Read an Excerpt
You can spend tens of thousands of dollars on kitchen equipment, or you can spend a couple of hundred bucks and be done with it. If you're lucky enough to inherit hand-me-downs from your parents or other friends or relatives, you probably have most of what you need already. This is not to say that some modern appliances are not worth having--if you're going to cook regularly, you will want a blender, a food processor, and an electric mixer. With the exception of an electric ice cream maker--which is a wonderful luxury--other appliances take up more room than they're worth for most people.
I recommend that you cook for a while with minimal equipment so that you can discover your preferences and therefore your priorities. Perhaps you need three or four skillets, a huge stockpot, and a spring-form pan, but have no use for cookie cutters or a pizza peel; it depends on what it is you want to eat. Here, then, is a list--with highly personal comments--about what you ought to start with and what you might want to wait for. Items that I consider essential are in red.
The Basics of Knives
First of all, don't buy them from late-night TV. Go to a good department store or a kitchen supply store and look at those with high carbon-steel alloy blades. (The old-fashioned non-alloy blades take a wonderful edge but require more frequent sharpening and discolor immediately. Everyone--from master chefs to cookbook authors to experienced home cooks--uses high carbon-steel now.) The handles may be wood or plastic, although plastic handles are somewhat more durable and dishwasher-safe (nevertheless, you're always better off washing a good knife by hand, since its blade may get nicked in the dishwasher), so I'd go with these. These knives are easily sharpened, and will last a lifetime if you don't whack too many chicken bones with them. A good eight-inch chef's knife, essentially an all-purpose blade that you will use for chopping and slicing, should set you back no more than thirty dollars, although you can spend many times that if you like; you may want a ten-inch one as well. Buy one that feels good in your hand.
Hold off, too, on a carving, or slicing knife--a long, thin blade that is not something you will use every day. In a pinch, you can carve or slice with your chef's knife, although not as precisely.
You also need two or three paring knives, for peeling, trimming, and other precise tasks--three or four inches long. Again, buy those that feel good in your hand, and don't spend more than five or six dollars on each. A thin-bladed boning knife is very useful, not only for boning but for piercing meat as it cooks to judge doneness; but you can wait for this. Serrated blades are best for cutting bread--unless you only eat presliced bread, buy a long, sturdy bread knife; this is a good place to economize, since even the ten-dollar models work fine.
You should consider buying a sharpening steel, which you use by drawing each side of the knife across it several times, holding the blade at a fifteen- to twenty-degree angle until the knife will cut the edge of a piece of paper held loosely in your hand. But many home cooks (including myself) have trouble maintaining a good edge with a steel.
The best and easiest (and unfortunately most expensive) way to keep knives sharp is with a good electric knife sharpener, which will set you back fifty to one hundred dollars, but is a worthwhile investment. Your other alternatives are to sharpen knives with a whetstone, which takes even more skill than a steel (ask a handy friend, or an uncle, or the guy at the hardware store), or to bring knives to the local kitchen supply store or a good hardware store and get them sharpened professionally. Should you choose either of the latter options, you need a steel to maintain that edge in between sharpenings. (Steels do not sharpen knives, but they do keep the edge fine and straight.)
Remember this about all knives: Dull ones are dangerous. They slip off the food you're cutting and right onto the closest surface, which may be your finger. Although you must be extremely careful with sharp knives--casual contact will lead to a real cut--at least they go where you want them to. Respect your knives: Start with good ones, keep them sharp, and they will become your friends.
The Basics of Skillets
and Sauté Pans
According to the manufacturers, a skillet (or frying pan) has curved, relatively shallow sides. A sauté pan has a flat bottom (hence usually more cooking surface), straight, deeper sides, and a lid--all of which make it much better for browning and braising. But the pans don't maintain those differences, and there are many hybrids. What you want is a flat bottom, and sides that angle out so that you can gain easy access to the food when you want to turn it.
As to material: Yes, copper is undeniably best, but you probably can't afford it. Cast iron is very, very good, and quite inexpensive, but it weighs a lot. When you transfer a skillet from the stove top to the oven, a common enough occurrence, you will wish it weren't cast iron (or that you'd spent more time at the gym). Another disadvantage of cast iron is that the metal can interact with acidic sauces, changing their flavor and color (this does no harm from a health perspective).
