Cooking Terms and Techniques

Whether you are just learning the universal joy of cooking, or feel yourself to be a veteran, often we run across terms in recipes that leave us staring at the words indefinitely, completely baffled. What on earth is a roux? What exactly do they mean by clarified butter? These, and many other terms, have baffled more people than we know. So we have put together a list of common cooking terms, meanings, and additional information to help you along in the kitchen.

Terms

AL DENTE:
"to the tooth" Italian term used to describe pasta that is cooked until it offers a slight resistance to the bite. Appropriate for long thin noodles such as linguini, capellini and spaghetti.

BAKE:
To cook by dry heat, usually in the oven.

BARBECUE:
Usually used generally to refer to grilling done outdoors or over an open charcoal or wood fire. More specifically, barbecue refers to long, slow direct- heat cooking, including liberal basting with a barbecue sauce.

BASTE:
To moisten foods during cooking with pan drippings or special sauce to add flavor and prevent drying.

BATTER:
A mixture containing flour and liquid, thin enough to pour.

BEAT:
To mix rapidly in order to make a mixture smooth and light by incorporating as much air as possible.

BLANCH:
To immerse in rapidly boiling water and allow to cook slightly, followed by "shocking" in ice water to halt the cooking process. Usually applies to vegetables.

BLEND:
To incorporate two or more ingredients thoroughly.

BOIL:
To heat a liquid until bubbles break continually on the surface. At sea level boiling occurs at 212 degrees F.

BOUQUET GARNI: A tied bundle of herbs, usually parsley, thyme, and bay leaves, that is added to flavor soups, stews, and sauces but removed before serving.

BREAD: To coat with crumbs or cornmeal before cooking. Standard breading procedure involves dusting foods in seasoned flour or other starch, dipping in beaten egs, then coating with crumbs.

BROIL:
To cook under strong, direct heat.

CARAMELIZE:
To heat sugar in order to turn it brown and develop its flavor. This term applies to processed sugars as well as naturally ocurring sugars in many fruits, vegetables and protiens.

CHIFFONADE: Lettuces, sorrel, basil leaves and other leafy vegetables cut into fine julienne strips.

CHOP:
To cut solids into pieces with a sharp knife or other chopping device. Pieces can be irregular, but size should be reasonably uniform.

CLARIFY:
To separate and remove solids from a liquid, thus making it clear. In reference to clarified butter, this means heating butter until the butterfat seperates and then reserving the butterfat and boiling off or otherwise discarding the remaining solids and water. Clarifying liquids and stocks is somewhat more involved. See consomme.

CONSOMME: A clarified, very flavorful broth prepared by adding beaten egg whites, ground meat and tomato, then simmering slowly. The added ingredients slowly coagulate into a raft, which traps all solids. Once the raft is removed and the liquid is strained you are left with consommé.

CREAM:
In baking, to soften a fat, especially butter, by beating it at room temperature. Butter and sugar are often creamed together, making a smooth, pale, soft paste. This is best accomplished with a paddle attachment and is a critical step in preparing many cakes and cookies.

CURE:
To preserve protiens (meats, poultry and fish) by brining in a salt solution or packing in a curing mix.

DEGLAZE:
Adding liquid to a hot pan in which foods have been sautéed, fried or roasted to dissolve the caramelized juices (fond) stuck to the bottom of the pan. This is best accomplished with an acidic liquid such as wine or lemon juice (but even water will work), followed by scraping the pan with a surface-safe utensil. This step captures the flavor developed in a pan and can be finished in various ways to create a sauce. Deglazing is one of the defining steps of proper saute technique.

DEGREASE:
To remove fat from the surface of stews, soups, or stock. Usually cooled in the refrigerator so that fat hardens and is easily removed, although can be accomplished during cooking.

DICE:
To cut food in small cubes of uniform size and shape.

DISSOLVE:
To cause a dry substance to pass into solution in a liquid.

DREDGE:
To sprinkle or coat with flour or other fine substance, often involves shaking any excess coating free.

DRIZZLE:
To sprinkle drops of liquid lightly over food in a casual manner.

DUST:
To sprinkle food with dry ingredients. Use a strainer or a jar with a perforated cover, or try the good, old-fashioned way of shaking things together in a paper bag.

EMULSION: A mixture of oil and liquid in which tiny globules of one are suspended in the other. Stabilizers, such as egg or mustard may be used. Classic examples are vinaigrette, mayonnaise and hollandaise.

FILLET:
As a verb, to remove the bones from meat or fish. A fillet (or filet) is the piece of flesh without bones.

