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"What's the difference between sautéing and 'sweating' onions?"

Dear Anne and Sue,

I am wondering what difference there is, if any, between sautéing onions and "sweating" them i.e. covering them with the lid while they sauté which seems to bring out a lot of liquid.



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Dear Janice,

Sautéing uses a small amount of fat, and it's done in an uncovered pan. As fat reaches higher temperatures than water, cooking usually occurs quickly, and you can easily see the onions become translucent as they move from raw to cooked.

As heat softens the structure of the onions, the fat not only captures the flavors being released, but also contributes to new flavors being formed through the process of browning. Some fat is also absorbed by the onion. So, sautéing adds deeper flavors and richer colors to the finished dish.

Sweating is the process of releasing flavors with moisture and low temperatures. Fat, in this case, is used just to hold the non-volatile flavors as they're released from the onion. No browning takes place. The pan is covered so the lid traps steam, which condenses and drips back on to the onions. Some cooks cover the onions directly with a piece of foil or parchment, than add a lid as well.

In sweating, the onions soften and release their moisture and flavor at a leisurely pace so the onions cook in their own juices. As many of their flavoring compounds are volatile, if any subsequent cooking continues for a lengthy period, the flavors of onions mellow to background nuances.

So what's the bottom line? Sautéing changes flavors, while sweating primarily releases the flavors already present.

Anne & Sue



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