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March 1, 2000
By: Matthew Walter
A sound knowledge of basic cooking techniques is one of the key factors contributing to a good performance in the kitchen or when developing commercial products. Even extremely creative individuals will be limited in expressing their ideas to the fullest if they haven't mastered basic techniques. As an artist can blend paints to create any color or hue, it's technique that gives form and depth so we appreciate the work. The same holds true for chefs. We can purchase the same quality of foodstuffs, spices and equipment, but understanding technique separates master from novice.
A chef creates a dish by a series of small processes. If done well, the resulting dish is greater than the sum of its processes and ingredients. Doing one of these processes incorrectly can detract from the whole dish. These processes, or cooking techniques, are the keys to unlocking the potential within food. Technique choice impacts both flavor and texture.
This article covers two areas of techniques, one pertaining to the cooking of meats, fish, poultry and vegetables, and the other to making sauces. It would be difficult to discuss one without the other, as they complement each other.
Let's get cooking
Cooking methods for meats, fish and vegetables can be grouped into three categories - dry heat, moist heat and a combination of the two. Within these main categories, varying the technique results in characteristic, unique flavors and textural qualities.
Dry heat. Cooking with radiant, direct or indirect heat results in a highly flavored exterior with a moist interior. Because dry heat does not provide a tenderizing effect, the item selected should already be tender.
• Rotisserie (spit-roasting) is the oldest cooking technique known to man. Food items are skewered and placed over an open fire and slowly turned. Generally, foodstuffs such as whole fish, poultry and large cuts of meat are cooked in this fashion. In some cases, a sauce can be made from the drippings.
• Tandoori refers to a dish cooked in a tandoor. This process is similar to rotisserie, as the items are cooked on a skewer and exposed to high heat. The items chosen should be tender; generally, a marinade is used to produce this effect. The marinade often causes the final dish to be confused with the technique, because people sometimes associate a certain taste profile with this cooking method.
• Grilling means cooking by radiant heat from below. The fuel source is generally wood or charcoal. Using different woods and moderating the temperature achieves different nuances. Generally, grilled items are chosen for tenderness and ability to cook quickly. Sauces for grilled items are usually prepared separately.
• Broiling means cooking by radiant heat from above. This method generally is much faster then grilling, and typically uses a gas or electric fuel source. Again, tender food items are best. As with grilling, careful selection of food items determines the time and temperature needed to unlock the food's true potential.
• Sautéing involves rapid cooking over high heat with a little fat. "Sauté" literally means "to jump." Food items should be tender and cut small so that they cook quickly. Sautéing does not mean browning; in fact, sautéed items should have very little color, in my opinion. However, to satisfy everyone, I offer two variations on sautéing - sweating, which uses much lower heat and slightly more fat, and coaxes flavors from certain foodstuffs, usually vegetables; and searing, which produces a crust or an appetizing brown - not black - color, and is generally used for protein items.
• Stir-frying is similar to sautéing in that this technique cooks tender, bite-sized items very quickly. The shape of the wok and the ability to cook an entire dish in the same vessel are the only differences between stir-frying and sautéing.
• Baking/roasting cooks food by surrounding it with dry air in an enclosed environment. Generally, the rendered juices from the item are used to make sauces. Any food can be cooked with this technique, with item selection determining time and temperature.
• Moist heat. The advent of cooking vessels created another category of techniques; i.e., those using moist heat. Boiling, no doubt the first in the category, has evolved into many techniques that generally produce very tender, flavorful foods. In some cases, the very rich broth that results allows chefs to make integral sauces.
• Poaching generally calls for food to be fully submerged in a liquid that is kept at a constant and moderate temperature, between 150° and 180°F. The liquid is generally well flavored - stock, broth, court bouillon infused with herbs, spices or anything the imagination can conceive. Food items for poaching are usually naturally tender, and the poaching liquid is generally served with the item as-is, or further refined into a sauce.
• Shallow poaching calls for items to be cooked in an enclosed environment such as paper (en papillote) or a covered pan. The food is not fully submerged in the liquid medium. This usually requires only a small amount of liquid - the natural juices that render from the item marry with the starting liquid and become the sauce.
• Simmering is usually reserved for tougher cuts or items that need more time to cook, such as pot au fue or boiled beef. The temperature of the liquid is usually between 175° and 190°F. The simmered item renders a broth that is served as the sauce.
