basic cooking techniques: chef sauteing vegetables in skillet

Basic Cooking Techniques to Add Depth to Your Dishes

From al dente to zesting, here are some basic cooking techniques you might encounter as you explore different recipes

Are you a restauranteur looking to brush up on your cooking techniques? Cooking is one of the most important skills in any chef’s arsenal, and mastering various techniques will help create delicious dishes that your customers won’t soon forget. We are breaking down the basics; from sautéing and pan-frying to searing, roasting, and more – here’s everything restaurateurs need to know about essential cooking methods. Not only will these fundamentals make meal prep easier, but they’ll also improve the quality of your food! So if you’re ready to take your culinary expertise up a notch or two – let’s get started!

Whether you’re a seasoned chef or just starting out, this guide will explain some of the cooking terms you might encounter as you explore different recipes. Each method can add some depth to your dishes whether you are new to cooking or a more experienced chef.

Cooking Techniques

Al Dente

Cooking your pasta al dente – Italian for “to the tooth” – means you’ve cooked it until it’s firm but not crunchy. Nobody likes mushy noodles.

Baking

Indirect heat is used in both baking and roasting to cook food from all sides. While preparing meats or vegetables, the phrase “roasting” is used, and when producing bread, rolls, and cakes, the term “baking” is used. Although technically equivalent, baking is often carried out at lower temperatures than roasting.

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Baste

Pouring juices or liquid fat over meat while it cooks will help lock in flavors. Typically used on meats (like turkey), you baste approximately every 40 minutes.

Blanch

Vegetables that would normally take longer in a stir-fry dish can be blanched ahead of time and added along with ingredients that cook more quickly. To blanch food, put it in boiling water for a short amount of time and then immediately place it into cold water or an ice bath to prevent it from cooking any further. This technique might serve you well for peeling and stir-frying. Blanching fruit makes it easier to remove the skin while preserving the fruit’s full yield, and vegetables that would normally be added to a stir fry dish first can instead be blanched ahead of time and added alongside other ingredients.

Blister

Tomatoes are one of the most popular vegetables to blister.  Add items to a pan with olive oil, then cook them over medium-high heat for a few minutes so they blacken on one side; some recipes instruct you to rotate the vegetable to achieve the blistering effect on all sides. Commonly blistered vegetables include broccoli, green beans, peppers, and tomatoes.

Boiling

To cook food using this method, water must be heated to 212 degrees Fahrenheit, the boiling point. Large bubbles created by the boiling water keep the food moving while it cooks. The term “slow boil” describes water that has just begun to form huge, slowly moving bubbles but has not yet reached the boiling point. At the boiling point, a full boil (a.k.a. rolling boil) takes place, producing quick-moving, rolling bubbles. The water also releases steam when it boils.

Braising

The process of braising involves first searing the meal in a hot, oiled pan, then moving it to a larger pot to cook it in hot liquid. The ingredients are simmering in stock, broth, or water that is only partially submerged. Low heat allows meals to soften over a prolonged cooking period and reduces liquid while enhancing flavor. Braising is the best technique for generating meats that are fork-tender and fall off the bone.

Broil

Broiling can be used at the end of the baking or roasting process to give your dish some extra crispiness. Broiling cooks food with direct heat – specifically, heat straight from the element at the top of your oven, which can cook food at temperatures above 500 degrees Fahrenheit. This method can also be used to give food a crispy finish or brown the top of a dish. However, broilers work quickly, so it’s important to keep an eye on your food to prevent it from burning.

Dredge

Many dishes call for meat to be dredged in eggs and flour to add a golden-brown exterior when it is pan-fried. Dredging can also help an additional coating, like breadcrumbs, stick to your protein. To dredge something, you will coat it in breadcrumbs, flour, or another dry mixture before cooking it (and if it isn’t “sticky” enough to hold the coating, it’ll need to be coated in a wet substance, such as egg or milk, before dredging). This is most often done to meat before frying it in a deep fryer or pan, giving it additional flavor, texture, and browned appearance after it’s cooked.

Deglazing

After frying or sautéing a food item, you can deglaze the pan. You do this by removing the caramelized residue, called “fond,” by pouring in broth, stock, or wine to turn into the base of a sauce. You may hear the terms “pan sauce” or “pan gravy” used to refer to sauces and gravies made with this method.

Grilling

Similar to broiling, grilling uses radiant heat to swiftly cook food. The grilling apparatus will often have an open grate with a heat source beneath the food. Foods must be flipped over to cook on both sides, and grill marks from the hot rack or grate are preferred.

