By Lisa Golden Schroeder
It’s frustrating when you’re trying to follow a recipe, but are confused by some of the cooking terms used. Sometimes even instructions on a package back can be hard to find, then incomprehensible. What exactly does “al dente” mean when you’re cooking pasta? Or “cream”, “sauté, or “simmer” (as opposed to boiling)? Here are a few definitions of common techniques that I often call for when cooking chicken that might making reading recipes clearer…and help you feel more confident in the kitchen.
Sauté: this is just a French word that means to quickly cook in a small amount of oil in a skillet over direct, fairly high, heat. Sometimes recipes will just say “cook and stir” instead of sauté—but that doesn’t really describe the intensity of sautéing. This method browns the outside of meat while the inside stays moist, and it’s an easy way to cook chicken with other vegetables. It’s important to use a pan that conducts heat well and is large enough to easily turn the food—you don’t want the food to be crowded so it starts to steam. This is closely related to stir-frying, which also relies on cooking at high heat, with a little oil and little liquid.
Braise: this method is all about slow (medium to low heat) cooking in a small amount of liquid—and is great for less-tender cuts of meat or denser foods that will become very tender when braised. It’s important to have a pan or casserole with a tightly fitting lid. Braising can be done on top on the stovetop or in the oven.
Simmer: this is an even slower way to cook—very gently in liquid that is kept just below the boiling point (so just a few small bubbles form and burst before reaching the surface). This is the method used for poaching chicken breasts or making broth.
Roast: this quick-cook technique is all about turning up the heat. True roasting is done at 425˚ to 450˚F. Chicken or vegetables are arranged in an uncovered pan, tossed or brushed with a little oil, and cooked until well browned and crisp on the outside, while staying appetizingly moist and tender on the inside. Pan roasting is done on the stovetop—often in covered Dutch oven.
Pound: flattening out boneless pieces of chicken (breasts or thighs) until they are an even thickness will make them cook quickly and evenly. Place the meat between pieces of plastic wrap or waxed paper and use a rolling pin or meat mallet (use the flat side) to gently, but firmly flatten the meat.
Butterfly or spatchcock: cutting a whole bird open, so it lies flat, will speed up roasting and makes grilling a while bird a cinch. Just use a pair of heavy kitchen shears to cut down both sides of the backbone, actually removing it. Then flatten the bird like an open book with the palm of your hand.
Marinate: this is just soaking chicken in a flavor-filled liquid that boosts taste and sometimes helps tenderize (which usually isn’t a problem with chicken). To really make a difference in flavor, refrigerate the meat in the marinade for at least 1 hour—and be sure to discard the marinade once you start cooking the chicken.
Mince: to just finely chop foods like garlic or onions. It exposes more of the surface of the food to the cooking heat—so the flavor permeates a dish.
Dice: cutting foods into small uniform squares—a little more organized than random chopping. If everything in cut into the same size then cooking willing be more even, and everything will be done at the same time. Most of the time chopping works, but diced ingredients will look nicer, for example in a salad.
Julienne: cutting foods into even matchsticks—it’s easiest if you first slice the food, then stack it before cutting it into the julienne pieces.