The culinary world, like many professions, has its own language. You don’t need to know every word and nuance of this language, but the more you know, the easier it will be to understand what is going on around you. It’s the difference between visiting Paris and knowing absolutely no French, and having a vocabulary of 100 words. You’re not going to be able to discuss current events with a friendly Parisian, but you’re going to be able to communicate basic ideas which is often enough to unlock the secrets of the city. As an aside, in both the culinary world and in Paris, it helps to know French…
Á la minute – In culinary terms, à la minute refers to the preparation of a dish or a sauce to order, instead of making it in advance. Sauces that are prepared à la minute are often prepared or finished in the same pan that the main component of the dish was prepared in.
Basting – Basting is a technique of brushing, spooning or pouring liquids over food as it cooks. Basting helps preserve moisture and add flavor.
Blanching – From the French blanchir (“to whiten”), blanching is a super easy cooking technique that involves plunging an ingredient in to boiling water for a short period, and then dropping it in to an ice bath (shock) to stop the cooking process. Blanching is used for a number of reasons. It can be used to “set” the color of a vegetable before additional cooking. Green beans and brussel sprouts fit in to that group, as a quick blanch before cooking will help them achieve and keep a nice, deeper green color. You can also use this technique to help peel some fruits and vegetables. Tomatoes are the common food in this category; a quick score, blanch, shock, and that skin will just about fall off. Blanching can also help tone down a strong taste on something like a cabbage or an onion.
Bouquet garni – French for “garnished bouquet”, bouquet garni is a bundle of herbs added to a dish. The herbs can be tied using a string, secured in some cheesecloth, or otherwise fastened together so that the herbs can be removed prior to serving. There is no recipe for a bouquet garni, rather the herbs included are those that are appropriate for the dish. One traditional combination include parsley, thyme, and bay leaf, and may also include peppercorns, savory, basil, or rosemary.
Braising – From the French braiser (who would have guessed?), braising is one of those terms we use a lot, hear a lot, and we wind up doing it a lot even though we don’t know that is what we’re doing. Braising basically involves first searing the ingredient (meat, vegetables), usually in something such as butter or oil, and then finishing the cooking in some sort of covered pot, such as a crock pot. The searing step helps brown the ingredient and add some flavor, and the second, slow cooking step tenderizes and creates a rich flavored dish. You’ll see a lot of braising recipes for some of your tougher cuts of meat.
Brining – Brining is a process in which meat is soaked in salt water before cooking. Brining is used with leaner meats like turkey, chicken, or pork, to help them retain more moisture during cooking. The length of brining depends on the amount of salt used and the type of meat being brined, and it varies from a few hours to a day or two.
Deglaze – De, from the Latin “away, down” and glaze, meaning…glaze? Anyhow, you know how sometimes when you cook a steak in a pan, put the steak on a plate to rest (you do rest your steaks, right?) and it leaves behind those charred, yummy bits in the pan? Deglazing is the process of adding liquid to the pan to dissolve those tasty bits, and it’s an easy way to create a basic sauce or gravy. Here is a freebie: gravy is a sauce made from the juices that run naturally from meat during cooking. All gravies are sauces, but not all sauces are gravies…
Étuvée – French for “steamed”, in culinary terms étuvée is basically sweating vegetables in their own liquid. That is, slowly cooking the vegetables without browning them, so that they release their liquid.
Ganache – From the French word for jowl, ganache is made from chocolate and cream. Depending on the ratio of cream to chocolate, ganache can serve as a base for a number of applications. More cream in the mixture leads to a soft ganache. Less cream results in a firm ganache that hardens when refrigerated; thing of a chocolate shell.
Gastrique – A gastrique is a reduction of vinegar and sugar. Grastriques are typically added to other sauces to impart a bit of sweetness and acidity (sweet and sour) , or flavored with fruit or spices to be used as a stand-alone sauce. While techniques for creating a gastrique vary, a basic method is to caramelize the sugar until it has a nice, rich brown color, and then add the vinegar. Different types of vinegar, such as sherry vinegar, red wine vinegar, or balsamic vinegar, can be used to give varying end results for different uses.
Gastronomy – The practice or art of choosing, cooking, and eating good food. Etymologically, the word “gastronomy” is derived from Greek gastér, meaning stomach, and nómos, meaning “laws that govern”, and therefore literally means “the art or law of regulating the stomach.”
Herbes de Provence – French for Herbs From Provence, herbes de Provence is a blend of spices typical of Provence, a region of south eastern France on the Mediterranean next to Italy. The blend typically contains savory, fennel, basil, thyme, and some variations include other spices like lavender, bay leaf, or marjoram. Commercially, you can buy pre-blended herbes de Provence. Most likely, it’s the companies own mixture of spices based on the Provençal blend, and the spices themselves can come from anywhere, as the term “Herbes de Provence” is generic and not geographically protected, like wine is, for example. Herbes de Provence can be used on any Mediterranean dish, and works well with a variety of meats (especially grilled or roasted) and even a number of vegetable dishes, such as roasted tomatoes.
La galette des Rois – La galette des Rois (French: “the cake of the kings”) is a cake celebrating the Epiphany. There are a couple of variations of the cake depending on the region of France you happen to find yourself. Northern France’s version is a puff pastry with a frangipane (almond paste) center. In southern France, it’s more of a brioche with candied fruits. Both regions, though, follow the tradition of hiding la fève (French: “the bean”) inside the cake and the person who finds it is “king for a day”. While la fève was actually a bean back in the olden days, most modern versions use a small trinket or figurine.
Meringue – Meringue is a type of desert made from whipped egg whites and sugar. French meringue is the most common to home cooks, made with white sugar beaten in to egg whites. There is also an Italian meringue made with boiling sugar syrup, and a Swiss meringue that is made over a water bath.
Mirepoix – Mirepoix is a combination of onion, carrots, and celery, used to flavor and aroma to stocks, soups, and sauces. The classic ratio for a mirepoix is 50% onions, 25% carrots, and 25% celery. The vegetables are then sweated in either olive oil or butter until translucent. The mirepoix itself doesn’t make it to the final dish, and it’s usually strained out. As such, perfect chops aren’t necessary, but it is necessary to make sure everything is chopped about the same size for even cooking and flavor distribution. You can chop a fine mirepoix to get those flavors in a quicker dish, or thicker chops for dishes with longer cooking times.
Mise en place – (Literally “putting in place”) is a French phrase defined by the Culinary Institute of America as “everything in place”, as in set up. It is used in professional kitchens to refer to organizing and arranging the ingredients (e.g., cuts of meat, relishes, sauces, par-cooked items, spices, freshly chopped vegetables, and other components) that a cook will require for the menu items that he or she expects to prepare during his/her shift.
Parboiling – Parboiling is similar to blanching, in that an item is dipped in to boiling water, but it typically doesn’t include the additional dip in to an ice bath to stop the cooking process. Parboiling is usually done to precook an item that is going to be further cooked another way, such as on the grill, in order to soften an ingredient that might otherwise take a longer time to cook.
Resting – In addition to what you’ll want to be doing after all that cooking on Thanksgiving, resting allows the meat to relax so the juices become redistributed in the meat instead of ending up on the plate during carving. It also helps even out the internal temperature of the meat. You should definitely let that red meat rest after you cook it, but don’t forget to rest your turkey, too. Cover it loosely with tin foil for 15-30 minutes, but not too long. Once the internal temperature begins to drop significantly, you risk promoting bacterial growth. So rest it, cut it, and get those leftovers in the fridge.
Roasting – Roasting is a “dry heat” cooking method that uses a diffused, indirect heat, such as an oven.
Roux – Butter and flour. Yum! French for reddish-brown, roux is a combination of flour and some sort of fat, usually butter. A roux is most often used as a thickening agent for sauces and, you guessed it, that gravy recipe you found.
Scoring – Scoring is basically making shallow cuts in to the surface or skin of food, such as fish, meat, or chicken. Scoring can help with the absorption of a marinade or to tenderize a piece of meat. Scoring a tomato before blanching creates an easy starting point for peeling. Scoring can also be decorative; scoring diagonal lines in to the skin before cooking creates a nice diamond pattern after cooking.
Simple Syrup – Simple syrup is simply sugar dissolved in water. To make simple syrup, the water is heated and the sugar is added slowly to allow it to dissolve. How much sugar you add depends on how sweet you want the resulting syrup, from 3 parts water to 1 part sugar all the way to equal parts water and sugar. Because crystalized sugar is difficult to dissolve in a cold liquid, simple syrup is often used to sweeten instead. It’s a very common sweetener in cocktails, such as a mojito.
Soffritto – An Italian variation of mirepoix, typically made with olive oil instead of butter, and may also contain garlic, shallot, leeks, and herbs.
Sous vide – French for “under vacuum”, sous vide is a cooking technique where food is sealed in an airtight plastic bag and cooked in a water bath. Typically, the food is cooked at a low temperature for a long period of time.
Supreme – It’s “sue-prem”, not “sue-preem”. Basically, supreming citrus is to remove the skin, pith, membranes, and seeds, and to separate the fruit in to segments. What you wind up with is the “meat” of the fruit. As a noun, the supreme is the final product, the segmented fruit. If you’ve ever had a citrus salad, that uses supremes.
Truss – To tie up or bind, usually with string or skewers. Trussing and tying are often used interchangeably, although use of the word trussing is more common with fowl. Trussing a chicken, turkey, or duck involves binding the winds and legs close to the body to keep its shape during cooking. By keeping the wings and legs tucked in, it can keep the tips from burning. The downside is that the folds between the legs and the body won’t get crispy. For a roast, you’ll more often hear tie instead of truss, but the idea is the same. Tie a roast to help it keep an even shape during cooking to ensure consistent cooking.
Zest – Zest is the outermost portion of peel from citrus fruits (lemons, limes, oranges, etc.). The zest contains the oils and that are the essence of the fruit from which it comes. It’s only the outer portion, the white layers are called “pith” and they are pretty bitter.