Did you know that, here in the Western world, we generally use a whopping 13 to 16 different cooking methods to prepare foods? These methods are broken up into three general categories:
Grilling, broiling, roasting, baking, poêléing, sautéing, pan-frying and even deep-frying are all considered dry-heat methods. (Some people mistakenly consider deep-frying a moist-heat method because the items are submerged in fats, but that’s incorrect.) Dry-heat methods usually produce a highly flavored, rich-tasting, crisp or crunchy exterior and a tender and moist interior. They often use oils or butter as a lubricant to prevent sticking and to help conduct heat.
For example, the dry-heat method of sautéing creates a richly flavored exterior ranging from golden brown to a deep dark brown. Ideal ingredients to sauté are usually naturally tender and individually portioned or cut into small pieces. They should be thoroughly dry and only seasoned immediately prior to cooking. A sauté pan, which is designed to help steam escape the pan, should be used. To sauté, heat a small amount of fat in a sauté pan over a medium-high to high flame and add the ingredients. Make sure not to overcrowd the pan, as too many ingredients will result in condensation. This will create a moist environment, which means you’re no longer sautéing. In French, “sauté” refers to something jumping or being tossed in the pan, so if sautéing sliced mushrooms or onions, tossing them may be appropriate but not absolutely necessary. When the food has developed the desired color, turn or flip to color the other side (larger items are sometimes finished in the oven). When the items are fully cooked, remove from the pan. A sauce can be made in the pan by deglazing with wine, stock or any other liquid and finished with a small amount of cold butter or olive oil.
Steaming, poaching, simmering and boiling are moist-heat methods. These methods utilize liquids—such as water, stock, wine or juices from vegetables, fruits or cooked meats—as a cooking medium. Generally, items cooked using moist-heat methods are naturally tender foods.
For example, the moist-heat method of “simmering” means to cook various items in water heated to just below the boiling point. Many items that are referred to as “boiled” are actually simmered; most meats, poultry and seafood become very tough if boiled. Potatoes are simmered, not boiled, to help prevent them from falling apart and to aid in more even cooking. Grains and beans are often simmered until tender. Simmered items are often intended to be part of a recipe, as in simmering potatoes to make pomme puree (creamy potato puree).
Stewing and braising are considered combination methods. These include a preliminary cooking method—usually browning meats or poultry using a dry-heat method or blanching in stock or water—then finishing the items by slowly simmering in a flavorful liquid. Items used for braising and stewing are usually tougher cuts of meat that benefit from a longer and lower heat exposure as a way to tenderize. These methods produce a soft, richly flavored meat and are ideal for turning less expensive, tough cuts of meat with lots of connective tissue into tender, highly flavorful meals.
Items to be braised, for example, are usually larger cuts intended to be portioned after cooking, tougher cuts of meat or more mature poultry or game birds. Larger cuts and whole birds are usually trussed to ensure even cooking. The item is seasoned and browned in fat over medium-high to high heat, then removed from the pan. Aromatic vegetables and herbs are added to the pan and allowed to sweat to develop flavor. The meat is returned to the pan along with any additional spices or ingredients. Liquid (usually stock, wine, beer or water) is added, then the pan is brought to a low simmer, covered and allowed to very slowly simmer until the meat is tender. Braised items should be very tender yet hold their shape; if the food is falling apart or stringy, it was overcooked or the liquid came to a boil. The cooking liquid is intended to be served as the accompanying sauce, so reduce it to improve consistency, if necessary.
Understanding these cooking methods and the results they produce will help you become a better cook and enable you to execute recipes with greater success. Here are some sample recipes that demonstrate each method.
By Will Packwood