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As the New Year begins, many of us are vowing to cook more, eat better, get more homemade dinners on the table. We start digging into healthy recipes, load up on some good whole food ingredients, and set those resolutions. But maybe not all of the terminology is as familiar as it could be. The definition of some cooking techniques might escape us. What does saute mean? What does braised mean? Excellent and fair questions. Here’s are some quick definitions of some of the most common cooking methods.

Chicken Kawarma with Lemon Sauce over Hummus

I wrote this because a while ago I was traveling, and my husband was on his own. We were on the phone, and he said, “Uh, what do I do for dinner?”

(We will pause to acknowledge that I have clearly enabled my people to a sad degree, when it comes to feeding themselves.)

I said, ok, if you’re at a total loss, make some pasta and open up a jar of sauce. We have no sauce, says Gary. So I said, well, sauté up a chopped onion and add a can of crushed tomatoes and some basil and oregano.

“Will do…What does sauté mean again?”

Oh crap. So, Gary, this primer on essential cooking techniques is for you, and for the many people out there who just want a little refresher course on some of the basic cooking terms.

1. What Does Sauté Mean?

It is difficult to think of a cooking method you can use with so many different kinds of food from fish to vegetables to meat to noodles. The definition of sauté literally means “to jump” in French, which alludes to the fact that with this technique the food is tossed around in the skillet quite a bit.

Sauteed Kale and Brussels Sprouts with Bacon

A variety of fats can be used from butter to various oils, or a combination, depending on the food you are sautéing. The pan and the fat must be hot enough so that the food added to the pan starts to brown quickly, since the heat used to cook the food comes directly from the pan itself. The exterior of the food is browned, sometimes only slightly, sometimes more caramelized, and the interior cooked through using this method. It’s somewhere between stir-frying and searing.

Sautéed Recipes

2. What is the Definition of Stir-Frying?

In a classic stir-fry, the food is always cut into similarly sized bite-sized pieces so that it cooks evenly. This method is usually referred to in various Asian cuisines. The cook keeps the food moving using a cooking utensil of some sort, and sometimes shaking the pan itself. The heat beneath the pan must be very high, a small amount of oil is usually used, and you will want to have every single ingredient fully prepped and measured before you begin, since stir-fries wait for no one, and the first ingredients might overcook while you are mincing the final components.

Ingredients are usually added starting with the ones that take the longest to cook, and finishing with the shortest cooking ingredients, so everything reaches just-doneness at the same moment. A wok is the traditional pan used in stir-frying but a large skillet works just as well.

Stir Fry Recipes

3. What Does Sear Mean?

Searing refers to the browning of food — usually pertaining to meat or fish — in a pan over high heat. It often is used at the beginning of the recipe, and the browning caramelizes the natural sugars in the food allowing another layer of flavor to emerge, and also can add a pleasing texture to the outside of the food.

A small amount of fat is usually used with this technique. In the case of a piece of fish, for instance, you may simply sear it on both sides, and the cooking process is complete, while in the case of a tougher cut of meat, the searing may be the first step in the preparation process, followed by braising or roasting.

Seared Recipes

4. What is the Definition of Braised?

Usually this term is used in conjunction with meat, in particular cuts of meat that benefit from long, slow cooking to become tender, though anything from endive to poultry can also be braised. In braising, the food is often browned first, though not necessarily, and then it is finished in a low oven or over a low flame with a moderate amount of liquid (not enough to cover the food), and usually a lid covers the pot so that the liquid condenses on the underside of the lid and self-bastes the dish while it cooks. The definition of braising usually refers to slow cooking with some liquid.

Jewish Brisket for the Holidays

Sometimes aromatic vegetables like carrots, onions, and other seasonings are used in this cooking method along with the liquid. Braising liquids range from broth to wine to tomatoes.

Braised Recipes

5. What is the Definition of Stew?

Stewing is similar to braising, both moist heat cooking methods, but often refers to food that cut been cut into smaller pieces, while braising often refers to whole cuts of meat or pieces of chicken, for instance. In stewing the food is usually first browned over higher heat, then returned to the pot with other ingredients, such as vegetables, and liquid to cover the ingredients.

The pot is then at least partially covered, and the cooking is finished over low heat. Like braising, stewing is an excellent method for turning tougher cuts of meats or poultry or even certain kinds of seafood, like conch or squid, tender.

Simple Beef Stew

Often things that have been stewed (and braised for that matter) taste even better the next day, so these are two great make ahead techniques. And then there is the slow cooker, a stew-creating marvel.

