Words From The Kitchen: The Language Of Cooking

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August 10, 2019
Words From The Kitchen: The Language Of Cooking

The language of cooking can be downright confusing sometimes for the culinarily unfamiliar. How many times have you found yourself reading a recipe, wondering how you’re supposed to know what it means to sear or sauté or if broiling is just the fancier cousin of boiling? (Hint: very different things.)

Even if you’re not a master chef already, chances are you’ve come across some of the fun and creative terms from around the planet that are all part of the language of cooking techniques and practices; food and language are, after all, intimately intertwined. Many of the world’s cooking words come from France, an epicenter of the culinary arts throughout history. Some hail from other parts of Europe, Asia or South America.

Here’s an inside look at the language of cooking with a list of some of our favorite food prep words to add a pinch of flavor to your linguistic pantry.

Turn Up The Heat With The Language Of Cooking

Kitchen — the English name for this patently, universally recognizable food-prep area comes from the Old English cycene (“kitchen” or “cuisine”), which itself can be traced all the way back to the Latin coquina, which means the same thing. 

Recipe — you’ve heard this word before, but did you know it comes from the imperative form of the Latin verb recipere, “to receive”? So it actually means “receive!” or “take!” and was first used in medical prescriptions. 

Sauté — this word describes cooking or frying food by tossing it in a bit of hot fat over high heat, and it comes from the past participle form of the French word sauter, meaning “to jump” (so in English when we say something’s been sauteed, we’re redundantly calling it “jumped-ed”). 

Searthis cooking technique sizzles the surface of a piece of meat quickly at a high temperature until a brown crust forms and is meant to keep the meat’s juices inside before it’s cooked by another technique.

Al dente — used to describe pasta and other grains, this is an Italian term that literally means “to the tooth.” It describes noodles cooked to a degree just tender enough that they slightly resist the bite of whoever’s chewing it without being overcooked.

Al forno — also from Italian, it describes a dish that is baked or roasted in the oven (il forno), like pizza or pasta dishes. 

Wok — this round-bottomed, wide pan of Chinese origin is used for stir-frying, boiling, braising, making soup and many other types of cooking. 

Barbecue — this is a way of preparing meat, fish or poultry, usually basted or lathered in a special sauce, over an open source of heat like hot coals or a wood fire. In many parts of the southern United States, it’s a regional delicacy and point of culinary pride (and it’s also sometimes known colloquially as “BBQ”). Its name first entered English from the Spanish barbacoa, which comes from the same word of the language of Arawak people native to parts of South America (their word means “wooden frame on posts”). 

Dollop — perhaps bigger than a pinch or a dash, a dollop is an informal measurement of a small scoop of an ingredient, usually goopy like sour cream or mashed potatoes. It’s thought to come from (or from the same root as) the Norwegian dolp, meaning “lump.” 

Chiffonade — translated from French as ”in rags,” this knife technique involves cutting leafy greens into long, thin ribbons or strips, often to be used as garnishes in soups or other dishes. 

Baste — no one’s really sure where this word comes from, but it’s kind of close to the Old French bassir meaning “to moisten” or “to soak.” It describes covering a meat in liquid, like stock or meat drippings, to prevent it from drying out during the cooking process.

Flambé — this showy, flashy method of cooking involves dousing some sort of food (like a dessert or even steak) in alcohol (usually a liquor like cognac or rum) in a hot pan and lighting it on fire — so it’s no surprise that the word in French means “flamed.” 

Blanch — the name of this speedy cooking method comes from the French word blanchir, meaning “to whiten” or “to wash.” Blanching involves cooking the food at a high temperature for a brief time (usually a minute or so), and it’s often followed by shocking, or transferring the food to cold water to stop the cooking process.

Get cookin' with a new language.
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Author Headshot
David Doochin
David is a content producer for Babbel USA, where he writes for Babbel Magazine and oversees Babbel's presence on Quora. He’s a native of Nashville and graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he studied linguistics and history. Before Babbel he worked at Quizlet and Atlas Obscura. A geek for grammar and an editorial enthusiast, he speaks Spanish (and dabbles in German, Dutch, Afrikaans and Italian). When he’s not curating his Instagram meme collection, you can find him spending too much money on food and exploring new cities around the world.
David is a content producer for Babbel USA, where he writes for Babbel Magazine and oversees Babbel's presence on Quora. He’s a native of Nashville and graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he studied linguistics and history. Before Babbel he worked at Quizlet and Atlas Obscura. A geek for grammar and an editorial enthusiast, he speaks Spanish (and dabbles in German, Dutch, Afrikaans and Italian). When he’s not curating his Instagram meme collection, you can find him spending too much money on food and exploring new cities around the world.

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