There are some people who can cook just about anything if you give them a good recipe to follow — and then there are others who can simply walk into the kitchen, look at the ingredients in their refrigerator or pantry, and create a delicious and memorable meal without any instruction.
If you rely on recipes each time you cook but dream about culinary freedom, consider what these types of people have in common: they both rely on a solid foundation of cooking techniques. Whether they’re executed from the pages of a beloved cookbook or committed to memory, it's easy to make great meals when your techniques are perfected.
Though it may sound intimidating at first, refining your cooking abilities doesn't have to mean familiarizing yourself with fancy French preparations like flambé or brunoise (which aren’t really as fancy as they sound). Understanding the basic concepts behind techniques like roasting, sautéing, and boiling can help you produce a good dish every time. Knowing what to look for as you cook (and how to adjust your cooking method if things start to go awry) means more perfectly cooked, delicious, and flavorful home-cooked meals.
One of the best ways to work on your technique is to find a recipe that you like and make it a few times. If you love roast chicken, for example, choose a reliable recipe and make once a week for a month or two. Then, when you feel comfortable with that recipe, try making it again — this time with your own twist. Or, move on to a new recipe and technique.
If you cook often and are tired of hunting for (and making sense of) new and interesting recipes, there are a handful of basic cooking concepts can help you cook with more confidence. Learn the science behind these concepts and you’ll be well on your way to recipe-free, intuitive cooking.
Though the word “baking” may evoke images of chocolate chip cookies or fruit-filled pies, it’s also a very important everyday cooking technique. For egg-based dishes, be sure to remove the dish from the oven as soon as the center sets (but is still slightly jiggly): that will prevent the eggs from overcooking and drying out. When you’re baking meat, poultry, or fish, cooking at a lower temperature for a longer period of time is generally best; just be sure to take the meat out of the oven as soon as it reaches the correct internal temperature.
Blanching is a method of partially cooking vegetables by submerging them in boiling water and then immediately submerging them in ice water to stop the cooking. Depending upon the texture of the vegetable, they should be boiled anywhere from 30 seconds to a few minutes. Blanching slows the loss of flavor, color, and nutrients and brightens the vegetables’ colors. Click here to see how to blanch vegetables.
3. Boiling and Simmering
When you’re cooking something in a liquid, it’s important to pay attention to the temperature of the liquid. Boiling (which means cooking something in water that is 212 degrees F) is a good technique for many grains and vegetables. Make sure the water is creating large bubbles across the entire surface, then submerge whatever you want to cook and allow it to boil until tender. Boiling shouldn’t be confused with simmering (which is a great way to cook tender and flavorful meat) — a liquid that has reached a simmer will only produce pockets of small (but constant) bubbles.
4. Braising and Stewing
Both of these moist heat, slow-cooking methods are great for tenderizing tough cuts of meat and developing flavor, but they do have a few subtle differences. Braising is a way to cook a large cut of meat in enough liquid to partially cover it (a.k.a. pot roasting) while stewing is a way to cook small, equally sized pieces of meat that are totally immersed in a liquid. The secret to both braises and stews? Cook slowly over low heat (or in a slow oven) until fork-tender.
Broiling is the perfect way to finish a number of dishes that have been cooked at a lower temperature for a long period of time. Broiling applies high dry heat to the top of whatever you’re cooking, quickly giving it a nice crust. This makes broiling useful for crisping up everything from slices of bread to the skin on a roasted chicken.
See more need-to-know cooking techniques.
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