Culinary Arts

What Is Cooking? Learn the Art of Preparing Food and All the Cooking Techniques You Should Know

Written by MasterClass

May 31, 2019 • 10 min read

When you’re new to it, cooking can feel like a vast, unpredictable sea full of strange ingredients and even stranger rituals. (Even when you’re not new, it can feel that way.) The trick is to jump in again and again and again, until you can see the patterns and begin to map your favorite routes inside the kitchen.

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What Is Cooking?

Depending on who you ask, cooking is either an art, a science, or a perfect blend of both. No matter how you look at it, cooking is, essentially, the practice of transforming something into something else. Bread into toast, if you will.

16 Essential Cooking Techniques

The key to cooking, just like dancing, is about knowing the moves. Practice these techniques, and they’ll open up a whole other realm of expression in your cooking. Often multiple types of cooking occur side-by-side in any given recipe.

Sautéed vegetables in pan with wooden spoon and kitchen towel

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Sautéing

The definition of sauté is to fry food in a small amount of fat. Sautéing involves the transfer of heat from pan to food, usually lubricated by a thin coating of oil that both prevents food from sticking to the pan and aids in the conduction of heat, browning the surface of meat or vegetables. It’s a quick, high-heat method ideal for foods that only need brief cooking, such as tender vegetables, steaks, and chicken breast, and it’s also useful for browning aromatics before making a soup or stew, or meats before a braise. Learn more about sautéing in our complete guide here.

To make a quick zucchini sauté, heat chopped garlic in a few tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. Add sliced zucchini to the pan, and turn to coat in oil. Let cook, only stirring occasionally, for a few minutes, until zucchini takes on a nice golden brown hue. Season to taste.

Vegetables being stir fried in pan with wooden spoon on stove

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Stir-Frying

Stir-frying is a Chinese technique that involves cooking ingredients in a small amount of ripping hot oil in a wok—a deep, thin pan that conducts heat extraordinarily well. (If you don't have a wok, but want to make a stir-fry, sautéing is a suitable stand-in technique.) Think of true stir-frying as a high octane version of the sauté—the signature flip up the wok’s high walls guarantees an even, quick cook. Stir-frying in a skillet is really just pan-frying.

Stir-fry cubes of firm tofu (marinated in grated ginger and garlic, a dash of your chili sauce of choice, and soy/fish sauce) in a tablespoon of oil over high heat, shaking the wok to brown the tofu on all sides, then season to taste and serve with fresh rice, sliced scallions, and kimchi.

Steak in pan held by tongs with butter and garlic

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Searing

When grilling, braising, or sautéing, the surface of the ingredient is first seared at a high temperature to create a flavor-packed, caramelized, and browned crust. (This is also referred to as “browning.”) The key with searing is patience: it’s very tempting to move meat or fish around once it hits the pan, but give it a good uninterrupted chance to fully brown before turning it to the other side—it will lift and separate from the pan when it’s fully ready.

To pan-sear a whole fish, heat cooking oil in a large pan until nice and hot. Gently lay your fish (scaled, gutted, and seasoned; slits cut along both sides) in the center of the pan. Let the first side crisp up completely—4 to 5 minutes—before flipping and repeating on the second side. Serve with roasted lemons and chimichurri.

Meats and vegetables being grilled with flame

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Grilling

Grilling is a method of cooking food on a metal grate directly over a heat source—a gas flame, burning coals, or firewood—which involves heat transfer via radiation. The high heat involved in grilling allows for very rapid browning, so it’s best for foods that don’t need prolonged cooking. Learn more about grilling in our complete guide here.

To make grilled skirt steak with any number of accompaniments, rub steak with a light coat of oil. Prepare a grill by lightly oiling grates or spraying with nonstick cooking spray. For a gas grill, preheat to medium-high heat. Cook steak until a deep brown crust forms, about 2 to 3 minutes per side for medium rare. If you want medium well, cook for an additional couple of minutes per side. Let rest for 10 minutes and slice into thin strips. Serve with an herb butter and roasted potatoes.

(Grilling isn’t just for the outdoors, either. Learn how to grill indoors on a hibachi in Chef Thomas Keller’s MasterClass.)

Braised meat in cast iron skillet with utensils

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Braising

Braising is a combination-cooking method that starts with pan-searing followed by slow cooking in a liquid—usually in a Dutch oven or a slow cooker—until ingredients become tender. Learn more about braising in our complete guide here.

To add a bright, tangy kick to your braise, after you’ve browned bone-in chicken thighs or breasts in a Dutch oven, deglaze with ½ cup red or white wine vinegar then add any vegetables and aromatics you’d like, such as garlic and shallots or tomato and chili paste, to make a pan sauce. Cook until tender, then add stock or broth and return chicken to the pot. Cover, then lower the heat or transfer to a 300°F oven, and cook for 40-45 minutes, checking for doneness periodically. Or if you're looking for a vegetable-centric side dish, try Chef Thomas Keller's recipe for braised artichokes.

Stew of meat and carrots in pot with raw ingredients on wood

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Stewing

A very close relative of the braise and a step away from a soup, stewing is the process of cooking solid ingredients in liquid until they turn melty and soft and infused with flavor. Because they usually feature a mix of vegetables and proteins, the texture is incredibly hearty and reminiscent of an indulgent gravy.

To make a basic stew, sauté aromatics like garlic and onion in olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium high heat. Add your vegetables and/or protein and allow to brown and soak up all the flavor you’ve built, then add 2 to 3 cups braising liquid (stock, wine, or water), depending on how saucy you’d like your stew to be. Season to taste, and bring to a boil. Lower heat to a simmer and cook until contents are tender and cooked to your preference.

