The more cooking methods you master, the more fun you can have in the kitchen. Here are 10 common cooking techniques that are great to have in your repertoire! All you need is a spatula, a stove, and something to cook.
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Sautéing is the all-around cooking method – you can use it to prepare many different kinds of food: meat, fish, vegetables, noodles... the list goes on!
The word sauté literally means "to jump" in French. This refers to that when sautéd, the food is tossed around in the skillet.
You can use a variety of fats such as butter to various oils – or a combination – depending on which food you are sautéing. Make sure the pan and the fat are hot enough so that the food starts to brown quickly. When using this cooking method, the exterior of the food is browned – sometimes only slightly, sometimes more caramelized. Meanwhile, the interior is cooked through. Sautéing falls somewhere between stir-frying and searing.
The key to a successful stir-fry is to cut the food into similarly sized bite-sized pieces so that it cooks evenly. Stir-frying is a standard method used in Asian kitchens. With the aid of some kind of cooking utensil, the cook keeps the pan moving – this is sometimes achieved by shaking the pan itself.
During stir-frying, the heat should be very high. A small amount of oil is usually used. A good tip is to have each ingredient fully prepped and measured before you get started – stir-fries don't wait, and you risk burning the ingredients if you chop them and throw them into the pan one by one.
That said, to master the art of stir-frying, ingredients should be added proportionally to their cooking time: start with the one that requires the longest time to cook, and add successively shorter cooking times to finish off with those needing just a quick heat-up so that everything is done at the same moment. Traditionally, a wok is used, but a large stir-fry works well too.
Searing implies browning the food in a pan on high heat. The method is often used for meat and fish, and most commonly at the beginning of the recipe. The browning acts by caramelizing the natural sugars in the food. This releases an extra layer of flavor and can also add a nice crunch to the outside.
Searing only requires a small amount of fat.
For fish, it can be used as a standalone method – sear the piece of fish on both sides, and it's ready to consume. For meat, it's usually the first step in the cooking procedure, followed by braising or roasting.
Braising is often used when preparing meat, in particular the parts of meat that need long, slow cooking to reach the right tenderness – though the method can be applied to anything from endive to poultry.
Though not always the case, the first step of braising is often a light browning of the food. It is followed by heating over a low flame with just enough liquid to not completely cover the food. A lid can be used to cover the pot so that the liquid condenses underneath it and keeps the dish moisturized while cooking. The liquid can be broth, wine, or tomatoes. Aromatic vegetables like carrots, onions, and other seasonings and spices are used as flavor enhancers.
Stewing resembles braising in that they are both moist heat cooking methods. The main difference is that stewing is often used for food cut into smaller pieces while braising refers to whole cuts of meat or pieces of chicken.
The first step of stewing is often to brown the food over higher heat. It's then returned to the pot adding liquid and other ingredients, like vegetables. A lid is used to cover the ensemble, and the cooking is finished over low heat.
Stewing is an excellent method for making meat, poultry, or some kinds of seafood like squid tender. An advantage of the technique is that stewed food (as is true for braised) often tastes even better the following day, making it a suitable technique for cooking ahead of time e.g. when having guests over.
A famous cooking tool that works wonders for stewing is the slow cooker.
Steaming is one of the most gentle cooking methods working by a consistent hot airflow. It is very popular in Asian cooking in particular.
One huge advantage of steaming is that the food is prepared above the liquid instead of being submerged, meaning most of the nutrients stay in the food. As the cooking liquid, water or broth are common – or infusions like wine beer to add taste.
When steaming, it's essential to ensure that the food has enough room around each piece – otherwise, the cooking can become uneven. The liquid should be about one or two inches below the food suspended above the liquid. Note that as the liquid evaporates, you may have to add more.
The basic setup for steaming foods is a perforated platform suspended above the heated liquid. There are many appliances used for this. Some examples of food that's often steamed are chicken, dumplings, vegetables, and fish.
When steaming, it's important to remember that steam burns, and thus handling the steamed foods with caution.
Baking is the term for cooking food in the oven. This is usually done with the food uncovered, using indirect, dry heat. Baking is often used for foods like bread, cakes, muffins, and other baked goods – but also for savory dishes like pies, potatoes, or meat. Heat is gradually transferred from the surface of the foods into its center, slowly transforming their texture and taste as it progresses.
Though the oven temperature varies from recipe to recipe, food baked at around 400°F or above is often said to be roasted.
Roasting is similar to baking since it's a method using dry heat in the oven, with the food uncovered. The difference is that it usually requires higher heat and shorter cooking times than baking.
When roasting, one often uses a baking pan that is relatively shallow to allow for even circulation of the heat and avoid unintentional steaming.
The high heat makes the outside of the roasted food nice and brown – be it vegetables, potatoes, poultry, or meat – while the inside should stay soft and moist. Another method of roasting is to place the food on a rock in a roasting pan.
Roasting can also be done over an open fire.
The cooking technique called broiling means cooking foods under a broiler. A broiler can sometimes be placed in its own drawer in the oven – other times, it's achieved by placing the top rack in the oven close to the oven heat source (gas or electric).
Logically, the cooking time is proportional to the distance to the heat source. Broiling requires a certain level of involvement: you need to turn the food to ensure it gets evenly heated.
Foods suitable for this cooking method are those that cook through quickly – they need to finish cooking inside before they burn on the outside. Broiling is thus used for fish and seafood, burgers, kebabs, chicken breasts, and also for the last step in cooking food like frittatas. Timing is key, so you need to keep an eye on the food while it's cooking.
Grilling is the cooking technique using live fire. The food is placed above the fire, cooked at a fairly high temperature. When exposed to the flames, the food quickly gets a brown, caramelized crust while the inside gets tender.
Grilling is one of the cooking methods where the difficulty largely depends on the appliance used. On a gas grill, you can adjust the heat fairly easily – however, with a charcoal grill it is a little more challenging. It is often advisable to have two areas in the charcoal grill: one area that is hot and another at a lower temperature. Food can thus be moved in between zones as needed.
Foods suitable for grilling are vegetables, tempeh, tofu, tender meat and poultry, and various kinds of fish and shellfish. Even fruits and halloumi cheese can be grilled.
Grilling, just like broiling, is a method requiring a little extra attention from you. You’ll want to stay close to the grill to keep an eye on potential flare-ups. Going from perfectly cooked to burned can happen in the blink of an eye, and the timing varies from food to food and grill to grill.
While cooking food through grilling, you can play with keeping the lid open or closed to regulate the temperature.
What's the difference between grilling and barbecuing? The latter is low and slow. Barbecuing allows for the hot air to circumvent the piece of food, not too different from steaming. There are die-hard fans on both sides claiming one to be better than the other, but it's ultimately a matter of choice (and mood).
Apart from the basic cooking techniques of frying and boiling, there are many other cooking techniques that can help take your kitchen finesse to the next level. After having read this article, find a recipe to try them out! There's no need to learn all cooking techniques at once – start with one and proceed little by little. Your future food creations will thank you!