Just in Time for Thanksgiving: A Brief Primer on Cooking Terms

Sunni's picture

Whether one’s new to the magicks of the kitchen or an old hand, it can be useful to take some time to think about the processes necessary to turn ingredients into delectable dishes. If you think cooking is just about tossing ingredients together and mixing, this should help you improve your skills. Not all mixing is created equal—and neither is all application of heat. Shall we head to the kitchen?

It seems to me that recipes have been dumbed down to some degree lately; rather than using precise terms to convey the proper type of mixing, for example, vague terms such as “mix” or “stir” are overused, in hopes of not scaring off a beginning cook. Unfortunately, careless procedure can lead to disastrous result—and a new cook is much more likely to blame himself for the failure than a recipe that led him astray. Here are just a few terms that are important to know in order to get better results.

Stir/mix—the general terms for blending items together, when a specific procedure for doing so isn’t essential to the success of the recipe. For example, when mixing dry ingredients together, whether for pancakes, a cake, or cookies, all that’s necessary is that flour, leavening(s), and spices (if any) are equally distributed throughout before mixing with the wet ingredients. These terms (along with “blend” when used in this context) should not be used when a specific method is required.
Cream—usually butter and sugar. The idea is to beat the ingredients until a creamy, smooth texture is obtained, with a homogeneous mix throughout. If the butter isn’t soft, a mixer may be necessary for best results.
Beat—mixing with a little more force than just stirring, in order to combine ingredients thoroughly more quickly.
Whisk—stirring with a specific tool in order to keep the mixture moving (especially important over heat), or because it’s the best tool for thoroughly mixing the item(s) (e.g., eggs), or to incorporate some air into the mixture.
Whip—mixing with a whisk to incorporate air into the final product. Two items commonly whipped are heavy cream, with sugar and maybe other flavorings to make whipped cream; and egg whites, for meringues and to add volume to certain cake batters, for example. Some people prefer the fluffier texture of whipped mashed potatoes, while others are content with denser varieties. The choice of mixing tool can be all it takes to achieve the texture difference.
Fold—to gently blend two (or more) mixtures without destroying an important property of at least one of them. To make chocolate mousse or a light génoise cake, for example, one must combine a whipped mixture—egg whites and/or whipped cream—with a denser mixture. Simple stirring releases much of the air that was whipped into the eggs or cream, and thus would yield a too–dense final product. After years of tool experimentation, I’ve found the spoonula to be the best tool for folding. Its wide, slightly curved shape allows for lifting a lot of the denser mixture into the lighter one without a lot of deflation. Because the danger of overfolding is worse than underfolding, most recipes will state that it’s okay if the folded mixture isn’t completely homogeneous. It’s much better to stop when a few streaks remain in the mixture—but don’t forget to completely and thoroughly scrape the bottom of the bowl while folding, else a pool of dense batter may be an unwelcome surprise.

For some items, the temperature of the ingredients can be crucial to the success of the recipe. Melted butter in typical cookie recipes tends to lead to flatter cookies. That’s because the sugar dissolves into it, rather than mixing with the butter (and a little air) when creamed. Cold butter is essential to a flaky pie crust. Believe it or not, warmed eggs—not just the whites—can be whipped to increase their volume; that’s a common base for gluten-free cakes. Browned butter adds a lot of flavor to a dish—in such cases, simply melting the butter completely isn’t sufficient to get the intended result. And of course, in making candies, cooking to the proper stage or temperature is absolutely essential for proper flavor and texture.

Speaking of browning, some cooks seem inordinately afraid of it—that’s somewhat understandable, since it can be a short hop from nicely browned to burnt. Attention to the cooking process is essential, obviously. Some products—some cookies and cakes—are much more robust than others, brownies being a good example. Overbaked brownies are of little use beyond chocolate bricks. This is another situation where undercooked is much preferable to overcooked. Most cooks underbake pies, perhaps out of fear of burning the crust. A deeply browned crust will have much more flavor than a pale or even golden one; and most fillings that would be sensitive to long baking times call for a prebaked pie shell in order to circumvent the risk of overcooking. Oven-roasted vegetables are a key to my flavorful gluten-free turkey gravy—the caramelized sugars add a deep flavor and color to the broth and pan drippings. Don’t be afraid of the Maillard reaction; it is your culinary friend!

If this is your first Thanksgiving cooking the big meal, the best words of advice I can give you is to plan ahead, and pad your timetable so that you can make adjustments or cope with unexpected events if they arise. (They almost always do.) Also, don’t try to take on too much yourself: if others volunteer to help, take them up on it, even if it’s only for “little things” like salad, vegetables, or beverages. Do whatever is necessary for you to relax and enjoy the process of cooking for those you care for. A simple meal prepared well and presented in an atmosphere of good will and celebration is far superior to a gourmet feast badly executed and angrily tossed on the table.

Questions, ideas, and other tricks—minus anything potentially spammy—are welcome in the comments!

Thanksgiving salad

This is a very thoughtful presentation for beginning cooks, and I have only a single piece of advice to add.

For years I prepared a large salad to go with the turkey etc., only to find that the celebrants, while being fans of salad in general, neglected to reserve any space for it at all on their plates at Thanksgiving. I advise that all Thanksgiving salads be prepared with storage in mind; keep the dressing separate.


Essaress, so good to hear from you again! I hope you and yours are well.

Thank you for the sage advice regarding salads—somehow even the most ardent fan overlooks it with a gorgeous golden turkey or succulent ham at the center of the table. I know I always think I’ll have room when I have seconds, but I never seem to. ’Course, I manage to find a way to get in dessert, though!

Forget the salad and plan ahead :)

Great ideas, Sunni. Good advice too. :)

I've been cooking for about 50 years, and have lots of holidays under my belt. I gave up making green salads for these big meals a long time ago, and usually have a 3 bean salad available, or sometimes a carrot or cabbage salad, since they are far more forgiving leftovers than tossed greens.

The temptation to trot out ALL your holiday recipes is pretty overwhelming sometimes, at least when you are young and fit. :) But the best holiday meals are actually those built around a few simple favorites and maybe one new item at a time. This way you can be sure that your meal will be complete and welcome to all of your guests without wearing yourself out or wasting food nobody likes. Try the new stuff on a small group at other times - unless you happen to have a family that enjoys a lot of new things, of course.

Allowing your guests to bring part of the food is a wonderful idea where possible, and I do a lot of that too - but for what I can't farm out, the best idea is to do as much of the preparation as possible in the days preceding the meal. For example, I will peel and slice the potatoes for the baked sour cream dish this evening, keeping them pristine and white in the fridge until Thurs. with a parboil and some salt. The pickles and olives are in the refrigerator chilling, and I'll prepare the dips, celery and carrot sticks Wed. AM while the turkey thaws in the brine. The bread is already made as of this morning.

The pies and deserts are being brought by guests, along with some of their favorite vegetable or salad dishes. I always have everyone bring what they like best to drink, and a bit to share. That way we have plenty and I'm not going nuts trying to remember what everyone likes. I also warn those with special dietary needs to either let me know or provide something - especially for children.

All I have to do this Thursday is assemble the dressing, put the turkey in to roast, and finish putting the potato dish into the crock pot. That should all be done by the time the first guests arrive. I'll have the ladies then put out the relish trays and dips, make sure everyone has something to drink and the kids have their fruit treats.

Then we'll have time to visit and play outdoors with the children until dinner is ready to put on the table. I usually have more help with the cleanup than the kitchen will hold, so that's not a problem either. (Though sometimes it takes me a few days to find everything again!)

Oh, I'll be exhausted by nightfall, but it won't be from cooking all day. :)