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Basic Kitchen Protocol
Follow safe approaches for dressing to cook,
handling knives, preventing burns, and using electrical appliances.
Proper Food Handling
Wash hands and toss expired food, yes. Also
know how to taste correctly, prevent contamination, and freeze,
refrigerate and thaw your meals.
Also, how to dry fresh vegetables and fruits
and when NOT to wash.
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Blanching - Boiling - Braising - Broiling - Stir-frying - etc....
Blanching is a cooking technique whereby food, usually vegetables or fruits, are
briefly immersed in boiling, salted water, and then submerged in an ice water
bath, (known as “shocking”), to halt the cooking process. Blanching is utilized
> Soften food
> Preserve it’s color
> Facilitate the removal of skin
> Eliminate bitter flavors
Heat can be transmitted to food via direct contact, e.g., a grill, or indirectly
through a medium. In the case of roasting and/or baking, this medium is air.
With boiling, it is obviously water. Water is a far more efficient medium for
transmitting heat than air. This is because water is denser. A food submerged
in water has greater contact with the water molecules than the air molecules in
an oven. Place one potato in boiling water, (212 degrees), and another in a 400
degree oven, and the boiled potato will be done in half the time or less. Thus,
boiling is a quick and convenient method for tenderizing food.
Sometimes the food just needs to be blanched and it’s done. For example, if
you were making an asparagus salad, 60-90 seconds, (depending on the thickness
of the asparagus), is sufficient to produce ample tenderness. On the other hand,
blanching can be a prelude to a secondary cooking method such as sautéing.
Sticking with our asparagus example, if you wished to sauté thicker asparagus,
or white asparagus, which tends to be quite fibrous, you are likely to burn the
outside before the center has cooked completely. A brief blanch and the
asparagus will sauté quicker and more uniformly. String beans, broccoli, and
root vegetables are other common vegetables that may be blanched before their
introduction to the frying pan.
Green vegetables are green because of chlorophyll, their primary pigment.
Chlorophyll’s archenemy is heat which causes it to break down and form other
compounds that are less green. Despite the heat involved, blanching still
preserves the vegetable’s color. Here’s how. Green vegetables are actually
greener than they appear. Trapped within their cellular network are gases that
partially obscure their hue by refracting light. Sort of like looking at a
colored object through a veil of smoke. The first thing the boiling water does
is to allow the dissemination of these gases into the air and surrounding water.
Thus, the veggies “become” greener. But, as stated, heat can destroy their
pigments. This is because the same heat that freed the gases is also releasing
acids from the plant’s cells which will reap havoc with the chlorophyll. But,
because of the water, these acids become dispersed and diluted in the fluid
Chlorophyll’s salvation however, is short lived. Beyond 6-7 minutes in the
boiling water and acids or not, the sustained heat will eventuate in the
complete breakdown of the plant’s structures and substances. Fortunately, most
vegetables can be blanched in a fraction of that time. The final step, shocking,
ensures the termination of the cooking process. When vegetables are removed from
boiling water, the heat retained within them will continue to cook them, a
phenomenon known as carry over cooking. The ice water will take care of that
fly in the ointment. But, remove the veggies as soon as they’re cold since
extended soaking will also cause the color to dissipate.
There are three other considerations vital to this process. First, the water
MUST be at a boil when the vegetables are introduced. If not, the lower
temperature will give the releasing acids more time to harass the chlorophyll
before being leached into the water and air. You must also use a large amount
of water. When you drop room temperature vegetables into boiling water they will
lower the temperature of the water and temporarily interrupt the boiling
process. The larger the volume of water, the less the drop in temperature, the
quicker the water can recover to a boil, and the more you will preserve the
vegetable’s color. Finally, never cover the blanching veggies or the gases and
acids will not be able to escape into the air.
A quick bath in boiling water is a very convenient means of removing the skins
of some fruits and vegetables. Tomatoes are the best example. Make a small
crisscross cut in the bottom of the tomato, drop it in the boiling water for 30
seconds and then into the ice water. The skin will peel right off. Now remove
the seeds and you are ready to make tomato sauce or tomato concasse, (peeled,
seeded, and chopped tomatoes), for use in various recipes.
Some vegetables have bitter flavors, the quintessential example being broccoli
rabe. Here again, pesky acids are at work. As with the acids hassling the
chlorophyll, they can be driven off by the boiling process. Simply blanch the
broccoli rabe for one minute in salted water, shock in the ice water, pat dry
Boiling is the process by which water is heated to
the point that the energy it has absorbed causes the molecules to break free and
dissipate into the surrounding air. In a word, it vaporizes. The boiling point
of water is 212 degrees Fahrenheit at sea level and decreases with altitude.
Water molecules must overcome atmospheric pressure to escape their liquid
state. The lower your altitude, the more amount of atmosphere bearing down on
you, and hence the higher temperature required to boil the water. On top of Mt.
Whitney, the highest peak in the continental US at nearly 15,000 feet, water
will boil at approximately 184 degrees.
Boiling is a wet heat cooking method whereby food is cooked, i.e., imbibed with
heat, via conduction, (from contact with the water molecules) and convection
(from the movement of the water molecules). The rate of energy transmission in
boiling is significant. Because water is denser than air, foods will cook
faster in boiling water than in an oven.
Boiling must be distinguished from simmering and
poaching; two other wet heat cooking methods. The difference between poaching,
simmering, and boiling is the temperature of the fluid medium. Poaching is from
160 to 185 degrees, simmering is beyond 185, and boiling is when you obviously
achieve a full boil. These temperature differences are not arbitrary and have
significant ramifications for the food being cooked. The hotter the liquid, the
more destructive it’s force, not only from the higher temperature but from the
increased turbulence as well. You would never put a fragile piece of fish into
boiling water. The heat and agitation would disintegrate it.
Because of the disintegrating nature of boiling, it is more appropriate for very
hard foods, the quintessential example being pasta. Dried beans, potatoes and
most root vegetables can also be boiled. Many foods requiring submersion in
liquid however, are brought to a boil and then reduced and maintained at a
simmer. All of the aforementioned foods, with the exception of pasta, can be
cooked this manner. Pasta must remain at a constant boil. Nutritional
opponents to boiling argue that it leaches too many nutrients and prefer
simmering or poaching to boiling. Boiling can also dissolve many flavor
components as well.
In blanching, gentler foods are boiled but only briefly. Blanching is used for
vegetables to maintain their color, soften them, to remove their skin, or
eliminate bitter flavors. Blanched vegetables are usually “shocked” in ice
water after boiling to prevent carry over cooking. Whether boiling or blanching
always salt the water beforehand to facilitate the seasoning of the food. And
always use a large pot with ample amounts of water. The more water, the less
its temperature will drop when you add the food and the more you will be
actually boiling and not simmering or poaching.
Finally, boiling can be used to reduce liquids in order to thicken them,
intensify their flavors, or sterilize them as in my introductory examples.
Alcohol is brought to a boil when deglazing a pan, sauces are boiled to
concentrate them and marinades that have had contact with raw meat, as stated,
must be boiled if you desire to employ them as a sauce.
Braising refers to cooking food, often meat with
vegetables, in a relatively small amount of liquid, at low heat for an extended
period of time. If you cover the food completely with liquid it is then known
as stewing. The cuts of meat most suitable for braising are ones that are
tough, (frequently used muscles), are attached to the bone, and have at least
moderate amounts of fat. The best choices include the shank, chuck, brisket,
and short ribs. Cuts from the round are tough and can be braised but their fat
content is too low to produce the same quality.
Well exercised muscles contain more connective tissue which serves to hold the
muscle fibers together. Surrounding the connective tissue is a protein called
collagen. Time, heat, and moisture breaks down the collagen into gelatin, the
substance that brings body to stocks and decadently lavishes your palate.