Since I can't afford copper either, I prefer heavy-duty aluminum skillets with a non-stick coating. They're lighter and cheaper than anything else, and they do a good job. (Some aluminum is "anodized" to make it stronger; these pans last longer, but are not necessarily better to cook with.) Non-stick coatings, while not perfect (they all wear out, regardless of manufacturers' claims), are extremely forgiving, a real bonus for less experienced cooks, especially in sautéing.
If aluminum pans are not good-looking enough for you (a real possibility), go with stainless steel, which is more expensive but attractive; be aware, though, that you'll probably be spending a lot more money for it. Do not be tempted by inexpensive stainless steel, which is a poor conductor of heat; all good stainless steel pans have a layer of copper or aluminum on their bottom and sides or sandwiched between two layers of steel.)
As for size: I recommend buying skillets as you need them, rather than in sets with saucepans. Start with two skillets: one ten inches in diameter (I call this "medium" throughout the book) and one twelve inches in diameter ("large"). The second will look huge in the store, but perfect once you start trying to brown chicken breasts in it. When you're ready to make omelets or crepes, or fry a single egg, you'll want an eight-inch pan ("small" to "medium") as well. There are new "sauté pans" with deep, rounded sides that are halfway between a traditional sauté pan and a saucepan; I like them very much, because they reduce spattering, which in turn reduces stove-top mess.
Pay attention to the handles, too: They should be riveted on and feel comfortable and sturdy. Although you can't judge this in the store, they should remain fairly cool when cooking on the stove top (if you find that the handles of a given brand become too hot during cooking, steer clear of that brand in the future). Also, you want handles that are ovenproof--you should be able to put any skillet in the oven, and you frequently will. This means no plastic.
Lids for skillets are extremely useful, and the advantage of aluminum is that the lids are quite inexpensive. Ultimately, many will be interchangeable; you need not buy a new lid for every pan you own.
The Basics of Saucepans
Here you have more leeway, because the non-stick issue is less important. (Since you cook mostly liquids in saucepans, preventing sticking is simply a matter of paying attention.) Stainless steel is a good choice, as are aluminum or cast iron with a baked-on porcelain coating. You can also use aluminum pans with non-stick coatings. (Never use uncoated aluminum, because the metal will react with acidic ingredients.)
You need at least one pot large enough to cook pasta, preferably a little oversized; an eight-quart pot is big enough for this and most tasks other than making stock. If you're going to make stock, get a sixteen-quart stockpot. Then get two or three smaller saucepans to start with--a small one (two or three cups), a medium one (one to 1 1/2 quarts), and a large one, around four quarts. Build from there--a large meal will use up all of your pots, so if you're going to cook regularly you'll eventually need at least six or eight. At some point you will also want a sturdy Dutch oven or covered casserole, of six to eight quarts. All of your pots and pans should have lids, although they may be interchangeable.
Although you may need a double-boiler arrangement at some point, don't rush out and buy one. Chances are you can rig one up with the equipment you have by setting one pot on top of another.
The Basics of Baking Dishes
and Roasting Pans
There are two kinds here--metal and ceramic--and both are useful. Ceramic (or porcelain-coated metal) is best for bringing to the table; it looks good. But I recommend that you begin with a simple eight by twelve-inch or nine by thirteen-inch metal roasting pan and an eight-inch square or nine-inch square metal baking pan. They will meet most of your initial needs--you can roast a chicken, broil meat, bake quick breads or brownies, make macaroni and cheese, and more--and you can always add to your collection. Any metal except uncoated aluminum is fine; aluminum with a non-stick coating is also good.
Eventually, you will want an assortment of glass or ceramic baking dishes; souffle molds; a larger metal baking dish (for turkey, browning large quantities of meat, and more). Buy them as you need them.
The Basics of Pastry Pans
This includes pie plates, bread pans, baking sheets, cake pans, tube pans, muffin tins, and the like. Because they're all for special uses, none of these is likely to be essential in your daily cooking, but all are critical when you need them. The sole exception is probably the baking sheet--it's great for broiling, especially if it has a small lip. Go with aluminum; for most purposes, uncoated will be okay here, but non-stick coating never hurts.
Let's take the others individually:
* Pie plates: Start with one, nine inches across. Ovenproof glass is very nice here. Add an eight-inch and a ten-inch when you have time. A ten-inch springform pan (with a removable rim) is great for cheesecake, but not much use otherwise. Wait.
* Loaf pans: You need two, nine by five inches or thereabouts. Non-stick aluminum is best; don't buy glass, which is less than ideal for bread.
* Tube pans: For angel cake, sponge cake, and the like. Buy as needed.
