Knowing basic cooking terms is important when learning how to cook. When a cookbook instructs you to blanch the asparagus before cooking it, you need to know what that means. A lot of terms are very close in meaning. Understanding the differences, and preparing the food accordingly, can be the difference between making a great meal or ordering pizza.
The importance of learning cooking terms is explained further in this article. The terms listed below will give you a decent starting vocabulary for food preparation and ingredients.
Acid - A substance with a pH level of 7 or less. Acids have a sharp sour or bitter flavor, and occur naturally in many foods. Examples of acids are citrus juice, vinegar, wine, and sour dairy products.
Al Dente - "To the tooth." Cooking an item until it is tender, but still firm.
Baking - A dry heat cooking method where heat surrounds the food, cooking it from all sides at once.
Baking Powder - A chemical leavener with both an acid and alkaline ingredient, most commonly baking soda and cream of tartar. When exposed to liquid, it creates gasses which leaven doughs and batters.
Baking Soda - Sodium bicarbonate. When combined with liquid and an acidic ingredient, it releases carbon dioxide, which leavens doughs and batters.
Barbeque - A dry-heat cooking method using hot coals or a gas flame to heat and prepare the food. Depending on whether the lid on the grill is up or down, the food is cooked with intense heat on one side at a time, like broiling, or with heat surrounding the food, like baking.
Baste - To moisten food during the cooking process by spooning drippings, sauce or other liquids over the food.
Beat - To stir a food quickly enough to add in air bubbles.
Blanch - Briefly cooking an item in hot water or fat before finishing cooking or storing it. Blanching preserves color and reduces strong flavors. It may also be used to remove peels from fruits and vegetables.
Boil - Cooking an item by submersing it in liquids above 212°F (100°C). Water is boiling when there are large air bubbles coming up from the bottom of the pan.
Braise - A cooking method where the food (usually meat) is seared in fat, and then cooked slowly in a liquid to achieve maximum tenderness. The liquid, usually a stock or wine, should be half way up the meat, and the pan should be covered.
Broiling - A dry heat cooking method involving cooking the food (usually meat) at a high temperature on just one side at a time.
Broth - A flavorful liquid made by simmering meat, vegetables, spices, and herbs in either water or stock.
Butter - A semi-solid fat made by churning cream for a long period of time. It contains at least 80% milk fat.
Caramelize - Browning sugars in heat.
Condensed Milk - Sweetened evaporated milk.
Cream - To beat sugar and butter at a high speed until it is light and fluffy. It is also the fatty part of milk.
Cure - Preserving a food through salting, drying, pickling, or smoking.
Deglaze - Adding water, wine, or other liquid to the bottom of a pan after roasting or braising to dissolve cooked-on drippings. The liquid can then be used for flavoring gravy and other sauces.
Dice - Cut into uniform-sized cubes
Dredge - Coating a food with flour or bread crumbs before pan frying or sautéing.
Dry heat cooking - A method of cooking food through dry heat. This includes baking, barbequing, broiling, sautéing, deep-frying, and similar cooking methods.
Evaporated Milk - Canned, unsweetened milk with 60% of the water removed. It is most commonly used in custards and pies, and creates a very creamy texture in foods.
Fat - A basic food ingredient that contains flavor and improves moisture and tenderness. It is something that bodies need, and can contribute to a feeling of fullness.
Fold - To gently mix ingredients
Fructose - A simple sugar found in fruits.
Garnish - To decorate, or the food used to decorate. An example of this is parsley or mint sprigs set along side the food on a plate.
Infusion - A liquid made from steeping fresh herbs and spices in water, wine, or other liquid.
Knead - To mix or work dough by hand. It softens the dough and increases elasticity, which improved the texture of the bread.
Lactose - The simple sugar found in milk and dairy products.
Marinate - To let food soak in a marinade, usually made from oil, vinegar, and seasonings. Can also be a dry rub or a paste. Marinades flavor and tenderize meat.
Microwave - A cooking appliance meant to heat small quantities of food quickly. Microwaving is using a microwave to prepare foods. Microwaves work by sending out small waves of molecules which heat anything moist. They can penetrate through glass, ceramic, and plastic, but not metal.
Moist heat - A cooking method where food are cooked in a liquid. This includes boiling, braising, steaming, simmering, stewing, and other similar cooking methods.
Reduce - To decrease the volume of a liquid by boiling or simmering. It produces a thicker and more flavorful sauce.
Roast - A dry heat cooking method where the food is prepared in an oven or on a spit over a fire.
Roux - A combination of flour and fat used to thicken sauces which is cooked to varying degrees to provide better flavor and thickening ability.
Sauté - A dry heat cooking method where food is cooked quickly over a range top in a small amount of fat.
Savory - Not sweet. Refers most commonly to meat and vegetable dishes.
Sift - Pass a fine powder, such as flour or confectioner's sugar, through a fine mesh sieve. This makes the product fluffier by adding air, and also removes any clumps.
Steel - a tool used to sharpen knives.
Stir-frying - Similar to sautéing. Items are cooked over high heat in very little fat, and are kept constantly moving to prevent sticking or uneven cooking.
Stock - A flavorful liquid prepared by simmering meat or fish bones in water for a long period of time to bring out the flavor. This can also be done with vegetables. Stocks are used as a base for soups and sauces, and for other cooking methods, such as braising.
Thickener - An ingredient used to add more body to a liquid. Cornstarch and flour are the most popular.
Vinaigrette - A sauce made of oil and vinegar, usually served cold and with added flavoring.
Whole-grain - An unprocessed grain.
Yeast - A microscopic fungus which causes fermentation as it metabolizes. It's used to make bread, cheese, and wine.
Zest - Thin strips of citrus peel. The oils in citrus zest provide intense flavor to dishes.