However, as the proteins in muscle tissue cook, they tighten and squeeze out
their moisture. This actually reduces their tenderness. However, the gelatin,
as well as the fat in the meat, more than compensate for this loss of
succulence. A tender cut of meat with low fat, such as from the loin, would
taste terrible if braised. It would lose all it’s tenderness with little gelatin
and fat to take up the slack. Thus, braising can turn a tough piece of meat
into a tender, fall off the bone, comfort food.
Broiling is a dry heat method of cooking whereby a
radiant energy source is located directly above the food. In other words, the
food is underneath the heat. Many people refer to broiling as “upside-down
grilling” but that’s not completely accurate. To understand why we must discuss
the ways heat is transferred to food.
Convection is when heat is transmitted via moving currents of liquid or gas.
Thus, when you bake or roast something in your oven, the circulating hot air
surrounding the food performs the cooking. Conduction is when heat is
transferred through direct contact from the cooking vessel to the food. Turn on
your frying pan, fill it with bacon, and the heat is conveyed directly from the
flame, to the pan, to the bacon. Boiling is a combination of both. The food
cooks from direct contact with the water, (conduction), and from the circulation
of the water, (convection). Finally food can be cooked by radiant heat, a.k.a.,
infrared radiation. Such is the case with broiling. Here the food is in close
proximity to the heat source but not touching it. Grilling is not pure infrared
radiation. You certainly achieve radiant heat from the nearby coals or gas
flame, but you are also cooking via conduction, since the food is actually
touching the grates. Therefore, and I know I’m being a little anal here;
broiling is cooking via infrared radiation while grilling is a combination of
infrared radiation and conduction. Whew! Glad we got that out of the way.
With the exception of the tiny thermal technicality I just outlined, everything
else about grilling and broiling is the same. Because broiling is a dry heat
method, only tender cuts of meat are suitable. You would never broil a pot
roast, lamb shank, or beef brisket. They would become even tougher. Cuts from
the rib and loin of our four-legged friends are best suited for broiling. Fish,
shellfish, vegetables and chicken are also good candidates. You should also
never broil a thick cut of meat, even if it is of the tender variety. Broiling
is very intense heat and fast cooking. If the piece of food is too thick, the
exterior will be burnt to bits by the time the center is cooked. So ixnay to the
on-the-bone chicken breast. Do boneless breasts instead. Conversely, if the
piece of food is too thin, you’ll obliterate it. Stay under an inch in
thickness but not as thin as a cutlet.
Of course, this all depends on the quality of your oven. I’ve cooked in ovens
that had a wimpy broiler. The food never develops that sear like you obtain on a
grill or by sautéing. If your kitchen is vitiated by such an oven, use an
alternative method. Searing the food creates strong flavor. A broiler that
falls short in the heat intensity department will shortchange your taste buds.
The basic broiling method is such. First, make sure your broiler has completely
preheated. Why? See the previous paragraph. Next, lightly brush the food with
oil. This will add flavor, help prevent sticking, and facilitate the production
of a uniform sear. Then season the food with salt, pepper, or whatever other
spices you plan to use. If you’re not planning on making a sauce from whatever
drippings accrue in the pan, you can cover the broiler pan with aluminum foil
for easy cleaning. Place the food in the pan and then into the broiler. Keep a
close eye on it. As soon as the first side is browned, flip it. The second
side will not take as long as the first since the food is partially cooked at
this stage. Remove when the second side has browned
Before we even discuss deep-frying, a preliminary
point about fats and oils should be made. Deep-frying is not as fattening as
you'd think. The most important point, which can’t be stressed enough, is to
ensure the oil is hot enough. This is what prevents the food from absorbing
excess oil and becoming greasy. Deep-frying is almost always done in some
form of vegetable oil. Vegetable oils are predominantly polyunsaturated and
monosaturated fats, both of which have been shown to actually lower cholesterol
levels and possibly provide other health benefits as well. However, from a
caloric point of view, all fats are created equal. In other words, all fats,
both the heart-friendly ones and the unfriendly ones, all provide nine calories
per gram. Thus, dieters would be wise to restrict their overall consumption of
fats. But the point is, aside from the calorie issue, some fats are not the
evil substances that our food neurotic society would have you believe, and as we
shall discuss, deep-fried foods are not as fatty as you'd think.
Fried foods cook, in part by steaming from the inside out. The intensely hot
oil causes the internal moisture in the food to boil, which then escapes as
steam. The outward rush of steam prevents the surrounding oil from permeating
the food and making it greasy. This equilibrium creates that nirvana of a
crunchy outside and a tender, moist, non-oily inside. If the oil’s temperature
is too low, insufficient steam is produced, the oil wins the shoving match, and
your food will absorb excess oil. Therefore, the first and foremost
consideration when deep frying is to ensure that the oil is hot enough. If you
are not using a deep-fryer with a built-in thermometer but instead are simply
filling a pot with oil, it is absolutely imperative that you employ a frying
thermometer. Recipes vary but most foods are fried at a temperature between
350-375 degrees. Most of the remaining pointers for deep frying are related to
maintaining the proper oil temperature.
Never overload the fryer. Always fry your foods in batches if necessary. When
you add food to the oil, its temperature drops since the food is room
temperature at best. Sort of like adding ice cubes to a beverage. The more
food you add to the oil, (the more ice cubes you add to a drink), the more the
oil temperature drops, and the longer it will take to recover. The longer it
takes to recover, the longer the food spends in lower temperature oil, and the
more oil it can absorb.
Always start with a generous amount of oil. A large pot of oil will decrease in
temperature much less than a small quantity of oil. Continuing the ice cube
example, if you placed a few ice cubes in a diminutive glass of water vs. a
spacious pitcher, the glass's water temperature would plummet further than the
pitcher's. Thus, spend the few extra dollars and amply fill your deep-fryer or
pot. It's worth it to do the job right and produce less greasy food. In a
similar vein, whenever possible, allow the food to come to room temperature
first, as opposed to adding it straight from the fridge. The warmer the food is
entering the oil, the less it will reduce its temperature.
Another reason for not over filling the fryer is that non-crowded food will
brown better. As stated, fried foods primarily cook from the inside out, but
there is also a surface cooking that takes place from direct physical contact
with the oil. Hot oil sears the surface of the food and browns it. This
intensifies the flavor as well as produces that beloved crispiness. Once again,
too much food in the fryer will excessively drop the temperature of the oil.
This will undermine the browning reaction. The same holds true for foods that
are pan-fried or sautéed.
Use a large enough vessel when deep-frying so that the oil rises to no more than
two thirds of its height. The oil can become turbulent when food is added and
this leeway prevents it from boiling over, a dangerous fire hazard indeed.
Having a liberal amount of oil at the right temperature, and not over-loading
the fryer will also inhibit the food from sticking to one another or the bottom
of the pot. To further this goal it is often advisable to give the foods a
gentle and occasional stir while frying. This also facilitates even browning.
A final benefit of having sufficient oil at a proper temperature is that it will
prevent the coating from detaching from the food.
Foods appropriate for deep-frying are inevitably
tender, usually smaller or thinner items that cook relatively quickly, and take
well to dry-heat methods. Chicken, fish, and vegetables are the textbook
choices. Despite the fluidity of the oil, deep frying is not a wet-heat cooking
method, such as simmering or boiling, since there is no exchange or absorption
of flavor with the fluid medium. Moreover, wet-heat methods cannot exceed the
boiling point of water, i.e., 212 degrees, while oil can reach much higher
temperatures. The higher temperature is what browns the food, much like
sautéing, roasting, broiling, or other popular dry-heat methods. Because the
food is engulfed by the oil, large pieces of food, like a roast, are not
deep-fried since the exterior would be obliterated by the time is center is
cooked. As soon as the food is cooked remove it, place it on paper towels to
further decrease oil absorption and season it immediately. If you have added a
series of foods, endeavor to remove them in order, so the first ones aren’t
overcooked by the time the last ones are done.
