What Does That Mean?! Cooking Terms Defined

Thursday, August 27, 2009

When you're reading through a recipe, do you ever stop, scratch your head and ask, "What does that mean?" When I first ventured into the world of cooking, I often found myself a bit confused and, oftentimes, guessing on how to perform a certain task.

The more I cooked, the more I began to realize that cooking terms popped up everywhere in recipes. Thankfully, over time I've learned what they mean.

To beginners, and maybe even some veterans out there, a few cooking terms found in recipes might leave cooks a bit puzzled.

In an effort to lessen the confusion, I've compiled a list of basic cooking terms that you should be familiar with when you scope out and begin to tackle new recipes.

Basic cooking terms:
  • Al dente: Italian term to describe pasta and rice that are cooked until tender but still firm to the bite
  • Bain-marie: A pan of water that is used to help mixtures, such as custards, bake evenly and to protect them from the direct heat of the oven or stove
  • Bake: To cook in the oven - the terms baking and roasting are often used interchangeably, but roasting involves cooking at a higher temperature (at least in the beginning) to brown the surface of the food
  • Baste: To spoon, ladle or moisten with a filled baster hot cooking liquid over food at intervals during cooking to moisten and flavor the food
  • Beat: To make a mixture smooth with rapid and regular motions using a spatula, wire whisk or electric mixer; to make a mixture light and smooth by enclosing air
  • Bind: To add egg or a thick sauce to hold ingredients together when they are cooked
  • Blanch: To plunge some foods into boiling water for less than a minute and then immediately plunge into iced water - this is often used to brighten the color of some vegetables; to remove skin from tomatoes and nuts; or performed to halt deterioration prior to freezing
  • Blend: To mix two ore more ingredients thoroughly together; not to be confused with blending in an electric blender
  • Boil: To cook in a liquid brought to a boiling point and kept there
  • Braise: To cook in a small amount of liquid (also called stewing or pot roasting); not to be confused with poaching, in which the food is completely submerged in simmering liquid; braised dishes use a small amount of liquid
  • Bread: To coat foods to be sauteed or deep-fried with flour or a breadcrumb mixture to create a crust
  • Broil: To cook with a direct heat source, usually a gas flame or an electric coil above the hood
  • Clarify: To make a liquid clear by removing sediments and impurities; to melt far and remove any sediment
  • Corned: To salt and cure a meat
  • Coat: To dust or roll food items in flour to cover the surface before the food is cooked; also, to coat in flour, egg and breadcrumbs
  • Cream: To make creamy and fluffy by working the mixture with the back of a wooden spoon; usually refers to creaming butter or margarine with sugar (can also be done with an electric mixer)
  • Cube: To cut uniformly into small pieces with six even sides (e.g., cube of meat)
  • Deglaze: To dissolve dried-out cooking juices left on the base and sides of a roasting dish or frying pan; add a little water, wine, or stock, or stock and scrape and stir over heat until dissolved (resulting liquid is used to make a gravy or added to a sauce or casserole for additional full-bodied flavor)
  • Degrease: To skim fat from the surface of cooking liquids (e.g., stocks, soups, casseroles, sauces)
  • Dice: To cut food into tiny cubes (1/8 to 1/4 inch)
  • Dilute: To reduce a mixture's strength by adding liquid (usually water)
  • Dollop: A small gob of soft food, such as whipped cream
  • Dredge: To heavily coat with icing sugar, flour or corn flour
  • Drizzle: To pour in a fine, thread-like stream moving over a surface
  • Dust: Lightly coating a food with a powdery substance, such as flour or powdered sugar
  • Egg wash: Beaten egg with milk or water used to brush over pastry, bread dough or biscuits to give a sheen and golden-brown color
  • Flake: To separate cooked fish into flakes, removing bones and skin, using two forks
  • Fold in: To combine a light, whisked or creamed mixture with other ingredients - this is accomplished by adding a portion of the other ingredients at a time and mix using a gentle circular motion, over and under the mixture so that air will not be lost (it's always best to use a spatula)
