A Beginner's Guide To The Most Confusing Cooking Terms

A Beginner's Guide to the Most Confusing Cooking Terms

Cooking 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 terms (and many others).

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Chopped vs. Diced vs. Minced vs. Sliced

One 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 your basic knife skills down), but size really does matter in cooking. A recipe writer picks a size because it influences cooking time, texture, and taste. If you dice vegetable chunks too large, you'll screw with your cooking time. Chop something too small, it will change the flavour. So, here's what each of those terms typically means:

  • Chopped: Chopped usually means to cut your vegetables into large squares. Generally, this means 1 to 2 centimetre 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 half-a-centimetre chunks of food. Oftentimes you'll get specific instructions in the recipe.
  • Minced: When a recipe tells you to mince something that isn't meat, 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. This clip 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, unless the recipe suggests otherwise.

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 cooking time of a meal.

Simmer vs. Boil

Whether you're making some rice or boiling pasta, you're going to run into terms like simmer and boil in many recipes. They mean slightly different things:

  • 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 90 degrees Celsisus, but sometimes chefs suggest a little hotter. Simmering is meant to get food hot quickly without the harshness of boiling.
  • Boil: Water boils at 100 degrees Celsisus (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.

Sauté vs. Pan Fry

When it comes to frying foods, you typically have one of two instructions: sauté or pan fry. The distinction between these two is quite slight, but the way you prepare the food for each does matter:

  • Sauté: Sautéing 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 or wooden spoon 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 this way:

Since it takes less time to sauté, and the food is cut in small pieces, precision in temperature is not as crucial in a sauté as is moving the food to ensure even cooking. A good test for making sure the pan is hot enough to sauté 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 sometimes need to know the difference between shredding or grating your foods.

  • 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.

This isn't a universal distinction: in Australia, we'll often refer to grated cheese even when the cheese is in larger pieces.

A Dash vs. a Pinch vs. a Smidgen

A Beginner's Guide to the Most Confusing Cooking Terms

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

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 to improve your cooking further.

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