Culinary Terms Every Novice Should Know….but might not
Here are some cooking terms that you will find in every cookbook but may not be familiar with:
Arborio rice : A short-grain, stubby type of rice originally from Italy and named after a town in the Po Valley. With a higher startch content than most of rices, properly cooked Arborio rice is creamy but firm and chewy.
All Purpose Flour : A blend of high and low protein flours. The manufacturers blend the flour so that there is enough gluten in it to make a reasonable (often excellent) loaf of bread but not so much that you will end up with a chewy birthday cake. This is why they call it “all purpose:” it is good to use in a variety of baked goods.
Al dente (al-Den-tay) : In Italian the phrase means “to the tooth”and is a term used to describe the correct degree of doneness when cooking pasta and vegetables. The food should have a slight resistance when biting into it, but should not be soft or overdone or have a hard center.
For a great explanation of how al dente pasta should feel and taste, I direct you to read my friend Lola’s explanation. Lola is a wonderful home cook from Italy and knows what she is talking about. Her description of al dente is at the end of my post for Pasta e Fagioli.
Bard : To tie some type of fat (bacon or fatback) around what you are cooking to prevent it from drying out while roasting. Often used with fowl or extremely lean meats, barding bastes the meat while it is cooking, thus keeping it moist.
Boquerones (bo-keh-ROAN-es) – also know as white anchovies in the United States and gavros in Greece, boquerones are fresh cured anchovies. They are basically cooked like ceviche in either lemon juice or vinegar depending on where you live and salted to draw some of the moisture out.
Braise (BRAYZ) : A cooking method where meat or vegetables are first browned in butter and/or oil, then cooked in a covered pot in a small about of cooking liquid at low heat for a long period of time. This slow cooking process both tenderizes the food by breaking down their fibers and creates a full flavored dish. Check out my article on Braising and then my recipe for ossobuco for a delicious example of this cooking method.
Bouquet garni : a little bundle of herbs, tied together or placed together in in a piece of cheesecloth, used to enhance the flavor of a soup or stew. The classic combination of herbs is parsley, thyme, and bay leaf, but I like to add different herbs that I think will go with dish.
Broth : Basically the same thing as stock, a flavorful liquid prepared by simmering meat, poultry, fish or vegetables in water with some added herbs. This liquid can then be used for making soups, sauces, braises or by itself. Home cooks were more likely to see the term broth where professionals use the word “stock”. Not to be confusing, but some people use the term bouillon. Be sure to check out my post about the difference between chicken stock and chicken broth.
Bronze Cut : this is in reference to the die used when making tubular pasta like spaghetti or penne. I know this because years ago I owned a pasta extruder and it came with a bronze die. Why is a bronze cut pasta better than the more economical Teflon dies? The pasta produced from bronze dies “have a rough, textured surface that helps sauce cling to the pasta.”
Cabbage : comes from the French word caboche, a colloquial term for head. The most common cabbage is the tight leafed compact head that ranges in color from white to red although there are many other types of cabbage varying in size in shape worth trying. Cabbage can be cooked or eaten raw as in cole slaw. When buying, look for heads that appear heavier than their size with crisp leaves. The cabbage family also includes kale, broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts.
Canola oil : The market name for rapeseed. As the most popular oil in Canada, the name was changed to protect the innocent. Now popular in the US because it only contains about 6% of saturated fat. Also it contains more mono saturated fat than any oil other than olive oil as well as Omega-3 fatty acids… thought to help lower cholesterol. It doesn’t have much of a taste and should be used for cooking (high smoking point) and salad dressings.
Caper : not to be confused with “a playful skipping movement” but the edible flower buds of the caper bush that’s usually salted and pickled and are popular in Mediterranean cuisine. Capers come in different sizes including the most know, non-pareils (up to 7mm), surfines (7–8 mm), capucines (8–9 mm), capotes (9–11 mm), fines (11–13 mm), and grusas (14+ mm). See my recipe for Spaghetti with Tomato Caper Sauce Recipe
Castelvetrano Olives : also know as Nocellara del Belice because they come from a of region of Sicily called Valle del Belice, this green olive is harvested at a young age and cured is salted brine. They are bigger than most olives and much greener. They have a meaty texture and taste buttery with both a salty and sweet taste that is mild.
Ceviche : a seafood dish made from fresh raw fish like shrimp, scallops, bass, halibut or any other fresh ocean white fish that is cured in lemon or lime juice and combined with onion, green chili peppers, cilantro, olives and whatever you feel would work with this dish. Is ceviche really cooked. Technically no. Cooking requires heat but by marinating fish in citrus juice, you are using a process called denaturation where you are altering the chemical and physical properties of the protein molecules similar to when you cook them with heat.
Chiffonade : Is the French term for a particular knife cut where herbs and leafy greens are cut into thin strips. Check out my post on knife cuts.
