Moist Heat Cooking Methods – How to Braise, Poach, and Steam

The moist cooking methods fall into three categories: Braising, Poaching, Steaming. Moist heat cooking methods generally use lower temperatures than dry heat cooking methods. We use the two extremes for delicate items and the middle range for tougher items. Poaching is so low temperature and so gentle that fish and eggs cook without damage. Steaming at a higher temperature only exposes the food to the steam, so it can cook delicate items. But, braising is for the tough items; really tough. Its cooked so long that the connective tissue in meats will gelatinize and soften so the meat is fork tender. If you have lean tender meat already, its best to sauté or fry the item.

Its best to involve liquids other than water to bring more flavor to the party for poaching and steaming. Herbs and spices in the liquid rush over the food as it cooks to impart a basting like quality to the process.

  • Poaching = 140-180 degrees
  • Braising = 180-205 degrees
  • Steaming = 212 degrees



Poaching is an immersion technique. Its for low temperature cooking of delicate items like eggs and fish. Temperatures range from 140°F to 180°F and the liquid won’t be bubbling at all.


Braising is a cooking method for tough cuts of meat and for vegetable dishes. Braised meats are first browned and then cooked in a liquid that serves as a sauce for the meat. Braising makes an exchange of liquids bringing the meat flavor into the braising liquid and the braising liquid flavor into the meat. Braising is usually a long process where the meat connective tissue will gelatinize. This makes the meat is almost fork tender but not falling apart. When selecting cuts of meat, the process will work best for meat marbled with fat. The process will not Braising temperatures are not high enough to brown the meat. It must be pan seared before braising.

Meats simmer at temperatures between 180 degrees and 200 degrees. The meat and the braising liquid will boil over direct heat. The temperature is then reduced below boiling, and cover the pot. Cooking can finish in the oven or on the stove top. Near the end of the cooking process, remove the lid may from oven braised meats. This gives the liquid a chance to reduce and thicken to form a sauce. It will also give a chance for the chef to baste the meat with the thickening sauce.

Braising is more of a family of methods and can include the following:


Casseroling is from the name of the cooking dish used. Its an oven proof dish with a tight fitting lid referred to as a ‘casserole dish’. This is not so much of a variation in the method as a common name for a braise when done in a casserole dish.

Slow Cooker/Crockpot

Like casseroling and stewing, it cooks the food in a liquid but over an extended period of up to 12 hours. Crockpot is a brand name for slow cookers whose name has become synonymous with the method in the US.


Stewing is usually associated with smaller or bite sized pieces of meat. Stews, like braised meats, get much of their flavor from their cooking liquid. The small cuts of meat are submerged in the liquid while a true braise involves liquid 3/4 up the sides of the meat


Like the Casserole, the Tagine is a cooking vessel. The dishes made in the tagine take their name from the vessel. It is Moroccan in origin and whole books address Tagine cooking. The characteristic Moroccan flavors can be in a braising dish or stewpot and still known as a tagine.


This method cooks food in steam from boiling water whether in direct or indirect contact. You can use a traditional bamboo or stainless steamer.

Steam occurs when water comes to 212 degrees. So, all steam cooking occurs at 212 degrees where other methods can be at lower temperatures. The temperature must be at 212 because the food is above the liquid and only gets the convection heat of the steam.

Small amounts of liquid can steam if you encase the food in pouches. The French call it a Papillote. Take parchment paper cut in a butterfly shape and wrap it in a loose bubble around the food. Place meats and vegetables in the center of the pouch before closing. Add a small amount of flavorful liquid so it steams away inside the pouch while the whole thing bakes in an oven.

Blanching & Parboiling

These methods do not completely cook an item. They prepare items for further cooking under a different method. To blanch, plunge the food in boiling water or hot fat. Then remove it after a brief, timed interval. Then plunge it in iced water or placed under cold running water to halt (shock) the cooking . Blanch food to soften it, partly cook it, or remove a strong taste

Parboiling (or leaching) is like blanching but the cooking time is longer. You may blanch an item for 30 seconds or less to maintain a healthy green color such as in asparagus or spinach. Its also used to make peeling tomato skins easier. Parboiling cooks an item such as a potato so later cooking will be quicker. Parboiled potatoes are great for potato hash so the potatoes finish with tender ingredients.

