Cooking is both a popular pastime and a valuable skill. The ability to cook for yourself and for others is important, especially as you grow older and more independent. While some people are expert cooks, always creating delicious meals with apparent ease, there are others who have only a rudimentary understanding of cooking basics. This introduction is for the latter group. These explanations of popular cooking methods will familiarize you with the basics of food preparation, so that you may further explore and improve upon your culinary talents.
Boiling is a standard method of cooking, necessary for even the simplest recipes, including, but not limited to, boxed macaroni and cheese. The process of boiling involves bringing water to boiling temperature (212 degrees Fahrenheit or 100 degrees Celsius), at which the water will bubble and release water vapor into the air. The heat of the water when it is brought to a boil will heat the substance being boiled, cooking it and softening it. This can be seen most clearly when boiling pasta. The pasta, which was hard to the touch pre-boiling, is softened and made edible through the heating process. The longer you boil pasta, the softer it becomes, and there are varying boiling times suggested when cooking different types of pasta. It is also very common to boil potatoes, specifically when preparing mashed potatoes. Boiling the potatoes softens them, allowing them to be more easily mashed and mixed together. Furthermore, boiling is a great way to extract flavor out of food and into the liquid being boiled. Soup stocks, for example, are made by slowly boiling down a mixture of vegetables, meats, and spices, allowing the flavor of the food to be concentrated in the water.
Steaming is a popular cooking method, particularly because it is a very healthy way to prepare food. Steaming also involves boiling water, and placing the food above the water, allowing the heated vapor rising from the water to cook the food. The food to be steamed is placed in steamers, or baskets that fit inside a boiling pot without touching the water. Steaming is best accomplished with a top placed over the pot, so that the steam does not escape into the air too quickly. Steaming is a healthy cooking method because it is an alternative to methods that require the use of cooking oil or butter, such as pan-frying. Steaming is most often used to prepare vegetables, though almost anything can be cooked using steam. This method keeps food very moist due to the presence of water vapor, and the potential for burning food is eliminated.
Blanching is a cooking method with two very important steps. Food is first submerged in boiling water for a very short time, allowing the food to cook or soften to a certain degree, and then submerged in cold or ice water to stop the food from cooking any further. Blanching is used for food that may become soggy or unappetizing if cooked for too long. When food is removed from heat, it tends to cook a bit longer on its own, and blanching prevents that extra cooking. A great example of a blanching food is asparagus, which can become very soggy if cooked for too long. Asparagus is frequently submerged in cold water once it is done to prevent further cooking. Broccoli is commonly blanched as well. Green vegetables tend to retain their color when they are blanched, while other cooking methods can lend a brown tinge to things like broccoli and asparagus.
Grilling is a very popular method of cooking, and differs from the previous methods because it is accomplished with dry heat. Grilled food is heated from above or, more commonly, below, as dry heat cooks the food from the surface inward. This dry heat is most often provided by a charcoal fire, which is most typically seen in outdoor grills. However, grilling has become so popular that there are many indoor apparatuses that can accomplish a grilled taste without the use of an actual fire. These include grill pans for stovetop cooking, and the famous George Foreman grill, which allows food to be cooked from the top and bottom simultaneously.
Sautéed food is cooked using butter, or a variety of oils, in a shallow pan on a stovetop. A low level of heat is usually applied to food being sautéed, and the food is often cut or sliced into several pieces to reduce cooking time. Popular foods to sauté include spinach, mushrooms, peppers, and onions, as well as beef, chicken, and seafood, especially when thinly sliced. Sautéed foods maintain their own flavor and tenderness, and absorb some of the flavor from the oil or butter in which they are cooked. Popular stir-fry dishes are made by sautéing protein like chicken or beef with a variety of vegetables. Clarified butter or olive oil are the best liquids with which to sauté food, but any kind of oil or fat will accomplish the same effect.