Cole slaw : Coming from the Dutch term, koolsla, which means “cool cabbage”, it’s a salad made with shredded cabbage mixed with mayonnaise as well as a variety of other ingredients. Check out my dad’s cole slaw recipe for to see what he puts into his.
Congee : is a rice porridge found in many Asian cuisine. It can be made with both long grain and short grain rices and how it is made depends on the country you are living in. It can be served for breakfast, late night meals or as a substitute for rice.
Congee can be served by itself or combined with other ingredients like meat, chicken, vegetables or seafood. It is prepared with lots of water and the rice is cooked down to a thick porridge.
Cut in : When a solid fat such as butter is mixed with a dry ingredient like flour until they form into small particles. I would use a food processor fitted with a metal blade and just pulse it. You can also use your trusty fingers to do the job.
A rich brown sauce made from reduced veal and beef stock that is used to make classic sauces. This is the stuff that gives those sauces you are served at fancy restaurants that velvety texture and sheen. For more information about demi-glace.
Dredge (DREHJ) : When you lightly coat food to be pan fried or sautéed typically with flour, cornmeal, or breadcrumbs. Check out my recipe for Sole Meuniére.
Filé Powder – (FEE-lay, fih-LAY) : Made from the dried leaves of the sassafras tree and ground into a powder, Filé is thought to have come from the Choctaw indians of Louisiana and is an important seasoning for Gumbo.
Fond : the brown carmelized bits of “stuff” left in the pan after you saute meat or fish. It’s the stuff you make great sauces from…sort of a base.
Gazpacho : – a tomato-based veggie soup that is a great summer time recipe when you have fresh vegetables readily available in the kitchen. Here’s a great gazpacho recipe
Gochujang : a Korean fermented chili paste similar to Sriracha or a red chili paste made from chili powder, rice, fermented soybean powder, barley malt powder and salt. It is considered a fermented condiment and tastes sweet, spicy and savory.
Great Northern Beans : Grown in the Midwest, this large white bean looks like a Lima bean and has a wonderful delicate flavor. Goes great in Winter Polish Peasant Sausage & Bean Stew.
Gumbo (GUHM-boh) : A thick stew-like dish associated with Creole cooking down in Louisiana. It typically has ingredients including okra, tomatoes, onions and some protein like crab, shrimp, sausage or chicken. The name gumbo comes from a derivation of the African word for okra, one of the principal ingredients. Check out my recipe for Gumbo.
Haggis (HAG-ihs) : a Scottish dish made from sheep organs (offal) like heart, liver, and lungs. I’m not sure I will ever enjoy this traditional dish but if I’m in Scotland on Burns Night, the 25th of January to celebrate the birthday of poet Robert Burns or New Year’s Eve ( Hogmanay), I may just give it a try. These innards are first boiled and then combined with beef suet and toasted oatmeal. Next they are transferred to the sheep’s stomach which is sewn closed and then boiled again for hours. Served with mashed turnips and a little milk and allspice, called “neeps” or creamed potatoes flavored with nutmeg and called “tatties”.
Haricot vert (ah-ree-koh VeHR) : the French term for green string beans but these are those really thin green beans you find in the supermarket. Comes from “haricot” which means bean and “vert” which means green. Some say they have better flavor, I’m not sure of that but they sure look good on the plate.
Hoisin sauce : a thick, dark pungent sauce used in Chinese cooking as a glaze, dipping sauce or added to stir-fries. Also called Chinese plum sauce, the name hoisin comes from the Chinese word for seafood. Hoisin sauce varies depending on where in China you live. Ingredients may include soy, garlic and red chilies.
Hominy : An early gift from the American Indians, hominy is dried corn kernels which have had the hulls and germ removed either mechanically or chemically. For our Posole, we purchased canned hominy, but you can also buy it dried. Do you remember in the movie My Cousin Vinny when they talk about grits? Well they were talking about ground dried hominy.
Ice : I’m not talking about frozen water ice but instead the act of drizzling a baked good (cake, cupcakes, etc) with a thin layer of frosting. You know it more commonly as icing.
Kimchi (KIHM-chee) : is a very spicy condiment that is extremely pungent that is served at most Korean meals. Made from fermented vegetables like turnips and cabbage that have been pickled. In Korea they are then jarred, buried in the ground and dug up when needed. If you like it HOT, you’ll like kimchi.
Knead : To mix and work dough into a pliable mass either manually or with a mixer/food processor. When done by hand, you press the dough with the heels of your hands, fold in half, give a quarter turn, and repeat until smooth and elastic.
Ladyfinger : Shaped like a fat finger, it is a delicate sponge cake that is used for making desserts like Tiramisu and Charlottes. You can usually purchase them in bakeries, supermarkets, or specialty markets.
