Most of us learn to cook through trial and error, cooking shows, or being forced to feed ourselves when no one else will do it. So naturally, no one's born knowing how to sauté chicken, or blanch vegetables. Here are some basic (but useful) cooking techniques chefs use every day, but the rest of us rarely pick up.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.
Short for "partial cooking", parcooking involves partially cooking a dish now and finishing it later, presumably when you want to serve it. It's a time-honoured technique to keep dishes that normally dry out easily moist and flavourful, and avoid needing to reheat them when it's time to serve (which makes your food taste like, well, leftovers.)
It's also a great when you need to start cooking a dish one way (baking chops to keep them juicy, for example) and finish it another way (on the grill for that delicious char, for example, or like a curry, shown in the video above) or you have a lot going on at once but everything needs to be ready at the same time.
Parcooking is a pretty general cooking method, and it's really about timing and the recipe you're making. That means the how depends heavily on the food you're cooking, and how (or when) you plan to finish it. Parcooking a casserole may involve baking it through but stopping shy of a crispy crust or firm, solid body that won't fall apart when you dish it out. Parcooking rice or pasta on the other hand may involve boiling in water until it's just shy of al dente, and finishing it later in a pan full of homemade sauce. Because it's so widely applicable, it's useful for almost anything. Here are some popular examples though:
- Casseroles and bakes: Any baked dish that needs to retain moisture but should still be warm all the way through when served. It's also a great way to make casseroles ahead and then freeze them for later.
- Pork and chicken: Specifically chops, ribs, chicken breasts, thighs and anything else that cooks faster outside than inside. For example, parcooking ribs in the oven and finishing them on the grill yields perfectly cooked meat without sacrificing the delicious grilled flavour that comes from a few minutes over the coals. In this ultimate fried chicken recipe, parcooking in the oven first makes sure the chicken stays moist and juicy even after it's breaded and fried again in hot oil.
- Potatoes, rice and other water-absorbing starches: The longer you cook most starches, the looser and softer they get. By parcooking them first, you avoid overcooking and you can add them to other dishes without losing their texture. This is especially useful when grilling potatoes (so they don't fall apart on the grill or burn outside before they're soft inside) or to prep them for other dishes, like hash browns, French fries.
You can see the theme here. Virtually any situation where you can make something ahead of time, or where you can start with low, controlled heat (to develop lots of flavour) but want to finish with high heat (for searing or caramelisation) is perfect for par cooking. You can even parcook veggies before grilling or sauteeing them to keep their texture and flavour without cooking them to death.
Speaking of cooking vegetables, blanching is a bit like parcooking, but shorter, faster and specifically meant for fruit and vegetables. It's simple and it's the secret weapon restaurants use to make their veggies delicious. Here's how it's done:
- Bring a saucepan of water (salted or unsalted, depending on your dish) to a rolling boil.
- Drop your fruit or vegetables into the hot water for a short, specific amount of time -- usually just a few minutes.
- Remove your fruit or vegetables and place them into a cold water or ice bath to immediately stop the cooking process.
This technique is perfect if you have something you want to heat thoroughly, but you don't want to sacrifice its texture or flavour to do it. For example, here are some popular fruits and vegetables best blanched:
- Green beans, asparagus and other long, tender, stalk vegetables: If you've ever wondered why cooked green beans at restaurants are crisp and crunchy but the ones you make at home are limp and brownish-green, this is why. Almost every restaurant chef blanches green beans and asparagus, or any other vegetable best served hot but still crisp and crunchy. Sometimes that's all they do before serving them, other times they will finish by sautéing them with butter, wine, or fresh herbs.
- Carrots, parsinps and other starchy vegetables: Whether you're making a crudite platter or just don't want your carrots to get all limp and gross when you put them on the dinner plate, blanching them preserves their texture without sacrificing their flavour (or nutritional value!) You can even blanch corn, to make the husks and silk easier to remove, or to cook it just enough to make removing the kernels for soup or just storage easy (without actually cooking the kernels all the way through.)
- Cabbage, Brussels sprouts, or other strongly-smelling vegetables: One of the nice effects of blanching is that it removes the odour from cruciferous vegetables like cabbage and broccoli. Cooking vegetables rich in sulphur compounds develops flavour at high temperatures, but the longer you cook them, the more those compounds form trisulfides. They're the culprit when your kitchen smells like, well, farts and cabbage. Blanching those vegetables however, keeps the cooking process nice and short, maximises flavour generation, and stops before that chemistry gets out of control.
- Peaches, tomatoes, nectarines and stonefruit: You normally only blanch fruit when you have something that's delicate and difficult to peel, like tomatoes or peaches and is essential to making dishes like peach cobbler or pie and homemade tomato sauce from fresh ingredients instead of canned ones.
