Food and Cooking Terms

à la minute

Literally French for "to the minute". Dishes prepared precisely when needed, such as for custom orders or tableside presentations. Steak Diane, Guacamole, Caesar Salad, and Bananas Foster are all traditionally prepared tableside à la minute.

al dente

Literally Italian for "to the tooth". The slight firmness of properly cooked pasta. Overcooked pasta is mushy and generally too weak to hold together with sauces or fillings.


Baking is a dry heat cooking method in which an item is placed in an enclosed, heated container such as an oven. Heat is transferred by convection and radiation. Baking is really the same as roasting, the difference in usage mostly referring to what's being cooked. Breads and other, well, bakery items, are typically "baked", while a ham or prime rib of beef would instead be "roasted" Baked chicken? Sure. Baked Potatoes? Yup. Baked beef? Not technically wrong, but certainly not a common use of the word.

There's also a such thing as a steam oven, used in professional bakeries. They don't cook with enough steam to be considered a moist heat cooking method, but the extra moisture in the air causes the starch in the flour to gelatanize, and produces that wonderful crisp baguette crust. If you listen closely, you can hear a good crust crackling as it cools.


Sauce Béchamel is one of the mother sauces. It is milk, mildly flavored with onion, nutmeg, and clove; reduced, and thickened with a white or blonde roux. Small sauces include Mornay (Swiss cheese) and Suprême (enriched with cream).


To partially cook something, usually to reduce later cooking time or to preserve an ingredient's color. Food can be blanched in water-based liquids as one might do with green beans to be sautéed later. Food can also be blanched in oil or deep fat, such as one might do with a breaded chicken cordon bleu for browning before finishing it in a hot oven just before plating. See also shock.

Since blanching can be done with either water or oil, it is typically considered to be neither a dry heat nor a moist heat cooking method.


Boiling is a moist heat cooking method in which food is submerged in water at its maximum liquid temperature, its boiling point. Boiling is characterized by rapid movement and agitation, so it is best suited for foods that benefit from the activity. Pasta boils well, but stocks become cloudy, and biscuit-style dumplings completely fall apart. The term is often misapplied: "Hard-boiled" eggs, for example are more often simmered.

See also poach.

boiling point

The temperature at which a liquid converts to a gas. For pure water at sea level, the temperature is 212°F or 100°C. At higher elevations, because of the naturally lower air pressure, liquids boil at lower temperatures. Adding ingredients will raise the temperature slightly. In neither case, however, are cooking times significantly affected. We salt pasta waster for flavor: The heat increase is tiny and the difference in time is well below what you'd measure.

The temperature of a pure boiling liquid is constant; i.e., pure water at sea level at a full boil is going to remain at a constant 100°C. Steam itself—the invisible stuff in the bubbles, not the stuff you see condensing in the air over the pot—can be much hotter. In physics or chemistry, you might also see the term "condensation point" which is interchangable with "boiling point", but you'll probably never see the former used in a recipe.

See also freezing point.


Braising is a moist heat cooking method involving enough water to at least partially cover the food being cooked, long cooking times, and relatively low temperatures. It's sometimes described as a "hybrid" method because a food is often browned—typically sautéed—for extra flavor and color before putting it in the liquid for full cooking. While many foods are considered sufficiently cooked when they reach a particular internal temperature, braised foods are usually cooked until they reach the desired level of tenderness. The method is best applied to tough cuts of meat that have a high proportion of connective tissue, which turns into collagen. The classic American pot roast is a perfect example of a cut best braised.


Broiling is a dry heat cooking method characterized by high temperature heat transferred from above by radiation. Results are similar to grilling, and the two methods are often interchangable. Broiling is often used in professional and home kitchens to brown the top of a food just before service.


Browning typically describes one of two chemical reactions. Sometimes it refers to caramelization the chemical changes of sugars and starches, usually under dry heat. More often, though, the term refers to the browning of meat, the Maillard reaction. That browning is a complex interaction of the amino acids that make up proteins, and sugars. In both cases, the browning adds flavor and color to the food being cooked.

brown sauce or espagnole

Brown Sauce or Sauce Espagnole is one of the mother sauces. It is brown stock, reduced a little while its flavor is boosted with a fresh round of caramelized mirepoix and a sachet, then thickened with a brown roux.

Brown sauce is often reduced further into a demi-glace: Start with a quart of brown sauce, reduce it by half, add a quart of brown stock, and reduce it by half again.