* Muffin tins: Cheap aluminum ones, with nonstick coating, are fine. Antiques of cast iron are much more attractive, but chances are your muffins will stick.
* Cake pans: For layer cakes, nine inches across. You need two or three.
* Tart pan: May be metal (removable rims are good) or ceramic; the latter is preferable because it will not interact with acidic tart ingredients, as will most made of metal.
The Basics of Bowls
I can't get enough of them, but you probably need only small, medium, and large bowls to start. Stainless steel bowls are cheap and extremely useful. Some people (like me) use them as serving bowls as well. If you want attractive serving bowls, buy them, but don't use them for mixing, because you will inevitably chip them. Eventually you'll need many, from those that are very small (for holding small bits of spices, herbs, etc., that you're about to cook with) to one that is very large (to fill with ice water, which you'll use to "shock" vegetables after cooking, or to cool down a smaller bowlful of custard). Add to your bowl collection whenever you see one that appeals to you.
The Basics of Cutting
You do need a cutting board; whether it's of plastic or wood is your choice. Plastic can go in the dishwasher, wood is more attractive. You need more than one anyway, so try one of each until you determine your preference. Extremely heavy wood cutting boards are the best, but they also are costly.
To keep your cutting board from sliding around on the counter (annoying, isn't it?), place a damp towel under it.
The Basics of Spoons,
Spatulas, and More
Wooden spoons have a pleasant feel and do not absorb much heat; they're best for stove-top use. Large stainless steel spoons are best for serving and transferring wet food from one container to another. A slotted spoon is essential, as is a ladle. Rubber spatulas are handy--especially the spoon-shaped ones. You need two metal spatulas: one narrow (for loosening all around the rim of cakes) and one wide (for turning pancakes). A large metal tongs (get the spring-loaded, rather than tension-driven, variety) is very useful. Asian-style skimmers are fantastic--even better than slotted spoons in some instances--for removing foods from simmering liquids or frying oils.
Again, these are a matter of taste. You'll accumulate many different utensils over the years; some will become your favorites, others will end up at a yard sale. Keep them all in an attractive jar, or in a used coffee can, right on your counter, next to the stove. You will want most of them handy.
The Basics of Measuring
A set of measuring spoons is essential; two are even better, because one is always dirty at just the wrong moment. Same with measuring cups; two sets are better than one. Start with a two-cup glass or plastic cup for liquids, and a set of one-quarter--to one-cup dry measures (they're not the same thing). When you're ready, buy a four-cup glass measure, and another set of dry measures.
A scale is not essential, but as you progress in your cooking you will find it useful. (When cookbooks call for "one pound potatoes," you'll actually know what that means.) Electronic scales are overpriced; get a spring-loaded scale with an easily adjusted zero so you can readily compensate for the "tare" (the weight of the container holding your ingredient).
The Basics of Straining
Anything with holes in it to drain liquid or force through pureed food is a strainer. You need more of these than you think, although it's fine to buy them as you need them. A colander is the first order of business, and you need it desperately, because you want to have pasta for dinner.
Soon, though, if not immediately, you'll also want a fine-meshed strainer as well, and probably two--one large, one small. A food mill is essential if you want to make applesauce or pureed tomato sauce, but you will be able to live without it if neither of those matter to you.
The Basics of
Some tools are too obvious to mention. But beyond a can opener:
* Cheese grater: This can be a small, handheld device for grating Parmesan directly onto pasta, as long as you have a food processor for heavy-duty grating. Otherwise buy a sturdy box grater.
* Instant-read thermometer: The most accurate way to determine whether food is done, especially for inexperienced cooks. You may never have cooked a leg of lamb in your life, but when that thermometer says 130 [degrees] F, you know the inside is rare. This is a near-must. If you fry, you may want a frying thermometer, which will make your life a little easier. And if your baking times seem off, buy an oven thermometer, and use it.
* Metal racks: For cooling baked goods and roasting. Buy ones that will serve both purposes, by making sure they'll fit in your roasting pan.
* Timer: May be manual or electronic; some electronic types allow you to time several things at once, a definite plus if you can figure out how the things work.
* Vegetable peeler: The new U-shaped ones are best. Absolutely essential.
* Whisks: You need at least one stiff one, for keeping sauces smooth. But you may not need more than that if you plan to beat cream, egg whites, and so on electrically. Start with a medium-sized, stiff whisk, and build from there.
* Baking stone: If you're going to make pizzas or "boules" (page 227), you'll want one of these.