When deep-frying a number of different foods, try to save the ones that will
sully the oil most for the end. For example, if you were making homemade corn
chips and a batch of fritters composed of a goopy batter, fry the chips first
and then the fritters. All fried foods leave residual particles in the oil.
The dirtier the oil the more it can impart off flavors onto ensuing foods.
Moreover, oils have what’s known as a "smoke point." This is the temperature at
which a particular oil starts to smoke, break down, and eventually could
ignite. The more errant food particles in the oil, the quicker the smoke point
is reached. This brings us to the issue of re-using oil. Frying a few
different foods in one cooking session is usually not an issue. But to reuse
that oil on another day is not the best course of action. If you must do so it
is strongly recommended that you filter that oil thoroughly through several
layers of fine cheesecloth. Again, remaining particulates in the oil produce
unwanted flavors, lower the oil's smoke point, and cause the oil to go rancid
sooner. I like to avoid all these problems and start with fresh oil at the
onset of a new cooking session.
Peanut, corn, canola, vegetable, safflower,
soybean and sunflower oils are all good choices for deep-frying. I would avoid
olive oil for a number of reasons. Olive oil is usually more expensive and its
delicate flavors would be lost in the deep-frying process. Olive oil also has a
lower smoke point than many of the other vegetable based oils.
Foods to be deep-fried are usually coated with either a batter or a breading of
some sort. The purpose of these coatings is to add flavor, texture, and protect
the food from direct contact with the hot oil. For breading, the “standard
breading procedure” as it is known amongst culinary professionals, involves
dipping the food in flour, then beaten eggs, and finally bread crumbs. However,
there are many other breading permutations. Various types of flours can be used
as well as cornstarch or cornmeal. Other fluid mediums can replace the eggs
such as milk, buttermilk, honey, and slurries, (a mixture of water and a starch
such as cornstarch, potato starch, tapioca starch, etc.). Finally, instead of
breadcrumbs, there exists a seemingly endless array of options: cracker meal,
crushed Ritz crackers, matzo meal, cookie crumbs, cake crumbs, crushed cereals,
etc. But even if you’d like to stick with breadcrumbs there are alternatives.
Panko breadcrumbs are a good choice. These Japanese breadcrumbs are larger and
coarser and produce a delightfully crunchy exterior. Regardless of the base
ingredients of the breading, diversity can be further increased by blending all
kinds of other seasonings in with the breading such as: herbs, spices, cheese,
grated onion, garlic, ginger, or other aromatic vegetables.
Breading oR Battering
Before foods are deep-fried or pan-fried, they are normally smothered in a dry
or wet coating. Dry coatings are often referred to as “breadings” since they
frequently, but certainly not always, include the use of bread crumbs. Wet
coatings are called batters. Breadings can be used when deep-frying or
pan-frying. Batters are exclusive to deep-frying. Deep-frying involves
completely submerging the food in oil. It is performed in a deep fryer or a
large pot while pan-frying, as its namesake suggests, is done in a pan.
However, the crucial differentiation is that in pan-frying the oil’s depth is no
more than half the food’s height. This is why wet-battered food must be
deep-fried; if not completely engulfed in oil, the batter would simply run off
before it had the opportunity to cook and coalesce.
The purpose of breadings and batters is threefold. First, it adds flavor. Can
you even imagine the dreadfulness of crust-less fried chicken? In a similar
vein, coatings also furnish a textural element. The contrast between a crunchy
outside and a tender, moist inside is generally pleasing to the human palate.
Finally, coatings also provide a thermal buffer between the hot oil and the
food. They allow the food to heat sufficiently without becoming overly
Let’s discuss what comprises a breading and a batter. As stated, breadings
often employ bread crumbs. Indeed, the “standard breading procedure” as it is
known amongst culinary professionals, involves dipping the food in flour, then
beaten eggs, and finally bread crumbs. All three elements contribute to the
overall flavor and texture of the final crust. The sequence however, has more
to do with the cohesion of the coating. The flour provides a base for the eggs
to adhere to. Wet eggs will slide off wet food. The eggs in turn form a base
for the dry breadcrumbs to attach to.
The methodology of the standard breading procedure is such: First season the
food with salt, pepper, and whatever other seasonings the recipe may require.
You may also season the flour, eggs or even the breadcrumbs. Dredge the food in
the flour and shake off the excess. Surplus flour can cause the breading to
detach during cooking. Next, give the food a thorough dip in the beaten eggs.
Finally, place the food in the breadcrumbs, covering it completely. Use one
hand for the flour and breadcrumbs and the other for the eggs. This will prevent
your fingers from becoming breaded. Rest the food for at least 20 minutes
before frying. This facilitates the adhesion of the coating by setting the egg
Not all breadings follow the above steps or ingredients. Various types of
flours can be used and sometimes even omitted. Or, cornstarch or cornmeal may
be substituted for the flour. Other fluid mediums can replace the eggs such as
milk, buttermilk, honey, and water based starch mixtures to name a few.
Finally, instead of breadcrumbs, there exists a seemingly endless array of
options: cracker meal, crushed Ritz crackers, matzo meal, cookie crumbs, cake
crumbs, crushed cereals, etc. But even if you’d like to stick with breadcrumbs
there are alternatives. Panko breadcrumbs are a good choice. These Japanese
breadcrumbs are larger and coarser and produce a delightfully crunchy exterior.
Regardless of the base ingredients, diversity can be increased further by
blending all kinds of other seasonings in with the breading such as: herbs,
spices, cheese, grated onion, garlic, ginger, or other aromatic vegetables.
Batters are wet coatings designed to be applied to food immediately before
cooking. Inevitably they are some mixture of fluid and starch. Milk,
buttermilk, water, seltzer, and beer are some of the most common liquids.
Effervescent fluids like seltzer and beer impart a pleasant airiness to the
batter. All kinds of flours and starches can serve as the starch. Eggs,
seasonings, sour cream, grated cheese, and baking soda and/or powder, are just
some of the items added to batters to augment their flavor, texture, or
leavening capacity. Tempura is a classic batter composed of water, flour and
When making a batter some recipes/chefs will tell you to add the wet ingredients
to the dry and others the reverse. Each will pontificate about why their
sequencing produces better integration of the ingredients. I think the logic on
each side is as loose as their batters. I’ve done both and unless I’m
brain-fried, (with either a breading or a batter), I don’t see the difference.
Here’s what does make a difference: Ensure both the wet and dry ingredients are
each thoroughly mixed before marrying them. If the recipe calls for eggs, beat
them before adding the other liquids. If you’re utilizing an effervescent
liquid, mix no more than is necessary to prevent unnecessary dissipation of the
bubbles. If the dry ingredients are comprised of flours, starches, salt, baking
powder/soda, then sifting them will exact better integration and a finer
texture. Once completely integrated do not let your batter linger. Dip the
food in it and proceed with cooking.
A note to remember with all deep-frying and pan-frying: Make sure the oil
is hot enough. If not, the crispiness of the food will suffer and you will
produce greasy food. Oil is actually more likely to infiltrate food at lower
temperatures. Consult your recipe but 350-375 is the usual target range
depending on the food.
Deglazing is the process by which the caramelized residue of seared foods is
dissolved via liquid in order to incorporate it into the target dish for the
purpose of maximizing flavor. Deglazing is the foremost method by which to make
a “pan sauce,” i.e., a sauce made in the same pan that the primary item was
cooked. Most often the seared item is some kind of protein but it could also
be vegetables, either as a main dish or as a building block of another dish.
Searing is a browning reaction whereby the food’s surface is caramelized from
complex chemical reactions generated by the intense heat. Contrary to the
common myth, it is not done to seal in juices but rather to intensify flavor.