How do you go about learning to cook?

How do you go about learning to cook? The usual path is to read recipes and try them, but that just teaches us to parrot some motions.

I see details in recipes like this:

  • Place 8oz steak into a 8 inch skillet
  • Add 8 oz of broth and onions and carrots
  • Simmer 3 hours covered, uncovered for last 30 minutes

All this could just say “braise the meat and carrots and onions together.” The recipes assume the cook does not know what braising is though. The problem with these kinds of recipes is that they never explain that your braising.

After parroting a few recipes, I decided to understand why we do what they say to do.

  • Why just that much liquid and not more? (that would become stewing, not braising)
  • Why do we uncover for the last 30 minutes? (it allows the liquid to reduce and make a thicker sauce)
  • What the heck is a skillet anyway? (sauté pans have straight vertical sides, but skillets sides slope away from the bottom)

The more I look at the answers to my questions, the more questions I have.

  • Why does the height of the liquid matter? (Some chefs like to braise with the protein covered and the pan uncovered the whole time)
  • Why do I care so much about the shape of the sides of the pan? (flipping the contents)

There is a lot of misinformation, interpretation, and geographic variation is out there. If one hangs in there, they get to the epiphany and start to see the core principles and it starts to come together. Once the fog clears, we see simple truths:

there are only 5 chemical reactions we care about in cooking

  • Browning (Caramelization & Maillard Reactions)
  • Galatinization
  • Denaturation
  • Emulsification
  • Coagulation

or that there are only 5 ways to transfer heat into food to cook it

  • Conduction
  • Convection
  • Radiation
  • Microwave
  • Induction

or there are only 6 basic cooking methods no matter what equipment you use

  • Braising
  • Steaming
  • Roasting
  • Sauteing
  • Pan Frying
  • Simmering

When we understand recipes, we become inspired and understand the basics and fundamentals. We understand complicated sets of procedures and become master in the kitchen.

Logic, thinking, feeling, looking, touching, tasting, and smelling will guide the freestyle chef to repeat success after success.

Update: Grill A Chef has captures this well –

Sweet Meyer Lemons in Season in November


I got lucky and found a bag of Meyer Lemons at the grocery store today. I see these on web gourmet stores selling 2 pounds for $19. I got 7 lemons for $2.50. Meyer lemons are a seasonal specialty lemon. The lemon was cross bred with mandarin oranges to create a sweet lemon. They also have more juice than regular lemons. Compared to regular lemons, these have a thin pith that allows you eat the lemon without peeling. The thin peel prevents mass marketing since its easy to damaged in commercial transit. You will find them in specialty grocers, online, or farmers markets. You can also find them at fruit stands along the highway in Texas, Florida, and California.

When I took them home, I cut one for a first taste. It was a bit of a shock. I was expecting something sweet, but still lemony, sorta like a lemon cake or candy. My first reaction was a pucker and I thought people must be crazy to think these are sweet. So I tried some more and left the peel on. I could taste the bitterness. So I tried some more and it was not so tart, then I tried more. Finally I realized I had eaten the whole lemon and half the peel. I struggle to eat a slice when it’s a garnish on my plate.  I finished the Meyer without bravado. It’s just so good you can eat a whole fruit like you would others.

The Meyer lemon is sweet! But, it’s still a lemon. It has some floral notes to it. The lemon takes its name from Frank Meyer. He discovered it in Peking China in 1908 on a commissioned trip from the US Department of Agriculture. It gives fruit from November to April. Before the rediscovery by culinary foodies and chefs, it was a decorative house plant. It seems it was Martha Stewart who used them in her recipes that led to the new foodie rediscovery.

Hope you can find them near you as we’ll!