39 Cooking Terms You Should Know

Woman in a kitchen looking through a recipe book

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No kitchen seems complete without a at least a few cookbooks lining the shelves. The conundrum, of course, is that chefs with years, if not decades, of kitchen experience usually write cookbooks for audiences who are not as well-versed in kitchen terminology.

As a result, the language of popular cookbooks can be a daunting combination of unfamiliar ingredients and cooking terms. Often instructions rely on French, Italian or Spanish phrases to describe a cooking process, or antiquated English terms that exist only in the professional kitchen, all of which can lead to a translation gap between chefs sharing information and cooks attempting to recreate the dishes at home. If you find yourself frequently reaching for the dictionary, here are a handful of commonly used cooking terms.

Home cooking should be for everyone. Compared to take-out and convenience food, home-cooked meals can be cheaper, healthier, and more sustainable. Understanding the terms can vastly improve your kitchen experience and the food you serve.

Al Dente

"To the tooth" in Italian, the term refers to firm pasta cooked to the right level of resistance when chewed.


To sauté meat or vegetables, which are then slowly cooked over low heat using ceramic earthenware or a stockpot.


A rich white sauce infused with milk, herbs and butter.


A fancy French term for the preparation of cooked meats ranging from bacon to cured meats and sausage. You may know this one since it's become a popular social media sensation! Also note: Modern charcuterie often swaps out the meats for any number of alternatives.


Delicate looking curlicues of shredded or finely cut vegetable leaves used to garnish a plate or soup.


To remove browned bits adhering to a saucepan through the judicious use of water or other liquid and the application of high heat.


To lightly coat food with a mixture of cornmeal, breadcrumbs and/or flour.


To lightly coat food with a powdery ingredient or to lightly coat a work surface with flour.


To have one liquid suspended in another, often with liquids that do not mix easily, so emulsions are performed through vigorous stirring or shaking. For example, the combination of oil and vinegar to make a thick salad dressing. The video above demonstrates a few different emulsion techniques for dressings and sauces.


The roasted bits that stick to the surface area of a baking sheet, often used to make sauces and soup stocks.

Fines herbes

A seasoning mix that forms the basis of French cooking. Involving a combination of fresh herbs, such as parsley, garlic greens, and tarragon, fines herbes are used in the preparations of meat and vegetables.

A gratin of pumpkin, pasta, and minced meta
A gratin of pumpkin pasta and minced meat. teleginatania/Shutterstock


Any dish that is topped with cheese or breadcrumbs and dabs of butter and then baked in the oven, like the pumpkin and pasta gratin above.


To apply butter or oil to a cooking surface to prevent food from sticking when cooked.


A catchall phrase used to describe any combinations of meat and vegetables braised over low heat to make stew.


To soak herbs, teas or fruits in liquid to extract their respective flavors.


A technique used to describe the process of cutting vegetables into matchstick-sized strips. The video above demonstrates the style.

Kosher Salt

A flaky type of granular salt preferred by cooks due to its lack of additives, such as iodine.


The addition of yeast, baking soda or powder that causes bread and cakes to rise during the baking process. When combined with dough or batter, these ingredients form carbon dioxide bubbles, thereby lightening the texture and increasing the volume of baked goods.


A combination of small leafy greens often found in specialty stores and food co-ops.


To immerse food in liquid to break down and soften. The technique is commonly used to infuse fruit with liquor and vice versa.


To cover cooked food in a thin layer of sauce. The term is derived from the French word for "tablecloth," which is nappe.


To press fruit and herbs against the side of a glass to release their juices.


To grasp a small quantity of spices or seasonings between the thumb and forefinger for sprinkling over food.

Orecchiette pasta with broccoli
Orecchiette pasta with broccoli. studiogi/Shutterstock


Pictured above, this is a small disc shaped pasta whose name is Italian for "little ears."


To place vegetables or fruit in a blender or food processor and process until smooth.

Parchment paper

Heavy double-sided paper with a nonstick surface used to line baking sheets. It is resistant to grease and moisture. Foods can be wrapped and steamed with it, and cooking food in this manner is called en papillote, the French term for "parchment."


A small dumpling made of seasoned fish, poultry or vegetables bound with eggs.


A combination of fat and flour cooked over low heat used to thicken soups and sauces. The video above outlines the steps in making a roux, including information about which type of roux goes best with which kinds of dishes.


To boil excess liquid in a cooking pan in order to decrease the volume through the process of evaporation. Doing so concentrates the flavor of the dish to be served.


To cook food quickly in a skillet, using a small amount of oil or animal fat over medium high heat.


To cook food over low heat, whereby small bubbles rise to the surface of a cooking pot. Simmering is the desired process for making stock.


To boil a combination of bones, meat, fish or vegetables suspended in water in tandem with herbs and spices, yielding a flavorful liquid.


A savory paste consisting of olives, capers, anchovies, olive oil and lemon, haling from the French province of Provenance.


A hearty North African hotchpotch featuring poultry and vegetables simmered in earthenware and seasoned with olives and lemon


The fifth flavor element not covered by sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Most often associated with Japanese cooking and the taste-enhancing ingredient MSG. The video above explains the flavor profile (and also how to pronounce it).

Variety meats

Sometimes called offal, variety meats are cuts of meat involving the internal organs and extremities of animals that can be used in cooking, such as the lungs, intestines, and tail. Treehugger advocates for eating minimal meat, if any—but if you're going to eat animals, let no parts go to waste.


To stir egg whites or heavy cream with light rapid movements, thereby forcing air into food.


The Japanese term for grilled poultry meat cooked directly over hot coals. Yaki means "grill" and tori means "fowl."


The aromatic outermost part of a citrus peel used to flavor food to great effect.