Food simply tastes better when browned. The leftover caramelized bits on the
bottom of the sauté pan, known as the fond, is loaded with flavor and should
always be taken advantage of.
Some victuals such as shrimp or thin cuts of meat or fish are completely cooked
once browned on each side. Thicker cuts may need to finish cooking in the oven
after being seared. Either way, once the main item is cooked, remove it from
the pan and cover it with aluminum foil or place it in a lukewarm oven to keep
it warm while deglazing the pan and making a sauce. There are a number of ways
First, some cooks like to remove the “excess” fat from the pan. Now there’s
a subjective concept if I ever saw one. For example, the difference in fat
between the typical food neurotic’s concept of “excess” and mine is large enough
to make another cow. The “fat” that you are pouring out of the pan is not 100%
fat. It is also the juices and other constituents released from the food.
These drippings are loaded with flavor and also add body to the sauce. Ergo, in
addition to some fat, you are also disposing of taste and texture by discarding
them. Granted, with a large roast, there may truly be “excessive” fat which
could produce a greasy sauce. In this case, tilt the pan and skim some of the
fat from the surface or use one of those fat separators. But for the average
pan-seared steak or pork chop, the drippings are limited and I recommend
utilizing them in their entirety.
Even if you choose to drain the pan, prior to doing so you will need the fat to
sauté shallots, onions, garlic, or any other aromatics you wish to augment the
sauce with. This is not absolutely necessary, (although it adds more flavor),
and you could just proceed with the deglazing procedure. But if you are adding
them, simply sauté any aromatics with some salt and pepper in the leftover pan
drippings. Depending on how little drippings you have, you may even need to add
some oil and/or butter to the pan. Once the aromatics are sautéed you’re ready
Deglazing can be done with any liquid. Alcohol and/or stock are most often
used but simple water can be employed as well. The method of choice for maximal
flavor is alcohol followed by some type of stock. Wine is the most common with
the red-meat/red-wine and white-meat/white-wine rule normally guiding the
process. Other options include brandy or cognac, fortified wines like Marsala,
sherry, or port, and even vodka. The type of alcohol chosen is determined by
the nature of the dish and the flavor profile desired. For example, for a
sweeter sauce choose a port. For a more complex, earthy and aromatic brew try a
good cognac. Veal Marsala will obviously require Marsala wine while Penne vodka
would enlist its namesake.
Be careful when adding alcohol since it can self-ignite, especially brandies and
hard liquors. The traditional warning is to remove the pan from the stove when
adding the alcohol but spontaneous combustion is still possible. If your goal
is to flambé the alcohol and it did not self-ignite, tip the pan so it touches
the flame or use a match.
Once the alcohol is added, or once the flames have subsided if you’re flambéing,
bring it to a boil as you scrape the fond off the bottom of the pan. A straight
edged wooden spatula is the most effective tool for this job. You are now
deglazing. All of those intensely flavored little bits will invitingly melt
into the sauce, creating a complex web of flavor. Usually the alcohol is
reduced to at least half and sometimes even further. Vaporizing it down to a
syrupy glaze is a key flavor enhancing technique.
Once the alcohol is reduced add the stock. Continue to boil and scrape,
reducing the stock to at least half. If you are not using alcohol simply add
the stock from the get-go and deglaze accordingly. Once the stock is added,
season with salt, pepper, herbs, zest, etc. Or, if not using stock, (such as
when making a sauce based solely on wine), add the seasoning after the initial
deglazing with the alcohol.
Once the alcohol and/or stock has been reduced to the target viscosity, an
optional final step is finishing the sauce with cream or butter. Add cream and
simmer for a few minutes to concentrate it or if using butter, add a tablespoon
or two of cold butter and remove the sauce from the heat the instant it has
melted. Strain the sauce and serve with the primary item.
Follow the exact same procedures for making a sauce for roasts. While the roast
rests, straddle the roasting pan on two burners and deglaze as above. If making
a gravy, after you add flour to the drippings and cook it to make a roux,
deglazing occurs when the stock is added. Whisk the stock into the roux
scraping up the fond as you go.
Deglaze sautéed vegetables by adding vegetable or chicken stock. Here you don’t
need to remove the food from the pan. Simply finish them in the stock as you
scrape the pan clean. For tomato sauce, deglaze the garlic and/or other sautéed
aromatics with wine, reduce, and then add the tomatoes. For rice pilaf and
risotto, deglaze the aromatics and rice with wine before adding the stock.
Deglazing the fond will also boost the flavor of soups and stews. Virtually
anything that can be seared or sautéed can be deglazed.
Pan-frying is a dry heat cooking method whereby food is semi-submerged in hot
oil in a pan on the stove top. Unlike deep frying where the food is completely
immersed in oil, in pan-frying the oil’s depth is no more than half the food’s
height. Another important distinction is that in pan-frying the food touches
the bottom of the pan. In deep frying the food is completely suspended in oil.
The goal of pan-frying is to produce a crisp, tasty, golden-brown crust while
maintaining a moist interior. This is facilitated by two factors. The first is
the aforementioned contact between the food and the pan bottom. Food-to-pan
abutment enables the crust to become even darker than the free-floating
environment of deep frying. The second factor is the temperature of the oil.
OK, everybody listen up. Especially you food neurotics and fat-phobes who think
“frying” is a dirty word. It’s time to abandon your irrational beliefs. Frying
is not nearly as “fatty” as you’d think if, and yes, this is a big if: If it is
done right. Fried foods cook, in part by steaming from the inside out. The hot
oil causes the internal moisture in the food to boil, which then escapes as
steam. The outward rush of steam prevents the surrounding oil from permeating
the food and making it greasy. This equilibrium creates that nirvana of a
crunchy outside and a moist, non-oily inside. If the oil’s temperature is too
low, insufficient steam is produced, the oil wins the shoving match, and your
food tastes like a grease sponge. If you’ve ever received limp, greasy fries at
your local fast food dump, you know what I mean. (Conversely by the way, if the
oil temperature is too high, the steam wins the push-of-war and you’re food
overcooks and dries out.) But if done correctly, a minimal amount of oil is
absorbed into the food. You can test this by measuring the oil in the pan pre
and post cooking. You’ll find the difference is not horrific and at least some
of the variation is accounted for by the oil that dispersed into the air and on
Thus, a quick recap: very hot oil causes the food’s internal moisture to turn
to steam and thrust against the oil. The steam keeps the oil out, while the oil
keeps the moisture in. In-between is a crisp, browned crust. What temperature
should the oil be? Most foods are fried in the 350 – 375 degree range. The
shallow depth of the oil used in pan-frying may preclude you from inserting a
thermometer into it. Therefore, when pan-frying proteins I wait until the
first whispers of smoke arise from the oil. For veggies I wait until the oil at
There are a few demons lurking to muck up the proper oil temperature. First,
adding food to hot oil will drop the temperature of the oil. Adding a lot of
food will lower it so much that it cannot recover quickly enough before
sufficient steam is produced to prevent the oil from infiltrating the food.
Hence, do not overcrowd the pan. It is worth the investment of time to cook a
large quantity of food in batches. Second is the temperature of the food prior
to cooking. Obviously the colder the food, the more the oil temperature will
plummet. Allow refrigerated food to warm to room temperature before introducing
it to the oil. Finally, stoves and pans vary. You’ll have to practice with
your stove and your particular pans to know the optimal thermal setting to
maintain accurate oil temperature. You can’t just turn the heat on high, hit
the target temp and add the food. The oil will eventually overheat. You’ll
have to find the sweet spot on your particular stove’s dial vis-à-vis the
particular pan you are employing.
Foods for pan-frying must be naturally tender cuts of meat, delicate meats like
fish and shellfish, and vegetables. The food must be less than an inch thick.
