We’re taught that moisture is the enemy when roasting or frying foods that we want to get perfectly crispy and/or golden brown. So the two techniques I’m about to discuss may seem counterintuitive: In each of them, a splash of water improves rather than sabotages a batch of crispy roasted potatoes or lacy pan-fried dumplings.
The key methods to know are steam-frying and steam-roasting. Both involve adding just enough water to a pan or skillet of food to create a little steam. That steam power helps everything cook evenly and all the way through. Steam-frying happens on the stove, while steam-roasting happens in the oven. So when and why do you want steam creeping around as you fry and roast? Read on:
When you want to cook something through without burning the undersides—think juicy dumplings with crispy bottoms or perfect sunny-side up eggs (no more patches of translucent/gloppy/uncooked whites!)—a bit of water is your ally.
There are two ways you can do this. One option is to add a little water to a cold skillet at the same time you add your cooking oil and food. Heat everything together, covered, until the food you’re cooking absorbs some of the water, while the steam helps to cook the ingredient’s top as well as its bottom. When you uncover the pan and allow the rest of the water to evaporate, the oil can do its thing and turn your food golden brown. This is a common way to cook pan-fried dumplings so that the filling stays juicy while the bottoms get nice and crisp.
Alternatively, you can pan-fry your food first, and then after you’ve achieved the desired level of color, carefully add a splash of water and immediately cover until everything is cooked through. The water will quickly convert to steam to form a dome of enclosed heat that will quickly cook bulkier vegetables like broccoli or fennel and wilt big piles of greens. Since you’ll be adding water while your cooking oil is already quite hot, have a lid ready to immediately cover the skillet and protect yourself from any hot-oil splatters.
Sometimes it’s important to sap every bit of moisture out of whatever you’re oven-roasting—for crispy-skinned chicken, say, or a tray of perfectly blistered asparagus. But in other cases, a little water added to a foil-covered pan creates steam (sound familiar?) that keeps sturdier vegetables such as potatoes, halved beets, and whole carrots from drying out or toughening up in the oven.
Like steam-frying, you have two paths for steam-roasting: You can first steam your veg until tender with ½ cup of water on a foil-covered baking sheet; carefully tip out any excess liquid, toss with oil, salt, and pepper, and roast uncovered (this method prioritizes crispy edges). Or, you can toss the veg with oil in a 13×9″ baking dish and pour in ¼ cup water before covering with foil. By the time your vegetables are tender, they’ll be creamy inside, with caramelized, if not crisp, exteriors.
It’s about to get steamy: