When a recipe uses the word “butterfly” as a verb.
Sometimes a recipe assumes that everyone has the culinary vocabulary of Julia Child. That assumption is uncool. Why, recipe author, are you asking me to “shock” the vegetables? Would you like me to tell them an appalling story? Oh — you want me to dunk them in an ice cold bowl of water. Why didn’t you say so?
Here are the scariest, most common cooking terms and their explanations.
If a recipe asks you to “butterfly” something — almost always meat or fish — it is asking you to cut it down the middle, then spread both sides apart (like the wings of a butterfly). The result has twice the surface area and half the thickness. By cutting a food’s thickness in half, it will cook faster and ideally more evenly.
Butterflying a filet means horizontally cutting it almost all the way through the fillet, then opening the halves like a book. (A “filet,” btw, is any boneless cut of meat, like a boneless steak or boneless chicken breast.)
The flank steak pictures above is being butterflied so that it can be stuffed with prosciutto and cheese. “Stuffing” meat with various fillings is another common application of butterflying.
Butterflying a whole chicken is also common — especially for grilling — but it is a little bit harder, as you need to remove the backbone. Learn how here.
To “truss” a bird, tie its legs together with butcher’s twine so the bird holds a nice shape as it cooks, and so the hollow cavity inside is sealed. This helps the bird cook more evenly, and you can stuff the sealed cavity with spices, herbs, citrus and vegetables which will add tons of flavor. Every butcher has a different approach to trussing. You can simply tie the ends of the legs together, or make it nicer with the below technique, which is our favorite.
Watch the rest of this excellent demo here.
And don’t forget to tuck in the wings.
To “cream” ingredients (almost always butter and sugar) means to beat them together until the mixture is the consistency of cream. When done correctly, the creaming process whips air into the butter, allowing it to expand when heated and ensuring your cookies or cakes rise properly.
To cream butter, it must be at room temperature. This butter is too cold.
The butter above can’t combine thoroughly with the sugar because it’s too chunky. So whatever you’re baking won’t rise like it should, and will be denser than it’s supposed to be.
This butter is too hot.
If the butter is too hot, it will melt, the air bubbles inside of it will collapse, and the mixture will be more runny than creamy. Again, whatever you are making won’t rise correctly.
This butter is perfect.
It started at room temperature and has been combined with the sugar until it’s light and fluffy. Getting to “light and fluffy” may require you to beat the mixture for longer than you think seems right, but getting to this stage will help your baked goods rise just the way they should.
When a recipe calls for one ingredient or mixture of ingredients to be “folded” into another, it means that everything needs to be combined GENTLY without letting too much air out. (Usually, the two ingredients have already been whipped separately, and they need to be mixed together carefully so as not to release all the air that’s been whipped into them.) So the key here is BE GENTLE: Beating or whisking won’t work because all that agitation will burst the air bubbles and deflate the mixture.
To fold, use the bowl with the “heavier” ingredient in it. Put the lighter ingredient on top of the heavier ingredient in that bowl, then use a rubber spatula to cut through the mixtures and gently fold the ingredients into each other, scraping the batter off the bottom, bringing it to to the top, and turning the bowl as you go, until they’re just combined.
Basting is a simple way to make food taste better. In fact, if you go to a restaurant and order something that’s listed on the menu as seared, roasted, or pan-fried — it has almost certainly been basted with butter or another fat.
Spoon: Any non-slotted, metal spoon will work for basting, but keep in mind that a bigger spoon will hold more of that fat/liquid that you will be covering your meat with. A spoon is perfect when you’re basting something that’s in a sauté pan, like fish or steak.
Bulb baster: Great for when you’re roasting something in a big pan in the oven (the obvious example is a turkey). Take your pan out of the oven every hour or so (be sure to close the oven behind you), and use the baster to suck up the flavorful mixture of fat, juice, and seasoning that’s accumulated on the bottom of the pan, then squeeze it back onto your meat. This adds flavor and helps the meat cook more evenly.
Brush: When basting meat on a grill, it’s important that not too much fat or sauce drips down into the flames, as that will cause flare-ups or burning. Using a brush means that less fat/liquid is applied at once, and almost all of it is absorbed into the meat immediately, so there is very little drip.
With your spoon, bulb baster, or brush, cover the food in basting liquid/fat as quickly as possible. Something that cooks quickly, like fish or steak, only really needs to be basted once. When pan roasting a piece of fish or steak, add butter or other fat to the hot pan just before the fish finishes cooking. Once the fat is melted, spoon it on top of the fish or steak.
