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When I first started to learn how to cook, I assumed baking and boiling were pretty much the only two things you could do. It’s either in a pot on the stove or in a dish in the oven, right? Wrong, young Amy, so wrong! There are a ton of different methods of cooking, and each one has its own benefits. Some are more suited for certain foods, while others not so much. I mean, would you take dry pasta and place it in an oven with no liquid? Would you take a steak and dunk it into boiling water?
I really hope not!
I’m going to cover some basic cooking methods that you’ll need to get started in the kitchen! If you’re someone who has been cooking for years, you probably know most of this already – but I think it’s a valuable read, anyway! If you’re a beginner, this post is a great place to start!
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Moist Heat vs. Dry Heat
Most of the cooking methods can be placed into one of two categories – moist heat or dry heat! As you’d expect, moist heat methods are those that utilize liquid to transfer heat. Dry heat methods, on the other hand, utilize air or fats to transfer heat. That’s where it gets a little confusing, I think – cooking in oil is using a liquid, but since it’s not water or broth, it’s a dry heat method.
Moist heat methods are great for tough cuts of meat, allowing the moisture to penetrate and tenderize the meat. Moist heat methods use lower temperatures (like boiling water, which is a temperature of 212°F (100°C) and generally take a little bit longer.
Dry heat methods can give food a nice, crispy outer layer. They often utilize shorter cooking times at higher temperatures. Think of an oven set to 350°F (177°C).
Moist Heat Methods
One of the easiest methods of cooking, boiling requires two simple steps. 1. Fill a pot with water (or broth/stock!). 2. Turn on heat.
Seriously, it’s that easy. If you’re new to cooking, try boiling water. Then put food in it. That’s it. You’re cooking!
When boiling foods, water is brought to its boiling point of 212ºF in a pot. You’ll see rolling, happy bubbles disturbing the surface of the water. Make sure to leave enough room in the pot for whatever food you’re cooking – pasta, rice, potatoes, you name it. When you put the food in the pot, it’ll be completely submerged and will lower the temperature and you’ll see the bubbles stop for a bit. That’s all right! Just keep the heat on and it’ll get back to boiling, cooking your food while you go do something else.
One of the problems with boiling is that many vitamins leach into the water, so the food you cook won’t be as nutritionally dense as if it were cooked some other way. Many people will re-use that cooking water to get those nutrients, like using it for a sauce.
Simmering is almost the same as boiling, except the heat is a bit lower (185-200ºF). With boiling, you’ll see large bubbles. Simmering calls for slower, smaller bubbles rising to the top of the pot. Soups may be set to simmer on the stove for a while to allow flavors to meld together.
The little brother of simmering and boiling, poaching also requires the submersion of food into heated water. Can you guess the only difference? Yep, it’s temperature. We’re looking at 160-180ºF for poaching.
You’ll use poaching for more delicate foods, like eggs and fish.
If you want to be super sure you’re in the right temperature range, get a digital thermometer! (Psst, you’ll need one anyway as part of your essential kitchen tools to test the temperature of meats to make sure they’re done!).
A great method for vegetables, steaming is done over a pot of boiling water. Rather than submerging the food, it’ll sit in a steamer basket just above the water and cook in the rising steam. This is a great way to conserve nutrients. With no fat to add flavor or crisp up the edges, steaming can result in sort of bland food.
By the way, home stores do sell steamers as a separate appliance, but if you’ve already got a pot, it makes more sense to just buy a basket. Baskets can expand to fit different sized pots, they’re easier to store, and usually cheaper!
Braising is a combination method that I never use, but I see in a lot of recipes, so I figured it was worth mentioning. Used on bigger, tougher cuts of meat, braising starts by first sautéing the meat to get a good, browned edge (aka searing!). Then, the meat is submerged in water and simmered for a long period of time. The seared edged keep the flavor in, and the long cooking time in moisture tenderizes the meat.
Dry Heat Methods
Done in the oven, baking/roasting just asks that you place food on a baking pan (flat) or in a baking dish (deep), then stick it on a rack. You’ll find higher temperatures (usually anywhere from 300ºF to 450ºF) and longer cooking times, from 15-60 minutes (or longer!). Hot air circulating in the oven transfers heat to the food. Because there are no added fats and nutrients aren’t leaching out into water, baking/roasting is probably the healthiest way to cook. I often bake chicken or fish with some spices on them, and an assortment of veggies on the side. This can also be done on one pan. Cover it in aluminum foil and clean-up is a breeze!