Frying is similar to sautéing, because food is cooked in fat or oils with both methods. Frying, however, involves a more significant change in the surface area of the food, which is often seared or caramelized, resulting in a crisp or crunchy texture. Fried food is often dipped in batter before it is fried to create a crispy effect on the outside of the food. Fried chicken, for example, is coated in batter before it is fried. Another difference between the two methods is the amount of oil used. Sautéing is characterized by use of a much smaller amount of oil than is used to fry food. Fried food can be entirely submerged in oil (referred to as deep frying), while sautéing always happens in a shallow pan. Pan-frying is very similar to sautéing, which can lead to confusion between the two terms. Pan=fried food is fried in oil very quickly on both sides. Furthermore, frying typically takes place at a much higher heat than sautéing.
Searing is a cooking practice that precedes other methods of preparing food. To sear a piece of meat is to expose the surfaces of the meat to a very high temperature, allowing the heat to caramelize that surface, creating a sort of crust. Searing is used to accomplish blackening of any kind of meat before it finishes cooking, so it is often done with beef and fish, especially in restaurants. Once meat is seared, it is moved to a lower temperature, and baked, grilled, or roasted until it is done and ready to be eaten. Some foods, however, such as thinly sliced flank or skirt steak, particular types of white fish, or tuna, can be cooked entirely by searing.
The method of braising food (again, usually meat) is accomplished by first searing the food. After the food is seared and the crust of that food is caramelized, it is allowed to finish cooking at a lower temperature in a pot. The pot can be covered, to seal in the heat and accomplish the cooking faster, or uncovered, to allow the moisture to cook off, leaving a thick sauce or gravy derived from the food’s natural juices. Additional liquid is added to the food after it is seared and before it is roasted. Braising very slowly breaks down the fat and connective tissue of what would otherwise be tough pieces of meat. The most common meal made by braising is probably pot roast, and braised pork shoulder and beouf bourguignon are popular braised dishes as well.
The method of roasting involves exposing a food to dry heat, typically in an oven, allowing the outside of the food to caramelize while the inside remains juicy and tender throughout the cooking process. Roasted foods are cooked slowly at lower temperatures, and roasted meats are often cooked in whole pieces, such as a roast chicken or a large piece of roast beef. Food can be roasted on a rotisserie or a spit, which rotates the food as dry heat is applied to the surface, or in an oven in a roasting pan or on a roasting rack. Roasting can have a similar effect to braising, in that the low temperature and long cook time can help to render out fat that would normally make the food tough. Unlike braising, additional liquid is not added to roasted food, though the food is often basted with the fat that is rendered through the process.
Broiling is similar to grilling; food is cooked through the process of thermal radiation. Broiling is technically the term used to describe grilling in which the heat source is placed above the food. Most household ovens have broiling capabilities, and food broiled in the oven should be placed in a broiling pan, which will hold any juices escaping from the food. Broiling is a popular way to prepare meat, particularly burgers and steaks, when grilling that meat is not an option. An advantage to broiling is that the food avoids direct contact with heat, which allows for a more evenly cooked surface.
Smoked foods are cooked by exposing them to burning and smoking material. This material is often wood. Foods prepared this way absorb particular characteristics of the material being burned, which lends a specific smoked flavor to the food. Foods can also be preserved for long periods of time by being smoked, as long as the smoking is combined with other methods of food preservation. The most commonly smoked foods are meats and fish, though vegetables are sometimes smoked as well. Many different kinds of wood are used for smoking, including oak, alder, hickory, mesquite, and maple wood. Commonly smoked foods include bacon, sausages, and pastrami, which is made by smoking and curing beef brisket. Smoking is associated with barbequed foods, and is a very long process.
Baked foods are cooked through the process of heat convection, most often in an oven. Heat slowly travels from the outside of the food to the center, resulting in a crispier, more well cooked crust and a softer interior. This is why bread, which is baked in ovens, and all other baked goods, share the characteristics of a soft center and a harder outer crust. Baking is most often associated with cookies, cakes, pastries, and similar treats, but other foods, such as potatoes or chicken, are frequently baked as well.
These varied methods provide only a brief introduction into the complex world of cooking and preparing food. Perfecting these techniques will enable you to move toward more advanced methods and complex recipes. Learning to cook is a great investment, and you will benefit from your culinary education for as long as you and your loved ones carry on eating.