For many of us, cooking is such a rewarding activity – not just for the edible end result, but the whole process of making something from scratch. For the uncertain cook, though, recipes can be dotted with unfamiliar words or instructions, and this can make the process quite daunting. Gaining a good understanding of commonly used terms and techniques will take the guesswork out of cooking.
Use the following pages as a reference and soon you’ll be able to disgorge, truss, macerate and make an emulsion without batting an eyelid. We’ve also included basic terms, such as fold, beat and whisk; after this quick refresher course, we promise your results will be even better.
BAIN-MARIE A hot-water “bath” into which dishes of food are placed for cooking either
on top of the stove or in the oven. The hot water keeps the dishes at a constant, gentle temperature so that the food is not overheated, which is important for eggs, delicate custards and some fish dishes. The technique is also used for keeping cooked food hot without drying out. Bain-marie is French for “Mary’s bath”. Why Mary? We don’t know.
BAKE BLIND To bake an empty tart, flan or pie shell/case, either partially (to colour and crisp the pastry before the filling is added) or completely if the filling is not to be cooked with it. It is necessary to guard against the empty shell puffing up or buckling as it cooks.
• To blind-bake small tarltet shells, prick all over but not quite all the way through with a fork, bake about half the cooking time, then check. If any have puffed up, press down gently with a spoon then finish baking.
• To blind-bake a larger shell, line it with foil or baking paper, fitting lightly into the corners, and fill with dried beans, peas or uncooked rice.
• For partial baking, cook until the sides are just coloured, then lift out the paper and beans and return the shell to the oven to dry and colour the base. Remove from the oven, add the filling and finish cooking as directed. If the sides start overbrowning, protect them with strips of foil.
• For baking completely, continue cooking after removing paper and beans until golden.
Note: To prevent a baked pastry shell from becoming soggy from the filling, brush the inside with beaten egg white or warm jam and place in the oven for a few minutes to set.
BASTE To spoon or brush liquid – usually pan juices, oil or melted butter – over meat, fish or vegetables as they roast or grill, to encourage browning and to stop them drying out.
BIND To hold together. Usually used to describe the way egg holds minced meat together in meat balls, hamburgers or a meatloaf as they cook.
BLANCH, REFRESH Blanch is French for “to whiten”, but the term is used in cooking
to mean the following:
• Cooking food briefly as a separate operation before proceeding with further cooking as the recipe directs.
Delicate meats, such as brains, sweetbreads, rabbit or veal, may be blanched by simmering briefly to firm and whiten them. They are then plunged into cold water to stop the cooking immediately – this is called refreshing. Blanching also loosens the skin of brains and sweetbreads so that it can be removed.
Fruits or vegetables may be blanched by plunging briefly into boiling water to brighten and set their colour before they are cooked further or frozen. They are then refreshed.
Blanching can also mean par-cooking vegetables to be braised or stir-fried.
Potato chips (french fries) are usually blanched by cooking first in 170°C oil until soft but not coloured. They are cooled, then placed in 190°C oil until brown and crisp.
• Removing the skins of nuts, tomatoes, fruits such as peaches, and organ meats such as tongue, liver or kidneys. Most are blanched by covering briefly with boiling water to loosen the skins, then peeling. Hazelnuts and pistachios, however, are “blanched” by roasting in a moderate oven for about 10 minutes, then rubbing off the skins in a cloth.
BRAISE To cook food slowly in a small amount of liquid, in a covered container on the stovetop or in the oven. Meat and poultry are usually browned first; vegetables may be blanched as a first step.
BRUISE To crush lightly, usually by rolling or pressing with an implement such as a rolling pin, heavy knife or pestle. Used to release the flavours of spices, citrus skin, lemon grass, aromatic leaves etc.
BUTTERFLY To cut a piece of meat so that it opens out flat. Used for large pieces such as
a boned leg of lamb and also for small pieces such as a chicken breast.
CARAMELISE To brown food through the action of heat on sugar – either the invisible sugars contained in most foods, or sucrose (table sugar) itself. When sugar is heated, it first melts and then changes colour in stages from pale yellow to darker shades of brown. At the same time, its flavour and fragrance become richer and more intense. The process gives us the delicious brownness of familiar treats from roast meat to fried potatoes, piecrust to bread and cakes, marshmallows to meringue and hundreds more. When a recipe says to cook until caramelised, it means until it becomes a rich brown and fragrant.
