Most of us don’t learn to cook properly.
Sure, we learn to follow recipes and prepare the basics.
But we don’t learn the science and essential techniques of cooking well.
And that’s the big difference that separates the home cook from the professional cook.
A pro cook learns cooking methods and techniques. A home cook learns recipes.
Why should you learn cooking methods like the pros?
Because learning the cooking methods empowers you to create delicious, frugal meals, with the ingredients you have on hand rather than being a slave to the recipe.
Master the cooking methods and you can create meals from whatever ingredient is cheap, on sale, in season or on hand.
Recipes become inspiration rather than prescription.
Today’s article covers the basic cooking methods you need to know to turn those ingredients into meals your family will love.
Guide to Essential Cooking Methods
Cooking is chemistry.
It’s all about the effects of applying heat to food in different ways to get different flavours and textures.
Master heat application and you’ve mastered cooking.
There are three basic methods for applying heat (aka cooking food):
- Dry-heat cooking
- Wet-heat cooking
- Combination dry and wet-heat cooking
Getting the cooking method right will affect the final outcome of the dish.
When you cook food using the dry heat method, you’re cooking food using hot metal, oil, air or radiation.
Dry-heat cooking is all about crispness and flavour via browning and caramelising.
Sauteing involves cooking small pieces of food in a little oil or fat over high heat, giving food a flavourful brown crust. Food can be a sauted only or sauteing can brown food before braising or stewing for extra flavour.
To saute successfully, follow these rules:
- Heat the pan well. Sauteing is about applying high heat briefly. Food caramelises and goes brown at around 160°C. To check the pan is hot, add a drop of water – it should ‘dance’ around the pan and evaporate quickly.
- Use an oil that has a high smoke point like rice bran oil or clarified butter. Don’t use your best olive oil, it will burn.
- Don’t overcrowd the pan. It’s important to maintain a high temperature when sauteing. Too much food in the pan will reduce the heat causing the food to boil in its own juices.
- Turn your food only once or twice and let it brown and caramelise.
Foods to saute include fish, thin steaks, thicker tender steaks that are finished off in the oven, tender vegetables like asparagus, bite sized foods.
Pan Frying, also called shallow frying, is similar to sauteing but it uses a little more oil or fat and a slightly lower temperature.
This method gives a brown and crispy outside and a tender centre. Coated foods like chicken schnitzel are usually pan-fried.
To pan fry, start with a medium to high heat to brown the food. The oil should be hot enough that the food sizzles as soon as it hits the pan.
Once browned, reduce the heat to cook through.
You can lower the heat of the pan by ‘deglazing’, which means removing your steak and adding a cold liquid to quickly bring the temperature down. Once the liquid has evaporated, you finish cooking the steak at the lower temperature. Or you can finish the steak in the oven at around 200°C for 10 minutes or so until cooked to your liking.
As with sauteing, don’t overcrowd the pan or turn the food too many times.
Foods to pan fry include coated or breaded foods like schnitzel or tuna rissoles, tender meats, sturdy but tender vegetables like potatoes (especially diced or grated into rosti) or beans, fritters, pancakes, eggs.
Stir Frying is similar to sauteing, but it usually involves an even higher heat and the food is kept in constant motion or stirred continuously. A wok gives best results, especially on a gas flame, but a regular pan works fine too.
Foods to stir-fry include bite-sized vegetables (hard vegetables can be blanched first) and thin strips of meat.
Deep Frying is cooking foods by completely submerging them in hot oil. The hot oil gives food a brown, crispy finish.
To deep fry successfully, the oil needs to be between 160°C and 220°C. Too low and the oil seeps into the food, making it greasy. Too high and the oil smokes. Canola, sunflower or rice bran oil are the best oils for deep frying.
Use a deep pot and only fill it half full of oil. It’s important never to leave hot oil unattended.
Preheat the oil to the right temperature, pat foods dry and then submerge in the oil until cooked through. Cooking times will depend on the food being cooked.
Remove food with a slotted spoon or tongs and drain food on a paper towel.
To ensure the oil stays hot enough, it’s important to cook food in small batches and not overcrowd the pan.
Foods to deep fry include…just about anything really – even ice cream! Although I admit this is a cooking method I rarely use.
Baking / Roasting
Baking and roasting use exactly the same process: hot air surrounds and cooks food, usually in an oven. A convection oven has a fan that circulates the hot air, which cooks food faster.
You can get a wide range of cooking results depending on the temperature of the oven, rack position, and timing. Some dishes use a very hot oven to quickly brown the food and then a lower temperature to slowly cook the food through. Roast pork and meringue are good examples of this technique.