FINES HERBES: A mixture of herbs- traditionally parsley, chervil, chives, and tarragon, used to flavor fish, chicken, and eggs.

FLAKE:
To break lightly into small pieces.

FLAMBE:
To flame foods by dousing in some form of potable alcohol and setting alight.

FOLD:
To incorporate a delicate substance, such as whipped cream or beaten egg whites, into another substance of different weight in a way that minimizes loss of volume. Cut down through mixture with spoon, whisk, or fork; go across bottom of bowl, up and over, close to surface. The process is repeated, while slowing rotating the bowl, until the ingredients are thoroughly blended.

FRICASSEE:
To cook by braising; usually applied to fowl or rabbit.

FRY:
To cook in hot fat after foods ahave been coated in a batter or bread crumbs. Pan frying is accomplished with two inches or less of oil (such as with pork chops), foods need to be turned. Deep Fat Frying occurs when foods are completely submerged. This fast method is best suited to tender meats.

GARNISH:
To decorate a dish both to enhance its appearance and to provide a flavorful foil. Parsley, lemon slices, raw vegetables, chopped chives, and other herbs are all forms of garnishes.

GLAZE:
To baste or coat with a sweet or sweet/savory sauce.

GRATE:
To rub on a grater that separates the food in various sizes of bits or shreds.

GRATIN:
From the French word for "crust." Term used to describe any oven-baked dish--usually cooked in a shallow oval gratin dish--on which a golden brown crust of bread crumbs, cheese or creamy sauce is form.

GRATINEE: To brown on top.

GRILL:
To cook on a grill over intense heat.

GRIND:
To process solids by hand or mechanically to crush them to tiny particles.

JULIENNE:
To cut vegetables, fruits, or cheeses into thin matchstick shaped strips.

KNEAD:
To work and press dough with the palms of the hands or mechanically, to develop the gluten in the flour.

LUKEWARM:
Neither cool nor warm; approximately body temperature.

MARINATE:
To flavor and moisturize pieces of meat, poultry, seafood or vegetables by soaking them in or brushing them with a liquid mixture of seasonings known as a marinade. Dry marinade mixtures composed of salt, pepper, herbs or spices may also be rubbed into meat, poultry or seafood. Marinating imparts flavor and often tenderizes protiens.

MINCE:
To cut or chop food into extremely small pieces.

MIX:
To combine ingredients usually by stirring.

PAN-BROIL:
To cook uncovered in a hot fry pan, pouring off fat as it accumulates.

PAN-FRY:
To cook in smaller amounts of fat.

PARBOIL:
To boil until partially cooked. Usually this procedure is followed by final cooking in a seasoned sauce.

PARE:
To remove the outermost skin of a fruit or vegetable.

PEEL:
To remove the peels from vegetables or fruits.

PICKLE:
To preserve meats, vegetables, and fruits in brine.

PINCH:
A pinch is the trifling amount you can hold between your thumb and forefinger.

PIT:
To remove pits from fruits.

PLANKED:
Baked on a thick hardwood plank.

PLUMP:
To soak dried fruits in liquid until they swell.

POACH:
To cook very gently in hot liquid kept just below the boiling point.

PUREE:
To mash foods until perfectly smooth by hand, by rubbing through a sieve or food mill, or by whirling in a blender or food processor. A puree should be completely smooth.

REDUCE:
To boil a liquid so that it diminishes in water volume and intensifies in flavor.

REFRESH or Shock:
To run cold water over food that has been parboiled or to submerge in ice water to stop the cooking process quickly.

RENDER:
To make solid fat into liquid by melting it slowly.

ROAST:
To cook by dry heat in an oven, foods are usually coated in a fat to promote even heating and a carmelized exterior.

ROUX:

A thickening agent made by combining roughly equal parts of melted butter and flour into a thick paste. Other liquid fats can also be used, and roux can be cooked briefly, or over a period of hours, depending on the color and flavor desired.


SAUTE:
To cook and/or brown food in a small amount of hot fat. The French translates to jump and refers to the fliping and tossing of ingredients to control heat. In the strict definition, the method involves high heat, deglazing and an integral sauce production in the same pan, the primary ingredient often finishes cooking in the sauce.

SCALD:
To bring to a temperature just below the boiling point.

SCALLOP:
To bake a food, usually in a casserole, with sauce or other liquid. Crumbs often are sprinkled over.

SCORE:
To cut narrow grooves or gashes partway through the outer surface of food.

SEAR:
To brown very quickly by intense heat. This method increases shrinkage but develops flavor and improves appearance.

