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What Does That Mean?! Cooking Terms Defined

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?

11 Comments

  • Reply Anonymous August 8, 2012 at 10:50 pm

    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!

    • Reply Anonymous June 11, 2015 at 3:18 pm

      The recipe calls for something finer, like a chinois or cheese cloth.

  • Reply Anonymous August 16, 2012 at 3:24 pm

    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.

  • Reply Anonymous September 14, 2012 at 3:31 am

    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!

  • Reply Anonymous September 18, 2012 at 10:08 pm

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

  • Reply Jen October 7, 2012 at 12:49 am

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

  • Reply Anonymous August 11, 2013 at 12:57 pm

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

  • Reply Anonymous November 15, 2013 at 9:08 pm

    What does low heat mean in cooking

  • Reply Anonymous April 25, 2014 at 12:06 am

    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?

  • Reply Anonymous March 5, 2015 at 1:05 am

    Thank you for the explanation

  • Reply David M June 20, 2015 at 5:05 pm

    I have an old English recipe book that in a recipe for pastry calls for 'cooking fat'. What is this? It is not butter as the recipe includes that too. Also what is 'castor sugar'? English cooking terminology seems to differ quite a bit.

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