If you're an enthusiastic home cook — you read the latest food magazines, watch television shows centered on culinary endeavors, and peruse cookbooks for fun — you've likely picked up oodles of cooking terms along the way and are nearly conversant in all the techniques. But there may still be some terminology that you're not quite sure about. Is sautéing the same as braising? Can I broil something instead of browning it? And what exactly is a "pinch" of salt?
If you're stumped by a recipe, or just want to expand your culinary knowledge, we've gathered up 25 common cooking terms to help you become a better cook. From charring to blanching, we breakdown the basic cooking terminology that will give you more confidence in the kitchen.
Before you actually start cooking, you need to prepare your ingredients. For foods that require being cut up, your recipe should instruct you on what size you're aiming for, whether it's a small dice or large chop.
A slice is when a large ingredient — such as potatoes or onions — is cut into large, flat pieces of a similar size. Depending on your recipe's directions, the slices can be thin or thick. For example, you'd want thinner slices for au gratin potatoes, but thicker slices for homemade cottage fries.
The most common prepping direction by far is to chop. This fairly generic term doesn't always refer to size, so unless otherwise directed you can assume that "chop" means to cut similar sized square pieces that are roughly half an inch in diameter. When chopping a more tender food, such as greens or herbs, directions will often add a modifier such as "finely chop" which means to make the pieces super small, or "roughly chop" which indicates to leave the food in larger pieces.
Dice means to prep ingredients into small, precise pieces that are square-shaped. A diced ingredient, such as onions, will often break down easier when cooked, helping distribute its more evenly in the final dish instead of having a mouthful of one ingredient. If your recipe doesn't specify a size, a good rule of thumb to follow is that small dice is 1/8 inch, medium dice is 1/4 inch, and large dice is 1/2 inch.
Mince is the tiniest cut, basically referring to the smallest pieces you can create. It's commonly used on garlic, herbs, and ginger. Since minced food is so small, you don't really have to worry about each piece being precisely uniform, simply run your knife over the ingredient in a back and forth motion until very fine.
Some recipes may be precise, but others leave adjusting the seasonings up to the cook. While basic measurements like a teaspoon and half cup aren't vague, there are more hazy terms that can lead to confusion.
A dash is roughly 1/8 teaspoon.
A pinch, based on the amount of spice you can literally "pinch" between your fingers, is around 1/16 teaspoon.
Barely worth mentioning, a smidgen is approximately 1/32 teaspoon. It's often used when the recipe creator is trying to add the tiniest note of flavor to a dish.
Seasoning to taste leaves the home cook in control of the final dish. This term is commonly referring to salt and pepper since everyone's palates differ on how salty a dish tastes or whether it needs a little zing from black pepper. Be light-handed with these additions, you can always add more later.
Most cooking in the oven is done with dry heat. This is where fat or air is used to transfer heat, instead of moisture (see Moist Cooking below).
Bake and roast refer to the same process.
When preheating your oven, the air inside heats up to an even temperature of your setting. This hot air cooks your food at an even rate by surrounding the roasting pan or baking dish on all sides. When cooking savory foods, such as cuts of meat or vegetables, it's often called roasting. But if you're making desserts, pastries, or bread it's commonly referred to as baking.
Broil is similar to bake but it cooks the food only on one side (the top) at very high heat. This oven setting is typically used to create a golden brown top crust on casseroles or add caramelization to already roasted veggies. Due to the high heat, it's very easy to burn dishes when broiling, so stand near the oven and keep a watchful eye on your dish.
These dry-heat cooking methods take place on the stovetop instead of the oven.
To sauté, you quickly cook food over high heat. This process often accompanied includes oil or fat to evenly transfer the heat from the pan into the food. Depending on your recipe's directions, you'll want to occasionally stir or shake the pan or pot you're cooking in to avoid burning the food. Once food becomes fully cooked through and has a light browning on the exterior, you're done sautéing.
When you sear an ingredient, it's cooked for a brief period of time over high heat.
This technique is also called browning. The food is cooked in a pan or pot — often one piece at a time to avoid overcrowding the pan — until fully browned on each side, with no stirring unlike sautéing above. This technique is typically used on cuts of meat, sealing in the flavor and natural juices while giving each piece a crispy exterior.
Char is the most extreme type of stovetop heat. A charred ingredient walks the line between being burnt and delightfully blackened. It's often used on peppers, from bell peppers to jalapeños, to create a soft and smoky interior with a blackened exterior that can be peeled away. Charring can be achieved by cooking in a very hot pan or grill grate on the stovetop. You can also use the oven set to broil to char ingredients. Keep an eye on your ingredients; once their exteriors darken and the food begins to bubble, it's done cooking. If the end result smells acrid and overly smoky or has an overwhelming bitterness, you've crossed the threshold from charred to burnt.
Despite seeming to be an oxymoron, frying is actually in the dry heat cooking category. Oil is the heat conductor, not water, so it's considered "dry."
Deep fry is when your ingredient is fully submerged in hot oil. This creates an irresistibly crispy exterior on all sides. Your recipe should tell you what temperature to aim for when heating the oil, which can be monitored by using a candy or frying thermometer.
Pan fry is a little like combining deep frying and sautéing. A stovetop pan is filled with oil, often an amount specified in a recipe (such as "once inch of oil"), and heated to a frying temperature. A safe method is to make sure your pan has enough oil to come halfway up the side of what you're frying. Pan-frying is great for when you want to use less oil or you're frying more fragile dishes like falafel or crab cakes.
A braise stands in its own category since it's a pairing of both dry and moist cooking techniques. Braising is used pretty much exclusively to prepare tougher cuts of meat. In a large pot, the meat is browned on all sides. Then it's covered with liquid to cook low and slow until the cut is fall-off-the-bone tender. By searing the meat beforehand, you'll have all that caramelized taste but with a very succulent texture.
Stew is practically another name for braising, the main difference is size. For a larger cut of meat, it's referred to as braising. When the meat is cut into smaller pieces before being covered in liquid, it's called stewing.
Since all of these techniques include water, they've earned the label of "moist cooking."
Boiling, a common introduction to moist cooking, is when water is heated to 212 degrees Fahrenheit. This makes the water produce bubbles and movement, which is why some recipes will instruct you to bring your water to a "rolling boil." Boiling is often used for pasta, potatoes, and eggs.
Simmering describes when water, or other cooking liquids such as broth, are just below the boiling point. There won't be nearly as much movement as when boiling, but there should still be a small amount of bubbling. Simmering is typically utilized in cooking vegetables, soups, and sauces.
Poaching is all about gently cooking ingredients in water. The surface tension should only gently ripple with no bubbles. This technique is often used for delicate foods that would be torn apart by boiling, such as eggs or fish.
Steaming involves boiling water, but the food is never actually submerged. Instead, the ingredients are placed in a steamer basket that is held above the boiling water. This allows the steam to thoroughly cook the food through, without leaching out any of the taste or nutrients into the water. Steaming is often used for cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower or fish.
Blanching is also dependent on boiling water. It's a common method for helping veggies keep their bright color and creating a crisp-tender texture. The food is dipped into boiling water for a small amount of time, usually ranging from one to five minutes, before getting plunged into an ice bath to stop the cooking process.
If you're unfamiliar with an ice bath, it's a large bowl filled with water and ice cubes. When hot food is placed inside it, the cooking process immediately stops, meaning you have more control over the final texture of dishes, like vegetables.