The most difficult of the factors involved in cooking, correct technique
comes with good instruction (hopefully provided in the pages of this
book) combined with practice. Sometimes good technique is everything.
A skillet, for example, must be hot before butter is added in order
for the butter to sizzle without burning, so that it can sear and
crisp the food that is in turn added to it. This cannot be learned
in an instant; you must get used to preheating the pan before adding
the butter, you must judge the correct level of heat on your particular
stove, you must learn to be ready at the right moment. If you haven't
done this before, there's no reason to expect to be good at it right
away, any more than you'd expect to serve aces the first time you
On the other hand, your cooking can be plenty good while you are
learning proper technique, and there are some techniques you can
ignore altogether. Most people who learned to cook from their parents,
or from cookbooks, never learned the "correct" way to
slice or dice an onion. Yet although this may mean that it takes
them ten seconds longer to do it than it would otherwise, and that
their pieces are not exactly uniform, it does not affect the flavor
(or in most cases even the appearance) of their finished dishes.
We have designed this book to take advantage of the fact that
people can learn many preparation techniques better through visual
means than written ones. In the relevant sections, you'll find illustrations
for using knives and other kitchen tools and for relatively complex
Cooking techniques--those that actually use heat to prepare food,
such as grilling and sautéing--are a little different, because
there is not much visual about them. Yet there are only a few basic,
master techniques in cooking, and most have been the cornerstones
of cuisine for centuries.
The Basics of Heat
Most beginning cooks fail to get sauté pans and ovens hot
enough (this is not the case with grilling, where the biggest mistake
is to make the grill too hot). Whether you're pan-grilling or sautéing,
you should get used to preheating your skillet for a minute or two--longer
if you have an electric range (see below)--before you start to cook.
If you turn the heat on under your skillet, then start cooking,
you're beginning with a cold pan and your food will never brown.
And browning is important in developing flavor.
Likewise with an oven. Yes, preheating ovens is a common practice,
and a good one. But 350 [degrees] F is not hot enough to brown most
meats in an oven; you need high heat, 450 [degrees] F and higher,
if you want to put a nice crust on the food you're cooking, whether
it's bread or chicken. My recipes reflect that belief, but when
you cook on your own, or with another cookbook, keep it in mind.
A note about electric ranges If you have an electric range, you've
probably been told that it's impossible to cook well with it. This
is nonsense: Heat is heat. The disadvantage of an electric range
is that its elements take time to respond--they're slow to heat
up, and equally slow to cool down. All this means is that you have
to plan ahead.
If you know you're going to want to start cooking over high heat,
turn a burner to high a few minutes before you're ready to cook.
If you know that you're going to want to transfer that skillet to
low heat after an initial searing, have another burner ready at
low, or medium-low heat, and simply move the skillet. It's as if
you're cooking on a stove top that has hot and cold spots, rather
than on an infinitely flexible burner.
Of course if the stove top is crowded and you don't have a spare
burner, you'll have to anticipate: When your food is nearly done
browning, for example, turn down the heat; the burner and skillet
will retain enough heat to finish the process, and will have cooled
off in time for you to proceed.
The Basics of Grilling and Broiling
Grilling is the oldest cooking method, and one that justifiably
retains its popularity. It (and broiling) are the only methods that
use direct heat--nothing but a thin layer of air separates the heat
source from the food. This virtually guarantees a crisp crust quickly.
(There is indirect "grilling" as well; see below.)
Although it can be easy, grilling is somewhat overrated. It isn't
magic and, unless you use a wood fire or spice up your fire with
wood chips, it does not "add" flavor. In fact, if you
use a gas grill, grilling is identical to broiling--the only difference
is that one puts the heat source on the bottom, the other on top.
So there's no need to fire up that grill if it's cold outside--just
turn on the broiler. (This assumes you have a reasonably efficient
broiler; if you do not, your grill is probably more powerful and
will generate more heat, so you will notice a difference in browning
and cooking times.)
A couple of notes about the broiler:
* Always preheat it, but only for a few minutes. If your electric
broiler requires the oven door to remain open in order to stay on,
preheat the oven to 500 [degrees] F, then preheat the broiler, and
broil with the door open.