* Brushes: Great for spreading oil, melted butter, marinades, etc. Start with a one-inch brush, and buy it at the paint store, where it'll be much cheaper.
* Citrus reamer: You can cut a lemon in half, pick out the seeds with a knife, and squeeze. Or you an use one of these, and save twenty seconds each time.
* Eggbeater: You can use a whisk in most cases, but if you're not going to buy an electric mixer, you will want this for those times when you must beat eggs until thick.
* Funnel: When you want it, you'll need it.
* Mandoline: There was a time when buying this brilliant slicing device would set you back two hundred dollars, and you can still spend that much on a heavy-duty French model. But the thirty-dollar Japanese mandolines are almost as good, and will last for years. Even if you're good with a knife, there's no way you can cut slices as quickly and uniformly as you can with a mandoline; there's a reason every good restaurant kitchen has a few lying around. I strongly recommend this tool, and just as strongly recommend that you be very, very careful when using it. Hold off on that second glass of wine until you're done slicing.
* Melon baller: Good for coring pears and apples, too. Buy one that has some heft to it, but don't rush out this minute.
* Pizza peel: If you have a baking stone, you'll want one. Good for large breads as well as pizza.
* Ricer: The best tool for making mashed potatoes, and therefore Gnocchi (page 165). Only if you care about these two dishes.
* Rolling pin: Try making a pie crust without one. Buy a straight rolling pin without ball bearings; it's lighter, more easily maneuvered, and unbreakable.
* Salad spinner: Nice item, and not only for drying salad greens. It's excellent for dunking anything that you want to rinse and drain repeatedly. Not essential but close.
* Skewers: Good not only for grilling but for testing for doneness. Not essential at first.
* Steamer insert: You can steam most foods on a plate or in a bowl, but collapsible aluminum steamers are useful.
* Zester: The easiest way to remove zest from lemons and other citrus, but not the only way; you can remove zest with a vegetable peeler and mince it by hand.
There are other manual devices--like a pasta machine (page 155)--that you may never need. Again, it depends on what you wind up cooking (no one, or almost no one, cooks everything). My personal belief is that a time-saver you use once a year is probably not worth having. Because there are few kitchen tasks that cannot be accomplished with what you already have on hand, it doesn't really pay to make a fetish of gadgets.
The Basics of Appliances
and Electric Gadgets
Now we're on to the big-ticket items. I'm going to assume that, like me, you're already stuck with an unsatisfactory stove and refrigerator and don't have thirty thousand dollars to remodel your kitchen. (If you have a choice, go with a gas range and an electric oven; if you don't have a choice, don't worry about it.) I'm also going to assume that you already know whether you want a waffle iron, and that you already have a toaster.
Still, your choices are staggering; there are so many appliances out there now that if you were to buy them all you'd have nowhere to stand. There are several that everyone should have, and several that no one should have, but most are judgment calls determined by what you cook. Here's a list of appliances in my order of priority. Note that I've omitted those--such as countertop grills and electric deep fryers--that I think are not even worth considering:
* Food processor: Hands down the most important electric tool in the kitchen. It can grate massive amounts of almost anything in seconds; it can make bread dough, pie dough, even some cookie batters, in a minute; it can grind meat, puree vegetables, slice potatoes. If you have one, use it (I rely on it heavily, although not exclusively, in my recipes). If you don't, make the investment as soon as you can; there are very good ones available for less than two hundred dollars, and if you cook a lot you will use it daily. The small ones are valuable in their own right (not the "mini-choppers," but the three- to four-cup full-fledged food processors), but start with a large one, a model that can handle at least six cups of batter or dough.
Other than the instructions that come with the machine, there's only one trick in learning to use a food processor: Don't overprocess. If you want a puree, turn the machine on and walk away. But if you want to mince, use the "pulse" button, turning the machine on and off as many times as is necessary to get the texture you need. These are very powerful machines, capable of pureeing almost anything within seconds.
* Electric mixer: If you bake a lot, you will want both a powerful standing mixer and a small, handheld mixer. If you bake occasionally, you will want either. If you never bake, you still could use a hand mixer or an eggbeater for the occasional egg white or whipped cream.
* Blender: Perhaps not for everyone, but if you make a lot of soups and want to make some of them creamy, this is the tool. Also great for any blended drink (most food processors leak if loaded up with liquid) and for coconut milk. The new handheld immersion blenders are terrific for pureeing soups right in the pot.
