Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Basics of Cooking

This section will teach you the basics of applying heat to food. Not all techniques of heating food are covered here, but these techniques should be enough to tackle most of the recipes in this book.

Boiling Water

Put a couple of inches of water in the smallest pot that you own, and put it on a burner. Turn that burner up as high as it will go, and watch the water.

First, you will notice that small bubbles form on the bottom of the pot. These bubbles (which are full of steam) will occasionally pop to the surface. This is called a simmer, and it indicates that the water is between 180 and 205 degrees. Most cooking that involves boiling is done at a simmer, because the higher temperature and the violent motion of the water can damage the food that is being cooked.

As the water continues to heat, the bubbles will form more rapidly, until the water churns violently. This is called a rolling boil. In this state, the water has reached its highest possible temperature: 212 degrees. Liquid water can’t actually get any hotter than that.

Careful! The reason that water can’t get any hotter is that at 212 degrees, the water is turning into is gaseous form: steam. Steam can and does get hotter than 212 degrees, and it can burn you.

Foods can be cooked in steam. but for the most part steaming isn’t covered in this cookbook, because it isn’t as easy to guess-and-check with steaming as it is with techniques like sautéing.

Try dropping an ice cube into your pot of water. Chances are, the speed of the boil will slow down a little, but not much. Now add a whole tray of ice cubes. Chances are the pot will stop boiling, because the temperature has dropped quite a bit. This same effect will happen when you add anything to a pot: vegetables, meats, pasta. The more you add, the more the temperature will drop. Therefore, if you want to maintain a simmer or a rolling boil when you add food, you must start with a large quantity of boiling water.

Now, if you continue to boil your pot of water, eventually you will be left with an empty pot (because all of the water has turned into steam) and quite likely you will burn your pot. (Yes, you can burn a pot by heating it empty. Never heat an empty pot unless your recipe calls for it.) So turn off the burner while there is still water in your pot. You can use the hot water to make yourself a cup of tea or to clean out your sink.

Sautéing, Pan-Frying, and Stir-Frying

The terms sauté, pan-fry, and stir-fry refer to culinary techniques that are similar enough that in many recipes, they are used interchangeably. All refer to cooking food in a hot pan with a little bit of fat (in the form of oil, butter, or rendered fat). A sauté uses just a little fat, and the food is allowed to rest on the pan long enough to brown the surface, before being flipped around e pan a bit to cook the food on all sides evenly. A pan-fry uses more fat, and the food is tossed around less. Pan-frying is how you would cook a steak, or other wide, flat piece of food, while sauté is used more for bite-sized pieces.

A stir-fry is just a sauté, only the food is moved around in the pan even more. A wok is not necessary to use the stir-fry technique, not is the technique reserved for Asian cooking.

It is important to note with any of these techniques, that if a brown crust is desired on the food, the food in the pan must not be crowded. Too much food in the pan will cause the food to steam or boil instead of browning properly. Not that there is anything wrong with steaming or boiling, but that brown crust is where the flavor is.

If you are new to this method of cooking, start with the following experiment. Put a pan over medium heat, and drop in a pat of butter. First, the butter will begin to melt. By the time it is completely melted, it is ready for cooking. Tilt the pan so that the butter coats the entire bottom of the pan. Add more butter if parts of the pan are still bare. Then, continue to heat the pan to see what happens. The butter will start to boil. This is a critical point with butter: if you were actually cooking with it, you would want to add some food to cool the butter a bit, or you would need to move the pan off of the heat source to prevent the butter from burning.

Go ahead and continue to heat the butter. Notice how it starts to get brown in places. It’s starting to burn. At this point it will start to taste bad. Continue until the butter is a pale brown. Now you know what burned butter looks like. Don’t bother cooking with burned butter. Take the pan to the sink and (carefully) run some water in it, to rinse out the burned butter and to cool the pan.

In general, oil can tolerate higher temperatures than butter. If you repeat the butter experiment with oil, you will see that first the oil becomes more runny. Then, if it is olive oil, it will give off a lovely smell. Some recipes call this the “fragrance point”. Then, the oil begins to smoke. While some recipes specifically call for heating oil to its “smoke point”, in general you want to keep it from getting that hot, because you could burn your food.

If there are small children about, don’t forget to turn pot handles to where they cannot be grabbed. Or, better still, cook on the back burners.

Cooking on a Griddle

A griddle is just a flat metal surface that cooks food with dry heat. Although there are fancy stove-top and electric counter-top griddles available, a frying pan can just as easily be used, if it is large enough.

The only real difference between cooking griddle-style and pan-frying is that griddle recipes sometimes don’t require any fat. However, in the absence of oil or butter, it is difficult to tell when the griddle is at the correct temperature. To judge a griddle’s temperature, flick some drops of water onto the hot surface. If the droplets sit in place, the griddle is not hot enough. If the drops instantly evaporate, it’s too hot. The ideal temperature for most recipes (such as pancakes or French toast, recipes #) will make water droplets skitter around the pan.

This method can also be used to judge if a pan is the right temperature to add butter.


To bake a food is to cook it with dry heat in an oven. Technically, when a food is cooked in an oven with a covering, it is being braised, not baked. But the term “bake” is often used to mean “put the food in a hot oven”, and that’s really all that you need to know when the term “bake” is used in this book - with one exception. “Baking” refers to cooking with heat coming from both the bottom and top of the oven. Another technique, called “broiling”, uses only heat from the top of the oven. Broiling is covered below.

When baking, arrange the oven shelves (they are designed to be taken out) so that the food is as close to the center of the oven as possible. Keep in mind that the food is being cooked by a combination of radiant heat and heated air, so whenever you open the oven door (and get hit with a blast of hot air) you are cooling the oven, and therefore increasing the cooking time. So no peeking!

The typical temperature used for baking foods is 350 degrees. Cooking food too hot will result in the outside of the food being overcooked, and the inside being undercooked. A temperature that is too low will in most cases just make the cooking process take too long, but it may also mess up baked goods like bread or cookies.

An oven thermometer is useful, because the actual temperature of the stove can vary wildly, even if your oven claims to be cooking at a specific temperature. However, most of the recipes in this book are not dependent on a highly exact oven temperature.

Many of the foods in this book can be reheated in a 350 degree oven. It takes longer to reheat food in an oven than in a microwave, but the flavor is often superior.


Broiling is a technique of cooking in the oven that involves using only the heat source at the top of the oven. At first glance, it makes no sense: why would cooking with only with one heating element make enough difference from baking to bother with? The answer is that broiling replicates the flavors and textures of grilling. It also allows you to briefly expose foods to hotter temperatures.

To broil food, raise the oven’s top rack as close as possible to the heating element. The food should be within a couple of inches from the heat source. This works best with foods that are flat or small, such as steaks, chicken legs, or zucchini halves. The food will need to be flipped over halfway through cooking, just like cooking on a grill.

Some ovens are designed to broil with the oven door partially open. If the instruction manual to your oven isn’t available, start by broiling with the door open.

Broiling easily burns food, and it cooks quickly, so you need to watch your food carefully as you broil it. Pull out the rack to get burning food away from the heat. Do not, under any circumstances, reach between the food and the heating element - that’s a sure way to get a nasty burn on the back of you hand. Use particular caution with broiling if there are small children about.

As a way to introduce yourself to broiling, try making a piece of toast under the broiler. Toast is one of the more tricky things to make with a broiler, because it cooks so fast. Keep the oven door open, and don’t take your eye off of the bread. Go ahead and let it get a bit burned just to see how quickly it happens. Be prepared to throw open a window to clear out the resulting smoke.

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