Vegetables and salmon in pot with water on black background

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Steaming

Steaming is one of the more elegant cooking techniques out there, it requires nothing more than a light touch and yields a delicate result. It’s one of the healthiest methods, too, known for retaining nutrition and flavor, since proteins like fish are able to cook in their own juices. By keeping water at a rolling boil and trapping the steam, food is cooked by a gentle constant heat. You can steam using steamer baskets/inserts or by folding parchment paper into a packet, a technique known as “en papillote.”

To steam root vegetables—such as turnips—fill a saucepan with just enough water that it reaches the bottom of a steamer basket. Bring to a boil, add your vegetables to the basket. Cover, and steam for 3 minutes, then check their texture—you want something that gives easily to the tip of a paring knife, but isn’t mushy. Remove from the steamer and toss with a sauce or a tablespoon of butter with kosher salt and black pepper.

Banana bread in tin with bananas and wooden utensils

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Baking

The process of baking surrounds food with a low to medium dry heat for a set amount of time, usually in an oven. Things like breads and pastries are cooked from the outside in, creating a light crust around a soft, airy center. Quick breads like banana bread are easy to throw together and bake, but so is this low-and-slow take on short ribs.

Roasted chicken in white dish with garlic and wooden spoons

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Roasting

The main difference between baking and roasting is the temperature: while baked goods usually sit in the neighborhood of 350°F for prolonged periods, roasting uses high temperatures to create a crisp, golden brown crust and penetrate more complex ingredients, like a whole roasted chicken.

Root vegetables, like these carrots from Chef Wolfgang Puck, along with things like brassicas, are particularly easy to roast: toss cut vegetables of choice—think sweet potatoes, carrots, broccolini, brussels sprouts, cauliflower—with a drizzle of olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Preheat oven to 400°F. Spread vegetables on a baking sheet and roast for anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes, stirring halfway through to get an even crisp.

Egg frittata in cast iron skillet on white wood

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Broiling

One step above roasting is broiling: a concentrated, high-temperature blast of heat typically used as a finishing touch. Similar in execution to grilling, where the direct comes from below, broiling radiates down from the top of your oven (or, in older ovens, the pull-out drawer at the bottom).

Use the setting to bring out crackly bubbles on the surface of a frittata, toast the cheesy breadcrumbs top of old-fashioned macaroni and cheese, or use it to sear meat just as you would on a grill—just keep an eye on it. Broilers will go rogue faster than you think.

Fried chicken with condiments on wood board with forks

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Deep-Frying

When a recipe calls for crispy, craggly, golden coating, deep-frying is the way to get it done. Deep-frying cooks food by submerging it in hot fat—usually vegetable oil—and while it’s perhaps one of the more infamously bad-for-you cooking methods, it’s without a doubt one of the tastiest.

Heat oil (enough so that ingredients won't crowd each other) in a deep pot over high heat. Dredge a firm white fish like tilapia in a batter (flour, salt, and a liquid like club soda or beer, mixed until it has a pourable consistency) and gently drop into hot oil. Fry until golden brown and remove with a slotted spoon to a rack. Or make Chef Thomas Keller's famous fried chicken.

Snap peas in a bowl of ice water on marble

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Blanching

Blanching vegetables involves cooking them quickly in generously salted water to draw out their vibrant flavors and colors. Shocking vegetables with an ice bath post-blanching immediately halts the cooking process. A French Nicoise salad is a prime opportunity for blanched greatness: pair snappy green beans and boiled eggs with oil-cured tuna, olives, boiled potatoes, and fresh tomatoes for a protein-packed salad, all nestled together and topped with a mustardy vinaigrette. Learn more about blanching in our complete guide here.

Brussel sprouts in bowl being poured into water

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Boiling

Whether you’re making pasta or whole grains, cooking an egg, or just need a quick blanch, boiling is a quick and clean cooking technique. To boil pasta, add a tablespoon of kosher salt to a medium to large pot and bring to a boil. Add pasta to the boiling water and cook until al dente (2 to 3 minutes for fresh Italian pasta, 6 to 8 for dried). Finish pasta by directly adding it to your chosen sauce, adding ¼ cup pasta water at a time to find the best consistency.

Pasta sauce simmering in pan with wooden spoon

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Simmering

Simmering is an even gentler, low-heat form of boiling. When you simmer something, there’s less general movement in the pot or pan (a full boil, for example moves things around quite a bit) and so flavors are able to melt into one another much more seamlessly—and the structure of the individual ingredients is much better maintained. No mushy edges! When adding braising or stewing liquid to a pot or pan, bring mixture to a boil to establish the heat but then bring the temperature back down to allow the nuances to take their time and mingle.

Poached eggs with hollandaise sauce on bread

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Poaching

When liquid is percolating just below a simmer, it makes for perfect poaching conditions—especially for something delicate like poached eggs. This term also refers to cooking something in just enough liquid to cover it.

Meats and fish in plastic bag with herbs and lime on wood

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Sous Vide

Sous vide (pronounced soo veed) is a cooking technique that requires placing raw ingredients in a vacuum-sealed bag and immersing the bag in a heated, circulating water bath. Sous vide machines are called immersion circulators, and work by simultaneously heating and circulating a pot of water to maintain a precise temperature. Learn more about sous vide in our complete guide here.

To sous vide something like ribeye steak, season as you normally would with salt, pepper, butter, oil, and even some whole herbs. Place the steak and other seasonings into your plastic bag. (Think of this as similar to a marinade, but instead of marinating before cooking, a sous vide marinates and cooks at the same time.) For a medium-rare steak, heat the water to 134ºF and cook the steak for about 1 to 4 hours—each immersion circulator has slightly varied cooking times and cooking temperatures, so refer to the manufacturer's recommendations.

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