Thin cutlets are the best. If too thick, the surface of the food will burn
before the center is cooked. Place the food in the oil, wait until the first
side is browned, immediately flip it, and then cook until the second side
browns. The second side requires less time since the food is hotter when
flipping it than when you started it. Later batches of food will also brown
sooner due to the degradation of the oil and bits of food contaminating it.
However, although succeeding batches may turn brown sooner, it doesn’t mean
they’re cooked sooner. Adjust accordingly, strain out errant food particles
between batches, and add additional fresh oil if necessary. Do not save the oil
and reuse it. Used oil has a lower smoke point and can combust sooner than
Foods to be pan-fried are usually covered with a batter or breading. Batters
consist of dried ingredients such as flour or cornstarch in conjunction with
liquids such as milk, beer, water, etc. Breadings can be as simple as dusting
the food in flour or more commonly what is called the “standard breading
procedure.” The standard breading procedure involves first dusting the food in
flour, (taking care to shake off the excess), then dipping it in beaten eggs,
and finally into bread crumbs or some other form of outer coating. Season the
food with salt and pepper prior to coating. Allowing the food to rest for 15-30
minutes before frying enables the breading to stick to the food with greater
Poaching is a wet-heat cooking method whereby food is submerged in liquid and
gently cooked. Shallow-poaching is a subtype of poaching in which the food is
only partially submerged. Heat is transferred to the food via conduction,
(direct contact with the hot liquid), and convection, (the movement of the fluid
medium). The difference between poaching, simmering, and boiling is the
temperature of the liquid. Poaching is from 160 to 185 degrees, simmering is
beyond 185, and boiling is when you obviously achieve a full boil. These
temperature differences are not arbitrary and have significant ramifications for
the food to be cooked. The hotter the fluid, the more destructive it’s force,
not only from the higher temperature but the increased turbulence as well. You
would never put a fragile piece of fish into boiling water. The heat and
agitation would disintegrate it. Therefore, the temperature of the poaching
liquid should be checked during cooking with an instant read thermometer.
As stated, poaching is gentle cooking. The surface of the water should only be
shimmering and devoid of any roiling bubbles. The foods best suited for
poaching are naturally tender and delicate, e.g., fish, eggs, chicken and
fruits. Common fluids used for poaching include water, stock, wine and
court-bouillon, a broth made from water, wine, vinegar and/or citrus juice,
aromatics and herbs. Sometimes the poaching liquid is employed only for cooking
and sometimes the leftover liquid is incorporated into a sauce. Poaching liquids
used only for cooking should be amply seasoned. All wet-heat cooking methods
leach some flavor from the food. This can be offset by a flavorful poaching
liquid. If the poaching liquid is to be used as a sauce, you may need to reduce
it further once the food has finished cooking. This will depend on how much
liquid you started with, how much is left over after poaching, and the target
concentration of the sauce. If further reduction is required, place the food in
another container with some of the liquid to prevent it from drying out while
you prepare the sauce.
Poaching can be done with or without a lid. Covering the pan will increase the
temperature of the poaching liquid. Thus, you will need to decrease the heat
source accordingly to maintain the proper temperature. The lid will also
inhibit the evaporation of the poaching liquid. This is a moot point if the
liquid is to be used only for cooking and not for a sauce. But if the liquid is
to become a sauce, and if reduction is required, the lid will thwart that
effort, unless your plan is to do all the reducing after the item is cooked.
For example, if you have just enough liquid to cover the food, and you wish to
keep the food submerged throughout the cooking, then you would employ a lid and
reduce the liquid afterwards.
Roasting is a dry-heat cooking method originally performed over an open fire
with the target food impaled on a spit. Nowadays it is inevitably accomplished
in an oven. Although there are a myriad of nuances and considerations, quite
simply it involves placing the food in a hot oven until it is done. But of
course nothing is that simple and that’s where erudition comes in. Thus, let’s
delve into the nuances that Savarin would have you believe are genetic.
Let’s begin with a traditional query: What’s the difference between roasting
and baking? Technically nothing. In each case the food is placed in a hot oven
and cooked. Nevertheless, and generally speaking, the culinary world reserves
the term “baking” for pastries and items based on a dough or batter, as well as
small items, such as a single potato. Larger pieces of meat or poultry are
usually referred to as “roasted” but semantically, there’s a gray area. There’s
“roast” beef but “baked” ham. While you might “bake” a single potato, chop a
few potatoes and place them in a “baking” dish and you are now making “roasted”
potatoes. And then there’s pot roast which isn’t roasted or baked.
With this loose definition and quirky exceptions in mind, what foods then are
appropriate for roasting? For many cooks, roasting is inextricably linked with
large pieces of meat, and I use the term “meat” as loosely as the definition
between roasting and baking. By meat I mean all red meats, (of which I include
pork), and all types of fowl and fish, particularly in their whole state. There
is a caveat for the red meats however. The cuts amenable to roasting are cuts
that are naturally tender and require a dry, as opposed to a wet-heat cooking
method, (such as braising or stewing). When naturally tender cuts are cooked
with wet-heat methods, or when naturally tough cuts are cooked with dry-heat
methods, the result is the same: shoe leather. Thus, the cuts appropriate for
roasting, regardless of the quadruped in question, come from the loin,
tenderloin, and rib. (Roast beef is made by roasting the round, a tougher cut,
but the tenderness is facilitated by cutting the meat very thin).
OK, you have a suitable chunk of cow or some kind of bird to roast. Do we need
to do something to it before cooking? The answer is always yes. At the very
least you should liberally season your roast with salt and pepper. The salt in
particular is crucial. Meat salted prior to cooking will taste better than
afterward. I also like to treat my roast to a light brushing of olive oil
first. The oil will 1) increase the adherence of the seasoning, 2) facilitate
the browning of the roast’s exterior, and 3) add another level of flavor.
Oil, salt and pepper however, are only the beginning of a world of possibilities
for pre-roasting flavor/texture enhancement. Roasts can be brined, barded,
buttered, stuffed, marinated, or coated with a plethora of spice/herb
combinations. Brining is the process whereby food is immersed in a salt-water
solution causing it to absorb some of the fluid and thus increase its
juiciness. Shrimp, fowl, and pork are especially amenable to brining. Barding
is the process of wrapping a roast with strips of fat to increase its
succulence. While slices of bacon may suffice for the home cook, professional
chefs sometimes employ caul fat. Caul fat is a lace-like net of fat taken from
the abdominal cavities of pigs or sheep. Roasts can be buttered prior to
cooking for the same aforementioned reasons as using olive oil. Or in the case
of poultry, butter can be worked under the skin. Buttering along with brining
are the only surefire ways to prevent the inevitably dry Thanksgiving turkey.
Stuffing, as everyone knows, is filling a bird’s cavity or a pocket in your meat
with some form of tasty appareil. Marinating is simply resting food in a
seasoned liquid to accentuate flavor. Many people think that marinades
tenderize but in reality they only tenderize a shallow surface area of the
food. Finally, roasts can be covered with a dry rub, which is nothing more than
an assortment of spices and/or herbs.
There is one other pre-cooking consideration for roasts, one that has nothing to
do with flavor enhancement, and that’s trimming. Tenderloins may need the silver
skin removed. Silver skin is not fat, but a tough membrane that remains after
cooking. You may also wish to remove excess fat from your roast. A rack of
lamb for example may come with a noteworthy layer of fat over the meat. Don’t
get carried away with fat removal though. Fat adds flavor and unctuousness as
the meat bastes in its own juices. The drippings are also required for making
gravy. Finally, you may wish to wash your fowl prior to roasting, even though
it’s heat that kills germs and not H2O.
