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Ask The Food Lab: What Are The Various Methods of Dry Heat Stovetop Cooking?

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"What Are The Various Methods of Dry Heat Stovetop Cooking?"

Could you explain and differentiate the variety of terms for cooking food in fat in a pan: brown, caramelize, fry, sauté, soften, sweat, etc.?

—Sent by Bill Woods

Let's start with one thing we can say for sure: when you're talking about cooking foods in fat, you're talking about dry heat cooking techniques, the family of cooking methods that includes grilling, pan-frying, broiling, roasting, and deep frying—any cooking method in which the primary mode of energy transfer is via hot air or hot oil. The flip side of the cooking coin is moist heat: poaching, braising, steaming, boiling, simmering—any method in which the primary mode of energy transfer is via water molecules.

With rare exception, dry-heat cooking methods are more violent than moist-heat methods, allowing you to reach temperatures at which interesting flavor, color, and texture-altering reactions take place. But there are many different ways for us to get there. What are the definitions of all of the various dry-heat, stovetop methods we employ?

The useful thing about words is that they have meanings. The tricky part is getting everyone to agree on what those meanings are. This is particularly an issue when it comes to cultural relativism. For instance, where I come from, a burger is a ground beef patty and we barbecue meat by smoking it whereas in London, a very respectable critic recently named a pork and foie gras meatball the best burger in town. Strange, right?

You'd think things would be different when it comes to precise cooking terminology, but we're often no better in that regard. For us, a grill is a cooking grate that you set over hot coals or gas burners to cook via a combination of radiation and convection. In the UK, a grill is what we call a broiler. In France, to sauté is to cook very rapidly in a small amount of oil, while constantly stirring and "jumping" the food, whereas over here, depending on who you ask it can mean to fry in a thin film of oil or to stir-fry.

Point is, any attempt to come up with a universal definition for these terms is an exercise doomed to failure. But that's not going to stop us from trying. The following definitions are the ones we typically use on this site, and are a pretty good guideline for the average American English-speaking cook.

Brown

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Browning, also known as the Maillard reaction, is a complex series of chemical reactions that take place when heat is applied to foods that are rich in proteins and sugars. Heat causes amino acids and sugars to interact and form new compounds that quickly break down into smaller compounds that then recombine, break down, recombine again, and so on, until hundreds of new compounds are created, adding the characteristic complex aroma and savory flavor to well-browned foods. It's what makes us prefer our steaks grilled instead of boiled, our breads baked instead of steamed.

Though some small amount of Maillard browning can occur at lower temperatures, the process doesn't really start in earnest until temperatures in excess of 300°F or so. To maximize browning, very high direct heat should be used.

Heat: Medium to high. Higher = faster but less even browning.
Amount of fat: Low.

Caramelize

Caremelizing is a close cousin to browning, but it's a reaction that requires only sugars to take place. You may hear people referring to "well-caramelized meat" or a burger patty that has "good caramelization." This is technically incorrect, and you should feel free to call 'em out on it (if you want to sound like a pompous know-it-all, that is). Meat browns, sugar caramelizes.

The areas where this gets a bit fuzzy is with vegetables, which in many cases, contain a high enough concentration of sugars to truly caramelize. Onions, for instance, really do caramelize when you slowly cook them.

Caramelization leads to more depth of flavor (for the same reason that browning does: the creation of many new compounds), as well as an increase in sweetness as complex carbohydrates like sucrose are broken down into smaller, sweeter simple sugars like fructose and glucose.

Heat: Moderate to low, to allow for control (overcaramelization leads to bitterness).
Amount of fat: Low to none.

Sauté

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From the French for "jump," to sauté is to cook many pieces of food cut in a uniform size while stirring and tossing. It's generally the first step to most sauces, stews, and braises (think: sautéeing onions, carrots, and celery when you start a basic meat sauce). The goal is fast, even cooking. It should be done over medium to medium-high heat (any hotter and you run the risk of charring or browning your food), with just enough fat to coat the skillet.

Heat: Moderate to high.
Amount of fat: Low.

Sweat

Sweating is a form of sautéeing, though it usually takes place over slightly lower heat—medium-low to medium. The goal is to soften vegetables (usually alliums like onions, shallots, or garlic) and get them to release their moisture (i.e., sweat) without browning or caramelizing at all.

Heat: Low to modederate.
Amount of fat: Low.

Sear

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Searing is browning taken to the extreme. The goal is to heat up the surface of a piece of meat, fish, or vegetable as fast as humanly possible so that you can develop nice browned flavors without giving the food enough time to start overcooking in the center. To accomplish this, it's important to start with a dry surface (it takes an enormous amount of energy to evaporate liquids from the surface of food), and a pan that is smoking hot.

Though many folks advocate searing in a small amount of fat, I like to use a layer at least 1/16th of an inch deep or so—enough that the entire bottom surface of the food being seared can come in contact with it. This leads to more even browning.

Oil can be heated hotter than butter before it begins to smoke, but butter will lead to faster, deeper browning than oil. I usually sear in a combination of the two, adding the butter to the pan when I add the meat, in order to limit the amount of time it has to burn.

Heat: Very high. Smoking hot.
Amount of fat: Moderate.

Stir-fry

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Stir-frying is like sautéeing taken to the extreme. Very high heat with rapid movement both stirring and tossing. The goal is to rapidly cook the exterior of foods to add flavor and a distinct smokiness from vaporized oils, while maintaining crisp internal structure in vegetables and tenderness in meats. The wok is the ideal vessel for stir-frying in, even on a Western gas or electric range.

Check out our guides to Wok Skills 101, wok-cooking on an electric stovetop, or the ultimate home wok setup, wok cooking on the grill.

Heat: Very high.
Amount of fat: Low.

Pan-fry

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Pan-frying is accomplished in a similar manner to searing, but has a wider range of acceptable temperature. It involves cooking whole chops, steaks, chicken breasts, fish fillets, or vegetables in a thin film of oil over moderate to high heat in order to brown the exterior while gently cooking the interior. As with searing, I tend to use slightly more oil than is generally recommended to get better contact between food and pan.

Heat: Moderate to high.
Amount of fat: Moderate.

Pan roast

Pan roasting is a hybrid method which involves initially searing or pan-frying meat, fish, or vegetables, followed by finishing it under a lid or in the oven until it cooks through. The goal is a relatively evenly cooked interior, with a well-browned exterior. Because cooking the interior can take some time, most often pan-roasting involves a moderate to high-temperature sear to begin, followed by gentler heat under a lid or in the oven to finish.

Heat: High to start, low to moderate to finish.
Amount of fat: Moderate to low.

Shallow fry

Cooking foods (usually battered or breaded) in a shallow pool of oil. This is the easiest way for most home cooks to fry foods, as it doesn't require as much oil as deep frying, and thus has less cleanup involved. It's typically used for dishes like fried chicken, fritters, fried fish, Japanese-style katsu, or schnitzel. Foods are gently slipped into hot oil (generally in the 350 to 400°F range), cooked on one side, then carefully flipped and fried on the second side.

Heat: Moderate.
Amount of fat: Moderate to high.

Deep fry

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The extension of shallow frying: foods are completely submerged in hot fat to cook from all sides simultaneously. In most cases, deep frying will produce superior, more evenly cooked results compared to shallow frying, though it comes with the disadvantage of having to deal with a pot full of hot oil after you're done cooking. Oil used for deep frying can be reused, but will eventually break down to the point where it must be discarded. The wok is the best home vessel for deep frying.

Heat: Moderate.
Amount of fat: High.

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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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