In your quest to tackle this new year sans fear, perhaps you’ve picked up a few new cookbooks, subscribed to a handful of culinary print publications, or followed that food blogger your friend keeps raving about. Whatever your new kitchen resolution, there’s always an endless array of cooking techniques to try—let alone terms and phrases to learn. Since the dawn of global cuisine, novice chefs have had to wade through countless complex recipes, quickly learning that they often sound more complicated than they really are.
Below, we break down three seemingly difficult dishes (and their corresponding cooking techniques) that are actually very easy to master, if you just remember a few simple things.
As soon as this word’s spotted on the menu, you’re bound to think it takes hours to make, with constant stirring—and you’re often right. As a refresher, this is an Italian rice dish made with Arborio rice, a short, fat, high-starch grain that lends the dish its classic creamy texture (along with, you know, plenty of cheese). To properly cook the rice and make sure it releases that starch without the grains getting mushy and sticking together, stock is added to the pot in small increments, always leaving enough time for the rice to soak up the liquid before adding more. Sounds like a lot of babysitting, right?
Wrong! Here’s your cheat sheet, straight from the Plated cookbook:
- Always add hot stock. Cold stock is not welcome! You’ll want to preheat stock (and any additional water) in a separate pot, at a low simmer, so that when it’s time to pour in 1/2 cups at a time, the rice cooking process isn’t halted by liquid that needs more time to get hot again (and again… and again).
- Don’t over-stir. But don’t neglect your rice baby, either. Stir slowly for the first minute of every stock addition, then stir once more right before adding the next 1/2 cup.
- Stir in cheese and vegetable add-ins just before serving. You’ll stop adding stock when the rice has absorbed a lot of liquid and the grains become fat, creamy, and tender. That’s the moment to taste, season with salt and pepper as desired, and remove from heat. Then you can stir in any grated or shredded cheese to melt, fold in roasted or sautéed veggies (or raw ones like peas or spinach, which don’t take long to cook with the residual heat from the rice), or top the risotto with pan-seared meat.
This is a prime example of a French cooking technique that sounds intense and fancy, but is actually quite simple. If you’ve ever wrapped potatoes or meat in foil and thrown the whole thing over a campfire, you’ve (basically) cooked en papillote. Yup, you’re basically a gourmet French chef if you’ve ever been camping.
En papillote (like pap-ee-YOTE) refers to foods baked inside parchment paper parcels; the paper traps any steam and cooks everything in its own juices. This also makes for super minimal cleanup (just throw the whole pouch away!), or a pretty presentation (if that’s what you’re going for), by cutting open the parchment and letting diners dig through the layers of perfectly cooked meat and veggies.
The best way to lock in flavor: Fold a rectangle of parchment paper in half lengthwise to create a crease, then reopen and lay flat like a book. Layer vegetables, herbs, meat or seafood, wine, butter, etc. on one side of the crease. Fold the other half of the parchment paper back over, closing your food inside the book. Starting at the bottom of the crease, tuck the parchment edges in together, overlapping and folding in 1-inch pleats as tight as possible all the way around, until you reach the top. (For an even tighter seal, brush a little egg wash over the pleated edge before sliding into the oven). Voilà—you’ve got a parchment parcel! In the oven, the paper will brown and, if sealed correctly, puff up slightly with all the steam trapped inside.
Perfectly Seared, Tender Meat
Searing meat looks easy enough in theory, but back in culinary school, even our chefs could be tripped up by a too-long cook time, not letting the meat rest enough, or not letting the pan get hot enough. It’s really an exercise in patience, and knowing all the right signs.
Basic commandments for juicy seared steak:
- Dry the steak super well. Cooking wet protein leads to steam, and therefore, mushy meat. Take the extra time before you even heat up that pan to pat your steak as dry as possible with a paper towel before seasoning. When it’s added to hot oil or butter, it won’t create a painful splatter, either.
- Let it be. This rule really applies to anything that you’d like to get crispy on the outside. Resist the temptation to check on your steak and move it around in the pan. Leaving it alone will allow for maximum contact with the hot pan, creating a dark and even crust on the outside.
- Rest your meat. You’ve got the perfect sear on both sides, you’re starving, it must be time to dig in! But wait—allowing your steak to rest on a plate or cutting board for about 10 minutes after cooking helps lock in the juices for a more flavorful bite (and to keep all that medium rare juiciness from running all over your plate or cutting board). Keep in mind that thanks to a concept known as carryover cooking, your steak will continue to cook a bit more while it’s resting, which should help assuage any fears that you might’ve undercooked it.
- Cut against the grain. Slicing meat against the grain (aka the direction of the muscle fibers) is crucial to getting a tender bite. Get up close and personal with your steak to find which way the muscles run (it’s usually the long way), then use a super-sharp knife to cut perpendicular to that (usually crosswise).
Dying to try another new technique but need it demystified? Shout it out in the comments below and we’ll consult our chefs for tips on how to keep it easy and fun.
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