There’s a precise vocabulary used for cooking. To follow a recipe, you need to know and understand the lingo. Are you braising or stewing? Should you pan-fry or deep-fry? Is baking different than roasting? Good questions!
Learning the ins and outs of these essential cooking techniques – what kind of heat and equipment they require, how they change the look and consistency of foods, how they affect the overall taste of dishes – enhances your skills and inspires creativity in the kitchen. The recipe and video links below will help you master these techniques and boost your cooking prowess in new and delicious ways.
Baking means heating foods, often wet doughs or batters, in the oven so their internal moisture boils off. This results in a firm, cooked texture and a golden exterior.
Baking isn’t limited to doughy things like cookies, breads and pies. It’s also good for cooking fish, chicken and vegetables such as potatoes. The key to successful baking is a well-calibrated oven. An oven thermometer can tell you whether the actual temperature is higher or lower than what the dial says. If the measurement is off, simply adjust the heat accordingly.
Baking is often done from 325°F to 375°F (160°C to 190°C). But some breads, such as pizza dough, require high heat, from 450°F to 500°F (230°C to 260°C), to create a crispy crust.
Try it out with this recipe: Mushroom Goat Cheese and Arugula Whole Wheat Pizza.
Boiling means heating a liquid until bubbles rise and break on the surface.
An ultra-simple technique, boiling is used to cook grains, stocks, legumes and more. Boiled foods absorb liquid, so they become moist and soft (think boiled veggies or pasta); red meat, however, tends to toughen and become flavourless when cooked this way.
A rolling boil is done over high heat, creating big bubbles that rise and pop in rapid succession. Jam recipes require a rolling boil to create a thick, sticky consistency. A gentle boil, or simmer, is done over lower heat and produces constant but much smaller bubbles. This technique concentrates liquids more gently and doesn’t require stirring to keep it from boiling over.
You don’t need much equipment to boil. A heavy-bottomed pot and a functioning burner is plenty – the barbecue can even be the heat source.
Try it out with this recipe: Shrimp Boil with Sausage, Potatoes & Corn.
Braising refers to cooking foods in liquid over low heat for a relatively long time, until tender.
Braising is a low-and-slow type of cooking that’s ideal for tougher, fatty cuts of meat, such as ribs, pot roasts and briskets, making them delectably fork-tender. Braising is also good for creating moist, tender vegetable and fish dishes.
A Dutch oven with a tight-fitting lid is perfect for braising and for stewing, which is a similar technique. Braised foods are usually seared first to create a crusty or caramelized exterior and add an extra layer of flavour.
Your slow cooker is another excellent option for braising. Its moist, slow heat creates amazing ribs, roasts and stews. A slow cooker can also be a real budget saver in two ways: it gives tougher, less-expensive cuts of meat a tender texture, and you can make big batches to freeze and eat on busy nights.
Try it out with this recipe: Slow-Cooker Chicken with Sage Butter & Onions.
Breading means coating a food in a dry ingredient that becomes a crispy crust when cooked. Breadcrumbs (fresh, dried or panko), cracker crumbs, quinoa, sesame seeds, finely chopped nuts and coconut are just some of the tasty options to try.
Breading seals in the moisture of the food and works well on meats, poultry, fish and vegetables. To be sure the coating sticks, breaded foods are usually coated in flour first, then dipped in beaten egg before being rolled in crumbs.
Some cooks like to chill breaded items before deep-frying, pan-frying or baking. This helps the coating firm up and stay put when it hits the heat.
Try it out with this recipe: Cheater Schnitzel with Cucumber Salad.
Broiling is done by cooking foods using the upper element of the oven so the direct high heat radiates from above, rather than from below as it does during baking. This technique achieves almost the same results as grilling: a well-browned exterior and a tender, juicy interior.
Broiling is best for tender foods that cook relatively fast, such as grilling steaks or soft vegetables. The direct high heat can burn food if it’s applied too long, so save thicker or chewier cuts of meat for braising.
Since broilers are extremely hot, keep an eye on your food. Stay nearby and check often for doneness, especially if there’s a sugary sauce or cheese in the mix. These can go from golden to blackened in no time.
Try it out with this recipe: Broiled Dijon Crusted Sole with Lemons.
Deep-frying refers to cooking foods in a large amount of hot oil, usually 2 to 3 inches (5 to 8 cm) deep, so that they float freely. You can use a large pot, deep skillet or deep fryer for this technique. A high-sided cast-iron skillet is a solid choice for making crispy old-school fried chicken.
Breading is usually a feature of deep-fried foods. The hot oil creates a really crispy coating and seals in the juices of the food. It’s a tasty technique for cooking meats, poultry, fish, vegetables – and even fruit.
For deep-frying, choose a neutral-tasting oil with a fairly high smoke point (the temperature at which the oil breaks down and starts to smoke). Easy-to-find canola is a good choice, as are peanut or soybean oil.
Try it out with this recipe: Beer Batter Apple Fritters.
To grill is to cook foods over a gas or wood fire or hot charcoal until well browned on the outside and cooked through on the inside.
Grilling is an excellent technique for a huge variety of foods, including meat, vegetables and pizza, many of which can be cooked to whatever doneness you prefer.
For direct grilling, the food is placed over the heat source so it comes into contact with the flames. For indirect grilling, food is placed beside the heat source; in a gas barbecue, this means putting the food on the grate over an unlit burner and lighting the remaining burners. Direct grilling works well for smaller, quick-cooking cuts of meat such as steaks and chops, while indirect grilling is ideal for larger cuts like roasts and whole chickens, which require longer cooking times.
