If you're an enthusiastic home cook — you read the latest food magazines, watch television shows centered on culinary endeavors, and peruse cookbooks for fun — you've likely picked up oodles of basic cooking terms and are nearly conversant in all the techniques. But there may still be some terminology that you're not quite sure about. Is sautéing the same as braising? Can I broil something instead of browning it? And what exactly is a "pinch" of salt?
If you're stumped by a recipe, or just want to expand your culinary knowledge, we've gathered up 25 common cooking terms to help you become a better cook. From charring to blanching, we break down the basic cooking terminology that will give you more confidence in the kitchen.
Before you start cooking, you need to prepare – or prep – your ingredients. If cut ingredients are needed, the recipe will state the exact size that's needed.
A slice is when a large ingredient — such as potatoes or onions — is cut into large, flat pieces of a similar size. Depending on your recipe, the slices can be thin or thick. For example, you'd want thinner slices for au gratin potatoes, but thicker slices for homemade cottage fries.
The most common prepping direction by far is to chop. This fairly generic term doesn't always refer to a size, so unless otherwise directed you can assume that "chop" means to cut similar sized square pieces that are roughly half an inch in diameter. When chopping a more tender food, such as greens or herbs, directions will often add a modifier such as "finely chop" which means to make the pieces super small, or "roughly chop" which indicates to leave the food in larger pieces.
Dice means to cut ingredients into small, square-shaped pieces. This is done to ensure even cooking and allow for equal distribution of flavor and texture in the final dish. If a specific size isn't mentioned, a good rule of thumb to follow is that small dice is 1/8-inch, medium dice is 1/4-inch, and large dice is 1/2-inch.
Mince is the tiniest cut, basically referring to the smallest pieces you can create. It's commonly used on garlic, herbs, and ginger. to worry about each piece being precisely uniform. Simply run your knife over the ingredient in a back-and-forth motion until very fine.
Some recipes are precise, while others leave adjusting the seasonings up to the cook. These hazy terms can often lead to confusion.
A dash is roughly 1/8 teaspoon.
A pinch, based on the amount of spice you can literally "pinch" between your fingers, is around 1/16 teaspoon.
Barely worth mentioning, a smidgen is approximately 1/32 teaspoon. It's often used when the recipe creator is trying to add the tiniest note of flavor to a dish.
Seasoning to taste leaves the home cook in control of the final dish. This term commonly refers to salt and pepper since everyone's palates differ on how salty a dish tastes or whether it needs a little zing from black pepper. Be light-handed with these additions; you can always add more later.
Most cooking in the oven is done with dry heat. This is when fat or air is used to transfer heat, instead of moisture (see Moist Cooking below).
Bake and roast refer to the same process, but with the latter at higher temperatures. When preheating your oven, the air inside warms to a temperature of your setting. This hot air cooks your food at an even rate by surrounding the roasting pan or baking dish on all sides. When cooking savory foods, such as cuts of meat or vegetables, it's often called roasting. But if you're making desserts, pastries, or breads, it's commonly referred to as baking.
Broil is similar to bake, but it cooks the food only on one side (the top) at a very high heat. This high temperature is used to create a golden brown top crust on casseroles or add caramelization to roasted veggies. It's very easy to burn dishes when broiling, so keep a watchful eye on your dish.
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These dry-heat cooking methods take place on the stovetop instead of the oven.
Sauté means to quickly cook food over high heat. This cooking method often includes oil or fat to evenly transfer the heat from the pan into the food. You'll need to occasionally stir or shake the pan you're cooking in to avoid burning the food and to promote even browning. Once food becomes fully cooked through and has a light browning on the exterior, you're done sautéing.
When you sear an ingredient, it's cooked for a brief period of time over high heat. This technique is also called browning. The food is cooked in a pan — often one piece at a time to avoid overcrowding — until fully browned on each side, with no stirring (unlike sautéing above). This technique is typically used on cuts of meat to seal in flavor and natural juices while giving each piece a crispy exterior.
Char is the most extreme type of stovetop heat. A charred ingredient walks the line between being burnt and delightfully blackened. It's often used on peppers - like bell peppers and jalapeños - to create a soft and smoky interior with a blackened skin that can be peeled away. Charring is achieved by cooking in a very hot pan or grill grate on the stovetop. You can also use your oven broiler. Keep an eye on your ingredients; once their exteriors darken and the food begins to bubble, it's done cooking. If the result smells acrid and overly smoky or has an overwhelming bitterness, you've crossed the threshold from charred to burnt.
Despite seeming oxymoronic, frying is considered a dry heat cooking method. Oil is the heat conductor, not water, so it's considered "dry."
Deep fry is when your ingredient is fully submerged in hot oil. This creates an irresistibly crispy exterior on all sides. Your recipe should tell you what temperature to aim for when heating the oil, which can be monitored by using a candy or frying thermometer.
Pan fry is a little like combining deep frying and sautéing. A stovetop pan is filled with oil, often an amount specified in a recipe (such as "once inch of oil"), and heated to a frying temperature. A good rule of thumb is to make sure your pan has enough oil to come halfway up the side of what you're frying. Pan frying is great for when you want to use less oil or you're cooking delicate dishes like falafel or crab cakes.
A braise stands in its own category, since it's a pairing of both dry and moist cooking techniques. Braising is primarily used to prepare tougher cuts of meat. In a large pot, the meat is browned on all sides. Then it's covered with liquid and cooked low and slow until fall-off-the-bone tender. By searing the meat beforehand, you'll have all that caramelized taste but with a very succulent texture.
Stew is another name for braising - the main difference is size. For a larger cut of meat, it's referred to as braising. When the meat is cut into smaller pieces before being covered in liquid, it's called stewing.
Since all of these techniques include water, they've earned the label of "moist cooking."
Boiling, a common introduction to moist cooking, is when water is heated to 212 degrees F. This makes the water produce bubbles and movement, which is why some recipes will instruct you to bring your water to a "rolling boil." Boiling is often used for cooking pasta, potatoes, and eggs.
Simmering describes when water, or other cooking liquids such as broth, are just below the boiling point. There won't be nearly as much movement as when boiling, but there should still be a small amount of bubbling. Simmering is typically utilized when cooking vegetables, soups, and sauces.
Poaching is all about gently cooking ingredients in water. The surface tension should only gently ripple with no bubbles. This technique is often used for delicate foods that would be torn apart by boiling, such as eggs or fish.
Steaming involves boiling water, but the food is never actually submerged. Instead, the ingredients are placed in a steamer basket held above the boiling water. This allows the steam to thoroughly cook the food through, without leaching out any of the flavor or nutrients into the water. Steaming is often used for cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower or fish.
Blanching also uses boiling water and is a common method for helping veggies keep their bright color and creating a crisp-tender texture. The food is dipped into boiling water for a small amount of time, usually ranging from one to five minutes, before being plunged into an ice bath to stop the cooking process.
If you're unfamiliar with an ice bath, it's a large bowl filled with water and ice cubes. When hot food is submerged in the ice water, the cooking process immediately stops. This affords you more control over the final texture of dishes.
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