Cooking Terms Every 20-Something Should Know

What’s cooking?

You are an adult . . . or close enough. You’re long past relying on the microwave for sustenance. Maybe you’re away at college, living on your own for the first time, or helping your parents cook the holiday meals this year.

Any way you spin it, it's time to level up your kitchen game. Intimidated by food blog or cookbook jargon? Don’t worry, read the list below and you'll be a cuisinier in no time.

Brining

Brining (usually a turkey) is basically just the process of adding salt. It can be through a soak in a water mixture or simply by shaking salt directly on to the turkey. This is how you avoid that dry Thanksgiving turkey you may remember as a kid. However, don't tell your mom that!

Al dente

Al dente is considered the ideal texture for pasta. It’s not too soft, but not too firm. The Italian term literally translates as “to the tooth.” Think of it as pasta with just the right amount of “bite.” It’s not totally raw and crunchy in the middle, but it’s not a pile of mush either. Frequent taste tests during the boiling process will help you learn how to perfect this texture.

Au gratin

When something is au gratin, it means it’s cooked or baked with a topping of either browned bread crumbs and butter or grated cheese (both if you’re lucky!). It’s as easy as sprinkling some cheese and/or bread crumbs on top of a dish before popping it into the oven. Now instead of saying “cheesy potatoes,” you can say “potatoes au gratin” and sound fancy AF.

Béchamel

A béchamel is a white sauce. But, not just any white sauce. It’s one of the five “mother sauces”—the foundation sauce categories that practically all sauces are based upon (in French cooking, anyway). The others are velouté, espagnole, sauce tomat, and hollandaise.

To make most of these sauces, start off with a thick paste called a roux (a cooked mixture of equal parts butter, or other fat, and flour). To transform roux into béchamel, add milk until it reaches a more sauce-like consistency. And, this is actually a key step in making macaroni and cheese from scratch. Once you have your béchamel and the sauce has thickened to your liking, you can add cheese and cooked macaroni. How many other dictionaries throw in a free mac-and-cheese recipe . . . we’ve got your back.

Double boiler

This is the secret to kitchen witchcraft like melting chocolate on the stove without burning it. It’s a tool that consists of two pots that nest in each other. In the bottom pot, which sits on the stove, add water. As it comes to a boil, it will gently heat the top pot with the power of steam.

Don’t feel like buying an actual double boiler to do this? That’s cool. You can cheaply replicate this by partly-filling a regular pot with water. Then, put a heat-safe bowl on top of it (preferably one wider than your pot). Chocolate fondue at this year's Thanksgiving dinner? Yes, please!

Stock vs. broth

They’re right next to each other at the grocery store, and they seem so similar it can be tough to know the difference between the two. Is there even a difference?

While both are made by boiling meat, fish, chicken, or vegetables in water for several hours, the process for making stock always includes bones. That said, stock tends to have a thicker, more gelatinous mouthfeel, and it also tends to have more flavor.

Poach

They say there are 100 ways to cook an egg. Out of all of them, poaching is probably one of the most frustrating.

Poaching involves cooking something (whether it’s an egg, fruit, fish, etc.) in a hot liquid that’s kept just below its boiling point. The word comes from the Middle French word poche, which literally means “bag” or “pocket.” Poached eggs tend to come out with the still-runny yolk wrapped inside the solid white (Kind of like a pocket, right?).

Boil vs. simmer

Boiling means there will be bubbles, big bubbles. Scientifically, it’s the point where the water (or other liquid) changes from liquid to gas form. Simmering is when something is cooked in liquid at or just below its boiling point (so no big, rolling bubbles, but maybe some small ones), and it's generally used to reduce liquid in the mixture you're creating.

Sauté vs. deep fry

When you sauté something, you cook it in a pan with a small amount of oil or other fat, and stir the food by moving the pan to toss it in the air. The word means “jump” in French, so you can think of it as making the food jump as you cook it. This is that fancy signature move you see on all the cooking shows. Pan-frying is basically the same thing.

Deep-frying is totally different. It's when you use enough oil to cover the food you are cooking. We’d recommend using a tall-sided pot or pan for that. Safety first.

Fancy knife work

Finally, one of the most important things you’ll need to know how to do in the kitchen is handle a knife properly.

  • Mincing is cutting something (usually food) into very small pieces. Finely cut the veggie in one direction, then cut across those original slices to make teeny-tiny pieces. Voilà: minced veggies.
  • Dicing means cutting something into small cubes (like a six-sided die). Take a potato, trim off the sides so it is now a rectangular potato, and then cut that rectangle crosswise and lengthwise into little cubes.
  • Slicing is super basic, but it’s worth noting: To slice is to cut a thin, flat piece . . . like sliced ham or bread.
  • Julienne is a pretty, chef-y way of saying “cut into thin strips or small, matchstick-like pieces.” It can be an adjective (e.g. “julienne carrots”) or a verb (“Get out there and try julienning some carrots!”).
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