Common kitchen terms


Do you know what it means to blanch a vegetable? What about how to sear a piece of meat? Cooks and chefs seem to have a language all their own — here are some common words to help you expand your kitchen vocabulary!

al dente [al-DEN-tay]
An Italian phrase meaning "to the tooth," used to describe pasta or other food that is cooked only until it offers a slight resistance when bitten into, but is not soft or overdone.
n. Any of various plants, herbs and spices (such as bay leaf, ginger or parsley) that impart a lively fragrance and flavor to food and drink.
To spoon or brush food as it cooks with melted butter or other fat, meat drippings, or liquid such as stock. Basting adds flavor and color and keeps meats and other foods from drying out. Fatty roasts, when cooked fat side up, do not need basting.
To stir any of a variety of ingredients (eggs, flour and butter, cheese, cream, etc.) into a hot liquid, causing it to thicken.
To plunge food (usually vegetables and fruits) into boiling water briefly, then into cold water to stop the cooking process. Blanching is used to firm the flesh, to loosen skins (as with peaches and tomatoes), and to heighten and set color and flavor (as with vegetables before freezing).
A cooking method where food (usually meat or vegetables) is first browned in fat, then cooked, tightly covered, in a small amount of liquid at low heat for a lengthy period of time. The long, slow cooking develops flavor and tenderizes foods. Braising can be done on top of the range or in the oven. A tight-fitting lid is very important to prevent the liquid from evaporating.
A strong solution of water and salt used for pickling or preserving foods.
To cook food directly under or above the heat source. Food can be broiled in an oven, directly under the gas or electric heat source, or on a barbecue grill, directly over charcoal or other heat source.
To cook quickly over high heat, causing the surface of the food to turn brown while the interior stays moist. Browning gives food an appetizing color and a rich flavor. It is usually done on top of the stove but may also be achieved under a broiling unit.
canapé [KAN-uh-pay, KAN-uh-pee]
Small, decorative pieces of bread (toasted or untoasted) topped with a savory garnish, such as anchovy, cheese or some type of spread. Crackers or pastry also may be used as a base. Canapés may be simple or elaborate, hot or cold. They're usually served as an appetizer with cocktails. The word "canapé" is French for "couch."
compote [KAHM-poht]
A chilled dish of fresh or dried fruit that has been slowly cooked in a sugar syrup (which may contain liquor or liqueur and sometimes spices). Slow cooking is important for the fruit to retain its shape.
confit [kohn-FEE, kon-FEE]
This specialty of Gascony, France, is derived from an ancient method of preserving meat (usually goose, duck or pork) whereby it is salted and slowly cooked in its own fat. The cooked meat is then packed into a crock or pot and covered with its cooking fat, which acts as a seal and preservative.
v. Removing the core from the fruit.
coulis [koo-LEE]
n. A general term referring to a thick purée or sauce, such as a tomato coulis.

v. To beat an ingredient or combination of ingredients until the mixture is soft, smooth and "creamy." Often a recipe calls for creaming a fat, such as butter, or creaming a mixture of butter and sugar. When creaming two or more ingredients together, the result should be a smooth, homogeneous mixture that shows neither separation nor evidence of any particles (such as sugar).
To coagulate, or separate into curds and whey. Soured milk curdles, as do some egg- and milk-based sauces when exposed to prolonged or high heat. Acids such as lemon juice also cause curdling in some mixtures.
To pour a liquid (typically wine) from its bottle to another container, usually a carafe or decanter. This generally is done to separate the wine from any sediment deposited in the bottom of the bottle during the aging process. Decanting also is done to allow a wine to "breathe," to enhance its flavor.
After food (usually meat) has been sautéed and the food and excess fat removed from the pan, deglazing is done by heating a small amount of liquid in the pan and stirring to loosen browned bits of food on the bottom. The liquid used is most often wine or stock. The resultant mixture often becomes a base for a sauce to accompany the food cooked in the pan.
Using a spoon to skim fat from the surface of a hot liquid, such as soup, stock or gravy. Another way to degrease is to chill the mixture until the fat becomes solid and can be easily lifted off the surface.
double boiler
A double-pan arrangement where two pots are formed to fit together, with one sitting partway inside the other. A single lid fits both pans. The lower pot is used to hold simmering water, which gently heats the mixture in the upper pot. Double boilers are used to warm or cook heat-sensitive food such as custards, delicate sauces and chocolate.
To coat food lightly to be fried, as with flour, cornmeal or bread crumbs. This coating helps brown the food. Chicken, for example, might be dredged with flour before frying.
1. To prepare game, fowl, fish and so forth for cooking by plucking, scaling, eviscerating and so on. 2. To "dress a salad" simply means adding a dressing.
A mixture of one liquid with another that normally cannot combine smoothly — oil and water being the classic example. Emulsifying is done by slowly adding (sometimes drop-by-drop) one ingredient to another while at the same time mixing rapidly. This disperses and suspends minute droplets of one liquid throughout the other.

