We Give You an Overview of all These General Cooking Techniques
Food may be cooked in a wide variety of ways, from popping it into the microwave for a few minutes to slow-roasting it in the oven for hours on end. The actual method used will depend on the type and the cut of food; what’s good for cooking a delicate piece of fish would not be appropriate for cooking a comparatively tough (but tasty) shank of lamb.
Barbecuing is ideal for cooking out of doors during warm weather or for informal summer entertaining. Whilst there are many styles available, ranging from a simple throw-away picnic barbeque to built-in brick barbecue, the cooking principle remains the same. The barbecue must always be made up well in advance so that any fire and smoke has died down and the embers are red-hot and smouldering – at least 30-40 minutes before you plan to start cooking. Of course, if you have a modern gas-fired barbeque, you can start cooking as soon as the grill is hot.
For the best results, use meat or fish that has been cut into thick steaks, such as fillet or sirloin steaks, chump chops, or chicken breasts. As most fish is low in fat, it is often advisable to marinate it before cooking, as it can become dry in the intense heat of the barbecue.
Vegetables and fruit may also be barbequed; good examples include pepper, aubergines, potatoes, corn-on-the-cob, pineapples, bananas and peaches. Wrap them in tinfoil first to protect them from the intense heat.
Blanching is a technique whereby food is rapidly plunged into boiling water and then removed after a brief, timed interval and then plunged into iced water or placed under cold running water. Blanching is used for several reasons:
- To help remove skin; for example from peaches, tomatoes or nuts.
- To remove strong flavours; for example from kidneys or liver before frying.
- To destroy enzymes in vegetables that are to be frozen, thus preventing discoloration.
- To reduce the salt content from certain foods, such as ham, before cooking.
- To soften or semi-cook food, such as fennel for a salad.
- To reduce the roasting time of vegetables such as potatoes, onions and parsnips.
Boiling is a term for cooking food submerged in hot water or other liquids such as stock or milk; this can range from a gentle simmer, where bubbles appear in one part of the pan only, to a rolling boil, where the water bubbles in a fast and agitated manner.
A rolling boil is used to cook a variety of different foods; for example, pasta and rice. The boiling water expands the starch granules and makes them tender, whilst the rapid agitation prevents the pieces of pasta or rice from sticking to the pan or to each other.
Green vegetables are also best cooked in an open pan in rapidly boiling water; they become tender, whilst still retaining their bright colour and crispness. Salting the water well (1 tablespoon for every 1.75 litres or 3 pints) causes the water to boil at a higher temperature, cooking the vegetables even more quickly.
Rapid boiling can also be used to drive off moisture and reduce liquids to a thicker consistency. When making toffee or other sugar mixtures, a galloping boil allows the mixture to quickly reach the high temperatures required.
Gentle simmering is used to cook vegetables that would be damaged by vigorous boiling. Vegetables unlikely to discolour, such as carrots, parsnips, potatoes, beetroot and other root vegetables, are usually simmered in a covered pan; this preserves heat and helps to control fuel costs.
Braising is a method of slowly cooking food in a moist heat. Strictly speaking, braising actually refers to cooking meat on a bed of finely diced mixed vegetables (a mirepoix) along with some strong stock. The term is often confused with ‘pot-roasting’; however, pot-roasted food is cooked with little, if any, liquid, whilst braising involves some liquid and cut-up vegetables to add moisture to the pan.
Whole joints or smaller pieces of beef and lamb can be braised successfully; the meat should be fairly lean and any fat that melts into the stock should be skimmed off before serving. Poultry may be also be braised; however, if the meat is tough, stewing or poaching would be more suitable cooking methods.
Braising can also be used to refer to the ‘sweating’ of vegetables. In this technique, vegetables such as onions and shallots are cooked gently in butter or oil in a covered pan, which is shaken frequently to prevent sticking and burning. This softens the vegetables without colouring them.
Braising can also be used to describe the baking of vegetables in a covered pan with some liquid. For example, braised fennel may be cooked in a covered pan with lemon juice, butter and stock.
Deep Frying Techniques
Deep frying is a cooking method whereby food is submerged in hot oil or fat. It is one of the fastest possible methods of cooking small, tender cuts of fish and meat. It is also suitable for dough mixtures such as fritters and doughnuts and many vegetables, such as onion and potatoes.
