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Essential Home Cooking Techniques Everyone Should Know

Essential Home Cooking Techniques Everyone Should Know
Flavor, color, visual appeal, and taste; these are factors that go into making your food complete. And what brings them together? It's the correct cooking technique that blends all the above components together and gives your food a sense of completeness. Let us take a look at the most essential techniques of cooking that one must know.
Snehal Motkar
" one is born a great cook, one learns by doing." ~ Julia Child
Cooking is not just about trying new recipes; rather it is an art of applying different techniques and transforming a simple-looking recipe into something unique. However, for that, you must be extremely good at the basic cooking techniques that are being used conventionally through several years. These include frying, boiling, baking, roasting, and smoking, which further include several sub-techniques, each suitable for different types of food.
Out of these cooking methods, we can say that frying and roasting (to some extent) are facing rough weather because most people are becoming health-conscious and trying to avoid these cooking methods. However, there are certain food items that have to be fried or roasted, and there are certain occasions that demand such food items in their menu. To help you out, here's a know-how of all the essential cooking techniques that everyone should know.
Shallow Frying
Shallow-frying is a cooking method in which the food is cooked in a small amount of fat or oil on a flat surface, or in a shallow pan. The pan or the surface used for shallow-frying has to be preheated at a high temperature. Ensure that the food is flipped from time to time, to coat both the sides with oil or fat. It is also important to constantly monitor the process to get the desired color, texture, flavor, and taste of food. The main purpose of shallow-frying is to cook the food quickly, probably for immediate consumption, and to add crispness to the food through browning.

Best Bets for Shallow-frying:
  • Portion-sized cuts of meat, fish, etc.
  • Patties, such as fritters
  • Vegetables
Tip: The side of the food item that will face up on the plate should be fried first as the oil or fat is clean, which will give the food a better appearance.
Deep Frying
As the name suggests, the food is submerged deep into the oil or fat that is preheated at a very high temperature. Due to high conduction of heat by the oil, the food is cooked at an extremely faster rate. Deep-frying is considered as a dry cooking method, since water is not used in this method. Moreover, water reacts violently with hot oil; hence, ensure that the water content from the food is removed using a paper towel, and keep it at room temperature for sometime before frying. The quantity of oil is also an important point of consideration because if the level of oil is high, it will become higher after placing food in the pan, making it difficult for you while frying. For example, if there is moisture in the food, there will be more foaming, and it may overflow from the pan. Do not crowd the pan with many pieces because the oil needs to be hot throughout, and too many pieces at a time will lower the oil's temperature.

Best Bets for Deep-frying:
  • Meat, poultry, fish
  • Finger steaks
  • Pickles
  • Potato, banana chips
  • Nuts
  • Donuts
  • Do not reuse the oil for other cooking purposes, as it may pose dangers to one's health. Allow the oil to cool down completely, and then discard it using the right method.
  • Do not cover deep-fried food, as the steam collected inside will make the food soggy.
Fish on pan
It is the most common type of dry heat cooking method used in many recipes. The main objective of pan-frying is to achieve that tempting, golden-brown crust without the food sticking to the pan. The sticking or burning of food pieces may occur due to the wrong temperature of the pan. The use of nonstick skillets, or saute pans is recommended, as they require less amount of oil than the traditional cookware. Ensure that the pan is preheated before putting oil or fat, and that the oil sizzles when the food is put in. It differs from shallow-frying depending on the quantity of oil used for frying. While in shallow-frying, the oil should coat the food completely from both sides, the same is not necessary in pan-frying. The oil is just sprinkled on the pan to prevent the food from sticking to it and to offer a kind of glaze to the food. Pan-frying is done at a lower temperature compared to shallow-frying. The difference between sauteing and pan-frying is that pan-frying requires more oil and is usually suitable for larger pieces of food, such as meat, fish, etc.

