Soups. Stir-fries. Stews. Braises. Curries. All of these dishes are recognized and loved throughout the world, but what makes them different from one another? Intuitively, we know that cream of mushroom soup recipe is completely different from a kaldereta recipe, but in terms of technique, what sets them apart from each other?
To set the record straight, and to give your skills in the kitchen a bit of a boost, here’s what you need to know about some of the most popular cooking techniques. But first, here’s what you need to know to differentiate a stir fry, stew, and soup from one another.
Stir-Fries, Stews, and Soups: What’s the Difference?
To quickly determine whether what you’re eating is a stir fry, stew, or soup, you only need to look at two factors: first, how much liquid your dish has; and second, how big are the pieces of food in it.
If your dish has almost no liquid and has large cuts of meat or vegetables of more or less uniform size and shape, then it’s probably a stir fry. This type of cooking highlights the tastes and textures of each of the individual ingredients and keeps them from overcooking.
On the other hand, if your dish still has larger pieces of meat and vegetables in it, but also has a lot of liquid, then it’s probably a stew. There are a few exceptions to this, especially in Chinese cuisine or in some cuisines from Southeast Asia, but for the most part, a dish with large pieces of food that have been cooked in a high volume of liquid is a stew.
Finally, if your dish is mostly liquid and has very small or finely sliced ingredients in it, it’s a soup. Again, there are exceptions, but this holds true in most cases. These dishes are designed to allow all the ingredients’ flavors and textures to come together, and you need a lot of liquid to do this.
Ingredient Order: Stir Fries
When stir-frying, keep in mind that you’ll be adding ingredients one at a time, and each time you add an ingredient, the temperature in your pan will go down a bit. In general, you want to be cooking with a well-lubricated surface and a lot of heat. Once your cooking vessel is nice and hot, the first ingredients you’ll be adding will usually be your aromatics. Garlic, ginger, onions, and scallions all need to be exposed to direct heat in order to release their flavor compounds, so add those in first.
What comes next will depend on what ingredients you’ll be working with. If the stir fry you’re making has fish or seafood in it, you’ll probably want to add those in last, as they cook very easily and won’t be pleasant to eat if overdone. They don’t need direct heat to cook, so even if your pan has cooled from the addition of other ingredients, your seafood will still cook through. On the other hand, if you’re cooking with beef or pork, toss those in after you’re done sauteing your aromatics. These need exposure to direct heat to develop the brown crust that highlights their flavors best.
As for your vegetables, go from hard to soft when adding these to your stir fry. Root vegetables like radishes, carrots, or jicama should go in first, as they need the most time to cook. Hard gourds like squash should follow soon after. Softer vegetables like snow peas or zucchini can go in last, to preserve their texture and keep them from getting pulverized.
Ingredient Order: Stews
For this cooking method, you’ll be adding your meats in first, before your aromatics. Add them in while on medium or medium-high heat. This ensures that the meat pieces come into direct contact with the hot bottom of your pan, helping in the development of fond, flavor-packed layer of caramelized protein. You can add your aromatics once as much fond as possible has been created.
Once as much of that fond has been developed, add in your stewing liquid, whether that’s wine, stewed tomatoes, stock, or some other liquid. The introduction of the liquid will lift the fond out of the bottom of the pan and incorporate it into your sauce, ensuring that your flavors are bold and full. This technique is called deglazing. You can also use your aromatics as part of the deglazing process: simply add them first and allow them to brown, before adding in your liquid.
After you’ve deglazed your stew pot, you can add in the rest of your ingredients in the same way you would with a stir fry. Take note that if your stew features hard grains like chickpeas or hominy, you should add these in soon after deglazing, because you need a lot of liquid, and time, to cook these.
Ingredient Order: Soups
When adding ingredients to a soup, many of the same rules apply as well. As usual, begin with the aromatics, followed by meats, and finally vegetables, before covering everything with your preferred soup base. Take note that if you’re making soup, you’ll need a lot of liquid: as a rule of thumb, try to have between two and three times more liquid than solids in your soup.
Whether you’re making chicken adobo or pasta Fagioli, just keep these tips in mind and you won’t go wrong! Who knows, you could even end up finding new techniques that will raise your skills in the kitchen to new heights.