The moist cooking methods fall into three categories: Braising, Poaching, Steaming. Moist-heat cooking methods generally use lower temperatures than dry-heat cooking methods. Oddly we use the two extremes for delicate items and the middle range for tougher items. Poaching is so low temperature and so gentle that fish and eggs can be cooked without damage. Steaming at a much higher temperature only exposes the food to the steam, so it can also be used for delicate items. On the contrary, braising is for the tough items; really tough. Its cooked so long that the connective tissue in meats will gelatinize and soften so the meat is fork tender. If you have lean tender meat already, its best to sauté or fry the item.
When poaching and steaming, its best to involve liquids other than water to bring more flavor to the party. Herbs and spices in the liquid constantly rushing over the food as it cooks imparts a basting like quality to the process.
- Poaching = 140-180 degrees
- Braising = 180-205 degrees
- Steaming = 212 degrees
Poaching is an immersion technique at low temperatures ranging from 140°F to 180°F. Some foods won’t stand up to higher temperatures like braising, so poaching is for cooking delicate items like eggs and fish. At poaching temperatures, the liquid won’t be bubbling at all.
Braising is a cooking method for tough cuts of meats, but can also be used for vegetable dishes. Braised meats are first browned and then cooked in a liquid that serves as a sauce for the meat. Braising makes an exchange of liquids bringing the meat flavor into the braising liquid and the braising liquid flavor into the meat. Braising is usually a long process where the meat connective tissue will gelatinize so the meat is almost fork tender but not falling apart. When selecting cuts of meat, the process will work best of the meat is marbled with fat. The process will not involve temperatures high enough to brown the meat, so it must be pan seared before the braising liquids are added.
Meats are normally simmered at temperatures between 180 degrees F and 200 degrees F. Unlike poaching the braise, simmer, stew, etc., immersion cooking methods will have water at a temperature where bubbles rise through the liquid. The meat and the braising liquid are brought to a boil over direct heat. The temperature is then reduced below boiling, and the pot is covered. Cooking can be finished in the oven or on the stove top. Near the end of the cooking process, the lid may be removed from oven-braised meats. This gives the liquid a chance to reduce and thicken to form a sauce. It will also give a chance for the chef to baste the meat with the thickening sauce.
Braising is more of a family of methods and can include the following:
- Casseroling – It is taken from the name of the cooking dish used – an ovenproof dish with a tight-fitting lid refereed to as a ‘casserole dish’. This is not so much of a variation in the method as a common name for a braise when done in a casserole dish. However, the dish is used in the oven and braising can be done on the stovetop.
- Slow Cooker/Crockpot – Similar to casseroling and stewing it cooks the food in a liquid but over an extended period of up to 12 hours. Incidentally, “Crockpot” is a brand name manufacturer of slow cookers whose name has become synonymous with the method in the US.
- Stewing – stewing is usually associated with smaller or bite-sized pieces of meat. Stews, like braised meats, get much of their flavor from their cooking liquid. The main difference is that the small cuts of meat are submerged in the liquid while a true braise involves liquid 3/4 up the sides of the meat
- Tagine – Like the Casserole, the Tagine is a cooking vessel and the dishes made in the tagine take their name from the vessel. It is Moroccan in origin and whole books are devoted to Tagine cooking. When speaking of the dish and not the vessel, the characteristic Moroccan flavors can be combined in a braising dish or stewpot and still be called a tagine.
Steaming This method involves cooking food in the steam produced from boiling water, either in direct contact or indirect. Steaming can include variations from the traditional bamboo or stainless steamer to include any way the meat is cooked by steam and not direct liquid immersion.
Steam occurs when water comes to 212 degrees, which means all steam cooking occurs at 212 degrees where other methods can be at lower temperatures as the food is cooked immersed in the liquid. In steaming, the temperature must be at 212 as the food is typically above the liquid and only gets the convection heat of the steam.
Very small amounts of liquid can be used to steam if you encase the food in pouches, or what the French call a Papillote by taking parchment paper cut in a butterfly shape and wrapped in a loose bubble around the food. Different combinations of meats and vegetables can be placed in the center of the pouch before closing and a small amount of flavorful liquid can be added so it steams away inside the pouch while the whole thing is baked in an oven.
Blanching & Parboiling
These methods are not used to finish a or completely cook an item, but are used instead to prepare items for further cooking under a different method. Blanching is a process wherein the food, is plunged into boiling water or hot fat, removed after a brief, timed interval, and finally plunged into iced water or placed under cold running water (shocked) to halt the cooking process. Food is blanched to soften it, or to partly or fully cook it, or to remove a strong taste
Parboiling (or leaching) is similar to blanching but the cooking time is longer. You may blanch an item for 30 seconds or less to maintain a healthy green color such as in asparagus or spinach. Its also used to make peeling tomato skins easier. Parboiling is used to initially cook an item such as a potato so later cooking will be quicker. Potatoes can be parboiled and then sliced up for a potato hash so that the potatoes will cook and be done at the same time as more tender ingredients.