If carried out properly, deep frying will not make food excessively greasy, as the moisture in the food will repel the oil. As long as the oil is hot enough and the food is not immersed for too long, the oil penetration will be limited to the outer surface layer and none will actually reach the centre the food. The correct frying temperature depends on the thickness and type of food, but in most cases it lies between 175 and 190°C (345-375°F).
Before they are fried, many foods are given a coating of flour, crumbs or batter to protect them from the high temperatures of the fat. This also seals in their juices, which helps to produce a crisp outside coating and a moist and tender centre.
Some foods, such as crisps, do not need any coating as they remain in the oil for a very limited amount of time. Chips are also uncoated; they are initially fried at a relatively low temperature to cook them through, and then given a second frying at a higher temperature to brown them.
Using a Deep-Fryer
1. Checking the Temperature
Always check the temperature of the oil before using. If the deep-fryer is not thermostatically controlled, drop a crumb or cube of bread into the oil and time how long it takes to brown:
- 60 seconds – the oil is about 180°C/360°F and suitable for gentle frying
- 40 seconds – the oil is about 190°C/ 375°F and moderately hot
- 20 seconds – the oil is about 195°C/385°F and very hot
- 10 seconds – the oil is dangerously hot and should be cooled down
- You can cool oil down by turning off the heat and frying several slices of bread.
Always cook in small amounts; adding too many pieces of food at once will lower the temperature of the fat. This will mean that the coating will not form a crisp crust, and the food will lose its juices and absorb fat.
This is particularly important when frying frozen food such as chips or fish fingers. Do not make the mistake of using very hot fat to offset the cooling temperature of the frozen food; a relatively cool fat temperature (180°C/360°F) is needed to cook frozen items to ensure that the centre is thawed and cooked before the coating browns.
Drain any cooked food well, and then place on kitchen paper to mop up any excess oil. Keep any food that is not to be served straight away in a warm oven with the door ajar – covering or enclosing the food will make it soggy.
3. Cleaning the Oil
After the fat has cooled, it should be filtered through muslin or a coffee filter paper to remove any food particles. The oil should be changed as soon as it becomes dark, odorous or cloudy.
Shallow Frying & Sauteing Techniques
Shallow frying and sauteing are quick cooking methods suitable for small, tender pieces of meat and other foods. The difference between the two methods lies in the amount of fat used: frying involves cooking food in 5 mm (0.25 in) of fat, whereas sauteing uses an almost dry pan with no more than 1 tablespoon of oil.
1. Shallow Frying
Shallow frying techniques vary depending on the size and texture of the food. However, in general you should:
- Fry in an uncovered wide pan.
A lid tends to trap steam, causing the food to stew or steam rather than fry crisply.
- Preheat the fat.
If the fat is not hot enough when the food is added, the food will not brown properly. It will also lack flavour and become greasy.
- Fry a little at a time.
If you add too much food to the pan at one time, the fat temperature will reduce, hindering the production of flavour and colour.
- Fry fast until the food is browned.
When the food is completely browned on all sides, turn the heat down to medium to cook the inside through. However, some food such as liver, shellfish and salmon can become tough or grainy if fried too fast, so should be fried gently without browning or at most, to a very pale brown.
- Serve as quickly as possible.
Never leave fried food standing for too long before serving; potatoes lose their crispness and become leathery, meat toughens and other food may become soggy and will lose its newly fried shine.
Choice of Oil
As some of the fat or oil will be eaten with the food, it is important to take into account how the flavour of the oil (or lack of it) will affect the taste of the dish. Safflower, corn, peanut and other vegetable oils have little or no flavour, whilst butter, beef dripping, lard, bacon dripping and olive oil all have their own very distinctive flavour.
You should also consider that certain fats may be heated to higher temperatures than others before they break down and start to burn. Bacon or beef dripping, lard and solid frying fat can usually withstand more heat than butter, margarine or vegetable oil.
Some recipes may call to coat the food in a dusting of flour before frying to add crispness and to prevent the food sticking to the pan. For example, fish may be cooked a la meuniere by dusting it with flour and shallow-frying in butter until brown on both sides. Chopped parsley, lemon juice, salt and pepper are added to the butter in the pan and, once sizzling, served with the fish.
