Cooking revolves around the ability to control heat. The discovery of fire led to the realization that applying heat to mastodon meat transformed its flavor. Suddenly, the raw meat became more palatable. Although cooking methods have become a tad more sophisticated, they still transform the flavor of the product being heated. Traditionally, the baking and pastry world used baking as their primary cooking method. For the pastry world, baking changes a raw product into something edible. However, an interpretation of culinary cooking methods with an eye toward flavor will reveal that cooking methods outside of baking have much to offer the flavors of plated desserts.
It is important to note that the items being cooked for plated desserts are not meat–protein based. We have forgone the mastodon filet and, instead, are primarily cooking fruits, vegetables, nuts, starches, dairy, and egg proteins. In the case of fruits and vegetables, the products are cooked solely for flavor development as they can be eaten in their raw state with no ill effects, unlike a raw cake batter or bread dough.
Culinary cooking categories are divided into three categories: dry heat, moist heat, and a combination of dry and moist. Dry heat transfers heat to the food product without the addition of any liquid. The heat is transferred through a hot pan, hot oil or fat, or hot air or radiation. Moist heat transfers heat to the food through some kind of liquid. In most cases this liquid is flavored and those flavors are transferred to the food during the cooking process. Combination cooking usually begins with dry heat and uses moist heat to complete the cooking process.
caramelization and maillard browning
The role of temperature in various cooking processes will prove to be extremely important to the development of flavor. Caramelization refers to a specific stage in the sugar cooking process. When sugar reaches 325–330°F (163–166°C), it begins to caramelize. Simply meant, the sugar turns brown. The longer it is allowed to cook, the darker the sugar will become. As it darkens, the sugar develops its characteristic caramel flavor. Caramelization gives a plate strong top and base notes: sweet and bitter.
Maillard browning refers to the browning that many products undergo as they are cooked. This concept of browning was discovered and defined by Louis Camille Maillard in 1910. He found that interactions between carbohydrates and amino acids, when in the presence of proteins, lead to full, deep flavors and brown color. In short, Maillard browning takes place in foods that are not primarily sugar based. The flavors of products that have undergone Maillard browning are full bodied and rich. They far transcend the simpler caramel sugar flavor associated with caramelization. Maillard browning helps a plate to develop strong, resonant middle notes.
Temperature plays an important role in both caramelization and Maillard browning. High temperatures (Maillard browning for some foods begins at 220°F (104°C)) are needed for either of these processes to occur. Water boils at 212°F (100°C). Unless a pressure cooker is being used, the temperature of any moist cooking method will not rise above water’s boiling temperature. Cooking techniques can, therefore, be divided into those that will trigger Maillard browning and caramelization and those that will not. Cooking techniques using temperatures much lower than 220°F (104°C) will not impart Maillard browning. Thus, none of the moist heat techniques will develop the flavor found in either caramelization or Maillard browning.
When considering a specific plated dessert it is necessary to consider whether the richness and strong middle notes contributed by Maillard browning are desirable. The context of the specific component within the plated dessert will define the manner in which heat should be applied to the product.
dry heat sauteing
Sautéing uses high heat and a small amount of fat. The fat is used to prevent the food from sticking to the pan and does not, necessarily, impart flavor to the product. This is a fast cooking method and is consequently not used for products that, due to their size and/or toughness, need to be cooked for a long period of time. The quick application of heat means that most of the food’s natural flavor is captured. Juices that are extracted in the cooking process are caught in the sauté pan and will often form the base for a pan sauce. Fruits or vegetables that are being sautéed will result, for the most part, in an al dente or forktender product. Their internal temperature will, in most cases, not reach 212°F (100°C), which means that their cell walls have not yet completely broken down.
In plated desserts sautéing works well when the fruit or vegetable is fairly ripe. A hard, relatively tasteless, not quite yet ripe pear will not suddenly become flavorful through the sautéing process. Use this cooking method with ripe fruit for the best results. This method can also be used for soft fruits, such as strawberries and raspberries, when prolonged cooking will break the fruit down, causing it to lose its integral shape. A quick sauté, finished with a sprinkle of granulated sugar will result in fruit with a clear, shiny, and sweet “glaze.” (See Corny Ice Cream Sandwich for a plated dessert that uses this cooking method.)
Sautéing relies on a hot pan. It is vital that the pan is hot before adding a small amount of fat and that the fat is hot before adding the item to be sautéed. Using a cold pan or cold fat will result in the sautéed item absorbing too much fat, altering its end taste and texture.