I also find it interesting that washing fowl made its way into the American food
neurosis mindset but not beef, pork or lamb. Regardless of the incongruous
reasoning, if you must give your bird a shower, make sure you dry it well. Oil
or butter will not adhere as well to water, nor will it roast properly if it is
damp. Some chefs truss their birds and some do not as there are arguments for
and against. Trussing may be necessary however to keep a stuffed cavity closed
OK, so our roast is ready to be cooked. What do we put it on? A good
roasting pan naturally. It is absolutely imperative to have a high quality
roasting pan. Spend the money now or rue every roast for the rest of your
life. Good pans are made of heavy gauge metal, stainless steel being the
material of choice. Flimsy pans will warp and also create hot spots where the
thin plating fails to insulate the intense heat, thus burning or irregularly
cooking your food. Thin pans will also burn your drippings, ruining any sauce
you planned to make from them. Choose a pan no deeper than three inches or the
sides can inhibit even roasting. Finally, a handle on each side is quite
Some chefs use a rack which sits inside the roasting pan upon which the food
will rest. Some are V-shaped and some are straight. The rationale for racks is
that they create more uniform cooking since air can circulate beneath the
elevated food. Racks also raise the food above the sides of the pan, further
facilitating air flow. There is some disagreement about whether racks are
absolutely necessary. Another alternative is resting the food on a bed of
mirepoix, (carrots, onion and celery). On one hand this can add flavor to the
final drippings but on the other, it inhibits the development of a fond, (the
caramelized, and intensely flavored bits on the pan bottom), from which the
sauce or gravy is made. Rotating the pan during cooking is another suggestion
for furthering even roasting.
Some recipes require that you add stock to the roasting pan. The rationale is
twofold: it prevents the drippings from burning, and it adds fluid/flavor to
the sauce that will eventuate from them. I am generally opposed to adding stock
to a roasting pan. First of all, it will generate steam. I don’t want to steam
the meat, I want to roast it. Adding fluid is inimical to the dry-heat cooking
process. This is why I also don’t baste, (not to mention the fact that the
basting fluid pours off the meat and doesn’t penetrate it anyway). Stock can be
added at the end when making the pan sauce or gravy. Finally, a quality pan and
proper cooking should prevent burning of the drippings. Next, ensure your oven
is preheated and never trust your oven’s dial. Procure an oven thermometer so
you’ll know your oven’s true temperature.
One of the goals in roasting is to brown the surface of the food, otherwise
known as searing it. This is not done to seal in the juices as the common myth
suggests but to intensify flavor. For smaller roasts you have the option of
first searing them in a very hot skillet and then finishing them in the oven.
This method produces the most intense sear. But of course, you can accomplish
the entire process in the oven. Some chefs start the food on a very high
temperature to create the sear and then lower it. Other chefs do the reverse.
And of course some leave it at the same temperature the entire time. I’m
generally monogamous when it comes to roasting temperature but when I do step
out; I prefer the high-heat-later approach. Too much at the onset risks burning
the surface before the center is cooked, particularly with larger roasts.
Speaking of the latter, even at lower temperatures, very large items, (like a
turkey that requires extended cooking time) can over-brown on the surface. This
is why some cooks cover the breast with foil during part of the cooking.
Do not cook your roast based on a predetermined time. There are multifarious
variables that can alter the cooking time in any recipe. Always cook by
temperature. Time, as well as visual markers, are imprecise. Every degree you
overcook your roast means drier, tougher meat. At the very least, use a hand
held thermometer. But the problem with such a thermometer is every time you
open the oven you drop the temperature and extend cooking time. Worse yet, each
time you impale the food with the thermometer you create a little canal that
leaks juice and renders your finished product drier. The answer is a
programmable thermometer. If you wish to leave no room for error, and be
unshackled from the guesswork of checking your food, a programmable thermometer
is the ticket. It consists of a main unit upon which you preset the desired
temperature. A wire extends from this unit into a probe. Insert the probe into
the center of your food, close the oven door, and get this: an alarm will sound
when you have reached the target temperature. To make this device even handier,
the increasing temperature is constantly displayed on the unit. Now you can
more accurately judge when to start the side dishes so they can be done
All roasts must rest after cooking so their juices will be reabsorbed. If cut
open straight from the oven juices will run out and the roast will be drier.
Moreover, while they are resting, carry-over cooking takes place. This is the
additional cooking that occurs post oven due to the heat built up inside the
food. Thus, you should remove your roasts prior to the target temperature. The
larger the roast, the greater the carry over cooking. I remove roasts 5-10
degrees for smaller ones and 10-15 for larger. Thus, if you had a large rib
roast and wanted it medium rare, (130 degrees), remove it around 115.
While the roast is resting you can make a sauce or gravy. A gravy is a
thickened sauce; the most common thickener being roux, (a cooked mixture of
equal parts fat and flour). For gravy, don’t discard the leftover drippings.
Place the roasting pan on your stovetop, straddling two burners if necessary,
and add an equal amount of flour. Cook on medium heat, stirring constantly to
incorporate the flour and cook out the floury taste. After a few minutes
incrementally add stock, constantly whisking, and scraping up the fond, until
the desired consistency is achieved. Season with herbs, salt and pepper, strain
and serve. For a pan sauce, remove some of the excess drippings if you like,
place the pan on the stovetop, and sauté some aromatics such as shallots and/or
garlic. Then deglaze with wine, sherry, brandy, etc., again scraping off the
fond, and reduce the alcohol by at least half. Then add stock and any number of
additional flavoring elements: herbs, spices, citrus zest, a splash of vinegar,
etc. Reduce to the desired consistency, finish with some cold butter, strain
and serve. This is a basic template for a pan sauce but there are many
variations depending on the recipe.
Simmering (with a recap of poaching and boiling)
Simmering is a wet-heat cooking method whereby food is submerged in liquid at
a temperature near, but below the boiling point. Simmering is but one train
station on the track from poaching to boiling. To fully appreciate simmering,
the entire journey should be reviewed.
Poaching, simmering, and boiling are all means of cooking foods in hot liquid.
In all three methods the food is cooked via conduction, (from contact with the
water molecules) and convection (from the movement of the water molecules). The
rate of energy transmission is significant. Because water is denser than air,
foods will cook faster in hot water than in an oven. Poaching, simmering, and
boiling are distinguished by the temperature of the fluid medium. Poaching is
performed at 160 to 185 degrees. Simmering lies between 185 and that elusive
concept known as a full boil. Boiling is of course, the temperature at which a
full boil is achieved.
Boiling is the process by which water is heated to the point that the energy
it has absorbed causes the molecules to break free and dissipate into the
surrounding air. In a word, it vaporizes. The boiling point of water is 212
degrees Fahrenheit at sea level and decreases with altitude. Water molecules
must overcome atmospheric pressure to escape their liquid state. The lower your
altitude, the more amount of atmosphere bearing down on you, and hence the
higher temperature required to boil the water. So for the sake of our
discussion, assuming you’re not boiling lobsters in Denver, simmering lies
between a temperature of 185 and 212 degrees. (In Denver by the way, the
boiling point of water is 202 degrees). As for visual indicators, when poaching
only a few bubbles are lazily making their way to the surface while at a full
boil there is a roiling barrage of bubbles. Simmering is obviously in-between.
Returning to numerical indicators, the temperature differences between poaching,
simmering and boiling are not arbitrary and have significant ramifications for
the food being cooked. The hotter the liquid, the more destructive it’s force,
not only from the higher temperature but from the increased turbulence as well.
You would never put a fish fillet into boiling water. The heat and agitation
would disintegrate it. Boiling is ideal for structurally stout foods that
require more intense heat to soften them such as pasta or dried beans. At the
other extreme, poaching is ideally suited to more fragile foods that require
gentle heat such as that fish fillet we mentioned or eggs. Simmering, being in
the middle temperature zone of wet heat cooking encompasses a greater variety of
foods since fewer examples are found at the extremes.
