Different cooking methods explained
All cooking methods can be divided into two different types – dry heat and moist heat. Moist heat methods use water to cook the food; dry heat methods use oil, butter, or simply raw heat.
Stewing is perhaps the oldest method of cooking, apart from simply suspending the meat over a fire. Chuck all your food into the pan with some liquid (water, wine, or stock), and heat until it tastes good. Braising is a slightly more sophisticated version: meat is fried in oil until half-cooked before the liquid is added, and the browned meat boosts the flavour of the whole dish.
Roasting and baking both refer to cooking food dry in a hot oven. When food is baked, the aim is to cook it all evenly – for example, a cake needs to be heated to exactly the same temperature throughout or it will not rise properly. By contrast, roasted food should be slightly browned or caramelised on the outside, while the inside is only gently cooked. This is usually achieved by using a higher temperature for a shorter time.
Grilling and broiling are both dry methods of cooking, which use a single source of strong heat to cook the food (unlike roasting, where food is heated evenly from every direction). Grilling cooks the food from beneath, like meat on a barbecue; broiling cooks the food from above, like finishing a crème brulee. The aim of both is to get the food slightly charred on the side which is heated, giving a crunchy texture which contrasts with the tender interior.
When food is boiled, it is cooked in water then drained to serve. Boiled food is often a bit bland, because the flavour seeps into the water which is later poured away. For this reason, boiling is often combined with other cooking methods – for example, boiled chicken can be used as a basis for a pie filling. Poached food is boiled in flavourful liquor, like wine or stock, which is later served as part of the final dish. (Poached eggs are the exception to this)
Steaming also cooks food with boiling water, but the food is suspended above the water to cook in the steam. This means that the flavour isn’t ‘washed out’ like by boiling. This method is perfect for fresh vegetables as it preserves their vitamins and colour.
These are two ways to cook food with hot oil in a shallow pan. Frying aims to blast the food with strong heat, leaving it crisp on the outside; sautéing is frying at a very gentle heat until the food is softened. Usually, sautéed food is used as the basis for a sauce or soup, rather than being served on its own.
Different foods suit different methods of cooking. As a rule of thumb, tough foods should be cooked for a long time at a low heat, and tender foods need quick cooking at high temperatures. Sturdy turnips taste better for long roasting, whereas the same method would turn delicate spinach into mush. Flash-frying is perfect for filet steak, but chuck beef would be stringy and inedible after the same treatment.