Small sauces include Sauce Robert, with butter, onion, white wine and mustard; Diable, with white wine, shallots, and peppercorns; and Piquante, with shallots, vinegar, wine, capers, pickles, parsley, and tarragon.

To be technically correct, there may be minor differences between "brown sauce" and its French term, "espagnole" Those differences, if they exist, may have to do with whether or how much tomato product is introduced to the mix. For our purposes at Analytical-Life, the two sauces are interchangeable.


Carbohydrates are one of three major (macro-) nutrients needed to sustain life, the other two being fats and protein.. Sugars, starches, and fiber are all carbohydrates.

Nutritionally, carbohydrates contain about the same amount of energy as proteins, roughly 5 kCal per gram.


Caramelization is the browning reaction of sugars and starches, usually when exposed to dry heat. When a mirepoix is headed for a brown stock, you'll generally sauté it, often with a little tomato paste, until it starts to brown. You can melt sugar and heat it until it starts to turn slighly brown. Add some cream to that and you have a simple caramel candy. Caramelization carried too far leaves nothing but black, bitter carbon, the hydrogen and oxygen having been driven off into the air.

carryover cooking

When you remove cooking food from heat—for example, when you take a roast from the oven—it is still hot. The heat that the food itself contains will cause it to continue to cook itself a little bit. The "magic" in cooking something to perfection is a matter of knowing just exactly how much more something will cook, and allowing for it. In the case of the example roast, you might take it out of the oven at an internal temperature of 145°F, knowing that it will probably reach about 150°F, which might be closer to your particular medium-well preference.

Alternatively, you might shock some blanched vegetables in ice water, stopping their cooking just exactly where they are at that moment.

child sauce

See small sauce.




Connective tissue—the stuff of cartilage, tendons, and sinews that hold an animal's muscles to its bones—is tough and difficult to eat unless it's properly cooked. With enough time and exposure to moist heat at simmering temperatures, the proteins in these tissues break down into collagen.

Collagen is what gives Jello® its jiggle and pot roast broth its richness and slight stickiness. It contributes depth to flavor as it is very rich in umami or savory flavor compounds.

Meats that have a lot of connective tissue are generally well-suited to braising and often some dry heat cooking methods such as smoking or low-temperature roasting. A shoulder roast of pork, for example, can be simmered as you might a beef chuck roast. Or you might fix it as pernil: Score and cover it in onion and garlic paste (lime juice, salt and pepper, annato if you have it, olive oil to thin) then roast it at 250°F/120°C, turning occasionally, for 4 or 5 hours. Or you might smoke it outdoors with charcoal and hickory for just as long, then chop and mix it with spicy, vinegary Eastern North Carolina Style barbecue sauce.


The method of transfering heat by contact. An egg on a griddle is cooked by conduction, and it is conduction that is responsible for the carryover cooking effect.


Convection is a method by which heat in a fluid—liquid or gas— moves and disperses through the medium. In an oven, for example, the heating element causes the air very close to it to rise. That air is replaced by other nearby air, and is then itself heated. The result is that the air mixes and the heat distributes. It is convection in a pot of simmering or boiling liquid that causes its temperature to be fairly uniform throughout.

"Convection" ovens make use of forced or mechanical convection, which, while similar, isn't quite the same thing. (Think of blow-drying long hair vs. just letting it air dry.) If it is important in a recipe to distinguish between the two types of oven, the one without the fan is often referred to as "conventional".


A custard is a mixture of milk, eggs or egg yolks, and other flavorful foods. Examples include the richest "ice creams" and range from crème brûlée to spinach quiche.

deep fat fry

Deep fat frying (or simply "deep frying") is a dry heat cooking method in which food is submerged in hot, liquid fat, typically in the range of 325°F/160°C to 400°F/200°C depending on the cooking medium's smoke point. "Liguid" and "dry" may seem to be incompatible here, but they're not. Moist heat, by its very meaning, involves water or a water-based liquid.

Think about the most common deep fat fried food in America: The French fry. A properly cooked french fry is crisp on the outside, but soft and moist on the inside. The hot oil cooks by heating the potato's contained water well past its boiling point. The starch on the inside gelatanizes in the hot steam, and the outside browns and crisps as it would in a hot (and efficient) enough oven. Another piece of that exact same potato cooked in water might be good for mashing or in a salad, but you couldn't politely pick it up with your fingers for dipping in ketchup.