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Julienne

Julienned ingredients have a distinctive shape.  This is also known as a French cut. Vegetables are cut this way for a variety of dishes. This cut adds a sense of elegance to your dish and is appealing to the eye, not to mention an easy cut to perform.

To julienne an ingredient, cut it into long, thin strips, just like the classic shape of a French fry (thus, their name). The most common ingredients cut in this style are vegetables (like bell peppers and onions) although meat may be julienned for certain stir-fry dishes.

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Poach

Eggs are the most popular ingredient prepared using this method, although you can use this technique to cook fish, meat, and fruit, and is different from boiling the food. Place food in a pot with about 5 inches of not-quite-simmering liquid – most often water, but you can use broth or stock for more flavor, with or without additional spices – until it is done. For eggs, this may be as little as 4 minutes, but chicken can take 10 minutes or longer. Follow your recipe’s instructions, using a thermometer to make sure any meat is cooked to the recommended temperature. Dab with a paper towel to remove excess water and eat immediately.

Proof

Proofing dough will help achieve the right texture in your final product. You may consider investing in proofing pans to have a dedicated proofing vessel in your kitchen to set aside for a few hours to finish rising to enhance its flavors and final structure.

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Roasting

When roasting, indirect heat is used within the oven to cook the food evenly on all sides. Cooking in this manner brings out the flavors of the meats and veggies more gradually. For harder beef cuts, roasting can be done at relatively low temperatures between 200 and 350 degrees Fahrenheit, or higher temperatures up to 450 degrees Fahrenheit.

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Roux

A roux (pronounced “rue”) is a technique that is the basis for pasta sauces, soups, stews, gravy, gumbo, and many other entrée and side recipes that call for this thickener. This is a French mixture of butter (or another type of fat, depending on the recipe) whisked together with flour that can be added to dishes as a thickening agent. The longer a roux cooks, the darker it’ll become, and recipes may call for a light (white or blond) or dark (brown) roux. 

Sautéing

The definition of sauté is to fry food in a small amount of fat. Sautéing involves the transfer of heat from the pan to food, usually lubricated by a thin coating of oil that both prevents food from sticking to the pan and aids in the conduction of heat, browning the surface of meat or vegetables. Foods that are typically sautéd: vegetables, steaks, and chicken breasts.

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Searing

When grilling, braising, or sautéing, the surface of the ingredient is first seared at a high temperature to create a flavor-packed, caramelized, and browned crust. The key with searing (aka “browning”) is patience: it’s very tempting to move meat or fish around once it hits the pan, but give it a good uninterrupted chance to fully brown before turning it to the other side—it will lift and separate from the pan when it’s fully ready.

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Steaming

When steaming, water is constantly boiled to generate a consistent volume of steam. Foods are surrounded by steam, which retains moisture while cooking food evenly. There are several methods for steaming. A commercial steamer or combi oven is particularly effective in kitchens with heavy food production. A saucepan and steamer basket, a microwave, or putting food in foil so it may steam in the oven are further steaming techniques.

Steam pans, baskets, and other accessories

Stewing

The main distinction between stewing and braising is that when stewing, meals are totally submerged in hot liquid as opposed to only partially. In a stew, smaller pieces of meat are utilized, but the cooking technique remains the same: slow cooking over low heat. The collagen and fat from the meats melt away as the stew simmer, breaking down the fibrous vegetables. The outcome is a rich, delicious sauce with soft veggies and tender beef chunks.

Tempering 

Tempering is to slowly bring up the temperature of a cold or room temperature ingredient by adding small amounts of a hot or boiling liquid.  Adding the hot liquid gradually prevents the cool ingredient (such as eggs) from cooking or setting. The tempered mixture can then be added back to hot liquid for further cooking. Tempering is probably most often used with chocolate.

Zesting

Grated zest is simply the grated rind (outer colored portion) from citrus fruits. It is used in cooking because the rind holds the precious oils where the full flavor resides. To grate zest or rind, take a box grater and rub the fruit against the grater. Do not rub the fruit down to the white inner skin, known as the pith, which is bitter. When removing the skin from oranges or other citrus fruit, be sure to take only the thin outer zest or colored portion. Try this zester.

The Art of Cooking

And there you have new techniques this month to test in your kitchen! Cooking is an art form that should be embraced by all. It has been enjoyed for centuries and will continue for many more. Learning the most basic of cooking techniques is the best way to get started on your culinary journey; it serves as the foundation from which you can grow and explore even further. The beauty of cooking lies in its variety, so don’t be afraid to experiment with some new recipes and ingredients every once in a while. Whether it’s a fancy dinner or a quick bite, know that you have the skills to create delicious cuisine for yourself, friends, and family. Bon Appétit!

By Leslie Radford
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