Put a Lid On It: Three Times You Should (and Should Not!) Cover Your Pot While Cooking
Stock pots, soup pots, Dutch ovens, saucepans, and skillets: If you have these in your kitchen, you also have their corresponding lids. And sometimes it seems like that stack of lids is doing nothing more than cluttering up your space. Some recipes tell you when to put a lid on a pan and others are mysteriously silent on the matter. By following a few simple guidelines you can hone your cook's instincts and stop puzzling over the question of when to put a lid on it.
When to Cover a Pot
Always cover your pot if you're trying to keep the heat in. That means that if you're trying to bring something to a simmer or a boil—a pot of water for cooking pasta or blanching vegetables, a batch of soup, or a sauce—put that lid on to save time and energy. Once you've hit the boiling point, remember to take the lid off—this will prevent the pot from boiling over. In the event that your goal is to keep moisture in—like when your pot of soup, stew, or sauce is already at the right consistency but you want to keep cooking the vegetables and melding the flavors—clap that lid on to keep any more liquid from evaporating.
Trying to keep both heat and moisture in? Plan to keep the lid on, as this is the best way to achieve both. There are some essential cooking methods that rely on heat and moisture to get the job done—namely, steaming and braising. Steaming foods like vegetables, tamales, seafood, and grains supplies gentle, moist heat that will cook these foods to perfect tenderness without drying them out. Braising is the go-to cooking method for tougher cuts of meat, like brisket, chuck, pork shoulder, and short ribs. They need moist heat over a long period of time to break down the collagen and connective tissues for succulent, fork-tender results.
When to Keep the Lid Off
Cooking a soup, stew, or sauce uncovered allows water to evaporate, so if your goal is to reduce a sauce or thicken a soup, skip the lid. The longer you cook your dish, the more water that will evaporate and the thicker the liquid becomes—that means the flavors become more concentrated, too. If you take a peek at your pot of soup and decide you'd like it to be thicker, just allow it to simmer with the lid off until it's as thick as you like. This same principle applies with most sauce and gravy recipes, which include a step to reduce a liquid—often stock, juice, or wine—in order to reduce volume and intensify flavors.
You should also leave the lid off whenever you're trying to achieve a beautiful sear. Searing takes place in a very hot pan and serves to create a flavorful, caramelized crust on the exterior of steaks, duck breasts, lamb chops, pork chops, salmon, tuna, scallops, and other kinds of meat and seafood. Moisture is the arch nemesis of pan searing, as it creates steam and prevents a crisp coating from forming, so this is the time to leave the lid off the pan. The same thought process applies to stir frying and deep frying: Just like with pan searing, moisture interferes with creating a caramelized, crispy surface on stir-fried and deep-fried foods. All foods give off some steam when cooking, so it's important to leave the lid off the pan during frying so the steam evaporates rather than collecting on the lid and dripping back into the hot oil. For the best-ever stir fry, fried chicken, French fries, hush puppies, doughnuts, fried oysters, crab cakes, fried fish, latkes, and other crunchy-crispy fried favorites, don't overcrowd the pan and leave that lid in the cabinet!