The language of cooking

I’ve been writing about food for so long that sometimes I forget what it’s like to be a beginner.

I don’t remember that recipes can seem like a foreign language to an inexperienced home cook. If you have barely picked up a spatula, words like simmer or sear, braise or sauté can stop you before turning on the stove.

I suffered from the same thing when I first became a food writer in 2007. I took culinary classes at Wake Technical Community College mainly to learn the language of the kitchen. (Basically, so I wouldn’t embarrass myself while interviewing chefs.)

I learned the difference between mince and dice, braise and saute, blanch and parboil. I was no longer mystified by words like julienne, brunoise and tournee, all French terms for cuts of vegetables. I learned that to become proficient in the kitchen one needs to be well-versed in its language.

To help others, I offer a glossary of common kitchen terms that can be befuddling to beginners.

Baste: To moisten food during cooking with melted fat, pan drippings or a sauce. This technique is used to prevent drying out and to add flavor; most often used in reference to a Thanksgiving turkey or roast chicken.

Blanch: To briefly partially cook food in boiling water or hot fat. Often used to loosen peels from vegetables or fruits, like tomatoes and peaches.

Braise: A method of cooking where food is first browned in hot fat, then covered and cooked slowly with a small amount of liquid.

Caramelize: The process of cooking food that browns the sugars in it, enhancing the flavor and appearance of food. Also used in reference to cooking sugar until it liquifies and turns color from golden to dark brown.

Chiffonade: To thinly slice greens or fresh herbs; in French, the term literally means "made of rags."

Cream: To mix together softened fat and sugar to incorporate air; often the first step in baking recipes.

Deglaze: After food has been cooked in a pan, the food is removed and a small amount of liquid — usually wine or stock — is added and stirred to loosen any browned bits on the bottom of the pan; the resulting liquid is often the basis for a sauce.

Dice: To cut vegetable into square pieces; measurements range from small dice (1/4-by-1/4-inch square) to medium (1/2-by-1/2-inch) to large (3/4-by-3/4-inch).

Dredge: To coat a food with flour or finely ground crumbs, often before sautéing or frying.

Fold: To incorporate light, airy ingredients into heavier ingredients. The light ingredients are placed on top of the heavier ones in a large bowl. The technique involves using a rubber spatula to cut down through the two mixtures, across the bottom of the bowl and up the side. The bowl is turned a quarter turn and the down-across-up-and-over motion is repeated. Often used to describe incorporating beaten egg whites into a cake batter.

Julienne: To cut food into matchstick-like pieces (1/8-by-1/8-by-2-inch). Fine julienne is even smaller (1/16-by-1/16-by-2-inch).

Macerate: To soak food in liquid, often alcohol.

Mince: To cut food into very small pieces where uniform size is not a concern. Often used to describe garlic preparation.

Parboil: To partially cook a food in boiling or simmering liquid; similar to blanching, but cooking time is longer. Often used to prepare an ingredient that will be used later in a quick-cooking method, like stir fry, so that all ingredients will be fully cooked in the same amount of time.

Pinch: The smallest amount of a spice or dried herb that you can hold between thumb and index finger.

Poach: To cook food gently in liquid just below the boiling point. Often used to cook eggs and fish.

Puree: Any food that is finely mashed to a smooth, thick consistency. Often done in a blender or food processor and involving fruits and vegetables.

Render: To cook meat over low heat to remove fat. Often used to describe cooking bacon.

Sauté: To cook food quickly in a pan with a small amount of oil or fat.

Scald: To heat a liquid, usually milk, to just below the boiling point.

Score: To cut shallow gashes across the outer surface of a food before cooking. Often done with meat and bread dough.

Sear: To brown food quickly over high heat. Usually done as an initial cooking preparation.

Sift: Often used to describe how to prepare flour for baking; the flour and dry ingredients are put through a sieve or sifter to remove lumps and incorporate air.

Simmer: To cook food gently in liquid at a low temperature, about 185 degrees, where tiny bubbles just begin to break the surface.

Stir-fry: To quickly fry small pieces of food in a wok over high heat while constantly stirring the food.