For proteins with longer cooking times, like large poultry, or when barbecuing slow-cooked meat, your recipe will probably ask you to baste multiple times during cooking. A brush usually works best here.
13. (PROTIP: Barbecue master Adam Perry Lang makes a brush with a bundle of herbs.)
His herb brush is made from rosemary, sage, and thyme. Watch the rest of this awesome video here.
To “render” something (meat, almost always) means to cook the fat out of it. You need to apply enough heat to melt the fat, but not so much that you will burn it.
You’re probably most familiar with rendering bacon fat, which is something that happens every single time you cook bacon.
You render the fat out of other meats the same way — though usually over lower heat.
To render poultry skins (meaning, to render the fat out of them), for example, just put them in a large sauce pot over low heat and the fat will melt out slowly.
The rendering is done when the skins are shriveled and crispy, like this:
16. Rendering is an important part of cooking duck breast, which is very fatty.
Learn more about how to cook a duck breast here.
Also called suet, beef fat is most likely available at your local butcher. If you buy it in a big chunk, cut it into 1-inch cubes so that it will render faster.
Strain your rendered fat — poultry, pork, or beef — then store it in the freezer. It will keep for at least a month, and makes a really nice alternative to butter or oil in cooking.
You don’t even have to keep different kinds of fat separate — strain them all into the same container and call it “Master Fat” like Brooklyn restaurant Fatty Cue does.
Straining through a sieve and a cheese cloth will separate out any remaining meat particles and give you pure fat. If you don’t have cheese cloth, a fine mesh strainer will work.
“Searing” food (usually meat, but you can sear fruits or vegetables, too) means that you are browning the surface without cooking it all the way through. In order to do this, your pan needs to be REALLY HOT BEFORE YOU PUT FOOD IN IT. If the pan isn’t hot enough, caramelization won’t happen, and the surface won’t brown. If you try to crank up the heat under your pan after you’ve put food on it, the food will start to cook through before the outsides are seared, and that won’t taste as good.
The best pan to use for searing is a cast-iron skillet, because it holds the most heat. Meaning, it will actually stay hot when you put cold food into it. Other pans will cool down too much when you add cold food to them.
Here is how to sear. This may seem obvious. It is not.
1. Heat a cast-iron skillet or other heavy-bottomed pan over high heat until it is hot enough that you can’t keep your hand an inch above the surface for more than a couple of seconds.
2. Add just enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan. You don’t want to fry your food, you just want the oil to conduct heat between the pan and the food. The small amount of oil should heat in a couple of seconds.
Note: Use a neutral oil that can get really hot without smoking, such as canola, soy, or vegetable oil. It is not a good idea to use olive oil, butter, and other super flavorful fats because if you get them hot enough to sear meat, they will burn. And your food will taste burnt, and you will probably set of your smoke alarm, especially if you live in a tiny New York apartment.
3. Put your food in the pan. If you are searing a bunch of stuff, everything needs a little room. Don’t just throw it all in — work in batches or get a bigger pan. If you crowd the pan, your pan will cool down too much, and your food will steam or slow-cook instead of searing.
The pan on the left is crowded; those mushrooms will NEVER brown, and will probably be mushy. The pan on the right is the one you want to mimic; see how those mushrooms are all touching the pan and getting nice and brown?
4. Let your food sit in the pan until the underside is completely browned. You can check after a few minutes, but try to move the food as little as possible. In order to create a good sear, you need constant contact between the surface of the pan and the surface of the food.
5. When you’ve got a good sear on the underside, flip food over and do the same on the other side (or rotate, if you’re searing something with more than two sides).
So you’ve just seared a piece of steak or pork or chicken or whatever, over really high heat. You didn’t use a nonstick pan because you’re not a godless monster, and now you have a pan with a bunch of dark bits stuck to the bottom. Those dark bits are caramelization, and they are delicious, and you want to eat them The question is how to get them off of the pan, and that’s where deglazing comes in.
1. While the pan is still hot get all the fat out. Chances are, you put some oil or butter in there before you started cooking the meat. And during cooking, there was probably fat that rendered out of your meat. Pour that out before you deglaze; hot fat and liquid do not mix well.
2. Make sure the pan is still really hot, and pour a small amount of liquid in. The liquid should boil and begin to evaporate.
