100 Techniques

Technique #8: Just Add Water for Perfectly Sautéed Vegetables

Our streamlined method for tasty, everyday sautéed veggies.

Published Oct. 24, 2023.

This is Technique #8 from our 100 Techniques Every Home Cook Can Master.

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You don’t have to be a professional chef to know that sauté means to cook food in a small amount of hot fat so that it browns deeply and develops savory flavor. The whole idea of browning is to eliminate moisture, so it might sound counterintuitive to suggest that adding water is the most important step to perfectly sautéing many vegetables. But it’s true.

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Less Work, More Flavor

For tougher, less watery vegetables like green beans or broccoli, simply adding them raw to hot oil or butter results in blackened exteriors and undercooked interiors. Many recipes call for the laborious solution of parboiling the vegetables until crisp-tender, shocking them in ice water, thoroughly drying them with towels, and, finally, sautéing them. 

While this classic method lets you do most of the prep work in advance, it also involves juggling multiple pans and procedures. Most of us want something more streamlined to get tasty, everyday sautéed veggies.

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Why Our Method Uses Water

Our modified stir-fry technique involves three steps in quick succession in a 12-inch skillet with a tight-fitting lid. Water is needed to soften the vegetables, but rather than parboiling before sautéing, we reverse the process. In other words, sauté the vegetables first until spotty brown but not cooked through and then add a small amount of water to the skillet. 

When the water hits the skillet, it immediately turns to steam, and you can quickly cover the pan to capture it. Once the veggies are almost cooked through but still a bit crisp (an efficient process in the steamy environment), remove the lid to let excess moisture evaporate. Then, blast the heat to finish evaporating the water and get additional final browning.

Equipment Review

The Best Sauté Pans

A cross between a skillet and a saucepan, this versatile pan can be used for shallow frying, searing, braising, and more.
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Tailor the Method to the Vegetable

Don’t add water to the skillet for vegetables that are more watery, like zucchini and tomatoes, since they release their liquid so readily. For mushrooms, which contain plenty of water but are reluctant to give it up right away, you can keep the same procedure but skip the initial browning since you need to remove their water before attempting to brown them. 

It’s counterintuitive, but adding a small amount of water to the pan first gets the steaming process started and encourages the mushrooms to release their water, which can then evaporate. After that, add oil and let them sizzle until they brown.

Our Sautéed Baby Bok Choy recipe uses water for crisp, tender stems and leaves that are wilted but not mushy.

Step by Step: How to Sauté Vegetables by Adding Water

Here's how to use water to steam out excess moisture for perfectly spotty brown, crisp-tender vegetables.

Step 1: Cook Until Spotty Brown

Sauté vegetables in butter or oil in skillet until spotty brown.

Step 2: Add Water

Add small amount of water, cover, and cook until vegetables become brighter in color but are still crisp.

Step 3: Finish Cooking

Uncover skillet and continue to cook until water has evaporated and vegetables are crisp-tender.

Step 4: Finish with Seasoning

Continue to cook until vegetables are fully cooked to taste, finishing with additional seasoning.

Recipes That Use This Technique

Put your newfound sautéing knowledge to work with any of these recipes.


Sautéed Green Beans with Garlic and Herbs

Parboiling, shocking, drying, sautéing—do you really need a four-step process to produce tender, evenly cooked beans?
Get the Recipe

Sautéed Mushrooms with Red Wine and Rosemary

Want savory, meaty-textured, deeply browned mushrooms without a lot of work, time, or even oil? Start by adding water.
Get the Recipe

Sautéed Baby Bok Choy

This vegetable’s clean, mild flavor is an asset.
Get the Recipe

Sautéed Mushrooms with Mustard and Parsley

Want savory, meaty-textured, deeply browned mushrooms without a lot of work, time, or even oil? Start by adding water.
Get the Recipe

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