Denaturing is the changing of a protein's molecular shape or structure through cooking or other methods. Cooked meats, pickled fish (such as ceviche), and the whipped milk foam with cappuccino are all examples of proteins being denatured.

dry heat

Cooking methods generally fall into one of two categories: dry heat or moist heat. Dry heat is simply heat in the absence (or near enough) of moisture. Examples include roasting or baking, grilling, broiling, pan frying, smoking, sautéing, and even deep fat frying.


To emulsify two liquids is to two mutually insoluble liquids into another. Oil and water don't mix, for example, but you can shake Balsamic vinegar, water, and olive oil together, and the mixture will remain stable long enough to dress a salad.

Other emulsifications can be made more stable. Egg yolks contain a substance called lecithin, which has a characteristic that's useful in the kitchen: Lecithin molecules are two-ended; one end mixes well with water, the other with oil. With a well-applied whisk, liquid butterfat can be emulsified into water or a wine reduction, becoming a sinfully rich Hollandaise sauce.


See brown sauce.


Fat is one of the most important ingredients in cooking. It carries and enhances flavor, it promotes even cooking, it adds texture and richness, and it contributes to a feeling of satiety, the sense of fullness and satisfaction one gets from eating.

Fat is necessary for life and it is present in nearly every food source from which we draw our ingredients. It's in whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Meat, eggs, and dairy. It occurs naturally in fruits, and in very high concetrations in some, such as avocados. And of course, it's the main or only ingredient in lard, butter, and shortening. When a fat is liquid at room temperature, it's usually referred to as an oil.

For nutrition, see lipid.

flash point

The flash point is the temperature at which an oil or other hot liquid fat bursts into flame. With few exceptions, fire in a pan is a bad thing. Smother the flame quickly with a lid if you have one that fits. If don't have a lid, you can use salt, baking soda, or a fire extinguisher. (No kitchen should be without one of those.) Using a lid is the only one of those approaches that might keep your dish edible. Watch what you're doing and beware of smoking oil. You can usually avoid having to choose between your home and your dinner. Do Not try to use water to put out a grease fire. It will only make matters worse.


Flavor is the attribute of food having to do with taste and smell. Flavors are comprised of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory elements, food's smell, and they are apparently affected by picquancy—hotness, as with a spicy pepper—and to a lesser extent, a food's texture.


Flavoring or a flavoring agent is isued to alter the flavor of a food. It differs from a seasoning in that a flavoring agent is intended to bring something new to a dish while a seasoning enhances what is already there. Mirepoix and a sachet are flavoring agents, as is the cinnamon you might add to a cookie recipe or the garlic, thyme, and oregano you might add to a tomato sauce.

forced convection

See mechanical convection.

freezing point or melting point

The freezing point is the temperature at which a liquid converts to a solid. The melting point is the same exact temperature. Which one to use is only a matter of situational preference. Whether you're using ice water to cool something off or you have water turning to ice in the freezer, the transitional temperature is the same.

For pure water, the temperature is 32°F or 0°C. Adding ingredients will lower that temperature, perhaps significantly. Fruit juice, for example, has a lower freezing point than water, so it wil take longer to solidify in your freezer.

The temperature of a freezing liquid is constant; i.e., a well-mixed bowl of ice and water will remain at a constant 32°F/0°C until only the water remains. Salt is sometimes added to lower the temperature—think of a hand-cranked ice cream churn—but it may not help as much as folks might hope. You can also salt the ice and water used for blanching to help maintain the flavor. Most of the time, though, that's probably overkill: If you're leaving things in shocking water that long, waterlogging is a more significant concern.

See also boiling point.

full boil or rolling boil

A full or rolling boil is the liquid at its maximum liquid temperature, its boiling point. Bubbles of steam grow quickly and rise rapidly, resulting in a vibrant, churning of the liquid.


A gastrique is caramelized sugar dissolved into vinegar, typically white wine vinegar. It is often flavored with orange or other fruit. The sweet and sour flavors complement each other, and a gastrique can add a great deal of complexity where it's used.


When a starch is heated in water, it gelatanizes: The starch molecules swell and soften as they absorb the moisture. Pasta and rice, for example, approximately double in size as they soften, forming new chains and connections in and between the carbohydrate molecules. The same physical process thickens gravy and holds cakes together. See also retrograde.


