The saying goes that “You are what you eat” – but a more relevant question for those learning English as a foreign language may be “what am I eating?!”
On menus written in English, in cafes, bars and restaurants, you are likely to come across certain phrases and words which seem to confuse rather than clarify what will be arriving on your plate.
Here we’re going to take a look at some of the most frequently used, and difficult to decipher, cooking terminology to help you identify what you’ll be putting in your stomach.
Braising is actually quite a complex cooking method usually used for meats. It comes from the French ‘braiser’ so you might see it in bistros, high-end cuisine spots or other French-influenced places. Generally braising involves two stages: first the meat is seared, or cooked very quickly on a high heat. Then it is transferred to a deep dish or pot and cooked more slowly, at a lower temperature, in some liquid. The result is very tender meat that is extremely tasty and takes on a lot of flavour.
A griddle is a large, flat surface which can be heated to very high temperatures. A griddle at home might be a small, round, but very thick-based plate made usually of iron, carbon or steel. They serve the same function as their big brother – the large commercial griddle found in fast-food restaurants or establishments which need to fry a lot of food quickly. ‘Griddled’ food means that whatever you are eating has been heated on one of these large, flat hot plates. It might be a fried egg or a hamburger.
Broiled is not to be confused with boiled. They are very different. Broiling is a term associated with grilling – i.e. what a barbecue does or an indoor oven grill; heating directly using radiant heat, from below (a barbecue) or above. When grilling from above this can sometimes be called…broiling. Boiling, on the other hand, is when something is cooked in hot water – such as ‘boiled’ potatoes; which are cooked in water that is boiling (reaches 100 degrees).
A fillet is a general term used to refer to a cut of meat or fish. Filleting is the act of removing that particular cut from the bones. Chicken fillets are most commonly breasts. Fillet steak is often known as beef tenderloin or fillet mignon. It means: don’t expect any bones!
Hash can be a confusing word given it is also used as a nickname for cannabis. However, hash in food terms refers to a coarse mixture of ingredients – which could be anything, but often involve onion, potato and meat. Corned beef hash, perhaps one of the most famous usages of the term, was popular in WW2-era Britain and France when fresh meat was scarce. Tinned corned beef would be cooked with onions and served with potato on the side, or as part of the hash. Hash browns – a coarse mixture of potato sometimes with onion, then fried together is also a popular use of the term. Hash browns, and any hash, tends to now be a popular breakfast food.
Sometimes referred to as purée in France and Spain, a mash is usually a vegetable which has been boiled or roasted and is then beaten (or ‘mashed’) with a flat-ended instrument until it has a smoother consistency. Sometimes butter, oil or cream is added to give it a creamier texture. Potato mash is the most famous, but many restaurants and cafes invent their own take on the simple mash – popularly using root vegetables like parsnip, swede or sweet potato.
Rare/medium rare/well done
This is only relevant if you are ordering a steak. Rare and medium rare refer to how well your steak is cooked. Rare is the bloodiest it can be – meaning it is barely cooked, and still red on the inside; medium rare is the next stage down. Medium is – as you would imagine – the chef’s idea of a medium-cooked steak. Well done means that the steak is probably cooked well all the way through.
A marinade is a kind of dressing that meat, fish or vegetables are left in for a longer period of time to soak up flavour. This kind of cooking is popular in France and Italy, but also, in a different style, in Asian cuisines. The liquid in which food is soaked is often acidic as this helps break down tissues of the meat or fish, and absorbs flavour. It is often used to give meat more flavour before barbecues.
‘Diced’ is a technique for cutting food (but a die or dice is an object for playing games or gambling – ‘rolling the dice’!) Dicing means cutting the food into small blocks or dice, just like the shape of the object used for games. This is usually done to give it a more pleasing, uniform appearance.
A dressing is quite close to what its name suggests – a kind of extra outfit for food. Salad dressing is the most common – this is a vinaigrette or specially blended mixture to cover salad leaves. But the term ‘dressing’ or ‘dressed’ can also be used in restaurants wishing to sound very refined – you might find a cut of meat ‘dressed’ with a certain kind of sauce. It basically means drizzled or accompanied by.