Cooking Techniques

Choose your cooking technique based on your raw ingredients — different foods benefit from different methods. For example, large cuts of meat full of connective tissue need to be cooked slowly over a long period of time to break down their fiber and make them easier to chew, whereas ripe fresh berries are best simply macerated for a few minutes before serving. Delicate vegetables need nothing more than a quick sautéing or blanching to highlight and amplify their natural flavors, but root vegetables need to be thoroughly cooked before becoming edible. Each food has a specific need; your job as a cook is to learn to listen.

When we’re designing a new dish and are deciding how to approach a particular ingredient, we think about its texture, flavor, density, fat content, and appearance. Then we ask ourselves questions. How can we make a roasted leg of lamb juicier? How can we add more body to the soup without saturating it with fat? How long should we infuse the cream with nuts and flowers so that it absorbs their perfume without becoming cloying? In other words, we try to pick a complementary cooking method for each food. Here are some of the basics.

BLANCHING

Blanching is a technique commonly used to precook vegetables and legumes. It involves submerging them briefly in salted boiling water and then “shocking” them in an ice-water bath to preserve their color and prevent them from overcooking. Blanching is also used to soften the bitterness of vegetables like rapini, and to make fruits like peaches easy to peel.

BRAISING

Braising uses both moist and dry heat to create tender, drop-off-the-bone meat—a perfect braise will almost melt in your mouth. It’s a particularly good technique for tougher cuts, like veal shank, pork
shoulder, chicken thighs, and duck legs. Typically, braising involves searing the meat until it’s nicely caramelized on the outside, then covering it with liquid (the moist heat) and cooking it slowly in the oven (the dry heat) until the muscle fibers and the connective tissues break down. As the meat cooks, its collagens and gelatins dissolve into the cooking liquid, leaving you with a tasty sauce.

Braising is not restricted to meat. We like to braise vegetables like green garlic, artichokes, and even fennel in chicken stock, seasoning, and a little olive oil. They come out amazingly rich and sweet.

BLIND BAKING

This is a term widely used in the pastry kitchen. It refers to prebaking a tart or pie shell before adding the filling, to ensure that the crust will bake properly and not get soggy. To prevent the crust from puffing up as you blind-bake it, coat the shell lightly with nonstick cooking spray, line it with three coffee filters that are slightly overlapping, and fill it with dried beans or rice. Then bake the shell until golden. Remove the beans and coffee filters, and pour the pie filling of your choice into the prebaked shell.

BRINING

Brining, also known as pickling, is a common practice in our kitchen. We brine many of our proteins—like whole chicken, leg of lamb, pork shoulder, and turkey breast—prior to roasting or making a confit. Traditionally, brining is the first step in meat preservation, but for us, it’s also an efficient way of enhancing the meat’s flavor. Not only does it give large cuts time to absorb their seasonings, but it also tenderizes and moistens the meat and makes it more likely to brown while roasting in the oven.

All brines start with salt and water, but our brine solution also contains sugar (regardless of what else we add, the proportions of those three ingredients always stay the same). Depending on the kind of meat we’re using, we may also include spices, herbs, or aromatic vegetables. The time required depends on the size and the density of the cut of meat—our recipes usually say to brine for about 12 hours. To ensure that the salt and sugar are fully dissolved, start with boiling water (this will also discourage bacteria growth), and make sure to cool the brine down completely before adding your meat. For safety’s sake, start with cold meat, use a nonreactive container to hold the meat, and keep it in the refrigerator while it’s brining. We also recommend setting a heavy plate on top of the meat to make sure that it stays submerged in the brine.

BROILING

Broiling is a vague term that usually refers to cooking food directly under or above the heat source. At the Bakery, we never use a broiler —first, because we don’t have one, and second, because that’s what the wood-fired oven is for. But most home cooks don’t have 700°F wood-fired ovens, so if you’re thinking of using a recipe that calls for one, we recommend using your broiler. Crank it up as high as it will go.

BROWNING VS. SWEATING

Browning means cooking on a hot pan with a small amount of fat to caramelize the exterior of the food (that is, turn it brown). We brown certain proteins before braising them, and we brown vegetables to deepen their flavor. When we pan-fry delicate foods such as fish, we brown the outside to enrich their taste and give them a crispy exterior while keeping the interior moist.

Sweating, on the other hand, means cooking in a pan with a small amount of fat until the food softens but doesn’t brown, which requiresusing low heat. When working with delicate vegetables like leeks, we prefer sweating to browning—it preserves and accentuates the vegetables’ subtle flavors that browning might destroy.

DEGLAZING

To deglaze means to add a small amount of liquid to a pan in which you just browned or sautéed something; its purpose is to dislodge any particles of flavor that might be sticking to the pan and sometimes to add a desirable new flavor. After adding a small amount of water, wine, or stock, use a wooden spoon to scrape up any stuck brown bits. Deglazing adds another dimension to the dish; it’s so effective that we often deglaze a pan several times.

GRILLING

The grill makes us feel like we’re having a cookout every night and provides an adrenaline rush that comes from literally cooking with fire. We use our grill for everything from steaks to sardines, oysters, potatoes, vegetables, and squid—the list goes on and on. No other cooking method uses such direct exposure to fire, and the result is food with a flavorful blackened exterior and smoky undertones.