• Steaming produces hot vapor that surrounds a food in an enclosed environment. This technique provides uniform heat, which allows little flavor loss and shrinkage. Small, tender items are best prepared using this technique. Generally the chef makes a sauce separately.
• Confit refers to meat cooked in its own fat and preserved in the vessel in which it is cooked. This deep-frying predecessor was once used for preserving meats, but now has evolved into a technique for cooking meats, seafood and even vegetables. Chefs may use alternative fat sources such as olive or canola oil, or even blends. This technique produces very moist and tender items. Temperatures range from 175° to 225°F, at which products are cooked for extended periods of time.
Combination techniques use both dry and moist heat, often on less-tender and less-expensive cuts of meat. People generally refer to these dishes as "homey" or "peasant." These techniques generally produce very tender items with rich, robust, hearty flavors. Dishes that fall into this category include estouffade, pot roast, blanquette, bouillabaisse, fricassee, goulash and ragout.
• Braising generally uses portion-sized cuts of meat or larger, including mature fowl or whole fish. The items are usually seared first, and can be laid on a bed of mirepoix or matignon. Braising uses relatively little liquid in relation to the main item's volume and takes place in a closed vessel, which can be placed in an oven or on a stovetop. Temperatures generally range between 175° and 200°F. Cooking time depends on the food.
• Stewing is in essence the same as braising, but the items are cut into bite-size pieces prior to cooking. The amount of liquid also varies depending on the final dish, and because of the smaller piece size, cooking time is much shorter.
• Deep-frying is considered by most to be a dry-heat technique, but I believe it fits better in the combination category. No sauce is produced from this technique, unless we count the discarded frying fat that some "chicken joints" use to prepare gravy.
• Barbecue is a term misused by many, who apply it to anything cooked on a grill or oven and served with a spicy, tomato-based sauce. However, barbecue is definitely a cooking technique, and is not done on a grill. It's not limited to the United States, but it is done throughout the world, and doesn't involve a tomato-based sauce. I offer this definition of barbecue - the cooking of whole animals or large tough cuts of meat over wood fire and low temperatures (165° to 210°F) over an extended period of time. Barbecuing generally uses a closed environment to capture steam, which helps keep the product moist and tender.
The crowning touch
A sauce, in the most basic terms, is a thickened, flavored liquid designed to accompany food in order to enhance and bring out its flavor. In the days before refrigeration, however, sauces were often used to smother the taste of foods that had begun to go bad. Over the last two decades, techniques for sauce-making have changed radically. Unfortunately, most of the training available today barely touches on these new techniques. Most cooks learn them on the job, which is actually a positive, because no amount of book reading can substitute for hands-on experience.
Sauces can be placed into two general groups - contrast sauces, such as barbecue sauce and mustard, and complement sauces, which extend the inherent flavor within food, such as braisages or integral sauces.
It's important to understand the sauces of both the "classical sauce brigade" and "today's sauce brigade" (see sidebar), because they are the starting point for almost any sauce. The classical brigade is found in most textbooks, and is the base from which most people are trained.
Through evolution and changes in consumer eating habits, the brigade system has changed, however. Consumers now demand brighter and cleaner flavors. Thick, heavy sauces with warmed-over flavors no longer meet consumer expectation. As chefs experiment with techniques, sauces have evolved into something very different than in the past. They began to look for inspiration outside the classical brigade, much as in the transformation from the sauces of Careme to those of Escoffier. The rules have changed, and we now see purees, oils and broths being served as sauces, all to meet an ever-changing consumer expectation.
The contemporary brigade is not a substitute for the classic, but serves more as an addendum, and more closely reflects what I've observed in kitchens throughout the world. In short, here's how some contemporary sauce-making techniques are evolving:
Béchamel vs. cream reduction. Béchamel is slowly being replaced, for simple reasons. Béchamel uses roux to give viscosity, but as roux needs a fair amount of time to cook, this often produces brown dairy notes. Also, mouthfeel is often not as silky as that which can be achieved by doing a straight reduction. Cream reductions generally use crème double, or cook's cream.
Velouté vs. broth. Since velouté requires cream, milk and roux, it tends to be very heavy, and has the same negatives as béchamel. Broth allows for more direct flavor to be achieved with less fat. Reducing the broth results in a more intense flavor and a light viscosity.
