Kitchen 101: Cooking Methods
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Slow and gentle, rough and fast, hot and wet. Can you guess what I’m talking about? Of course not, you dirty-minded foodie. I’m talking about cooking methods and their effect of cooking. Like mixing methods, our recipes always tell us how to cook something, but they rarely tell us why. And if you don’t know what one means, or even have one mixed up with another, then you could not be getting the best results for that dish.
Some methods refer to where the heat is applied and others refer to the tool used to create heat. For the moist-heat cooking methods, some indicate the amount of liquid use while others refer to how hot the liquid should be. Between them all, you can cook just about anything and get what ever type of result you’re looking for. And while some cooking methods are more exclusive and others all inclusive, each one let’s you do that something special that will have you coming back to that technique time and time again.
As for baking, you may be wondering just how many cooking methods are actually used in making pastries. Well, you might be surprised. I have a grilled peach ice cream recipe. So if the grill can be used in making dessert, then any of the cooking methods can be used.
Dry-Heat Cooking Methods
The first of the two major categories in cooking methods is the Dry-Heat collection of methods. Dry heat refers to these methods not relying on water to cook food. And while the double boiler uses water to heat a vessel, the water never comes in contact with the food, so I’ve decided to classify that as a dry-heat method. Among the dry-heat methods are baking, grilling, roasting, frying, and the fun to watch flambé. While the cooking times, temperatures and usable vessels vary, there are generalizations for each that work as a good rule of thumb, except for baking of course which is one of the most versatile cooking methods. Because of that, and because this is a baking and desserts blog, we’ll start with that.
Ninety percent of the recipes in this blog will call you to bake it at some point. Since the recipes also tell you which type of baking dish to use, the temperature at which to bake and for how long, there is little thinking involved in this method (and for good reason – why spend time worrying and thinking about what makes the cake come out delicious when you could spend that valuable time eating that delicious cake).
Did you know? Baking can be traced back to early ancient history. In Ancient Rome, the pastry chef (or pastillarium) was even a well-respected occupation.
Baking refers to the cooking method that requires cooking in an enclosed space with dry heat. In conventional ovens, stagnant dry heat surrounds the baked-good cooking it evenly (hopefully) from all sides. In convection ovens, dry heat is circulated around the baked good with a fan; the baked-good is again cooked evenly from all sides but here it is cooked quicker and often far more precisely than a conventional oven can.
Tip: When using a convection oven, you can adjust the recipe by reducing the baking time by 25% or reducing the temperature by 25 degrees. As always, check the baked good a few minutes before it is due to finish baking.
Temperature: the temperature in baking can vary from as low as 250°F to as high as 500°F in home cooking (and upwards of 800°F in professional pizza ovens). Cooking Time: Because of the wide range of cooking temperatures and products that can be baked, the cooking times vary as well from as quick as a couple minutes to upwards of an hour. Tools/Vessels: Dishes used to bake in include metals, glass and ceramics and vary in shape and size depending on the baked good. Darker metals will absorb more heat and can cook items quick and brown the bottoms and sides more. Lighter metals or chromed metals will reflect more heat, thus requiring more time; light metals can prolong browning or over browning. A majority of baked goods are baked uncovered.
Tip: When cooking large or tough cuts of meat, use a low temperature for a long cooking time. When cooking smaller, tender cuts of meat, and vegetables, use a higher temperature and shorter cooking time. Dishes like Roast Chicken use both – a high temperature for a small amount of time early on to brown the skin then a lower temperature for the remaining time to yield a tender, juicy bird.
Like baking and roasting, broiling and grilling are two more methods that are very similar to each other – similar enough to be categorized together for the home cook. Unlike baking or roasting, broiling and grilling use direct heat, often an open flame to cook something hot and fast. While grilling is typically considered to contain a flame on the bottom and broil an element on the top, either can refer to the use of a flame or using a heat source on the top or bottom – usually ranging depending on region.
Did you know? A toaster is essentially a grill.
Temperature: Broiling and grilling both utilize very high temperatures – often the highest that can be achieved in home cooking. Cooking Time: Because of the high temperature used in broiling and grilling, cooking times are usually very short – rarely more than ten minutes. Tools/Vessels: Grilling is one of the few cooking methods where no vessel is used, rather the cooking is done straight on a grill rack. Since broiling typically refers to cooking from the top, broiling is often done on a broiling pan.
While many people refer to grilling as barbecue, the two terms are not interchangeable.
Barbecue or BBQ to most us americans is a cooking method that is the exact opposite of grilling even though it often uses the same device. Where grilling is hot and fast, barbecue is low and slow, utilizing indirect heat and a very low temperature. The meat or poultry is then cooked over a very long period of time – often upwards of 4 hours – sometimes overnight. Barbecuing uses a combination of cooking and smoking to impart flavor.
Did you know? BBQ in the US has become quite contentious, so much so that numerous regional styles have developed over the years including four Texas-styles, St. Louis-style, Lexington-style, Kansas City-style and Maryland-style.
