Macerate the sliced strawberries with the chiffonaded basil while you temper the eggs into the custard base.
Now that was a recipe for a crème brulée with a strawberry sauce, but if I didn't know better, I'd think that someone tried to translate some IKEA furniture pictogram directions unsuccessfully into broken English.
Thankfully, not every recipe you will encounter will require you to navigate some fancy dancy Francais cooking terms. That said, there are some more common terms which are useful to know. Here are twelve pieces of culinary vocab to add to your mental dictionary.
Now that you have your knives, it's time to start using them. Here are some common terms you will encounter.
Cube - When cubing, you want to cut your food into "bite sized pieces." Now, If you're like me, anything can be "bite sized" if you try hard enough, but according to rules established under the International Cooking Terminiology Treaty of Geneva 1923*, we mean pieces that are roughly 1 inch in every direction. The shape of the pieces should be (shock) cube like and consistent which ensures even cooking. (*May or may not actually exist)
Chop - Chopping is simply cutting fruits or vegetables into roughly equally sized pieces. While many recipes can vary with what type of chop (large chop, medium chop, small chop, etc), the default size for me is approximately the size of a dime on each side. In general chopping will refer to something being cut into smaller pieces than when cubing. In addition, maintaining the same shape is not as critical. If some pieces of food end up being cubes, some pyramids, and some like those 20-sided die from Dungeons and Dragons, well, that's OK. And if you pull off the last one, that's OK and very impressive. I'd buy you a drink for that.
Dice - Similar to chopping, but typically it refers to food cut into smaller, similarly shaped pieces. To add to the confusion, there are also similar large, small, medium dices just like there are chops. But in general dicing will refer to something being cut into smaller pieces than a chop while maintaining those cube-like or playing dice shaped pieces. Coincidence? I think not.
Mince - When you hear mince, you can be sure that they want whatever you're working with to be very small indeed. Minced foods are broken down into tiny, tiny pieces that are meant to be used typically to flavor a dish rather than be a star player. That is why you often see herbs being called to be minced in recipes. Extra small pieces means you won't get massive hunks of strongly flavored foods when you eat, which if you have ever accidentally gotten a hunk of garlic in your mouth, can be a bit overwhelming.
Need a crash course on the four above? Check out this video below:
De-Glaze - Heat Level: Medium-High - Finished searing that delicious meat or cooking up some vegetables? Add a splash of water or broth and scrape the bottom of the pan with a wooden or plastic spoon or spatula and get all those browned bits covering the bottom of the pan. The French call that stuff fond because of how fond they are for that stuff when making a pan sauce. In all seriousness, the fond is where the essence of what you were cooking lies. It's a concentrated punch of richness that once you remove with a little liquid, can be turned into a sauce simply by adding a little butter, some salt and pepper, and letting some of the excess liquid evaporate away.
Sauté - Heat Level: Medium-High - One of the most common terms you will come across. Sautéing is cooking cut up pieces of food in a little oil over high heat. Sautéing is a fast cooking method which is meant to cook the food, brown it, while keeping the integrity of the food (aka not turning it into mush). Often, some nice brown bits will remain in the pan, which you will want to deglaze to capture every last bit of flavour.
Caramelize - Heat Level: Medium - There are naturally occurring sugars in pretty much all fruits and vegetables, and when you apply some heat to it, those sugars brown and develop more complex flavors like....you guessed it, caramel. Don't worry, just because you caramelize food does not mean everything is going to taste like ice cream toppings. Those sugars simply start to taste nuttier, a little smokier, and some foods, like onions, will go from sharp to mild and just a little sweet when caramelized.
Sweat - Heat Level: Medium-Low - Like how many feel on a excessively hot day, sweating something is using low heat to just soften vegetables and draw out some of the liquid. Sweating is different from sautéing because you do not want to brown whatever you are cooking. When sweating, you simply want to take the raw edge off of whatever you're cooking. Onions for example become much less sharp and spicy after a quick sweat.
Unless you're part of the whole raw foods movement, my money is on the fact that you will be working with heat at some point. Here are some key firey terms arranged in order of heat application intensity.
Example: Over low to medium heat, slowly cook fatty meats like uncooked bacon or panchetta (Bacon's un-smoked Italian cousin) until the fat starts to melt and the meat starts to crisp up and turn deliciously dark brown. This may take a while, but once the fat is all in the pan and the meat is crispy and brown, remove the tasty bits and you're left with rendered bacon fat. Fry up some potatoes in this and you will be in porky-potato-y bliss. Sorry vegetarians.
Braise - Heat Level: Low - Cooking food in just enough liquid to at least half-cover it in a low heat environment, typically on the stove or in the oven. Braising is a long process, but it can turn even the toughest meats into tender, juicy, fall-apart masterpieces with enough time. Low and slow is the name of the game.
Pro Tip: A Slow Cooker can be a great braising tool.
Simmer - Heat Level: Low - Like driving a car, you don't always have things at full throttle. Simmering is akin to just cruising along on an open highway. Boiling water is very violent environment. Food is swirling at high speed, banging into the sides of the pot and into each other. A simmer is keeping the liquid you are cooking your food in at a very gentle boil - bubbles should only be barely appearing on the edges of the pan and food should be moving in slow motion, like a lazy Sunday morning. Simmering will allow food to cook without breaking apart, meats to slowly become tender, and for flavours to be slowly drawn out.
Blanche - If you had southern parents or grandparents, you probably are familiar with long-cooked, mushy vegetables. It's a style which I like as much as the next guy, but on the other end of the cooked-to-death spectrum is blanching. Blanching is cooking smaller pieces of vegetables in boiling water just long enough to heat them through and keep them crispy. This way you can take the raw edge of veggies while still having that fresh "bite." Often after blanching something, you shock it by putting the freshly hot veggies in to a bowl of ice water to quickly chill them and stop the cooking process. If someone ice bucket challenged me right after I step out of a hot tub, I'd be pretty shocked too.
Al Dente - While you will typically see this in terms of pasta and other starches, al dente can also be applied to some other foods such as thin vegetables like green beans. All al dente means is that something has a little resistance and bite to it when you eat it. It literally means "with teeth" in Italian. You don't want pasta to be still hard in the center but mushy pasta is equally not as fun. You want it to have a little spring to it when you eat it but still be soft all the way through. If you see this applied to rice or veggies, apply the same idea - cooked, but still with some resistance and texture.
This was definitely a crash course of just some of the dozens of cooking terms you will encounter out there. Unfortunately, taking time to write about all of these terms would fill a book in and of itself. Of course, as this is only Part 1 of the Kitchen Terminology series, I will be coming back with more terms in the future. If you have and terms that you would like explained or have come across as word that made you scratch your head, put it in the comments and I will try my best to include it in the next installment.