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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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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Roast, Bake, and Broil
Dry heat cooking uses air, or fat, to transfer heat to the ingredient (as opposed to using moisture). Roasting, baking, and broiling are the most common oven-based dry heat cooking terms.
Roast and bake are actually the same thing. If you preheat your oven to 375 degrees, for example, the air in the oven heats up to that temperature. The heated air then surrounds the baking dish or roasting pan on all sides and remains constant, cooking your food at an even rate. It is usually called baking when it refers to cooking desserts, breads, or pastries, and roasting when it refers to meats (like roast chicken) or vegetables.
Broil is similar to bake except the food is directly exposed to very high heat on one side only—the top side. It’s like a grill in reverse. In most restaurants, the grill is actually called the broil station. Broiling is commonly used to melt cheese on top of a casserole to achieve that golden brown look, but you can also cook whole fish or char vegetables using this method. (And since we’re talking cheese…try these!)