This list of common cooking terms, definitions, and techniques will help you follow recipes and learn to cook at home with ease!
Cooking Terms and Definitions
Part of learning how to cook is learning how to decipher recipes. Sure, following directions seems simple enough, but if you don’t understand the cooking terms they use, then you’re not going to get very far.
Let it simmer, fold in the ingredients, chop (but don’t dice!), blanch the vegetables…but what does any of it mean?
All of these cooking definitions and techniques are things you will naturally learn along the way. But I’m here to make it a little easier by gathering all of the basic cooking vocabulary for you in this list, so you know where to look next time a recipe stumps you!
It’s important to know your basic cooking terms when you’re learning to cook. We are here to help!
Basic Cooking Terms and Definitions
From A-Z, here are the most common cooking terms you might need to know while following recipes and cooking at home!
This Italian term translates to “to the tooth”, and means to cook pasta just until it starts to soften. It’s considered the ideal firmness for pasta and only takes a few minutes of boiling. The pasta will feel “firm to the bite”, so it’s no longer hard or crunchy, but it has not yet become too soft or soggy.
Basting means to pour liquids over food during cooking. This technique is mostly used when cooking meat, and the liquid can be anything from melted fats (like butter), to marinades, or even juices that have released from the meat while cooking.
The process of basting requires checking the meat at regular intervals to pour more liquids back over it as it continues to cook. Using a baster or a brush makes this much easier, but you can also use a spoon to scoop up juices and pour it back over.
Basting helps to keep meat moist during the cooking process and can also add flavor.
To beat means to quickly, rigorously mix ingredients together. The aim is to incorporate a small amount of air in the process (but not quite as much so as if a recipe tells you to whip). This technique is easiest to do with an electric mixer, but it can be done by hand.
Blanching is the process of briefly plunging vegetables (or sometimes other foods) into boiling water, and then slowing or halting the cooking process by shocking them in ice water. This allows them to retain their peak crispness, flavor, and color.
This method is often used as a way to pre-cook vegetables to ensure they’re fully-cooked during another method. It is also be used to prepare fresh veggies for freezing or preserving.
To blend means to combine multiple ingredients together until they become one smooth mixture. Blending can be achieved by mixing by hand (using a spoon, whisk, or other utensil), or by using a blender or electric mixer.
Blind baking is most often used with pie crusts (and sometimes other pastries). This means to bake the crust before filling it. This method is used when making a pie with an uncooked, or partially-cooked, filling. Basically, it allows you to fully cook the crust without cooking (or overcooking) the pie filling.
As a cooking method, this means to cook food in boiling water (or another boiling liquid). It requires heating the water to its boiling point (212F / 100C) and then submerging the food in it until it is cooked through. Water will be bubbling heavily when it reaches boiling point.
Cooking food in a small amount of liquid at a low temperature, usually for a longer period of time. This is typically used to cook tougher cuts of meat in order to make them tender and juicy. Foods are typically seared, sauteed, or lightly fried before cooking in liquid.
Brining means to soak food in a salt water solution (the brine). Soaking meat in brine before cooking allows it to absorb salt, which tenderizes it and helps it to retain moisture while cooking. You can also adds herbs, spices, and other ingredients to the brine to infuse the food with more flavor.
Broiling means to cook something under intense and direct heat (similar to grilling). At home, this is typically done in an oven by placing food directly under the broiler (tends to be at the top of the oven but may be in a separate compartment).
You can cook food fully by broiling, or use it for just a few minutes at the end of the cooking process to brown the skin/outside of the food and add a final layer of flavor.
Browning food means to partially cook it over high heat in order to form a brown “crust” on the surface (without fully cooking the interior). This method should generally be combined with another method to finish cooking it.
This technique adds a nice brown color but also adds flavor. It’s mostly used with meats.
Caramelizing is the heating and browning of sugars to bring out flavor. This is part of the process used to make caramel, but you can also caramelize any food that naturally contains sugar. The most common example of this is caramelized onions.
To caramelize food requires cooking it at a high direct heat so that it starts to break down and release its natural sugar, until it browns and takes on a naturally “sweet” flavor.
To chop means to cut into pieces. These pieces will typically be bite-sized, but still larger than if you were to dice or mince.
Recipes to try: How to Cut an Onion
To cream as a baking technique (rather than as an ingredient) means to beat a solid fat into a soft, fluffy consistency while combining it with other ingredients at a high speed. This technique is used often in baking and is mainly used to combine butter and sugar.
Deglazing is a process of using liquid and heat to remove all of the caramelized, stuck-on pieces of food from a pan after cooking. It is common to then use those bits to add more flavor to the rest of your dish.
This technique involves adding a liquid (such as water, wine, stock, etc.) into the pan after cooking something (like meat, for example), heating it, and then using a spatula to scrape those leftover bits off the pan and into the liquid. This is a great way to make a stock or glaze that you can then pour over the food.
To dice means to cut into small, uniform, often cubed pieces (smaller than a chop but larger than minced). A dice might be anywhere from about 1/8- to 1/4-inch pieces.
Recipes to try: How to Cut an Onion
Dredging means to coat food in a dry coating (such as flour and/or breadcrumbs) before cooking. It’s often combined with a wet ingredient, like eggs or milk, to make the dry ingredient stick.
For example: to make fried chicken, you would dredge chicken (dip in milk/buttermilk and then seasoned flour mixture) before frying it.
