10 Essential Cooking Methods Everyone Should Know

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Sauteed Kale and Brussels Sprouts with Bacon in pot with spatula.

Let’s be very honest here: recipes and the act of cooking can be daunting, especially for beginners. But everyone has to start somewhere! Learning the definition of some basic cooking techniques means that when you encounter these terms in a recipe, they will make much more sense to you.

There are a lot of ways to cook things. Masterclass offers this definition of 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.” I think that’s pretty good!

Metal spatula flipping Chicken Kawarma in a skillet.
Cooking Chicken Kawarma in skillet

Learn Cooking Techniques, Then Cook!

At different points in our lives, at different times of the year, many of us vow to cook more, eat better, and get more homemade dinners on the table. Seize the day! But the definition of some cooking techniques might escape us. What does sauté mean? What does braised mean? Excellent and fair questions. Here are some quick definitions of some of the most common cooking methods.

While reading up on these cooking techniques is clarifying and helpful, nothing will take the place of just rolling up your sleeves, heading into the kitchen, and starting to cook. Chopping an onion quickly and neatly takes practice, and so does everything else. Be patient with yourself. The good news is that most mistakes aren’t all that bad, and you should still have dinner at the end of the day!

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 in pot with spatula.
Sautéed Kale and Brussels Sprouts with Bacon

You can use a variety of fats, 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.

When sautéing, the exterior of the food is browned, sometimes only slightly, sometimes more caramelized, and the interior is cooked through. It’s somewhere between stir-frying and searing.

Sautéed Recipes

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 and recipes.

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, and a moderate amount of oil is usually used. You will want to have every single ingredient fully prepped and measured before you begin. Stir-fries wait for no one, and the first ingredients might overcook while you are mincing the final components.

Wok filled with colorful Shrimp Lo Mein.
Shrimp Lo Mein

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

What Does Sear Mean?

Searing refers to the browning of food — usually meat or fish — in a pan over high heat. This method is often used at the beginning of the recipe, and the food might be completely cooked with searing alone, or it might be finished using another method, such as baking. 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.

Tongs grabbing a Filet Mignon in a cast iron skillet.
How to Cook Filet Mignon on the Stove

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

Sometimes, food is cooked using another method first, such as roasting or sous vide, and then seared at the end. This is called reverse searing.

Seared Recipes

What Is the Definition of Braised?

Braising usually refers to slow cooking with some liquid. Typically, this term is used in conjunction with meat, in particular, cuts of meat that benefit from long, slow cooking to become tender. However, anything from endive to poultry can also be braised.

In braising, the food is often seared or browned first, though not necessarily. It is then finished in a low oven or over a low flame with a moderate amount of liquid (usually not enough to cover the food). In most cases, a lid covers the pot so that the liquid condenses on the underside of the lid and self-bastes the dish while it cooks.

Braised Jewish Brisket in large pot.
Jewish Brisket

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

What Is the Definition of Stew?

Stewing is similar to braising, and both are moist heat cooking methods. Stewing often refers to food that has 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.

Spoon in a Dutch Oven of Beef Stew.
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

What Is the Definition of Steaming?

The consistent flow of hot air gently cooks the food in this cooking technique, and steaming 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 liquid infusions can also be used to steam. Chicken, dumplings, vegetables, and fish are just some foods that are often steamed.

Fresh artichokes steaming in pot.
Steaming artichokes with lemon

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.

In some cases, the term steaming may also refer to cooking food in a very small amount of water without suspending it over the liquid. This is often how I “steam” asparagus, for instance.

Steaming Tips

There are many appliances that are used for steaming foods. In the end, they involve a perforated platform that holds the food suspended above the 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.

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 to Try

What Is the Definition of Baking?

Baking simply means cooking food in the oven — usually uncovered — with indirect, dry heat. The term is often used when discussing foods like breads, cookies, muffins, and other — well, “baked goods!”

However, the term is also used to describe cooking savory food like lasagna or chicken in the oven. The foods cook from the outside in, and the oven temperature varies from recipe to recipe. Yet, once the heat gets higher, say 400 degrees F or above, the term roasting is often used.

Baked Mexican Hot Chocolate Cookies on a baking sheet and a cooling rack.
Mexican Hot Chocolate Cookies

Baking Recipes

What Is the Definition of Roasting?

Like baking, roasting is a hand-off oven cooking technique. Roasting is very similar to baking in that it usually involves dry heat cooking in the oven with the food uncovered. However, it usually involves higher temperatures than baking.

Roasted Baby Squash on a baking sheet.
Roasted Baby Squash

The baking pan used is usually relatively shallow, so 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 moist and tender. Sometimes, foods are placed 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

What Does Broil Mean?

Broiling refers to cooking foods under a broiler, which is direct high heat coming from above. Usually, broiling requires you to place 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. Sometimes, the broiler is in a separate drawer in your oven (not as frequently these days).

The side of the food that is exposed to the direct and intense heat source is the only side that will brown. You often need to turn foods during the broiling process for browning on multiple sides.

Broiled Beef Teriyaki Kebabs with Peppers, and Zucchini on an orange plate.
Beef Teriyaki Kebabs with Peppers and Zucchini

Often, the food is cooked on a shallow-rimmed baking sheet so the food is closer 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. 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

What Is the Definition of Grilling?

Grilling is the technique of cooking foods over live fire and 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, but a little more difficult with a charcoal grill. It is 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 kinds 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 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. We’ll leave that debate alone for the time being.

Grilled Recipes

About Katie Workman

Katie Workman is a cook, a writer, a mother of two, an activist in hunger issues, and an enthusiastic advocate for family meals, which is the inspiration behind her two beloved cookbooks, Dinner Solved! and The Mom 100 Cookbook.

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  1. Vikas raj says:

    Well seasoned word for the all methods
    Easy to understand

  2. Luke Hinds says:

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

  3. Catherine says:

    I like this

    1. Priscilla says:

      Thank you so much for those points

  4. Olmec Agro - Tech says:

    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.

    1. Katie Workman says:

      Absolutely! And thanks!