I always wanted to be a chef. Even when I was enjoying the grind of a 9-5 office life, I was always, deep down, thinking and dreaming about cooking. I spent my spare time watching the Food Network, reading cookbooks and food blogs, and experimenting with every ingredient I could find.
Before I (finally!) went to culinary school, I started by asking Google when I didn’t understand what to do at each step of a recipe. What exactly did a recipe mean by poach? What really was the difference between a mince and a chop? An ice bath…what?
Building up my understanding of common cooking terms was part of my transformation from home cook to professional chef. But you don’t have to dedicate your life to the kitchen to be a great cook! What you really need is to understand what the terms in the recipe mean so you can confidently execute the steps.
So whether you’re a seasoned chef or just catching the cooking bug, let’s take a look at some cooking terms everyone needs to master. Before you know it, you’ll be cooking (and talking) like a pro! But if you still make a few mistakes, here’s how to fix your most common kitchen disasters.
Slice, Dice, Chop, Mince
Your first challenge comes before you even start cooking: learning how to prepare ingredients. A recipe has two basic components: the ingredients list and the step-by-step instructions. The ingredients not only tell you what to include but also how to prepare it. Don’t know the difference between a slice, dice, chop, or mince? Read on, and then practice your newfound knife skills by making a classic chopped salad!
Slice refers to cutting large ingredients into similarly shaped, flat pieces. (Picture slices of bread, onion rings, carrot coins.) Slices can be thin or thick, and the recipe will direct you accordingly (i.e., thinly slice, slice into 1/2-inch rounds). For example, onion slices should be thinner for a burger (you don’t want a big mouthful of onion), and thicker for grilling or frying.
Chop has to be the most popular direction. It’s the most generic way to say “cut food into smaller pieces.” Like a slice, a chop doesn’t refer to any particular shape or size. When you see chop in a recipe for vegetables or proteins, you can assume they mean similarly sized, squarish pieces between 1/2-inch and 3/4-inch. When referring to herbs like parsley, chop is often modified as roughly chop or finely chop to indicate whether the pieces should be large or super small.
Dice means to cut ingredients into square-shaped pieces that are smaller and more precise than a chop. The goal is to make beautiful, same-sized shapes that will look nice in a salad or will cook evenly when sautéed. Sometimes a recipe will specify the size: a small dice means 1/8-inch, medium dice is 1/4-inch, and large dice refers to 1/2-inch pieces.
Mince is the smallest cut. These pieces should be as small as you can make ’em. Their tininess means they don’t have to be uniform. Oftentimes, you can use a back-and-forth rocking motion with your knife instead of making precise cuts. Garlic and herbs are often minced.
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A Dash, a Pinch, a Smidgen, and Seasoning to Taste
Recipes can guide you, but they often leave the final seasoning up to you, as everyone’s taste is different. A cup and a tablespoon are pretty self-explanatory, especially once you know how to measure ingredients, but what about those vaguer terms?
A dash is approximately 1/8 teaspoon.
A pinch is even smaller, about 1/16 teaspoon.
A smidgen is so small it’s not even worth talking about (1/32 teaspoon), but you might see if from time to time. It’s often used when you want a haunting note of the flavor, like nutmeg in a savory dish.
Generally, these measurements happen with the fingers. Start adding a pinch of salt from a bowl, and you’ll quickly get the hang of it.
Seasoning to taste almost always refers to salt and pepper and it is exactly what it sounds like: it’s up to you. If you like it spicy, bring on the freshly ground black pepper. Always start sparingly with salt and taste: you can add more. If you’ve used a little too much salt, here are some fixes to save the day. Above all, don’t stress about this instruction! Just add seasoning as you go till it tastes good.
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