CHAR-GRILL To brown food by a combination of hot air currents (convection) and contact with hot metal. When food is browned under an overhead grill or in an oven, its surface is browned by hot air. When it is browned on a ridged grill pan on top of the stove, or on barbecue bars, the parts of the food that touch metal become charred and smoky-flavoured, while the other parts are browned by convection.
CLARIFIED BUTTER/GHEE Butter which has had the water and non-fat solids removed.
It can be heated to higher temperatures than ordinary butter without burning. You can buy it as ghee (its name in Indian and other Asian cooking), or you can make it yourself. Cut salted or unsalted butter into pieces, place in a saucepan, melt and heat slowly until hot but not browning. Remove from the heat and stand for a few minutes; a milky residue will sink to the bottom, leaving clear yellow liquid – the clarified butter – above. Pour off the butter slowly and allow to cool until solid. Store, covered, in the fridge. The milky solids left behind can be used to enrich soups or sauces.
CONFIT Food cooked very slowly in deep fat, then stored in the cooled and solidified fat which seals and preserves it until wanted. Making confit started as a way of preserving duck and goose parts for the winter. It is still mostly used for duck and goose, but other meats, fish and even vegetables can also be cooked by the confit method.
CRUMB To cover in a coating of breadcrumbs (or other crumbs such as crushed cereal) before frying or baking, to give a crisp, flavoursome finish. Used mainly for small pieces of food such as lamb cutlets or fish fillets. The pieces are first tossed in flour and the surplus shaken off, then dipped in beaten egg, drained, then tossed in crumbs. The coating is pressed on with the hands. The coating will adhere better during cooking if the food is first placed on lined oven trays and refrigerated for 20 minutes or more to allow the egg to set.
Moist, sticky foods such as croquettes or meatballs are sometimes crumbed; they do not need the flour and egg layers to make the crumbs adhere, but are simply tossed in crumbs and patted to firm on the coating.
DEGLAZE To simmer liquid (stock, wine, vegetable cooking water) in the pan after roasting or frying, having first poured off the fat slowly so as to leave the browned bits behind. Stir and scrape in the browned bits and coagulated juices from the pan while simmering until the liquid is somewhat reduced, then strain into a bowl. The liquid can be used as part of a sauce or reduced further and spooned over the food that was cooking in the pan.
DEGREASE To remove the fat from a liquid such as stock, clear soup or stew juices. Stand the liquid until the fat rises to the top, then spoon off as much as possible – if you can, tilt the container so that the fat collects at one side. The last traces of fat can be blotted off by placing absorbent paper directly on the surface, allowing to become soaked and then removing. An easier way, if there is time, is to chill the liquid so that the fat solidifies on top, then remove the fat layer.
DEVEIN To remove the intestinal vein from cooked prawns and other crustaceans before eating, or from uncooked prawns before cooking.
DISGORGE To draw out any bitter juices from vegetables such as eggplant, zucchini and cucumber. Slice the vegetables, sprinkle with coarse cooking salt and leave for 20 minutes to 1 hour in a colander or on a plate set at a tilt so that juices will drain away as the salt draws them out. Rinse and dry the vegetables before proceeding with the recipe.
DUST To decorate a cake or dessert with a fine, even coating of icing sugar or cocoa powder, etc by holding a fine sieve over food and sifting the sugar or powder through.
EMULSION In cooking, an emulsion sauce is one thickened by the emulsifying action of egg yolk, which acts to hold together ingredients that would usually separate – vinegar or lemon juice with butter or oil – to create a thick, creamy, stable texture. Mayonnaise is a cold emulsion sauce, béarnaise and hollandaise are warm ones.
FLAME/FLAMBE To flame food, that is, to set it alight briefly but spectacularly by pouring flaming high-alcohol liquor over it so that it is enrobed in blue flames. The food is described as flambé and the whole dish is called a flambé. Flaming is usually done as a final flourish and a final, heady flavouring just as the food – Crepes Suzette, for example – is served.
The safest way to flame food is to warm the alcohol – usually rum, brandy or whisky – in a small saucepan or metal ladle, take it to the food, set the liquor alight (with a long match if you’re nervous) and pour immediately over the dish. You should, of course, be sure that you have turned off the exhaust fan first and once lighted, never leave the flaming food. You can do this at the table or just before taking the dish into the dining room.
