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Culinary term of the day – cooking terms pt. 2

In part one, we covered roasting, sautéing,  and grilling.

I can hear you asking, “Why cover such basic stuff”? Well, for many of us, this is kindergarten stuff. But I suspect that many waiters, especially beginning ones, have never given cooking methods much though. for those of us who are also foodies, it’s pretty elemental. But even I had to struggle a little to make certain distinctions when trying to define some of the methods.

Having said that, we soldier on.

Broiling is akin to grilling. You might consider broiling as grilling with the heat coming from the top instead of the bottom. Not only do you cook with direct heat, you add indirect heat to the mix because you’re automatically cooking in an enclosed space.  As in your oven, commercial broilers that you find in a steakhouse provide heat from the top and the item to be broiled is placed close to the heat source. Temperatures are higher than roasting, usually above 500°. One of the main advantages of broiling is that you cook it so quickly and at such a hot temperature that the item being broiled doesn’t have a chance to cook in its own steam. This keeps surfaces crisp and non-soggy. sometimes, the broiler is used simply to add additional color and caramelization to other cooking processes such as roasting. While fish isn’t “roasted” too often, it is broiled quite a bit, especially firm and or fatty fish like salmon and swordfish. for some reason, people have tended to either bake fish or broil it – roasting at an in-between temperature only seems to be now becoming more fashionable. You rarely see it in a restaurant. I suspect that the term “roasted” simply doesn’t sound like it belongs with fish. It’s a perfectly fine way to prepare fish – you just don’t see it very often.

Speaking of baked – seems like a pretty simple thing – it’s what you do to a cake. Well, basically, it’s the cooking range below roasting. Baking usually occurs at 275° – 400°, whereas roasting occurs above 400°. Baking is a slower process and is used for leavened and unleavened bakery-type products, casseroles, things with melted cheese, etc. Baking cooks through the convection of hot air rather than direct radiated heat. It uses the steam producted by the item getting cooked to help with the cooking. As I pointed out, fish can be baked. Generally you don’t bake meat unless it’s in a stew or some form other than in the primal form. When it comes to fish, baking implies a more delicate texture and moisture than other methods.

Braising is the act of using liquid and steam and time to cook an item. In order to get good color, the meat being braised might be seared first in order to bring out additional caramelization. It might be floured first to assist in getting a good outer texture. It’s usually used for tougher cuts of meat like ossobucco, pot roasts, pork shoulders, etc. These cuts are “tough” because they have connective tissues integral to the muscle meat that have to be broken down and this can only be done through long cooking. meat also has collagen, which is released through slow cooking. This adds gelatin to the liquid, which adds a velvety mouthfeel to the braising liquid. Braising uses this very liquid to assist in the cooking and it’s done in a covered vessel which captures steam as well. You might use water, stock, or tomatoes to add to the natural juices of the item being braised. If you are making a stew, then you are braising.

Steaming – pretty obvious, eh? It’s the cooking of an item through steamed. This is a popular cooking method in Asian cuisine and it’s becoming more and more popular in modern Western cooking, although “European cuisines have long used steaming in certain quarters of their cooking. Steaming is considered a “healthy” way to cook since you don’t use oil or stock (obviously both can be added to the final product). Steaming can be done directly over “loose steam” or it can be augmented through a pressure cooker, which multiplies the temperature of steam to speed up cooking.

We touched on frying briefly in the previous installment. Frying is cooking through hot oil. Deep fat frying means that the item to be fried is completely submerged, while pan frying implies frying in a skillet or sauté pan loaded with an inch or so of oil. Frying is considered the unhealthiest form of cooking, but in some ways, the most “satisfying”. Frying is the only way to get a really perfect french fry. Most items have to be protected through flouring, breading or battering before frying. French fries and other fried potatoes are best prepared by blanching them in hot oil until barely cooked, removed from the oil and then fried a second time. Blanching is a cooking method all of its own. It means cooking quickly to a state called “par cooked”. Par cooked means to cook short of completion. The item is cooked to completion at a later date. Blanching can be done in boiling water as in the case of vegetables which are then plunged into ice or ice water to ‘shock” them, or hot oil in the case of potatoes. Blanching vegetables in water preserves the texture and color of vegetables and can eliminate certain odors present in things like cabbage.

Smoking is the application of smoke in a slow cooking environment. Cold smoking is done at very low temperatures, and, as such, has to be done very carefully to avoid food contamination issues. Hot smoking is what’s done in true barbecuing. Basically, you get a grill fire to a fairly constant temperature between 200° – 300° (the pros prefer around 225° – 250°). Wood and other aromatics are added directly to the hot coals, which creates smoke, which infuses the meat with such aromas as hickory, mesquite, applewood, etc. The wood has to be replenished periodically while the meat slowly cooks. Smoke ceases to penetrate the meat any further after about 6 hours or so.  You might call it slow roasting. Smoking is generally not done if meat is finished in less than an hour, with the obvious exception of fish.

Poaching is cooking completely in liquid, usually at a level below a full boil, usually in the 165° range. The liquid can be water or court bouillon, a traditional French poaching liquid which features aromatic vegetables, herbs and an acid component. Poaching meat keeps the meat moist but fairly bland. We all know poached eggs from eggs benedict.One of the newest trendy way of cooking, popularized by Top Chef, is sous-vide. Sous-vide is French for “under vacuum”. this is a poaching method whereby the item to be cooked is enclosed in a vacuum pack and then cooked in water for an extended period of time. You might say, “Well, my mama used this method when she cooked stuff in bags in boiling water”. A contraire, mon ami, sous-vide is a different process entirely. The food is cooked much longer and in a water bath of much lower temperature. A lot of care has to be taken to prevent food borne illness due to the low temperatures. Sous-vide provides a very sophisticated and nuanced texture to meat.

There are also other methods of cooking such as “slow cooking” (crock pots) and “sub-categories” of cooking such as sweating, blackening, coddling, creaming, etc. There are even cooking methods that don’t involve traditional heat such as pickling and marinading. Did you know that a marinade actually cooks food if left on for extended periods? Ceviche is a good example of this “chemical cooking”.

So, now that I’ve painted some broad strokes, how does this benefit you as a waiter? Well, first of all, isn’t it cool to know more about the food that you’re serving? But more importantly, the cooking method can help guide you to ways to sell various items. When you can properly describe things as tender, succulent, fall off the bone, toasty, crunchy, savory, you will have greater success matching people with food.  The style of cooking can help you in this regard. If something is braised, you’re not going to describe it as you would if it were broiled. As you learn more about cooking styles, you’ll learn more and more accurate descriptors. This is your job, after all. You’re not just an order taker.