Defining Cooking Methods

There are a limited number of different ways to cook your food. Everything that you can possibly make, no matter how simple or complicated, will fall within (at least) one of twelve categories, though some dishes incorporate multiple techniques.

The twelve categories can be divided into two basic groups: moist heat, and dry heat. Moist heat, as the name implies, involves cooking with water or some variation on water (stock, wine, beer, etc.). Dry heat involves non-aquatic heat transfer methods, thus, somewhat counter-intuitively, deep frying is classified as dry heat because oil, while liquid, contains no water.

Moist Heat

  • Poach: cooking liquid is 160-180 F. The liquid is hot, but not bubbling.
  • Simmer: 185-205 F. Some small steam bubbles are gently rising to the surface.  When simmering something, you should bring it to a boil first, and then ease up on the heat until it’s at the proper temperature. Continue to keep an eye on it as long as it’s supposed to simmer, stirring it occasionally and adjusting the heat as necessary to maintain the simmer.
  • Boil: 212 F at sea level. Full, large bubbles rapidly break the surface
  • Braise: Slowly cooked in a covered dish in some liquid; the liquid and the item being cooked in it usually take on characteristics of each other. Examples include pot roast and stew.
  • Steam: Cook by exposure to steam. This is usually accomplished by setting a perforated dish (something with holes in it) over a pan of boiling water, and covering it to trap the steam in.
  • Microwave: The newest moist-heating technique. The microwaves emitted by the microwave oven excite only the water molecules in whatever you’re heating, and the heated water molecules then transfer their heat to the rest of the food. Thus, food heats unevenly and needs to be stirred/rotated frequently while being microwaved. Though a helpful aid for many tasks such as melting butter or making quick work of reheating leftovers, this technique should be avoided for most meal preparatory purposes.

Blanching means to cook something most of the way, and then cool it down so it’s ready to heat back up quickly whenever you want to serve it. Blanching is often done with vegetables or with pasta, so that it’s ready to go when it’s needed.  The most common way to achieve the desired result is to cook it to the point you want to hold it and then to shock it in ice water to rapidly cool it. While effective, this method is energy-intensive, involving an expenditure of fossil fuels in order to both boil and freeze water. A more ecologically-responsible method is to pull your food from the blanching liquid a minute or so before it gets to the doneness you seek. Then, arrange it in a single layer on a sheet tray (aka cookie sheet, but make sure it has a rim around the edge to contain the liquid that clings to your food) to cool off. As it cools, it will carry over to the doneness you desire.

Dry Heat

  • Roast/Bake: The terms are synonymous, though not used interchangeably (one would no more roast a cake than bake a prime rib, yet somehow one may do either to a ham). The term refers to indirect, dry heat. To truly roast something, it must be uncovered, because a covered dish traps in the food’s own moisture and leads to the dish being steamed.
  • Broil: To cook with intense heat from above. Some ovens have a broiler tucked in underneath; others use the main oven compartment with only the top heater coil turned on. In the case of the latter scenario, you should leave the oven door slightly ajar.
  • Saute: Cook it quickly in a little bit of fat (oil, butter, lard) on top of the stove in a skillet. The term is from the French verb sauter, which means “to jump,” and it kind of gives a visual aid to the way the food ought to be moving around the pan, being stirred frequently. It also gives a visual aid to the way a chef tosses the food in the pan to stir it, sliding the food forward in the pan and giving a quick flick of his wrist, sends it into the air and pulls the pan back slightly to catch it. If you want to practice this technique, I’d recommend using a cold pan with a sloped side and tossing dried beans around. They’ll mimic the motion of hot food sliding around a hot pan, they sweep up easily when you spill them all over the floor, and if you toss them too hard and they land all over you, you won’t burn yourself in the process.
  • Pan-fry: To cook in a moderate amount of fat, usually so there’s a liberal coating over the bottom of the pan that rises to about halfway up the food once you’ve put it in the pan. It’s a nice technique to use on something like breaded eggplant, which you could then arrange in a pan with some simmered tomato sauce, top with cheese, and broil to yield eggplant parmesan.
  • Deep fry: To immerse completely in fat when cooking. It’s the technique of choice when making fritters, doughnuts, chicken fingers, etc.

7 Responses to “Defining Cooking Methods”

  1. Corduroy Orange » Blog Archive » Huevos con Papas y Col Rizada Says:

    [...] When the kale is bright green, add the eggs to the pan. Stir constantly until the eggs are scrambled into the dish. Serve immediately. These quantities should serve 2 hungry people for dinner or perhaps four people for breakfast, depending on their appetites. If you want to make the dish for more people than that, use multiple pans or cook the potatoes in batches. If you try to cook too many potatoes in the pan at once, they will steam from their own moisture instead of cooking up brown and crispy; you’ll end up with a result that resembles mashed potatoes. [...]

  2. Corduroy Orange » Blog Archive » Knife Skills Table of Contents Says:

    [...] Defining Cooking Methods: You can cut anything you want, but if you don’t know how to cook it, it’s not going to do you much good. Surprisingly, there are only twelve different ways to cook something. Becoming familiar with the options available to you will make you more efficient in the kitchen. [...]

  3. Corduroy Orange » Blog Archive » Roasting Broccoli or Cauliflower Says:

    [...] If you’re like most people, you probably look at your head of broccoli or cauliflower and see two possibilities: steamed/boiled or raw. There’s a third, more exciting option for what you can do with that vegetable, though: roast it! The dry-heat cooking method gives your cooked vegetable a more pleasing texture and tossing it with oil and spicxes before hand gives it a mouth-smiling taste because the florets cling to the oil and lock the flavor in. Whenever i get one of these vegetables, I don’t even consider pulling out a saucepan anymore. Instead, I grab a mixing bowl and a cookie sheet. [...]

  4. Cooking Cherry Says:

    Something to go with your love of Oranges is: Orange Scream
    Ingredients:
    6 oz can Unsweetened frozen orange juice concentrate
    1 tsp. Vanilla 10 ice cubes
    2 cups fat free milk Measuring spoons
    Measuring cup Blender
    4 mugs

    Directions:
    Measure milk and vanilla and put into the blender.
    Add ice cubes and orange juice. Blend on high
    until thick and foamy. Serve immediately in mugs.
    Tara says: “This is a great summer drink that is full
    of Vitamin C and Calcium.”

  5. Deepak Says:

    When the kale is bright green, add the eggs to the pan. Stir constantly until the eggs are scrambled into the dish. Serve immediately. These quantities should serve 2 hungry people for dinner or perhaps four people for breakfast, depending on their appetites. If you want to make the dish for more people than that, use multiple pans or cook the potatoes in batches. If you try to cook too many potatoes in the pan at once, they will steam from their own moisture instead of cooking up brown and crispy; you’ll end up with a result that resembles mashed potatoes.

  6. Harshad Says:

    Defining Cooking Methods: You can cut anything you want, but if you don’t know how to cook it, it’s not going to do you much good. Surprisingly, there are only twelve different ways to cook something. Becoming familiar with the options available to you will make you more efficient in the kitchen.

  7. Kiran Says:

    If you’re like most people, you probably look at your head of broccoli or cauliflower and see two possibilities: steamed/boiled or raw. There’s a third, more exciting option for what you can do with that vegetable, though: roast it! The dry-heat cooking method gives your cooked vegetable a more pleasing texture and tossing it with oil and spicxes before hand gives it a mouth-smiling taste because the florets cling to the oil and lock the flavor in. Whenever i get one of these vegetables, I don’t even consider pulling out a saucepan anymore. Instead, I grab a mixing bowl and a cookie sheet.

Leave a Reply