When I was living in Vermont after college, I read a very telling article in the daily newspaper of Montpelier, the Capitol City. It concerned the direction taken by the General Mills Corporation pertinent to the packaging and formatting of some of their products made for at-home fabrication—primarily baked goods in mix form. They were engaged in the process of rewording most of the text on their boxes to accommodate the fact that their audience was largely intimidated by the word “recipe” and GM had solved this problem by switching the nomenclature to “food ideas.” The switch from a chronicle of techniques to a vague prosaic term seemed to have done the trick for them, at least in terms of re-engaging their audience and alleviating some anxiety over home-kitchen competence. The article also described how some terms that had long been safely assumed to be universally understood shorthand for common cooking processes—such as “creaming”—were less and less a part of our shared lexicon, necessitating lengthy explanations in place of a single word. Indeed, even though the first example provided is a mild case, you have to wonder at the irony that two words were less intimidating than one.
There are many parallels in the world of menu copy, terms like “Boscaiola” and “Lyonnaise”—one word denoting a cooking style or even a standard set of ingredients associated with a particular city or region that codifies a common understanding in that country. It’s much more cumbersome to write “Little twists of tubular pasta, basically an elongated cavatelli, with a sauce made from wild mushrooms, parma ham, thyme, garlic and cream” than to write “Strozzapreti alla Boscaiola”—no? Nevertheless, if you don’t have a shared cultural context, you can’t take advantage of these codifications, and that’s where our never-enough-time-to-cook culture has been heading for a while. The purpose of this article, then, is to refresh and restate some common cooking terms that can save a lot of time when reading and understanding a recipe, starting with:
The first step in many, many baking recipes and a crucial one. Butter and sugar are whipped together until light and fluffy, either with a mixer or by hand (I recommend a mixer; no reason to be a hero early in the recipe). What it does: the sugar crystals cut the fat and trap air in the mix, creating a place for leavening gases to go during the baking process. Cutting this step short generally leads to less uniform rising and texture. Key factors: fat needs to be malleable and fluid, but not liquid—usually referred to as “softened” in the recipe. Leave butter out at room temp (if room temp is 70 or below) for several hours. Cream butter and sugar together at high speed for at least five minutes or up to 10. Be alert if your butter has gotten very soft—the agitation caused by the mixer can heat it up to the point where it begins to melt, which is not desirable.
In culinary lexicon, this is not an admission that your hand is too weak to stand up to the stakes in the current round of betting. Rather, you need to use a soft touch here. Folding in whipped egg whites or folding heavier ingredients into lighter ones is the common application and the point is not to stir, as this will knock the air out of the lighter portion of the two elements, especially egg whites. What to do: use a rubber spatula. Turn the spatula so that the blade faces downward like a knife and cut into the mixture. When you reach the bottom of the bowl, turn the blade so the flat side faces up and make a full circlewith your wrist, ending up by layering what was on the bottom of the bowl on the top of the mix. Repeat. The idea here is to create layers upon layers, to stratify rather than blend. Blending will result in loss of air and a heavier finished product.
You won’t be getting out your compass and turning every cookie 90 degrees, no. You merely need to turn the sheet tray around one half turn. This is because most ovens are cooler toward the front due to the door being opened or because the fan or heating element is located at the rear. Rotating halfway through helps avoid uneven browning or cookies that are crisp on one side and gooey on the other.
A term that is, or should be, used in conjunction with the descriptors “fine,” “medium” or “rough.” Anything finer than a fine dice is a mince, anything larger than a rough dice is merely hacking something into large pieces. Dicing and mincing are old and precise terms, unlike “chopping” or “cutting,” even though these my be useful if explained-as in how to chop an onion or shallot based on their unique structure. The end result will be a dice, however. Generally, the measurements are:
- Small dice: 1/4” square
- Medium dice: 1/2” square
- Large or rough dice: 3/4” to 1” square
A dice also means, as implied above, a uniform and square shape. Uniformity in cutting results in uniform cooking times and consistent levels of flavor and doneness.
Probably the term most likely to be abused by pretentious foodies to excuse poor cooking technique, this literally means “to the tooth”—NOT undercooked. There is no such thing as an al dente bean or potato; they are undercooked if they are not tender. The term is mainly meant to apply to pasta or risotto and still should not mean that the food resists the bite—only that it is not falling apart and can be chewed to some extent. Another term that has become a shelter for careless restaurant cooks is...
Caramelization occurs when the natural sugars in a food, whether protein, starch or vegetable, are heated to the point where they start to lose moisture and consequently darken in color and deepen in flavor. Usually this process needs to take place over time to be effective, even though different foods require different temperatures to caramelize. If something is burnt, it is not caramelized except in the most literal and licentious sense.
This is a style of service, not an ingredient or dish on its own. It means “with juice” and generally refers to a piece of roasted meat sauced only with the pan juices it generated during the cooking process, unthickened. You cannot be served a side of au jus, but you can be served a side of jus.
Difficult to translate literally—“sec” means “dry” but this phrase does not really mean “with dry.” It means to cook something down in a pan until there is almost no visible liquid. For example, you might add wine or vinegar to some caramelized onions and then cook au sec before adding them to the top of a loaf of foccaccia.
There are many, many more. For those who really want to dig in, I highly recommend Anne Willan’s La Varenne Pratique, the best single sourcebook for technique and terminology I’ve encountered, and Jacques Pepin’s La Technique and La Methode, both recently re-released in one soft cover volume—a true master breaking down a lifetime of knowledge for you in an extended photo essay. I hope thisintroductory guide proves useful and if anyone has requests as far as particular terms, feel free to contact me at