Cooking Terms and Definitions

This list defines terms I use regularly in my kitchen. It is by no means exhaustive, but I do try to add to it as the need arises!

(Arranged alphabetically)

Al Dente

The term al dente is Italian in origin, and literally translates “to the tooth.” When cooked to al dente, pasta should be firm to the bite. Overcooked pasta will ruin a dish.

Apéritif

An apéritif is a cocktail or alcoholic beverage served before dinner to stimulate the appetite. Think champagne, sherry, ouzo, and a personal favorite – Cynar.

Bisque

A smooth, highly seasoned cream-based soup of French origin, classically based on a strained broth of shellfish.  It may also be a creamy soup made from roasted and puréed fruits, vegetables, or mushrooms.

Braising

(From the French word, “braiser”) is a combination-cooking method that uses both moist and dry heats: typically, the food is first seared at a high temperature, then finished in a covered pot at a lower temperature while sitting in some (variable) amount of liquid (which may also add flavor). Braising of meat is often referred to as pot roasting, though some authors make a distinction between the two methods, based on whether additional liquid is added.

Chinese Soy Sauces – Dark, Thick, Light

Chinese soy sauces can be confusing! Even Chinese cooks may not agree on what the names of the sauces mean. As a pretty decent “guilo” (white person in Cantonese speaking areas) cook, “thick” soy sauce is the consistency of honey, and contains molasses. “Dark” soy sauce is aged, more complex, and just lightly thicker than “regular” or “light” soy sauce. It is common to use “thick” soy sauce in fried rice for color, or when a bit of sweetness and dark color are desired. “Light” soy sauce (not to be confused with less-sodium soy sauce) is great for marinades and seasoning.

Chiffonade

“Chiffonade” means little ribbons in French. It is a slicing technique that is accomplished by stacking leaves, rolling them into a tight bundle, then slicing perpendicular to the roll to create very thin ribbons.

Confit

The term confit refers to a method of cooking and preserving food, typically meat, by slowly cooking it in fat, oil, or concentrated sugar syrup. The process involves cooking the food at a low temperature, allowing it to become tender and flavorful while preserving it in the cooking medium.

While duck confit is probably the most familiar, other meats, vegetables, and fruits can benefit from the process. Meats are typically slow-cooked in their own fat. Vegetables will be simmered in oil, and fruits in concentrated sugar syrup like this kumquat confit.

Dal

Dal is a dried pulse (lentil, pea, or bean) which has been split. Most Americans are familiar with brown lentils. My husband emphatically states “they taste like dirt,” but that is not necessarily the case! Dal are nutritional powerhouses, high in protein, fiber, and iron, and a staple in Indian cooking. My favorite is chana dal – a split chick pea. I typically keep chana dal, toor dal, and masoor dal in my well-stocked pantry. A stew or soup made with any kind of pulses is known as dal.

Emulsify

In the culinary world, to “emulsify” is to combine 2 ingredients that normally will not combine (i.e. oil and vinegar). Some emulsions (like a vinaigrette) are temporary, and some are permanent (like mayonnaise). For more on emulsions click here.

Flavor Profile

The overall attributes of taste and aroma of a food. I do a lot of Asian flavors – ginger, garlic, salty (soy or fish sauce), sweet (mirin or brown sugar), heat (sriracha), and Mediterranean – garlic, olive oil, lemon, tomatoes, salty (olives, capers, anchovies).

More recently, I have focused on Latin American flavors, specifically Peruvian and Mexican. Learning how to cook with flavor profiles is so freeing. You can take a simple chicken and roast/grill it Middle Eastern-style, Korean-style, or Mexican-style just by changing up a few ingredients!

French or Frenched

Frenched is a culinary term for the process of cutting away fat and meat from the bone end of a rib chop or steak for esthetic presentation.

In this process, the bone is scraped completely clean of meat, fat, and membranes with a knife, leaving a white bone exposed that is often decorated with a “chop frill” (these lamb chops are a classic example) or used as a “handle” for eating an especially large chop or steak.

Furikake

A dry Japanese seasoning mix meant to be sprinkled on top of rice. A typical furikake mix contains dried and ground fish, chopped seaweed, sesame seeds, sugar, salt, and monosodium glutamate. The best ones contain katsuobushi (bonito) or okaka (bonito flakes). I keep commercially prepared furikake in my well-stocked pantry, but I prefer to make my own from this simple recipe to avoid the monosodium glutatmate and other processed ingredients.

Herbes de Provence

A classic blend of herbs used in the south of France may include rosemary, cracked fennel, thyme, savory, basil, tarragon, dill weed, Turkish oregano, lavender, chervil and marjoram. Thyme and savory are included in most prepared mixes. It can be expensive, and possibly difficult to find, but you can make your own Herbes de Provence. To order online, Penzey’s Spices is a great resource.