* Electric knife sharpener: See The Basics of Knives. Few people, including chefs, can put a good edge on a knife with a whetstone. The new electric knife sharpeners turn a difficult craft into a no-brainer. Probably not the first investment you should make, but a good present for your wish list.
* Ice cream maker: Far from essential, but what a joy. If you like ice cream or sorbet, this is a worthwhile device, even if you use it only ten times a year. There are inexpensive manual machines, which contain an insert that you prefreeze, and these work fairly well. But the electric models with built-in refrigeration are divine; unfortunately, they cost several hundred dollars.
* Electric juice extractor: A nice item that you will only "need" if you're into drinking homemade juices. But an apple sorbet made from freshly juiced apples is a revelation, so this is worth thinking about. Good extractors are heavy and have large feed tubes so you don't have to chop fruits and veggies into tiny pieces first.
* Pressure cooker: For people in a hurry. Pressure cookers don't make anything better than regular cookware, they just make it faster. If you are short on time and big on stews, soups, stocks, or beans, it's a worthwhile investment. If you can take time to cook, or don't like slow-simmered foods, don't bother.
Pressure cookers have been improved enormously in recent years. They're safer than ever, and easy to use. If you want one, buy it new.
* Coffee/spice grinder: If you drink coffee, you probably have one of these. But even if you don't, consider it a wise ten-dollar investment. Freshly ground spices are a real joy, and this takes the work out of them.
* Microwave: Now that the fuss has died down, it turns out that this is a useful but hardly indispensable tool. I hardly ever cook in the microwave. But I use it to heat and warm, and for that it is of some value. Still, I will not replace my current machine when it goes; I'd rather have the counter space.
* Bread machine: As you'll see when you get to "Bread" (pages 217-253), I think that the combination of food processor and oven is a better way to bring fresh-baked bread to your house. But if you really have zero time, a bread machine is a good option.
The most difficult of the factors involved in cooking, correct technique comes with good instruction (hopefully provided in the pages of this book) combined with practice. Sometimes good technique is everything. A skillet, for example, must be hot before butter is added in order for the butter to sizzle without burning, so that it can sear and crisp the food that is in turn added to it. This cannot be learned in an instant; you must get used to preheating the pan before adding the butter, you must judge the correct level of heat on your particular stove, you must learn to be ready at the right moment. If you haven't done this before, there's no reason to expect to be good at it right away, any more than you'd expect to serve aces the first time you played tennis.
On the other hand, your cooking can be plenty good while you are learning proper technique, and there are some techniques you can ignore altogether. Most people who learned to cook from their parents, or from cookbooks, never learned the "correct" way to slice or dice an onion. Yet although this may mean that it takes them ten seconds longer to do it than it would otherwise, and that their pieces are not exactly uniform, it does not affect the flavor (or in most cases even the appearance) of their finished dishes.
We have designed this book to take advantage of the fact that people can learn many preparation techniques better through visual means than written ones. In the relevant sections, you'll find illustrations for using knives and other kitchen tools and for relatively complex procedures.
Cooking techniques--those that actually use heat to prepare food, such as grilling and sautéing--are a little different, because there is not much visual about them. Yet there are only a few basic, master techniques in cooking, and most have been the cornerstones of cuisine for centuries.
The Basics of Heat
Most beginning cooks fail to get sauté pans and ovens hot enough (this is not the case with grilling, where the biggest mistake is to make the grill too hot). Whether you're pan-grilling or sautéing, you should get used to preheating your skillet for a minute or two--longer if you have an electric range (see below)--before you start to cook. If you turn the heat on under your skillet, then start cooking, you're beginning with a cold pan and your food will never brown. And browning is important in developing flavor.
Likewise with an oven. Yes, preheating ovens is a common practice, and a good one. But 350 [degrees] F is not hot enough to brown most meats in an oven; you need high heat, 450 [degrees] F and higher, if you want to put a nice crust on the food you're cooking, whether it's bread or chicken. My recipes reflect that belief, but when you cook on your own, or with another cookbook, keep it in mind.
A note about electric ranges If you have an electric range, you've probably been told that it's impossible to cook well with it. This is nonsense: Heat is heat. The disadvantage of an electric range is that its elements take time to respond--they're slow to heat up, and equally slow to cool down. All this means is that you have to plan ahead.
If you know you're going to want to start cooking over high heat, turn a burner to high a few minutes before you're ready to cook. If you know that you're going to want to transfer that skillet to low heat after an initial searing, have another burner ready at low, or medium-low heat, and simply move the skillet. It's as if you're cooking on a stove top that has hot and cold spots, rather than on an infinitely flexible burner.