Grilling is a dry heat cooking method in which food is applied directly to a hot surface, often with just enough fat to prevent sticking. Heat is transferred to the food by conduction.

The term "grill" also applies to equipment used for grilling. A grill's surface can be flat and smooth, as a short-order cook might use, or it might have bars or a grid. Grills may be heated by gas, electricity, wood, charcoal, or other suitable fuel.


Hollandaise is one of the five mother sauces. It is clarified butter emulsified into water or a white wine reduction with an egg yolk emulsifier, then seasoned with salt, lemon juice, and cayenne pepper. If you've ever had Eggs Benedict, you've had Hollandaise.

Making a Hollandaise can be tricky, and if its temperature isn't properly managed, it will "break"; i.e., it will separate from a thick, creamy sauce into a gross mess of melted butter and snot-like pieces of egg yolk. A broken sauce can be fixed by starting with another egg yolk and emulsifying the broken mixture into it.

Small sauces include Mouseeline, with whipped cream, Béarnaise with shallots and white wine, and Choron with shallots, white wine, and tomato.

Hollandaise is best served on chrome dishes: There's no plate like chrome for the Hollandaise.

leading sauce

See mother sauce.


Lipids are fats in food. While cooking approaches will vary when using olive oil or leaf lard, they're digested the same way. Lipids contain almost double the amount of energy by weight—about 9 Calories per gram—than carbohydrates or proteins (about 5 per gram).

Maillard reaction

The Maillard reaction is the browning of amino acids—chemical chains that make up proteins— and sugars when they're heated together. There are hundreds or even thousands of new chemical compounds that result! It's one of those truly magical things in the kitchen that can transform an ingredient into something wonderful.

A boneless, skinless chicken breast poached in salted water, for example, will be nutritious. And boring to the point of inedibility. But sprinkle some salt on it instead, and throw it under a broiler for a little while, and you get depth, complexity, flavor, and visual appeal. A plain chicken breast is always going to be boring alone, but the broiled one might bring something tasty to a Caesar salad.

The golden brown crust of a whole wheat baguette, the "good part"—the crusty brown outside—of a roast prime rib of beef, the way the bread crumbs and that extra sprinkling of cheddar on a potato casserole all toast up together: That's the Maillard reaction at work. Don't forget its friendly cousin, caremelization, but the chemical reaction Louis Camille Maillard observed is what most often brings that happy conversational silence to a dinner table.

Incidentally, that is why we brown a pot roast before braising it, and why we brown hamburger—drain when it's cooked, then return to the heat and cook until it has some color—for spaghetti sauce, pork for carnitas, or chunks of leftover chicken for a pot pie. It has nothing to do with "sealing in the juices". If the juices can't get out, the cooking liquid can't get in, and that pot roast's collagen would never break down. Yuck. It's for flavor, pure and simple.

mechanical convection or forced convection

Mechanical or forced convection refers to convection heat distribution aided mechanically, typically with one or more rotary fans. Just as convection stirs fluid contents and causes heat to distribute, the fan causes the heat to distribute evenly more quickly. The result is a more efficient cooking environment—more heat remains in contact with the food—so cooking temperatures or times are often reduced.

Mechanical convection is not suitable for some baking or roasting applications. A soufflé, for example, may not be able to rise and stand with all that hot wind blowing around. And a custard might develop a film before it had time to set.

melting point

See freezing point.


Microwaves are a type of electromagnetic radiation. The wavelength of microwave energy is close the same size as a water molecule. When water molecules are exposed to microwave radation, they are agitated—jiggled and bounced around—producing heat.

A microwave oven generates microwaves to cook the food. Because the heat is only generated where the water molecules are, foods can be unevenly heated or cokked. Depending on what's in the oven, you may need to mix or otherwise adjust the food several times during cooking.


Mirepoix (roughly, meer-uh PWAH) is a mixture of ingredients, usually vegetables, cooked together to create a flavor base for a dish or sauce. The "standard" mirepoix is two parts onion and one part each of celery and carrots. If color is important—say for a very white sauce—the carrot might be omitted or replaced with parsnips. An Italian soffritto is a mirepoix that typically includes garlic. The Cajun "Holy Trinity" is a mirepoix of celery, onion, and green bell pepper.

mise en place

Literally French for "put in place", a constant sense of mise en place is the hallmark of a good cook. Everything from measuring out your ingredients before you start a recipe to figuring out how you're going to arrange your finished food on the plate before it's cooked is part of mise en place.