Watch and learn: How to Grill Pizza.
Also known as shallow-frying, this method refers to cooking food in a skillet in a small amount of oil, usually 1/2 inch (1 cm) deep or less.
Like deep-frying, pan-frying creates a golden, crispy crust, but with much less oil and less mess – though you do have to turn the food (only once!), since it’s not submerged in the oil. The hot oil can splash a bit, so a spatter screen can make this job even neater.
Pan-frying is a delicious, simple way to cook vegetables, fish, pork chops and cutlets, especially breaded ones. They come out crunchy and tender at the same time – the best of both worlds.
Try it out with this recipe: Herb & Cheddar Crumb Pork Chops.
Poaching means cooking foods by submerging them in a saucepan or deep skillet of gently simmering liquid.
Poaching is similar to boiling, but the liquid bubbles less vigorously. The technique is often used to cook delicate foods, such as fish or eggs. Chicken breasts are also delicious when poached and served with a flavourful sauce.
Eggs are usually poached in a saucepan full of water mixed with a tablespoon of vinegar. For fish, using a broth made with a mixture of herbs and aromatics, such as carrots, celery and onions, is a traditional and delicious way to add flavour. Many different liquids work for poaching, including wine, juice, stock or even milk.
Try it out with this recipe: Ginger-Lime Poached Sole.
Roasting means cooking foods in the oven at a medium to high temperature without the use of a large amount of liquid.
Roasting is essentially the same as baking, but the term is usually used when you’re cooking large cuts of meat, whole poultry or vegetables that don’t contain (or are not surrounded by) a lot of liquid.
A shallow roasting pan with a rack is a must-have tool for roasting meat and poultry. The rack raises the food off the bottom of the pan, allowing the rich juices to collect underneath. Don’t toss the juices when the meat is done – they make a tasty sauce on their own, or they can be transformed into thick gravy.
Try it out with this recipe: Zucchini & Parmesan-Stuffed Roast Chicken.
From the French word for “jump,” to sauté means to cook foods in heated fat until they are browned outside but still tender inside.
Onions and garlic are often sautéed to soften them and build a flavour base for a dish. Vegetables and chunks of meat also benefit from sautéing when you’re making stews or soups, as browning adds a savoury richness to the finished dish.
To sauté, heat a small amount of butter or oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the food and keep it moving almost constantly with a utensil to ensure even browning.
The trick to a good sauté: never overload the pan. When moist foods such as cubed meat are crowded, they steam rather than brown. Sauté them in smaller batches, adding a little more fat to the pan before starting the next batch.
Try it out with this recipe: Sautéed Eggplant with Oregano Vegetable Toss.
Searing means cooking briefly over high heat on the stove, in the oven or on the barbecue to create a deep brown crust on the exterior of foods. The term "browning" is frequently used to mean the same thing.
Searing is the essence of steak grilling. It’s also a great first step before braising a roast or stewing cubes of meat because it adds flavour in two ways: by forming the tasty crust and by creating browning bits on the bottom of the pan. When the pan is deglazed with a liquid such as wine or stock (in other words, when a liquid is added to a hot pan after searing), those yummy browned bits are captured and give the sauce a rich, savoury depth.
To sear on the stovetop, you’ll need a good-quality heavy-bottomed pot that retains heat well. In the oven, a simple roasting pan works, and the barbecue grates do the job when you’re grilling.
Watch and learn: Searing 101.
To steam means to cook food above (not in) boiling water in a tightly covered or sealed pan.
This is a terrific method for cooking fresh vegetables so they turn out tender-crisp instead of limp. Steamed fish and chicken come out ultra-moist. When steaming, no fat is required to keep the food from sticking to the pan, so the technique is often used to make lower-calorie dishes.
There are stand-alone steamers, but a simple rack or basket insert works well inside a standard saucepan. Chinese cuisine features lots of steamed dumplings and other dishes; a traditional bamboo steamer is great for steaming everything from fish to meat to vegetables.
Try it out with this recipe: Steamed Ginger Cod Packets with Rice & Vegetables.
Stewing means cooking foods in a relatively large amount of liquid over low heat for a long period of time to yield a thick but soupy dish.
Stewing is not very different from braising. It’s done over medium-low or low heat, and can happen on the stovetop or in the oven.
Stews often include browned meat, but they may be made with vegetables, fish or many other ingredients. Curries are a great example of stews: they contain many small pieces of meat, poultry, fish or vegetables in a thick, rich gravy that gets more flavourful and concentrated the longer it cooks. Chili is another perfect example of a tasty stew cooked low and slow.
Try it out with this recipe: Easy Tomato & Basil Chicken Stew.
To stir-fry means to cook foods over high heat, moving them constantly with a utensil, in a small amount of hot oil.
This technique is often used in Asian cuisine to create dishes that feature small pieces of meat, poultry or tofu; tender-crisp vegetables; and a savoury pan sauce.
A carbon-steel wok is the classic choice for making stir-fries. It heats up quickly and stays super-hot. Stainless steel woks and extra-large frying pans are good tools, too, and some woks even have a non-stick coating, which helps sugary sauces adhere to food without burning the surface of the pan.
Like deep-frying and pan-frying, stir-frying is best done using oils with a high smoke point. Peanut oil is the favourite in Asian cuisine, but safflower and canola oil are other easy-to-find, reasonably priced options.
Watch and learn: Stir-Fry 101.