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Boiling, braising and steaming: Tips and recipes to help you harness the power of water

Steaming carrots. (Laura Chase de Formigny for The Washington Post/food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)
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Over the last two weeks, I’ve walked you through various stovetop (sauteing, searing, frying) and oven/grill (roasting, broiling) cooking techniques. Now it’s time to close out this series with water.

Whether in the form of liquid or steam, water is an extraordinarily effective medium for cooking. It excels at both meat and vegetables. You can go low and slow (braising) or fast and high (boiling, steaming). Let’s take a look at these methods, as well as some tips and recipes to help you perfect them.

Sauteing and frying: Tips and recipes to help you master stovetop cooking techniques

Boiling/braising

These wet cooking methods rely on convection as heat travels in currents throughout the liquid (though the heat is initially transferred from the heat source via the pot by conduction). At sea level, the liquid temperature cannot get above the boiling point, or 212 degrees Fahrenheit/100 degrees Celsius (it’s lower at higher altitudes). Still, in “On Food and Cooking,” Harold McGee says, “Boiling is a very efficient process. The entire surface of the food is in contact with the cooking medium,” and the density of water molecules means they’re always knocking into the food molecules to transfer energy. What you give up in browning potential by cooking in water or another liquid (unless you sear ingredients first, such as in a braise), you gain in even cooking. It is possible, however, to overcook ingredients (tough meat, limp vegetables) at a certain point.

How to boil water. Yes, really.

Boiling on the stovetop is a very common approach, whether it’s a pot of pasta cooked to barely chewy perfection or vegetables briefly cooked and then plunged into ice water (blanched) to preserve color and texture. At a lower temperature, sauces, stews and soups can be simmered. Braising is a gentle way to cook in liquid, often associated with meat but also applicable to vegetables and seafood. It’s often done with the lid on, either on the stovetop or in the oven, at a relatively low heat. Braising is an especially hands-off method as well.

Practice boiling with Spring Cobb Salad With Scallion Dressing, which starts with blanched peas and asparagus and finishes with boiled eggs. There’s even an option to poach the chicken, which is a quick approach to cooking flat, tender cuts of meat, McGee says. For braising, you’ll be won over by Porcini Beef Pot Roast.

Others to try:

Pork Braised With Chiles: This recipe from Samin Nosrat calls for pork shoulder, but you can adapt the oven braise to “any cut of dark, sinewy meat you’d like.” In this case, the braise happens with the lid off.

Pasta With Pecorino and Pistachios: Snap peas are added in the last few minutes of boiling the pasta.

Butter-Braised Radishes and Radish Greens With Farro: A relatively quick braise on the stovetop cooks radishes until they’re perfectly tender.

Wine-Braised Chicken With Mushrooms: One of our most popular recipes of 2020 is an oven braise that’s light enough to enjoy in warmer weather, too.

Braising is the most flexible, foolproof path to meltingly tender meat

Steaming

“Steaming is by far the fastest method for pouring heat into food, thanks to the large amount of energy that water vapor releases when it condenses into droplets on the food surface,” McGee says. Like boiling or braising, steaming relies heavily on convection as the droplets are circulated throughout the cooking vessel, though in a much gentler manner that doesn’t jostle more delicate food. The problem is, steaming can almost be too efficient, bringing the surface of the food to the boiling point so quickly that you risk overcooking the outside before the inside is done. McGee explains that’s why steaming is best done with thinner, smaller pieces of food that can cook quickly. Be sure to allow the steam to make contact with all sides of the food.

Steaming is the one cooking technique that won't steer you wrong

Steaming can be done in a variety of ways. You can place a steamer rack inside a pot of water or food directly in shallow water. Some baskets rest on top of the pot. I’m a big fan of pressure cooking with steam in my Instant Pot, which makes steaming especially quick and efficient. You can also steam by wrapping food in a foil or parchment packet placed in the oven or on the grill. Because of its gentler nature and the fact that you’re not submerging the food in a ton of water, steaming helps preserve a food’s shape, flavor and nutrients. Aromatics can be added to infuse the dish without overpowering the main ingredients. To practice steaming, check out Steamed Carrots With Honey Mint Dressing.

Others to try:

Fish Fillets en Papillote: This is a flexible, elegant meal suitable for weeknight cooking.

Steamed Tofu With Sauteed Kimchi: Get a kimchi you like for this simple Korean snack that would also make for a nice, light dinner.

Steamed Lobsters: If the prospect of cooking lobster has always intimidated you, this is the recipe to try.

Classic Mussels Mariniere: Steaming mussels is quick and gives you the opportunity to infuse them with your choice of flavors, as well as create a rich broth for dipping bread.

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