Anyone can cook. The one who cooks better, though, is the one who's thought it through, who is fully, mentally prepared to be in that kitchen performing that task toward producing that item. It works pretty well as an approach to life, too.

moist heat

Moist heat cooking involves the prominent presence of water or other water-based liquid. Examples include boiling, simmering, poaching, steaming, and braising.

mother sauce or leading sauce

There are five "mother" or "leading" sauces in modern French-influenced cooking. They are so named because they are the bases of so many others. The mother sauces are Velouté, Béchamel, Espagnole (Brown Sauce), Tomato, and Hollandaise. Béchamel is seldom served as is, for example, but you've eaten it in macaroni & cheese if you've ever had the real thing. Velouté comes in at least three varieties and can as easily be the base for Cream of Broccoli Soup or Sauce Normandy with oyster juice, cream, and egg yolks.

Mnemonic: You can remember the mother sauces with the sentence "Very Bad Eggs Taste Horrible." (Analytical-Life can't take credit for that: It's taught in the top-knotch culinary program at Central Piedmont Community College.)

Note that there are sauces that are not descended from these mothers. A simple flavored vinegar doesn't even require heating, for example. Soy Sauce's ancestors and Worcestershire Sauce both begin with the fermentation of anchovies, not reduction of stocks or emulsification of fats and liquids. And the only thing salsa fresca really has in common with the Tomato mother sauce is the main ingredient.


Napper (nap-PAY) refers to a sauce other liquid's ability to coat something. A sauce or reduction has often reached the proper consistency when a spoon dipped in the liquid remains coated—when it nappes (prounounced "naps") the spoon. You can also draw a the back of a spoon in a line through a thin layer of the liquid—perhaps a little on a plate—and the trough will remain.


Oil is fat that is liquid at room temperature. Oils can be used for cooking in deep fat and pan frying. Many oils—e.g., extra virgin olive oil, sesame, walnut, orange, avocado—are most often eaten raw or in dressings. Others—e.g., peanut, safflower, canola—are most often used for cooking. As with other lipids, oils contain about 9 nutritional calories (kCal) per gram.

When speaking of hot fat, as that for deep frying, it is often referred to as "oil" regardless of whether it is liquid at room temperature. Butter is always butter, though, and it deserves to be.

pan fry

Pan frying is pretty much what it sounds like: frying food in a pan. For pan frying, the fat should be at a depth so that it's about 1/3 to 1/2 the height of the food in the pan. It's a method that works best for foods that are relatively flat: chicken pieces, breaded veal cutlest for wiener schnitzel, etc.

See also sauté.


Plating is the practice of putting food on a plate in an attractive manner. Much of cooking is a balance of craft and science; plating is pure art.


Poaching is a moist heat cooking method. To poach a food is to cook it in very still but very hot liquid, typically 165°F/75°C to 185°F/85°C. It is best used for delicate foods that need gentle heating such as shelled eggs for Benedict or a fish filet you'd like to infuse with wine.

See also boil and simmer.


Generically speaking, protein is the item in a full meal from which one receives nutritional protein. It's the chicken breast or steak, the salmon under the mousseline, or the absence of animal proteins, it's the beans that go with the rice.

Chemically, proteins are made up of other elements common to life—Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen—but they also contain Nitrogen and other elements including Sulfur or Iron. Protein molecules are characterized by complex arrangements, knotted and twisted in nearly infinite ways. Exposed to heat, proteins either coagulate—clump together—or denature—unwind, and break down into smaller chains.

In the kitchen, it is proteins that give us the Maillard reaction. It is proteins in connective tissue that break down into collagen proteins, producing rich, hearty flavors in stocks, sauces, stews, and pot roasts. The albumen that changes from clear to white in shrimp or egg white as they cook is protein.


Radiation is the transmission of heat that occurs even in the absence of contact (conduction) or a fluid medium such as water or air (convection). When food is grilled over charcoal, and even more clearly when it is broiled from above, the bulk of the heat is from radiation. In space, no one can hear you scream; but your electric broiler can still cook your steak.

Heat is transmitted in the form electromagnetic waves, which is the same kind of energy as that from a flashlight, your stereo speakers, your cell phone, or a microwave oven. The main difference among those usages is the wavelength, or if you prefer, the wave's frequency. For more than this author groks beyond that, Wikipedia's article on Heat is a good place to start.


