Basics of Cooking Techniques
What every home cook should know.
With a Knife
Mince. This is the finest chop of all, less than 1⁄8 inch, achieved by first cutting, then rocking the knife back and forth across the ingredients, all the while rotating the blade around on the cutting board.
Dice. While the most common definition is to create cubes between 1⁄4 and 1⁄2 inch in size, dicing is actually not an aesthetic decision. Recipes call for a dice when vegetables are to be cooked quickly but evenly together—thus all the pieces should be the same size.
Cube. Like “dice,” this is a chopping technique all about cooking time, not aesthetics; it’s usually accompanied by a measurement to indicate the preferred size for even cooking (such as “cut into 1-inch cubes”).
Chop. This is a slightly looser measurement, usually between 1⁄2- and 1-inch pieces. Here, the decision is less about cooking time and more about texture.
Roughly Chop. This is the loosest measurement of all: 1- to 2-inch, uneven pieces.
Over the Heat
For the best flavor, heat the oil in a skillet or saucepan before you add the food. Never overcrowd the pan; if necessary, work in batches so you can cook in one layer. Watch the pan carefully, shaking the ingredients and turning them to keep them from sticking.
Simmering involves steady if fairly low heat (thus the constant reminder to “reduce heat” before simmering) and often a covered or partially covered pan. It’s a slow cooking process that renders the melange of ingredients succulent and flavorful. One reminder: a covered pot will boil more quickly than an uncovered one, so watch the temperature carefully to keep the simmer low and steady.
“Braising” is the culinary term for “stewing,” in some ways a subset of simmering. You add more liquid to the dish and let it go for a longer time over an even lower heat. Braising has traditionally been used for tough cuts of meat.
Stir-frying is a high-heat method of searing meats and vegetables, usually associated with Asian cooking. You must use oil for stir-frying, otherwise, the high temperature will cause the natural sugars to burn and foods will stick to the pan, even a nonstick one. While a wok is preferred, a high-sided skillet or saut? pan will also get the job done.
When you steam over moist, high heat, you preserve much of an ingredient’s otherwise water-soluble nutrients. To steam effectively, you need a pot large enough to hold both the steamer basket and 1 or 2 inches of water with plenty of air flow all around the basket. The food must never sit in the water. Check the water level from time to time to make sure the pan isn’t dry, and shake the pan gently once or twice to rearrange the food, ensuring even cooking.
Whether at a high or low heat, roasting involves a steady, even, dry heat that cooks from the outside in (the opposite, then, of microwaving, which cooks from the inside out). Air (and thus heat) should circulate freely around whatever’s being roasted; the oven rack should be placed in the center of the oven unless otherwise stated in the recipe. If roasting vegetables, add a small amount of fat to the pan to sear them while they cook; if roasting meats, use a small rack to lift them off the bottom of the roaster, thereby allowing the heat to circulate evenly underneath them (and thereby lifting them out of the fat). A good roasting pan is a heavy, metal pan with a shiny interior surface that holds heat and reflects it back onto the food.
Broiling, an indoor cousin of grilling, sears food with high, direct heat. A broiler should always be preheated for at least 5 minutes; food should be placed so that it (not the broiler pan) is 4 to 6 inches from the heat source. Foods blotted dry broil with less mess. Pour off rendered fat occasionally to avoid nasty fires.
There are actually two methods of cooking on a grill. Grilling involves placing ingredients directly over the heat source. Barbecuing, by contrast, involves putting the food on one side of the grill, the coals or heat source on the other, thereby cooking the food over indirect heat. Experienced grillers test their grills by “feel.” Place your open palm 5 inches above the grill grate; the fire is...
high if you have to move your hand in 2 seconds,
medium if you have to move your hand in 5 seconds
and low if you have to move your hand in 10 seconds.
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