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There are basic culinary terms and definitions that all chefs (and most avid home cooks) will be able to identify right off the bat and then there are some more nuanced French culinary terms that are generally reserved for use in culinary schools and fine dining restaurants. 

From au jus to zest, below are lists of the most well-known culinary terms, as well as a list of some more fine-dining related French culinary terms.

What are the Most Common Culinary Terms?

List of Basic Culinary Terms

86: When the kitchen is out of an item, the chef will let the front of house staff know it’s been 86’d to indicate it is no longer available for the evening. The origin of the term is highly contested with many different origin stories around it.

Al dente: Literally meaning “to the tooth” in Italian, al dente food is cooked so as to be still firm when bitten. Most often refers to pasta.

Baste: Pouring juices or melted fats over meat as it cooks in order to keep it from drying out.

Beat: Stirring rapidly in a circular motion to make a smooth mixture, using a whisk, spoon, or mixer. Often done with cake batters and eggs for omelets or scrambles.

Blanching: Briefly submerging food, most commonly vegetables, in boiling water.

Braising: Cooking food in liquid at a low-to-medium temperature over a long period of time. Often done with tough meats to make them more tender.

Brining: Submerging meat in a salty liquid with spices for a day or two in order to infuse more flavor into the meat and keep it from drying out during the cooking process.

Broil: Cooking under high direct heat to achieve a char or caramelization. 

Caramelize: Cooking an ingredient until it develops a brown color and nutty flavor reminiscent of caramel.

Chop: Cutting an ingredient into large pieces, often referring to vegetables.

Cream: Beating together sugar and fat (usually butter) until the mixture becomes smooth and fluffy.

Cube: Chopping food into even squares, generally about an inch in size.

Deglaze: Using liquid to remove browned food pieces that have been stuck to the pan after searing meat so that the flavor can be picked up and used in a sauce, stock, or gravy.

Dice: Chopping an ingredient into small pieces, about 1/4 – 1/8 of an inch in size.

Dredging: Coating wet or moist foods with a dry ingredient prior to cooking so that it forms a crust, as with fried chicken.

Filet: A boneless piece of meat or fish.

plated steak filet with vegetables

Fold: Combining a light ingredient, such as whipped cream or beaten eggs whites, with a heavier mixture, using an over/under motion so as not to deflate the lighter ingredient.

Julienne: Chopping food into short, thin strips. 

Knead: Working dough into a uniformed mass by pressing, folding, stretching, and massaging it.

Marinate: Soaking foods in a seasoned liquid to infuse flavors before cooking.

Mince: Finely chopping foods, smaller than a dice. Can be done with a chef’s knife or in a food processor.

Mother Sauces: The five base sauces that are used to make almost all other sauces; espagnole, velouté, béchamel, tomato sauce, and emulsions.

Pan Fry: Frying food in a minimal amount of fat in a stovetop pan.

Parcooking: Partially cooking food during prep time so that it can be finished off later during service. 

Poach: Cooking something by gently simmering it in liquid.

Render: Melting down animal fat in a pan or pot by cooking it slowly over medium heat.

Scald: Heating a liquid to just before its boiling point.

Sear: Cooking the surface of meat at a high heat so that a brown crust forms.

Steep: Putting an ingredient into hot liquid until the liquid takes on its flavor, like when making coffee or tea.

Sweat: Gently cooking vegetables in oil or butter so that they cook through but do not become browned or caramelized. 

Tempering: Slowly raising the temperature of an ingredient by adding hot or boiling liquid a little bit at a time.

Whip: Beating an ingredient with a whisk or mixer to incorporate air and produce volume, such as whipped cream.

Zest: Scraping or grating the skin of a citrus fruit with a grater or microplane.

List of French Culinary Terms

A la carte: Menu items that are sold separately rather than as a part of a meal.

Au jus: Meaning “with juice,” it refers to any meat that is served with a thin sauce or gravy on the side.

Bain Marie: A container holding hot water into which a pan is placed for slow cooking, often used for gently baking cheesecakes or creme brulee. 

Bechamel: One of the five mother sauces, traditionally made from a white roux and milk.

Bisque: A rich, creamy soup most often made with shellfish, especially lobster.

Chiffonade: A slicing technique for leafy greens or herbs where the leaves are stacked, rolled, and thinly sliced.

Consommé: A type of clear soup made from stock or bouillon that is clarified using egg whites.

Confit: Meat that is cooked slowly, submerged in fat.

confit duck leg

Coulis: A thin fruit or vegetable puree that is often used as a sauce.

Emincer: A similar style of cutting to julienne, though the pieces are not as long.

Espagnole: One of the five mother sauces, made with beef stock and vegetables.

Flambe: Adding alcohol to a hot pan of food which creates a flame that burns out once the alcohol is cooked off.

Jacquard: Poking holes into the muscle of meat in order to tenderize it, also known as needling.

Mise en place: Meaning “everything in its place.” In a kitchen, mise en place refers to the prep work that is done before service. This one of the most important culinary terms in any kitchen yet is often mispronounced; the correct way to say it is me-zohn plahs.

Quadriller: Criss-cross lines on the surface of food made to enhance the presentation.

Quenelle: A presentation technique of creating a three-sided oval shape using two spoons.

Remouillage: A stock made using spent bones that have already been used to make another stock, resulting in a lighter flavor.

Roux: A mixture of fat (usually butter) and flour used to thicken sauces.

Tourner: Cutting ingredients, usually root vegetables, into a barrel-like shape that form six or seven sides.

Velouté: One of the five mother sauces, made from a roux and a light stock.

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Stephanie is a Providence, RI native and eight-year food industry veteran. As Upserve's Content Marketing Coordinator she creates materials that help restaurateurs, managers, and service professionals succeed. When she's not writing, Stephanie is most likely traveling, cooking, or trying new restaurants.
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