A ratio is a proportion, for example "two to one", or 2:1 or 2-1 as that might be written, sometimes as percentages 100/50. It means that for every two parts of an ingredient—two ounces or two cups, for example—there will be one part—one ounce or cup— of another.

For culinary purposes, ratios are described in parts by weight—ounces and pounds, grams and kilograms—or by volume—tablespoons, cups, gallons; milliliters (mL), liters (L). Weight and volume are almost never used together. For water and liquids very much like water, weights and volumes are essentially interchangeable, but do be careful: Oil floats; a pint weighs less than a pound.

Mirepoix is 50/25/25 Onions/Carrots/Celery by weight. With the ratio 100/60/3/2 Flour/Water/Salt/Yeast, (again by weight) and a little imagination, you can bake bread every day of the week for a year, never have the same thing twice, and never open a cookbook. A good scale is worth the investment. So is the book, Ratio by Michael Ruhlman, which should be available at your favorite bookseller.


To reduce a liquid—wine or stock for a sauce, for example—is to simmer it to cause evaporation of water. As the water evaporates, the liquid gets more concentrated, and carried far enough it will begin to thicken as well. When a liquid is reduced to the point that it nappes a spoon and will be served as a sauce, it is called a "reduction".

Directions to reduce a liquid often state how much to do so. To reduce a stock by half or 50%, for example, is to simmer it until it is only half the volume it was when it started. A quart reduced to a pint is reduced by half. That same quart reduced to a cup is reduced by three quarters, or 75%. You might also see a recipe calling for something to be reduced au sec, which means to reduce it until it is almost dry.


When a starch retrogrades, it releases some of its held moisture, and it shrinks. Retrogradation is essentially the undoing of geletanization. Staling bread, rice that shrinks back to itself just enough to be fluffy, the way a cake pulls away from the pan a little bit as it cools: Retrograding starches.


Roasting is a dry heat cooking method. It is physically equivalent to baking, the entry for which contains more detail.

rolling boil

See full boil.


A roux (roughly "ROO")is a thickening made of one part flour and one part fat, both measured by weight. Roux (plural, spelled and pronounced the same the same as the singular) are described by color from lightest to darkest: white, blonde, brown, and "black", although if it gets that dark, it's going to be unpleasant and bitter. Beware the carryover effect.

To make a roux, whisk the fat and flour over medium high heat in a sauté pan. Mix fairly frequently while it bubbles and cooks. The roux will begin to smell like fresh bread, and at this stage it is considered white. Continue to cook and stir until it starts to smell toasty but hasn't begun to change color very much: Blonde. Cooked further to a golden brown or a little darker: Brown. And cooked until it's a deep, mahogany brown, you have a black or Cajun roux.

A pound of blonde or white roux—8 ounces each of fat and flour—will thicken a gallon of stock to a medium consistency. Darker roux won't thicken as well, so plan to use more of it for the same level of thickness.


A sachet is a bundle of herbs and other flavorings added to a stock, sauce, etc. while it cooks, then removed at the end. A sachet can be bundled in cheesecloth, tied together with string, loosely packed into a tea ball, or—if whatever pureeing and straing of the final result allows it—simply left in after all.

"Standard" sachets vary, but for a gallon of stock, a sachet might include 8 to 12 black peppercorns, 1 teaspoon of dried thyme, 4 to 6 bruised parsley stems or some root, a large bay leaf, and two garlic cloves peeled and lightly crushed. Some books and other sources call fora clove or two as well.


Sauté comes from the French word sauter, meaning "to jump". It is a dry heat cooking method characterized by farily high heat and a little fat in a pan. Sautéing is one of the most versatile cooking methods available and it works as well for cooking thin cuts of meat or browning them for braising as it does for vegetables (blanched as necessary) tossed in hot olive oil with garlic, salt, and herbs for service, or caremelized with tomato for a brown sauce.

savory or umami

Savory is one of the elements of flavor that humans can detect, along with salt, sweet, bitter, and sour. It is present in the food additive monosodium glutamate (MSG) and in condiments such as ketchup and soy sauce. A good stock is rich in savory flavor from the breakdown of the collagen as it cooks.