FOLD, STIR, BEAT, CREAM, WHIP, WHISK These are all ways of combining ingredients,
but each is performed differently and is different in its effect.
• Fold To combine ingredients lightly and delicately, usually because one ingredient contains air bubbles that are needed for rising and must not be lost.
For folding, use a large metal spoon or a rubber or plastic spatula. Leading with the edge, cut down through the mixture, pick up some at the bottom, lift it to the surface, let it fall and cut down again. Turn the bowl as you go; stop as soon as the ingredients are loosely together but not thoroughly mixed. It is better to underfold than overfold.
• Stir To mix with a spoon in a circular or figure-of-eight motion, reaching right to the bottom, sides and corners of the bowl or saucepan. This may be done to combine ingredients completely or, if they are already combined, to keep the mixture moving so that it heats evenly as it cooks.
• Beat To mix foods vigorously and thoroughly, using a hitting motion with a spoon, fork, wire whisk, or a hand-operated or electric rotary beater at low to medium speed, or a flat electric beater at medium to high speed. The aim is to incorporate ingredients to a smooth consistency. Beating may also incorporate some air.
• Cream To beat ingredients, usually butter, or butter and sugar, to the consistency of heavy cream. The mixture becomes paler as it is beaten, as some air is incorporated.
• Whip, whisk To incorporate as much air as possible so the mixture puffs up into a light, airy mass. Use a wire whisk, fork, or hand-operated or electric rotary beater. If using a whisk or fork, keep the whole mixture moving up and over, and turn the bowl as you go. If using a rotary beater, move it round the bowl and turn the bowl so that you reach all of the mixture. Read the recipe carefully for directions about how long to whisk and how to tell when you should stop, as some ingredients collapse if overbeaten.
FRY: SAUTE/SAUTER, DRY-FRY, PAN-FRY, SHALLOW-FRY, DEEP-FRY, STIR-FRY To cook food in hot butter or oil. The word frying implies temperatures high enough to brown the food.
• Sauté To cook food at a high temperature with just enough butter to cover the base of
the pan. Sauter is French for “to jump”, and indicates the need to toss or turn the food so it colours evenly.
• Dry-fry To cook food in a dry frying pan, using only the fat or oil contained in the food to brown it. Used for high-fat foods such as nuts, seeds, sausages or bacon.
• Pan-fry To cook food in a small amount of butter or oil, some or all of which is usually used to make a sauce for the dish after the food is removed.
• Shallow-fry To cook small pieces of food such as fritters or cutlets in enough butter or oil to come halfway up the pieces, so that when they are turned to cook the other side they are evenly browned all over.
• Deep-fry To cook food in oil deep enough to float the pieces.
• Stir-fry To cook small pieces of food, cut to an even size, in a small amount of butter or oil over high heat while constantly tossing them.
INFUSE To steep ingredients in a liquid to flavour and/or colour it. For example, tea leaves are infused in hot water for tea.
KNEAD To work dough by folding over, pushing away, turning slightly and repeating the process. Bread dough is kneaded for 10 minutes or more to develop the gluten so that the dough is strong and elastic. Scone or pastry dough is kneaded gently and lightly only once or twice to make it smooth. Do not overknead or the scones or pastry will be tough.
MARINATE, MACERATE To marinate means to stand savoury food with flavoursome liquids and aromatics in order to flavour and sometimes to soften or lubricate it. To macerate means to stand sweet food, usually fruit, with flavoursome and aromatic ingredients in order to flavour it and sometimes to draw out the juices.
PAR-COOK, PAR-BOIL To half-cook or partially cook food, usually by boiling as a separate operation before proceeding with further cooking as the recipe directs – for example, to par-boil potatoes before roasting them or par-boil sausages before grilling them.
POACH, SIMMER, BOIL Three stages of heating a liquid in which food is to be cooked.
It is important to use the right one – for instance, fish that is boiled when it should be poached will be tough and dry, while pasta not cooked at a brisk boil will stick together.
• Poach A liquid is at poaching temperature when the surface shivers but no bubbles appear. In clear liquid, you can see bubbles on the bottom of the pan but they don’t rise.
• Simmer When the surface shudders and bubbles rise to the surface one at a time.