Many times foods are brought to a full boil first and then reduced to a
simmer for extended cooking. The initial and brief boil may be used to kick
start the softening of the food, dissolve certain types of ingredients, bring
starch based thickeners to full thickening power, or facilitate the reduction of
the fluid medium. Soups, stews, and braises are the quintessential “bring to a
boil and reduce to a simmer and cook” type foods. (Braises and stews however
should be performed at a gentle simmer, almost knocking on the door of
The nature of the simmering fluid and the cooking duration is based on the
type of food being cooked and the recipe. I apologize for being so vague but
the examples truly run the gamut here. Foods can be simmered in plain salted
water, water that has been flavored by the dish’s preceding ingredients, a
previously crafted fluid such as stock or court bouillon, a natural fluid such
as cream, or some combination thereof. Likewise, cooking times vary depending
on the goals: reduction of the fluid to intensify the final concoction,
cooking/softening of the ingredients, flavor development, gelatization of starch
molecules, or again, some combination thereof.
An issue with simmering that many recipes annoyingly don’t mention is whether
the food should be covered or not. If the recipe fails to address the cover
issue, here’s what must be kept in kind. The liquid will reduce minimally if
the food is simmered with the cover on. Obviously then, if your goal is to
reduce the fluid, you will need to simmer your preparation uncovered. Sometimes
however you may start it covered, to ensure there is enough fluid to cook the
food, and then uncover it at some point to reduce it. Recipes requiring
prolonged cooking may even necessitate adding extra liquid along the way. Also,
keep in mind that covering the food traps more heat so maintaining the same
temperature uncovered will require a higher dial setting on your stove.
Finally, be mindful of the nature of the ingredients to be simmered.
Specifically, one must be cognizant of ingredients that require protracted
simmering and those that do not. Hard root vegetables, and tough meats with
plenty of connective tissue demand longer cooking. Of course the size they are
cut into influences cooking duration as well. Greens generally take less time
but even within this category there is variability. Some, like collard greens
or kale are a little tougher and take more time. Fresh spinach on the other
hand quickly becomes mushy if cooked too long. Delicate herbs such as parsley,
basil, cilantro, or dill should be simmered briefly or not at all. It doesn’t
take much cooking to completely dissipate their gentle essences. Hardier herbs
such as rosemary, thyme and bay leaves can be added earlier.
Sautee and Nonstick Pans
Sautéing is cooking food in a small amount of fat over high heat. A sauté
pan, (a.k.a. skillet or frying pan), with straight sides is known as a sautoir,
and with sloping sides, a sauteuse. A high quality sauté pan is imperative for
successful sautéing. Heavy gauge stainless steel with aluminum sandwiched
in-between is the way to go. Such a pan will distribute heat evenly without
burning your food and be highly responsive to sudden temperature adjustments.
Heavy metal plating will also ensure the base of the pan stays flat and does not
warp with use. An uneven bottom will produce unevenly cooked food and “hot
spots” where food can scorch.
Considered a dry heat method, sautéing is an ideal means for searing or
browning food, a process that imparts significant flavor. To accomplish this
you need high heat and must not introduce the food until the pan and fat have
been heated first. If the pan/fat are not hot enough, the food will not sear
properly, will stick, and will absorb some of the fat. The fats utilized most
often are oil and butter or some combination thereof. I prefer oil since butter
will burn quicker.
Virtually all foods can be sautéed with a few caveats. With red meat, only
tender cuts can be employed. Because it is a dry heat method, sautéing will make
tough cuts of meat even tougher. Thus, you can sauté a filet mignon or strip
steak, but never the shank or brisket. You might start the shanks in a sauté pan
to brown them, but they would need to be finished with a wet heat method such as
braising. Even tender steaks that are thick, (beyond an inch), would first be
seared in a sauté pan and then completed in the oven. This is why professional
cooks prefer pans without those rubber handles: so they can be placed directly
into an oven.
You would also never sauté an entire roast or chicken. By the time the center
of a roast or bird was cooked in a sauté pan, the exterior would be burnt beyond
edibility. Sautéing is better suited for thinner cuts of meat, (fish, veal and
chicken fillets), or meat cut into pieces or strips. All vegetables can be
sautéed although harder ones, e.g., root vegetables, may need to be cut
smaller. Sautéing is quick cooking. You are seeking to sear the food rapidly
and remove it immediately or shortly thereafter. Thus, the food must be small
and/or tender enough so that the center is done by the time the outside has
If you are sautéing a compilation of items, cut them to the same size to ensure
even cooking. But, some foods are harder than others. A one-inch slice of
zucchini will cook faster than a one-inch slice of carrot. Thus, you will need
to compensate by cutting the harder components smaller, or introducing the
ingredients to the pan in descending order of cooking time. But of course there
are still exceptions to this. Some recipes begin with aromatic items such as
chopped garlic or ginger being sautéed first. This is to facilitate infusing
the ensuing constituents with their essence. Here you must watch the heat since
these delicate aromatics can burn by the time you have completed sautéing the
Finally, do not overfill the sauté pan. Excessive food will drop the heat and
cause the items to steam, not brown. It is far better to sauté your food in
batches than crowd the pan and produce limp offerings.
OK we need to talk about non-stick pans. Most people don’t realize that a
regular pan is almost as slick as a non-stick if used properly. With a few
exceptions, most foods do not require a non-stick pan. The problem with
non-stick pans is that they are not conducive to making as flavorful a sauce as
a regular pan. After food, particularly protein, has been sautéed, a highly
flavorful, caramelized residue known as a “fond” is left in the bottom of the
pan. Pan sauces are made by dissolving the fond with liquid, (wine, stock,
citrus juices, etc.), a process known as “deglazing.” Non-stick pans do not
produce a sufficient fond to accomplish this critical task.
So how do you prevent food from sticking? Let’s assume you wish to sauté a
chicken cutlet. Brush the cutlet lightly with oil. A uniform application of oil
will eliminate any sticking spots and produce an equally uniform sear. Heat
your pan over a medium-high to high flame. Heating the pan first achieves two
goals. First, the expansion of the metal will fill tiny scratches where food
can stick. Second, adding the fat to an already hot pan will allow the fat to
get hotter faster. The reduced thermal trip to target temperature will cause the
fat to deteriorate less. Add the oil and do not introduce the food until the
oil starts to smoke. Place the chicken in the pan and DO NOT MOVE IT until the
first side has seared. The seared exterior will prevent the sticking. Moving
the food around will thwart the development of a good sear. If your pan was hot
enough to begin, you will be able to flip the chicken with minimal resistance.
This same technique applies to any other protein you may sauté.
An exception to the “don’t move the food” rule is vegetables, particularly if
they are diced. Obviously you will need to move them around so all of their
sides sauté properly. But allow them to cook undisturbed for some time between
each stir or flip.
Most of the cookware sold in the United States is of the non-stick variety.
Introduced in the 1960’s, non-stick cookware has become a mainstay in every home
cook’s kitchen. But the fact of the matter is, most culinary applications do
not require a non-stick pan. There are a few exceptions of course, like eggs.
But with the proper equipment and technique most sticky situations can be
Chefs aren’t crazy about non-stick pans due to their principle drawback: they
can inhibit flavor development. This is because they fail to produce a
sufficient fond on the pan bottom that can be deglazed and intensify the flavor
of the dish. For the benefit of all you non-stick cookware mavens, allow me to
expound upon this concept.
Whenever food is seared in a pan in some form of fat the caramelized residue on
the bottom of the pan is known as the fond. This applies mainly to proteins but
even sautéed vegetables will produce a fond. The fond is loaded with flavor.
