I hope you enjoy Starting from Scratch, my second book, published each week online, one chapter at a time. Before the book’s final publication, I hope to sprinkle readers’ thoughts, opinions and advice throughout. After all, you each have helpful systems and solutions in the kitchen worth sharing. By making a contribution, your comments will be printed, crediting you and/or your blog, and you’ll get free copies of the book. In addition, for each section, I’m consulting an expert blogger – for this excerpt, it’s Shaina Olmanson, home cook and author of Food For My Family.

Now that Luke, my little guy, is in the first grade, I’m re-living what it was like to learn the English language many years ago. There is a natural progression in learning how to read and write. As I walk through our “spelling” homework each week, he reminds me that the silent “e” and the different ways to pronounce each vowel aren’t necessarily intuitive, among other things.

Likewise, the cooking “language” is not always straightforward and easy to understand. Though I take for granted what I have learned over the years through trial and error, cookbooks and magazines, it’s helpful to revisit some of the basic terms. Not only might the beginner chef find these terms useful, but I learned a thing or two from Shaina!

Baking versus cooking. Cooking means you are preparing food by the use of heat. Baking is cooking food, such as bread, with dry heat. In this book, I am using the term bake as a sub-set of cooking, wherein specifically in reference to breads and desserts.

Boil versus broil… As much as these words sound alike, they don’t really resemble each other in practice. If broiling a piece of toast or breast of chicken, for example, you would place it directly under a heating unit. If you are boiling a liquid, you’d be doing do so until you see little bubbles breaking on the surface.

…Versus simmer. This is when you cook something just below its boiling point. Many times, a recipe will ask you to bring something to a boil, such as soup or spaghetti sauce, then turn down the heat to a simmer. This is largely so the liquid (or whatever you are making) won’t burn or evaporate before it’s actually finished cooking.

Chop versus dice versus mince. How come the gods of cooking do this to us? Chopping something (e.g., an onion) means cutting it into pieces (not size specific). Dicing it means you cut it into small squares or cubes. Mincing it means you cut or chop it into very small pieces. Mincing is often suggested when the foodstuff in question has a strong or hot flavor. For example, if you bite into a large square of jalapeno pepper, you may not live to tell about it. So it’s highly advisable to mince it into very small pieces (and add sparingly, in this particular case).

Julienne and zest. While discussing the chopping and dicing terms, Shaina reminded me there are a few other terms worth sharing. “A julienne is a type of cut that makes a long thin strip. It’s a good technique to use for vegetables and other ingredients when you want to heighten their presentation. Zesting is scraping or cutting from the outer, colorful skin of a lemon, lime or orange, adding a lot of flavor to dishes.” This is usually done with a zester or grater.

Peel versus pare. Peeling an orange or banana means you are pulling off the outer skin. Paring an apple or potato is cutting off the outside skin. You usually can’t cut yourself from peeling, but I’ve had a few mishaps with paring. I tend to use a more expensive paring utensil just for that reason.

Toss versus stir versus whip. Toss means to mix lightly (not throw something away), as in the tossing of a salad. Stirring is a bit more aggressive, like mixing pancake batter round and round with a spoon. Lastly, whipping means beating something with an electric or rotary mixer to add air. For egg whites to turn into meringue, whipping is required.

Drain versus reduce. Drain literally means to pour off the liquid, via a sieve or colander. Reducing means to bring down or cut back the amount of liquid you have in a pan, via heat and subsequent evaporation. Liquids which are frequently reduced include wine, lemon juice and sometime stocks and broths, to concentrate their flavor.

Fold versus cut in. If you fold (not clothes, but food), you mix the food gently until blended. Cutting in (not breaking line) means you mix fat (e.g., shortening or butter) in to a flour mixture with a pastry blender, fork or two knives. This is typically done with biscuits, pie crusts, etc.

Kneading and proofing are basic bread making term, something foreign to me but not to Shaina. “To knead the dough is to work and press with your hands. Essential in bread making, kneading retches the dough and develops the gluten, the springy stuff that gives bread its texture. Proofing means allowing bread dough to rise. Often, in basic yeast bread recipes, dough needs to proof 2x.”

Shaina reminded me that creaming means mixing butter and sugar together, versus adding cream. This is a term often used but may not be intuitive.

If instructions (or constructions, as Luke says) suggest you grease a pan, all you need to do is spread the bottom and sides of a pan with oil, shortening or butter. Better yet, use something like Pam and you won’t have to get your hands dirty.

If you fan vegetables, this generally means you lay out (thinly cut) vegetables, like potatoes, on a pan so they resemble a fan. This does not literally mean you take a fan and cool the vegetables off.

If you need to use a tablespoon of cumin or a teaspoon of vanilla, you’ll need some measuring utensils. But, I will explain that one next week.

About Shaina Olmanson

Shaina Olmanson is a freelance writer and photographer and also the home cook behind Food for My Family and the food channel editor at Lifetime Moms.  She fell in love with the art of cooking while spending countless hours hanging on her grandmother’s apron strings, and as a native Minnesotan, growing up surrounded by farms served as a daily reminder of the importance of local and seasonal food.  Raising her four young children with her husband, she strives to teach them the importance of growing, preparing and eating and enjoying real food.

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