Basics of Cooking Techniques

What every home cook should know.

Basics of Cooking Techniques

By EatingWell Editors

Here are the terms you’ll want to become familiar with to cook any recipe successfully.

With a Knife

The way you cut ingredients is important; it helps distribute the ingredient throughout the dish (mincing or finely chopping garlic, for example), ensure that ingredients cook at the same time (like cutting your carrots and potatoes into 1-inch dice) or improve texture (a thinly sliced piece of smoked salmon, for example, is more tempting on your bagel than a fat chunk). Pay attention to, but don’t stress about these terms: your common sense will go a long way in helping you as you cook.

Mince and finely chop: “Mincing” 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. “Finely chop” is just a little bit larger than mince.

Chop and coarsely chop: You want to wind up with about a 1/4-inch piece when you chop, a bit larger when you “coarsely chop.” The idea of chopping (unlike dicing, below) is that the ingredients don’t have to be strictly uniform in size when you’re done.

Dice and cube: You’re aiming for uniformity of size here, and it’s based on cooking time and texture, not aesthetics. Most recipes that call for a “dice” or “cube” will indicate the preferred size for cooking in the time allotted (e.g., “cut into 1-inch cubes”). Ignore these measurements and you will alter the cooking time.

Slice and thinly slice: “Slice” is a judgment call; a slice of apple will be thinner than a slice of steak, but if you insist on a rule of thumb, think of a slice no thinner than 1/4 inch. “Thinly slice,” however, means you will want to cut the food as thinly as possible. Again, this will vary by ingredient; you can slice an apple to near-transparent thinness, which is hard to do with steak.

Over the Heat

For the best flavor, heat the oil in a skillet or saucepan before you add the food. Never overcrowd the pan, which fortunately rarely happens when you are cooking for two. Give your skillet or saucepan a shake occasionally to keep ingredients from sticking. Here are terms you will encounter when preparing a recipe.

Simmer: Set the pan on steady if fairly low heat (thus the constant reminder to “reduce heat” before simmering); you may be instructed to cover or partially cover the pan. Look for some bubbles and steam in the liquid. 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.

Braise, stew: These two terms (you can use them interchangeably) are a subset of “simmer,” but involve more liquid, a longer cooking time and even lower heat. Braising has traditionally been used for tough cuts of meat (think pot roast).

Stir-fry: A high-heat method of searing meats, poultry, fish 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 to stick to the pan—even a nonstick one.

Steam: Cook a food over moist, high heat, and you preserve many of its 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 airflow 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.

Roast: Whether at a high or low heat, roasting involves a steady, even, dry heat that cooks from the outside in (the opposite 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. When roasting vegetables, add a small amount of fat to the pan to sear them while they cook. When roasting meats, a small rack at the bottom of the pan accomplishes two goals: it lifts the meat out of the fat drippings and allows the heat to circulate underneath for even cooking.

Broil: This is an indoor cousin of grilling and 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 flare-ups.

Grill vs. barbecue: If your experience is limited to throwing burgers on a hibachi, it may surprise you to learn that 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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