Navigating Best Practices: Cooking with Oil

Navigating your way to perfectly cooked recipes can be compared to taking a short road trip. The recipe is your map. If you follow the directions, you can be reasonably confident that you will get the desired results. However, recipes, just like maps, make a lot of assumptions! A map assumes that you have a vehicle, adequate fuel, and you know the rules of the road. Under perfect conditions, following the map will get you exactly where you need to be. Recipes make similar assumptions.

First, a recipe assumes you are using the right cookware, which is a blog in itself. If you are into analogies (as I am), think of the cookware as your vehicle. Sometimes an SUV will get you to where your going, while sometimes it’s a top-down convertible. In Navigating Cookware, choosing the best pots and pans for your cooking needs is gets this trip in gear. The key takeaways include the importance of using stainless steel or cast iron for frying and high heat cooking, as well as protecting your non-stick pans by never using cooking spray, sticking them in the dishwasher, or putting them in the oven.

image of three frying pans
A well stocked kitchen should include cast iron, stainless steel and non-stick pans. No one pan is all-purpose!

Besides using correct cookware, recipes also assume that you choose the right cooking oil. In my driving analogy, cooking oil is the fuel. Without it, you aren’t going anywhere, and a bad choice can cause all sorts of problems! Choosing the wrong cooking oil can cause your smoke detector to go off. To learn the difference between the types of oils and how to use them, check out Navigating Cooking Oils. I recommend Canola oil as your best bet for all-purpose cooking oil. It has a high smoke point, neutral flavor, and it’s inexpensive. Save your pricey olive oils for dressings, marinades, and drizzles (spoiler alert: olive oil, when used on high heat, is what causes smoky kitchens).

frying pan with oil on a buner
Canola oil is the most versatile and all-purpose cooking oil

Having the right pan and oil gets you off to a great start. The recipe will now walk you through the steps. Unfortunately, your recipe, may be assuming that you know some best practices that are necessary for achieving perfect results. Not knowing or implementing these best practices won’t ruin the recipe, but it does mean that it probably won’t be as good as it should. Been there, done that! The veggies aren’t crispy or the meat isn’t evenly cooked even though the recipe was followed to the letter. Why, oh why?? This wasn’t supposed to happen! Here are the two best practices necessary to get the expected results when following all the other directions.

raw steak and raw chicken
Meat, poultry and fish need 20-30 minutes on the counter to come to room temperature before cooking

Best Practice #1

First, the ingredients need to be at room temperature and dry before you start cooking. Not warm, just not cold from the fridge. Protein, specifically meat, poultry, and fish, needs removed from the refrigerator and set out on the counter for 20-30 minutes before cooking. This is enough time to remove the chill off your protein, resulting in even cooking and juicier outcomes.

I didn’t grow up knowing this. My mom always told me that setting raw chicken out on the counter was an invitation to food poisoning. Mom was wrong! Well, not entirely wrong. It is true that meat should never be left out for more than 2 hours under any circumstance. However, meat purchased from grocery stores or a reputable butcher is perfectly safe being out on the counter for 20-30 minutes. No worries, no one will get sick! Vegetables are also best when cooked at room temperature, not cold. Unless specified differently, the recipe is assuming that your ingredients are at room temperature.

Brussels Sprouts in a frying pan
Veggies are best cooked when room temperature in a hot pan

Room temperature food is only half the equation, you want the meat or veggies dry. Condensation (or sweat) is likely to form on the surface as the food sits out on the counter. Use a paper towel and pat dry before cooking. Patting dry is essential for two reasons; water or wetness on food will cause hot oil to spit and splatter. Wet surfaces also interfere with the chemical process, known as the Maillard Reaction, which creates the delicious flavor on seared food.

Pan with oil being added from bottle
Unless otherwise directed, always heat the pan and oil prior to adding food.

Best Practice #2

The second universal cooking best practice is to heat your pan and oil before adding the food. This one makes a lot of sense when you think about it. Adding food to a cold pan (with unheated oil) allows the food to soak up the oil, making it soggy, not crispy. For best results, heat the oil first. You will know the oil is at the right temperature when it shimmers or glistens in the pan. There is a definite change in appearance when oil goes from cold to hot. Some cooks look for the oil to form “fingers” or ripples in the oil. Others will dip the handle of a wooden spoon in the oil. If bubbles form around the wood, the oil is hot enough. For me, I just look for the shimmer.

Implementing these best practices will significantly improve the odds of your finished product looking and tasting just like the recipe promised! Better looking and tasting food will also make your kitchen experience much more gratifying and enjoyable, which is the goal of cooking to Impress, NOT stress!

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