- Thinly cut chicken, beef, or pork: You might not think you can blanch meat, but thinly sliced strips of meat cook so quickly that it works extremely well -- in fact, when used with beef this cooking method is called shabu-shabu, and results in still-moist cuts of meat, perfect for dipping in a savoury barbecue or spicy sauce. Blanching meat is also great when you want to add meat to a dish best served cold, like a salad or sandwich, or if you want to make rich (but clear) a soup or stock.
Both stages of this process are important though. While "blanching" usually refers to the super quick cook, the cold bath to shock the finished food and stop it from cooking is important too. Otherwise it will just sit and continue to cook thanks to its own heat, which can turn those crisp, green beans or carrot sticks soft and mushy, or those now-easily-peeled boiled eggs difficult to work with.
Speaking of "cooking thanks to its own heat", this process is called "carryover cooking". You may rely on it already, but it's actually a really powerful tool you may not think to actually use. When you take a roast or a chicken out of the oven a few degrees shy of its recommended safe temperature, or when you take your steaks off the grill and then let them rest, you're actually relying on carryover cooking to finish your dish for you. And that's not a bad thing!
Think about it: When you take a dish off the burner, or out of the oven, it's still hot for a while, right? The same processes you started by adding heat to the food itself will continue as long as the food is warm enough. That's why "perfectly cooked", almost always comes after "take it out of the oven at (safe temperature minus X degrees) and let it rest." Food retains heat and continues to cook well after being removed from a heat source. The bigger, denser, and more protein-rich the food, the more carryover cooking is a factor. Here are some examples:
- Bone-in meats and thick, dense meats: The folks at Amazing Ribs point out that for thin cuts of meat, you just don't get the reservoir of heat inside the meat to carryover cook. However, for bone-in meats like ribs and thick, big roasts like brisket and pork shoulder, you have the size, thickness and density, and high temperatures required to carryover cook. Cut the cookbook's cooking time down (or turn the temperature down) and you'll still get moist and perfectly cooked meat.
- Eggs and other protein-rich foods cooked over high heat: If your scrambled eggs always come out too spongy, or you'd like to try them creamier and softer but don't know how, try this next time: Scramble them and let them cook in the pan until they're just shy of done. Then take them off the heat -- don't wait until they're how you like them. By the time you're ready to eat, they will be just perfect. Protein chains tighten up the longer they're exposed to heat, and eggs are essentially all protein (with some fat in there.) Cook them longer and they get spongy and tight, never to let go again. Let that residual heat do your work for you.
We mentioned this in our guide to cooking with science: carryover cooking is your best weapon to avoid overcooking everything from a quick plate of eggs to a London Broil that's been roasting for hours. If you pay attention to those temperatures (and invest in a good thermometer, you can use it to make sure your roast chicken or grilled steaks are succulent and tasty (and bonus, don't require a hacksaw to cut through.)
Toasting and Blooming Spices
Hopefully you're not the type to shy away from seasoning your food, but when you're ready to take seasoning your dishes to the next level, it's time to get familiar with toasting your raw spices (like in the video below) before you add them to your food, and blooming ground spices in oil (like in the video above) before you start cooking. You may have seen recipes that suggest you toast nuts (like pine nuts, specifically) or seeds (like fennel or anise seed) to release their flavour before you either add them to a dish or grind them up and use them as seasoning.
We've touched on this topic briefly in the past and truth is this is a technique used in many different forms of cooking. So while it's not exactly uncommon, it's rarely practiced in a lot of home kitchens, and that's a shame, because it's freaking delicious. Here are a few situations where you should really consider it:
- Whenever you're relying on oil for flavour: Pretty much anytime you're using butter or frying at low temperatures is a good time to consider blooming your spices in oil. Butter carries a ton of flavour, whether you're frying an egg in it or sautéing spinach or kale. Next time, add some of the spices you plan to season those greens (or that egg) with to the pan ahead of time, even if it's just some freshly cracked pepper. Let them bloom in the butter for a minute or two before you add the food you need to cook, and toss. Thank me later.
- When you need to add whole spices to a bigger dish: If you're making a big pot of chicken soup or beef stew, making homemade stock, or even making punch or mulled whine, your recipe probably calls for whole spices. Maybe a stick of cinnamon and some cloves, or some star anise. Maybe fennel seeds or cardamom pods. In every single case, if you're going to add whole spices to another dish and let it soak up that spicy flavour, you can benefit from toasting them before you do so.
