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Basic Cooking Techniques
Posted on May 5, 2012.

Probably the most daunting aspect of cooking for most people is learning basic techniques. I have tried to keep my recipes very simple and easy to read, but there are several techniques referenced in these recipes designed to create the right texture and flavor for each dish. The key thing to remember is that food can be very forgiving, so it is not necessary to measure or chop everything perfectly. It is more important to use fresh ingredients in the proper order for the right amount of time. Here are some basic terms and techniques that will help you with these recipes:

Sliced: As the name implies, this is simply cutting the ingredient in thin slices across its natural side. Slicing allows a release of flavor, while maintaining the shape and texture of the ingredient.

Chopped: This involves cutting your ingredient in small squares the size of your fingertip. This usually results in a rougher texture for the dish.

Diced: This involves cutting your ingredient in small squares, 1/4 the size of a chopped ingredient. This usually results in a slightly smoother texture for the dish.

Minced: This involves cutting your ingredient in very small pieces that are almost the size of a peppercorn. You can use your miniature food processor to create this condition.

Caramelized: This is a chemical process that uses heat to release sugar and caramel flavors in an ingredient, particularly onions. The key is to not allow the onions to burn, so you must stir them constantly. In a hot pan, add olive oil and continually toss the onion slices for up to 30 minutes until they reach a dark, rich brown color. The brown color is the sugar in the onion caramelizing.

Sauté: This is a method of cooking ingredients in a pan with oil over high heat. Sauté comes from the French word "Sauter" which means "to jump" and refers to the method of flipping food in the air as more accomplished chefs do when they sauté a dish. The key to properly sautéing a dish is to stir it constantly until it is fully cooked. Also, make sure you use oil suitable for use with high heat such as olive oil or clarified butter. Regular butter may taste great, but it will burn under higher temperatures. In addition, I would not waste money using extra virgin olive oil to sauté under high heat. Extra virgin olive oil is produced from the first pressing of olives and is the most pure and the best tasting olive oil. But like most fine oils, it will break down under heat. Pure olive oil is cheaper and works just fine for this use. Save your extra virgin olive oil for salad dressings and garnishes.

Braised: Braising is a combination cooking method typically used for meats where the food is first seared at a high temperature and then finished in a covered pot with a liquid. The key step to braising is to sear the meat at high heat to lock in its natural juices and flavors. The next step is to slow cook the meat in a liquid mixture that provides enough moisture to break down any tough connective tissues. When braising meat, I always hand rub the meat with spices and allow it to rest at room temperature for at least one hour. In order to further seal in the flavors, lightly dust the meat with finely sifted flour. Make sure the pan is pre-heated and use good oil suitable for high heats. Most meat can be browned to a nice golden brown with 2-3 minutes on each side.

Reduced: This is the process of using heat to evaporate some of the liquid from a dish. In most of my recipes, I will reduce wine or stock to create a thicker consistency and more intense flavor. Always remember that reducing the liquids in a dish does not reduce the other ingredients. That is why I always recommend using low-sodium chicken broth so you do not end up with an overly salty dish. You also have to be careful when using other salty foods, such as pancetta, that may infuse too much salt when liquids are reduced.

Deglazing (scraping): Some of the best flavors in your dish will come from the caramelized meat or vegetables that get stuck to the bottom of a pan after braising or sautéing. Deglazing is the process of introducing a liquid to the already- hot pan and scraping free these tidbits from the bottom of the pan. I typically use wine for deglazing, but you can also use any type of meat or vegetable stock. Once the liquid is introduced, use your spatula to scrape the bottom and mix it into the other ingredients.

Pre-heating the pan: The secret to properly braising or sautéing an ingredient is to get the pan to the proper temperature before introducing the oil. Most of my recipes call for pre-heating the pan. Simply set the pan on the open flame or burner and adjust the heat to the specified temperature. Let it sit there for 3-5 minutes until you can feel the heat radiating from the pan. Do not touch the pan! Then add the oil and use your spatula to disperse evenly across the bottom of the pan. Always test the heat by dropping one small piece of the ingredient, to gauge the reaction of the oil. When the oil is ready, it will instantly bubble up around the edges of the ingredient.


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Posted By: Chief Foodie Officer