Use can use almost any liquid (dairy is the exception, as it curdles at high heat), but the following are the most common, and will also add flavor to whatever you are cooking:
red or white wine
brandy or cognac
stock (chicken, vegetable, beef, etc.)
even water, if it’s all you have
3. As the liquid boils, stir constantly, scraping the brown bits off the bottom of the pan.
4. Now that the pan has been “deglazed,” continue to reduce the liquid to the consistency you want it. After deglazing, you can reduce your liquid to almost nothing. Just don’t go to far and evaporate all the liquid, or you’ll be back at square one with all of the caramelization stuck to the pan.
Once your pan is deglazed, you can use the flavorful bits as the base of a sauce. Add whatever liquids, seasonings, and spices you want, then let it simmer so that it all comes together.
Braising takes more time than most other cooking methods, and that can be intimidating; why spend five hours braising a cut of beef, when you could roast it in less than half the time?
1. Braising tenderizes very tough cuts of meat (these cuts tend to be cheapest) by converting the collagen in their connective tissues into gelatin. Collagen is chewy and gross; gelatin is what makes meat “fall off the bone” (YUM).
2. Braising doesn’t take much active cooking time. After searing the meat to create some caramelization, all you really have to do is just add your braising liquid (usually a mixture of wine and stock), bring to a simmer, then cover it and let it cook at a low temperature — a 325- to 350-degree oven is ideal, but do it on the stovetop if you have to — until it’s tender.
3. In braising, food is constantly being flavored by the braising liquid (and vice versa) as it cooks. So not only will your meat/fish/vegetables be more flavorful after they’ve braised, but, once you take them out of the pot, you have this delicious braising liquid leftover that you can turn into a sauce (just strain it and add salt).
1. Sear your meat on all sides, then remove it from your pot.
2. At this point, you can just add the wine and stock and be done with it. Or, for more flavor, add some oil to the pot and saute some vegetables (onions, garlic, shallots, carrots, celery, etc.) until they are soft.
3. Add some wine (or other liquid of your choosing) to deglaze the pan. Then, add enough stock so that the meat will be almost submerged.
4. Put the seared meat (and some herbs, if you want) back in the pot. Cover with a tight-fitting lid and cook until tender. This can take anywhere from two to seven hours, depending on the type of meat you are braising, and how big of a cut it is.
Here is a step-by-step guide on the process and science of braising.
Poaching means to cook a food in liquid (typically water or broth) that is 160–185°F. At such low temperatures, the liquid is hot but not really bubbling, which is perfect for delicate foods like eggs and fish. Unlike braising, foods that are poached are not seared before they are put into cooking liquid.
See how still that liquid is? Perfect for cooking the salmon without causing it to fall apart.
If a recipe calls for “shallow poaching,” that just means that the food won’t be completely submerged in the cooking liquid.
The easiest way to simmer a liquid is to bring it to a boil (there will be rolling bubbles), then turn it down so that it is still bubbling, but barely. As a cooking method, it’s really similar to poaching; you’re doing the same thing, only at a higher temperature. Simmering is great for cooking less delicate foods, like meat and root vegetables.
When you’re making a soup or a stew, a recipe will often call for you to “bring it to a simmer” and let it go for a while.
As the mixture simmers, the meat and vegetables cook through, while the broth absorbs their flavors and reduces down a little bit (which means it becomes more concentrated and DELICIOUS — and you might turn it into a sauce later, you know?).
When a recipe calls for you to “blanch” something, it’s saying, “Don’t cook this very long or it will turn to grey mush and we want it to retrain some of its crispiness and its color.”
When you blanch a vegetable, you cook it just enough to take the raw crunch out of it. Also, when green vegetables are blanched properly, their color actually gets a little bit brighter (it has to do with chlorophyll and light refraction).
To blanch anything:
1. Fill a large pot with water and add a good amount of salt (water should taste salty, but not gross). Bring to a boil.
2. While the water’s coming to a boil, set up a bath of ice water in a bowl big enough to hold the vegetables that you are blanching. (See No. 13 — shocking)
3. Once the water starts boiling, add your vegetables.
4. Test the vegetables for doneness after about a minute: Take a piece out of the boiling water, put it in the ice bath to cool, and either taste it or poke it with a knife or cake tester to get a sense of its texture.
5. Test vegetables every minute until they reach desired doneness (this is really up to you, but usually vegetables taste best when they still have a little bit of a bite).
Shocking and blanching go hand in hand. After you blanch a vegetable in boiling water, you need to shock it to stop the cooking and preserve its color/texture.
1. Set up a large bowl filled with ice water.
2. When vegetables are finished blanching, drop them into ice cold water with a strainer or basket.
3. Let vegetables float in the ice water until they are refrigerator-cold all the way through. If you take them out too early, they will still be warm in the center and will keep cooking.