I've spent a lot of time on the road sharing weeknight dinner strategies with other cooks since 2000, when my second book, How to Cook Without a Book, was published. I teach cooks to master a few techniques and formulas, so a quick dinner with whatever ingredients they have around comes together easily.
I always teach sautéing and saucing. When you've mastered these two techniques, you can confidently cook dozens of cuts of meat, poultry, and fish. Gracing them with one of several simple pan sauces adds even more variety to your repertoire.
Learning to cook this way gives you flexibility at the grocery store. Is the butcher out of filet mignon? No problem. Pork tenderloins sauté just as beautifully. No snapper fillets at the fish case? No big deal. Tilapia, grouper, and catfish sauté just the same.
The Finesse of the Cutlet: Sautéing
The key to successful sautéing is to start with a relatively thin cut. Skinless, boneless chicken breasts, boneless pork chops, turkey cutlets, and fish fillets are all good candidates. You can pound the chicken breasts to make them thinner, but it really isn't necessary. Just keep in mind, if the cut is too thick, the outside will be burned by the time the inside is fully cooked.
The skillet's size is also important. Too small, and your food will steam instead of sauté. Too large, and your food may burn. When cooking for four, select a large (12-inch) heavy-bottomed nonstick skillet. Reach for a 10-inch skillet when you're cooking for two. And grab an eight-inch skillet when it's just for one.
The third and possibly most important point in sautéing is heating up the skillet. A hot skillet will create a nice crust on the cutlet. Add a combination of oil and butter to the skillet before the pan gets hot. It takes several minutes to bring a cold skillet up to sautéing temperature, so begin slowly heating the pan early. Then you'll be ready to sauté when the cuts are prepared. Use butter for flavor, and oil-vegetable or pure olive-to increase the butter's smoke point and keep it from burning. While the pan slowly and calmly heats, gather the meat and scoop a little flour into a pie plate (I never measure). Regardless of the cut, the seasoning procedure is the same. Sprinkle both sides with salt and pepper, then dredge it in the flour.
A couple of minutes before sautéing, turn the burner from low heat to medium-high. When the butter stops foaming, the milk solids turn golden brown, and the first wisps of smoke start to rise from the pan, add the prepared cuts of meat-not a moment sooner. If the pan's not hot enough, you'll end up overcooking the cut before browning it. At this point, it's very important to set a timer and walk away. If you don't, you'll pick, poke, prod, and generally play with the cut. All such fiddling will keep it from forming a gorgeous golden brown crust. Take these few minutes to set the table, clean up your mess, or measure the ingredients for the pan sauce.
And here's a sure method concerning cooking times: Sauté the cut until it's beautifully brown on the first side. Don't worry about how the second side browns after you turn the cut; remember, no one ever sees the bottom. If you're looking for exact times, keep three minutes a side in the back of your head. You'll never go too far wrong with those times. When you remove the cut from the pan, place it in an oven set on low to keep warm.
The Art of the Sauce
Now that you have a crisp, browned cutlet, adorn it with a flavorful sauce. The pan sauces offered in our recipes are ready to pour over the sautéed cutlets in less than five minutes. These pan sauces are made of three components-liquid, flavorings, and enrichment. Simply pour the liquid (chicken broth, orange juice, or wine) into the hot skillet, scrape any browned bits remaining in the pan, bring it to a boil, and reduce for about three to five minutes. Reducing concentrates and thickens the liquid. Next, add flavorings-shallots, mustard, cranberries, capers, and jam work well. To finish, some sauces are enriched with a swirl of butter at the end to give a silky finish and rich taste.
A cook and a scientist
Pam Anderson is both. She spent many years on the staff of Cook's Illustrated magazine, which explores the science behind the art of cooking. She's also a cookbook author and teacher. As a result, Pam has spent a good part of her career perfecting classic American dishes. These can be found in her books The Perfect Recipe and, her most recent, CookSmart.