THE 4 ESSENTIAL COOKING TECHNIQUES

Typically cooking is categorized by dry- versus wet-heat methods. Instead, I’ve organized this overview based on what’s used in this book, in loose order from easiest (and most familiar) to more involved.

Boiling

is one of the most straightforward and fundamental ways to cook. Put water in a pot (usually to about two-thirds full) and turn the heat to high. When bubbles vigorously break the surface, the water has reached a rolling boil. (This is what I refer to when I say to bring a pot of water to a boil.) Then you usually add salt, and the food. Boiling works well for many foods but is used most frequently for dry ingredients like pasta, rice, or legumes, which must absorb water to become edible. Many fresh vegetables are also surprisingly good boiled, as are fatty meats, chicken, or shellfish. To avoid bland, mushy food leached of nutrients, check the food frequently as it cooks. Residual heat will cause what’s called “carry-over cooking,” which you can stop by immediately shocking boiled food in ice water , or at least by draining it in a colander under cold running water. Simmering is when the liquid bubbles gently, just below the point of a rolling boil. Poaching describes cooking in an even more gently bubbling liquid— usually water, and less of it than you’d use to boil.

Steaming

is when you suspend food to cook above— not in— boiling water. Since steam can superheat to more than 212 ° F (the temperature of boiling water), it’s an excellent moist-heat method for quick-cooking vegetables, fish, dumplings, tofu, and custards. The color and texture can be better than when boiling, and you can avoid the need to shock the food after. The pot you use should be large enough to hold the food comfortably and allow steam to circulate freely. Set the food on a surface— a metal or bamboo basket, or two plates— just above the water level. Cover the pot and turn the heat to high. Once the water starts boiling, adjust the heat so that it bubbles steadily. As with boiling, check the food frequently so it doesn’t overcook. Also check the pot to make sure it doesn’t run dry, adding more water if necessary. Microwaving in a covered, moist environment— a piece of fish or broccoli on a plate with a tablespoon or two of water, covered with a microwave-safe lid or clean paper towel, for example— is sort of like steaming a good alternative.

Sautéing

is the method of cooking food in a skillet or other shallow pan in a little oil or butter; the thin film of fat is the key. You can dredge the pieces of food in flour, bread crumbs, or seasonings before putting them in the pan, but it isn’t necessary. The idea is to sizzle the food (some say you “surprise” it) to create a crust, so that it’s browned (caramelized) outside and cooked through, tender, and moist inside. You must follow a few rules: Make sure the fat is hot, almost smoking, before you add the food. (I sometimes make an exception when cooking aromatics like onions.) The food must be thin enough to cook through to the center; no more than 1 inch or so. And don’t crowd the pan, or the food will steam and never brown. An inch or so between big pieces is fine; smaller pieces require less elbow room. You should be able to hear the food sputtering as it cooks and see the fat bubbling around the edges as they brown. Don’t try to move or turn the pieces until they release easily from the pan; that means a crust has formed and they’re browned. You can adjust the heat and gently swirl the fat around if you like, but let the food itself be. Patience is key. Searing is related to sautéing: You’re browning the food on both sides— or all sides if it’s thick— without the expectation of cooking it all the way through in one process. Maybe you’ll roast or braise it after searing, for example.

Stir-frying

is like sautéing, except you keep things moving over high heat, and often work in batches to make sure each component is properly tender and browned. It’s fast and easy and my favorite way to cook. Forget what you’ve seen watching chefs stir-fry in restaurants or on TV; home stoves get nowhere near as hot as those in a restaurant. For starters, use a 12-inch skillet, not a wok. Otherwise the food will crowd the pan, the temperature will drop, and the food will end up steaming rather than browning. To compensate for the lack of fire power, I usually direct you to cook the vegetables and meat or other protein separately with some seasonings, transferring each batch out of the pan before doing the next. Then you return everything to the pan and make a sauce. The process still usually takes less than 15 minutes of active cooking— just enough time to cook a pot of rice. Once you learn the technique, all the components— protein, vegetables, and seasonings— are interchangeable.That means you can substitute ingredients more freely than with any other type of cooking. You can also vary the proportions in stir-fries. I usually figure a pound of meat for 4 servings, which puts an emphasis on vegetables. To cut back on the animal protein even more, drop the meat to 8 ounces and increase the amount of vegetables proportionally. And to adjust the protein up, just add more chicken or whatever and increase the seasonings and liquids— but don’t cut back on the vegetables! Some components benefit from parboiling; I’ll direct you when necessary.

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