Temperature: the temperature of barbecue can vary but is typically very low, often below 300°F and many times as low as 200°F or less. Cooking Time: Because of the low temperature used, barbecue is cooked over a very long time, often taking upwards of four hours. Tools/Vessels: Like grilling, barbecue can be done straight on the rack.
Frying refers to any form of cooking utilizing fat. And while it may seem strange that frying – especially deep frying – is a dry cooking method, because it doesn’t rely on water or steam, it is not a moist heat cooking method. There are two general categories of Frying: pan frying and deep frying. Pan frying can be narrowed down even further into four specific techniques: pan frying, sautéing, sweating and cooking on a griddle.
Pan Frying, unlike deep frying, only uses a small amount of fat for lubricating the pan (or no fat for certain products like bacon which creates its own fat). Pan frying allows for darker browning but also allows more moister to escape the food, as compared to deep frying.
Temperature: Pan Frying typically uses a medium high cooking temperature but can very slightly from one food to another. Cooking Time: Pan frying is a fairly quick cooking method but can vary. Tools/Vessels: Unlike deep frying, pan frying only requires a shallow dish such as a sautee pan or a skillet.
While pan frying and sautéing are often used interchangeably pan frying is typically used to refer to cooking larger pieces of meat whereas sautéing is typically used for smaller chunks of meat or chopped vegetables.
In addition to the varying size in goods cooking with sautéing versus pan frying, sautéing also typically uses a higher temperature to aid in browning and keeping vegetables crisp by locking moisture in.
Did you know? Many chefs – include me – find the sauté pan, despite its name, unsuitable for sautéing many ingredients and often favor the skillet.
Temperature: Sautéing requires a high or medium high cooking temperature . Cooking Time: Sautéing is a fairly quick cooking method but can vary depending on the ingredient. Tools/Vessels: Like pan frying, sautéing can use a sauté pan or skillet.
Sweating is similar to pan frying and sautéing in that a small amount of fat is used but the similarities end there. Instead of a high heat or quick cooking process, sweating uses much lower heat and thus requires more time. Where sautéing is used to brown items and keep vegetables crisp – by locking the moisture in – sweating does the exact opposite. Like the name suggests, sweating pulls moisture from the vegetables being cooking. Sweating is also used when you want to avoid browning an ingredient.
Tip: Stir frequently if you want the extracted moisture to evaporate. If you plan to make a soup or other dish where you want to extracted moisture, keep the dish covered as you sweat the vegetables.
Temperature: Sweating requires a low cooking temperature. Cooking Time: Sautéing is a fairly slow cooking method but can vary depending on the ingredient. Tools/Vessels: Sweating can be done in numerous cooking vessels including sauté pans, skillets and even larger pots. The dish can be covered but it is not necessary.
Deep Frying, us southerner’s second favorite method of cooking, is a cooking technique involving the complete submersing of food into hot fat, typically oil. If the temperature of the fat/oil is too low, the food will absorb oil, resulting in a greasy product. If the temperature of the oil is too high, the product will brown or burn before cooking through.
Tip: Heat the oil just above the temperature you are looking to cook with, especially if doing multiple batches. Once food is placed in the oil, the temperature is going to drop. Also, give the oil plenty of time to preheat
Temperature: Depending on the type and thickness of food, deep frying is done at between 340°F and 380°F degrees. Cooking Time: Because of the high temperature in deep frying, this is typically a very quick cooking method. Tools/Vessels: For deep frying you need a deep fryer or a large pot and mesh bowl or spoon.
While these two methods are slightly different from each other, they both require a flame that comes in direct contact with the food to cook, sear or burn. Torching uses a kitchen torch to brown and scorch the outside of something such as meringue. Flambeing uses liquor to ignite the surface of a food or a mixture. By burning off the liquor with a flame in the flambé method, you can achieve additional flavors, different than what you can get simply by reducing a liquor. While torching is traditionally associated as an aesthetic process, the browning and caramelizing of sugar under a flame can also alter the flavor profile.
Did you know? The higher the alcohol content in a liquor the more flammable it will be
Temperature: The temperature in flambé and torching is very high because of the use of a direct flame. Cooking Time: Both techniques cool or scorch the food very quickly. Care should be taken. Tools/Vessels: Flambe requires liquor and a lighter or ignition source where torching requires a kitchen torch. Sometimes a broiler can stand in for a kitchen torch.
The double boiler is the most delicate of the dry heat cooking methods and is used to prepare custards, certain sauces, temper chocolate and cooking delicate ingredients. While this method does use water (simmering water in a pot below a bowl) the water and its steam never comes in contact with the food
Tip: Despite the gentle nature of the double boiler, care should be taken as certain ingredients like chocolate and eggs can still overcook in a double boiler.
Temperature: The double boiler uses a very low temperature. Cooking Time: Because of the low temperature, this method can be a slow cooking process though many dishes prepared with this method are usually prepared quickly to avoid prolonged exposure to heat. Tools/Vessels: The double boiler is a stand alone tool though it can be achieved by using a small pot and bowl set on top. The bottom of the bowl should not touch the water.