• Boil When bubbles rise briskly and continuously to the surface. It is at a full or rolling boil when the surface is rolling and seething with bubbles.
REDUCE, REDUCTION To reduce is to boil liquid in order to reduce the volume and so concentrate the flavour or produce a thicker consistency. Liquid which has been reduced is called a reduction.
RENDER To render is to melt the fat from meat by heating it slowly.
REST To rest roasted or grilled meat means to stand it, covered, in a warm place after cooking so that its juices settle, making it more succulent. This is an important part of the cooking process. A roast should be rested for 15 to 20 minutes, a steak for 5 minutes.
RICE COOKING METHODS The aim is to cook the rice grains until tender but separate rather than stuck together. There are two main methods of achieving this - boiling and the absorption method. Rice cookers cook rice by the absorption method.
RUB IN, CUT IN To rub in is to coat flour grains with fat, usually butter, by mixing the chopped fat through the flour, then picking up a little mixture at a time in your fingers and rubbing it between the fingertips and thumbs, continuing until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. The technique is used to make scone dough, for example. The fat should be chilled so that it will not melt but remain in large particles; these particles melt during baking, leaving tiny pockets in the dough to help make the scones light.
To cut in is to incorporate flour and chilled fat in somewhat the same way as rubbing in but more coarsely, using a wire pastry cutter or two knives to cut the fat and flour together into smaller and smaller particles. This method works for pastry dough because it has a high proportion of fat compared with scone dough, which has so little fat that it can only be distributed throughout the flour by the rubbing-in method.
Both techniques can also be done in a food processor: put the flour in the processor, switch on and drop in chopped fat, a few pieces at a time, until it is all incorporated.
SCALD To scald has three distinct meanings.
• To heat a liquid almost to boiling point, a stage usually recognisable by bubbles beginning to appear round the edge.
• To make cloths or utensils hygienically clean by covering them with water and heating to scalding point.
• To make larger equipment hygienically clean by cleaning first with a brush or cloth then pouring very hot water over it.
SEASON To season means either of the following.
• To improve the flavour of food before, during or after cooking by adding salt, pepper and other flavourings; some foods should not be seasoned until after cooking.
• To prepare the surface of a new utensil such as a wok or cast-iron pan before using it. Seasoning helps to prevent food sticking.
Before seasoning, the utensil should by washed in hot water with mild soap, rinsed, dried with a cloth then placed over low heat to dry thoroughly.
A cast-iron pan is seasoned, while hot, by having the inside brushed or rubbed all over with cooking oil such as peanut oil (not a polyunsaturated oil) to coat very thinly, then being placed in a moderate oven for 1 hour. This process should be repeated several times before using.
A wok is seasoned, while hot, by having the inside brushed or rubbed all over with cooking oil such as peanut oil (not a polyunsaturated oil) to coat very thinly, then being heated over high heat while being tilted and turned so that the oil does not run down and the entire surface is intensely heated for several minutes. After removing the wok from the heat and cooling, any excess oil that has run into the centre is mopped up with absorbent paper. The heating process is then repeated. The whole seasoning process should be repeated several times before using.
To keep seasoned utensils in good order, they should be washed with hot water only, not with soap or detergent. If any food is stuck on, it should be rubbed off with a sponge or brush. The utensil should be placed over heat to dry thoroughly. If the surface begins to stick, seasoning should be repeated.
SWEAT To cook food slowly in a little butter or oil in a covered pan; the food should not colour. This is often the first step in making a soup or casserole.
TRUSS To tie a chicken or other bird into a neat, compact shape for cooking. There are various methods of trussing: a classic one is to lay the chicken on its back, cut a small hole in the skin at the base of the front and push the parson’s nose (tail) through to close the vent. Pull the skin back over the neck and tuck the wings back so that the wingtips secure the skin. Take a piece of string, place the centre over the neck end, take it back across the wings and cross it underneath, then bring it up to tie the legs securely together, taking the string round the legs twice if necessary. This way of trussing does not mark the breast.
Duck is trussed in the same way as chicken.
Turkey is not usually trussed, but prepared for roasting by having the neck flap tucked under and the legs tied together. The opening may be closed, if desired, by threading small skewers (sold in sets as poultry pins) across it then lacing string across and around the skewers and tying to close it.