To emulsify means to combine a fat-based liquid (oil) with a water-based liquid to form a single mixture (an emulsion). This requires whisking rigorously while slowly adding one ingredient into the other.
Since oil and water do not easily or fully combine, these mixtures tend to separate into distinct layers after sitting for a while. You can use a third ingredient as an emulsifier (egg yolks are commonly used) to help stabilize the mixture.
A good example of an emulsion in cooking is vinaigrette dressings, which are a mixture of oil and vinegar (among other ingredients for flavor).
Folding or folding in means to gently combine ingredients into one without stirring or aggressively mixing. To do this, you will use a spoon or rubber spatula to lift and turn the mixture back into itself, repeatedly, until ingredients are combined.
To grate something means to rub the food against a grater in order to shred it into small pieces (for example, grating a block of cheese into shreds).
Julienne is a knife-cutting technique. This means to cut food (often vegetables) into long, thin strips.
Kneading is part of the process of making dough for bread and pastries. Using your hands to work, shape, and stretch the dough to strengthen it into its final form before baking.
Macerating means to soak food in liquid until it softens or breaks down, with the aim of infusing the food with more flavor. This method is often used with fruit (like strawberries). Add sugar to the fruit to release the liquids, let the fruit soak in that liquid, and it will become super sweet and sauce-like.
Marinating is the process of soaking food in a marinade before cooking to add flavor.
A marinade is a liquid that can be made with a mix of ingredients (spices, sauces, vinegar, juice, etc.), and is often on the acidic side.
Marinating is most often used with meat, poultry, and fish. Typically you would make a marinade, place it in a container with the meat, and place it in the refrigerator for a period of time to let it soak in the flavor and moisture, then proceed to cook the meat.
To mince means to cut into very small pieces (smaller than dicing). Typically, if a recipes says to mince, cut the pieces about as as small as you can.
Par-cooking means to partially (par) cook something. This can be done as a way to prep foods ahead of time, or if you want to use multiple cooking methods for one food/dish.
For example, you might parcook chicken on its own before adding it into a casserole with other ingredients to bake. This ensures that chicken is fully cooked during the short baking time.
A common type of par-cooking is par-boiling, which means to partially cook food by boiling first.
Poaching is a cooking method that involves submerging food in a small amount of liquid and cooking it at a very low temperature.
This technique is similar to simmering, but uses an even lower temperature. It works great for cooking more delicate foods (like eggs, salmon, vegetables, or chicken).
Recipes to try: Poached Chicken Breast
When a recipe tells you to “reduce the sauce” (or another liquid), it means to cook (usually by simmering) until the liquid actually reduces by volume. Water evaporates during this process, which is how it reduces.
The point of this technique is to make the sauce/liquid more concentrated in flavor and to thicken it.
Recipes to try: Balsamic Reduction
Roasting is a cooking method that uses dry heat/hot air to cook food from all sides at a high temperature. For most of us, that means using the oven. Roasting often adds a crispy, browned surface to the food.
A roux is a mixture of flour and fat that is added to sauces to thicken them.
To make a roux, cook flour and fat (butter is commonly used) together on the stove, and mix until it’s smooth and reaches desired brownness/color. This mixture can then be combined with the sauce/gravy.
Recipes to try: Creamy Chicken Soup
Sautéing means to cook food in a shallow pan, using a small amount of fat/oil at a high temperature.
To score food means to make shallow cuts into the surface of the food. This is mostly done with breads/pastries and meats.
The point of scoring foods is to control the cooking. With more surface of the meat exposed through scoring, it cooks more evenly (which is helpful with denser cuts of meat).
With breads, scoring helps to control the release of gas (from the yeast) that naturally occurs while baking (so you don’t end up with random holes/ruptures in your loaf).
Scoring also makes for a nice decorative flourish.
To sear something (usually meat/poultry/fish) means to cook it briefly at a high temperature in a pan until the skin browns. It’s a great way to add color and flavor to the skin without overcooking the inside. Searing is often used as an extra touch before or after cooking it by another method.
Recipes to try: Pan Seared Chicken Breast
Season to Taste
When a recipe instructs you to “season to taste” (often in reference to salt and pepper), it means to add as little or as much seasoning as you like (to your taste). So add a small amount of seasoning at a time and taste, until you get the flavor you want.
Cooking (either cooking food in liquid or cooking a liquid-based food, like soup) over medium heat, so that it is not quite boiling. This requires bringing it to a boil and then immediately lowering the temperature to a steady medium heat.
When translated literally from French, sous vide means “under vacuum”. This method involves placing food in a sealed container (a bag, a jar, etc.), and then cooking it at a low temperature, for a long time, in a water bath.
This is one of the best methods to get moist, evenly-cooked results. Since the water temperature is set to the temperature you want the food cooked to, it will never overcook. It does, however, take longer than other cooking methods.
Recipes to try: How to Sous Vide Chicken
To whip means to beat an ingredient or mixture (using a whisk or mixer) in order to add air into the mixture and produce a light, fluffy result.
When a recipe calls for “zest”, it means to scrape off bits of citrus fruit peel (lime zest, lemon zest, etc.) to add into the dish. Zest is used to add flavor to dishes, and sometimes used simply as garnish. Using a zester is the best way to do this.
Now that you have all of the basic cooking terms and definitions figure out, reading and following recipes at home will be so much easier. Be sure to bookmark this so you can return any time you need a refresher!