by Terri Geiser
Cooking can be as elaborate or as simple as you want it to be. There are a variety of methods, techniques, tools and ingredients that influence the final product. Knowing these basics and how to put them all together are necessary skills for creating a fabulous meal.
Every dish can be a work of art, where you are the artist. In a painting there are many colors that go into creating the artwork. The difference between that art and culinary art is that foods also have flavor and aroma. Developing the flavor, color and aroma doesn't have to be difficult, but it does take practice. A wonderful dish can be just a few ingredients and a simple technique like sauteing food with a few spices and herbs. Try my Pan Seared Sea Bass with Lime Pepper.
To begin your culinary work of art it is important to have a few basic skills that have been around for years. There are many variations of these skills and the more you practice the better you will become. Before you know it, you will be serving dinners that will put a smile on your face and establish you as an artist with your friends and family.
We will begin with very basic skills and build on those as we go. You'll find that many techniques are just variations of others, like frying and sauteing. It is important to understand a recipe before you begin cooking. It is also very helpful to read completely through a recipe before starting. So let's get back to the basics, roll up your sleeves, and start practicing.
One of the techniques I learned very early from my granny Mae (my dad's mother) was how to fry chicken. Her fried chicken recipe was a pinch of this and a dab of that. The skill really came from just watching her cook. She didn't use many recipes; most of them were in her head. But I do have the few she had written down over the years. Papaw gave me her cookbook about one year after she passed away. He knew that I loved to cook and remembered how often I watched her cook. I asked her one time how she made such great fried chicken and she proceeded as follows:
Granny Mae's Fried Chicken (I gained more by watching than anything else)
"Cut up a fryer hen into pieces, rinse them off, pat them dry. Mix cracker crumbs and flour in equal portions with a dash of salt and a pinch of pepper, a good pinch of pepper. Put the flour mixture into a paper bag. Salt and pepper the chicken all around. Crack an egg and use a fork to whip it and add some milk to it. Dip the chicken into the egg then drop it into the paper bag and shake it real good (that means until it is well coated ). Heat vegetable oil (she used lard until Papaw had his heart attack- then there was no more lard in anything she cooked) in a cast iron skillet until sizzling. Add a few pieces of chicken at a time. Don't crowd them in and don't touch them until they are well browned on the bottom side. Then turn them over. Turn the heat down to medium and put a lid on for about 10-12 minutes. This helps chicken to cook inside before burning on the outside. Remove lid and continue to cook until juices run clear about five more minutes"
Don't feel bad if you don't fry perfect chicken the first time you try. Most people don't, but my tips for frying should help. My dad said the first time my mom fried chicken it was very brown on the outside, looked pretty good but it was raw on the inside. Frying and its many versions such as sauteing are one of the skills you need to become an accomplished cook.
When deep frying any food, a crisp crust with a moist inside is the goal. The cooking process is usually short so the food you select should be tender. Many foods can be plain such as potatoes and other vegetables, pastries and meats. To protect food from the hot oil, a coating of bread crumbs, corn flake crumbs, cornmeal, or a batter can be added before frying. The food is totally covered by the oil during the deep frying process.
A batter is usually made with flour, eggs, and milk but some recipes will use beer. A beer batter is very popular for fish. The food is dipped into the batter then immediately placed into the hot oil.
Sautéing is a version of frying that uses a smaller amount of oil or fat. A shallow pan, called a sauté pan is most commonly used. The food can be plain or coated just as in frying. Batters are not used when sauteing. The size of food is usually smaller and by cutting on a diagonal the flavors will develop on more surface area. The French word sauté literally means to jump but surprisingly the French did not invent the technique. See cooking tips for sauteing.
Stir frying is a common method used in Chinese cooking. In fact, the majority of Chinese recipes use this method of cooking. The heat is very high and the food is usually bite sized so it cooks quickly. Foods are often marinated to enhance flavor or to tenderize meats. Foods are prepared by slicing, shredding, dicing, chopping, and mincing (see below).
Cooking tips for frying
Another important skill to have in your culinary repertoire is baking. Baking is a general term used to describe cooking food in an oven. However, the baking I am talking about here is learning how to work with flour for quick and yeast breads. Granny Kate (my mom's mom) made the best biscuits I have ever eaten and the few tips she shared with me many years ago are still skills I use today.
Granny Kate was a character. I was her only granddaughter and we were very close. We usually spent a couple of weeks with my grandparents in the summer. She loved to cook for us when we visited. One of her specialties was a "Bob Evans Breakfast". She made the biscuits right on the counter top, pouring the flour out into a mound with the salt. She made a hole in the center, added the vegetable shortening and lightly worked the shortening into the flour. Then she remade the mound and hole and poured the milk in the hole, gently tossing the flour into the milk just lightly moistening the dough. The last step was to lightly knead the dough about 6 turns. Then we were ready to cut them out. She used a water glass dusted with flour, turning out "Granny's Perfect" Biscuits every time. She always told me the secret to light, fluffy biscuits was keeping a light hand and measuring everything exactly. It sounded like chemistry to me.
