Is it broiled or boiled? Blackened or grilled? Fried or sautéed? Words tend to be casually, and sometimes recklessly thrown around when it comes to cooking methods and instructions. Sometimes when words are used interchangeably with one another, it’s harmless and innocent. On the other hand, sometimes people need to be using one term, and instead are using one that will actually lead to a cooking task going terribly wrong. I’d like to clarify the terms assigned to the most common cooking techniques, and what they actually mean. Let’s start with an easy one:
This is a cooking technique, whereby a food is submerged in water that has been heated to at least 212ºF (100ºC), which is the point at which water will boil. You can cook just about anything in a pot of boiling water — but that doesn’t mean you should. While a simple and effective way of cooking many things, it doesn’t come without its drawbacks: the boiling water tends to steal flavor from whatever is cooked in it, and unless other steps are taken after a food is removed from boiling water, that food will be very bland and not particularly pleasant to eat (though both of these drawbacks can be at least partially mitigated by salting the water to a certain degree).
Subcatagories of boiling are simmering and poaching. These are essentially the same as boiling, save for the temperature. Just like how boiling occurs at 212ºF, simmering occurs at 180ºF, and poaching occurs at 160ºF. Any instance or recipe in which the words “simmer” or “poach” occur, simply means to bring what’s in the pot to at least that temperature, but not to the temperature of the thing above it. If you don’t want to measure with a thermometer: simmering is when there is agitation in the water, but just gentle little bubbles (not the aggressive big ones that come with boiling). And poaching is when you can clearly see steam rising up from the surface (and maybe even some really faint swirling of the water), but the surface is still flat and still.
Let’s be very clear in re-establishing that boiling is done in hot water. While it sounds similar, it is in fact very different from…
Let’s get this one straight, so we can stop allowing fast food burger commercials to ruin my life. Broiling is the action of cooking something under a direct heat source, usually — but not exclusively — flame. A broiler, frequently referred to in the industry as a “salamander” (don’t ask me why), looks like an oven without a door, but has gas burners on the ceiling of it. Broiling is a wonderful way to get a nice crispy brown crust on things like enchiladas, pizza, toast, lasagna, fish, or even a French onion soup or creme brûlée. Most home ovens also have broiler features, in the form of electric heating coils on the ceiling of your oven cavity.
Why does the misuse of this word bother me so much? Because fast food TV commercials so frequently will say, “flame-broiled burger”, as they show a picture of a burger on a grill. Which leads us to…
Opposite to broiling, grilling is the act by which you cook something over a direct heat source, suspended on a rack — or grill — of metal bars, usually iron or steel (but sometimes ceramic-coated). Grilling can be done over gas, wood, or charcoal flames, but flames are necessary. Yes, this is another conduit through which commercials irk me, every time I hear the term “flame-grilled”. That doesn’t make your food sound sexy, it makes you sound redundant. Stop being lazy, and be better at marketing! Grilling is usually the preferred method of cooking proteins like, steaks, chops, burgers, chicken, shrimp or fish, but you can grill just about anything that can hold its form on a grill.
The dynamics of grilling also get really interesting when juices/fat start to drip off of grilled meat: When this happens, the flame usually reacts with a little more flame, but with more flame comes more smoke. So when, let’s say a steak drips some juice onto a coal, that turns the juice into juice-tinted smoke, which goes back up and slightly flavors the steak. This is one of the reasons why something grilled has a distinct flavor that can’t be faked or otherwise duplicated.
“Steaming” is often used interchangeably with “boiling”, and I understand why: they both involve cooking with boiling water. The difference is that with steaming, you’re cooking/immersing a food in vaporized water (aka: steam), as opposed to boiling, which is immersing a food in liquid water. You could argue this is a better technique because it doesn’t draw any of the nutrients out of the vegetable, as boiling does (to an extent), but you could also argue that with steaming, you can’t season the steam, like you can with water. So it’s really a matter of preference and what the situation calls for.
