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Cooking Techniques

How to Cook, Lesson 5: Basic Cooking Methods

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If you’ve been following this series, by this time, you know your ingredients, you have gathered your essential kitchen tools, and you know how to prep meat, seafood and vegetables.

You’re finally ready to cook!

Making broth with chicken necks and mushrooms

For this lesson, we will discuss boiling, frying and sautéing. Mastering these three basic cooking methods will allow you to cook countless dishes. You will be able to make soups, cook fried chicken and make simple sautéed vegetable dishes. And, by combining two of these methods (sautéing and boiling, for example), you can cook an even larger number of dishes.

The simplest cooking method is boiling

It’s true. That’s why people who can boil eggs correctly are actually imbued with the most basic cooking knowledge.

Essentially, boiling means heating up liquid and cooking your ingredients in it. The liquid can be water or broth.

It is rarely the case, however, that you need to keep the cooking liquid on a rolling boil for the entire duration of the cooking. If you do that, the solid ingredients you drop into the liquid will fall apart because of the high amount of agitation caused by the boiling liquid. Usually, you begin with briskly boiling liquid, you add the ingredients and, when the liquid begins to boil once more, you lower the heat and simmer the food.

Cooking by simmering

In other words, while “boiling” may sound simple, you need to know when the liquid has actually reached boiling point. After that, you need to know how to keep the temperature constant with the least amount of agitation.

The easiest way not to mess up is to use a kitchen thermometer. You clip it on the side of the pan and it will tell you the temperature of the liquid at any point during cooking. Convenient. No guessing games.

I can tell you, however, that while a kitchen thermometer is quite useful, it is not absolutely essential. I prefer that a cook be able to look at hot liquid in a pot on the stove and be able to tell — just by looking with the naked eye — if it is just starting to simmer, simmering, starting to boil or if it is on a rolling boil.

See an illustration of the various stages in boiling water.

Why is it important to be able to identify the various stages?

Because recipes may call for poaching which requires the liquid to be at that stage when it has not even reached simmering point. Other recipes say that the liquid needs to be boiling profusely while most will require simmering.

So, you have to know.

What delicious dishes can you cook just by knowing how to boil?

To start with, you will be able to make bone broth. From there, the possibilities are endless.

Try these:

Frying is cooking in oil

The clueless may argue that cooking in hot oil is not much different from boiling because oil is a liquid too.

Deep frying chicken

It is true that oil is also a liquid. Even if you use animal fat, you still have to heat it until it liquefies into oil before you can fry in it.

The difference between boiling and frying is that with frying, you are aiming for Maillard reaction whereby sugars and proteins of the food break down to give it a brownish color and a complex flavor.

Thorough crispiness is not an essential characteristic of fried food. This may come as a surprise to many, especially Filipinos who define fried food as “malutong”. There are people who expect fried food to be crispy from the surface all the way down to the core. That is a very incorrect notion because frying is simply cooking in oil. Stir fried food is fried food. When you melt a knob of butter and cook pancake in it, it is essentially frying. Even sautéing is frying (but more on that later).

There are three things you need to remember to fry successfully.

First. The amount of oil you need depends on the fried dish you’re making. In other words, frying doesn’t always mean deep-frying.

See:

Second. While the general frying temperature is 350F, sautéing requires a lower temperature while stir frying calls for a much higher temperature.

Third. Some fats / oils reach smoking point before they reach 350F (butter, for example) which doesn’t make them ideal for some forms of frying.

Understanding sautéing as a cooking method

I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again anyway. Sautéing is NOT about a combination of ingredients. Sautéing is a cooking method.

Why do I have to mention this? Isn’t it obvious? Not for some people.

How to saute

Years ago, a reader emailed me asking why, in some recipes, the onions and tomatoes are sautéed ahead of the garlic. That’s very wrong, according to her, because the garlic always goes in first.

I cocked an eyebrow when I read that. If we’re going to be logical about it, garlic burns faster than onion and tomato. Minced garlic will burn in less than a minute.

But I had to take that reader’s comment in context and relate it with many other comments scattered around the blog that, when sautéing, there is a strict order by which the vegetables go into the pan — garlic, onion and tomato.

I understand that in Filipino cooking, sautéing often means frying garlic, onion and tomatoes in a little oil. That’s the way so many of our local dishes begin.

So, I understand the mindset.

Some people even believe that, when sautéing, the garlic goes in first followed by the onions and, finally, the tomatoes.

Beyond that, there are people who think that every dish, to be correctly cooked, must necessarily begin with sautéing — like this high school teacher in my daughter’s school… But never mind.

So much misunderstanding. So many misconceptions.

So, again, sautéing is a cooking method — not a trinity of ingredients — and it is not exclusive to Filipino cooking. A cook can sauté ginger and nothing else. Or garlic and chili without onion nor tomato.

Sautéing is NOT a necessary step for cooking all dishes.

Some dishes require sautéing vegetables or spices, or both, as a preliminary step to form a flavor base.

Some dishes call for sautéing all ingredients together.

Some dishes don’t require sautéing at all.

Why is sautéing included in basic cooking methods?

Pork sinigang

As I mentioned before, by combining sautéing with boiling or frying, your repertoire of dishes simply multiply. That means more variety in the meals you cook and serve at home which translates to more colors, flavors and textures.

Pechay guisado, for example, is a combination of pan frying and sautéing.

Sinigang (chicken, shrimp or prawn, fish or pork) combines sautéing and simmering.

Try mastering boiling, frying and sautéing before venturing into more complex cooking methods.