So, what’s the reason for having two different names? Baking? Roasting? What’s the difference? Well, when we think baking, we probably think desserts. Cakes, muffins, brownies, sure. Roasting more often refers to proteins or veggies. They’re the same method, but the terminology changes a bit depending on which food is being cooked. I can call it baked chicken or roasted chicken, but you probably wouldn’t call a cake roasted. It just sounds funny!
Not to be confused with boiling, broiling is done in the oven. Here, the heat source comes from the top and is pretty darn hot. This is more of a “finishing move”, like used to melt cheese on top of a dish and give it a crispy, golden crust. You’ll need to stay close and watch, as food can easily get burned under the broiler! Just a minute or two should be enough to broil something.
Sautéing is easily the method I use most. it’s fast and easy and gives great flavor to meats and vegetables. With sautéing, you’ll just use a light amount of oil in a pan, just enough to cover the bottom. Get it hot (medium-high, so nothing burns on contact but the oil is hot enough to actually cook something!), add some aromatics (onion, ginger, garlic, etc), and then add your meat or veggies. You’ll get a nice brownness to the edges of your food. Sautéing works best for thinner cuts to ensure it gets cooked through without getting burnt or dried out from prolonged exposure. I love to sauté because I can cook pretty much everything in one pan and control exactly how tender I want my veggies to be (easily tested with a fork!). Plus, you know how chefs do that thing where they flip the food in the pan? It feels so cool to do that, even if I lose a few bits of food in the process.
Pan Frying/Deep Frying
With frying, you’ll be using oil as a method to transfer heat. These methods aren’t great for low-calorie options, as the food will absorb the fat. Still, it’ll give a crispy coating to the outside of whatever you’re frying, especially if it’s dipped in batter!
Most people don’t have a deep frier at home, but they do sell deep friers as a small appliance. With deep frying, your food is completely submerged in very hot oil for a short period of time. This is a favorite method of fast food joints and stands at your county fair! (I was told recently that they’re selling deep fried butter?! Like, a stick of butter, deep fried!? WHAT!?)
Pan frying is something that’s more easily done at home. All you need is about half an inch of oil in a deep pan. The first thing that comes to mine for me would be pan-fried chicken with a bread crumb coating. You’d set the chicken in the pan when the oil is hot, which will partially submerge it and begin to cook one side. Then, flip it over to submerge the other side and ensure the whole piece is cooked through.
Here at Salt and Skillet, I can almost guarantee you’ll never see me do either of these. I say almost because, who knows, maybe a recipe some day will call for something to be pan-fried. But I haven’t pan-fried in at least 4 years, and don’t really see a need to when eating healthy!
With this method, the heat source comes from the bottom. You’re probably picturing an outdoor grill with an open flame, where the food sits on a metal grate, allowing liquids to drip down. I live in an apartment, so no outdoor grill for me, but there are other options! Grill pans can be used directly on your stove, and still give food those great sear marks and allow liquids to drip away so the food isn’t cooking in it. Rachael Ray sells her stovetop grill pan, and you know how I love her nonstick pans (and that pretty red!!)
Grilling is great for meats and veggies, and – though I’ve never tried it – I’ve heard grilled peaches are delectable!!
Let’s get cooking!
As you can see, there are a lot of methods to cooking, and these aren’t even all of them! You’ll also notice that many of these are just variations of each other. Cooking isn’t exact. If a recipe calls for something to be grilled, but you only have a pan, then sautéing will usually work just fine! These are just the methods of transferring heat to food, resulting in different amounts of crispiness or the addition of fat.
If you’re a beginner, try these different methods out! I think it’s a great little experiment to take 3 chicken breasts and cook each one in a different way, then sample each to see how different they taste. They’re all the same exact thing, but different cooking methods will bring out different flavors and textures. Boil one breast, bake another breast, and sauté or pan fry the last one (smaller chunks would work better for sautéing!). Remember to use your digital thermometer to make sure it gets up to temperature (165ºF for chicken).
I’ve even heard some people say “This isn’t really cooking, but I put some chicken on a pan and stick it in the oven and just eat it when it’s done.” Uh, dude, that literally is cooking! Just because it’s simple and doesn’t involve a ton of spices or techniques doesn’t mean it’s not cooking. If it was raw, and it’s no longer raw, you are cooking. It is seriously just that easy.
Here’s a meal I whipped up in about 15 minutes. I boiled whole-wheat pasta while sauteing some garlic and yellow squash. Top it off with some pasta sauce, parmesan cheese, and parsley flakes – boom! Lunch.
What are your favorite methods of cooking? Is there anything you’ve never tried, but would like to? Please feel free to leave comments, I love to read them! 🙂 Happy cooking!