18 Commonly Confused Foods

Vexing victuals

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Nobody ever said that navigating the world of food was easy, but there are a number of puzzles in the land of comestibles that are downright confounding. Whether sharing similar-sounding names, having common sources or being the victims of language run amok, the following 10 pairs of food stand out among the most confusing of the bunch. (Text: Melissa Breyer)

Macaroon versus macaron

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Macaroons, macarons. How can two such distant-cousin cookies be just a little "o" apart? As it turns out, they may look very different in appearance — shaggy versus chic — but they share a common source. Macaroons — flourless, unleavened and originally made with almond paste — come from Italy. From there, the cookie evolved in two directions. Some bakers began replacing the almond paste with coconut, creating what we know of today as the macaroon, while French court bakers developed a version with ground almonds to please the king’s Italian wife, Catherine de Medici, giving way to French macarons. And the rest is cookie history.

Sweet potato versus yam

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You may think you've been eating candied yams at your holiday dinner, but you probably haven't. True yams are native to Asia and Africa — and although there are more than 600 varieties, in general they are dark-skinned, white-fleshed, starchy and dry. Sweet potatoes, on the other hand, are a member of an entirely different botanical family. They range in color, have sweet flesh and come in firm or soft varieties. There were only firm ones available originally in the U.S. When soft varieties were introduced commercially they were referred to as yams to differentiate the two, even though technically that wasn’t correct. Today the USDA requires labels that say "yam" to also include the term "sweet potato." True yams are hard to find unless you're shopping in an international market.

Raw sugar versus brown

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Brown sugar has the hallmarks of a natural product, but in fact raw sugar is the less refined of the two. Raw sugar is the result of an early stage of refining sugar cane and can be identified by its golden crystals. Further processing results in white sugar and the liquid from the process is turned into molasses. Brown sugar is simply white sugar, with 3.5 to 7 percent molasses added back in, making for a moister, more deeply flavored sweetener; but, it's still just enhanced white sugar.

Ragout versus Ragu

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Despite the different spellings, ragout and ragu are pronounced the same ("ragoo"), and in fact, both come from the same French verb, ragouter, which means to stimulate the appetite. But the dishes are different. French ragout is a thick stew of meat, poultry or fish made with or without vegetables. Ragu, aside from being a pasta sauce company, is a thick meat sauce containing ground meat with various vegetables and tomato paste, generally served with pasta.

Cilantro versus coriander

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In much of the world, the herb Americans know as cilantro is called "coriander." But in North America, we use "cilantro," the Spanish word for coriander, when we're talking about the leaves of the plant. We use "coriander" to describe the seeds, which are used in Indian curries, pickling brines and Belgian wheat beer, among other places. Confusing enough?

Rarebit versus rabbit

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If you don't have a taste for cute floppy-eared frolicking mammals, not to worry: You can still eat rarebit with reckless abandon! While rabbit is, yes, rabbit, the similar-sounding rarebit is actually toast with cheese (or cheese sauce). Although originally called Welsh rabbit — and no one is exactly sure why — the dish was misnamed rarebit at some point, and the wrong moniker stuck.

Baking powder versus baking soda

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Both are white powders used as leavening agents for baking, but baking powder and baking soda are decidedly different animals. Baking soda — aka sodium bicarbonate — creates carbon dioxide when mixed with an acidic ingredient, which expands in the oven and makes baked goods rise. (The acidic ingredient — lemon, buttermilk, etc. — also neutralizes sodium carbonate’s metallic flavor.) Baking powder is baking soda with cornstarch and a weak acid (usually cream of tartar) mixed in, obviating the need to include an acidic component in the recipe.

Endive versus endive

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You say “in-dive,” I say “on-deeve” ... but either way you say it, they’re spelled the same. Both curly endive (“in-dive”) and Belgian endive (“on-deeve”) are members of the chicory family. The curly version, with its untidy leaves and frowsy array, is the wilder member of the family and related to other greens like escarole and frisee. The elegant sister, Belgian endive, is raised with labor-intensive fussiness. It is grown in stages, the final one being in the dark and increasingly covered in dirt or straw to preserve its pale complexion.

Natural cocoa versus Dutch-processed cocoa

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In the 19th century, a cocoa maker in Holland discovered that by treating cocoa with an alkalizing agent to remove the acid, he could get a milder, more consistent product. Known as Dutch-processed cocoa, it’s been confusing bakers every since. With its darker color and smooth flavor, it does wonders for deep chocolate baked goods — but because its acidic component has been quelled, it needs to be combined with baking powder (which contains an acid) rather than baking soda (which has no acid) for proper leavening. Natural cocoa, which remains acidic, is generally used with baking soda.