Even if you pay as much attention to your kitchen as you do to fine print, you can still whip up a healthy homemade meal that’s as easy as it is delicious. All you have to do is learn a few key cooking methods. Enter: Patricia Wells, cooking teacher and author of My Master Recipes, who is poised to whip you into a kitchen connoisseur. And luckily, that starts with just four basic techniques: steaming, blanching, poaching and braising — all of which she often uses herself. “[These] are the simplest, healthiest techniques I put to use every day,” Wells says. “None require a good deal of expertise or a huge array of equipment or gadgets.” (Beginner meal preppers, this one’s for you!)
So grab your apron, flip on the stove and getting cooking. You just might impress yourself — and some guests.
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This technique (best for veggies and seafood) helps bring out the food’s pure flavors, says Wells. “Steaming fresh corn on the cob, for instance, uses up much less fuel and time than boiling,” she says. “And rather than serving up a limp, waterlogged vegetable, you can enjoy fresh corn that is bright, firm and full of vitamin-rich fresh flavor.” Fish, like cod, flounder or shellfish cook up fast and absorb flavor better when you steam ‘em, too, especially if you do so over a bed of fresh herbs, like rosemary.
Simple Steps: In a medium saucepan, bring water to a simmer or boil. Place the steamer over the pan, your food in the steamer and let set for a few minutes. Voilá, fresh, delicious foods ready in a pinch.
Master Chef Tips: Make sure you fill your saucepan with enough water to last through the cook time. (In a medium-sized pan, you’ll use about one quart of H2O.) For veggies, bring water to a boil with the lid on the steamer, then add your produce when it’s full of vapor. As for meat and poultry, wrap them in lettuce or a bed of herbs so your steamer doesn’t absorb the odors.
Must-Get Gadget: A bamboo steamer will keep condensation from dripping in your food. We like this Kana Premium Bamboo Steamer ($25).
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Need a quick way to serve up some greens? Blanch ‘em. Blanching veggies makes them tender yet crisp so they add some more bite to your dish. This method requires you to cook foods (particularly green beans, peas or asparagus) in boiling water with salt for about two to seven minutes. Then, you immediately stop the cooking by putting them in an ice bath or running them under cold water. “This maintains — even intensifies — the vegetable’s brilliant green color,” says Wells, who often does this with veggies before adding to salads.
Simple Steps: Fill a large pot with water. Add one tablespoon of coarse sea salt per quart of H2O and bring it to a boil. Toss in your produce and let it come to a boil again. Allow the veggies to cook until they brighten, then drain the boiling water and immediately rinse the produce in ice cold water.
Master Chef Tips: Avoid blanching green veggies for more than seven minutes and don’t cover the pot, as this can lead to duller colors. You want the water to return to a boil as quickly as possible after adding the veggies, so keep the heat turned up.
Must-Get Gadget: “My go-to tool for blanching is a classic pasta pot, fitted with its own colander,” says Wells. After blanching the veggies, “just separate the colander from the pot and plunge it into an ice bath. Less mess; less fuss.” We recommend the Calphalon Classic Stainless Steel Stock Pot with Pasta Insert ($60).
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When you’re looking to dish up delicate foods, like fish, fruits, eggs or even poultry, poaching (also known as sous vide) might be your best bet, says Wells. (She loves poaching chicken breasts, which make them super tender.) This involves submerging foods in water or a flavored liquid and cooking them at a low temperature — below what you’d do for blanching, boiling or simmering. “Poached fruits are one of my favorite desserts and a method that always receives waves of welcome from guests,” Wells says. “During almost any season, fruits such as pears, apricots, cherries or peaches benefit from the poaching method.” Poach these fruits in a sugar syrup, Wells says, and flavor with spices like cinnamon, vanilla or cardamom.
Simple Steps: Heat water to about 160 to 180 degrees Fahrenheit for everything you poach, remembering that most foods should be done in less than 10 minutes. Once you hit that temperature, add your about-to-be poached food and keep an eye on the water so it stays on the verge of simmering.
Master Chef Tips: The key to making the perfect poached egg or fruit is keeping the temperature constant and never letting your water reach a high temp.
Must-Get Gadgets: A heat diffuser can tame your stovetop flame and keep liquid at the right temp. Try this Ilsa Cast Iron Heat Diffuser ($13) to get the job done. A mesh sieve can also help to make the perfect eggs benedict, just as good as you’d see at brunch. Go for this Ipow Stainless Steel ($11) option to get rid of any watery liquid on the egg before you cook it up.
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One of Wells’ favorite techniques — and a method other cooks often overlook — involves searing meat over high heat to create a crispy crust, then letting it cook slowly in stock with tomatoes and herbs. This is known as braising. “My favorite braising is done with meats and poultry with lots of collagen-containing connective tissues, such as bone-in pork loin, beef, lamb shoulder or chicken thighs and drumsticks,” Wells says. “Once the ingredients have been properly seared in a bit of fat [like oil], I add braising liquid — usually stock or wine or a combination of the two — and cook either in the oven or on top of the stove until tender.”
Simple Steps: Use a bit of oil in a pan to sear all sides of your meat of choice. Remove the meat from the pan and add your sauce ingredients, then add the meat back and put the pan’s lid on top. Allow the meat to braise for a few hours, adding more liquid when you need it.
Master Chef Tips: To make a restaurant-quality braised meat, you want to liquefy the collagen, which occurs at about 160 degrees Fahrenheit, says Wells. Cook bone side down to stabilize the meat on the pan and avoid letting the liquid boil. Make sure to taste it along the way. You’ll know it’s ready if you can basically cut your food with a spoon.
Must-Get Gadgets: You’ll want a cat iron pan with a lid for this method. For a budget-friendly buy, we like the Lodge Skillet with Glass Lid ($70). When you’re ready to invest, Wells suggests Le Creuset ($295).