A Beginner's Guide to the Most Confusing Cooking Terms
Being able to cook at home isn't that hard-all you have to do is follow the recipe. Unfortunately, when the recipe is full of a bunch of confusing terms that are alien to us beginners, things get more difficult. If the difference between chopped, diced, and minced is nothing but a few letters to you, let's demystify those (and many other) terms.
Chopped vs. Diced vs. Minced vs. Sliced
The most common cooking instruction you're going to run into is to chop, mince, dice, or slice your vegetables. This seems simple enough on the surface (as long as you have the basic knife skills down
- Chopped: Chopped usually means to cut your vegetables into large squares. Generally, this means 1/2 to 3/4-inch pieces, but a recipe may tell you exactly how big to make those chunks. Chopping usually has more leeway on the exact size than other methods.
- Diced: Diced is basically small chops. This would mean around a 1/4 to 1/8-inch chunks of food. Oftentimes you'll get specific instructions like "dice into 1/8-inch squares" in the recipe.
- Minced: When a recipe tells you to mince something, it wants you to cut it as small as you can with a knife. You'll run into mincing every now and again with various vegetables, but most commonly, garlic. Thankfully, America's Test Kitchen shows off how to mince garlic quickly.
- Sliced: Sliced is exactly what it sounds like: slices. For slices, just cut vertically down on your vegetables
(or whatever else) and you're all set. Typically you can slice these as thick or thin as you prefer, but recipes will occasionally recommend a thin or thick slice.
The Kitchn points out a good rule of thumb: if a vegetable is pungent (like garlic or onions), you usually want to cut it into smaller pieces, especially if it's not being cooked. Follow the recipe closely until you get a feel for how the different sized cuts end up affecting the taste and cook time of a meal.
Broiling vs. Baking
Every oven has at least two settings: bake and broil. In a majority of cases, you'll likely find yourself baking things in your oven, but the broil function is just as useful. There is a huge difference between the tw
- Baking: Baking is all about surrounding your food with a consistent temperature and cooking it from all sides. So, when you're baking something, the entire oven reaches a temperature and cooks the entirety of your food as a whole.
- Broiling: Broiling works by exposing your food to direct heat much like a grill. If baking could be considered a shotgun, broiling is your kitchen's sniper rifle. When you turn on your broiler, you'll see a large flame at the top of your oven. You'll usually then set your food right under that flame to cook it quickly. Typically speaking, a broiler reaches a temperature of around 550 degrees.
Broiling is best when you're trying to cook something thin or quickly melt something. It's often used for steaks or for melting cheese. Baking is better when you need to cook everything at once, like a cake, biscuit, or pizza.
Simmer vs. Boil
Whether you're making some rice or boiling pasta, you're going to run into terms like simmer and boil in a ton of different recipes. They mean a slightly different thing:
- Simmer: To keep a pot simmering you want to bring it to a boil and then reduce the heat slightly to a point where you don't see bubbles anymore. This is usually around 200 °F, but sometimes chefs suggest it should be closer to 180 °F. Simmering is meant to get food hot quickly without the harshness of boiling.
- Boil: Water boils around 212 °F depending on your elevation, and it usually requires turning your stove up to the maximum temperature so your water bubbles up. Boiling is good for vegetables, starchy foods like rice or noodles, and older chunks of tough meat.
Most often a recipe will say something like "bring a pot to boil, insert (whatever), and simmer for X minutes." In most cases, this means you'll want to dump in what you're cooking after the water boils, lower the temperature a little, and then get the water (or milk or whatever) to that state where it's not quite boiling.
Saute vs. Pan Fry
When it comes to frying foods, you typically have one of two instructions: saute or pan fry. The distinction between these two is pretty slight, but the way you prepare the food for each does matter:
- Saute: Sauteing means cooking small chunks of food over a medium-high heat with oil in a pan. You'll usually move the food around with a spatula as you cook it and your goal is to brown the food slightly without burning it.
- Pan Fry: Pan frying is when you cook larger chunks of food like chicken breasts or steak over a medium heat. You'll generally only flip your food once when pan frying your food.
The Reluctant Gourmet describes the difference between the two methods like s
Since it takes less time to saute, and the food is cut in small pieces, precision in temperature is not as crucial in a saute as is moving the food to ensure even cooking. A good test for making sure the pan is hot enough to saute is to sprinkle just a few drops of water in the pan. They should immediately boil vigorously and evaporate within a couple of seconds. In the longer process of pan frying, temperature control is a much more crucial factor. In a pan fry, you're looking for a gentle sizzle.
Shredded vs. Grated
Whether it's cheeses, spices, or the occasional carrot, you'll need to know the difference between shredding or grating your foods. You'll need a common kitchen grater like this, but shredding and grating are slightly different:
- Shredded: Shredding is usually done with a grater that has bigger holes. The end result is long, smooth strips that cook or melt slowly because of their size.
- Grated: Grating creates tiny pieces of food that look like powder. This is usually best when you want something like cheese to melt quickly over a dish, or a vegetable to hide away inside a sauce. This is done with the side of the grater with tiny holes.
Much like chopping, dicing, mincing, and slicing, the main reason the difference between shredded and grated matters is for cooking time and food consistency.
Liquid Measuring Cup vs. Dry Measuring Cup
The main difference between a liquid measuring cup and a dry measuring cup is just that: liquid versus dry. A liquid measuring cup gives you ounces, whereas a dry measuring cup usually just gives you cups. The reason you need both is accuracy. Chow explains why grabbing the right measuring cup actually matters:
A wet measuring cup has the line a little below the top of the cup, so you can avoid spillage. Tapping a wet measuring cup to settle a dry ingredient to the desired line will cause some fine ingredients, like flour or sugar, to compact. This can wreak havoc with fragile recipes. For example, an extra 10 grams of sugar in certain cake recipes would be disastrous.
A dry measuring cup filled to the top with a liquid will yield a roughly correct measurement, though pouring it may be messier without a spout.
Essentially, those two different types of cups are engineered for different tasks and work best when you use them as you're supposed to. As a general rule of thumb, just use the measuring cup that best suits the ingredient you're using.
A Dash vs. a Pinch vs. a Smidgen
You'll often find archaic-sounding measurements like pinch, dash, or smidgen for spices in your recipes. These are not technical terms by any means, nor are they usually used with any authority in recipes, but the internet has sort of settled on exact measurements:
- Dash: 1/8 teaspoon
- Pinch: 1/16 teaspoon
- Smidgen: 1/32 teaspoon
Likewise, when a recipe asks you to "salt to taste," it's usually asking for a three-fingered pinch at a time.
The above tips should cover pretty much everything you'll run into with everyday recipes. Once you've got a grasp on the basics, you can start using the power of science