18 Cooking Terms You Should Know

The fancy culinary terms used in recipes aren’t as intimidating as they sound. From al dente to yakitori, you can learn the true meanings behind common cooking words below.

Whether or not you know what flambé means, be careful trying it at home.
Whether or not you know what flambé means, be careful trying it at home. / Lucas Ninno/Getty Images

The first step toward becoming a great home cook is learning to read a recipe. Even if you have the right equipment and ingredients, your dish will fall apart if you get stuck on words you don’t recognize. So if you’ve ever wondered if chiffonade is as fancy as it sounds, or if sweating your onions is a good thing, read on for the explanations behind those and more cooking terms.


In cooking terminology, render means “to melt down,” and it’s always applied to fat. If you’ve ever eaten a strip of bacon that was flabby in some spots and charred in others, it wasn’t rendered properly. When you cook a fatty piece of meat over steady heat, it will eventually release its oils into the pan as the fatty bits become crisp and golden-brown. You can conserve the rendered fat that’s left over and use it as cooking oil. 

Al dente

Pasta shapes like spaghetti and rotini are depicted.
You’ll want to cook this pasta al dente. / alvarez, E+ Collection, Getty Images

This Italian cooking term is commonly used in pasta recipes. Literally meaning “to the tooth,” al dente describes pasta that’s barely cooked through so it still has a firm bite. Chefs usually prefer the chewier texture to soft, overcooked pasta. There’s one instance where al dente shouldn’t be the goal; if you’re working with fresh pasta, it won’t be possible to achieve that same toothsome consistency. 


A braised dish has been partially submerged in liquid and cooked at low heat for a long period of time. It’s a popular cooking method for cuts of meat with lots of connective tissues to break down, like brisket and short ribs. Vegetables like potatoes, celery, and leafy greens can be braised as well.   


Dish being flambeed.
This dish is lit. / Robert George Young/Getty Images

Dishes are flambéed (French for “set aflame”) when they’re doused in liquor and ignited. The technique helps mellow the taste of raw alcohol in food, and it also makes for a showstopping presentation. Famous flambé dishes include Bananas Foster, Crêpes Suzette, and Cherries Jubilee.


Blanching an ingredient involves boiling it in water for a short amount of time—usually a few minutes or less. It helps soften and remove the bitterness from certain vegetables while keeping them fresh and crisp. While the general meaning of blanch is to drain something of color, blanching green veggies like broccoli and asparagus actually makes them more vibrant

Al pastor

Meat on al pastor rotisserie.
How the al pastor is made. / Jose Carlos Rayo Bravo/Getty Images

Al pastor describes the Mexican cooking method of roasting thin slices of seasoned pork stacked together on a vertical spit. It was inspired by the shawarma Lebanese immigrants brought with them to central Mexico in the early 1900s. Mexican shepherds in the area fell in love with the preparation, which is how it came to be known as al pastor, or “shepherd’s style.” Today the technique is most famously used to make tacos of the same name. 

Deglaze and Fond

Deglazing a pan may sound intimidating, but it’s one of the most basic cooking techniques. After searing ingredients in a hot pan, a recipe may ask you to deglaze it by pouring liquid directly into the cookware. This will release any caramelized brown bits—also known as fond—stuck to the bottom of the pan and incorporate them into a flavorful sauce. Deglazing is often done with alcoholic drinks like wine or liquor, but it also works with stock, vinegar, and plain water. 


Chopping herbs chiffonade style on cutting board.
Chiffonade demonstrated. / JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images

French for “made of rags,” chiffonade is one of the classic French knife techniques. It’s done by stacking leafy herbs, rolling them up, and slicing the bundle to make fine ribbons. Herbs like mint or basil that have been prepared this way are often used as garnish.


If a recipe calls for you to reduce a liquid, it’s asking you to literally decrease the quantity. This is done by cranking the heat, which causes more of the sauce or stock to evaporate into steam. The liquid that’s left behind therefore has more concentrated flavor than it did in its unreduced state, and it may be thicker as well. This is why you should wait until the liquid is fully reduced to season it to your liking, as it could end up tasting too salty. 


Yakitori cooking on grill.
Yakitori cooking on grill. / hiroyuki nakai/Getty Images

In Japanese cuisine, yakitori refers to pieces of meat that are skewered and cooked over open heat. This is usually done with chicken, including parts of the bird like the liver, heart, and fatty skin that are often tossed away in Western cooking.


The science of emulsification is to essential making the world’s most popular condiments. Oil naturally separates from other liquids, and to incorporate it into a sauce it needs to be emulsified. That involves slowly whisking it into a mixture until the oil disperses into droplets small enough to stay suspended in water. If this isn’t done properly, the sauce will “break” into a greasy mess. Mayonnaise, vinaigrettes, and hollandaise are all emulsifications.


Roux in pot with wooden spoon.
Making a roux. / annick vanderschelden photography/Getty Images

Roux is the base of many classic French sauces, including velouté and béchamel. It’s made by cooking butter and flour together over low heat and slowly adding a liquid until the mixture is smooth and creamy. The component is the key to thickening many sauces and gravies. 


As Schitt’s Creek taught us (see the video above), the direction to ”fold“ an ingredient into a mixture can cause panic in the kitchen. It isn’t the same as simply stirring, and confusing the two techniques could ruin your dish. Recipes will usually ask for an ingredient to be folded in gently if it’s been whipped. If you want to mix whipped cream with crushed berries, for example, gently lifting the ingredients and turning them over onto themselves will combine them without bursting the delicate air bubbles, leaving you with a dish that’s light and fluffy.


Chopped vegetables sweating in a pan.
Chopped vegetables sweating in a pan. / Photo by Cathy Scola/Getty Images

While you don’t want actual sweat in your food, letting your ingredients “sweat” is something many recipes call for. Usually applied to finely chopped vegetables like onions, an ingredient sweats when it gives off moisture and softens as it cooks. It shouldn’t take on any color at this stage. Instead, the vegetables should be semi-translucent and glistening as if they were sweating—only less gross. 


Of all the food preservation methods used around the world, confit may be the most decadent. The French technique is done by slowly cooking food in fat over low heat and storing it in the rendered fat. In addition to providing a boost of flavor, the fat helps protect the dish from bacteria—at least when it's prepared properly. Incorrectly stored garlic confit is one of the most common sources of the toxin that causes botulism, so consume it at your own risk.


Trussed chicken on chopping board.
A trussed chicken ready to be cooked. / Westend61/Getty Images

If you’ve ever wondered what the string sold in the kitchen supplies aisle is used for, trussing is the answer. Whole chickens are traditionally roasted with their legs and wings tied close to the body with twine. By trussing the bird, the chef ensures that it cooks evenly and looks impressive when it comes out of the oven. 


Meat is brined when it’s steeped in a solution of water and salt (though sugar and other flavorings may also be in the mix). The process breaks down muscle fibers, denatures proteins, and draws moisture and flavor into the meat, all adding up to a juicier and more tender product. Many casual home cooks only considering brining when Thanksgiving rolls around, but in addition to making turkey taste better, brining can also be used to prepare chicken, pork, and veal.

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