Of course if the stove top is crowded and you don't have a spare burner, you'll have to anticipate: When your food is nearly done browning, for example, turn down the heat; the burner and skillet will retain enough heat to finish the process, and will have cooled off in time for you to proceed.
The Basics of Grilling
Grilling is the oldest cooking method, and one that justifiably retains its popularity. It (and broiling) are the only methods that use direct heat--nothing but a thin layer of air separates the heat source from the food. This virtually guarantees a crisp crust quickly. (There is indirect "grilling" as well; see below.)
Although it can be easy, grilling is somewhat overrated. It isn't magic and, unless you use a wood fire or spice up your fire with wood chips, it does not "add" flavor. In fact, if you use a gas grill, grilling is identical to broiling--the only difference is that one puts the heat source on the bottom, the other on top. So there's no need to fire up that grill if it's cold outside--just turn on the broiler. (This assumes you have a reasonably efficient broiler; if you do not, your grill is probably more powerful and will generate more heat, so you will notice a difference in browning and cooking times.)
A couple of notes about the broiler:
* Always preheat it, but only for a few minutes. If your electric broiler requires the oven door to remain open in order to stay on, preheat the oven to 500 [degrees] F, then preheat the broiler, and broil with the door open.
* If you are broiling food whose fat will render as it cooks--such as most chicken and meat--use a rack in a pan, so the fat can drip away from the food. This is not necessary if you're broiling fish, vegetables, boneless chicken breasts, or anything that will remain in the broiler for just a few minutes.
* Generally, you will broil two to six inches away from the heat source, the closer distance for thin, quickly cooked foods, the greater distance for thick, slowly cooked foods. But this is detailed in each recipe, and you'll easily get the hang of it.
The main idea behind both of these techniques is to get a nice, slightly charred crust on the food's exterior while cooking the interior to the desired degree of doneness. Generally, the best foods to grill or broil are less than an inch thick; thicker foods tend to burn on the outside before they are fully cooked inside. Thin cuts of meat, poultry, fish, or vegetables are ideal for this, because the intense heat just about cooks the food through as it browns the outside.
But you can also grill or broil thicker cuts, with a couple of minor adjustments. In the broiler, just move the food farther from the heat source so it browns a little more slowly, turning occasionally and giving it time to cook through.
On the grill, start thicker cuts close to the flame and move them a few inches away after the initial browning. If you use hardwood charcoal or briquettes, you want to cook over glowing coals covered with ash. Right near those coals, the heat is in excess of 600 [degrees] F, far too hot to cook anything. A couple of inches above, which is probably where your rack sits normally, the temperature is about 500 [degrees] F, a great place to sear. (If you can hold your hand just above the rack for about two seconds, the temperature is just about right.) If you can raise the rack to four inches, you have effectively lowered the heat below 400 [degrees] F, a good place to cook bone-in chicken. (Here, you will be able to hold your hand for as long as four seconds.) If you can't raise the rack, move the food to a cooler part of the grill.
Or, on many grills, you can use indirect heat to finish cooking larger pieces of meat. (This is no longer grilling, technically; rather it is a form of roasting--but never mind.) After an initial searing, bank the coals to one side (on a gas grill, lower the heat, or turn one of the burners off) and move the food to the cool side of the grill; then cover the grill. Now you have the food bathing in a pool of hot air, but removed from the searing direct heat of the flame. This technique also allows you to slow down the cooking, so you can place some soaked wood chips on the fire and add a little of their flavor to your food.
The chief drawback of broiling and grilling is that their intense heat can dry out many foods, especially those without a lot of internal fat. This is why broiled and grilled foods are often served with moist dipping sauces or dressings.
A word about grilling versus barbecue Grilling, as defined above, is cooking food over direct heat. Barbecue means one of two things: long, slow, usually indirect cooking with smoke, or anything treated with a barbecue sauce.
The Basics of Roasting
Like grilling and broiling, roasting uses dry heat; the difference is that it does so in a closed environment, and the heat is indirect. Most roasting should be done at high heat--450 [degrees] F or higher--and, at its best, crisps up the exterior of foods, whether vegetables, fish, or meat, without much danger of burning, while cooking the interior relatively slowly and avoiding overcooking. Flavors added during roasting may be in the form of solids or liquids, and the liquids left in the roasting pan after cooking may be used for a sauce.