* If you are broiling food whose fat will render as it cooks--such
as most chicken and meat--use a rack in a pan, so the fat can drip
away from the food. This is not necessary if you're broiling fish,
vegetables, boneless chicken breasts, or anything that will remain
in the broiler for just a few minutes.
* Generally, you will broil two to six inches away from the heat
source, the closer distance for thin, quickly cooked foods, the
greater distance for thick, slowly cooked foods. But this is detailed
in each recipe, and you'll easily get the hang of it.
The main idea behind both of these techniques is to get a nice,
slightly charred crust on the food's exterior while cooking the
interior to the desired degree of doneness. Generally, the best
foods to grill or broil are less than an inch thick; thicker foods
tend to burn on the outside before they are fully cooked inside.
Thin cuts of meat, poultry, fish, or vegetables are ideal for this,
because the intense heat just about cooks the food through as it
browns the outside.
But you can also grill or broil thicker cuts, with a couple of
minor adjustments. In the broiler, just move the food farther from
the heat source so it browns a little more slowly, turning occasionally
and giving it time to cook through.
On the grill, start thicker cuts close to the flame and move them
a few inches away after the initial browning. If you use hardwood
charcoal or briquettes, you want to cook over glowing coals covered
with ash. Right near those coals, the heat is in excess of 600 [degrees]
F, far too hot to cook anything. A couple of inches above, which
is probably where your rack sits normally, the temperature is about
500 [degrees] F, a great place to sear. (If you can hold your hand
just above the rack for about two seconds, the temperature is just
about right.) If you can raise the rack to four inches, you have
effectively lowered the heat below 400 [degrees] F, a good place
to cook bone-in chicken. (Here, you will be able to hold your hand
for as long as four seconds.) If you can't raise the rack, move
the food to a cooler part of the grill.
Or, on many grills, you can use indirect heat to finish cooking
larger pieces of meat. (This is no longer grilling, technically;
rather it is a form of roasting--but never mind.) After an initial
searing, bank the coals to one side (on a gas grill, lower the heat,
or turn one of the burners off) and move the food to the cool side
of the grill; then cover the grill. Now you have the food bathing
in a pool of hot air, but removed from the searing direct heat of
the flame. This technique also allows you to slow down the cooking,
so you can place some soaked wood chips on the fire and add a little
of their flavor to your food.
The chief drawback of broiling and grilling is that their intense
heat can dry out many foods, especially those without a lot of internal
fat. This is why broiled and grilled foods are often served with
moist dipping sauces or dressings.
A word about grilling versus barbecue Grilling, as defined above,
is cooking food over direct heat. Barbecue means one of two things:
long, slow, usually indirect cooking with smoke, or anything treated
with a barbecue sauce.
The Basics of Roasting
Like grilling and broiling, roasting uses dry heat; the difference
is that it does so in a closed environment, and the heat is indirect.
Most roasting should be done at high heat--450 [degrees] F or higher--and,
at its best, crisps up the exterior of foods, whether vegetables,
fish, or meat, without much danger of burning, while cooking the
interior relatively slowly and avoiding overcooking. Flavors added
during roasting may be in the form of solids or liquids, and the
liquids left in the roasting pan after cooking may be used for a
Baking, also performed in the oven, is done at lower heat, and
(in my book, at least) usually refers to the cooking of breads and
pastries. Of course the oven can also be used for warming, or for
heating foods in closed containers--in which case it is acting very
much like your stove top.
Electric ovens tend to be more accurate than gas ovens, but both
are notoriously unreliable. A difference of 25 [degrees] F doesn't
make much difference when you're roasting a large piece of meat
(although it will affect your timing, of course), but it can be
a killer when you're making a delicate dessert, such as a custard.
Buy an oven thermometer, and use it.
The Basics of Sautéing
Saute is French for "jump," and simply refers to food
that is cooked, in a hot pan, with some amount of fat (some say
that the pan "surprises" the food). Whether that fat is
a half cup of butter or one tablespoon of olive oil, naturally,
has an effect on the finished product. But regardless of the amount
or type of fat you use, sautéing, like roasting, grilling,
and broiling, can put a crust on food. And it has a couple of advantages:
Properly done, sautéing does not dry food out, and it gives
you a base on which you can easily build a sauce (see The Basics
of Reduction Sauces, page 790).