  • Fry: To cook a food in a hot fat
  • Glaze: To brush or coat food with a liquid that will give the finished product a glossy or shiny appearance, and on baked products, a golden-brown color
  • Grind: To pass meats or nuts through a grinder or a food processor to reduce to small pieces
  • Infuse: To steep food in a liquid until the liquid absorbs the flavor
  • Julienne: To some food (e.g., vegetables and processed meats) into fine strips the approximate length of matchsticks
  • Knead: To work a yeast dough in a pressing, stretching and folding motion with the heel of the hand until it is smooth and elastic so as to develop the gluten strands
  • Macerate: To stand fruit in a syrup, liqueur or spirit to give added flavor
  • Marinate: To combine foods, usually meat or fish, with aromatic ingredients for some time to tenderize and add flavor
  • Mask: To evenly cover cooked food portions with sauce, mayonnaise or savory jelly
  • Pan-fry: To fry foods in a small amount of fat or oil, sufficient to coat the base of the pan
  • Pare: To peel the skim from vegetables and fruit
  • Pinch: The amount of dry ingredients you can hold in a pinch (between your thumb and forefinger). It's equivalent to 1/16 teaspoon
  • Poach: To simmer gently in enough hot liquid to almost cover the food so shape will be retained
  • Puree: To work or strain foods until they are completely smooth
  • Saute: To cook over high heat on the stove in a small amount of fat in a saute pan or skillet
  • Scald: To heat milk just below the boiling point (or, to immerse a vegetable or fruit in boiling water in order to remove its skin easily)
  • Sear: To brown the surface of pieces of meats and/or fish by submitting them to intense initial heat
  • Simmer: To cook in liquid just below the boiling point (approximately 205 degrees F), with small bubbles rising gently to the surface
  • Skim: To remove fat or froth from the surface of simmering food
  • Stew: To cook in a manner similar to braising, but generally involving smaller pieces of meat, and therefore, a shorter cooking time
  • Stir-fry: To quickly fry small pieces of food in a large pan over very high heat while stirring
  • Stock: The naturally flavorful liquid produced when meat, poultry, fish or vegetables have been simmered in water to extract the flavor
  • Sweat: To cook sliced onions or vegetables in a small amount of butter in a covered pan over low heat to soften them and release flavor without browning
  • Whip: To beat a preparation with the goal of introducing air into it; also, the balloon-shaped wire whisk often used to do so
  • Whisk: A utensil with looped wires in the shape of a teardrop, used for whipping ingredients like batters, sauces, eggs and creams (the whisk helps air get into the batter)
  • Zester: A utensil with tiny cutting holes on one end that creates threadlike strips of peel when pulled over the surface of a lemon lime or orange (it removes only the colored outer portion of the peel)
What are some terms that have stopped you in your tracks when preparing a recipe?


  1. i have a recipe for a custard type of cream and at the end of the recipe it says to strain and then place in the fridge...do i actually pour it through like a pasta strainer? I have never heard of this before!

  2. I would like to know what is meant by a few hours. I know a couple is 2 but a few can be 3 or more. I'm marinating a piece of beef.

  3. A "few" hours generally means at least 3, but up to 5 or 6 hrs. For marinating beef, you can even marinate over night, it's not going to hurt it, it'll make it taste even better! Just my thoughts!

  4. I have a receipe that says "butter size of egg". This is for orange icing. What does this means????? Thanks

  5. Anonymous: "Butter the size of an egg" usually means approximately four tablespoons.

  6. what does one quarter mean it asks for one quarter teaspoon of salt? is that 1/4?

  7. What does low heat mean in cooking

  8. i am in need of knwoing what the term in baking of 'alousie is. something to do with a piping bag and making into a 'alousie?

  9. Thank you for the explanation


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