Speedy Cooking Techniques: Sautéing, Steaming, and Stir-Frying

Quick-cooking techniques such as stir-frying and steaming are very easy to learn. An added plus is that they are healthier than longer cooking techniques: shorter cooking time means that the food retains more of its nutrients.


Invented by the Chinese to cope with a shortage of oil, stir-frying consists of cooking food by stirring it rapidly at high heat in a small amount of oil. Traditionally, Chinese stir-fries are prepared in a bowl-shaped utensil called a wok, but a deep-sided skillet makes an acceptable substitute.

Stir-frying requires more advance preparation than other cooking methods. However, the short cooking time more than makes up for the extra prep work, as the average stir-fry dish takes less than 10 minutes to make.

Here are the basic steps needed to prepare a stir-fry:

  1. Prepare all the ingredients: Cut the meat and vegetables into bite-size pieces and place on a dish near the stove.

  2. Preheat the pan: Heat the pan on medium-high heat before adding the oil.

  3. Heat the oil for stir-frying: Add vegetable or peanut oil, tilting the pan so that the oil coats the bottom and halfway up the sides of the pan.

  4. Test the oil to see if it is hot: The easiest way is to drop a piece of fresh gingerroot into the hot oil. If it starts sizzling immediately, the oil is ready.

  5. Add the first set of ingredients: Usually the meat, poultry, or seafood is added first. Lay the meat out flat and let it sear for about thirty seconds before you begin stirring.

  6. Add the second set of ingredients: Usually these are the vegetables. Unlike meat, vegetables need to be stir-fried continually to prevent burning.

  7. Add a sauce: The sauce is normally added near the end of stir-frying.


Before you begin stir-frying vegetables, try adding a few pieces of fresh ginger root or crushed garlic cloves to the hot oil to season it. The advantage of seasoning oil is that it removes any raw taste from the oil.


Like stir-frying, sautéing consists of cooking food in a small amount of oil over high heat. However, sautéed food doesn't need the constant stirring required for stir-frying (although it will need to be turned over to ensure that each side is browned and cooked through). Furthermore, the food does not need to be cut into bite-size pieces, but can be cooked whole.

Both sautéing and stir-frying have their advantages. Stir-frying takes less time, as cutting food into bite-size pieces makes it cook more quickly. On the other hand, there is less preparatory work required to sauté food.


Generally considered to be the healthiest cooking technique, steaming consists of using moist heat, commonly called steam, to cook food. Unlike stir-frying, grilling, and other quick-cooking methods, steaming does not destroy important nutrients in the food. Even a simple method such as cooking food in boiling water is less healthy, since you lose many nutrients when you drain the cooking water. Furthermore, steaming does a better job of coaxing out the subtle flavors of the food.

The only potential disadvantage of steaming is that it can sometimes (although not always) take longer than other cooking methods. Still, even cooks in a hurry will find it's a great way to cook many types of food, particularly fish and vegetables.

Whether you're using traditional Chinese bamboo steamer baskets placed in a wok or a simple metal steamer inserted into a saucepan, steaming is easy if you follow a few simple steps:

  • When using a bamboo steamer, place a bamboo base into a Chinese wok, making sure it doesn't fit too snugly.

  • When steaming larger items (such as fish) in a bamboo steamer, place the food on a heatproof dish. For smaller items, you can use a bamboo steaming basket placed on top of the base.

  • Pour enough boiling water in the sides of the wok so that the water comes within an inch of the food.

  • When using a metal steamer insert, add water to a medium-sized saucepan, and then add the insert. The water should come within an inch of the food.

  • Whatever type of steamer you are using, it's important to make sure the water doesn't touch the food. Let the steam cook the food.

  • Keep the water at a rolling boil while cooking the food. Add more boiling water as needed.

To steam vegetables, cook over the boiling water until they are tender but still crisp when pierced with a fork (about two to three minutes for most vegetables). To steam poultry, cook until the chicken is tender and the juices run clear when pierced with a fork. To steam fish, cook until the fish flakes easily with a fork.

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