Blackening and charring
This can get a little tricky. While these two words can frequently and seamlessly be interchangeable, they are fundamentally different. Blackening is a technique that is most commonly used in Cajun and Caribbean cooking, where a spice mixture (frequently referred to as “blackening spice”) is put on a protein, usually fish or chicken, and cooked on a grill, griddle or in a pan. Here’s the thing most people (even professionals) don’t know about: while I’m not going to tell you that something cooked in a different way can’t be called “blackened”, the actual technique requires taking the seasoned thing in question, and putting it onto a griddle or cast-iron skillet, dry — as in, with no cooking oil. The direct dry heat then actually burns the blackening spices onto the protein (which is what happens if you try to cook with no/not enough oil), then scraped off of the cooking surface with a thin metal spatula in a way that leaves the burnt spices still intact on the (in this case) fish. This is the technique that gives a truly blackened piece of fish its flavor.
Charring, on the other hand, is simply the act of cooking something with flame, intentionally burning the outside to the point of being black and charred. When done correctly, charring something will not over-cook it, but it will impart the burnt taste on the outside to the otherwise perfectly-cooked interior.
Smoking is the process of cooking something with an indirect heat source, but enclosed in a space with a smoke-producing fire, whereby the smoke needs to pass over what’s being smoked, en route to the chimney. This is an interesting method, because the heat from the fire still cooks it, but not directly, the way grilling does. Think of the difference between holding your hand over a fire (HOT!), and holding it next to a fire (oooh, I like this — this is nice). Usually, smoking is done at temperatures between 200-250ºF (though not always), so it takes much longer to cook things. All that while though, as the smoke passes, it imparts the flavor of that smoke to the food — provided there is fat present in/on that food to receive the flavor. Fat is where flavor lives, and this is rarely more true than it is with smoking (so you can stop wondering why nobody ever smokes celery). Fat is also what draws flavors (like smoke, in this case) in. This is why pork is a popular thing to smoke, as are fatty fish like salmon, and sardines.
But speaking of cooking in enclosed spaces…
Baking is the term used for cooking something in an enclosed area (usually an oven) with an indirect heat source. Typically, things like bread, pastries, casseroles, soufflés and certain proteins will be cooked in the oven with such an instruction, but somehow, the vague term bake has become synonymous with the making of pastries. When you hear someone say “I bake”, you safely assume that means they tend to make things like cupcakes, breads, or desserts, but not necessarily any of the other things that can be baked. Not sure how, when or why this linguistic bastardization happened, but it did, and we all have chosen to live with it, so let’s move on.
To me, I hear roasting and I immediately think there needs to be heat from a wood-burning fire involved. This can mean being roasted over an open flame, or in a wood-burning oven — I will concede that things cooked on a rotisserie are roasted, even if the heat source is electric. Having said all that, while this is how the word is often used (roasting marshmallows, roasting a pig, etc.), we’ve expanded it to include the use of a conventional oven. In those situations, roasting is functionally the exact same thing as baking — when it’s done in an oven (roasted potatoes, roasted chicken, roasted asparagus, etc.). The verb tends to be associated with different things — usually meat and poultry — but the actual process that’s occurring tends to be no different than that which is utilized for baking: cooking with heat applied in an oven.
A convection oven is just a regular oven (an insulated compartment that is heated with an indirect heat source, meant to cook food to a particular temperature), with the addition of a fan, usually found on the back or side wall of the oven cavity. The fan circulates the air inside the oven, which has a number of effects. First of all, it cooks food more uniformly. Most ovens have hot and cool spots; spots within the oven that for whatever reason, sit hotter or colder than the temp. to which the oven is set. A fan eliminates such spots. Second of all, a fan makes the temperature in the oven “feel” hotter than it is — at least to the food — similar to the meteorological principal of “wind chill”. During winter, when the weather channel says “temperature: 23ºF, feels like: 15ºF”, that’s because there’s wind, and the wind amplifies the feel of the cold. Same principal with heat: swirling hot air around something is going to make that hot air seem even hotter. In the case of the convection oven, I’ve been taught to essentially add 50ºF to whatever the oven setting is, when accounting for the “wind-chill” or perceived temp. of the oven. This is why the default temp. for most home-cooked recipes is 400ºF, yet in the professional kitchen (where almost all ovens have a convection feature), the default temperature is 350ºF.
While a little specific for this particular tutorial, I feel it’s important to lay down the fundamental dynamics of a convection oven, for current-culturally specific reasons. Yes, I’m talking about the marketing scam known as the air fryer! It is just that: a scam — and that’s not a judgement on those of you who have bought one. Professional marketers get paid a lot of money because they’re good at what they do, namely, convince the unsuspecting public that their new product will defy previous technology and deliver an unlikely result.