Baking, also performed in the oven, is done at lower heat, and (in my book, at least) usually refers to the cooking of breads and pastries. Of course the oven can also be used for warming, or for heating foods in closed containers--in which case it is acting very much like your stove top.
Electric ovens tend to be more accurate than gas ovens, but both are notoriously unreliable. A difference of 25 [degrees] F doesn't make much difference when you're roasting a large piece of meat (although it will affect your timing, of course), but it can be a killer when you're making a delicate dessert, such as a custard. Buy an oven thermometer, and use it.
The Basics of Sautéing
Saute is French for "jump," and simply refers to food that is cooked, in a hot pan, with some amount of fat (some say that the pan "surprises" the food). Whether that fat is a half cup of butter or one tablespoon of olive oil, naturally, has an effect on the finished product. But regardless of the amount or type of fat you use, sautéing, like roasting, grilling, and broiling, can put a crust on food. And it has a couple of advantages: Properly done, sautéing does not dry food out, and it gives you a base on which you can easily build a sauce (see The Basics of Reduction Sauces, page 790).
The simplest, most straightforward sauté begins by dredging thin slices of meat or fish in flour, bread crumbs, or other seasonings; the food is then cooked over high heat, in hot fat, for ten minutes or less. (To sauté anything over an inch or so in thickness requires an initial browning followed by covering the pan; this is more like braising.) "Deglazing" the pan afterward--using a liquid to release the flavorful bits that remain after cooking--is a quick and easy way to make a sauce, known as a reduction. You can deglaze with lemon juice, vinegar, wine, stock, juice, cream, or a combination.
Traditionally, the fat used in sautéing served two purposes: to crisp the coating, and to prevent the food from sticking to the pan. Thanks to non-stick pans, however, you can use just need enough fat to provide some sizzle if this is a concern.
Pan-grilling: Non-stick pans have led to an increase in what is best called "pan-grilling"--cooking over high heat, in a skillet, with no added fat. (With some very sturdy foods with even surfaces, such as steaks, pan-grilling can be done in a heavy cast-iron skillet as well.) You should only try pan-grilling with thin, quickly cooked foods (not, for example, with bone-in chicken), and you should only try it if you have a good exhaust fan.
Having said that, however, there is a fine combination of pan-grilling and roasting that will work for somewhat thicker foods, and contain the smoke: Before you start to cook, preheat the oven to 500 [degrees] F. When it's hot, heat your skillet until it is very hot, then add the food. Sear it on one side, just for a minute; undoubtedly, it will become so smoky that you will wish you never began. Quickly transfer the pan to the oven, and finish the cooking in there, turning the food only once. You will brown both sides and have all the time you need to cook the interior. (Just be careful handling the pan--its handle will become as hot as its cooking surface.)
The Basics of Stir-Frying
Stir-frying is similar to sautéing in that food is cooked over high heat in a small amount of fat. There are, however, several differences. Food to be stir-fried is cut up before cooking, which further minimizes cooking time; liquid is added during the cooking; and stir-fries are most often associated with Asian flavorings, while sautés are European (although there is no binding reason for this, the tradition continues). Traditionally, stir-fries were prepared in woks, but you need not follow this tradition. In fact, the design of a wok is not well suited to most home ranges; a large, deep-sided skillet, with sloping sides is best. These are sometimes sold as woks with handles, or, as discussed in the skillet section (page 2), in one of the hybridized "sauté pans" with deep, rounded sides, sort of a combination sauté pan/saucepan.
To stir-fry successfully, you must have all your ingredients ready and at hand; once you begin cooking, there will be virtually no time to dig things out of the cabinet or refrigerator and begin measuring them. In addition, you must use very high heat; even more than sautéing, most stir-frying requires you set your burner on "high" and leave it there. (If, however, at any point during the cooking you feel that things have gotten out of control, turn off the heat and think for a minute. You will not ruin anything by doing so.)
Stir-fried food is fairly dry--in order to brown the little bits of meat, fish, chicken, and/or vegetables that you're cooking, you must keep moisture out of the skillet or wok. This usually means you will want to finish a stir-fry with some liquid, usually wine, stock, or water. In some traditions, that liquid is in turn thickened. This is a matter of taste; you can serve a stir-fry with its thin, slightly reduced sauce, or you can thicken it. The easiest way to do this is to stir in a mixture of about one tablespoon cornstarch and two tablespoons cold water; this does the trick in an instant. One final word about stir-frying: It helps to lay in a good supply of basic Chinese seasonings: soy sauce, oyster sauce, dark sesame oil, gingerroot, and so on.
