People Get Glassy-Eyed When You Start Talking “Saute” And “Braise”
I was in a restaurant kitchen the other day talking with a group of cooks. We were discussing techniques and ingredients and generally speaking a lot of “kitchen-ese.” Two of the guys involved in the discussion were seasoned pros who had been around a kitchen or two. The third fellow was a young guy, still in high school, getting his first taste of “the life.” And he was pretty lost.
It occurred to me later that, while cooking and cooking terms are second nature to some of us, there are a lot of people out there for whom the very cooking process is daunting enough and the associated language is confusing and foreign. Those of us who have been reading recipes for decades tend to overlook the fact that there are people who get glassy-eyed when you start talking “saute” and “braise” and “mince” and “dice.” And those are just common, everyday terms. When it comes to “julienne” and “brunoise” and “chiffonade,” you might as well be speaking French. Well.....you are, but you know what I mean.
Let's say you've come across Grandma's biscuit recipe and it calls for a “dash” of this and a “pinch” of that. Because I have a ridiculously over-equipped kitchen, I actually own a set of measuring spoons that measures dashes and pinches. Smidgens, too. Not that I ever use the silly things: like most cooks, I literally pinch a “pinch” with my fingers. You learn over time how much a two-finger pinch is and how much you pick up in a three-finger pinch. And, of course, since hands and fingers vary in size, so do pinches. It's not very precise, but it's such a small amount it doesn't really have to be. If, however, you really want to know, a dash is 1/8 teaspoon, a pinch is 1/16 teaspoon, and a smidgen is 1/32 teaspoon. (By actual measurement, my own two-finger pinch equals a smidgen while my three-finger pinch is a generous dash.)
While we're on the topic of measurement, some recipes will refer to “dry measure.” That's because there's a difference between measuring dry ingredients, like flour or sugar, and wet ingredients, like milk or water. (Technically, due to its hygroscopic nature, sugar is classified as a “wet” ingredient, but I'm just not going to go there in this discussion. For now, let's considerate it to be dry.) The measuring cups themselves are different. Measuring liquid is done in a cup that is meant to not be filled to the very top. The measurement lines stop a little ways down from the rim and there's usually a spout of some sort to help avoid spills. Dry measures, on the other hand, are supposed to be filled to the top and leveled off. Now, nearly everybody dumps flour in a “wet” cup and tries to pour water from a “dry” cup. Including yours truly. Not such a grievous offense for cooking purposes, but it can really screw up your baking measurements, so you really should use the right tool for the right task.
Okay. Back to general confusion. The first thing you get drilled into your head in culinary school is knife cuts. And there are a bunch of them. Most home cooks will never in their lives “tourne” a potato. (It's a football-shaped cut with seven equal sides and flat ends, if you should want to try it.) Nor will they ever “rondelle”or “paysanne” any vegetable. But to the beginning cook, the more common “chop,” “dice,” and “mince” can be just as confusing. In really simple terms “chopped” refers to larger chunks, roughly cut. “Diced” is smaller than “chopped” and more uniform in size while “minced” produces the smallest cut you can make with a knife. In technical terms, there are large dice (3/4-inch), medium dice (1/2-inch), small dice (1/4-inch), brunoise (1/8-inch), and fine brunoise (1/16-inch), but I'm trying not to get technical here. That's why I won't mention strip cuts like the batonnet (¼ x ¼ x 2 inches),which is also the starting point for the small dice, or the julienne or “matchstick” cut (1/8 x 1/8x 1 inch) that is the basis for the brunoise. I just won't mention that.
“Slicing” factors in here, too but it's pretty straightforward: you take a knife and cut down vertically on whatever it is you're wanting to slice. The only variant would be the thickness of the slice.
Why do you do all this slicing and dicing and chopping and mincing? Because size matters. And shape does, too. The size and shape of the food being cooked affects the cooking time as well as the flavor and the texture of the finished product. If a recipe calls for an onion to be minced and you just whack it into big chunks and toss it in the pot, you're going to get very different – and usually undesirable – results.
Then there's “shredded” versus “grated.” This one's pretty easy. If you have a box grater, you can do both on the same implement. “Shred” a carrot or a chunk of cheese with the large holes and “grate” it using the small ones. Shredding produces long, even strips while grating makes tiny, irregular fragments. Owing to their size and shape, grated ingredients cook or melt faster than shredded ones. And, as in the preceding discussion, the two are not generally interchangeable.
Another confusing “this vs that” cooking term involves sautéing and frying. They're similar but different. You use a pan for both, although technically there is a difference between a frying pan and a sauté pan. The former has sloped sides and the latter has straight sides. Most home cooks don't know the difference and use both interchangeably. Both processes are considered “dry heat” methods. Both use oil. (Yeah, I know oil is wet, but it doesn't contain water, so that....makes it....dry. Just trust me.) Both employ direct heat. Now, the heat's a little hotter in the sauté, which derives from the French for “to jump.” And the food being sautéed is usually cut into smaller pieces. Sautéing involves food in motion. Cheffy types can literally make food “jump” in a pan by tossing it in the air. More mundane home cooks just use a spoon or spatula to stir it and keep it moving. Frying or pan frying (or shallow frying as opposed to deep frying) employs lower heat and utilizes bigger pieces of food, like chicken breasts or pork chops. And you usually leave them pretty much alone as they cook. You don't flip and toss and stir. You put the food in the pan, cook it until one side is done, turn it over and repeat the process.