An air fryer is nothing more than a small convection oven. It’s not a fryer at all, and it’s not using ground-breaking technology. It’s simply shrinking pre-existing technology down to the size of a slow-cooker and preying on the average person’s desire to eat delicious foods without the negative health consequences. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the air fryer, as long as the person buying/using it understands what it actually is. Which, to recount, is just a small convection oven.
Technically, the word sauté means “to cook in a pan, with as little oil as possible”; at least that’s what it meant to late legendary chef Jean Banchet. It has evolved in our lexicon to broadly mean, “cook in a pan over heat with oil”. Sautéing is ideal to cook smaller-sized or thinner things that don’t need to cook for long — few things are sautéed longer than 4-5 minutes, and sautéing is rarely done over anything lower than medium-high heat.
But while we’re in the pan…
Searing is like sautéing, in that it’s cooking something in a pan, with oil, over heat. The difference is, with searing you’re cooking something over very high heat for a short period of time. The goal with searing is to generate the Maillard reaction — skipping over the thermal physics lesson, that’s the name for when things get crispy because of direct heat — but to try to actually cook what you’re searing, as little as possible. This is common with things like tuna, thin pieces of meat, or thicker pieces of meat that you will then finish in the oven — a process referred to as pan roasting. While usually done in a pan, searing can be achieved on a griddle or grill (but there needs to be a very hot spot on the grill to do so on a grill). Pan-searing requires a cooking oil with a very high smoke point, like grape-seed oil, clarified butter or peanut oil. You can’t sear something in olive oil or whole butter, because the oil/fat in question would catch fire before the pan reached a hot enough temperature needed to appropriately sear.
Simply put, frying is cooking something in hot oil. Unlike sautéing, which uses heat from the pan, but lubricates the point of contact with oil, frying actually cooks something in the oil.
We all know that fried foods are crispy on the outside, frequently juicy on the inside, and everything fried is delicious (and even if you don’t like a food, you’d probably detest it less if it were fried). I could make the argument that you can fry anything, but it’s a little more complicated than that. Without getting too nuanced, frying likes starch. This is a reason why fried potatoes are great: potatoes are nothing but starch. But other things, like onions or cod (foods with minimal inherent starch present), require either a breading or batter for their fried forms to become crispy and delicious onion rings or fried fish; this isn’t to say you can’t fry anything without a starch present, it’s just the most common conduit for the virtues of the technique. There are two basic methods of frying: deep-frying, and pan-frying.
Like boiling, deep-frying is submerging something in a hot liquid, but replace the water with oil. Not only does this have the obvious benefit of making things more delicious (remember: fat is flavor), but while water can only reach a certain temperature before vaporizing (212ºF), frying oil is usually kept from 350-400ºF (but can usually hold temperatures approaching 500ºF).
While deep-fryers are very convenient pieces of machinery, they aren’t always fitting for a home kitchen; even though there are some very high-quality counter-top fryers for the home kitchen, the grease steam/residue that’s generated requires major ventilation and a fair bit of cleaning de boot. All this being said, you can create your own fryer at home with a large pot, a couple quarts of oil, and a candy thermometer, and a little more attention to monitoring temperature.
As the name would suggest, pan-frying is what you do when you want something fried, but can’t/don’t want to use a deep fryer. Traditionally done in a cast-iron skillet, pan-frying requires only enough oil to come about half-way up the side of whatever you’re cooking. It’s perfect for doing breaded things like fried chicken, or eggplant parmesan. Battered things, on the other hand, are better suited for deep frying: if you were to try pan-frying something with batter, by the time you turn it in the pan, the uncooked batter from the top will have slid down into the oil.
I’ve already published a blog post about sous vide, so I won’t spend too much time on it here, but sous vide is a relatively new cooking technique. The reason it’s so new has to do with the necessary technology required for it. Sous vide requires ingredients be combined in a vacuum-sealed bag, then placed in a constantly-agitated, temperature-controlled water bath, usually for hours at a time. The technique garners mystique and inquiry from home cooking enthusiasts, but is actually widely impractical for most home kitchens.
2 thoughts on “The Different Methods of Cooking, Explained”
Glenn – today’s blog is terrific!!!! Cookbook material.
Thanks so much for sharing your information, especially about sous vide.