- When your spices are a little old: Blooming and toasting are especially useful if you have older spices in your pantry -- and let's be honest, even though we've warned you about their shelf life in the past, you probably have a few in your pantry that have seen better days. I certainly do, and whether you're toasting dry spices or blooming ground ones in oil, the added heat can give them a new lease on life.
Now that you're familiar with when to do it, here's how to do it:
- Grab an empty pan and put it over medium-high heat.
- If the dish you plan to make will eventually require oil or fat, you'll "bloom" the spices you need in oil. Add your oil or fat (ghee or butter, for example) to the pan.
- When the oil shimmers, grab your spices -- whole or ground (although this technique works best with ground spices) and add them to the pan.
- Let them bloom until you can really smell them. They should start to smell fresh, nutty, and kind of toasty. That's when you know to cut the heat. Don't leave them on too long or they will burn. Now you can pull out the spices and reuse the oil in the dish you're about to make, or use the spices and the oil together, it's up to you. If you use the oil alone, this technique is called Baghaar, and is common in Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indian cooking (and in several other places, too) to make flavourful oils. Chaunk, on the other hand, is the term for using the whole thing -- spices and oil together -- in your dish.
- If you're going to add the spices whole and dry to something water soluble, like a soup, dip, or a simmering sauce, toast them without oil. Add them to the pan once it's hot, and turn the heat down.
- Keep the spices moving periodically so they don't burn or overcook on one side. Again, you'll know they're ready to come off the heat when you detect that nutty, smoky, toasty smell. Pull them off the heat and set them aside.
- At this point, you can add them whole, or grind them and use them in place of ground spices.
Don't limit yourself to our suggestions. This technique is useful in just about any type of dish, whether you're frying, baking, or even making desserts. Serious Eats even has a recipe for a toasted cardamom pound cake that sounds delicious.
Sautéing, Simmering, Searing: All the Ways You "Fry" Food
Most people know there's a difference between "sautéing" and "frying", but it's tough to put your finger on exactly what that difference actually is. The same goes for "searing" and "simmering" or "stir frying" and "pan frying". It all might come off to you like "put a pan on the heat and add food," but there are actual differences:
- Frying is the generic term for cooking any type of food in oil or fat. It's all-encompassing.
- Sautéing involves cooking food in a shallow pan with a little oil or fat, over high heat. Usually you only sauté with thinly cut or sliced food, little to no liquid, and for relatively short periods of time. Have you ever added a little oil to a pan and then tossed in some onions or garlic? That's sautéing.
- Searing is similar, but only refers to the process of browning the surface of food. This means you can get the job done with any cooking instrument and any cooking method, whether it's sautéing, grilling, roasting, or something else. When you put a steak in a screaming hot pan and try to get that tasty crust on the outside, you're "searing."
- Simmering refers to the process of cooking liquid-heavy dishes on the heat just below the boiling point. To do this, you specifically bring the liquid -- whether it's water, a soup, or a sauce -- to a boil, and then reduce the heat until it stops (or almost stops) bubbling, and leave the heat there. You can simmer in any type of cooking vessel, but if you've ever made a pan sauce or a pot of soup, you know how to simmer.
- Stir frying traditionally involves a wok (although it's come to be used in any process involving a high-walled pan), and involves cooking food in very hot oil while constantly moving the food around to ensure even cooking. Stir frying is similar to sautéing, but traditionally refers to cooking more food and constantly moving it to make sure it cooks through but doesn't brown or burn.
- Shallow frying and deep frying are generic terms and refer mostly to the amount of oil used to cook the food. For example, you can interchange sauté and shallow fry, but since sautéing refers to cooking with a small amount of fat or oil, deep frying is different because it involves submerging your food in hot fat or oil.
- Pan frying is characterised by the use of just enough oil to lubricate the pan during the cooking process. With greasy foods that produce their own oil or fat, like bacon, you may not use any oil at all. It also usually refers to the use of shallow, low-walled cooking pans, unlike deep frying or stir frying.
This list isn't exclusive by any means, but it's the most common type of "frying" you'll see in most cookbooks and recipes. The bottom line here is that there are differences between each method that you'll need to consider when you start a recipe. For example, if you see a recipe tell you to sauté chopped onions in butter, you know you'll need a little butter and relatively high heat. If you see a recipe suggest you "pan fry" sausages, you'll want to skip the oil, and maybe turn the heat down so they don't burn or overcook on the outside before they're done all the way through.
For experienced home cooks (and fans of TV cooking shows,) these may already be in your repertoire, but if you've never experimented with them, they can be the difference between limp, brown green beans and crisp, green, tasty ones, or a dried out roast and a succulent, moist one. Give them a try the next time you plan to cook something new, and don't shy away from recipes that involve them. You'll be much happier with the results when your meal makes it to the table.