Cooking Class Lesson 1 – Basic Terminology

I love to cook and bake. When I was growing up every mom taught her daughters to cook. Some moms even taught their sons. When I had kids I made sure they knew how to cook and bake. My sons began learning to cook when they were in kindergarten. Of course they weren’t doing anything fancy or using knives yet but that foundation gave them both a love of cooking I rarely see. I told them back then that they couldn’t count on getting married. Now I realize a lot of girls their age don’t know how to cook.

Realizing that many people have never been taught to cook and or bake I’ve decided to do a series of “Cooking Classes” to help aspiring cooks the terminology and techniques needed to make delicious meals and baked goods.


One of the first things that new cooks are told to do is to learn how to hold a knife and to cut an onion. Proper technique in holding knives is extremely important in cooking. It allows you to control the knife to get uniform cuts of the type you desire. And it will also help prevent cuts. Learning how to cut an onion is a good start because you can practice several types of cuts using that vegetable. I’m not going to start there, though. There are many excellent tutorials on the proper way to hold a chef’s knife and how to cut an onion already available.

Although I learned the correct way to hold a knife and could cut an onion when I started cooking I often had trouble with the terminology of cooking. I recently counted the number of entries in a culinary dictionary and discovered there were a staggering 12,526 definitions. Even discounting the terms that were specific to the commercial food industry there were thousands of words and terms. No wonder beginning cooks get confused!

One recipe I puzzled over when I was in my twenties instructed me to chiffonade basil, mince garlic, rough chop onion, and this was all to create a roulade. Most of the things I was to do as part of my mise en place. My what now? I think we had hot dogs that night.

Instead of bombarding you with 10,000+ terms I thought it best if I begin slowly, with terms you may come across in actual recipes. But as a bonus: Mise en place – French meaning to put in place. This is just the prep work you do before actually starting to cook. If you have to dice a vegetable or get spices measured out, you do it during your mise en place. Throw that term around when you’re cooking for friends who think KFC is fine dining. They’ll be putty in your hands.

Here is a starter list of some very commonly used terms in recipes you may have already come across:


AL DENTE – Italian; meaning “to the tooth.” This simply means to cook pasta to the point where it still offers a slight resistance to the bite. It is the correct way to cook all pasta. You don’t want mushy overdone pasta.


BAKE: This means to cook surrounded by dry heat, usually in an oven. It is called roasting when referring to meat or poultry.


BARBECUE: This is the method of cooking foods on a rack or a spit over coals or wood. Heat can be direct or indirect. Barbeque usually refers to grilling done outdoors using dry rubs or sauces and usually a combination of the two.


BASTE: This refers to moistening foods, usually with pan drippings or a sauce, to both prevent the food from drying and/or to add flavor.


BATTER: This is an uncooked mixture usually consisting of flour, a liquid, and other ingredients. It is thin enough to pour.


BEAT: This means to stir rapidly to make a mixture smooth and light, using a whisk, spoon, or mixer.


BLANCH: To cook briefly in boiling water to seal in flavor and color and allowed to cool. Sometimes blanching is followed immediately by immersion in ice water. Vegetables and fruits may be blanched for use in a recipe or to prepare foods for freezing.


BLEND: This means to incorporate two or more ingredients using a spoon, whisk, or mixer until those ingredients ae well-combined.


BOIL: This means to heat liquid until it has reached 212F. Bubbles will break continuously on the surface of a boiling liquid.


BONE: This, along with the sometimes used “debone” means to remove bones from meat, poultry, or fish.


BRAISE: This is a two-step method meaning to cook first by browning, then gently simmering in a small amount of liquid over low heat in a covered pan until tender.


BREAD: This means to coat with crumbs or cornmeal before cooking.


BROIL: This means to cook on a rack or a spit over or under direct heat. This term usually means in an oven.


BROWN: This means to cook food over high heat, usually on the stove, to give the food a brown color.


CARAMELIZE: This means to heat sugar until it liquefies and becomes a syrup ranging in color from golden to dark brown.


CHIFFONADE: To slice an herb or leafy vegetable into thin ribbons by stacking then rolling the leaves and slicing.


CHOP: This means to cut food into uniform pieces. There are many “chops” including large, medium, small, and Brunoise dice. Food may be chopped roughly or finely or in-between. More of this will be covered in the cooking class on knife skills.


