Common kitchen terms
Do you know what it means to blanch a vegetable? What about how to sear a piece of meat? Cooking has a vocabulary all its own — here are some common words to help you expand your knowledge.
- 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.
- 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 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.
- 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.
- v. Removing the core from the fruit.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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, 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.
- purée [pyuh-RAY]
- 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.
- 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.