Maître d’ (MAY-truhDEE) : Short for maître d’hôtel and is translated literally as master of the hotel is the headwaiter who is in charge of assigning people to their tables in a restaurant. Part of their responsibilities may also include making sure the staff waiters are doing their jobs, training, handling complaints and working as a liaison between the front of the house and the kitchen.
Mesclun (MEHS-kluhn) : A combination of fancy, young salad greens once hard to find but now popular and available pre washed in the produce section of your supermarket in the Bag O Salad section. The mix usually contains a combination of arugula, dandelion, frisee, mizuma, oak leaf, radicchio and sorrel.
Meuniére (muhn-YAIR) : A fancy French name for “miller’s wife” and refers to the cooking technique used. In this case, fish is seasoned with salt and pepper and then dredged with flour and sautéed in butter. Check out my recipe for Sole Meuniére
Mirepoix (mihr-PWAH) : A mixture of diced carrots, onions, celery and herbs that has been sautéed in butter or oil and used to season soups and stews. Sometimes mirepoix will contain diced prosciutto or ham to enhance flavor.
mise en place (MEEZ ahn plahs) : This technique is IMPORTANT and one that’s hardest to get novice cooks to stick with. It’s a French term for having all your ingredients prepped and ready to go before starting you start cooking. That means everything is cleaned, peeled, chopped, diced, measured out, whatever’s necessary to get the ingredients ready prior to preparing your dish. Many of us, me included, start cooking and prepping at the same time. A big NO NO. Try to get into the habit of mis en place. Too read more about mise en place
Miso – a fermented soybean paste made from soybeans, salt and koji (a filamentous fungus (a mold) used in Japan to ferment soybeans for making soy sauce and fermented bean paste) but can be made from barley, rice or other grains. You often find it as red miso or white miso with the darker the color, the stronger the taste. It is famous in Japan for miso soup but can be used to make sauces and Asian style salad dressings.
Mongolian Hot Pot : A sort of Chinese fondue, this giant communal pot contains a simmering stock where diners cook a variety of raw, thinly sliced meats and vegetables. A reader asked if I knew where to buy one….any ideas?
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orzo (OHR-zoh) : in Italian means barley, but it is really a pasta that is shaped like rice. I like to substitute it for rice in salads like my Seafood Orzo Salad but it is also great in soups.
Ossobuco (AW-soh BOO-koh) : in Italian means bone with a hole and that’s where this dish derives it’s name. The hole is filled with marrow and some consider it a delicacy while others shy away from it. This Italian dish is made with gelatinous veal shanks that are braised with fresh vegetables and rich stock. This dish comes from Milan in Italy’s northern region of Lombardy. The area is known for dairy farming with veal being a natural by-product. Ossobuco is simple and delicious meal that is often served with Gremolada.
Panko : Japanese breadcrumbs – See my post on panko bread crumbs
Pappardelle : from the Italian city of Bologna, this long ribbon pasta measures from 6 – 10 inches long and anywhere from 1/2″ to 1″ wide and is great with hardy sauces because of it’s larger surface. It’s usually homemade but is starting to show up more and more in gourmet stores and supermarkets. If your local gourmet store doesn’t carry it, ask them. They are usually accommodating.
Pesto (PEH stoh) : An uncooked sauce that can also be used as condiment from Genoa, Italy and usually contains fresh basil, garlic, pine nuts, Parmesan cheese and olive oil although I’ve made it with arugula, sun dried tomatoes, and cilantro. I make mine with a food processor, but it is often made by hand with a mortar and pestle.
Pincho or Pintxo (Basque): means “thorn” or “spike” in Spanish and is a small snack, similar to a tapas, typically enjoyed in bars and restaurants in northern Spain. Rather than a small plate of food like a tapas, it is typically one serving held together on a toothpick. Read more about my experiences eating pincho in San Sebastian.
Pine nuts : also called pignoli or Italian nut, pine nuts come from, you guessed it, pine trees. The nut is extracted from the cone usually with heat and is highly labor intensive thus expensive. they have a high fat content and should be stored in airtight containers in your refrigerator. They have a wonderful flavor especially when toasted.
Pomme de terre : Translated from French, it means “apple of the earth”, but refers to the potato. Usually seen as pommmes frites or French Fries.
Posole : (poh-SOH-leh) : a traditional Mexican dish from the pacific coast region of Jalisco. A thick soup that’s usually made with pork, hominy, garlic, onion, chili peppers, cilantro, and broth. Check out Huntley Dent’s recipe for posole.
Pope’s Nose : The stubby tail that protrudes from dressed chicken, turkey, and other fowl that my dad always served me at Thanksgiving.
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Resting : removing meat or poultry from heat before reaching ideal internal temperatures to allow the redistribution of juices in the meat. This helps keep the meat retain its juices, evens out temperature and doneness and easier to carve.