Best Bets for Pan-frying:
  • Polenta
  • Risotto cake
  • Potatoes
  • Tofu
  • Meat
  • Green tomato slices
Tip: Use a pan that has a heavy bottom to avoid hot spots with uneven distribution of heat.
Sauteing on gas
The word "sauté" is derived from the French word sauter  meaning jumped and is associated with tossing the food over and over again in the frying pan to brown it, or cook it evenly from all sides. Unlike shallow and deep-frying that involve complete cooking of the food, sautéing is just a part of an entire preparation. It may be generally used to brown the food, to heat the cooked food, or to coat and mix vegetables. The pan used for sautéing should be preheated and the oil or fat in it should be sizzling before the food goes in.

Best Bets for Sautéing:
  • Sliced potatoes and onions to give them a golden-brown color
  • Tender cuts of meat, poultry, etc.
Tip: The residue in the pan after sauteing meat or fish can be deglazed with wine or stock and used for preparing sauce.
Vegetable Stir Fry
The basic purpose of this technique is to cook the ingredients that require more time and blend them along with the ones that can be cooked within a short period. How is this done? The ingredients that need more time to cook are put in first and stir-fried for a while. When they are almost cooked, the other ingredients that require less cooking time are added to the pan. This prevents both food types from either staying raw or getting overcooked. Since stir-frying is a quick process, it is important to get everything that is required in place before beginning with the preparation. Use a wok or pan with a nonstick surface and a long-handled spatula to stir the food and cook it evenly.

Best Bets for Stir-frying:
  • Vegetables
  • Strips of chicken, or beef
Tip: Seasonings, such as grated gingerroot, minced garlic, etc., when stir-fried for 10-15 seconds tend to season the oil with their distinctive flavors. Ensure that the ingredients are kept in constant motion to prevent them from getting burned.
Blanching in bowl
It is a cooking technique that involves very brief cooking of vegetables in boiling water and submerging them in ice water or running them under cold water to stop the cooking process. Blanching is done when you want the vegetables to be cooked slightly, maintaining crunchiness at the core. While blanching is sometimes done to preserve the color and texture of the food, it is sometimes used to cook the food partly or fully. It is also used to remove the strong taste of certain vegetables, like cabbage, onions, etc. This technique is most suitable while canning and freezing vegetables.

For blanching, cut the vegetables in the desired size. At the same time, heat a pan of salted water and bring it to boil. While the water is boiling, keep a strainer and a bowl of ice water ready alongside. Now, put the vegetables in boiling water, and let them sit there for just 2-3 minutes or depending upon the thickness and overall size of the vegetables. Next, drain the vegetables through a strainer, and transfer it to the bowl of ice water immediately.

Best Bets for Blanching: Blanching can be used for almost any vegetable or food substance. However, it is best for:
  • Green beans
  • Asparagus
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
Tip: It is advisable to remove one piece from the pan after 30 seconds, put in ice water, and taste to see if it's done as per your liking. Do this after every 30-60 seconds to check the progress.
Steaming Broccoli
It is known to be a gentler cooking technique as compared to simmering, blanching, and other boiling techniques. There is no agitation involved in this method; hence, it is best suitable for seafood and other delicate food substances. Furthermore, since the food items are not submerged in water, there is no loss of nutrients through percolation. Since the water never touches the food, it does not overcook the food or allow too much absorption of water.

For steam cooking, you will require a saucepan and a steam basket (bamboo or stainless steel), or a heat-resistant colander. To begin with, fill the pan with water such that the water is close enough to the steamer, but does not touch the bottom of the steamer. Place the pan on a stove, and bring to a boil. Meanwhile, clean and cut the vegetables in similar sizes for even cooking. Now, put the vegetables in the steam basket, and place the basket over the pan. Reduce heat to medium, cover the pan, and let it cook. Ensure that the water in the pan does not boil away and for that, keep adding water during cooking whenever required. Cook the vegetables until they are tender when poked with a fork or a knife. The time required for cooking will vary according to the vegetables; hence, as a beginner, monitor the progress, and avoid the food from being overcooked and soggy.

