Choosing the Right Cooking Method
One of the most important aspects of cooking delicious food involves understanding the strategies for matching specific types of meats, seafood, and vegetables with the correct cooking method, which can be grouped into three categories:
1. Dry heat methods, with or without fat
2. Moist-heat methods
3. Methods using a combination of dry and moist heat
Dry-Heat Cooking Methods—Without Fat
In grilling and roasting, food is cooked either by direct or indirect application of radiant heat. No liquid is used, and any fat that is added during the cooking process is intended to add flavor, and not to act as a cooking medium. The end result is a highly flavored exterior and moist interior. Grilling and broiling are quick techniques used with portion-size tender pieces of meat, poultry, fish, or vegetables. Roasting requires longer cooking times because this technique is most frequently used with large cuts of meat or whole birds and fish.
Dry-Heat Cooking Methods—With Fat
These cooking techniques rely on fats and oil to act as the cooking medium, with the amount of oil adjusted in relation to the method and quantity of food being cooked. Stir-frying and sautéing use small amounts of oil, resulting in well-developed flavor. Pan-frying and deep-frying use a proportionately larger amount of oil and a coated product; the result is an interesting combination of flavors and textures. These quick cooking techniques all require high heat and use portion-size or smaller pieces of meat, poultry, fish, or vegetables. They are considered dry-heat because no liquid is added during the cooking time.
Moist-Heat Cooking Methods
Many of the classic dishes of the world are prepared using moist-heat methods because water-soluble nutrients are not drawn out of the food as readily. The result is tender, delicately flavored, and healthful dishes. Steaming cooks tender food by surrounding it with a vapor bath, resulting in very little favor or nutrient loss. Often, food is protected during cooking using a wrapping or coating; for example, fish may be wrapped in lettuce leaves or corn husks. Shallow poaching cooks the food using a combination of steam and a liquid bath that may contain wine, lemon juice, and aromatics such as shallots and herbs that is typically reduced into a sauce. Deep poaching and simmering completely submerge the food in a flavorful liquid that is kept at a constant, moderate temperature. Simmering is generally associated with less-tender foods that are cooked at a slightly higher temperature.
Combination Cooking Methods
Combination cooking methods apply both dry and moist heat to the food being cooked, and are appropriate for foods that are too tough to be successfully prepared by any other method. Tender foods such as fish and vegetables can also be braised or stewed successfully; however, they will require less cooking liquid, a lower temperature, and a shorter cooking time.
The first step for most combination methods is to sear the main item. Searing develops the proper flavor and color and is done using a small amount of fat in a heavy-bottomed pot. The item then completes the cooking process in the presence of a liquid, which may be simply the juices released from the food, or a liquid such as stock that is added to the pot. Because the cooking vessel is covered during most of the cooking time, these liquids turn to steam and the food cooks by simmering and steaming.
Braising is considered appropriate for foods that are portion-size or larger, as well as for cuts from more-exercised areas of large animals, mature whole birds, or large fish. Relatively little liquid (stock or jus) is used in relation to the main item’s volume. A bed of mirepoix (50% carrots, 25% celery, and 25% onion) lifts the main item away from the pot’s bottom, and introduces additional moisture and flavor. One of braising’s benefits is that less-tender cuts of meat become tender as the moist heat gently penetrates the meat and causes tough connective tissues to become tender. Another bonus is that any flavor from the item is released into the cooking liquid, and becomes the accompanying sauce. Stewing, similar to braising, can use the same meat cuts, but the main item is cut into bite-size pieces and the amount of liquid used in relation to the amount of ingredients varies from one style of preparation to another.
Shopping for the Perfect Match
The meats, seafood, and plants we eat come in a variety of flavors, colors, and textures. The meat of cows, sheep, and goats is red because these roaming animals need strong muscles to search for food and water. Blood oxygenates these muscles, giving them their distinct colors, texture, and flavor. Domesticated hogs and poultry do not roam and get relatively little exercise, and therefore require far less blood oxygenation, which results in meat that is less flavorful and much lighter in color. So, how does this knowledge help us when purchasing meats and fish at the market or fishmonger? Identifying specific visual traits in the proteins that we buy is the first step in choosing the proper cooking method:
Tender, low-activity meats
True steaks, such as porterhouse, prime rib, filet, sirloin, or T-bone, are cut from large muscles found in the center of the animal. These single muscles do not get much exercise, are low in connective tissue, and are marbled with fat, making them tender. High-heat methods such as grilling, broiling, and sautéing sear these steaks quickly without the need for tenderization.
Tougher, high-activity meats
Also marketed as “steaks” are some high-activity cuts that include chuck, shoulder, and flank. These tougher, less-expensive cuts have multiple muscle groups, come from well-exercised parts of the animal, and require mechanical tenderization, braising, or long and slow cooking to gelatinize and tenderize the high amounts of connective tissue. Additionally, some of these cuts have a pronounced grain structure that can contribute to toughness if overcooked or not cut against the grain after cooking.
Active, fatty fish
Fish is similar to meat in that the more active the fish, the more blood oxygenation is required, and, unique to fish, the fattier the flesh. Tuna, with top speeds of more than 40 mph, has dark red fatty flesh that is very complex and highly sought-after. Because of this inherent complexity, tuna is best approached with a light hand, or even raw. High-heat cooking methods, such as grilling, broiling, and sautéing, work together with sweet, sour, or spicy elements to contrast the tuna’s rich flavor.
In contrast, lean fish such as flounder and cod are often deep-fried with tartar sauce or served with rich lemon butter sauce to contrast the lean mild flavor.
Poultry and pork
Poultry and pork have similar identifiers as beef. Cuts that have limited exercise such as the breast or loin require quick cooking methods, whereas pork shoulder and leg are braised or cooked long and slow, allowing for time and temperature to break down the connective tissue and tenderize the cut.
Vegetables can also be cooked based on their density, structure, and moisture content. Tender vegetables that contain a lot of water such as peppers, zucchini, and mushrooms can be sautéed or grilled, whereas drier broccoli or green beans need to be cooked in boiling salted water to tenderize. Braising is used to tenderize leafy greens such as collards, kale, and cabbage.
Chef Mark Ainsworth is a professor of culinary arts at the CIA and an alumnus of the college. He is the author of The Young Chef: Recipes and Techniques for Kids Who Love to Cook.