Stir frying in a wok offers a large cooking surface area at the same temperature, which enables the food to cook fast, retaining all of its texture, flavour and colour. The food should be added in the order of the amount of time it takes to cook; so meat should be added first, followed by the firmest vegetables, then the more tender ones after that. All the food should be stirred continuously using a Chinese ladle, strainer or spoon, whilst shaking the wok.
Sauteing is used to cook and brown foods so that they develop colour and flavour. Whilst the method can be used in its own right to cook food such as mushrooms, onions or chicken, it is most often used in combination with other forms of cooking. For example, onions may be sauteed before they are added to a stew or a sauce, or potatoes may be sauteed after boiling to add flavour and colour.
Sauteing can be used to create a well-flavoured sauce using the following technique:
- Fry the main ingredients, browning them in minimal fat.
- Remove the browed food from the pan and keep it hot.
- Deglaze the pan with a liquid such as stock, wine or cream.
- Add the flavourings for the sauce.
- If the main ingredients require further cooking, return them to the pan and simmer them in the sauce until they are tender.
- Reduce the sauce by rapid boiling and serve with the main ingredients.
Grilling is a method of cooking using intense, dry heat. Unlike braising, grilling does not tenderise meat, so it is essential to use tender, choice cuts. It’s also important to use food that is not too thick (less than 5 cm or 2 in) as otherwise the food will be cold and raw on the inside when the outside is fully cooked.
- Make sure that you take the food out of the fridge or freezer in plenty of time to bring it to room temperature before grilling.
- Do not add salt to the food before grilling; this will draw out the moisture. Salt after (or during) grilling instead.
- Preheat the grill well. Preheating the grill at its highest setting for 10-20 minutes will ensure that the food is crisp on the outside and juicy in the middle. A cooler grill will not brown the food quickly enough, leaving it tasteless and unattractive.
- Brush the food with butter, oil or a mixture of the two to speed the browning process and to keep it moist. It will also prevent delicate foods such as fish from sticking.
- Turn the food halfway through the cooking process, when the first surface is attractively brown. Use tongs rather than a fork; if you pierce the food, you will lose some of the precious juices.
- Once the surface is brown, move the food further away from the heat source so that the inside can cook before the surface burns.
- Baste the food to add flavour and shine. Use olive oil, butter or juices that have dropped into the pan.
- Do not overcook; the more well-done the food, the tougher it will be to eat.
- Once ready, serve immediately. Grilled food will soon lose moisture, causing it to dry up and become tough.
A microwave oven cooks food by causing the moisture molecules in food to vibrate, producing friction, which results in heat. The microwaves are reflected off the metal cavity of the oven, ensuring that the food absorbs waves from all directions. Although microwaves can only penetrate about 5 cm (2 in) into the food; the centre of larger pieces of food is cooked by the conduction of the heat produced near the food’s surface.
Microwaves can pass through paper, plastic, china and glass, making them all suitable microwave containers. However, you should never use the following items in a microwave:
- Metal containers
- Dishes with gold or silver decoration
- Jagged pieces of tin foil
- Anything containing glue
- Pottery (it may have a metallic glaze)
- Thin-stemmed glasses
- Crystal glass
Microwaves are particularly useful for reheating, melting and defrosting food in small quantities. It is less useful for cooking or defrosting food in large quantities, as it often produces food that is frozen or uncooked in one area, whilst overdone in another. To prevent this, you must stop the microwave every so often and allow the food to stand so that heat can be conducted to the centre.
Microwaving is also a useful technique for cooking vegetables that would normally be boiled, such as peas and asparagus. They may also be used as a fast way to cook baked potatoes; however, you should put the potato in the a hot oven for 15-20 minutes after microwaving if you want the potato to have a crispy skin and a ‘baked’ taste.
- There is a fixed amount of microwave energy which will be divided between all the items of food, so 2 items will take twice as long to cook as one.
- Do not place food in the centre of the turntable; place it slightly off-centre so that it travels all around the area of oven’s cooking cavity, thus assuring even heating.
- Cover food with clingfilm (pricked to allow steam to escape). Tinfoil will reflect the waves.
The colder the food is, the longer it will take to cook.
- The more even the shape of the food, the more evenly it will cook.
- A dense food is more difficult to reheat than one with a light, open texture.
Poaching is a long, slow, gentle cooking method, whereby the food is completely submerged in liquid that is barely simmering, and cooked either on the stove or in the oven. It is particularly suitable for fragile food, such as eggs, poultry, fish and soft fruit, which might otherwise easily fall apart or dry out.
