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Methods of Cooking

Updated on December 3, 2011
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Cooking is the preparation of food by heat. Cooking makes food more tender and palatable. It may also improve the digestibility of food by breaking down complex nutritional elements or by softening tough tissues that could not otherwise be eaten. In addition, cooking destroys bacteria and other disease-causing organisms that may be present in raw foods. A distinction is generally made between cooking, which is simply the application of heat to raw foods, and cookery, which is the careful preparation of food to enhance its flavor, texture, and appearance. Through the art of cookery, eating becomes a pleasure, as well as a necessity, and the methods of this art are now taught in many schools and colleges, on television and radio, and in magazines, newspapers, and books.

Basic Cooking Methods

There are two basic methods of cooking, depending on the kind of heat that is used. Wet heat methods include boiling, parboiling, pureeing, simmering, poaching, stewing, and steaming. Dry heat methods of cooking include roasting, baking, broiling, and frying.

Wet Heat

Boiling means cooking in water that has been heated to the boiling point (212° F.) and is kept at this temperature until the food is removed. Eggs and noodles are often cooked in this way, but vegetables usually lose some of their vitamin content when boiled. Parboiling, or blanching, means partially cooking food in boiling water. This method is often used in the preparation of strong-flavored meats, such as kidneys and game; sweetbreads and brains; and fruit and vegetables that are to be frozen. In pureeing, food is boiled until it becomes tender. It is then forced through a strainer. Tomatoes are often pureed to make tomato sauce.

In simmering, food is placed in a boiling liquid that is then allowed to subside to a barely noticeable bubbling. Vegetables are often cooked in this manner. Poaching is similar to simmering. Fish that is to be used in creamed dishes is frequently poached first in water or milk. In coddling, food is gently cooked in liquid kept just below the boiling point.

In stewing, food is simmered in a liquid for a long period of time. Stewing is a common way of cooking tough meats, and the word "stew" often refers to a mixture of meat, vegetables, and herbs cooked by this method.

Steaming is a method of cooking food in the steam from a boiling liquid. Foods are often steamed in a small perforated pan that fits inside a larger pan or in a double boiler. The upper pan contains the food, and the lower pan contains the boiling liquid. Foods may also be placed directly into a small amount of liquid and steamed in a utensil with a tightly fitted lid. Steaming is a common way of cooking fish, sauces, and other foods that burn easily.

Pressure-cooking is a modern technique that requires a special container with a tightly fitted cover to prevent steam from escaping. Although pressure-cooking sometimes changes the flavor of food, it can raise the temperature well above the boiling point and is therefore an extremely fast method of cooking. This method is used primarily to cook fresh vegetables and tough cuts of meat.

Dry Heat

In broiling, which is the oldest form of cooking, small pieces of food are placed directly over or under a source of heat. When food is broiled over a charcoal fire, a pleasant smoky taste is added. Most modern broilers use the heat from gas flames or electrically heated coils. An outer crust, or shell, forms on broiled foods and serves to seal in the flavor and natural juices. Meat, fish, and poultry are often broiled. The word "grilling" refers to broiling in which the food is placed on a grill made of wire or bars.

The term "roasting" originally referred to cooking meat over an open flame, usually on a spit. Today, however, it refers to food cooked with little or no liquid in a pan in the oven. Meat roasted over an open fire is said to be barbecued. Because roasting forms a thin crust on the surface of the food that holds in internal juices, it is usually used to cook large cuts of meat and poultry. Baking is similar to roasting, but the word "roasting" usually applies to meat cookery, while "baking" usually applies to vegetable and fruit cookery. Pies, cakes, and custards are also baked.

Frying means cooking food in a pan or griddle to which fat or oil is usually added. In sauteing, which is also called shallow frying or pan frying, food is cooked in a skillet containing a little fat. If the food is coated with flour or bread crumbs mixed with egg before it is fried, it is referred to as breaded. Foods that are to be further cooked by other methods are often first sauteed.

Deep frying, or french frying, requires the use of cooking oil in sufficient quantity to float or cover the food. Deep-fried foods are often placed in a wire basket before they are floated on the hot oil. The basket keeps the cook from burning his fingers and aids in draining excess oil from the cooked food. Chicken, potatoes, and doughnuts are often deep fried.

Combined Methods

Sometimes foods are cooked by combinations of two or more of the above methods. Braising, for example, combines frying, roasting, and stewing. It is generally used to cook pot roasts and other tough cuts of meat. The process of braising begins with searing, or browning, the meat on all sides. Water is then added, and the container is tightly covered and placed on top of the stove or in the oven. Vegetables are sometimes added to the meat.

Fricasseeing is a combination of frying and stewing. Small pieces of meat or poultry are usually sauteed, combined with a liquid, and simmered in a covered container over a low flame.


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