SHRED:
To cut or tear in small, long, narrow pieces.

SIFT:
To put one or more dry ingredients through a sieve or sifter.

SIMMER:
To cook slowly in liquid over low heat at a temperature of about 180°. The surface of the liquid should be barely moving, broken from time to time by slowly rising bubbles.

SKIM:
To remove impurities, whether scum or fat, from the surface of a liquid during cooking, thereby resulting in a clear, cleaner-tasting final produce. This is a typical step when cooking stocks, soups and sauces and can be performed with a skimmer or ladle.

STEAM:
To cook in steam in a pressure cooker, deep well cooker, double boiler, or a steamer made by fitting a rack in a kettle with a tight cover. A small amount of boiling water is used, more water being added during steaming process, if necessary.

STEEP:
To extract color, flavor, or other qualities from a substance by leaving it in water just below the boiling point.

STEW:
To simmer slowly in a small amount of liquid or fat for a long time.

STIR:
To mix ingredients with a circular motion until well blended or of uniform consistency.

TOSS:
To combine ingredients with a lifting motion.

TRUSS:
To secure poultry with string or skewers, to hold its shape while cooking.

WHIP:
To beat rapidly to incorporate air and produce expansion, as in heavy cream or egg whites.

 

Techniques

BAKE and ROAST:

In most cases, baking and roasting are identical cooking methods: cooking in dry heat, typically in an oven. The distinction between the two has more to do with the type of foods that are being cooked.

The guidelines are:
We call it "baking" when heat gives the food structure that it did not have prior to going in the oven. For example a cake goes into the oven as a thick liquid and comes out as a airy solid. Breads are similar and even caseroles go from loose and spillable to a more unified form. Baking is also a more involved process. Cake batter has to be mixed first, casseroles need to be assembled...there's far more to it than popping something in the oven.

And we call it "roasting" when the food starts out as a solid item and we are cooking it to make it flavorful and/or digestable, such as with a chicken or a carrot. Roasting is the oldest cooking technique but since it predates ovens, it would have been accomplished over or near an open fire. And so another way to look at it is this- if a food can be skewered on a spit and cooked over and open fire, it is roasting. A potato, sure; lasagna, not so much. Roasting is usually far simpler than baking. To roast anything, just apply a light coating of oil to a food, season it, and place it in a low walled pan and put it in a hot oven until it is done. There are finer points of course, but basically that's it!

BARBEQUE:

True barbeque involves prolonged slow cooking by indirect dry heat. This method is used almost exclusively for meats and poultry and frequently includes the use of seasoning rubs, marinades and measured exposure to smoke for flavor. Meats are generally placed over a grate or grill so fats can drip away, and gentle, indirect heat is applied for several hours until the foods are deeply carmelized, flavorful and very tender. Turning and basting of meats is also key to helping them endure the prolonged cooking time without becoming too dry. Serious barbeque cooks will use large covered grills or even enclosed racks with off set hot boxes to provide slow heat and measured doses of smoke. Pretty good results can be achieved from a residential outdoor grill or oven.

Barbeque is so established in many parts of the South that it reaches the status of subculture and several regions have their own highly developed variation on the technique. The major regions are Texas, Kansas City, Memphis and the Carolinas although it is possible to find good examples anywhere in the US. For many carnivores, barbeque is the ultimate expression of pork and beef.

BRAISE:

This is a combination cooking method (dry heat with fat, then moist heat) that is most apropriate for cooking tougher cuts of meat. Braising begins by searing the seasoned and flour-dusted meat (in a Dutch Oven or similar pot) with hot fat until well-browned on all sides. Then a flavorful liquid is added, typically enough to reach halfway up the primary item. Many additional ingredients and aromatics can be added as well. The liquid is brought up to a simmer, the pot is covered and placed in a medium-hot oven and allowed to cook until the meat is tender. The cooking can also be completed on the stove top as long as the heat is regulated properly but the oven is a safer way to go. Once finished, the meat is sliced for service and the flavorful braising liquid is thickened or otherwise finished for use as a sauce. This technique generally requires a longer cooking time because it has historically been used for tough meats and poultry. But in truth, braising can be sucessfully applied to tender foods as well, including fish and vegetables, as long as the cooking time is shortened appropriately. Varieties of cabbage, brussels sprouts and many bitter greens are absolutely delicious when braised, as are pork chops and bone-in chicken.

Popular braised dishes include pot roast, coq au vin, short ribs and braised pork belly. It might also be helpful to know that proper stew technique is a close variation of the braising method.

