Cooking methods compared

The nutritive value and taste of the same food changes according to the cooking method you use. Here is a brief guide to cooking methods and their pros and cons.

Woman cooking

Creating a delightful dish, which not only satiates your taste buds, but also perks up the nutrient quotient of your menu has a lot to do with your ability to choose the right cooking method.

Whether you are a veteran or a novice in the kitchen, getting acquainted with basics of different cooking methods is a must. Understanding the effect cooking time and temperature has on the nutritive value of what you put on your plates will certainly help you to create dishes that are easy to make and healthy.

The basics

In culinary science, cooking methods can be broadly categorised into dry heat or moist heat cooking.

Dry heat cooking methods involve cooking the food in an oven or on open flame without adding any liquid. This includes roasting, sauteing or baking.

Moist cooking methods require the food to be cooked covered in or with a certain type of liquid [water, steam, vegetable stock or wine] and include boiling, steaming or poaching.

Exposure to very high temperature in dry heat cooking gives a nice brown surface and is suitable for preparing tender meat cuts, steaks, tikkas, cookies, buns and cakes. Moist heat cooking is generally used for tougher cuts of meat, lentils, pasta, rice and vegetables.

Dry heat cooking methods

Stir frying or sauteing

A preferred way of cooking, the sauteing process cooks the food quickly on a hot pan using small amount of oil. As the amount of oil and the time needed to cook is less, the process helps to retain the characteristic crunchiness and nutrients to a great extent. Simply heat the pan, add a small amount of oil or butter and throw in the vegetables or beans. You may need to sprinkle some water, but usually the food gets cooked in its own moisture and the surface gets browned evenly with constant stirring.

Grilling and broiling

Both these methods use hot dry air to cook and render a delectable charring or browning flavour [result of a chemical reaction called Maillard Reaction involving the proteins, sugar and heat]. While a grill exposes the food to direct open flame from below, broiling is done inside an oven, with heat coming from the top.

Barbecuing, a similar method, involves use of charcoal or wood to produce the flame and imparts a distinct smoky flavour, which is just not possible with a gas grille or broiler ovens. High temperature grilling may pose a health risk, as it produces certain carcinogenic compounds such as HCAs [heterocyclic amines, produced as a reaction meat proteins have with heat] and PAHs [a coating formed on the meat surface due to the smoke produced when the drippings fall on the hot coals].

However, you can reduce the risk by marinating the meat well in advance and by turning it during cooking. Avoid using forks to turn as they may puncture the meats and cause the juices to escape, making them dry and coarse.

Roasting and baking

Roasting too uses hot dry air to envelope the food. A combination of low and high temperature is used to cook the food well from inside without sacrificing the browning on the surface. The short burst of high temperature can be used either at the beginning or towards the end and adjusted according to the size and the type of the food to be roasted. Some commonly roasted foods include chicken, mutton chops, pork and veggies like potatoes, carrots, corn and peppers.

Used interchangeably with roasting, baking differs in the degree of temperature used and the extent of browning achieved. Baked food is cooked by dry heat generated out of convection [transfer of heat within molecules in any fluid] and cooks the food evenly as all sides get exposed to similar heat. You can bake just about anything from breads, cookies and cakes to fish, chicken and vegetables.

Deep frying

The method involves cooking the food immersed in hot oil. It delivers a crispy texture, golden brown appearance and a soft, moist interior. As the process does not involve use of water or steam, it is categorised as a dry heat cooking method. The choice of oil [the smoking point of sunflower, rice bran and peanut oil is best suited for frying], the size of food to be fried [should be of uniform size] and the pan used [deep and heavy-bottomed skillets are preferred] determine the taste and texture of the food fried.

Avoid overloading the pan or fryer with oil [restricts even circulation of heat among food particles] and reusing oil [as undesirable heart-clogging compounds called trans fat start forming]. Keeping the oil temperature at around 350 degree F [check by dropping a bread cube in oil; it should take around a minute to become brown] helps minimise the oil absorption into the food.

Moist heat cooking methods

Poaching and boiling

An incredibly versatile style of cooking, poaching refers to slowly cooking the food by simmering it in hot liquids. The temperature of the stove should not be too high, as it might result in boiling of the liquid, which may break down the food. Poaching is the preferred choice with regards to preserving the nutrients and is used typically for delicate food items such as eggs and fish. Simmering on the other hand needs a bit higher temperature [around 180 – 200 degree F] and is used for preparing pasta, soups, broths or vegetable stocks.

Boiling requires a much higher temperature [above 212 degree F] and results in maximum loss of vital nutrients in the cooking fluids. The water is boiled and food—lentils, rice or vegetables—is dropped into it, followed by gentle boiling in reduced heat. You can recapture the lost vitamins by using the cooking liquid as broth, soup, couscous or for kneading dough.

Steaming

Steaming cooks the food by placing it in a steamer or a colander [perforated metallic plate]. The food does not touch the boiling liquid and the lid put over the top helps to retain the heat and moisture inside the vessel. Steaming is a great choice for cooking vegetables and sprouts, which tend to lose vitamins, minerals, antioxidant properties and their colour in other cooking techniques.

Blanching

A standard procedure undertaken before freezing, blanching is done by placing the vegetables or fruits in hot liquids. Studies show that blanching softens the food but also leads to destruction of B-complex vitamins, folic acid and vitamin C.

The best option

All cooking methods induce nutrient loss to some extent. So the healthiest option is to have more fresh, raw foods. But if you must cook, remember this: methods that employ use of high temperature, longer cooking time and direct contact with oil or water are less healthy. So prefer steaming, stir-frying or poaching to boiling, blanching or deep frying.

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