We get better acquainted with the pros and cons of the most common cooking techniques and learn a few little tricks in order to maximise them.
Using water or stock, the most commonly boiled foods are vegetables, legumes,
pasta and rice, but also fish, meat and eggs. This cooking method makes it possible to
substantially limit the use of cooking fats and to season food with the addition of herbs
We can reach water boiling point (approx. 100°C) using traditional pans but with pressure cookers we can reach even higher temperatures (at least 120°C) thanks to the specific system they use, and this enables us to reduce cooking times considerably. Whatever type of pan we use, the amount of cooking water required varies according to the type of food we are preparing. Particularly with vegetables and legumes, it is important to use as little water as possible in order to minimise the loss of vitamins and mineral salts, which can be quite considerable in this case. No problem for soups or boiled meats and fish: in fact, stock is normally used as an additional ingredient in these types of dishes.
Experts make a distinction between boiling and simmering, which means cooking food in water that has almost reached boiling point (therefore around 95°C rather than 100°C), and also parboiling, a pre-cooking technique used to soften some foods or for home freezing purposes.
Finally, poaching consists of slowly cooking foods in water but without reaching boiling point. It may or may not involve the addition of a mirepoix of mixed vegetables (onions, garlic, herbs etc.).
Vegetables, fish and shellfish are the most suitable foods for steaming, a technique
whereby foods are cooked using the steam of boiling water without coming into contact
with the water itself. This is done using special pans (‘steamers’) or steaming baskets.
There is no significant loss of nutrients and often the organoleptic qualities of the food,
such as flavour and texture, are better maintained. In addition, there is no need for
cooking fats. However, it is only possible to cook foods that have been chopped into little
pieces or slices as cooking times would be too long otherwise.
This same “gentle” cooking technique is also employed when cooking using a bain-marie, which is generally used for sauces and for gently heating food.
Braising and stewing are cooking methods that involve cooking food for an extended period of time over a low heat. One classic stew is ragù, the meat sauce par excellence, which is cooked slowly over several hours. The long cooking times result in a fair loss of vitamins and minerals but these end up in the cooking liquid which is generally also consumed as an integral part of these types of dishes. In addition, the use of non-stick pans certainly makes it possible to limit the amount of fat that goes into such dishes.
Meanwhile, oven cooking employs dry heat. The temperature of a domestic oven ranges from 150°C to 240°C and the warm air heats the food directly, creating a thin crispy layer on its surface (this is why ovens are generally pre-heated) and preventing the loss of important juices and, therefore, nutrients. Food can be cooked in numerous different ways in the oven, from classic roasting to baking in salt or in tin foil. There are also numerous ways to reduce the use of additional fat including, for example, the use of oven-proof paper. Many ovens are also equipped with fan-cooking functions which reduce cooking times because the fan generates a flow of warm air that is distributed to the food more quickly and evenly.
Dangerously good. Frying has always been regarded as “fairly unhealthy”. And this can certainly be true, not only for the amount of oil absorbed by the food but also because of the formation of potentially toxic substances such as acrolein, if we don’t pay due attention. The first thing to get right is the temperature. The ideal temperature for frying food - which must be completely immersed in the oil - is 170/180°C, a sufficient enough heat to immediately create the classic crispy surface which, as well as providing flavour, also makes the fried food “lighter” as it absorbs less oil. In general, fried foods absorb around 10% of their initial weight in oil but this percentage varies according to the size and the type of food, above all. The most suitable oil for frying is extra virgin olive oil, which is stable also at high temperatures, thanks to its relatively high smoking point, and rich in protective antioxidants. Peanut oil, rich in polyunsaturated fats, can also be suitable but the various seed oils, margarine and butter are to be avoided at all costs. Finally, it is also a good idea to avoid frying food in oil that has already been used for cooking.
In recent times, grilling, griddling and barbecuing have come under fire for producing potentially harmful substances such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and heterocyclic amines. Excessively high temperatures are the main cause of this, particularly in the case of coal or wood barbecues where it is difficult to control the temperature and where different areas of the same grill can vary dramatically in temperature. With these cooking methods the food comes into direct contact with the fire and can burn on the surface: a classic example is barbecued meat cooked over a flame or pizza baked in a wood-fired oven. In such cases, the burnt parts may contain harmful substances. It is therefore a good idea to dispose of the burnt parts and to thoroughly clean the grill after using it. The classic grill marks left on the surface of grilled or griddled meat, bread and vegetables are not harmful however. Do not burn the surface of food, keep the grill well away from the hottest areas, and, where possible, prevent melted fat from falling directly onto the embers: these are just a few useful healthy cooking tips. It is also a good idea to accompany barbecued foods with plenty of fresh vegetables and lemon juice, well-known for being rich in antioxidants. In any event, grills and griddle pans covered with non-stick materials or which allow you to control the temperature are the most appropriate choices if you want to prepare healthier food. One good tip to remember is to avoid salting food before cooking it as the loss of moisture due to the addition of salt can leave the food dry.
Although a relatively recent invention, microwave ovens are now common additions to our kitchens, even if many people still only use them for heating up or defrosting food. The flow of microwaves generated inside this type of oven excites the water molecules in food. By causing these molecules to oscillate very quickly, the inner-most part of the food is heated; as such, heat is not transferred from the outer surface towards the centre, as in a traditional oven, but is generated within the food and then transmitted towards the surface. This is why microwave-cooked food is sometimes lukewarm on the surface but very hot inside. This principle makes it possible to halve cooking times and, therefore, reduce the loss of nutritional substances and the addition of condiments to a minimum. Today, the most modern microwave ovens also have additional functions, from grilling to “crisping”, so you can “fry” foods without needing to use many condiments. Despite the overabundance of falsehoods that still exist, it is important to underline there are still no studies that prove that microwave cooking is dangerous to human health. However, it is not possible to cook large pieces of food in the microwave because the electromagnetic waves are only able to penetrate 4-5 centimetres below the surface of foods; in the case of large pieces of food it is therefore difficult to reach a temperature that is uniform and sufficient enough to cook them properly. Vitamin and mineral losses are partially reduced compared with other cooking methods, but they do occur, particularly with regard to vitamin C.