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In cooking meat like chicken, I've noticed that recipes say to close the lid and wait for few minutes. I'm trying to figure what exactly the effect created by this is. Any insight will be appreciated.

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Hot air rises, and cool air sinks. This means that a lot of the heat that comes off the cooking surface goes right up in to the surrounding area instead of into the food you're cooking. It also carries off any hot water (steam) that gets caught up in it, which is often removed from the food you're cooking.

This means that meats turn out drier by the time they reach desired temperatures, rice might not absorb enough water and come out crunchy in the middle, some mostly-liquid dishes will lose too much water and turn out thicker than desired, the bottom will be burnt before the top side while the top side is still liquid, and so on.

As a super-simple and fun example, put an egg in a pan without breaking the yolk (use oil or butter if you don't have a non-stick surface). Cook it with the lid off. You'll get a "sunny side up" egg. Now do it with the lid on. You'll get a "basted" egg. Literally no difference except you have a lid in one case. P.S. "basted" includes several different techniques, I'm just mentioning one I've tried by accident, it turned out delicious.

Generally speaking, lid off or lid on is definitely part of the recipe to get the desired juiciness, cooking time, texture, or other attribute that you won't get if you do it the "wrong" way.

You might experiment with a few different type of foods with lid off and lid on, if you can spare it, to get an idea of how different foods react to the difference in temperature, water retention, etc. Be aware that some foods, like pasta, may rapidly boil over if you do this, as starch from the pasta will cause bubbles to form and seep out the top. Other dishes don't like lids as well.

This is basically part of the principle of a how a pressure cooker works. The pressure cooker builds up steam pressure, which cooks the food differently by increasing moisture retention, heat, and pressure. Using a normal lid on a pot or skillet won't get nearly as much pressure, but the heat and water retention will change how most foods cook.

In the specific example where a lid is added near the end, it's so that you don't lose too much moisture during cooking. Some recipes want the lid on immediately upon boiling, others half-way through, or in the last few minutes. It's all part of the technique to get the perfect cooked state without losing or retaining too much liquid either on the cooking surface or in the food.

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    +1: And for even more variety, there's keeping the lid ajar/askew so it holds in some steam but not all of it, and drop lids / parchment lids (which float on the surface, leaving a little bit of space around the edges for evaporation)
    – Joe
    Mar 17 at 13:18
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    Best answer by far... I bet you only used a lid on it the last few minutes before hitting post...
    – WernerCD
    Mar 17 at 15:37
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    @WernerCD almost. I was running late to get my kids to school on time last week, and I knew using a lid reduced cooking time, so I accidently discovered basted eggs. I actually had to Google the term to make this post. I was never "allowed" to experiment with cooking as a child or married adult. After she left, I found a delightful world of culinary delight in cooking recipes from around the world. I'm hoping to taste most of them in the coming years. It's discoveries like this that motivate me.
    – phyrfox
    Mar 17 at 16:35
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    @phyrfox its amazing how weird that certain things just make life better... from learning random stuff to hobbies that people enjoy. From trainsets to cooking to whatever. I like information like this that I can just tuck away because I never thought about covering food for short periods to change the minute details. pertenant: xkcd.com/1053
    – WernerCD
    Mar 17 at 19:03
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    A pressure cooker works by building up pressure, allowing water to boil at a higher temperature. The warmer water makes it so that food cooks quicker. This one is not about moisture retention at all, though that is a side-effect. Mar 18 at 17:10
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It holds in steam.

This increases the air temperature in the pan, which allows for more even cooking instead of just cooking the the food in contact with the pan.

It also slows down how quickly the food drys out, and may have other secondary effects, such as how fat renders from a piece of meat.

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Covering a cooking vessel limits evaporation and evaporative cooling. Therefore, hydration is more easily maintained, and heating/cooking is more efficient.

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  • Could you explain what exactly is meant by "hydration is more easily maintained"
    – user84641
    Mar 16 at 14:58
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    @Buraian evaporation is significantly reduced.
    – moscafj
    Mar 16 at 16:09
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    @Buraian: You don't have all the water getting out of your food as fast. Mar 17 at 11:04
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In addition to keeping more heat in the pan by holding in more hot air and moisture, if the underside of your lid is reflective, for example because it's made of stainless steel, it will reflect some of the energy radiating from the pan back down into the pan and the food. The underside of Le Creuset's enameled cast iron lids is painted light beige and has the same effect (probably much less than a shiny steel lid).

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    This is an important factor that other answers neglect. A lid can act as a reflector for infrared radiation. I have shiny a lid with a steam vent on it that's great for cooking things through without steaming them such as a grilled cheese sandwich.
    – JimmyJames
    Mar 17 at 16:45
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    I doubt this effect is actually relevant when there is any amount of water at play, but for very dry “toasting” it can certainly have a significant impact. Mar 17 at 21:50
  • @leftaroundabout Based on what exactly? Why would water eliminate the reflection of infrared light?
    – JimmyJames
    Mar 18 at 16:13
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    @JimmyJames it wouldn't (well, actually it would: water vapour is good at absorbing IR – but not that good). The point is that water a) prevents the bottom of the pan from exceeding 100°C, and radiation needs a bit higher temperature to do much b) provides vapour that is great at supplying heat and would dominate over any radiation effects. Mar 18 at 17:05
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    @leftaroundabout I maybe took the phrase 'any amount of water' too literally. I'm struggling to think of anything someone would want to cook without some water. If you mean covering the bottom of the pan, I think I agree. For browning e.g. chicken as in the question, I think it would be a factor.
    – JimmyJames
    Mar 18 at 17:22

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