Cooking Terms

Al Dente – this term is used with pasta and some vegetables, it literally means to the tooth. Al dente generally implies firm but not mushy.

Aromatic Vegetables – A general term for vegetables that are often used as a flavor base in some dishes. These vegetables are usually sweated or sauteed to draw out the flavor before the recipe continues. The usual suspects are: onions, celery, and carrots (together these three are often called mirepoix), bell peppers (in Cajun or Creole cooking, mirepoix uses bell peppers and is called trinity) garlic, leeks, shallots, and other peppers.

Au Gratin – (or all rotten, in my house) usually a vegetable dish like potatoes or turnips that has a browned or crusted top, usually with cheese, bread crumbs and a rich sauce.

Bake – to cook foods by surrounding with hot, dry air as in an oven. It’s very similar to roast, but in general refers to breads, pastries, vegetables, and fish.

Batter – a semiliquid mixture used while making cakes or breads OR for coating an object to be deep fried.

Bechamel – a white sauce made by thickening milk with roux. Since this sauce can be altered for so many recipes, it’s a great technique for new cooks to master.

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Blanch – a process by which foods, usually vegetables, are plunged briefly into boiling water and then into ice water to stop the cooking process. This method is often used to break down an enzyme that would negatively affect the texture of some frozen vegetables. Blanching also can be used to remove strong bitter flavors or to brighten the colors of some vegetables.

Boil- To cook in liquid, usually water or salted water at 212°F or 100°C at sea level. At higher altitudes the boiling temperature of water is lower and recipes must be adjusted to compensate. The boiling state is easily identified because the bubbles break the surface. If the bubbles do not break the surface, the liquid is simmering.

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Braise – a method of cooking, usually meat, that involves first searing in fat over dry heat and then cooking slowly with moist heat in a dutch oven or crockpot. This method is utilized because the first step creates a deep flavor through the carmelization of sugars known as the Maillard reaction while the second step breaks down tough connective tissue. This makes braising the preferred method for tough cuts of meat. When this method is mentioned in reference to vegetables, the first step is usually omitted.

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Brunoise- a dice of 1/6″ per side.

Caramelization – a distinct process in cooking that produces a nutty flavor and a brown color. It’s very similar to the Maillard Reaction, but doesn’t need amino acids to occur.

Dice – to cut foods into cubes. Dicing ensures foods are of a uniform shape and size, which makes even cooking easier. A small dice is typically 1/4 inch or 6mm, medium dice is 1/2″ or 12mm, and a large dice is 3/4″ or 2cm on a side. When referring to onions the dice is assumed to be small.

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Dredge – to drag or roll a wet food through a dry topping. You’ll mostly see this term in reference to breading foods in preparation for frying. It can also refer to the flour or coating itself.
Dutch Oven – a type of  heavy, lidded pot. Usually dutch ovens are made of a heavy material like cast iron, stainless steel, or enameled cast iron. These pots are used for recipes with long, slow cook times like stew. The thickness of the pot helps keep food from scorching. If a recipe calls for a dutch oven, it may easily be adapted to a slow cooker or crock pot.

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Evaporation – The process by which a liquid becomes a gas. In cooking the process of evaporation is sped up with the application of heat. Evaporation is closely related to the terms reducing and reduction.

Herb – The flavorful leaves of certain plants. If you’re American you drop the h, while our friends across the pond pronounce it. Both are acceptable. Someone please tell Tim

Maillard Reaction - A reaction in cooking that is partially responsible for the browning of cooked foods. The Maillard Reaction and caramelization are very similar but distinct, when it comes down to the actual chemistry involved. The main difference is that the Maillard Reaction involves amino acids while caramelizing does not. The Maillard reaction can only occur at high temperatures in the presence of reducing sugars, glucose and fructose for example.

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Mince - To chop into fine, pieces of similar shape and size. This is much smaller than a dice. Garlic, onions, shallots and some herbs are often minced or processed.

Reduce – To concentrate / intensify the flavors of a liquid (sauces, stocks, etc) by simmering or boiling in an uncovered pan.

Reduction

Render – refers to the point at which fat separates from other organic materials. Many times this term is used when cooking a product like bacon ex: Cook until the bacon begins to render. It simply means the point at which the fat melts away from the bacon. It has little to do with the meat itself, although bacon will not become crisp until some of the fat has rendered, at which point it will fry in its own fat.

Roux – a cooked mixture of equal parts, by weight, of flour and fat. Roux is often used as a base for gravy, bechamel, cream soups, and my personal favorite, etouffee. Yes, as in shrimp etouffee.

Sauce – a thickened, flavorful liquid that is used to enhance another dish. A sauce is thickened usually through reduction or the addition of another starch, sometimes in a slurry.

Saute – To cook quickly, over medium heat in a small amount of fat.

Sear – to brown the surface of a food, quickly at a high temperature. This does not seal in the juices of meat, but it does create flavor through the Maillard Reaction.

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Simmer – To cook in liquid just below the boiling point. The bubbles formed should not break the surface. If the bubbles do break the surface of the liquid, it has reached its boiling point. Simmering is most often the desired state for cooking food in liquid, with the exception of starches like pasta and some vegetables.

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Skillet – Another term for a frying pan. When used on this site the term skillet generally applies to a straight sided saute pan. This pan is used for sauteing, browning, pan or shallow frying, and reducing sauces. Skillets have wide bottoms and short sides. Cast iron skillets should be used when even heating is especially desirable.

Stock - A clear, unthickened liquid flavored by substances extracted from meat, poultry, or fish and their bones. Vegetables and seasoning also flavor stock. Vegetable stocks lack the gelatin found in non-vegetarian stocks and have a slightly different feel and less protein.

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Sugar -In cooking, the term sugar most often refers to sucrose or table sugar. Sucrose is a molecule of glucose and fructose, both simple sugars, linked. Digestion breaks sucrose down into its components.  Recent developments have also given us sucraolse aka Splenda which is chemically close enough to react similarly in baked goods, but is not processed by the human body in the same way.

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Sweat- a method of cooking that involves low heat and a little fat. The pan is often covered and the method is used to extract as much flavor as possible, usually from aromatic vegetables.