I had several chemistry classes in college and I always compare baking to chemistry lab 101. If you don't measure everything exactly as directed you will blow up the lab, create a mess, and flunk the class. But wait, there is a lot more to baking than making sure the ingredients are accurate. For biscuits and crust you have to have a gentle hand. For yeast breads you will develop great upper body muscles. I bet know one ever told you that you can build character and a great body from cooking. Cooking tips for baking quick breads.
Yeast breads are even more like chemistry. Maybe that is why I have accomplished this skill or maybe it is that I have learned patience over the years. You need both, attention to detail and patience. Remember to measure all ingredients exactly and roll up your sleeves and knead, knead, knead; sing or watch TV as you go but don't skimp on the kneading time.
I learned how to make yeast breads in high school home economics class (whoops, I'm dating myself). We started out with French bread and moved on to croissants in the last class. Trust me if you can make a croissant you'll have the foundation for making anything. Croissants, a yeasted puff pastry, are made with lots of butter, made light with layers. The French have been eating croissants for hundreds of years. The American croissants tend to be sweeter with less butter. A real French croissant is more pastry like than the cake like American croissant.
A common small version of Basic French bread is called a baguette and once you can make this you can build on the skills to make many wonderful, tasty treats. The flavor for this simple yeast bread comes from allowing the yeast to develop through a nice, long rising time. The texture comes from enough kneading and shaping. The cooking temperature should be hot and humid.
For French bread you want flour that has high gluten protein (the right flour is the only American challenge) content. Gluten forms the webs in the dough, giving it what it needs to rise. Cooking tips for making yeast breads.
With the biscuits comes the gravy. You can call it what you want, white sauce, brown gravy, or sawmill gravy, they all begin with a roux or beurre manie of flour and fat (often butter). A roux is a mixture of fat and flour, cooked together, usually in equal amounts. The flour will actually determine the thickness of the sauce. The fat helps to keep the flour smooth and free of lumps when combining other ingredients for developing a stock. A beurre manie is softened butter mixed with an equal amount of flour. It is added to cooked liquid to thicken it such as a stew or soup.
The most basic and important French sauces include béchamel (white), veloute (blond), brown (demi-glaze), red (tomato), and hollandaise. Once you master these sauces you can create wonderful sauces for fish, beef, vegetables, soups and even marinara for great tasting pasta. To these basic sauces you can add cheese, wine, vegetables or meat.
When making a sauce, there are three features that will determine your success, flavor, texture and clarity. By using the right ingredients and a few basic skills you will be developing fabulous sauces. Cooking tips for sauces.
Other Basic Skills
Other basic skills that you will need for cooking:
- Baking—see above
- Baste—brushing or spooning liquid onto food during the cooking process
- Beat—to vigorously mix foods or liquids with a spoon, fork or electric beater
- Blanch—to soften, wilt, loosen skins or remove strong flavors or salt by boiling food
- Blend—to mix foods together with a fork, spoon or spatula
- Boil—bringing liquid to a temperature of 212 degrees Fahrenheit creating rolling bubbles
- Braise—to cook foods in a sear or brown food then simmer in liquid in a covered dish
- Broil—cooking food under direct heat in an oven
- Chop—is a coarse cut of food products, usually cut into inch to 1 inch
- Cream—to beat a food or combination of foods until very smooth
- Deglaze—pouring liquid into a pan where food has been roasted or sauteed, lifting food bits from pan
- Dice—to cut food into 1/8 inch cubes the shape of dice
- Drizzle—to slowly pour a liquid in a very fine stream over food
- Fold—to gently stir, with a turning motion a fragile mixture like beaten egg whites into a heavier mixture like a custard
- Fry—see above
- Julienne—to cut foods into matchstick strips
- Kneading—to mix and work dough in order to form the gluten that enables it to rise
- Macerate—usually means that fruit is mixed with sugar and alcohol
- Marinate—to add liquid to foods that will enhance flavors or tenderize the food
- Mince—to cut foods very fine
- Poach—to cook food in a liquid that is barely simmering, often used for fish
- Puree—to blend food into a semi-solid texture such as taking apples to sauce
- Reduce—boiling liquid down in quantity to concentrating the taste, used for making sauces
- Refresh—to take foods out of a hot temperature and placing into a cold one, usually cold water, stopping the cooking process, maintaining bright colors (very important to an artist)
- Sauté—see above
- Score—to make shallow cuts in patterns on the surface of foods for decoration or for allowing marinates to absorb into the food
- Sift—to put dry ingredients through a mesh to lighten it and remove large, hard pieces
- Slicing—to cut foods straight or diagonally through; either thin or thick
- Steam—a cooking method where the food is placed over boiling or simmering water without being submerged into the liquid
- Stir fry—see above