Best Bets for Steaming:
  • Fish
  • Meat
  • Almost all vegetables
Tip: If you are steaming more than one type of vegetable at a time, place heavier vegetables (that take time to cook) at the bottom and the lighter ones, such as leafy vegetables at the top.
Pressure Cooking
Pressure Cooking
This technique is considered the most time-efficient and cost-effective method of cooking. Food is cooked almost ten times faster than other cooking methods. Faster cooking means less fuel consumption, which cuts down on your expenses. The nutrients of the food are preserved to a great extent because the food is cooked in an almost airless atmosphere with a minimum amount of liquid. However, there are certain food substances, like soft fish, shellfish, tender meat cuts, and soft vegetables that are delicate and should not be pressure cooked because they will either be overcooked, flavorless, or burn completely. Ensure that you read the instructions given in the user manual before attempting this cooking technique.

While pressure cooking food, set the timer when there is high pressure buildup in the cooker. Wait until the set time, and then turn off the heat when the timer goes off. Let the pressure come down naturally, and then attempt to open the lid according to the instructions in the user guide. Another optional method is to cook for five extra minutes, and use the quick pressure release method to open the lid. However, be careful while doing so because the steam may come on to your hands or face, if opened in an incorrect direction.

Best Bets for Pressure Cooking:
  • Tough meat cuts
  • All types of grains that can be cooked without needing to be presoaked
Tip: The water in the cooker should be up to 2/3rd level to allow steam buildup and space for the food to expand after cooking.
Cooking Chicken Gumbo
It is a cooking technique in which the food is cooked in liquid, or the liquid itself is cooked at the temperature that is below the boiling point, somewhere around 180-200 °F. Simmering is useful to cook the proteins in the food. You may cover the pot while simmering to trap the steam, and allow the food to cook in less time. However, it is important to note that the temperature may rise, and eventually you may end up boiling rather than simmering. The liquids (other than water) used for simmering are apple cider, orange juice, chicken stock, etc., to add more flavor. Vegetables are often stir-fried, and meats are browned before simmering. However, ensure that excess fat is drained off before simmering these fried food substances to avoid a greasy layer on them.

If you want to simmer vegetables, cut them into small uniform pieces, and add them to a pot with enough water (to cover them halfway). Add the seasonings with a little salt, some olive oil, and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low to keep a gentle simmer going on. You can cover the pot, but like I said before, covering may increase the temperature of water to boiling point.

Poaching is another common cooking technique similar to simmering, that is normally reserved for delicate food items like eggs and fish. The main difference between poaching and simmering technique is the cooking temperature. Poaching requires a temperature range between 140-180 °F, whereas simmering, as mentioned above, needs a temperature between 180-200 °F.

Best Bets for Simmering:
  • Soup, broth, or stock
  • Potatoes, or pastas
  • Fish
  • Meat
Tip: While simmering the food, one or two small bubbles should be released to the surface every one or two seconds. If there are more bubbles, then lower the heat, or move the pan towards one side of the burner.
Grilling filet
It is the method of cooking that involves direct application of heat to the food. This is the major difference between grilling and barbecuing. In barbecuing, food is cooked through indirect heat. The time required for both these techniques also varies due to their use of heat. In simple terms, grilling is a fast-cooking method, whereas barbecuing is a slow, intense cooking procedure. There are several types of grills, like charcoal, gas, and infrared grills, and you can choose one depending on your requirement.

When cooking on a charcoal grill, learn about the type of grill you have to purchase, the number of briquettes to light, overall arrangement, and the cooking time required. The number of coals to be used depends on the type and size of the grill and the amount of food to be cooked. Climatic conditions also influence grilling to a great extent. Low temperatures, windy atmosphere, or highly humid conditions demand an increased number of charcoals. However, on an average, under optimum conditions, around 30 coals may be required for grilling one pound of meat. As far as the cooking time is concerned, follow whatever is recommended in your recipe.

On the other hand, the technique for gas grilling should be learned and mastered with the help of a user guide that comes with the product. However, the major concern while grilling with a charcoal or a gas grill is to avoid flare-ups by controlling the fire.

