There are two basic cooking categories used for all foods: moist heat (steaming, poaching, braising, and boiling) or dry heat (baking or roasting, broiling, grilling, deep frying, pan-sautéeing). All meats, poultry, vegetables, eggs, grains, and fruit are cooked by these methods.
Moist heat seals in flavor and no extra fat is needed to cook. Dry cooking utilizes fat or a high temperature to seal the surface of the foods.
There are a few methods that are especially useful for quick weeknight cooking. Save the slow cooker for the weekends or if you can cook all day. Each method has its own piece of special equipment to do the job right. Once you thoroughly understand these techniques and practice them, you are assured excellent tasting food. These essentials are what you learn in a cooking school.
Steaming Steaming is cooking food with the aid of steam that is created by a small amount of boiling liquid, but not in direct contact with the food. Fish, poultry, and vegetables are best prepared with this technique. Steaming preserves nutrients and is especially beloved in low caloric cooking. There are several types of steamers. The stacked metal, bamboo, or plastic are very popular, allowing different types of foods to be cooking at once. You can make a steamer with a French folding steamer rack set into a deep saucepan, which great for vegetables, or use an electric steamer appliance. Steaming can also be done in the oven in a covered casserole. It can also be done in a pressure cooker.
Poaching Poaching is submerging a food in a boiling liquid, then cooking it over low heat. This is used a lot for cooking poultry, fish, and eggs. In poaching, there is a flavor exchange between the liquid and the food, so the liquid is often flavored. Care should be taken to not overcook or the poached food gets rubbery. Use a medium saucepan, either narrow or the wider saucepan with lower sides. You will love this type of pan; they come in a variety of sizes from small to over sized.
Braising Braising, along with stewing, is especially used for meat, poultry, and vegetable long-cooked dishes and are not encouraged for weeknight cooking. You need a Dutch oven or specific covered casseroles for this type of cooking. Invest wisely as it is a one per lifetime purchase. Braising can also be done in a slow cooker and pressure cooker.
Boiling Boiling is the important method for cooking pasta, rice, and beans. The food is immersed in the boiling liquid to cook. Vegetables, like broccoli rabe, green beans, or in the process of skinning tomatoes, are often plunged briefly into boiling water, known as blanching. Hard root vegetables are often cooked by boiling. Soups are cooked by simmering (gently bubbling as opposed to a vigorous boil), which is boiling at a lower temperature. Use a deep, heavy saucepan or small Dutch oven. Boiling can also be done in a pressure cooker.
Sautéing Sautéing is probably the most popular way to cook next to roasting since it is so simple. Food is barely cooked in a small amount of fat over fairly high heat for a short time. There is no loss of natural taste since the hot fat seals the food. You can use a French sauté pan with curved sides, a cast-iron skillet, or frying pan interchangeably, but it must be large enough to hold the food without crowding, otherwise you must cook in batches or use a second pan. Food must be dry before sautéing to prevent steam from forming and splattering. Searing is when the food is cooked at high heat in fat for a short time until it browns. Pan-roasting is searing the food (which is a thicker portion than used in searing), then placing it in the oven to finish cooking. Stir-frying uses a rounded bottom pan and the food is cooked over high heat for a short time and constantly tossed for even cooking.
Roasting Roasting is long associated with large cuts of meat, such as a leg of lamb or roast turkey, but it works nicely with small cuts as well, which suits quick cooking times very well. It is used for tender cuts, such as chicken breasts, turkey tenderloins, salmon and other seafood, and London Broil. The food is cooked in an oven at an even temperature, either high or low; the outer portion browns and the inner portion stays moist. Lean cuts are marinated, basted, or cooked in a sauce to keep them moist and flavorful. Vegetables are especially nice roasted.
The secret to a good roasting pan is the low sides so that the heat can easily get at the food to brown it; too deep and you steam the food. Casseroles, while roasting, are more described as baking, since the deep pan is full of meat, vegetables and a sauce, such as lasagne. You can roast and bake in metal, glass, or ceramic roasting pans. I have varying sizes from small to large, especially liking French ceramic ware and the metal pans with the stand up handles which is French style. I went to a cooking class given by Charlotte Coombe, the first student of Jacques Pepin in the US, and she made a venison tenderloin in this wonderful roasting pan with the stand up handles; I had to have one. I always use an instant read thermometer (it is more accurate than a regular meat thermometer) when in doubt that a meat is properly cooked; temperatures are given in specific recipes as a guide.
Broiling and Grilling Broiling and grilling are wildly popular cooking methods since they are so quick and the food tastes so good with the especially crisp, blackened outer layer. Food is seared by very high heat and placed on a rack so as not to sit and cook in its own juices. A broiled or grilled chicken breast tastes remarkably different than a pan-sautéed one because of its smoky quality. Broiling is done under an oven broiler and grilling is done over a gas or charcoal fire outdoors; a ridged grill pan for stovetop use is a good alternative and very popular right now. This method is good for small tender cuts like chops and steaks of veal, pork, lamb, and beef, as well as poultry and thick fish fillets.
Deep Frying Deep frying is probably the most popular and tasty way to prepare foods like French fries, vegetable fritters, Indian fry bread, fried fish and chicken, but immersing foods completely in fat is not encouraged by health-oriented diets. Fried foods usually need a crunchy coating to protect them as a layer between the food and the oil. Deep frying needs a deep, heavy saucepan or counter top appliance designed especially for it. I don’t do any deep frying in my books. Pan-frying uses only a small amount of oil in a saute pan and the food is not submerged; it is not the same and deep fat frying.
One pan can saute, braise, deep fry, steam, and poach: The wok.
Excerpted from Not Your Mother’s Weeknight Cooking, by Beth Hensperger. (c) 2008, used by permission from the Harvard Common Press.
Text copyright Beth Hensperger 2012.
If you copy the text for internet use, please include my byline and link to my site.