Emulsified mixtures usually are thick and satiny in texture. Mayonnaise (an uncooked combination of oil, egg yolks and vinegar or lemon juice) is one of the best-known emulsions.
v. A technique used to gently combine a light, airy mixture (such as beaten egg whites) with a heavier mixture (such as whipped cream or custard). The lighter mixture is placed on top of the heavier one in a large bowl. Starting at the back of the bowl, a rubber spatula is used to cut down vertically through the two mixtures, across the bottom of the bowl and up the nearest side.

The bowl is rotated a quarter turn with each series of strokes. This down-across-up-and-over motion gently turns the mixtures over on top of each other, combining them in the process.
v. To cook food in hot fat over moderate to high heat.
n. 1. The outer (usually fibrous) covering of a fruit or seed — also called husk or shell. 2. The attached, leafy calyx of some fruits, such as the strawberry.

v. To prepare a food for eating by removing the outer covering or, as in the case of strawberries, the leafy portion at the top.
A technique used to mix and work a dough in order to form it into a cohesive, pliable mass. During kneading, the network of gluten strands stretches and expands, enabling a dough to hold in the gas bubbles formed by leavening (which allows it to rise). Kneading is accomplished either manually or by machine — usually a large mixer equipped with a dough hook (some machines have two dough hooks) or a food processor with a plastic blade.

By hand, kneading is done with a pressing-folding-turning action, performed by pressing down into the dough with the heels of both hands, then pushing away from the body. The dough is folded in half then given a quarter turn, and the process is repeated. Depending on the dough, the manual kneading time can range anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes (or more). Well-kneaded dough is smooth and elastic.
To soak a food (usually fruit) in a liquid in order to infuse it with the liquid's flavor. A spirit such as brandy, rum or a liqueur is usually the macerating liquid.
mirepoix; mirepois [mihr-PWAH]
A mixture of diced carrots, onions, celery and herbs sautéed in butter. Sometimes ham or bacon is added to the mix. Mirepoix is used to season sauces, soups and stews, as well as for a bed on which to braise foods, usually meats or fish.
This term often is used in baking recipes to instruct that only enough liquid is added to flour and other dry ingredients to make them damp or moist, but not wet.
To partly cook food by boiling it briefly in water. This technique is used particularly for dense foods, such as carrots. If parboiled, they can be added at the last minute with quick-cooking ingredients. The parboiling insures that all the ingredients will complete cooking at the same time.
To dry grains or starchy vegetables, such as corn, peas and beans, by roasting slightly without burning.
To cook food gently in liquid just below the boiling point when the liquid's surface is beginning to show some quivering movement. The amount and temperature of the liquid used depends on the food being poached. Meats and poultry usually are simmered in stock, fish in court-bouillon (court?), and eggs in lightly salted water, often with a little vinegar added. Fruit often is poached in a light sugar syrup.

Poaching produces a delicate flavor in foods while imparting some of the liquid's flavor to the ingredient being poached.
v. To dissolve yeast in a warm liquid (sometimes with a small amount of sugar) and set it aside in a warm place for 5 to 10 minutes until it swells and becomes bubbly. This technique proves that the yeast is alive and active and therefore capable leavening a bread or other baked good.
puree; purée [pyuh-RAY]
n. Any food (usually a fruit or vegetable) that is mashed to a smooth, thick consistency. Purées can be used as a garnish, served as a side dish, or added as a thickener to sauces or soups.

v. To grind or mash food until it's completely smooth. This can be accomplished by one of several methods including using a food processor or blender or by forcing the food through a sieve.
To return a dehydrated food (such as dried milk) to its original consistency by adding a liquid, usually water.
To boil a liquid (usually stock, wine or a sauce mixture) rapidly until the volume is reduced by evaporation, thereby thickening the consistency and intensifying the flavor. Such a mixture is sometimes referred to as a reduction.
To cook food quickly in a small amount of oil in a skillet or sauté pan over direct heat.
v. 1. A cooking technique — often used to retard the souring of milk — where a liquid is heated to just below the boiling point. 2. To plunge food such as tomatoes or peaches into boiling water (or to pour boiling water over them), in order to loosen their skin and facilitate peeling. Also referred to as blanch.
To brown meat quickly by subjecting it to very high heat either in a skillet, under a broiler, or in a very hot oven. The object of searing is to seal in the meat's juices, which is why British cooks often use the word "seal" to mean the same thing.
A method of cooking where food is placed on a rack or in a special steamer basket over boiling or simmering water in a covered pan. Steaming does a better job than boiling or poaching of retaining a food's flavor, shape, texture and many of the vitamins and minerals.
v. A technique where ingredients, particularly vegetables, are cooked in a small amount of fat over low heat. The ingredients are covered directly with a piece of foil or parchment paper, then the pot is tightly covered. With this method, the ingredients soften without browning, and cook in their own juices.

Adapted from and copyrighted information from Barron's Educational Services, Inc. 1995 based on "The Food Lover's Companion," 2nd edition, by Sharon Tyler Herbst.

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