Espagnole vs. demi-glacé. Espagnole is classically prepared from beef bones. This is a drawback, as beef comes from a much older animal and gives a very specific flavor. Roux is commonly used for viscosity in espagnole. Demi-glacé uses veal bones, which are more neutral in flavor. Viscosity is achieved through reduction, which adds richness and complexity far superior to that of espagnole.
Tomato "classical" vs. tomato "new." Traditionally, chefs cooked tomato sauces for long periods of time, sometimes adding pieces of meat. This gave the sauce a very intense cooked profile, and a somewhat smooth and very thick texture. Now, Mediterranean cooking - very much in vogue, and for good reason - has changed the way we make tomato sauces. Cook times are usually not longer then 45 minutes to an hour, and rather than paste or puree, fresh tomatoes are used, which gives a very pulpy texture. This results in a more acidic and brighter flavor.
Hollandaise vs. infused oil. This comparison may be a bit of a leap, but both sauces are based on fat. One uses butter, the other a neutral-tasting vegetable oil. Hollandaise also contains eggs. Infused oils impart a much cleaner flavor and contain less cholesterol.
Thick and flavorful
Thickening agents and the techniques used to make a sauce not only provide viscosity and mouthfeel, but also influence the sauce's flavor.
Roux. Made from equal parts fat and flour cooked together, roux is historically the most common thickening agent used in restaurants. There are three types - pale, blonde and brown. Brown is a signature item for certain Cajun/Creole dishes; it has the least thickening power, but provides a fair amount of flavor.
Due to the long cooking periods needed to fully develop viscosity and reduce the starch taste, sauces using roux are often flat and have overly cooked profiles. Roux is, however, an inherent part of certain dishes, and would be missed if totally removed.
White wash. A slurry of flour and water, white wash produces a very matte finish to sauces and dulls flavor. It also requires a fair amount of cooking time to fully activate the starch, which can cause off-profiles.
Beurre manié. This consists of equal parts of butter and flour blended together cold and added at the end to finish a sauce.
Vegetable puree. Pureed vegetables can be added to finish sauces but this is somewhat limiting, as the vegetable added will dominate the sauce. Therefore, make sure it complements the dish. The appearance of these sauces can be a bit matte depending upon the vegetable.
Reduction. This technique concentrates flavor through the evaporation of water. The gelatin present in meat contributes viscosity.
Liaison. A mixture of cream and egg yolks can thicken liquids. Popular in certain high-end restaurants, this mixture must be added at the end and whisked or sheared. Once added, the sauce must not boil or simmer, or you'll end up with scrambled eggs. Cream and yolks give a very silky texture and rich profile.
Corn or arrowroot starches. These thickeners are commonly used because of their neutral flavor and ease of use. They have greater thickening power than roux, and achieve cleaner flavor profiles. It's best to add standard (unmodified) cornstarch at the end to finish a sauce, since extended heating breaks down its thickening power.
Cooking up the best options
Cooking techniques simply involve time and temperature, whether sautéing a scallop or making chicken stock. Understanding ingredient selection and the reactions that occur during the cooking process is key to producing foods with "craveability."
It's become more important today then ever before to understand cooking techniques and how they drive consumer expectation. We need only look at the wide use of wood-burning ovens, woks and rotisseries in supermarkets and restaurant chains for proof. Five years ago, tandoori would most likely not have been mentioned in an article about cooking techniques. Now, with so many ethnic influences shaping our cuisine, consumers thirst for unique items, and we must understand the building blocks.
The demands of throughput and cost can make it difficult to perform these techniques in the manufacturing setting, although certain suppliers have been able to re-create them with flavors, starches, emulsifiers, gums and equipment. When developing products, consider what role cooking techniques play, and how various flavor nuances can be achieved through technology.
Matthew Walter joined Quest International's North American Business & Technology Center in Hoffman Estates, IL in 1995 as product development chef, and was appointed corporate chef in 1998. His major responsibilities involve orchestrating a global culinary initiative throughout the Quest organization, which entails coordinating projects for both retail and foodservice customers around the world. A member of the Research Chefs Association, his culinary training has spanned a variety of restaurant and hotel operations in Europe and the United States.
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