Roux : A mixture of flour and fat that is cooked over low heat and used to thicken soups and sauces. There are three types of roux…white, blond, and brown. White and blond roux are both made with butter and used in cream sauces while brown roux can be made with either butter or the drippings from what you are cooking and is used for darker soups and sauces.
Sachet : A sachet is a small bag made out of cloth or cheesecloth that is filled with various herbs and spices and used to add flavor to soup, stews, stocks and sauces. The combination of herbs and spices can vary depending on what you are cooking but typically include bay leaves, peppercorns, parsley and thyme.
Fresh herbs and spices are better but dried will do nicely if you don’t have access to fresh. You can use kitchen string (I have a roll of kite string in our kitchen) to tie the bundle together or even tie the four corners to themselves. I have even seen these nifty disposable cloth bags you can buy at kitchen supply stores.
Saffron : An extremely expensive yellow-orange spice made from the stigmas of purple crocus. Think about this, each crocus produces only three stigmas which are hand picked and dried. It takes 14,000 of these tiny stigmas to produce an ounce of saffron. When buying choose the whole threads over the powder form and store in an air tight container in a cool dark place . Saffron is used for flavoring but was once used for medicinal purposes as well as dying clothes.
Self-rising flour : is one of the first “baking mixes.” Rather than having to measure out all purpose flour, baking powder and salt separately, a cook can just measure the self rising flour–everything else is already in there.
Scoville scale: Think of this scale as a way to measure hotness of peppers in heat units called Scovilles. It basically measures the capsaicin concentration which gives peppers their hotness. It is named after its founder Wilbur Scoville who devised the Scovilled Organolepitic test back in 1912.
Shaoxing wine : a Chinese rice wine made from fermented rice and originated from a region in China called Shaoxing. It can be drank but is most often using in cooking. It is a variety of huangjiu wine made from water, cereal grains and a starter. It is not fermented and typically contains less that 20% alcohol.
Smoking point : The point when a fat such as butter or oil smokes and lets off an acrid odor. Not good since this odor can get into what you are cooking and give it a bad flavor. Butter smokes at 350° F, vegetable oil at 445° F, lard at 365°-400°F , olive oil at about 375° F.
Speck : A pork product very similar to prosciutto or bacon. Hailing from northern Italy, speck is first cured in salt with spices like juniper and laurel and then slow smoked for several months. If you taste it raw, it’s going to taste fatty but it is an excellent ingredient to cook with to give a dish another layer of flavor. Some people call speck Italian bacon.
Stir-Fry : a high-heat cooking method often associated with Chinese cooking where ingredients are cooked in a small amount of hot oil while constantly being stirred. Stir-frys are often prepared in a cooking vessel called a wok but it you can stir fry in a frying pan. To lean more about this great Stir-Fry technique…
Stock : also called broth or bouillon, a flavorful liquid made by gently cooking meat, chicken or fish (with bones) in water and used for making sauces, soups, glaces and can be used for braising or poaching. I have read that in order for this liquid to be called stock, it must be made with bones therefore there is no such thing as vegetable stock. Not so sure this is true but sounds interesting. I have also read that the term comes from professional chefs keeping this important liquid ingredient “in stock” until they need it to cook with.
Sweat : To cook slowly over low heat in butter, usually covered, without browning. See my article on How to Sweat Vegetables
Tzatziki (dzah-DZEE-kee) : a popular Greek sauce made with drained plain yogurt, cucumbers, garlic, oil, vinegar and well drained plain yogurt. It can be used as a spread on flat breads or makes a perfect sauce for lamb or works well with Greek style turkey burgers.
Toad-in-the-hole : A British dish consisting of a Yorkshire Pudding batter and cooked link sausages. When baked, the batter puffs up around the sausages giving the appearance of “toads in the hole”
Tomato Passata : an uncooked tomato puree with seeds and skins strained out. Passata originated in Italy but is found and used throughout in many countries. It is different from tomato sauce or tomato paste because it is not cooked. It is 100% uncooked tomatoes with no added garlic, onion or carrots. You can find passata in some gourmet markets sold in tall, thin bottles or in cardboard cartons.
Vinegar : There are all kinds of vinegar because you can make it from all sorts of ingredients including grapes, apples, grains and more. It is a byproduct of fermentation creating a sour tasting liquid.
Wok Hay : a Chinese (Cantonese) phrase describing the special flavor and aroma associated with a perfect stir-fry. If properly done, a stir-fry achieves “the breath (hay) of a wok” and is considered authentic.
Worcestershire sauce : Developed in India by the British, this dark, spicy sauce got its name from the city where it was first bottled…Worcester, England. Used to season meats, gravies, and soups, the recipe includes soy sauce, onions, molasses, lime, anchovies, vinegar, garlic, tamarind, as well as other spices. Read all about it at Worcestershire Sauce.