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Cooking Techniques

How to Cook, Lesson 6: Intermediate Cooking Methods



By now, you know how to boil and tell the difference between boiling and simmering. You know how to pan fry, shallow fry and deep fry. You can sauté and combine sautéing with simmering or frying to create more challenging dishes. All that has been covered in the fifth lesson in the series.

Chinese braised pork hock

The sixth cooking lesson covers three cooking methods that call for simmering — braising, stewing and steaming — and a fourth cooking method, stir frying, which has its own rules and requirements.

What’s the difference between braising and stewing?

At first glance, there seems to be no difference between the two. Both involve cooking in liquid — a sauce, in most cases — at a low temperature either on the stove top or in the oven.

There are a lot of opinions about what differentiates braising from stewing. Some say it’s the size of the solid ingredient or ingredients. If you’re cooking a slab of meat, for instance, it’s braising. If you’re cooking ingredients that have been cut into the same size, it’s stewing.

I find that the amount of the liquid relative to the size of the solid ingredient cooked in it differentiates stewing from braising. If the solid ingredients are totally submerged in the cooking liquid, it’s stewing. If the liquid reaches halfway (or thereabouts) through the height of the solid ingredient(s), it’s braising.

In both cases, the solid ingredients are touching the cooking liquid.

Why does knowing the difference matter at all? To be honest, it’s no huge thing to me. But if either “braising” or “stewing” is called for in a recipe, at least I know the amount of cooking liquid needed in the beginning. But once the solid ingredients are simmering, the difference becomes irrelevant. You will still need to add liquid if the amount you started with dries out before the solid ingredients are cooked through.

Does meat need to be browned before braising or stewing?

It’s a personal choice, really, whether to brown meat before braising or stewing. And that choice is affected by many factors. First, it is additional work and additional fat. Cooks who like short cuts will likely ditch this step. So will cooks who believe that fat is bad. period.

I like browning meat before stewing or braising (see Do we really need to brown meat before braising or stewing?) for the richer flavor, deeper color and better texture. But this preference is limited to “regular meat”. This is a practice that is less important when cooking organ meats which, I find (in most cases anyway, are better parboiled than browned before braising or stewing.

If you need to see the difference between browned and unbrowned food, I suggest you make the same dish twice — the first time without browning the meat; the second time, browning the meat before stewing or braising. Below, a list of recipes you can play around with while trying to decide if browning substantially affects the quality of the cooked dish.

In steaming, the food does not touch the liquid

Steaming involves placing a steamer basket over hot water.

The water, either boiling or simmering depending on the recipe, gives off moist heat in the form of steam in which the food cooks.

Banana-wrapped pork and rice in the steamer

Three tips for successful steaming:

First. There should be a clearance of a few inches between the surface of the water and the bottom of the steaming basket to make sure that the food does not directly touch the liquid underneath.

Second. Cover the steamer basket to keep the moist heat in. Uncovered, the steam will escape into the air and the food won’t get sufficient heat to cook in evenly.

Third. The cover of the steamer basket should be of a material that prevents condensation from falling directly into the food. This is the reason why bamboo steamers are ideal. But if unavailable, choose a steamer with a curved cover (higher at the center and lower along the edges). This shape will make the condensation fall into the sides of the steamer basket and, hopefully, drip back into the liquid in the pot.

Steamed dishes to try:

Rules to remember for successful stir frying

Stir frying may be “frying” but it has rules all its own.

Cooking Basics for Perfect Stir Fries Tip #6: add the cooked vegetables to the meat and toss

First, you need a pan made from a material that conducts heat well. Stir frying, after all, requires intensely high heat which needs to be maintained throughout cooking. I prefer a carbon steel wok for stir frying.

Second, you have to use cooking oil with a high smoking point.

I wrote a guide for stir frying a while back. See How to Stir Fry: A Practical Guide For Home Cooking for all the details you need to learn about this specialized cooking method.

The cooking methods in this lesson only require a stove

If you’re wondering why baking, roasting, broiling and grilling are not included in this lesson, it is because this entire series was designed for stovetop cooking.