Do you want to be a better cook? One of the best ways to improve your cooking skills is through mastering some simple cooking techniques. It is possible to make the same dish, using the same cooking tools, and same ingredients, and to have it turn out great or barely edible. The difference is how the cooking tools are used.
Years ago as a preteen, I remember making a halfhearted attempt to learn to cook. I attempted to make pasta, and instead of creating a quick and simple meal, I ended up with a pot of mush and a small fire.
Cooking methods may include frying in a pan, baking in the oven, broiling in the oven, cooking on a grill or barbecue, boiling, steaming, sautéing, or even heating in a high speed blender. Cooking techniques are the things you do while the food is prepared, such as stirring, flipping, covering with a lid, adding ingredients in a particular order, adding water or oil, etc. Techniques can also include the selected temperature, cooking time, or method used.
In this post, I would like to focus on simple cooking techniques for making corn (kernels, from frozen). Corn is just an example; these techniques can apply to a variety of kinds of food.
Making Corn: How it Should Turn Out
Corn should be hot. It should have the ideal amount of moisture so the kernels are plump, tender, and juicy. The corn should be easy to chew, but not mushy or too soft. It should not by dry, shrivelled, or tough. You can make corn plain or with spices and seasonings.
Simple Cooking Techniques for Preparing Corn
- Steaming. You can use a steamer appliance (which boils water below a steaming basket) or a basket insert that goes in a cooking pot over boiling water. Steam frozen corn kernels for about 5 – 7 minutes.
- Microwave. Place frozen corn in a heat-proof, microwave safe, glass dish with a lid. Add a little water (optional), cover, and cook for about 5 minutes (for up to 1.5 cups of corn – more corn will take longer). Pause half way through cooking time to stir.
- Oven. Use an oven-safe dish with a lid, such as a casserole dish. Add a little water (optional) and the frozen corn, cover with lid, and bake at 350 for about 15 minutes.
- Frying pan. Pre-heat a pan on medium heat. Keep a cup of water or vegetable broth next to the stove, ready to add to the pan as the corn cooks. Add a small amount of olive oil or water and the frozen corn. Cover with a lid so the corn steams. Lift the lid every minute or so to stir the corn and add water or vegetable broth 1 tbsp at a time to the pan to prevent the surface from becoming dry. Do not allow the corn to dry out. Steam should be coming from the pan throughout the cooking process. If the steam stops, add more water and stir the corn. Cook for a total of 5 – 8 minutes. You can cook corn longer, but turn the heat all the way down to the lowest setting after 3 -5 minutes.
- In another dish. You can add frozen corn to chili, soup, stir fry, casseroles, or other dishes. Corn holds up well and can be added at the beginning of cooking for most dishes (e.g. added with all the ingredients in a casserole). Don’t cook corn from the beginning with beans (if preparing from dried beans) because it cooks much faster and would become mushy. You could also add corn 5 minutes before the end of cooking (e.g. in a soup).
Cooking Methods: What Could Go Wrong
Cooking errors really come down to this: the wrong cooking method or the wrong technique. Different methods of cooking or different techniques can create vastly different outcomes. For example, to make cake, bake it in the oven (but you could also use the microwave to make a small mug cake) and do not stir or flip while it is cooking. Cook pancakes on a hot pan, and flip to cook both sides. Vegan meatballs must be steamed to create a meaty texture, but if baked instead they are dry and spongy. Choosing the wrong cooking technique can ruin a dish, even if the cooking method would be great for something else.
Trying to save time can sometimes backfire; if you’re being impatient, you could end up taking up even more time or ruining the dish altogether. Fast cooking methods such as stir frying work well if done correctly, but slow cooking or baking can be effective hands-off techniques that allow you to do other things while the food is cooking.
If you have been trying to cook, and things just aren’t turning out right, these common cooking errors could be why.
Turning the heat up too high or having the heat too low
Sometimes people assume that cooking hotter means the food will be done faster. This isn’t the case (with the exception of stir frying, discussed below). Being impatient will remove the moisture and burn your food. If heat is too low, food may cook too slowly and the texture can change.
Not stirring enough or stirring too much
Different cooking methods require different stirring techniques. Stir frying is a cooking technique that is very fast and involves a very hot pan, but the key is that foods must be continuously stirred. Intermittent stirring is not enough when stir frying, and foods will be burned. Sometimes you may choose the right temperature and with the right cooking method, but stir too much (and make some foods fall apart) or too little (and waste food when it sticks and burns).
Letting food stick to the pan
It is important not to let food stick to the bottom of a pot or pan. Sticking creates a layer of burned food, and it is possible to waste half (or more) of the food. This is expensive because you are buying twice as much food as you get. It is more work, too, because now there is a mess to try to clean off of the pan. When food sticks, it also starts to burn. Food burned on the bottom can ruin the flavour of the entire dish, even if the food above it is not burned.
Food sticks when one or more of these factors are present:
- Cooking surface is too hot.
- The cooking surface is too dry.
- Not correctly preparing the cooking surface (e.g. an unlined baking sheet, an un-oiled cast iron frying pan).
- Food is not moving around enough.
- The food has a texture or consistency that is prone to sticking .
- The food is cooked for too long.
Prevent sticking by stirring, flipping, using oil or water, cooking a lower temperature, or using a different method of cooking (e.g. a baking dish in the oven rather than a frying pan on the stovetop).
Uneven or insufficient heating
For food to be cooked well, a hot dish needs to be the same temperature throughout, and each ingredient should be adequately done. A stir fry with some overcooked, mushy vegetables and some undercooked, crunchy vegetables? Yuck. A clump of vegetables from the freezer that is hot on one side and cold on the other? Yuck. Some dishes need to be prepared in steps. If one ingredient takes 45 minutes to cook and another takes just 10 minutes, you can’t put them both together and cook them the same way.
Cooking Example: Corn Gone Wrong
The corn in the picture below is burned, dry, and tough. What happened?
This type of outcome is the result of using the wrong cooking techniques. The cooking method was frying in a pan, which can work well for preparing corn, but the techniques were ineffective.
- The cook turned the heat up too high.
- He added corn to the to the pan and left it there, without stirring or adding water.
- He cooked the corn for too long (10 – 15 minutes).
What would work better?
- Pre-heat a pan on medium heat, then add corn and cover with a lid.
- Stir every 60 – 90 seconds, and add water to ensure the pan does not become dry.
- Cook the corn for 5 – 8 minutes. If keeping the corn warm for longer, cook for just 3 – 5 minutes and then turn the heat down to simmer. Keep adding water every few minutes so the corn stays moist.
The picture below shows corn that is cooked with more effective techniques and spices added. Notice how the kernels are round (not wrinkled) and light in colour (not burned).
Perfecting your use of a few simple cooking techniques can make cooking easier and help your food turn out better.