Truss: To tie poultry, most often a whole bird, with butcher's string to create a compact shape for cooking. Trussing ensures even cooking.

Sources: “The New Food Lover’s Companion,” by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Rob Herbst (Barron’s, 2007), and “On Cooking: A Textbook of Culinary Fundamentals,” by Sarah Labensky and Alan Hause (Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007).

Chile-Mint Sauteed Cucumbers

From “The Broad Fork: Recipes From the Wide World of Vegetables and Fruits,” by Hugh Acheson (Clarkson Potter, 2015).

1 lb. cucumbers

1 Tbsp. olive oil

1 Tbsp. unsalted butter

1 shallot, minced

1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes

1 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice

2 Tbsp. chopped fresh mint leaves

1/2 tsp. kosher salt

Peel cucumbers, cut them in half lengthwise, and then remove the seeds by running a small spoon down the seed seam. Cut the cucumbers into 1/4-inch-thick half-moons. Set aside.

Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When oil is hot, add butter and shallot and sauté for 1 minute, until aromatic. Add sliced cucumbers and toss to coat. Cook for 3 minutes, until the cucumbers are hot and just tender; then add the red pepper flakes, lemon juice and fresh mint. Remove from the heat and season with kosher salt. Toss, and place in a shallow bowl to serve.

Yield: 4 servings.

Angel Food Cake

From “Back in the Day Bakery Made With Love,” by Cheryl Day and Griffith Day (Artisan, 2015).

1 1/3 cups cake flour

2 cups superfine sugar, divided

1/2 tsp. fine sea salt

1 1/2 cups egg whites (about 12), at room temperature

1 tsp. cream of tartar

2 tsp. pure vanilla extract

Whipped cream and fresh berries, optional garnish

Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Use a sifter or a fine-mesh sieve to sift the flour, 1/2 cup superfine sugar, and the salt together three times. Set aside.

Use a whisk attachment in a clean bowl of a stand mixer or a handheld mixer and a large bowl, beat egg whites and cream of tartar on medium speed until frothy, about 2 minutes. Add 1 tablespoon superfine sugar at a time while beating on high speed until you have added the remaining 1 1/2 cups superfine sugar; then beat until egg whites are stiff and shiny. Add vanilla and whip until just combined.

Gently fold the flour mixture about one quarter at a time into the egg whites. Spoon batter into an ungreased 10-inch tube pan. (Do not be tempted to smack pan against the counter to level the batter; you will lose air you have incorporated into egg whites.)

Bake cake for 35 to 40 minutes, until it is golden brown and a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean. Invert cake pan onto its feet onto the counter. If the pan does not have feet, invert it over a long-necked wine bottle. (Cooling cake upside down prevents it from deflating.) Let cool completely, about 1 hour.

Run a knife around the edges of the pan and the center tube to release the cake with ease and put it top side up on a serving plate.

Serve cake with whipped cream and garnished with berries.

Yield: 12 to 16 servings.

Japanese Fried Chicken

Recipe tester note: if you cannot find sake, substitute sherry or Chinese rice wine. Potato starch can be found at Whole Foods stores and other retailers that carry Bob’s Red Mill brand products. From chef Billy Cotter of Dashi, a Japanese ramen shop and izakaya (Japanese pub) in Durham.

1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken thighs

1/2 Tbsp. freshly grated ginger

2 medium garlic cloves, freshly grated

3 Tbsp. soy sauce

1 Tbsp. sake

Pinch of black pepper

Vegetable oil

1 cup panko bread crumbs

1 cup potato starch

Cut chicken into bite-sized pieces. Place chicken in a large zip-top plastic bag with ginger, garlic, soy sauce, sake and black pepper. Mix well and put chicken in refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Pour enough oil in a deep frying pan or Dutch oven to have 2 inches of liquid. Heat oil until it reaches 350 degrees.

Blitz panko bread crumbs in a food processor until finely ground. Combine panko crumbs and potato starch in a shallow bowl. Dredge chicken in the bread crumbs mixture. Fry in the oil until golden brown. Remove to paper-towel-lined plates.

Yield: 4-6 servings.