Seasonings, or seasoning agents, enhance flavors already present in a food. When you add white pepper and salt to finish up Béchamel, for example, you're not looking for saltiness or peppery heat, you're looking for the sauce to taste more like itself than it does. Fresh slices of tomatoes, sprkinked with just a little salt and left alone for about 10 minutes, taste much better than their unsalted counterparts: Not salty, just more like tomatoes.

See also flavor.


To shock an item is to immediately stop its carryover cooking by application of cold temperatures, typically as ice water. If you are blanching carrots to include later in a medley with broccoli and yellow squash, you should drain and shock them to keep them from cooking further. In a commercial kitchen, a blast chiller can be used to shock foods that don't do well submerged in water.


Simmering is a moist heat cooking method characterized by cooking food submerged in water at a fairly lively but not full boil. Simmering temperatures are higher than those for poaching and tend to be in the 185°F/85°C to 205°F/96°C range.


A slurry is a purified starch such as cornstarch, potato starch, or arrowroot powder, mixed with water, and used as a thickening agent. When you mix in the slurry and bring the liquid up to a boil, the starch geletanizes, binding the starch molecules to each other and thickening the liquid.

A slurry made with flour is called a whitewash and its use is generally discouraged.

small sauce or child sauce

Small sauces are simply the collection of sauces derived from the five mother sauces. Hollandaise is a mother (or leading sauce), for example, and its small sauces include Mousseline and Bearnaise.


Smoking is a dry heat cooking method characterized by surrounding the food being cooked with wood, charcoal, or other smoke. Smoking is also a preservative technique, and items may be hot-smoked—smoked at temperatures close to roasting—or cold-smoked at temperatures as low as 150°F/65°C.

Smoke itself should be considered a flavoring ingredient: Whether a sausage is hot- or cold-smoked, the smoke add flavor. "Liquid" is available at most supermarkets and is usually simply that: Naturally produced smoke, captured, and condensed to a liquid. With a gentle hand—the turkey legs sold at Lane Stadium are usually too heavy with it—you can bring some smokey flavor to a dish without even lighting a match.

smoke point

The temperature at which oil starts to break down and smoke. Different oils smoke at different temperatures, so their uses in the kitchen vary. Some extra virgin olive oils, for example, can start to smoke as temperatures as low as 300°F/150°C. What's great on a salad may not be right for deep frying. Peanut oil, on the other hand, does well at temperatures a little above 400°F/200°C, so it's perfect for making french fries.

If oil starts to smoke, it's too hot and should be removed from the heat immediately. Smoking oil can add unpleasant flavors. The smoke is also your last warning before it bursts into flame.

Frying oil does have a limited useful lifetime, and contaminants—breading or crumbs that fall in, salt, etc.—will shorten the time it has. If you're careful to keep your oil as clean as you can, though, you can usually cool and strain it for another use or two.


A starch is a carbohydrate composed of large collections of simple sugars. At a small enough scale, the molecules resemble long chains, hairy baseballs, or some combination of the two.

Starches are the primary nutritional ingredients in breads and potatoes, and they make up a great deal of the material in beans, nuts, and other such high protein or high fat plant-based foods.

When isolated and purified—cornstarch or arrowroot, for example—they can be used in a slurry to thicken sauces and gravies.


Steam refers to water in its gaseous form. We often talk about seeing steam above a boiling pot or when you open a hot dishwasher, but it's technically incorrect. What you're seeing is water in liquid form—small droplets of it—as it condenses in the air (or on your glasses). Steam itself is invisible.

That's an important point, particularly with regards to safety. Steam is Hot—potentially much hotter than water's boiling point—and should be respected. Be careful removing a lid from a boiling pot or opening a package from the microwave.

Steaming food is a moist heat cooking method. Because water is such an efficient conductor of heat, cooking in steam is typically faster that, say, roasting in a dry oven.


See braise for more detail. Stewing and braising are really the same cooking method. We just tend to use "stew" when the pieces of food are smaller.


A stock is, at its simplest, a clear, flavorful liquid, extracted from bones and meat. Stocks can also be made from vegetables.

Stocks are often classified as "white" or brown stock, the difference being the handling of the bones and mirepoix that go into it. Brown stocks are made from roasted bones—veal, beef, or chicken usually—while white stocks—made from fish (often called "fumet" rather than "stock"), unroasted chicken or veal—are intentionally kept lighter in color and flavor.