The simplest, most straightforward sauté begins by dredging
thin slices of meat or fish in flour, bread crumbs, or other seasonings;
the food is then cooked over high heat, in hot fat, for ten minutes
or less. (To sauté anything over an inch or so in thickness
requires an initial browning followed by covering the pan; this
is more like braising.) "Deglazing" the pan afterward--using
a liquid to release the flavorful bits that remain after cooking--is
a quick and easy way to make a sauce, known as a reduction. You
can deglaze with lemon juice, vinegar, wine, stock, juice, cream,
or a combination.
Traditionally, the fat used in sautéing served two purposes:
to crisp the coating, and to prevent the food from sticking to the
pan. Thanks to non-stick pans, however, you can use just need enough
fat to provide some sizzle if this is a concern.
Pan-grilling: Non-stick pans have led to an increase in what is
best called "pan-grilling"--cooking over high heat, in
a skillet, with no added fat. (With some very sturdy foods with
even surfaces, such as steaks, pan-grilling can be done in a heavy
cast-iron skillet as well.) You should only try pan-grilling with
thin, quickly cooked foods (not, for example, with bone-in chicken),
and you should only try it if you have a good exhaust fan.
Having said that, however, there is a fine combination of pan-grilling
and roasting that will work for somewhat thicker foods, and contain
the smoke: Before you start to cook, preheat the oven to 500 [degrees]
F. When it's hot, heat your skillet until it is very hot, then add
the food. Sear it on one side, just for a minute; undoubtedly, it
will become so smoky that you will wish you never began. Quickly
transfer the pan to the oven, and finish the cooking in there, turning
the food only once. You will brown both sides and have all the time
you need to cook the interior. (Just be careful handling the pan--its
handle will become as hot as its cooking surface.)
The Basics of Stir-Frying
Stir-frying is similar to sautéing in that food is cooked
over high heat in a small amount of fat. There are, however, several
differences. Food to be stir-fried is cut up before cooking, which
further minimizes cooking time; liquid is added during the cooking;
and stir-fries are most often associated with Asian flavorings,
while sautés are European (although there is no binding reason
for this, the tradition continues). Traditionally, stir-fries were
prepared in woks, but you need not follow this tradition. In fact,
the design of a wok is not well suited to most home ranges; a large,
deep-sided skillet, with sloping sides is best. These are sometimes
sold as woks with handles, or, as discussed in the skillet section
(page 2), in one of the hybridized "sauté pans"
with deep, rounded sides, sort of a combination sauté pan/saucepan.
To stir-fry successfully, you must have all your ingredients ready
and at hand; once you begin cooking, there will be virtually no
time to dig things out of the cabinet or refrigerator and begin
measuring them. In addition, you must use very high heat; even more
than sautéing, most stir-frying requires you set your burner
on "high" and leave it there. (If, however, at any point
during the cooking you feel that things have gotten out of control,
turn off the heat and think for a minute. You will not ruin anything
by doing so.)
Stir-fried food is fairly dry--in order to brown the little bits
of meat, fish, chicken, and/or vegetables that you're cooking, you
must keep moisture out of the skillet or wok. This usually means
you will want to finish a stir-fry with some liquid, usually wine,
stock, or water. In some traditions, that liquid is in turn thickened.
This is a matter of taste; you can serve a stir-fry with its thin,
slightly reduced sauce, or you can thicken it. The easiest way to
do this is to stir in a mixture of about one tablespoon cornstarch
and two tablespoons cold water; this does the trick in an instant.
One final word about stir-frying: It helps to lay in a good supply
of basic Chinese seasonings: soy sauce, oyster sauce, dark sesame
oil, gingerroot, and so on.
The Basics of Deep-Frying
The most challenging cooking method for home cooks, not because
it is difficult--it's actually quite straightforward, given a few
simple rules--but because it is invariably messy and usually smelly.
