One of the things I love most about cooking—and a point that chef Samin Nosrat makes often in her cookbook Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat—is that it keeps you humble. If you want to make good food, you can’t sleep through a dang thing, from choosing ingredients to chopping them up to cooking them well and serving them. And just when you get a little too confident, bam, you’ve burnt the nuts you were toasting or over-seasoned the broth or spilled pie filling all over the bottom of your oven. (Been there.)
Take this example from Samin: “Cooling on the countertop, [the cheesecake I’d just baked] looked so textbook-perfect that I kept making excuses to walk by and gaze at it. When I passed through the kitchen for the twentieth time—after about four hours—a mighty crack had suddenly appeared, signaling that I’d overcooked it. I’d underestimated the power of carryover; the jiggle hadn’t been jiggly enough!” It’s a lesson in hubris, and a reminder that even gentle cooking can sneak up on you. It’s also a reminder of how wonderful gentle forms of cooking—steaming, poaching, braising—are.
I needed this reminder from Samin: Yes, steaming and poaching and braising take longer. And they’re not as exciting as sizzling, screaming-hot, fire-alarm-triggering, instant-gratification forms of cooking—frying, searing, roasting. Fair enough. But the gentle methods yield gentle, tender foods, and goodness knows if we couldn’t all use a little more of that.
They also are exciting, if in more subtle ways; maybe it’s simply that they require a deft hand, a hawk’s eye, and a sense of faith. Faith? Yes: Faith in that the food will continue cooking even after you take it, possibly still wet and/or shimmying, from its heat source. (Samin’s the one who finally got me to cook my eggs on a low flame and remove them while they were far softer than I’d honestly like. She was right, of course, and in the time it took me to spin around for a bowl and my toast, the eggs were perfect—just set, creamy but not runny. Carryover cooking, man!)
While we’re talking about gentle cooking, one more note in praise of steaming: It seems fussy or old-fashioned or just plain boring (no quick sauté of garlic in oil, no Maillard reaction), but it actually concentrates the flavors of whatever you’re cooking. It’s ideal for delicate foods like fish or perfect summer fruit, where you want to preserve the form of whatever it is you’re cooking. It’s dramatic and fun to open up the little parchment packets used when cooking anything en papillote. AND it also introduces another opportunity for layering flavors: You can steam just with water, or with wine, or tea, or a splash of soy sauce, or citrus juice… Boring? No siree, Bob. Get comfortable with gentle cooking using these four methods: