Cooking terminology demystified

Learn your way around a recipe with the right lingo

Maybe you’re the kind of cook who messes up boiling water (hey, it happens) or you’ve never even attempted to cook. Maybe you can stir-fry really handily, but using an oven for anything really intimidates you.

This week, we take a break from the steady feed of recipes to cover some basics. Whether you’ve never cooked before, you can scramble eggs but not much else, or you’re an experienced cook looking to fill in some gaps, the following terms and how-toss will get you all on the same page, so to speak.

Now, when any of my future columns instructs you to sauté or stir-fry something, you’ll know exactly what to do.

Cooking Terms

bake – generic term for cooking any food in an oven

beat – to stir (usually liquid ingredients) rapidly and thoroughly, often with a whisk or a large fork or spoon; often used for eggs (to break up the yolks and mix them together with the whites into a near-uniform liquid)

blanch – to plunge food (usually vegetables or fruits) in boiling water briefly (often around one minute), then into cold water to stop the cooking process.  Used to firm the flesh, loosen skins (such as peaches and tomatoes), and to heighten and set color and flavor (as when preparing vegetables for freezing).

boil – to bring a liquid (often in a pot or saucepan, usually over a stove burner) to the temperature at which it bubbles constantly (around 203°F in Denver), or to cook food in liquid that is boiling.  A “full rolling boil” is one that doesn’t dissipate with stirring.  “Just to a boil” means the bubbles have just gotten to the point where they are cresting and breaking (you will see some tiny bubbles before this point).

braise – to cook food (usually meat or vegetables) until tender in a small amount of liquid at low heat for a long time, often after first sautéing; can be done on the stove or in the oven

broil – Most ovens have a setting for “broil,” which maximizes the direct heat coming off of the heat source for the oven (either gas or electric). Food can be placed directly under the heat source for quick baking, toasting, or blackening

chop – to cut food into bite-sized, or smaller, pieces; although recipes will often say “finely chop” or “coarsely chop,” this can be somewhat subjective and the exact size is usually up to the cook

deep-fry – to fry in very hot oil that completely covers the food

dice – to cut food (usually vegetables or fruit) into small approximate cubes, usually about 1/4 to 1/8 inch on each side; you don’t need to measure or cut each cube separately, you just slice across, then slice across the slices into columns, then across the columns into cubes

fry – similar to sautéing, but usually with more oil or fat and specifically at high heat; note that some things, such as bacon, fry in their own grease

grease; butter and flour – To grease is to rub a very thin coating of oil or fat over all sides of a pan that is to be used for baking something such as bread or a cake, in order to prevent the final product from sticking to the pan and thus tearing apart when removed. To butter and flour is to coat all sides of a pan with a thin layer of butter, tossing in a small handful of flour, and knocking the flour around until there is some sticking all over the butter – used for baked goods that are likely to have extra trouble being removed from the pan in one piece.

grill – to cook on a grill or barbecue (a metal grate set over a heat source, or a table-top grill). Note that British recipes refer to broiling as grilling.

marinate – to soak food (such as meat, vegetables, or tofu) in a seasoned liquid, called a marinade, in order to infuse with flavor and sometimes to tenderize; since marinades often contain vinegar, this should be done in a non-aluminum dish

mince – to cut up food into very small pieces, more finely than with chopping; recipes often include ingredients that specify that the item is to be chopped, diced, or minced before proceeding with the other directions

puree – to grind or mash food very finely until it is completely smooth; often done with a blender or food processor, but can also be done by forcing soft food through a sieve; used for things such as smoothies and some soups

roast – to oven-cook food (usually meat or vegetables) in an uncovered pan, usually producing a well-browned exterior and moist interior; sometimes used interchangeably with “bake”

sauté – to cook food quickly in a small amount of oil or fat in a skillet on a stove’s burner, usually while tossing intermittently with a sauté wand or spoon

sear – to brown meat (usually a larger cut) quickly by laying it flat and cooking it over very high heat either in a skillet, under a broiler, or in a very hot oven; sometimes used interchangeably with “pan-fry”

sift – To pass dry ingredients (such as flour) through a fine-mesh sifter in order to break up clumps and remove large pieces. “Sifting [different ingredients] together” refers to putting several ingredients through a sifter so as to incorporate them together thoroughly, but this can often be accomplished satisfactorily by whisking thoroughly.

simmer – to cook food gently in liquid at a temperature that is below boiling but just high enough (usually around 185°F) that tiny bubbles just begin to break the surface

slice – to make parallel cuts across a piece of food; sometimes the recipe will specify the thickness, sometimes it’s up to you.  Instructions for slicing meat often specify that it should be sliced “across the grain” – this means to make the cuts in a direction that is perpendicular to the general direction of the muscle fibers in the meat

stir-fry – to quickly fry small pieces of food in a wok or other large skillet over very high heat using a minimum of oil, while constantly and briskly stirring

whisk – to stir or beat with a whisk; can sometimes be accomplished with a fork instead

wilt – usually just used for cooking leafy greens, wilting involves putting the greens (sometimes chopped) into a skillet over medium heat and stirring gently until the leaves are just softened and limp but haven’t completely lost their shapes

Most definitions adapted from’s food dictionary.

Here is a basic pasta recipe to demonstrate how some of these terms appear in recipes:

Pasta with Vegetables and Marinated Chicken

2 servings

In a small bowl, quickly whisk together until well blended:

2 T. balsamic or red wine vinegar, or red wine

2 T. olive oil

Add and whisk until combined, to make marinade:

¼ tsp. salt (opt.)

¼ tsp. black pepper

2 medium garlic cloves minced (opt.)

2 tsp. fresh or dried oregano or basil (opt.)

Place marinade in a Ziploc plastic bag, and add:

2 small raw boneless chicken breasts, or 1 medium, patted dry with paper towels before adding (2 thick slabs of extra-firm tofu can be easily substituted for a vegetarian or just cheaper/quicker version.)

Seal bag and refrigerate for at least 2 hours (preferably 6 hours, and up to a day.)

Once the chicken has marinated long enough, cut into wedges:

3 plum tomatoes

Toss with ~2 tsp. of olive oil, and place rounded side down in a single layer in a 9×9-inch (or larger) square pan lined with aluminum foil,

Sprinkle on some salt and pepper, to taste.

Place pan in an oven preheated to 400° F.

Roast tomatoes until they have withered and are starting to brown, with the tips of the wedges starting to blacken. This should take about 25-30 minutes, but keep a close eye on them to make sure they don’t burn or harden.

While the tomatoes are cooking, add to a skillet and heat over high heat until hot but not smoking (a drop of water flicked into the oil should sizzle):

2 tsp. canola oil (preferred) or olive oil

Lay the chicken breasts or tofu slices in the skillet and sear or brown on both sides, about 6 minutes per side, being careful not to let them burn. Cover skillet with the lid from a large saucepan and cook for another 10 minutes, until the juices from the meat run clear (skip this last step if using tofu). Set aside. Don’t wash the skillet.

Bring to a full rolling boil in a large pot:

6 cups water

pinch of salt

a few drops of olive oil

Turn the heat down slightly and add:

~8 oz. of pasta

Cover partially with a lid and boil pasta in water for about 8 to 10 minutes, or until al dente (Italian for “to the tooth,” or softened and chewy but not mushy). When done, strain pasta from water, or carefully pour off cooking water, and set aside.

While the pasta is cooking, decrease heat under same skillet to medium and heat until hot but not smoking:

1 T. olive oil


~¼ of a medium onion, coarsely chopped

6 to 8 white button or cremini mushrooms, thinly sliced

Sauté in oil until onion is starting to brown. Add:

1 large garlic clove, minced

Sauté for another 1-2 minutes, then add:

~2-3 handfuls of spinach leaves, thick stems removed with a paring knife and leaves torn into smaller pieces if large

Sauté until spinach is just wilted, about one minute.

Scrape vegetables into a medium serving bowl.

Chicken breasts should have cooled slightly by now. Slice them thinly across the grain and add them to serving bowl with the vegetables. Make sure none of the chicken is pink on the inside. If it is, put it back in the skillet and cook over medium heat for another 5 minutes.

Add to the bowl the cooked pasta and the roasted tomatoes, and then add:

~1 T. minced fresh herbs such as basil, oregano, or marjoram (opt.)

~2 tsp. extra olive oil

Toss with your hands or with serving spoons until everything is mixed together.

Serve hot topped with grated parmesan cheese, if desired. Can also be chilled and served cold.

Author: Kate Rigot

Kate has been cooking cheap but delicious food for years and wants to share with you what she’s learned. She has a passion for empowering students to be able to cook their own food, and for taking the elitist/expensive edge off of (mostly) healthy, gourmet, made-from-scratch food. “Cheap Eats for Broke Students” runs weekly, and focuses on relatively inexpensive recipes that are quick and easy to make, cooking and food shopping tips, and other writing about food and where it comes from. E-mail her with any feedback on recipes, your own recipes you’d like to share with the campus, or ideas for things you’d like to see covered here.

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