There are any number of cooking methods used worldwide, from the high-tech molecular gastronomy of professional chefs to the ancient practice of putting food on a stick and holding it over hot coals. No one cooking method is best for every food, and no one food is suited for every cooking method. Dry cooking methods are those that use no water-based liquids or steam, and they have both advantages and disadvantages.
Dry Heat Methods Defined
Dry heat methods are those that don't use water, steam or water-based cooking liquids such as wine or fruit juice. Dry heat methods include many common cooking methods, including roasting, grilling, broiling and frying. Deep frying is also a dry heat method, because although the fat is liquid it contains no water and therefore is not "wet." Hot-smoking, which cooks the foods as they are smoked, is also considered to be a dry heat method.
Browning and Flavoring with Dry Cooking
The primary advantage of dry heat cooking methods over wet heat methods is the browning that results. Browning is important for more than aesthetic reasons. When foods are cooked by a dry heat method at high temperatures the amino acids in meat, and the sugars in fruit and vegetables, undergo a transformation. Amino acids are broken down by a process called Maillard reactions, and they recombine into more complex, savory flavored molecules. Sugars undergo a similar process of caramelization, which turns simple sweetness into hundreds of complex flavors. Starches gel and turn golden, creating a similar improvement in flavor.
Grilling is among the most popular and well-known dry heat cooking methods. Though grilling clearly adds a chargrilled flavor, there are a variety of complex flavors that can be added to meat or vegetables when grilling or smoking. The type of wood that is used is what truly flavors the food. Maple, hickory and oak are among the most common types of wood chips used for grilling and smoking. Mesquite is another favorite. Try using fruit wood such as apple, cherry or peach for a more aromatic finish. Pecan wood also works well for flavoring meats.
Other Advantages of Dry Heat
Dry heat cooking methods offer a number of other advantages. Dry heat can be very intense because it is not limited by the boiling point of water. This shortens cooking time and allows meats to be well seared on the outside but rare on the inside. Many dry heat cooking methods allow fat to be rendered out and left behind, reducing dietary fat intake. Dry heat cooking methods also preserve the vitamin content of foods better than wet heat methods, which can leach away water-soluble vitamins.
Disadvantages of Dry Cooking
Few dry heat cooking methods are suitable for slow cooking, which rules out a number of dishes using tougher or slower-cooking ingredients. Frying and deep-frying, if not done correctly, can increase a meal's fat content considerably. Roasting, grilling and broiling can all produce charred surfaces containing carcinogenic substances in meats. Dry cooking, by its nature, tends to cause foods to dry out by evaporation. If not used correctly, dry heat methods can also result in inedibly tough, chewy meats. Finally, although the browning effect improves flavor, there are times when it is undesirable in a dish.
Fred Decker is a trained chef, former restaurateur and prolific freelance writer, with a special interest in all things related to food and nutrition. His work has appeared online on major sites including Livestrong.com, WorkingMother.com and the websites of the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle; and offline in Canada's Foodservice & Hospitality magazine and his local daily newspaper. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.