Foods to bake/roast include cakes, pastries, eggs, meat, fish and vegetables.
Broiling / Grilling / Barbecuing
Broiling, grilling and barbecuing all involve applying heat directly to food at close range. Food is cooked quickly and evenly using a high temperature.
Broiling involves applying heat from above (in Australia we call it grilling). When grilling and barbecuing, a high heat is applied from below.
For successful grilling, make sure your grill or broiler is hot before you start and your food is an even thickness.
Foods to broil/grill include meat, chicken, bread, vegetables, kebabs, fish and marinated foods.
Wet-heat cooking involves cooking with a liquid like water or stock. This is the method of choice when you want to make your food tender and to soften tough fibres.
Because there is no oil involved, wet-heat cooking is also a low-fat way of cooking.
Boiling is cooking foods in liquid at 100°C until cooked through. It’s good for cooking pasta and quickly cooking green vegetables like beans so they keep their colour and texture.
To boil food, bring your boiling liquid to the boil – there will be lots of large bubbles rolling around. Place food in the water and cook to your liking.
Boiling is also used to reduce liquids or sauces through evaporation.
Foods to boil include pasta and grains, dried beans, eggs, hard vegetables like potatoes (for mashing) and green vegetables like beans, just don’t overcook otherwise they go soggy.
Simmering is similar to boiling but it is done at a lower temperature. It’s a gentler way to cook foods. Simmering liquid has fewer and smaller bubbles. Stews, soups, stocks and braises are cooked in this gentle fashion.
Add meat and vegetables to a cold liquid and bring to a boil before lowering the temperature and cooking until food is cooked through.
Foods to simmer include tougher meat cuts, grains, beans and vegetables.
Blanching involves dunking food – usually vegetables – in boiling water for a very short period of time without cooking through and then stopping the cooking process by dunking them in cold water. This helps keep the food’s shape and texture.
To blanch food, bring a large pot of water to the boil and place food in the water in small batches to make sure the water doesn’t lose temperature. Boiling time will be from a few seconds to a couple of minutes depending on size and texture of the food.
Remove food from boiling water with a slotted spoon and place in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process then drain.
Foods to blanch include hard vegetables before stir-frying, vegetables you want to freeze, potatoes before roasting, fruits like tomatoes or peaches to help remove the skin easily and hard vegetables like carrots or broccoli you don’t want to eat raw.
Steaming involves placing food on a rack or in a steamer basket over boiling water to indirectly cook the food. This helps keep the food’s texture, shape, flavour and nutrients.
To steam foods, place in a steamer basket over boiling water. Make sure the food isn’t touching the water. Put the lid on to help trap in heat. Cook until cooked through to your liking. Cooking time varies depending on the food you are cooking.
Foods to steam include vegetables, fish and shell-fish, old-fashioned puddings, meat, grains, dims sims.
Poaching is done at a very low temperature, around 70 – 80C. The liquid should be moving but without bubbles. This method is perfect for delicate foods like eggs and makes foods moist.
It’s also a great way to impart flavour to your food by poaching in stock or water that’s flavoured with herbs and spices.
To poach food, completely submerge in the liquid. Cook until cooked through, as in the case of chicken, or until done to your liking.
Foods to poach include eggs, fish, chicken, fruit and vegetables.
Combination Dry and Wet-Heat Cooking
The third category is a combination of the two methods: browning food by sauteing for the flavour and then cooking food in liquid until tender.
Braising usually refers to cooking a large joint of meat.
An example is braising where you sear a roast, for instance, to brown before adding it to the slow cooker to cook in a liquid.
Foods to braise include joints of meat, especially tougher cuts, or vegetables. Braised cabbage or peas in stock make a tasty side dish – something a little different from the regular old boiled veggies.
Stewing is the same thing as braising but usually refers to smaller pieces of food. Generally, a stew is done on the stove top, whereas a casserole is cooked in the oven.
Foods to stew include meat, especially tougher cuts, firm vegetables and grains.
Frugal cooking isn’t just about knowing what ingredients are cheap. It’s also knowing how to cook them. By understanding the cooking methods available, you can take whatever frugal ingredient you have on hand and turn it into your own masterpiece.
In the next article, we’ll look at how to create your own frugal meals from scratch.
Melissa Goodwin is a writer and the creator of Frugal and Thriving who has a passion for living frugally and encouraging people to thrive on any budget. The blog is nine years old and is almost like her eldest baby. Prior to being a blogger and mum (but not a mummy blogger), she worked as an accountant doing other people’s budgets, books and tax.