Macerate

Macerating is a technique that softens fresh fruit and draws out its natural juices, in which the fruit then soaks, sort of like marinating. 

Soaking the fruit in some sort of flavorful liquid, like juice, wine, liquor, liqueur, or balsamic vinegar is one easy way to macerate fruit. The flavorful liquid permeates the fruit, while the fruit’s natural juices are drawn out, which in turn enhances the flavors the liquid the fruit is soaking in. My pumpkin sangria with bourbon has apple and pear macerated in bourbon, and it’s amazing!

There is an even easier way to do macerate fruit. Sprinkle it with sugar. Sugar is hygroscopic, which means that it attracts water. It draws the moisture inside the fruit to the surface by osmosis, resulting in a pool of fruit juice that then softens the fruit!

Maillard Reaction

The maillard reaction is “a chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars that gives browned food its distinctive flavor.” This process intensifies the flavor of the food, and adds complexity to a dish. It is similar to caramelization, but is a distinct process.

Method Cooking

When I talk about “method cooking,” I’m referring to a process rather than a recipe. So, I’m talking about a stir-fry, a braise, grilled veggies in a boiled grain salad, roasted vegetables, seared fish, a slow-cooked stew in a crock pot, etc.

Mirepoix – mire·poix

A sautéed mixture of diced vegetables (as carrots, celery, and onions), herbs, and sometimes ham or bacon used especially as a basis for soups, stews, and sauces. Origin: French, probably from Charles de Lévis, duc de Mirepoix†1757 French general, or one of his successors.

Mis En Place

A French culinary term that means “putting in place” or “everything in its place.” This is a key organizational tool, and one that makes your time in the kitchen more efficient and enjoyable. You need a variety of prep bowls. Every ingredient gets prepped before anything gets cooked. This is particularly important when doing super quick dishes!

Parcooking

Parcooking refers to the cooking technique of partially cooking food to be finished later. It is similar to parboiling (partial boiling).

Roux

A roux is fat and flour cooked together as a thickening agent in a sauce. It may be as simple as butter and flour as a thickener for a classic béchamel, or as complex as a chocolate brown roux used in a Cajun gumbo.

Smoke Point

The temperature at which heated fat or oil starts to break down and burn, giving an unpleasant taste to the food. See Smoke Point of Oils for more information.

Sofrito

A sofrito is used in many different cuisines, and may include different (but similar) ingredients. Typically, a sofrito consists of finely chopped aromatics such as onion, garlic, bell pepper, tomatoes and chiles. The aromatics will be sautéed in olive oil, coconut oil, even lard depending on the cuisine.

Sous Vide

At its most basic, sous vide involves placing the food in an air and water tight bag (usually vacuum sealed), and cooking it in temperature controlled water. The water never comes to a boil, nor does the food come in contact with the heating surface. For more on sous vide, see What is Sous Vide Cooking. The beauty of this method is in the level of control. If I want to cook a duck breast to 135°, set the temperature to 135°, and it stops cooking at that temperature. The only hands on part of the process happens after it comes out of its jacuzzi bath.  😀 A quick sear, and you’re good to go!

Supreme

A technique typically used on citrus that separates the membrane and skin from the fruit. This allows for an elevated presentation (ie. it looks pretty  😀 ). This requires a very sharp paring knife. For more on supreming citrus, see How to Supreme Citrus Fruits.

Tagines

A tagine is “a North African stew of spiced meat and vegetables prepared by slow cooking in a shallow earthenware cooking dish with a tall, conical lid.” For more on tagines see The Moroccan Tagine.

Temper

A cooking technique in which the temperature of a cold/room-temperature ingredient is slowly raised by adding small amounts of hot/boiling liquid. The hot liquid must be mixed in gradually to prevent the cool ingredient, for example eggs, from cooking further. The goal is to avoid cooking the cool ingredient by just dumping it in with the hot. Think slow and deliberate.

Umami

The 5th flavor our tongues can taste – sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. Umami is difficult to explain, and some people think it’s just a pretentious term made up by chefs. I don’t agree.

Umami can most simply be described as a “pleasant, savory flavor.” The term dates back to 1908 in Japan. Foods containing glutamate are rich in umami flavor – fermented products like soy sauce and fish sauce, miso, etc.

Common foods that are rich in umami flavor include (but are not limited to) ripe tomatoes, aged cheeses, smoked or fermented fish, breast milk, kombu and kombu dashi, mushrooms (especially dried shiitake), nutritional yeasts, etc.