To mince or to chop? That is the question. If a recipe has ever read like an excerpt from Shakespeare, this one’s for you.
Every now and then, while following a lovingly crafted recipe, us laypeople might stumble upon words we’re not so sure what to do with. Cooking can be something of a fine art—and so by mastering a few terms, even the most amateur cooks can butterfly their way to culinary excellence.
Here are some of the most common—and confusing—terms you'll find in recipes. Don't let them come between you and your favorite dish!
In Italian, this means “to the bite.” When a recipe calls for pasta al dente, it should have a slightly firm texture, without having a hard center. Essentially, the pasta is slightly undercooked, so that once it’s added to the sauce, it can better absorb flavor. Some say this is the only truly Italian way to cook pasta. To achieve this, test the texture of the pasta a couple of minutes short of the recommended cook time on the package and check it every 30 seconds until the desired firm bite is achieved.
This method involves cooking foods—namely vegetables—briefly in boiling water, and then plunging them into ice-cold water to halt the cooking process. This allows vegetables to soften enough to then be quickly cooked over high heat, or to enhance their color and be more easily eaten slightly raw—think of green beans in a nicoise salad.
This refers to slicing meats, poultry, and seafood through the middle (like a hamburger bun), leaving the halves connected, and unfolding them to resemble the symmetry of a butterfly. This increases the surface area exposed to a cooking surface and results in quicker cook time.
A lovely term that describes fine strips of leafy herbs, greens, and lettuces. To quickly create a chiffonade, take a bunch of leaves, roll them tightly from the top-down, and then slice thin sections from one end to the other. Once the bunch is unrolled, there will be an elegant bed of ribbon-like strips. Voila!
Sautéed and roasted foods can leave bits of food stuck to the pan. To loosen and dissolve these bits, pour liquid such as wine, stock, or vinegar into the pan—this mixture then makes a nice flavorful base for sauces.
When whipping up any fried dish, such as fried chicken, eggplant parmesan, or vegetable tempura, the food is typically dredged—coated with flour or breadcrumbs before hitting the frying pan. A standard dredging method involves coating food with flour, dipping it in an egg wash, and then encrusting it with breadcrumbs to give it a perfect crispness.
Pronounced zhoo, this is a thin sauce, lighter than gravy, made from the flavor of roasted meat. The first step to create a jus is deglazing a roasting pan and then bringing the liquid to a boil until it is reduced to obtain a rich flavor. French dip sandwiches are typically served au jus—which translates to “in its own juice”—meaning it can be dipped into a sauce made from the meat to enhance flavor.
While chopping usually refers to coarsely cutting food, mincing means to cut into very fine, tiny pieces—as small as possible. Mincing ingredients, such as garlic, is ideal for spreading potent flavor throughout a dish.
This roasting method involves two stages: High-heat searing on the stove top and and then cooking through in the oven at a low temperature. A cast-iron skillet is your best friend if you want to master pan roasting, since it can go right from the stove top into the oven in one fell swoop.
This simply means partially baked. Parbaked doughs—including breads and pie crusts—are cooked through to 80 percent, which kills the yeast and sets the proteins and starches, making the inside sterile and stable against aging. Then, these doughs can be stored and saved until it’s ready to be eaten—in which case, just pop the bread or crust in the oven and finish it off until it turns golden.
To cook delicate foods such as eggs and fish in liquid at low temperatures from 140°F to 180°F. This low and slow liquid cooking keeps the food moist and tender and prevents overcooking. Use water or stock—it should not bubble as in boiling, but small bubbles may form at the bottom of the pot.
This is a small, oven-safe dish in which food can be baked and served in individual portions. Invest in some ramekins if you’d like to try your hand at whipping up some pot pies or crème brûlée.
Mix flour and fat such as butter or meat fat to create a roux for thickening up sauces, soups, and stews. Cook this mixture on medium-low heat to prevent burning. The longer you cook the roux, the darker and more flavorful it becomes. It can then be added to recipes as needed.
Adding an egg too quickly into hot ingredients can cook it rather than incorporate it. (That would make for one lumpy and egg-y pastry cream.) To prevent this, eggs must be tempered by gradually adding small amounts of hot liquid to them to slowly bring up their temperature—then they can be added into a hot mixture with no problem.
Now that these terms are defined, you’ll be ready to tackle some expert recipes in no time!
Illustration by Katherine Prendergast