Poaching can also make tough meat become more tender and succulent. For example, oxtail may become reasonably tender if it is simmered on the hob for 3 hours; poaching it in the oven at a low heat for 5 hours will make tender enough to fall off the bone.
Pot Roasting Techniques
Pot-roasting is economical method of cooking that involves baking food in a pot either in the oven or over a low heat. Unlike braising, which involves cooking food in a quantity of stock, pot-roasted food is cooked in its own juices. Steam is formed inside the pot from the moisture in the food, tenderising and cooking the meat. It is therefore essential that the pot’s lid fits tightly to prevent the escape of steam, and that the pot itself is not so large that the liquid spreads over too great an area and boils away.
Pot roasting should be used for meat that has plenty of connective tissue; tender joints will simply become tough when pot-roasted.
To pot-roast a joint, brown it in a frying pan and then transfer it with all the pan juices to a casserole. Alternatively, if you have a flameproof casserole, you can brown the meat and pot-roast it all in one vessel.
Roasting is a cooking method that uses dry heat, and is suitable for cooking most poultry, and certain cuts of beef, pork or lamb. Tender cuts, such as sirloin, rib joints, fillet and best end of neck suit roasting best; tougher cuts such as brisket and rump are better roasted in a moist heat, such as braising or pot-roasting. Many vegetables, including potatoes, courgette, cauliflower, onions and peppers lend themselves to roasting as well.
Meat may be roasted in one of two ways:
- Quick Roasting
The meat is cooked at a high temperature (approximately 200°C/ 425°F/ Gas mark 7) to seal in the juices and preserve the flavour.
- Slow Roasting
The meat is cooked at a lower temperature (175°C/ 350°F/ Gas Mark 4) for a longer period – usually about 5-10 minutes extra per pound. This results in less shrinkage than the quick roasting method.
Steaming is a technique that involves cooking food in hot vapours over boiling liquid (usually water) rather than in the liquid itself. As the food does not come into contact with the liquid, it remains more nutritious than if it were boiled, as fewer nutrients are destroyed or leached away into the water.
Steaming does not involve the use of any cooking fat, which makes it a good choice of cooking for those on low-fat diets or for invalids who may find fatty food hard to digest. However, because the food is not browned in any way (a method that adds flavour), the food must be of excellent quality and be full of flavour, otherwise the dish may simply taste bland.
In western cooking, steaming is most often used to cook vegetables and rice, and only rarely to cook meats. In contrast, steaming is usually used in Chinese cooking to cook meat dishes such as beef, fish, shellfish, pork and chicken, whereas vegetables are usually stir fried or blanched. Food in one or more stacked rattan or metal baskets with a lid is placed over steaming liquid in a pan or wok for quick cooking.
Other foods may also be steamed, such as traditional English sweet and savoury puddings. A suet mixture is placed into a container, which is then covered with a double thickness of kitchen foil and placed into a pan half-full of water. The pan is then covered and the pudding cooked over low heat for a long time to allow it to steam gently; water is added to the pan periodically to keep the level halfway up the sides of the container.
Stewing refers to meat, fish or poultry that has been gently and slowly cooked in a covered pot with plenty of liquid, using together with vegetables. This method is particularly suitable for tougher cuts of meat such as shin, flank, scrag and chuck, as the marbling of fat and gelatinous connective tissue produces a moist, juicy stew, whereas lean, tender meat may easily become dry.
Most stews require preliminary frying to sear and brown the meat. This gives the resulting stew a richer flavour and also adds colour. The browned sediment and dried-on juices that stick to the pan after frying are used to make the sauce. Onions, shallots, carrots or mushrooms are also often included in the preliminary frying.
When browning meat for this type of stew, it is important to ensure that the meat is given a good even colour on all sides. Try to cook only a few pieces at a time, so that the temperature is kept hot enough to brown the meat effectively. Deglaze the pan between each batch of meat in order to:
- prevent the stuck sediment in the pan from burning
- clean the pan ready for the next batch of meat
- allow the flavour of that sediment to be incorporated into the sauce
White stews (also known as blanquettes or fricassees) are made without preliminary browning and are less rich and fatty than brown ones. They are usually made with chicken, lamb or veal that is blanched, or lightly seared without browning, and cooked in stock.