Chefs capitalize on this flavor by dissolving the fond, a process known as
deglazing. Some form of liquid, (water, alcohol, stock, etc.), is introduced,
brought to a boil, and the fond scraped off, which meltingly imbibes the dish
with its sapidity. This is the time honored method of producing a delicious pan
sauce. Non-stick cookware creates a paltry fond at best, thus robbing the cook
of a key venue for augmenting the flavor of the final dish. The glitch of
course with regular cookware is the dreaded prospect of the food sticking to the
pan. Let’s peruse a step-by-step guide to preventing sticking when sautéing
food in a regular pan.
1) Use a high quality pan made of heavy-gauge metal. This is first and
foremost and I cannot stress this point enough. If you are employing shoddy
cookware, none of the remaining guidelines will make a difference. Cheap
cookware is inevitably constructed of thinner layers of metal. This will not
moderate or evenly distribute the heat like a heavy gauge pan. The lack of
metallurgic insulation will cause the food to stick. Throw out the bargain
cookware, splurge on a good set, and free yourself of this problem for eternity.
2) Preheat the pan and cooking fat to a high temperature. The
by-the-book approach is to heat the pan first, add the fat, allow the fat to
heat up and then introduce the food. A common cooking myth is that high heat
causes sticking when actually the reverse is true. Of course this doesn’t mean
to go to the other extreme and incinerate the fat. But the pan and the fat must
be sufficiently hot first. With oil wait until you start to see wisps of smoke
before adding the food. If using butter it should be sizzling. High heat is
the first step toward properly searing the food. We’ll elaborate on searing
3) Use a sufficient amount of fat. The food should not be swimming in
oil, (that would be pan-frying), but conversely, this is no time to get wussy
with the oil either. At the very least, the entire bottom of the pan should be
covered. I recommend just a little more than is required to coat the entire
bottom. You can always pour out any excess later prior to deglazing the pan.
4) Brush the food with a light coating of oil before placing it in the
pan. Now I know what you’re thinking. If we already have oil in the pan why
are we adding it to the food? Food does not have a perfectly smooth and uniform
surface. It is beset with tiny nooks and crannies. Brushing the food with oil
produces a uniform surface conducive to more efficient searing. We’re only
talking about a light film of oil. The food should not be dripping with it.
5) Once introduced to the pan do not move the food until the first side
sears. Many people add food to a pan or grill and then start fussing with it.
This interferes with the production of a sufficient sear. Ok, what’s all this
talk about searing? Searing the food does not “seal in the juices,” which is
another cooking myth. Searing the food intensifies the flavor by caramelizing
its surface. But the sear also produces a non-stick barrier between the food
and the pan. If properly seared in a quality pan you should be able to flip
even a skin-on piece of chicken, with minimal sticking. Once you have
successfully seared the first side of the food, simply flip it and repeat the
procedure with the other side. The second side will take a little less time
since the food is now hotter than when it was first added.
Steam is water vapor. When water is heated, eventually it reaches a
temperature where its molecules break free of the liquid mass, overcome the
force of atmospheric pressure, and evaporate into the air. At normal
atmospheric pressure it occurs at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. However, as air
pressure decreases, so does the temperature needed to achieve a boil. This is
because with less air bearing down on the surface of the water, less energy is
required for the water molecules to overcome the atmospheric force.
Steaming is a wet cooking method whereby heat is transferred to the food via
conduction, (from direct contact with the water vapor), and convection, (from
the upward motion of the water vapor). Steaming is a highly effective mode of
transferring energy yet gentle at the same time. Thus, it is ideal for more
delicate meats and vegetables which would be damaged by the greater agitation
and disruptive force of boiling or simmering water. Moreover, steaming doesn’t
leach away nutrients like immersion methods do since the food is not surrounded
by roiling liquid. Steaming is also the cooking method of choice for dieters
everywhere since there is no fat employed whatsoever. Steaming and “health
food” are practically synonymous.
There are a number of options for the hardware. First up is the classic bamboo
steamer, traditionally used to make a plethora of Chinese goodies. They can be
stacked on top of each other thus allowing the simultaneous steaming of multiple
items. Then there’s the folding steamer insert, designed to conform to the
diameter of any pot within its particular range. Of course there’s the
non-folding steamer insert. This is basically a sauce pan with holes in the
bottom. It sits snugly on top of another saucepan which holds the steaming
liquid. There’s a specialized fish steamer which is elongated to conveniently
hold an entire fish. And for those wishing to multi-task and save a few bucks,
you can always place a small metal colander inside a larger pot of simmering
Steaming is pretty straightforward. Bring the water to a gentle boil and place
the food in the steamer and cover. Just make sure the food is not in direct
contact with the liquid water. If you’re steaming something that takes an
extended amount of time, you may need to add a little hot water during the
process to compensate for evaporation.
Most vegetables can be steamed in five minutes or less. Do not exceed
seven or your green vegetables will start to lose their vibrant hues. Thin fish
fillets will take three to five minutes, six to eight for a one inch thick
piece. Never cook fish until it is completely flaking. That’s overdone. If
it’s thick enough you can use a thermometer and aim for 135-140 degrees. When
it turns translucent and just starts to flake, you’re in the zone. Clams and
mussels are steamed until they open. A one pound lobster will take about ten
minutes while a two-pounder will need closer to eighteen. Chicken breasts,
depending on size require ten to fifteen minutes.
Basic steaming is obviously performed with water. But why not use a
flavored liquid and impart additional flavor to the food? Court-bouillon is a
broth made from water, wine, vinegar and/or citrus juice, aromatics and herbs.
Traditionally it is employed for poaching but you can use it as a steaming
liquid as well. Moreover, when the item is done steaming you can utilize what’s
left of the Court-bouillon as a sauce. For more intensity, boil some of it down
for a richer sauce.
Stir-frying is a technique whereby food is sautéed quickly in a very hot,
concave (bowl-shaped) pan called a wok. The bottom center of the pan is where
the heat is most concentrated. It then dissipates as the sides of the pan are
Foods to be stir-fried are cut into small, bite-size pieces be it diced, sliced,
or julienned. Each individual item should be cut uniformly so as to assure even
cooking. During stir-frying the food is kept in nearly constant motion, usually
with the assistance of two utensils. First the pan is heated, the oil is added,
and when the oil is hot the cooking begins. Ingredients that take the longest
to cook are added first followed by the remainder in order of decreasing cooking
time. A typical progression would be meat, harder vegetables, softer
vegetables, aromatics, and sauce. (Many chefs add the aromatics, such as ginger
or garlic first. These delicate items burn very easily and I prefer to add them
toward the end). Often, when a stir-fry contains some kind of meat, the meat is
seared and removed, the other ingredients are cooked, and then the meat is
returned to the wok to heat through at the end. This is done to prevent
overcooking the meat and also to not overload the wok. Just like sautéing,
overcrowding a pan will reduce browning which compromises flavor. Sometimes if
a particular ingredient requires extra cooking time, a little water can be added
at the end and the wok covered to allow a few moments of steaming to fully
complete the cooking. Woks are also used to deep fry and braise as well.
Woks are made from many different materials but cast iron and carbon steel are
the most popular with professional cooks. Cast iron and carbon steel provide
exquisite heat conduction which is what stir-frying is all about: very hot,
quick cooking. They must be “seasoned” to prevent sticking. This basically
means coating them with oil and cooking the oil into the surface for 15 minutes
or so. Non-stick woks have their detractors because of suspicions that
non-stick cookware can emit carcinogenic substances when heated to very high
temperatures. Aluminum is reactive to acids unless it’s anodized. Stainless
steel, while non-reactive, is not as efficient a heat conductor as cast iron or
For home use, woks come with a metal ring for the wok to be steadied in. The
ring is paced on the gas burner and the wok on top of the ring. If you have an
electric stove, you should forget about using a wok altogether. A flat electric
burner will just simply not disperse heat around the wok like a gas flame can.
Even home gas stoves can’t quite approximate the thermal outlay of restaurant
stoves designed for use with woks.