CLARIFY: This means to first separate then remove solids from a liquid making it clear. You may have had clarified butter with lobster.


CORE: This means removing the seeds and/or tough woody centers from fruits and vegetables.


CREAM: This term refers both to the butterfat portion of milk and to the method of beating ingredients, usually sugar and a fat like butter, until smooth and fluffy.


CUBE: This means to cut foods into small cubes, usually about 1/2”


CURE: This is preserving meats and fish by smoking, salting, and or drying.


CUT IN: This is the method by which a solid fat is distributed in flour using a cutting motion. You can cut in using two knives in a scissor motion, or by using a pastry blender. This term is usually reserved for pastry making


DEEP-FRY: This means to cook food by immersing it completely in hot fat.


DEGLAZE: To loosen brown bits from a pan by adding a liquid, then heating while stirring and scraping the pan. The resulting liquid is normally used to add flavor to the dish as a sauce or cooking liquid.


DEGREASE: To remove fat from the surface of stews, soups, or stock. The food is usually cooled in the refrigerator so that fat hardens and is easily removed.


DICE: To cut food in small cubes (about 1/8” – ¼”) of uniform size and shape.


DISSOLVE: To cause a dry substance to pass into solution in a liquid.


DOT: To scatter an ingredient, such as butter, over food. This can be done as part of the recipe or as part of the plating.


DREDGE: To sprinkle or coat uncooked food with flour, cornmeal, breadcrumbs or other fine substance.


DRIPPINGS: Juices and fats rendered by meat or poultry during cooking.


DRIZZLE: To pour a fine stream of a liquid over food in a back and forth movement.


DUST: To sprinkle food, usually a baked good, with a powdered ingredient like confectioner’s sugar, cocoa.


FILLET: A flat piece of boneless meat, poultry, or fish. As a verb, it is the action of cutting the bones from a piece of meat, poultry, or fish.


FINES HERBES: A mixture of herbs traditionally parsley, chervil, chives, and tarragon, used to flavor fish, chicken, and eggs.


FLAKE: To break lightly into small pieces.


FLAMBE: To drizzle liquor over food while it’s cooking, allowing the alcohol to warm, igniting it just before serving. Flambé is usually performed table-side.


FLUTE: To press a scalloped pattern into the raised edge of a pie crust or to cut groove or slit markings in vegetables (like cucumbers) and fruits for decoration.


FOLD: To combine light, delicate ingredients, such as whipped cream or beaten egg whites, into a heavier mixture without releasing air bubbles. This is done by using a gentle over and under motion. The process is repeated, while slowing rotating the bowl, until the ingredients are thoroughly combined


FRICASSEE: To cook by braising; usually applied to rabbit or fowl.


FRY: To cook in hot fat. To cook in a small, shallow amount of fat is called sautéing; to cook in a one-to-two inch layer of hot fat is called shallow-fat frying; to cook in a deep layer of hot fat is called deep frying.


GARNISH: To decorate a dish both to enhance its appearance and add color, complimentary tastes, aromas, and texture.. Parsley, lemon slices, raw vegetables, chopped chives, and other herbs are all forms of garnishes. Thinly cut or finely diced vegetables, cheese, breadcrumbs, sauces, citrus zests, finisheing salts, and spices are all considered garnishes.


GLAZE: To cook foods with a glossy mixture like jellies or sauces or with thin sugary syrup cooked to the crack stage. Glaze also refers to covering with a thin, glossy icing.


GRATE: To rub foods against a serrated surface, usually a grater, to produce foods of variously sized shredded or fine bits.


GRATIN: French for “crust” this is an oven-baked dish topped with breadcrumbs, cheese or a creamy sauce baked until a golden brown crust is created.


GREASE: This refers to either a fatty substance like lard or butter or to the action of rubbing the interior of a cooking dish or baking pan with shortening, oil, or butter.


GRILL: To cook food on a rack under or over direct heat, as on a barbecue or in a broiler.


GRIND: To reduce food, by hand, food processor or grinder, into tiny particles.


JULIENNE: To cut foods, usually vegetables, fruits or cheeses, into long, thin matchstick-like strips approximately 1/8-inch wide and 2-inches long. Meats and fish may also be julienned.


I’ll continue with cooking terms in an upcoming lesson. I feel I’ve given you enough to remember for now. It’s up to you to get in the kitchen and try some of these methods.
If you have questions or comments I’m always thrilled to hear from you!

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