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The Secret to Controlling Heat in the Kitchen

Learning to control heat is one of the most important (and overlooked) steps on the road to becoming a good cook. While some people seem born with an innate understanding of temperature control, others just aren’t so lucky. For those who can’t seem to get a chicken breast cooked all the way through before it’s black on the outside, or whose scrambled eggs are perpetually dry and rubbery, we put together a list of techniques and tips to help. While the best, and really only, way to gain confidence and proficiency in the kitchen is through practice, the below should point you in the right direction.

Searing

A technique in which the surface of the food is cooked at a high temperature until a caramelized crust forms.

When to sear:

Searing is normally used as a first step in the cooking process to develop flavor and is most often used for proteins such as beef, pork, chicken, fish, and shellfish.

How to sear:

Heat a large pan over medium-high heat for one minute. Brush dry, room temperature protein with oil (a neutral oil with a high burning temperature such as safflower is ideal) and season generously with salt and pepper. Add to the pan, being sure to leave at least one inch between each piece, and cook, undisturbed, until one side is beautifully browned and easily lifts away from the pan (the time will vary depending on what you are cooking—a scallop may take only one minute while a chicken thigh could take up to seven). Flip and cook until nicely browned on the second side. Now the food is ready to be roasted in the oven, braised, or, in the case of a small scallop, served.

Tips to keep in mind while searing:

  1. MOST IMPORTANT TIP: Bring your food up to room temperature. If it is too cold, it will cool down the pan and cooking oil too much and the food will start to steam rather than sear.

  2. Dry well before searing. Use a paper towel to dry off any protein before seasoning, which will also help ensure that the food sears rather than steams.

  3. Don’t overcrowd the pan: If the pan is too full, the liquid that the protein expels as it cooks won’t be able to evaporate and will steam instead of searing.

  4. Be patient: getting a proper sear on a steak or a piece of chicken could take 10 minutes, but it’s worth the wait. You’ll know it’s time to flip when the food lifts easily from the pan, not before.

Braising

A technique in which the main ingredient is first seared then cooked in liquid at a low temperature.

When to braise:

Braising is a great technique for tougher cuts of meat such as short ribs, brisket, and chicken thighs, which benefit from a long, slow cooking process.

How to braise:

The first step to a good braise is getting a proper sear (see above), which will help the dish develop flavor. Once seared, place the protein in a pot with a fitted lid (or you can use a baking dish and tightly cover it with foil) and submerge in a liquid flavored with aromatics such as herbs and vegetables. The whole dish is then cooked over very low heat (it should be simmering but not boiling) for at least one hour and sometimes as long as overnight until the muscles in the meat break down and the flavors infuse.

Tips to keep in mind while braising:

  1. MOST IMPORTANT TIP: See “How To Sear,” above.

  2. Be sure to get a really good sear on all sides of the protein to ensure great flavor.

  3. Choose the right size cooking vessel: the protein should just fit comfortably in the pot and the liquid should be at least ¾ of the way up the meat—if the pot is too big, the meat will dry out and the liquid will evaporate as it cooks.

  4. Make sure your pot has a tight-fitting lid (a dutch oven is perfect) or if not, be sure to cover very tightly in aluminum foil. A good lid helps keep in all of the steam and make sure the liquid doesn’t evaporate as the meat cooks.

  5. Be patient—depending on the cut, a proper braise could take all day, so don’t rush it. If you check the meat and it isn’t tender after the amount of time the recipe has indicated, put it back in the oven and cook for another 30 minutes. There is a magic point at which the muscles will break down and the meat will become spoon-tender—trust us, it’s worth waiting for that point.

  6. Most people choose to braise in the oven (at around 325°F), but you can also braise on the stovetop. Just be sure to cook over very low heat and maintain a very gentle simmer the whole time.

Boiling

Boiling occurs at 212°F and is characterized by large bubbles quickly rising to the surface from the bottom of the pot and the dish continuously giving off steam.

When to boil:

You want liquids to be at a boiling point for cooking pasta, blanching vegetables, or building initial heat in a dish that will be cooked over a longer period of time.

How to boil:

To get something up to a boil as quickly as possibly, crank the heat to high and cover with a lid.