As the bubbling oil cooks the food, small bits of it escape into
the surrounding air. If the food you're cooking is benign, this
isn't so bad; but almost all savory foods give off relatively strong
odors that become unpleasant once they've attached themselves to
your furniture. Only the most powerful of exhaust fans can whisk
this oily smoke away before it travels through your house. If you
don't mind any of this, follow any of the deep-frying recipes you'll
find throughout the book; I love to deep-fry, but always remain
aware of its difficulties.
The rules of deep-frying are simple: The oil (see The Basics of
Oils, page 87) must reach a good temperature to brown the exterior
of the food quickly, while cooking it. That temperature is almost
always between 350 [degrees] and 375 [degrees] F--365 [degrees]
F is a good all-purpose compromise--and is most easily measured
by using a frying thermometer. (If you have an electric deep fryer,
of course, it will cycle off when it reaches the preset temperature.)
You can use small amounts of oil in narrow pots to deep-fry--for
example, it only takes a couple of cups of oil to gain a height
of two or three inches in a small saucepan. But the disadvantage
of this is that you can only cook small bits of food, and not very
many of them at once.
That's because it's essential to avoid crowding when deep-frying
(it's important to avoid crowding whenever you want to brown food).
The food must be surrounded by bubbling oil, and you must keep the
temperature from falling too much. If you add a relatively large
amount of food to a relatively small amount of oil, the temperature
will plummet and the food will wind up greasy and soggy--and this
holds true whether you are deep frying in a saucepan or in an electric
deep fryer. So the basic recommendations: Use plenty of oil (although,
to prevent the oil from bubbling over, never fill the pot more than
halfway); dry the food well with paper towels before adding it to
the pot, in order to reduce spattering; and add the food in small
increments to keep the temperature from falling too much.
The Basics of Cooking in Liquid: Braising, Stewing, Poaching,
Steaming, and Parboiling
Cooking in liquid is useful and easy, and it can perform just about
any cooking task you demand of it except browning. No other technique
is as efficient at tenderizing as moist cooking. There are several
different ways to use liquid in cooking:
Braising Braising begins like sautéing--you brown the food
in a bit of fat. But it continues by adding liquid to the pan, covering
it, and finishing the cooking over moist, low heat (you don't boil
the food, you simmer it). It's the ideal way to cook larger cuts
of meat, or big chunks, especially those that need tenderizing,
such as certain lean cuts of beef or veal, or those that might dry
out if cooked otherwise, such as chicken parts or whole fish.
Many liquids can be used to braise foods, and it is that choice,
along with the choice of herbs and spices, that provides much of
the seasoning. The covered and relatively long, slow cooking ensures
that not only will intrinsic flavors be preserved but that those
of all ingredients will mingle and intensify. This is the magic
of stews, daubes, goulashes, ragouts, and so on. Note that in many
of my braising recipes I make the browning step optional; yes, it
adds flavor, and without question improves the dish. But it is also
a step that adds time and hassle, and it is not one that makes the
difference between success and failure.
You can also "reverse-braise"--cook the food in liquid
until tender, then run it under the broiler to crisp it up a bit.
Stewing Braising, but usually with no initial browning (although
this is not an iron-clad rule) and with more liquid.
Poaching/Simmering/Boiling Cooking food through in water (or lightly
flavored water or even stock) to cover. Usually the temperature
is moderated so that the water just bubbles during cooking; you
want to start it at the boiling point, or a little below, but moderate
it. It's very rare that you want to actually cook food at a rapid
boil (pasta being one notable exception). Temperatures can be controlled
not only by raising and lowering the heat of the burner but by partially
covering the pot.
Steaming Steaming, of course, is cooking over--not in--liquid;
the liquid is usually water, and is usually not used in the finished
dish, but there are exceptions. You can use a bamboo steamer, or
a collapsible steamer insert, or simply elevate the food above the
simmering water by building a little platform for it, using chopsticks
or a couple of upside-down cups. In any case, keep the water simmering,
not rapidly boiling, and make sure it does not boil away--add boiling
water to the pot if necessary. Steaming, is usually (but not exclusively)
used for quickly cooked foods.
Parboiling/Blanching To parboil, or blanch, you partially cook
food, usually vegetables, in boiling water to cover. This is an
excellent technique for keeping vegetables bright and partially
tenderizing them, detailed in "Vegetables" (pages 529-617).