ALEXIS SOYER was a great French chef who was virtually adopted by the English. Among his achievements was the development of many of the recipes used by Florence Nightingale, and the writing of his "Pantropheon," a splendid history of food and its preparation in ancient times.
In one of his works, he made clear the distinction between frying and sauteing: "You will perceive that the word fried is often wrongly used in cookery instead of the wora saute . . . saute means anything cooked in a very small quantity of butter, oil, lard or fat, on one side of the article at a time, whilst the other requires about a hundred times more of the above-named materials to cook properly."
Saute comes from the French verb sauter, which means to jump or leap. As the word is used in cooking, it means to make the food jump, or to toss it, a perfect description of what happens when a cook takes a saute pan filled with sliced potatoes in a little bit of oil and rapidly moves the pan up and back over the heating element. From time to time, it is given a slight flip and everything in the pan jumps. In sauteing, the food is regularly put in motion, either by being tossed, stirred or shaken.
A saute pan, sometimes called a sauteuse or sautoir, looks like a very wide sauce pan with the top half cut off. It has a wide flat bottom with sides that go straight up from the circumference. If the sides went up higher, it would indeed become a sauce pan. When selecting a saute pan, always choose the largest one you can possibly handle. It is extremely frustrating to prepare a sauteed dish using two small pans to accommodate the ingredients.
Sauteing is one of the fastest and easiest cooking methods. Because you will be moving the pan over the heat on an almost constant basis, a good handle is essential. It should be long, slanting slightly upwards from the edge of the pan. It is equally essential to have the handle made separately, then joined to the pan, and it is valuable to have it made from a different metal in order to limit the passage of heat from one to the other.
I suggest that you always purchase a lid with a saute pan. Sauteing is very often only the first step in a recipe, to be followed by a period of covered cooking.
Since all saute pans have basically the same shape, the first major consideration must be the basic material from which the pan is made. Copper lined with tin is the ultimate combination of materials for a saute pan. If you are going to spend the astronomical amount of money necessary to purchase a top-quality copper pan, a saute pan is the place to start. The heavy tin-lined copper absorbs, conducts and reflects heat well and it also loses it quickly. The extra sensitivity to heat is essential in a saute pan. When you have deglazed the pan with ingredients that have included cream and your sauce is at the point where all cooking should come to an end as soon as possible, the ability of copper to give up heat quickly after removal from the burner will be most appreciated.
I can also highly recommend the saute pans made by the Commercial Aluminum Company and sold under the name of Calphalon. The aluminum pans transmit heat well, and are not only lighter but less expensive than copper. With most aluminum pans, there is a problem of the metal interacting with high acid foods and having a negative effect on both the taste and color of the food, as well as pitting, and discoloring the pot. But with Calphalon, this problem has been eliminated. The Calphalon finish is inert and will not interact with food. The tinned steel handle is riveted securely to the side and will remain intact, I would venture to say, longer than any of us. The pan is a joy to use.