Tips to keep in mind while boiling:

  1. MOST IMPORTANT TIP: If you’re in a hurry and have en electric kettle, boil water quickly before emptying into a pot. Otherwise, a large pot of water can take a long time to boil.

  2. When boiling pasta or blanching vegetables, keep the heat over high; when you initially add the food to the water, it will decrease the temperature, and you want to return it to the boiling point as quickly as possible.

  3. To blanch vegetables, add them to the pot of salted, boiling water and drain as soon as it returns to a boil. Be sure to chill in an ice bath to keep green veggies green and crunchy.

Simmering

Simmering occurs between 180°F and 200°F and is characterized by small bubbles gently rising to the surface every couple of seconds.

When to simmer:

You want liquids at a simmering point when poaching and to gently cook a sauce, soup, or stew over a long period of time.

How to simmer:

First bring the liquid up to a boil, then turn down the heat until small bubbles rise to the surface every couple of seconds (usually low or medium-low on a gas stove).

Tips to keep in mind while simmering:

  1. MOST IMPORTANT TIP: The best time to season for the first time is right after you turn it down after boiling.

  2. Check your dish often. When a dish is simmering, it will gain relative heat, so be sure to check it often and adjust the heat as necessary to maintain just a simmer.

  3. Stir often. As something like a pasta sauce simmers, you risk the bottom sticking and burning, so be sure to stir often, making sure everything is moving and cooking evenly.

Sautéing

Since sautéing is a bit of a catch-all term referring to any sort of cooking done in a pan on the stove with a little fat, we’ve broken this technique into two sections—sautéing over high heat (when you want to brown your food) and sautéing over low heat (when you want to slowly cook your food without browning). If you’d like to split the difference (developing slow flavor and getting a little color), sauté over medium heat.

High Heat Sautéing or Pan-Frying

Derived from the French verb “sauter,” which means to jump, sautéing is a technique in which food is cooked in a little fat over relatively high heat.

When to sauté over high heat:

Pan-frying, or sautéing over high heat, is a quick cooking technique designed to add flavor to food that is either small or thin (such as corn kernels removed from the cobb, a pounded chicken paillard, a thin fillet of fish, or shaved Brussels sprouts) or has already been cooked and just needs a little color to finish heating and to give it flavor (such as steamed veggies or soaked noodles for a stir-fry).

How to pan-sear:

Heat a sauté pan (frying pan, dutch oven, whatever you are using) over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, add a bit of fat, then add your food. Let the food cook, undisturbed, in the pan until it has started to brown, then flip or stir to let the remainder brown.

Tips to keep in mind while sautéing over high heat:

  1. Don’t overcrowd the pan. Since the goal here is to get some color on your food, be sure to add only what fits in a single layer. If you need to do this in batches, do it.

  2. Don’t stir too often. Letting the food cook, undisturbed, allows it to develop nice color and by extension, flavor.

  3. Heat the pan before adding your fat. If you add oil to the pan before it’s hot, it might smoke as it heats up, so we like to add the oil just before adding the food.

  4. Use a neutral oil such as safflower or peanut, which have high smoking points. If you’d like to use butter for flavor, add a little oil as well to help keep the butter from burning.

Low Heat Sautéing or Sweating

Food cooked over medium or medium-low heat in a little fat until soft and often translucent.

When to sweat:

Sweat or sauté over low heat when you want to cook something gently without getting color on it. This is true of something like soffrito or sliced onions that will be cooked for a long time until translucent and soft, to develop sweetness and flavor, or something like scrambled eggs, which need to be cooked gently in order to stay tender and moist.

How to sweat:

Heat your pan over low or medium-low heat. Add fat of choice (we usually use a mix of butter and olive oil), then add your ingredients. Sauté, stirring often until the food is cooked to your liking (this may take three minutes for scrambled eggs or one hour for sautéed onions).

Tips to keep in mind while sautéing over low heat:

  1. Don’t worry about over-crowding. Since you want the food to cook slowly and gently, you actually want a little moisture in the pan. If the heat is too high, the natural juices in the food will evaporate too quickly and your food will brown rather than sweat.

  2. Start low. You can always up the heat if you want, but there is no way to go back once you’ve browned your food.

  3. Stir often. You want to make sure that your food is not sticking and browning, and stirring helps ensure that.

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