Stocks are seldom served on their own, but they are essential to great cooking. If you braise shredded green cabbage in chicken stock for 8 to 10 minutes with a little salt and pepper, for example, you might discover a taste for cabbage. Stocks are the bases for soups and sauces. They're great for simmering or poaching other foods. Clarified further to a consommé, they can be stunning and elegant.


The term sugar often refers to table sugar, sucrose, C6H12O6, composed of one molecule each of simpler sugars Glucose and Fructose. There are other common sugars we encounter in cooking, among them Maltose, Galactose, and the Lactose that is found in milk. Discussion of the individual sugars, their relative sweetnesses, and their other properties is more than can nicely fit in a glosary entry.

For cooking and nutrtional purposes, sugar is a carbohydrate. Sugars are far simpler in structure than starches, however, and they dissolve in water rather than geletanizing.


To sweat vegetables, as mirepoix headed for a sauce or soup might be, cook them over low heat with just enough fat to coat, until they are soft. Onions, celery, and similar vegetables will become transluscent or clear. If it's sizzling, the heat is proably too high. The goal of sweating, unlike caramelization, is to coax out the juices and flavors without changing them much.


Thickening a liquid—making it so it's thicker, or less viscous, so it doesn't flow as easily— is can be done in a few different ways.

The easiest one to conceptualize may be the method that's used in Tomato Sauce; i.e., a vegetable puree gives sufficient body that the resulting sauce is not thin and watery.

The other two are direct applications of the fact that starches geletanize in hot water. Liquids can be thickened with a slurry or a roux. With those methods, the starch molecules swell up and grab on to each other.

See also napper.

Tomato Sauce

Tomato Sauce is one of the five mother sauces. It's essentially a cooked tomato puree with other flavors. While it can be enriched with stock or thickened with a roux, it's not particularly usual to do so.

It's also incredible easy to make from scratch. Start with a pound of mirepoix, maybe a little salt pork or bacon, and sweat or caramelize it as you prefer. Add herbs and other flavors you like—a quarter pound of parmesan cheese (or a leftover rind or two), some fresh fennel or fennel seed, garlic, oregano, thyme, rosemary, maybe a little sugar or a splash of vodka. Add a #10 can—about a gallon— of tomato. Puree, crushed, chopped; any form works. Simmer for half an hour to 45 minutes, puree, and adjust seasonings. To that, you can add browned ground beef or sausage, slices of mushroom, or fresh basil as you like.

This is a big batch, so plan to store leftovers. It'll keep in the fridge for at least a week, and you can freze it for considerably longer than that.

You can certainly use fresh tomatoes—peel and remove the seeds—if you have good ones from your garden or the farmers market. Grocery store tomatoes, though, are grown for their durability during shipping, not flavor. They tend to have little natural tomato flavor or acid, and the sauce just doesn't reach its potential.

Small sauces include ketchup, marinara, Creole with green pepper and garlic, and the sort of barbecue sauce you'll see in tomato-based lands, with sugar or molasses, vinegar, and onion.


See savory.


Sauce Veluté is one of the five mother sauces. It is just like Brown Sauce in the sense that it is a stock thickened with a roux.

It's also different. First it's made with a white stock—chicken or veal, or fish fumet. Second, the mirepoix is sweated rather than caramelized.

Small sauces include Allemande: Veal Velouté with egg yolks and heavy cream., Suprême: Chicken Velouté with Cream. White Wine: Fish Velouté with dry white wine and cream. Any of those can be further transformed into a Mushroom sauce with mushrooms and a little lemon. (There's also a brown stock Mushroom made from demi-glace, mushrooms, and shallots.)

To a gallon of Velouté Add 5 or 6 pounds of chopped broccoli, asaparagus, or butternut squash. Simmer until soft. Puree, strain, adjust seasonings: Cream of Broccoli (or Asparagus or Butternut Squash) Soup.


Water, H2O, is essential to life, and common in the kitchen in its liquid state as well as in its solid (ice) and gaseous (steam) forms. When liquid water is mentioned in a recipe or cooking method, you can almost always substitute some or all of it with stock or another flavorful liquid.


A whitewash is a slurry made with flour, which is not a pure starch. Some sophisticated palates can detect raw flour flavors in liquids thickened with a whitewash, so roux and purified starch slurries are preferred in most professional kitchens.

wet heat

See moist heat.

Updated and modifed from Cooking and Food Terms at Analytical Life by Fritz Knack, as licensed under Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States.