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Par-cooking is a process by which food is partially cooked so that it can be finished or reheated later. There are a few different reasons why this technique is commonly used in both home cooking and in the restaurant industry. This method can be an excellent way to prepare certain ingredients that then come together at the end. Each ingredient is cooked to the proper level for serving without over or undercooking anything. Restaurants also use par-cooking extensively to prepare foods most of the way prior to service, and then complete dishes to order as appropriate.
The name “par-cooking” comes from a shortening and combination of “partial cooking,” which is the basic description of this process. This can be done in a number of ways, depending on the food that is being cooked and the purpose for the use of this process. In general, however, par-cooking involves the application of heat to food so that it begins to cook, but removing it from the heat prior to finishing it. This can leave some foods open to potential bacteria; so par-cooked food should usually be refrigerated and kept cold prior to finishing.
One of the most common reasons for par-cooking is to begin preparing several parts of a dish separately to then assemble them and finish cooking it all together. A cook preparing a stir-fry, for example, might begin cooking meat and vegetables separately, par-cooking them and then placing them on plates or in bowls as each ingredient is prepared. This brings each component up to a similar level, so that they can then be added back to the cookware and finished cooking together. Without using this method, it is easy for one part of a dish to be cooked perfectly, onions for example, while thin pieces of meat are overcooked and tough vegetables remain undercooked.
Par-cooking is often used in the restaurant industry during preparation of a meal service. Risotto, for example, is a dish that requires about 25 to 30 minutes for a cook to properly make it. It is made by tossing rice in melted butter and then cooking it slowly over heat with the addition of small amounts of liquid over time.
Many restaurants cannot have diners waiting half an hour for such a dish, however, and so par-cooking is used to make meal service faster. The risotto can be cooked most of the way, but not completely, then stored and chilled. When it is ordered, a portion is returned to the heat source, and finished before it is served hot and fresh.