Stew Recipes

6. What is the Definition of Steaming?

The consistent flow of hot air is what gently cooks the food in this cooking technique, and it is very popular in Asian cooking. The fact that the food is cooked above the liquid, and not actually submerged, means that most of the nutrients stay right where they belong, in the food. Water is often used, though broth, wine beer or other infusions can also be used to steam.

Steamed Artichokes / Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

Make sure the food you are steaming has enough room around each piece so that the hot steam can cook everything evenly, and make sure the liquid level is about one or two inches below the food suspended above the liquid. You may have to add liquid to the pot as it evaporates.

There are many appliances that are used for steaming foods, but in the end they involve a perforated platform that holds the food suspended above simmering liquid. Sometimes food is steamed directly in the basket or sometimes on a plate, if juices are going to be released that would add to the finished dish. Chicken, dumplings, vegetables, fish are just some of the dishes that are often steamed.

Remember that steam burns! When you are steaming make sure to keep your face and other body parts far away from the top of the pot when you remove the lid.

Steamed Recipes

7. What is the Definition of Baking?

Baking simply means cooking food in the oven—usually uncovered—using indirect, dry heat. The terms is often used when discussing foods like breads, cooking, muffins, and other, well “baked goods” though is also is used to describe cooking savory food like lasagna or chicken. The foods cook from the outside in, and the oven temperature varies from recipe to recipe, though once the heat gets higher, say 400°F or above, the term roasting often gets used.

Baking Recipes

8. What is the Definition of Roasting?

One of the least hands on cooking techniques, perfect for when you need to get dinner going but then have some other things clamoring for your attention before it’s time to eat. Roasting is very similar to baking, in that is usually involves dry heat cooking in the oven, uncovered, but it usually involves higher heats (and correspondingly short cooking times) than baking.

The baking pan used is usually relatively shallow so that the heat circulates evenly and the food doesn’t steam. The outside of foods that have been roasted, whether potatoes or vegetables or chicken or meat, browns nicely thanks to the high heat, and the inside should remain most and tender. Sometimes foods are places on a rock in a roasting pan to allow the hot air to circulate even more evenly. Roasting can also refer to foods cooked over live fire, such as spit-roasting.

Roasted Recipes

9. What Does Broil Mean?

Broiling refers to cooking foods under a broiler, which sometimes is a separate drawer in your oven, and sometimes requires you placing the top rack in your oven close to the roof of the oven to be near the heat source, which may be electric or gas. The closer the rack is to the heat, the faster the food will brown and cook. The side of the food that is exposed to the direct and intense heat source is the only side that will brown , so you usually have to turn foods during the broiling process.

Often the food is cooked on a rimmed baking sheet, which allows the food to be close to the heat source. Foods that take best to this cooking method are foods that cook through quickly, so they don’t burn before they finish cooking inside. Fish and seafood, chicken breasts, burgers, kebabs, and the like are good candidates for broiling, and the technique can also be used to finish dishes like frittatas. Timing is of the essence, so when you are broiling any type of food, you will want to stay close and check the food often.

Broiled Recipes

10. What is the Definition of Grilling?

Grilling is the technique of cooking foods over live fire over direct heat, usually fairly high heat. Food is exposed to the flames and it quickly develops a browned, caramelized exterior as the inside cooks through. You can adjust the heat on a gas grill fairly easily, if you are using a charcoal grill is it often advisable to have one area of the grill hot, and another less so. This way you can move the food from zone to zone as needed. It takes some experience playing with the charcoal or wood to get this down.

Chipotle Beef Burgers
Chipotle Beef Burgers

Tender cuts of meat and poultry and various kids of fish and shellfish are very well suited to grilling, as are vegetables and even fruits. As with broiling, you’ll want to stay quite close to the grill as flare-ups can occur. It’s easy for a food to go from nicely browned to charred in a flash. The timing varies wildly from food to food, and from grill to grill, so test the doneness of the foods you are cooking as you go. You can also experiment with keeping the lid open and closed, which affects the temperature.

Grilling is different from barbecuing, which is low and slow. Both grilling and barbecuing have very vocal fans who have very definite opinions about their definitions, and we’ll leave that debate be for the time being.

Grilled Recipes


  1. im typing these for revision ready for when i start my catering course in year 10 this september.

  2. Great blog you got here! Sometimes people tend to confuse one cooking method to another. This is a very helpful reference. All I want to add is to always observe proper food preparation so that all the dishes that you’ll serve to your family are healthy and safe.

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