BROIL:

To cook under strong, direct, top-fired heat while foods rest on a grill (or broiler pan) or in a shallow pan with a little liquid. This fast method is best for tender foods, marinated meats and vegetables, and particularly delicate seafoods which can be moistened with fats or liquids during cooking (although it is primarily a dry heat method). It is also a good technique for lower fat consumption. Be sure that the pan you use is broiler safe.

Broiling is the preferred method at many high-end steak houses but it is also an excellent technique for lobster tail, scallops, shrimp, fish and london broil. It is also the fastest way to gratinee, or "top brown" French onion soup, cassoulet, gratins and other casseroles.

DEEP-FAT FRY:

In the "deep fry" technique, foods are given a coating, then submerged in hot fat until cooked. This method effectively locks in moisture and simultaneously creates a crispy exterior with rich flavor. Many deep fried foods are pure sensory joy. Unfortunately, they are also relatively high in fat...still, we just can't stay mad at a good french fry for long. And this method really is ideal for many creative hors d'ouevres, sweet and savory treats and comfort foods. Counter top deep fat fryers are convenient and safe, but a good heavy pot on the stovetop with clean oil works too. Care must be taken not to over crowd the pot or fryer and to allow items to drain off once removed from the oil. Since most deep fat frying occurs at 350 degrees F, it is important to use a light oil with a high smoking point such as peanut or canola oil.

Different foods use different coastings, but may include anything from a light dusting of flour to breadcrumbs, batters and more. This is a fast method that is best suited to smaller pieces of tender meats, seafood and vegetables. Pastries, batters and pastas can also be deep fried for sweet or savory treats.

Popular deep-fried foods include French fries, chicken wings, fritters, fried calamari, tempora and spring rolls.

Grill:

To cook on a hot grill over intense heat. This is a great method for adding a flavorful sear to tender meats, poultry, seafood and vegetables. Prominent grill marks are a sign of a job well done, so foods should be brushed with oil or otherwise marinated to promote clean grill marks and help keep the food from sticking.

Grilling is one of the most poular cooking methods across the US, at restaurants and backyards alike. Properly executed, it is a fast, healthy technique that makes flavorful food. And overall, Americans are pretty good at it! Backyard grilling has the flexibilty to employ propane, natural gas, charwood, charcoal and hardwoods that impart different flavors and levels of heat control. Auxillary cookware and interest have made it possible to expand your grilling beyond burgers and chicken to include any vegetable, whole roasts, fish, shellfish, pizzas and flatbreads.

PAN-FRY:

This is a dry heat method using oil in a frypan on the range. But there are two kinds...

By the book, this method refers to shallow-fat frying which uses 1/2 to 2 inches of fat (depending on the food) for frying an item that has breading or some other coating. The cooking temperature is lower with a longer cooking time than deep fat frying. The food is cooked by the oil's heat more than by contact with the pan. The food is not submerged, and requires turning to complete cooking. Southern-fried chicken and porkchops are two common examples. For this type of shallow-fat frying, a cast iron frypan is a fantastic choice.

But then there is the more popular definition of pan-frying demonstated every time we make an egg over easy, brown sausages or fry potato hash. It's not shallow-fat frying, it's definitely not saute, it's just pan frying. See? For this type, use as little oil as you can get away with and a low through medium-hot pan depending on the food.

POACH:

To cook very gently in hot liquid kept just below the boiling point. This is not a great method for everything, but it is great for cooking fish fillets, eggs and boneless chicken that is very tender and flavorful. The trick is to use a flavorful poaching liquid such as a rich stock for chicken or a "court bouillon" for fish and remember to keep the temperature just below a boil for the best results. This method is most well known for salmon, halibut and other fish, but a very similar simmering technique is also the method for famous dishes such as the French pot-au-feu and New England's boiled dinner. Poaching is also great for pears, apples and stonefruits poached in sweet wines or port. Once cooled, they work wonderfully with a little ice cream or mascarpone with honey.

SAUTE:

When explaining the saute technique, it's important to remember that language is a living thing and sometimes a word can migrate from its original meaning. It may even happen to the same word more than once. That's kind of what happened to the word "saute". The literal meaning of course, is "to jump". It's an appropriate name for a technique that frequently tosses ingredients in a controlled loop to promote even cooking and to help control pan temperature. But, long story short, Auguste Escoffier redefined the technique with these basic rules (paraphrased and abridged):

This is a dry heat method for cooking food rapidly in a small amount of fat over relatively high heat. Because it is a fast technique and does not have the tenderzing effect of some other methods, it is best suited to naturally tender foods that are thinner in size for a quick cooking time. Any juices, sugars or bits of protien released during cooking will caramelize onto the pan and form the base for a sauce made in the same pan and to be served with the sauteed item. A critical element to saute is to capture flavors in the pan by "deglazing" (the addition of a lightly acidic liquid, usually wine) and from them, create an accompanying sauce. In this method, the sauce is an essential element for three reasons: it captures the flavor lost during cooking; it brings additional flavors (important because tender foods have delicate flavors); and it counteracts the dryness resulting from high heat searing.

