Many times I have been asked about “how to cook” and when to use a certain type of cooking methods. Because of this, I have decided to do a series of posts dedicated to this topic. I think the Principles of Cooking are important to understand for the mere fact of knowing there are several different methods to cooking depending on the type of food being cooked. I am sure many cooks out there use several of the methods I will cover here but possibly without knowing why they use them or how to use them correctly. Hopefully, I can shed a little more light and knowledge on these topics.
Basic cooking methods consist of:
- Dry Heat Cooking
- Moist Heat Cooking
- Combination Cooking
Each of these methods have several cooking methods within them. For instance, Dry heat cooking covers: Grilling, Roasting, Baking, Sauteing, Pan-frying and Deep-frying. Moist heat cooking covers: Poaching, Simmering, Boiling and Steaming. Combination cooking covers: Braising and Stewing.
The common thread through each of these is heat. When food is exposed to heat several things begin to take place. Those things include changes in the foods shape, texture, color and flavor. By understanding these changes and learning how to control them, even on a basic level, you can prepare food with more confidence and success.
Here is a simple way to begin understanding the changes that occur with food when you cook it. Proteins coagulate, starches gelatinize, sugars caramelize, water evaporates and fats melt.
Let’s look at how proteins coagulate. As proteins are exposed to heat, they begin to lose their moisture, shrink and become firm. The most common examples of this are egg whites. When egg whites change from a clear liquid to a white solid it is called coagulation. This process also happens when wheat protein (gluten) is baked. The heated protein coagulates and sets the structure of the product, producing the stability of cakes, cookies, etc.
Starches gelatinize. Starches usually begin to gelatinize when a liquid and heat is introduced to the food. As the starch granules are heated, they begin to absorb the liquid and swell, soften and clarify. The liquid then starts to thicken because the starch itself has taken up most of it and occupies more space. The most common examples of this are rice, potatoes and wheat. This process happens in cakes as well. When dry cake ingredients are introduced to liquid ingredients and heated, the starches begin to gelatinize and absorb the liquids during baking. This causes some of the firming and drying of the cake. Gelatinization gradually occurs between 150 – 212 degrees Fahrenheit.
Sugars caramelizing. When sugars cook they begin to change colors and flavor. This process occurs in sauces, candies and dessert as well as breads, meats and vegetables. When a chef is looking to enhance a food’s flavor, they want to make sure the sugars are caramelized to perfection. This is where knowing your cooking methods come in very handy. Sugar won’t caramelize below 338 degrees F. Because such high temperatures are needed for browning (caramelizing), most foods will only brown on the outside and with dry heat. Foods cooked with moist heat methods will not caramelize through the cooking process; which is why browning meat before cooking (or briefly broiling after cooking) is necessary to achieve the proper flavor and color. Dry heat methods of cooking will reach temperatures high enough for proper browning.
Water evaporates. All foods contain water. During the process of cooking evaporation always occurs, thus drying out the food. This isn’t a bad thing when you control how much water evaporates. Common foods that dry out from too much evaporation is chicken, rice, fish and cakes. Leaving food exposed to heat for long periods of time will cause too much water to evaporate. This leaves the food drier than intended.
Fats melt. Fats are smooth, greasy substances that do not evaporate when heat is applied. Fats aid in keeping meats, baked goods and vegetables moist. Because it does not evaporate, fats can be heated to very high heat and used to cook and brown foods. Using too much fat can cause foods to be greasy or to moist. As a result, they must be used in moderation and according to directions. When used properly fats can enhance your foods in various ways.
If you have questions or comments, feel free to post them here.