One more technique on the lines of grilling is broiling. The main and only difference between these two cooking methods is the direction of heat. While in grilling the heat source is below the food, in broiling, it is above the food.

Best Bets for Grilling:
  • Fish and meat cuts
  • Shrimp
  • Poultry
  • Hot dogs
  • Hamburgers
Tip: Pierce meat cuts with a fork to let the juices escape, thus preventing the meat from becoming moist
The term "barbecue" is applicable for both, the cooking technique as well as the apparatus used for cooking. It differs from grilling with respect to the cooking time required. Also, the temperature at which the food is cooked varies in both techniques. It is often confused with the smoking method; but, they differ a lot from each other. However, barbecuing encompasses several smoking techniques to a great extent.

As it is with grilling, barbecue also requires a heat source, such as a charcoal, or a gas grill, and the cooking is usually carried out in an outdoor environment. As mentioned earlier in the grilling section, barbecue is a slow-cooking method with indirect heat. It may take several hours to get the food item perfectly cooked with the right flavor.

Best Bets for Barbecue:
  • Meat Cuts
  • Fish
  • Poultry
Tip: To maintain moisture in the meat, keep a pan of water near the fire, but away from the meat.
Since grilling, barbecuing, searing, and rotisserie fall under the category of roasting, they may seem similar or overlapping to a new cook. However, there are various points of differences between all these techniques, and each one has a unique feature. In rotisserie, a long metal rod is inserted in the food item, and the rod is then suspended horizontally above the heat source. The heat source may be a gas or charcoal grill with or without a hood. Direct heating may be used to cook smaller and thinner pieces of meat. For larger meat cuts, the heat source is usually beside the food, and the hood is closed to retain the heat and flavor. The rod is then rotated slowly using an electric motor for even circulation of the heat all over the food.

While using this cooking technique, ensure that there is uniformity in the shape of the meat you have chosen. Parts, like wings or legs should not flop around and block the heat. For that, it is essential to tie up these parts properly with a butcher's twine before cooking. Attach one set of prongs to the skewer while inserting another into the meat. Once inserted properly, attach another set of prongs to the skewer, and tighten it with the screws. Place the rod over the grill, and readjust the position of the meat accordingly. Now, place an aluminum drip pan under the meat to collect the droppings. If you fill the pan with water or any other liquid, like fruit juices, wine, or beer, it will help keep the meat moist while cooking and prevent flare-ups. Lastly, use a meat thermometer to check for the doneness of the meat from inside. Ensure that the thermometer is not left in the meat during cooking.

Best Bets for Rotisserie:
  • Meat cuts
  • Poultry
  • Fish
Tip: Apply sauce to the meat during the last 10 to 15 minutes to prevent excessive browning or burning of the sauce.
Searing Food
Searing is done when you want the surface of the food to be cooked until golden-brown while keeping the interior soft and less cooked. Searing also gives a crispy texture to the food and adds a unique flavor through browning or caramelization. Like sautéing, it is a part of cooking process in which the food is cooked at a very high temperature to form a caramelized crust before cooking it further in the oven. The three things that are most important for good searing are high heat, direct heat, and the time. Around 500 °F is the perfect temperature for searing.

For searing, you will need a pan, probably a thick cast iron pan to hold the heat for a longer period. Practically, once preheated at a really high temperature, the cast iron pan or even a stainless steel pan, for that matter, can cook the food even if it's removed from the heat source. To test the readiness of the pan, sprinkle a few drops of water, and if it sizzles on the pan, then the pan is perfectly ready for searing. Remove the pan from heat, put some butter or oil, and coat the pan surface. Ensure that the butter just gets heated and does not burn. Now, add the food pieces, and let it cook until a crust is formed. It should take 3 minutes approximately to be done from one side. However, it will depend on the thickness of the piece, the type of pan used, and the temperature at which it's cooked. Once a brownish crust is formed, flip it with a spatula without breaking the crust. When both the sides get the desired color, remove it from the pan, and cook it further in the oven, on a slow cooker, or simmer on the stove.

