Lesson 4: Cooking Methods


You take great care in choosing the right foods for your family to eat, but did you know that the way they're prepared can have a large impact on their nutritional value? Whereas some cooking methods will preserve the food's nutrients and flavor, others can actually diminish nutrient content and create harmful substances within your food.

What about the microwave? While some believe microwaving is a fast way to cook food without a lot of extra oils, others believe it can change the chemical structure of the food in unknown, potentially negative, ways, while reducing fragile nutrients. It is always preferable to cook foods at lower temperatures than higher temperatures, not only because the nutrients are better preserved but also because the oils that you cook your food with -- particularly vegetable oils like soybean, corn and canola -- are easily damaged (oxidized) by the heat, posing health risks.

Fortunately, there are many cooking methods out there that are good for your food and good-tasting. Here we've outlined some of the most popular cooking methods, starting with the healthiest methods and ending up with the worst.

1. Eat Your Foods Raw

Well, it's not exactly a cooking method, but it is a very healthy way to consume many of your favorite foods. Raw foods, advocates say, are higher in vitamins and nutrients, which are destroyed by cooking. Eating raw may seem extreme, but you can actually prepare some pretty tasty dishes if you know what foods to combine.

2. Steaming

Simply put a little water in a pot, put in a steamer basket or colander, and add your food. As the water boils, the steam will gently cook your food. Be sure not to cook your food for too long (veggies should still be brightly colored and slightly crunchy when they're done), and you can also add some spices to the water to flavor the foods as they steam.

This method works especially well for fragile vegetables like leafy greens and fish.

3. Poaching

This is the most gentle method of moist heat cooking. Allows the cooking of food in a water or a flavorful liquid between 150 and 185 degrees F. Poaching liquid can be used to make a sauce. You can poach chicken, eggs and other foods by simmering them in a little bit of water or broth on your stovetop. Use a covered pan and take the foods off the heat when they are tender.

4. Baking/Roasting

Baking in your oven is a perfectly healthy way to cook, though it's preferable to use a lower temperature and a longer cooking time than a higher temperature to cook the food more quickly (roasting is typically done at a higher temperature). You can bake meat, fish, poultry, veggies, bread, fruit and anything else. To keep in some of the moisture, try keeping your baking dish covered.

5. Stir-Frying

Stir-frying is a fast, healthy way to cook. Chop your meat and veggies into small, uniform pieces, add a little oil or broth to a pan or wok, then stir the foods until they're just cooked through (add meat, which takes longer to cook, before the veggies). To preserve the nutrients in the veggies, cook them only slightly.

6. Braising

When you braise a piece of meat or fish, you brown it slightly in a pan, then cover it with a small amount of liquid such as broth. The pan is covered, and the food is left to slowly and gently finish cooking. After the food is removed, the leftover juices can be used to make a flavorful sauce.

7. Boiling

Boiled foods are healthy in that no harmful substances form when using this cooking method. However, there is some concern that nutrients may be lost when foods are boiled, and they may become overcooked. Steaming is a preferable cooking method to boiling.

8. Sautéing

Sauteing (cooking foods in a small amount of oil on your stovetop) is an acceptable form of cooking, although it does pose the problem of oxidizing oils. To avoid this, replace the oil with some broth instead and don't turn the heat up too high.

9. Grilling and Broiling

Many people love to grill their foods, however there are some potential problems to be aware of. Barbecue grill smoke contains cancer-causing chemicals known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Meanwhile, heterocyclic amines form when food is cooked at a high temperature, such as those used in grilling and broiling. The chemicals have been linked to cancer. Advanced glycation end (AGEs) products are also produced when meats are cooked at high temperatures. AGEs, according to researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, build up in your body over time leading to oxidative stress, inflammation and an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and kidney disease.

10. Frying

Frying is the cooking of food in oil or another fat. Chemically, oils and fats are the same, differing only in melting point, and the distinction is only made when needed. Foods can be fried in a variety of fats, including lard, vegetable oil, rapeseed oil and olive oil.

Frying foods is the absolute worst way to cook your foods. The high temperatures produce cancer-causing heterocyclic amines, along with AGEs. Meanwhile, frying exposes your foods to large amounts of oxidized (rancid) vegetable oils, which then soak into your food and wreak havoc in your body. You should avoid frying your foods and use the cooking methods higher up on this page instead.

The Most Frequently Asked Question: What is the difference between roasting and baking?

The difference in the two cooking methods is that you refer to roasting when the food item has a structure (meats and vegetables) while you call it baking when the food item does not have a structure and gets it when it is finally baked such as breads, cakes, pies, pastries, etcetera.

Between roasting and baking, there is a slight difference in the techniques used. But, the difference between both is obvious from the types of food that one associates with either technique. Before we see what food is baked and what is roasted, can you answer a question? Have you ever wondered why it is called baking when we put a cake in an oven, and it becomes roasting when we put a chicken inside the same oven? In fact, it is hard to differentiate between the two cooking methods today, but one has to remember that fire and its radiant heat are essential components in roasting. Let us find out the real difference between roasting and baking.

Roasting

Roasting is one cooking method that is as ancient as civilization or at least when man learnt to make fire. He cooked food on open fire, which was considerably tastier than eating it raw. Strictly speaking, roasting is cooking on fire. Meat is placed in such a position that heat of fire affects entire surface and there is a current of fresh air around the meat. This way, cooked meat retains its juices and develops more flavors than through any other cooking process. The heat should neither be insufficient nor too intense to char the meat. Insufficient heat makes the surface hard and causes the juices to evaporate making meat lose its flavor and taste. Basting meat every few minutes not only helps in cooking, it also helps to save the juices and improve the flavors.

Roasting can be done in an oven, but only when the system of ventilation in the oven is excellent. However, one has to compromise on flavors as some of the flavors do not develop in an oven. When roasting in oven, sprinkle salt and pepper, only when the meat is almost ready, as sprinkling before that will draw out the juice of the meat and toughen the fiber. Using low temperature for a long period in an oven will give you a roast that is juicier, but you will not have that attractive and tasty surface browning. If you use high heat for a short time to cook the meat that will only give you the brown surface as the roast will be dry. In order to secure both a juicy roast and beautiful and tasty browned surface, you have to use both temperatures while roasting. That is a low temperature for the most part while short times of high temperature at the beginning or the end of cooking.

Baking

Baking is when cooking takes place in close, hot air. Baking in oven is not through radiating heat, though there is a large amount of heat radiated from top, bottom and sides of the oven. In baking, less mass of the meat is lost than when roasted but flavors are not developed that much and inferior to roasted meat. Again, there is constant, steady heat in an oven and thus, cooking meat in lesser time than when roasted in open air.

If you are preparing breads, pastry, cakes, puddings, etc., baking in an oven is always preferable. Thus, baking is primarily cooking flour based foods in which the heat produced inside the oven sets the structures. However, you will bake fish, not roast it in the oven. This heat is just enough to produce browning on the outside and setting the dough at the center.

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