Let's let that simmer while we go over “simmer” versus “boil.” You run into these terms all the time and it's important to know the difference. If you remember General Science from your high school days, you should recall that water boils at 212° F. (That's assuming you're approximately at sea level. The boiling point goes down as the altitude goes up.) Boiling requires you to crank your burner to “high” and let 'er rip until whatever you're attempting to boil – usually water, sometimes soup, occasionally sauce – starts to bubble and roll vigorously. Boiling occurs when heat agitates water molecules, causing them to release a gas that rushes to the surface in the form of bubbles. Many recipes call for a “rolling boil.” Once in awhile, you'll run across “low boil” or “gentle boil.” And there ain't no such thing. Boil = 212° F. It won't get any hotter no matter how high you crank it or how long you leave it. Boil = 212° F. Period. And anything less than that is some variation of a “simmer.” You want to boil stuff for fairly quick results. Vegetables, pasta, really tough chunks of meat. Boiling renders things soft and tender in a relatively short time.
“Simmering” accomplishes much the same result, only over a longer period of time and with less destructive results than can sometimes accompany boiling. All that bubbling and rolling can tear up delicate foods quickly – and pretty much any food given enough time. When something “simmers,” there is not quite enough heat applied to create big bubbles. The surface tension of the water/liquid is enough to keep the bubbles in check so they don't roil and roll. To “simmer,” you bring your liquid just up to the boiling point and then quickly reduce the heat so that the liquid barely bubbles. Little bitty bubbles around the edges. Maybe no bubbles at all other than the occasional “blurp” that sends tomato sauce flying all over your stove. Somewhere between 190° F and 200° F.
Finally, we'll look at “baking,” “roasting,” and “broiling.” And maybe throw in “braising” while we're at it.
Most home ovens give you two choices: bake and broil. (Okay, “self-clean” doesn't count.) The most basic difference is that when you set the oven to “bake,” you engage all the heating elements and when you turn it to “broil,” you're only using the top elements. But that's really basic. You need to know the difference or you'll wind up with lots of burned food.
When you bake something, you use a gentle, even heat that surrounds the food on all sides. Baking is an example of using the convection method of heat transfer. Broiling is more like using a flamethrower. Think of it as an upside-down grill. The heat is intense and directed. Broiling is an example of heat transfer through radiation; in this case infrared. Most baking is done in a fairly moderate oven at temperatures between 350°F and 450°F. A broiler really cranks out the heat, with an average temperature around 550°. Some broilers are adjustable, with “Lo” and “Hi” settings, but most are either “On” or “Off.” Like a small child, if you leave one unattended for a few seconds, you're courting disaster. Baking is done over a long period of time; twenty, thirty, forty minutes or more. Broiling is a quick process; five to ten minutes at the most.
The difference between baking and roasting is a little harder to define. Basically, there isn't one. The cooking process is the same. The terminology applies more to the food itself than to the process. When you put a cake in the oven, you're not “roasting” it, you're “baking” it. When you put a roast in the oven, you're “roasting” it rather than “baking” it. And the lines can get a little blurry: you can “bake” or “roast” a chicken, for example, but although you generally “bake” a ham, you seldom “roast” one. In any case, it's all a matter of heat transference through convection, which is defined as the movement of air, liquid, or steam around the food.
“Braising” begins with the third method of heat transference, conduction. (Bet you didn't know you were going to get a science lesson today, did you?) You can braise just about anything, but the term usually applies to meat. You generally begin by searing the surface in a pan on the stovetop. Listen carefully; in spite of what any TV chef says, this is not called “caramelization.” It is simply “browning,” a process that occurs through the effects of the Maillard reaction. (Cooks like Michael Symon who “caramelize” everything because they think it sounds “cheffy-er” drive me absolutely nuts.) Then you transfer the meat to a cooking vessel and add a liquid. You don't completely submerge it; you just want it covered about two-thirds of the way. Then it's cooked low and slow for an extended period of time. Braising is an economical cooking method because it allows you to use tough and/or inexpensive cuts. It's also efficient because you can often prepare everything in one pot. After the stovetop work is done, you cover the pot and stick it in a low oven (about 325°F) and let it go until tenderness results.
And if you weren't already confused, how 'bout we throw in “stewing?” It's essentially the same as braising except braising uses whole pieces of meat whereas you cut the meat into small pieces for a stew.
There are dozens of other arcane cooking terms waiting to confuse and confound the novice cook. “Zest,” for instance. Isn't that some kind of soap? But there's only so much demystification one can disseminate within the confines of time and space. Stay tuned for more.