Best Bets for Searing:
  • Meat
  • Fish
  • Poultry
  • Shellfish
Tip: For a nice finishing glow to your seared piece, baste it with melted butter using a spoon.
Baking bread
It is the method of cooking food using dry heat. Since, it is the most fundamental method of cooking used worldwide, you really need to practice it regularly. What actually happens in baking is that the heat is gradually transferred from the surface of the food to its center. As it transfers, the batter or the dough gets transformed into baked food with the softness retained at the core.

There are a few important things to consider while baking, and they are as follows:
  • Understanding the recipe that you are attempting and having all the ingredients in place is really important.
  • Accuracy is the next important aspect of baking. Improvisations and substitutions should be avoided while baking any dish.
  • Use standard measuring cups and spoons to avoid mistakes, and use only the pan size that is recommended in the recipe.
With all these things, you are set to get a perfectly baked food product.

Best Bets for Baking:
  • Cakes, pastries and breads
  • Vegetables
  • Meat, fish, and poultry
Tip: While placing pans in the oven, ensure that they are not touching each other, or the walls of the oven. If there is no space to put the pans side by side, place them on different racks to allow proper air circulation.
Blind Baking
Blind Baking
Also known as pre-baking, this is the method of cooking a pie crust or a pastry base without the filling. It can be cooked partially, or completely before filling it. There can be two occasions when you would want to use the blind baking technique: (i) When the crust needs a longer time to cook as compared to the filling; (ii) When you are making a custard pie, wherein the custard filling does not need baking.

While blind baking, select your baking dish; tin and glass dishes are a common choice. Roll out the dough in the dish without stretching it too much. Let the prepared pastry base or the empty pie crust sit in the freezer for half an hour prior to baking, to make it firm and prevent shrinkage while baking. To prevent formation of air bubbles, dock the dough by piercing it with a fork. However, don't overdo it, as the filling could leak through the crust. Now, line the base and sides of the crust with a nonstick baking paper, and fill with rice, or dried beans. You can also use pie weights to prevent the crust from puffing or rising. Preheat the oven at the temperature recommended in the recipe, or if it isn't mentioned, set at 375 °F, and bake for 8-10 minutes. Further, remove the nonstick baking paper, and bake again for 5-7 minutes or until golden-brown. However, if you are baking the crust partially, add the filling, and then cook further.

Best Bets for Blind Baking:
  • Tart shell
  • Pie crust
  • Pastry base
Tip: If edges of the crust start browning very quickly, cover them with pie crust shields. If you don't have them, use an aluminum foil to cover the edges and prevent excessive browning.
Smoking meat
Usually done on a commercial basis, food can be smoked at home with proper equipment in place. People often get confused between smoking, grilling, and barbecuing. However, there is a lot of difference between all the three techniques. Grilling requires extremely high heat (around 500 °F), barbecuing requires low heat (around 200 °F to 300 °F), whereas smoking needs very low to no heat (around 50 °F to 140 °F). As far as cooking time for these techniques is concerned, grilling is done in a few minutes, barbecuing takes a few hours, while smoking needs several hours, sometimes even days, or weeks. Smoking may or may not be followed by cooking. Some food items are only smoked at low temperatures and never cooked, still they are safe to eat. To preserve the food for long, large quantity of salt is used to cure the food before smoking.

Smoking can be done using charcoal as well as wood as the heat source. Avoid using a self-starting charcoal smoker because it will burn too quickly to cook the food, giving it an undesired flavor.

Best Bets for Smoking:
  • Meat
  • Fish
  • Vegetables
Tip: Smoke-cooked foods have a different color than grilled or barbecued food. They look slightly pink or red when completely cooked. The color also depends on the type of wood used for smoking. Keep experimenting with various types of meat and wood until you get the right combination for your taste.
In the techniques, such as grilling, barbecuing, etc., that involve outdoor environment, food hygiene needs to be maintained. The reason is, insects like houseflies, bees, etc., are potential food contaminators that contain millions of bacteria. If the food has to be served a few hours later after cooking, keep it covered properly. Cook healthy, eat healthy, and stay healthy!