Moist-Heat Cooking Methods
The second of the two major categories in cooking methods is the Moist-Heat collection of methods. Moist heat refers to the use of water, liquid or steam in these cooking methods. These methods are mostly distinguished by the temperature of the water; a few of them also stipulate the amount of water or liquid used.
The first of the moist-heat cooking methods is blanching. This is the only methods here which uses two steps (and another moist-heat cooking method. Blanch requires boiling an item then quickly plunging that item in ice water to stop the cooking. This method is used to partially cook an ingredient or to retain the shape and keep vegetables and fruit crisp.
Did you know? Blanching actually means “to whiten” even though this is not always the case in blanching.
Temperature: Blanching uses two temperatures. First, a very high temperature is used for the boiling portion. Second, near-freezing water is used to cool the ingredient down and stop the cooking. Cooking Time: Because this method is used to only partially cook an ingredient, this is a very quick cooking method. Tools/Vessels: Blanching usually requires a large pot for boiling and then a bowl for the ice water bath.
Boiling is the most intense – and often most destructive – of the moist-heat cooking methods. Boiling creates very large, vigorous bubbles – which indicates a temperature of 212°F. Because of the intense cooking process boiling creates, this is usually used only for hardy ingredients.
Did you know? Water boils at 212°F (100°C) at sea level but in Denver it boils at 203°F (95°C). Because of this, boiling water at high elevation might not always be hot enough to cook an ingredient – thus often requiring additional baking time.
Temperature: Boiling uses a very high temperature – the highest that can be achieved in a liquid without the use of a pressure cooker. Cooking Time: While cooking times can vary depending on the ingredient, boiling is typically a very quick process. Tools/Vessels: Boiling usually requires a very large pot though liquids and mixtures in smaller pots or pans can achieve a boil.
Braising is one of the moist-heat cooking methods which stipulates both the temperature and amount of liquid used. Braising is typically used for slow cooking meats, by using a small amount of liquid, but the method can be used for vegetables and other foods. Braising can be done on the stove or in the oven.
Did you Know? Braising can also include dry-heat cooking as meat is often seared (via pan-frying) before it is braised.
Temperature: Braising uses a medium-low temperature. Cooking Time: While cooking times can vary depending on the ingredient, braising is typically a fairly slow process. Tools/Vessels: Braising is usually done in a deep baking dish or pot and is typically covered, though it doesn’t have to be.
Poaching is one of the most gentle cooking methods and is particularly useful for infusing fruits, vegetables and meats (particularly fish) with flavors. This is another cooking method that often stipulates the amount of liquid used as it typically uses a small amount of liquid – like braising – but is almost exclusively done on the stove.
Did you know? The liquid used to poach is called court bullion.
While you should always follow the recipe, poaching usually utilizes a very slow simmering liquid and is suitable for delicate ingredients.
Temperature: Poaching is a very low temperature process. Cooking Time: While cooking times can vary depending on the ingredient, poaching is typically a slow cooking process though can be done quickly for more delicate ingredients. Tools/Vessels: Poaching recipes a sauté pan
Scalding is another very gentle cooking processes, even more gentle than poaching. Liquid brought to the scalded point is heated to 150°F. This will not produce any moving bubbles but small bubbles may appear to cling to the sides of the pot. For opaque liquids like milk, you may notice a little steam beginning to appear and the liquid may appear to move.
Tip: Keep an eye on liquids you are trying to scald as they can move from this point up to a simmer and boil very quickly.
Scalding is used for very delicate ingredients or heating liquids to temper eggs and other dishes. Scalding was once prevalent before the days of pasteurizing dairy products.
Temperature: Scalding is a very low temperature process and it should not be allowed to reach a simmer.. Cooking Time: Because of the delicacy of the ingredients used in the scalding method, this is typically a quick process. Tools/Vessels: Scalding requires a small pot though it can be achieved in high-side pans or larger pots.
Simmering is one of the most common moist-heat methods as it is ideal for making stocks, soups, cooking many ingredients and reducing certain sauces. Simmering is ideal in dishes that will be cooked for a long period of time as it produces small, gentle bubbles.
Simmers can range from a very lazy simmer (one or two bubbles reaching the surface a minute) to a steady simmer (which produces a small bubble every second or two); anything faster is typically considered a boil.
Temperature: Simmering is a low temperature baking process but requires more heat than a scald. Cooking Time: Simmering can range in cooking times widely but is typically a slow cooking method. Tools/Vessels: The item being cooked will typically dictate which pot or pan to use.
Steaming is probably the most delicate cooking method and is often used to cook delicate ingredients or in applications where the shape of the food needs to be retained.
Temperature: Steaming is a low temperature cooking process. Cooking Time: Simmering can range in cooking times widely but is typically a slow cooking method. Tools/Vessels: Steaming requires a specialized steamer pot or a large pot with a steaming rack inserted. Steaming should always be covered.