Using the grill can be challenging. The most important thing is to remember that you’re cooking at a very high heat, which means that your food needs to be prepared in relatively small portions; larger items will burn before they’re cooked all the way through.

HOW TO LIGHT AN OUTDOOR GRILL

We recommend using hardwood or hardwood lump charcoal for your grill (or barbecue). If you can find it, wood from oak, fig, or cherry trees is best. To light your grill, stack the wood or gather the charcoal in apile in the center of the grill. (Once the food is on the grill, it’s too late to burn more wood or add more charcoal, so be sure to start with enough fuel for what you’re cooking.) To light, begin burning a small bundle of newspaper directly beside the wood or charcoal, and encourage the fire to spread by using a piece of stiff cardboard to fan air toward the center of the grill. Your goal is to create a red-hot coal base, not a bonfire. Once the grill is running hot, it’ll give off intense heat, making it almost unbearable to stand right in front of it. If this isn’t the case, wait. It usually takes about 30 minutes to preheat an outdoor grill. When the fire is ready, spread the coals so that you can cook over the entire grate, not just the center. (Food will cook faster toward the center of the grill, but it’s useful to have a few cooler spots toward the side. This way, once your dish is nicely caramelized on the outside, you can place it on the edge of the grate to finish cooking without burning.) Since every grill is different, use the cooking times recommended in our recipes as guidelines, not mandates.

MACERATING

Macerating means soaking fruit or vegetables in liquid or stirring in sugar so that they release their own juices and absorb the desired flavors. It’s a particularly effective way of preparing fresh fruit for dessert: just sprinkle it with sugar and let it sit for about 20 minutes until it releases its tasty juices. Macerating can also come in handy when the fruit is not optimal and needs a little intervention. You can macerate fruit in liquors like brandy, but be careful—alcohol might overwhelm the fruit’s delicate flavor.

ROASTING AND BAKING

Roasting and baking both use the same basic idea: using an oven to provide an enclosed chamber in which food is exposed to dry heat, caramelizing its exterior while cooking through its center.

On average, our wood-fired oven runs at 700oF—hard conditions forthe home cook to replicate—so we’ve adapted many of our wood-fired recipes to work in conventional ovens (though, unfortunately, a conventional oven won’t provide you with the smoky flavor of burning wood). For some recipes, especially pizza, we recommend using a baking stone to better simulate the conditions of a wood-fired oven.

REDUCING

Reducing means simmering a liquid until evaporation thickens it; the resulting concentrate will have a much more intense flavor. To reduce, simmer the liquid over medium to medium-low heat. Doing so will allow impurities to rise to the surface, making them easy to skim off with a ladle or brush. Reducing also increases the viscosity of the liquid, giving it a richer mouth feel.

RENDERING

Rendering refers to removing a meat’s fat by cooking the meat slowly over low heat. Doing so gets rid of excess grease while leaving the meat brown and crisp. Rendering is most commonly used with bacon, pancetta, duck skin, and pork fatback—all of which are considered flavorful fats, since once they’ve been rendered they can be reused for sautéing, frying, or making confit.

SAUTÉING

Sautéing means cooking food in a pan over medium-high heat with a small amount of fat. The word comes from the French sauter, meaning “to jump”—which refers to how you stir the pan’s contents by jerking the pan back and forth and flipping the food quickly in the air. Sautéing is fast; you’re trying to achieve a nice color while maintaining a moist interior and fresh flavor. If you’re looking for a fast way to prepare food, it’s an excellent choice.

SEASONING

Salt and pepper brighten the natural flavors of foods without disguising them, and while we’ll often add other herbs and spices to our recipes, they’re always our first steps.

We use kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Kosher salt is large-grained and additive-free—but be aware that the size of its flakes makes it less dense, so you might find yourself using more salt than you would initially think is necessary. Black peppercorns, native to India and Indonesia, add subtle heat and a hint of sweetness to savory dishes. Freshly ground black peppercorns have far more flavor than the preground pepper in jars that you find at the grocery store—a statement that holds true for most spices.

It takes a while to learn how to season food to your liking, especially when you’re adjusting it before you can actually taste the dish (such as when you’re dealing with raw meat). We find that inexperienced cooks tend to under-season, and then start over-seasoning as they learn to appreciate what salt and pepper do to food. But don’t worry: one day, it just clicks and you learn what “salt and pepper to taste” looks like on a raw steak.

To help speed your learning process, here are some guidelines:

  • Seasoning meat and fish: Season heavily right before searing, panfrying, roasting, broiling, or grilling.
  • Seasoning salads: Season your salad dressing before tossing it with the greens. Then taste the dressed greens and add more salt and pepper if necessary.
  • Seasoning before toasting or roasting: We like to coat nuts and bread slices with a bit of oil and season them lightly with salt before toastingthem. The same concept applies to certain vegetables, like roasted asparagus. You can always add more salt once they’re out of the oven.
  • Seasoning as you go: Throughout our recipes, you’ll notice that we recommend seasoning each of the components as you go—this is the best way to fully develop the flavors of ingredients that are added to a recipe in different stages. Exercise caution though, and be aware that the amounts of salt and pepper will add up in the final dish. Once all the components come together, taste the preparation as a whole and add more salt and pepper if necessary.