Al Dente – means “to the tooth.” Basically, don’t make your pasta mushy. Leave it with a little bite. Lots of times it’ll finish cooking as you let it sit.
Baste – while cooking it’s the pouring of liquid (usually fat/stock) over something with regularity. It’s meant to keep things moist.
Blanch – to quickly dip something (usually vegetables, sometimes nuts) into HOT usually salty water, then to remove and quickly put into an ice bath to stop cooking. Par-cooks the item so it can cook at the same time as others.
Braise – to cook something low and slow with liquid (see roast). Usually involves searing first, then creating a braising liquid (flavor base), then a long time of cooking. Certain cuts of meat stand up to braise because it takes longer for their fibers to break down.
Brine – a salty (and sometimes sweet) solution that you soak things (usually meat) in to enhance moisture after cooking. Very popular with low fat things like chicken and pork. Think of it as a long marinade but without liquids that will break down tissue (like acids).
Broil – that top “flame-y” part of your oven. Super hot (usually 500*+) flame that acts almost like direct grilling. Usually used only to cook the top of something for a little while.
Caramelize – to cook something until the natural sugars in the item come out and start to “brown.” This has to be done at a heat of medium high or above, otherwise getting that brown is tough. Technically, meat “browns” and pretty much everything else “caramelizes” since it’s not the sugars in meats turning delicious. Just remember: “brown food tastes good.”
Chiffonade – a super thin (and fancy!) way of cutting leafy veggies or herbs (more typical). Lay leaves on top of each other so they match. Roll them like you’d roll a sleeping bag. Imagine you’ve just rolled up cinnamon rolls. Cut them like you’re cutting lots of cinnamon rolls but very thinly. And tinily. And deliciously. Usually used more as a topping than in things, but it’s nice.
Dredge – usually to coat in flour (sometimes sugar) by tossing around in a plate of flour, sometimes a paper bag.
Egg Wash – simply an egg and a tablespoon of water beat together. See glaze.
Emulsify – the blending of two liquids that don’t want to be friends (oil and vinegar). It usually involves high speed (your hand whisking REALLY fast or a blender).
Folding – the act of GENTLY combining several ingredients. Usually reserved for baking it’s when you have two sensitive ingredients that need to combine. Egg whites are notorious for this once you’ve beaten them. Take a spatula and pretend to cut the bowl in half with it, then swipe it along the edge. Cut the bowl in half, swipe, half, swipe. Usually you don’t need to get everything mixed perfectly.
Glaze – used in savory and sweet applications it’s a topping used to enhance flavor. In savory it’s usually a thickened or sweetened topping (think glaze on a ham) that can be made of anything. In baking it’s usually butter, milk or egg wash that tops a bread item to make that beautiful brown crust (think croissants, the good ones).
Grill – cooking with minimal surface contact. Usually done outside over propane or charcoal, but grill grates for indoor cooking are becoming very popular.
Macerate – a method of breaking down food (almost exclusively fruit) by setting it in liquid for varying amounts of time. Makes things like berries become very soft.
Marinade – any type of liquid flavor base which veggies and meats are stored in for a certain amount of time. Be careful using things with acid (they will start to cook proteins), and things with sugar (which will burn when cooking). Otherwise you can put just about anything in a marinade. Also see: Brine.
Mise en Place (meez-en-plahz) – a fancy word for “having everything ready.” I recommend this for beginners (or those who aren’t great on the fly) so you can cut, measure and prep before you start cooking. I do this very rarely (but that doesn’t make it bad).
Poach – to cook things (really anything) in water or poaching liquid (water with flavors) at a temperature just under boiling. Usually used because it’s gently and won’t break things (think poached eggs) but can render some food bland.
Reduce – the cooking down of a liquid (sometimes a sauce, stock, broth, marinade) to make thicker and concentrate flavor. When you reduce something you want to keep it as a medium heat usually and your main goal is to remove water. Heavy things like flavor don’t evaporate.
Resting – what you should do to EVERY protein. Meats hold heat surprisingly well, so don’t be afraid to let them sit a bit. Especially when they are the star of the show (not hidden under tons of sauces, etc). Letting protein rest makes the meat suck back in and redistribute juices. Otherwise your chicken will be dry and your steak will be like rawhide.
Roast – cooking something, usually low and almost always slowly. Certain cuts of meat have been called “roasts” recently because their meat tissues can hold up to the long term cooking. It’s almost always done in an oven between 250-300 degrees, but some recipes call for it elsewhere.
Roux – a mixture of fat (almost exclusively butter) and flour in equal portions. A roux is made to thicken mixtures (gravy, soup, etc) without having clumpy flour bits. A true roux has been cooked for several minutes until it starts to brown. I would suggest cooking it AT LEAST 2 minutes to get the raw flour flavor out, but anywhere up to 10.
Saute – is a giant broad term that means to cook on a flat surface, almost always a pan with fat of some sort. The oil or fat helps brown (magic molecule stuff) while the hot pan helps to distribute heat. Saute heat is almost primarily focused on the part of the food that’s touching the pan rather than roasting which heats all over.
Simmer – NOT boiling. A simmer is a gentle bubble. Just below rolling. Usually recipes call for a simmer because they want to imitate a braise but quickly. The higher the heat the more intense it is for the food.
Smoke point – the point at which your smoke alarms go off. Every oil has a smoke point. What it means is that’s the temperature at which the oil molecules break down and smoke off your pan. Smoke (in large masses) can leave yucky flavors in your food and once you smoke oil (pretty much at all) throw it away. Your oil will taste gross. I could link you to a smoke point chart but who the heck knows what 400 degrees is on their stove top. Moral of the story here’s your most used oils from lowest smoke point to highest: shortening, butter, olive oil, canola oil, nut oils, corn oil. So if you’re cooking chinese (hot hot hot) go for the nut oils. If you’re looking for flavor do butter.
Sweat – cooking vegetables lower than a saute to remove water and cook without much browning. Usually done at low-medium with a little oil and salt (salt pulls water out of veggies). You stir pretty frequently so things don’t brown but cook down and lose water.
Zest – buy yourself a microplaner. The true flavor of citrus is in its zest. There are oils in there that are beyond awesome and your microplaner helps you take off just that first layer (when it starts to get white that’s the pith, and that’s gross). I also use my microplaner for shredding parmesan, grating ginger, and all sorts of things. One tool.