Unless we are deep frying (which I’ll discuss separately in another Blog), cooking with hot oil has one disadvantage – the food only cooks upward from the portion in contact with the pan or oil. We remedy this, of course, by stirring and tossing and flipping, but these techniques work better with some foods than others. Think of trying to brown a whole chicken in a fry pan!
Cooking in the oven (i.e., baking and roasting – technically, cooking in hot air) easily overcomes this problem. Plus, high temperatures, higher even than oil, are easily achievable. The size and shape of the food are no longer potential issues; and the food is heated equally from all directions. Of course, there must always be a disadvantage, and there is. Heating with air is a much slower process than heating with a liquid. Heat just doesn’t “travel” through air as quickly as it does through liquids.
Baking and roasting also are drying processes. Since foods heat more slowly in the oven, the water and natural juices they contain have a longer opportunity to evaporate and slowly dry the food. We use this drying process to our advantage when we bake breads or cakes by removing most, but not all, of the water. With most meats, however, which we generally prefer moist and tender, we minimize the moisture loss by roasting at higher temperatures and reducing the total cooking time.
Clearly, each of the cooking techniques we’ve considered has some advantages and at least one disadvantage. In most cases we can easily compensate for the disadvantage. We stir and toss vegetables in the fry pan to ensure they cook evenly. In other cases, we achieve the best result by combining techniques. My classic example here is the Italian meatball. I first brown them in extra-virgin olive oil (without cooking them through), and then add them to my tomato sauce to finish. The crusty meatballs add wonderful flavors to the sauce, and the sauce reciprocates by flavoring the meat. I hope you will try both sometime!
P.S. I know that for many of you, reading these last two Blogs has been a chore – maybe even boring – because you already know all this. Some of you may be questioning why any of this is even remotely important. Others may not have thought of cooking in these terms before and may now have a new perspective on the importance of cooking methods. To the first two groups: I apologize, but I also thank you for sticking with me. To all three groups I can say: We now have a common baseline to begin discussing new food preparation opportunities and solving some cooking problems and dilemmas. Those discussions will come in future Blogs. I think we’re ready for Cooking 201, but I have more to write about homemade pizza first!