And since then, professional line cooks have been banging out Sole Meuniere like nobody's buisness. But that was a long time ago. And while the above definition is still correct in restaurant kitchens, out in the world where the rest of us live, the meaning has broadened.

Too often "saute" seems to refer to any kind of frying done in a small amount of oil, be it in a saute pan or soup pot. But that's an overly casual, if not lazy, misuse of the word. Perhaps a more accurate new definition would be: The spirited or high heat, searing and sizzling of vegetables, cutlets or other foods in a saute (or similar) pan, using a small amount of fat. Integral sauces aren't a defining factor (but certainly welcome) and sometimes liquids are used to control temperature and add moisture.

This is a flavorful and fast method for cooking tender vegetables, fish fillets and meat or chicken cutlets. Since this method requires that you add foods to a hot pan, make sure to either pat food items dry with paper towels or dredge them in flour to reduce the surface moisture that can cause the hot oil to spatter. It is also important not to overcrowd the pan- this will lower the pan temperature too much and your "saute" will turn into a "stew"! Even under its new definition, saute is still a fast technique.

STEAM:

This is a gentle moist heat method that encloses foods in steam until cooked. You can use a double boiler, bamboo stacking steamers over a wok or a steamer made by fitting a rack in a pot with a tight cover. A small amount of boiling liquid is used, and more can be added during the steaming process, if necessary. Good liquids to use include water, stocks, beer, wine and court bouillon and may contain herbs, spices and other aromatics which transfer additional flavors to the steamed food. It is important that the food is positioned above the liquid and not in it. Often, lettuce leaves or other natural wrappings are used under or to completely wrap delicate foods such as fish or dumplings to retain moisture and keep them from sticking.

This is an excellent method for producing delicately flavored foods with a minimal loss of nutrition, moisture and flavor. Additionally, this method does not require the use of fats. Steaming is a great technique for vegetables, any shellfish or crustacean, most fish, lean meats, grains and dumplings.

STEW:

This is a combination cooking method (dry heat with fat, then moist heat), very much like braising and can use the same types of meat, except the main item is cut into bite-sized pieces before searing. As a result the cooking time is typically shorter. Also the amount and type of liquid needed will vary from one preparation to another.

Stewing is an excellent technique for turning tough meats and inexpensive vegetables into richly flavored one pot meals with melt-in-your-mouth texture. Whether preparing classic Beouf Bourguignon, a home-style chicken stew with dumplings or garden fresh stewed tomatoes and zucchini, the method is the same. Simply adjust the flavoring ingredients, type of liquid and cooking time to suit your recipe!

STIR-FRY:

Fundamentally, this technique is very similar to sauteeing. It is a dry heat method for cooking food rapidly in a small amount of oil, it is best used for tender foods and an integral sauce is made in the same pan to coat the food. Foods even get tossed in the pan to cool the pan temperature and promote even cooking, just like saute. The most obvious differences are that stir fry is traditionally done in a wok over very high heat and the ingredients are cut in smaller, uniform pieces appropriate to the higher heat. Think about it, have you ever needed to use a knife to eat a stir-fry?

Woks are fantastic pans to cook with, but only over the right heat source. Wok burners have a concave shape that cradles the wok to provide maximum heat and stability. For a flat cook top, a flat bottomed saute pan works pretty well and there isn't much danger of the pan rolling over! Carbon steel is the preferred type of pan, but you can get good results from aluminum and stainless clad pans. What ever you use, stir-fry works better in small batches than large. Overcrowding the pan will stop a stir-fry in its tracks.

The concept of "mise en place" is particularly important when stir-frying. This is the practice of having all necessary ingredients prepped and at hand before beginning to cook so they are ready to go into the wok exactly as you need them. This includes anything you will need for the sauce. Otherwise, it is likely the foods in the pan would burn before you can gather and add the subsequent ingredients to cool the pan down. The limited addition of stocks or water will help control the pan temperature during cooking, but for the best results it's important to keep the pan hot!