Most people know there is a difference between sautéing and frying, but not exactly what the specific difference is. The same is true for “searing” and simmering, or stir frying and pan frying. Frying is the generic term for cooking any type of food in oil or fat. It is all-encompassing.
Sautéing involves cooking food in a shallow pan with a
little oil or fat, over high heat. Usually you only sauté with
thinly cut or sliced food, little to no liquid, and for
relatively short periods of time.
Searing is similar, but only refers to the process of
browning the surface of food. This means you can get the job
done with any cooking instrument and any cooking method, whether
it is sautéing, grilling, roasting, or something else. When you
put a steak in a screaming hot pan and try to get that tasty
crust on the outside, you are searing it.
Simmering refers to the process of cooking liquid-heavy
dishes on the heat just below the boiling point. To do this, you
specifically bring the liquid to a boil, and then reduce the
heat until it almost stops bubbling, and maintain that heat.
Stir frying traditionally involves a wok or a
high-walled pan, and involves cooking food in very hot oil while
constantly moving the food around to ensure even cooking. Stir
frying is similar to sautéing, but traditionally refers to
cooking more food and constantly moving it to make sure it cooks
through, but does not brown or burn.
Shallow and deep frying are generic terms and refer
mostly to the amount of oil used to cook the food. For example,
you can interchange sauté and shallow fry, but since sautéing
refers to cooking with a small amount of fat or oil, deep frying
is different because it involves submerging your food in hot fat
Pan frying is characterized by the use of just enough oil
to lubricate the pan during the cooking process. With greasy
foods that produce their own oil or fat, like bacon, you do not
need oil. It also usually refers to the use of shallow,
low-walled cooking pans, unlike deep frying or stir frying.