If you want to take your cooking to the next level, master these indispensable food preparation techniques. They're part of every great chef's approach to classic cuisine, and you owe it to yourself to give them a try. Here's everything you need to know about searing, deglazing, poaching and how and why to make a roux, all made step-by-step simple.
Food Preparation Technique #1 Searing:
There’s a good reason to sear meat before you add it to your recipe: searing makes the meat taste richer and adds a tantalizing flavor and aroma. It’s also not hard to do.
- Start with a cast-iron or heavy uncoated skillet, pre-heated to medium-high heat.
- Cut up the meat and dry it with paper towels. Drying creates a delicious crust on the meat.
- Add oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Be careful not to use too much oil because you want the meat to stick to the pan. My new favorite oil is avocado oil, as it has a very high smoke point (much higher than most other oils, including olive oil) and is a very healthy fat.
- Once the pan is hot, add the chunks of meat—but don’t crowd them together. The meat will stick to the bottom of the pan where you want to let it sit undisturbed. Let the meat form a dark brown crust; you’ll know it’s time to flip it over and sear the other side when you shake the pan, and the meat comes free.
- If the meat smells like it’s burning or looks too dry, reduce the heat and add more oil.
Food Preparation Technique #2: Deglazing
When you’re finished searing, there’ll be a brown residue in the pan. This is called the “fond.”
- While the pan is still hot, add a cup of water, broth or wine to the fond.
- Scrape the fond off the bottom of the pan with a spatula, and let it mix with the liquid.
- Use the resulting liquid as the base for gravy or stew, or let it reduce (boil down) for a sauce. See the section on poaching to learn how to make a reduction.
Food Preparation Technique #3: Poaching
Poaching means to simmer food in liquid over low heat. When done right, poaches tenderizes the food and intensifies the flavor. You can poach chicken, fish, vegetables and even fruit. Poached pears in wine or fruit juice is a classic and elegant dessert. Poached fish flakes right off the bones. An added plus is that the poaching liquid is excellent for making a reduction sauce, after cooking.
- Start with a sauté pan, which is a flat-bottomed pan with straight sides, usually 12” in diameter with a cover. It’s important to keep the liquid at a consistent depth, with the food being only half submerged.
- You can use an excellent variety of liquid to complement the food you’re poaching. Fruit juices, wine, plain salted water, or water with herbs and spices is a great start—it all depends on your recipe and your taste.
- Cook at a slow simmer over low heat. Don’t let the liquid come to a boil—you want the food to cook slowly.
- The recipe you’re using will tell you whether to cover or partially cover the pan and for how long. The point of this is to add steam for additional tenderness.
- When the food’s out of the pan and onto the serving dish, use the leftover liquid and spices to make the reduction. Add a small amount of butter or oil and boil the liquid down. Refresh the spices if needed. When it’s the consistency of a sauce, spoon the reduction over the food.
Food Preparation Technique #4: Making a Roux
“Roux” is a French word for a cooked mix of flour and fat that works as a thickening for dishes like creamy sauces, chowders, and classic Cajun gumbo. Roux is categorized by its color, which depends on how long it cooks, and different recipes call for different colors. Keep in mind that roux is supposed to thicken your recipe. The darker it is, the less it thickens.
Roux starts with equal weights of fat (usually butter, but lard or vegetable oil also work) and flour. Melt the butter over low or medium-low heat, and then add the flour, continuously stirring to mix the flour and fat. Avoid letting the roux scorch. The texture will look like wet sand, but it prevents lumps when you add the liquid.
The colors are:
- White: Cook 10 or 15 minutes.
- Light Brown: Cook up to 40 minutes until it’s the color of peanut butter.
- Medium Brown: 50 or 60 minutes until it’s a copper color.
- Dark Brown: 70 or 80 minutes. This is “gumbo” roux, and it resembles the color of dark chocolate.
- Brick Roux: Over 80 minutes until it’s reddish and smells rich and nutty. By this time, the roux won’t thicken a recipe, but will impart an excellent flavor and make a great base or sauce.
When the roux turns the color you want, gradually add the liquid specific to your recipe to make the sauce, whisking constantly. Skim off any surface foam as it comes to a simmer. The sauce should simmer for at least 30 minutes, and the longer it cooks, the richer the taste and the more velvety the texture. Roux is tricky to master, but you'll get the hang of it with practice.
You can store roux for about a month, either refrigerated or frozen in an air-tight container. This versatile ingredient will separate in storage, but bring it to room temperature and give it a stir when you’re ready to use it.
Searing, deglazing, reductions, poaching and making a roux can add a lot of variety to your cooking. Have fun trying these out. Bon appetit!