We often talk about cooking here as if you’ve been cooking all your life, but today we’re going to get back to basics. While my mom didn’t cook much when I was growing up, my grandmother did. I spent enough time cooking fresh food and baking from scratch to feel comfortable with the tools and the terms. That’s not true for everyone my age and certainly not for everyone my kids’ age.
In some circles cooking has come to mean popping a packaged meal in the microwave or heating precooked entrees or vegetables in the oven. I’ve seen posts in which a description of baking from “scratch” included a cake mix.
Reducing the amount of prepackaged, convenience foods you eat can help lessen your consumption of chemical additives, sodium, manufactured fats, and sugar. It also means you may have to perform a few additional “cooking” related tasks.
If you’re not familiar with cooking terminology, translating a recipe into a dish may seem daunting. Removing some of the mystery can help you get past the feeling that you can’t cook because you don’t even know what the words in the instructions mean. Today, let’s explore some basic cooking terms and techniques so you can be on your way to becoming a great cook!
You don’t need a lot of fancy equipment to prepare a wide variety of foods for boiling, steaming, baking or broiling. Peeling, slicing, chopping, dicing, and mincing only require a knife. But what are they?
Peel – Remove the outside skin from vegetables or fruits.
Slice – Cut a thick or thin, flat piece of something like fruit, vegetable, bread, or meat.
Chop – Cut food into irregular pieces of similar size to each other. Chopped pieces are typically larger than diced or minced.
Dice – Cut food into cubes between 1/8″ and 1/2″ in size. If size is not specified, use 1/4″
Mince – Mincing is like dicing, but the pieces are smaller.
When preparing vegetables and fruits, you’ll use these techniques over and over again.
Sometimes you may not want a cooked or raw vegetable to retain its shape at all. You can then use a food chopper or processor to grind or purée it. Grinding reduces the food to tiny particles. Puréeing means the food is processed until it’s smooth. You don’t have to have an electronic appliance to do this. A cooked vegetable can be mashed, then put through a sieve to create a purée.
Once you’ve prepped vegetables and meats, you may want to add heat in order to boil, steam, sauté, bake, broil, roast, grill, or braise.
Boil – To submerge in a boiling liquid at or above the boiling point of water.
Steam – To place food above boiling water in a pot or pan using some kind of rack or basket and a cover so that steam cooks the food.
Sauté – To cook a food quickly in oil and/or butter over high heat.
Bake – To cook using dry heat in an oven or on heated metal or stones.
Broil – To cook quickly using high heat from above the food.
Roast – To cook using dry heat with a temperature of at least 300 in an environment in which hot air from an open flame, oven or other heat source envelops the food, cooking it evenly on all sides.
Grill – To cook directly over live, high heat flames.
Braise – To cook slowly in a small amount of liquid in a covered container in the oven or on a burner.
Brown – To give a cooked surface to meat or flour. Also to turn a brown color in the oven.
Sometimes you’ll want to parboil, blanch, simmer, scald or blend.
Parboil – To briefly boil in water until food begins to soften.
Blanch – To briefly place food in boiling water, then immediately move it into cold water.
Simmer – To cook in liquid at a temperature just below a boil.
Scald – Refers to both dipping into boiling water, and heating milk to just below the boiling point.
Blend – To mix ingredients together thoroughly often using a beater, mixer, or blender.
You may be instructed to dot a casserole with butter before baking it, or to baste a turkey while it roasts. If so, here’s what to do:
Dot – Cover the top with small pieces of butter.
Baste – Spoon, brush or pour drippings or liquid over a food before or during cooking.
When you begin baking from scratch, you’ll commonly see instructions to sift, mix, cut in, whisk, flour, fold, and knead so let’s prepare for that:
From Scratch – To make from the very beginning without using already prepared ingredients.
Sift – Use a device made of a metal cup with a screen at the bottom that contains a mechanism to force the flour through the mesh.
Mix – Combine items to form one mass.
Cut In – Work solid fat into dry ingredients with a pastry blender until evenly distributed.
Whisk – Beat or stir with a whisk.
Flour – To dust a pan the shortening in a prepared baking pan with flour.
Fold – To delicately incorporate one substance into another substance without releasing air bubbles.
Knead – To work a dough by mixing, stretching, and pulling with the fingers and mashing with the heel of the hand.
Other common actions are grating, whipping, and garnishing. Let’s explore those terms:
Grate – To rub firm food on a tool with small, rough, sharp-edged holes grater to create small pieces.
Whip – To beat vigorously to incorporate air and cause expansion.
Garnish – To decorate a dish with something attractive and flavorful.
Now for the important question – Can we use these terms to make a great snack for the Super Bowl?
Of course we can! It’s winter. Let’s make chili!
1 large onion, chopped
2 tbsp olive oil
1 or 2 jalapeño peppers, seeds removed, finely chopped
2 fire roasted sweet peppers, seeds removed, diced
1 1/2 lbs lean ground beef
2 tbsp chili powder
1 1/2 cups cooked black beans
3 1/2 – 4 cups tomato juice
1/3 cup stewed tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 tbsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
1 tsp garlic powder
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp fresh ground black pepper
Sauté onion in olive oil in large pan until translucent – about 5-7 minutes. Add the jalapeño and cook for an additional 3 minutes. Add red peppers and ground beef to the pan and brown. Once beef is browned, sprinkle with chili powder and stir until all the meat turns red. Add beans, 3 1/2 cups tomato juice, stewed tomatoes, and the balance of the spices.
Stir and simmer for at least 20 minutes. Add the balance of the tomato juice if needed as the chili cooks down.
Now that you have a guide to more than 30 common cooking terms and have had a chance to see them as they appear in a recipe, you can build on this knowledge as you gain experience and confidence.
Never feel bad about having to look something up. Many chefs have used books and kitchen experience to become successful. And remember, you don’t have to be a chef to be a great cook!