different kinds of sautéing:

  • When cooking over very high heat, use oil, which is less likely to burn.

  • When sautéing with medium-high heat, you may opt for butter, which adds a nice flavor. However, the milk solids in the butter can burn, or brown, affecting the color and taste of your food.

Typically, meats are sautéed in oil because they need a higher heat, while vegetables are sautéed in butter to impart a pleasant buttery flavor. Seafood may be sautéed in either one. Many chefs opt to use half butter and half oil when sautéing seafood: They get the benefit of the buttery flavor, but the added oil helps to keep the butter from burning as easily.

Just like the professionals do, you can prevent butter from burning in a sauté pan by adding a few drops of vegetable oil or any neutral-tasting oil.

If you decide to use oil in your sautéing, it’s helpful to know that some oils have a higher smoke point than others, which means they start to smoke at a hotter temperature (and so are preferable for sautéing). Good oils for sautéing include canola, corn, and peanut oil. If the recipe doesn’t specify what type of oil to use, go with one of these three neutral-flavored oils.

Oil alone should be hot but not smoking in the pan before you add food. Butter alone should foam at its edges but not brown.

When sautéing in oil, use a minimal amount of oil. The steam created from the hot oil in the pan helps to cook the food inside while the outsides brown. Without the presence of steam, pan-fried foods would taste greasy and be soggy rather than crispy.

Care must be taken to keep the cooking oil hot enough. Nonstick skillets work best; however, a well-oiled cast-iron skillet can do the job as well.