The Basics of Deep-Frying
The most challenging cooking method for home cooks, not because it is difficult--it's actually quite straightforward, given a few simple rules--but because it is invariably messy and usually smelly. As the bubbling oil cooks the food, small bits of it escape into the surrounding air. If the food you're cooking is benign, this isn't so bad; but almost all savory foods give off relatively strong odors that become unpleasant once they've attached themselves to your furniture. Only the most powerful of exhaust fans can whisk this oily smoke away before it travels through your house. If you don't mind any of this, follow any of the deep-frying recipes you'll find throughout the book; I love to deep-fry, but always remain aware of its difficulties.
The rules of deep-frying are simple: The oil (see The Basics of Oils, page 87) must reach a good temperature to brown the exterior of the food quickly, while cooking it. That temperature is almost always between 350 [degrees] and 375 [degrees] F--365 [degrees] F is a good all-purpose compromise--and is most easily measured by using a frying thermometer. (If you have an electric deep fryer, of course, it will cycle off when it reaches the preset temperature.) You can use small amounts of oil in narrow pots to deep-fry--for example, it only takes a couple of cups of oil to gain a height of two or three inches in a small saucepan. But the disadvantage of this is that you can only cook small bits of food, and not very many of them at once.
That's because it's essential to avoid crowding when deep-frying (it's important to avoid crowding whenever you want to brown food). The food must be surrounded by bubbling oil, and you must keep the temperature from falling too much. If you add a relatively large amount of food to a relatively small amount of oil, the temperature will plummet and the food will wind up greasy and soggy--and this holds true whether you are deep frying in a saucepan or in an electric deep fryer. So the basic recommendations: Use plenty of oil (although, to prevent the oil from bubbling over, never fill the pot more than halfway); dry the food well with paper towels before adding it to the pot, in order to reduce spattering; and add the food in small increments to keep the temperature from falling too much.
The Basics of Cooking in
Liquid: Braising, Stewing,
Poaching, Steaming, and
Cooking in liquid is useful and easy, and it can perform just about any cooking task you demand of it except browning. No other technique is as efficient at tenderizing as moist cooking. There are several different ways to use liquid in cooking:
Braising Braising begins like sautéing--you brown the food in a bit of fat. But it continues by adding liquid to the pan, covering it, and finishing the cooking over moist, low heat (you don't boil the food, you simmer it). It's the ideal way to cook larger cuts of meat, or big chunks, especially those that need tenderizing, such as certain lean cuts of beef or veal, or those that might dry out if cooked otherwise, such as chicken parts or whole fish.
Many liquids can be used to braise foods, and it is that choice, along with the choice of herbs and spices, that provides much of the seasoning. The covered and relatively long, slow cooking ensures that not only will intrinsic flavors be preserved but that those of all ingredients will mingle and intensify. This is the magic of stews, daubes, goulashes, ragouts, and so on. Note that in many of my braising recipes I make the browning step optional; yes, it adds flavor, and without question improves the dish. But it is also a step that adds time and hassle, and it is not one that makes the difference between success and failure.
You can also "reverse-braise"--cook the food in liquid until tender, then run it under the broiler to crisp it up a bit.
Stewing Braising, but usually with no initial browning (although this is not an iron-clad rule) and with more liquid.
Poaching/Simmering/Boiling Cooking food through in water (or lightly flavored water or even stock) to cover. Usually the temperature is moderated so that the water just bubbles during cooking; you want to start it at the boiling point, or a little below, but moderate it. It's very rare that you want to actually cook food at a rapid boil (pasta being one notable exception). Temperatures can be controlled not only by raising and lowering the heat of the burner but by partially covering the pot.
Steaming Steaming, of course, is cooking over--not in--liquid; the liquid is usually water, and is usually not used in the finished dish, but there are exceptions. You can use a bamboo steamer, or a collapsible steamer insert, or simply elevate the food above the simmering water by building a little platform for it, using chopsticks or a couple of upside-down cups. In any case, keep the water simmering, not rapidly boiling, and make sure it does not boil away--add boiling water to the pot if necessary. Steaming, is usually (but not exclusively) used for quickly cooked foods.
Parboiling/Blanching To parboil, or blanch, you partially cook food, usually vegetables, in boiling water to cover. This is an excellent technique for keeping vegetables bright and partially tenderizing them, detailed in "Vegetables" (pages 529-617).