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Food's Glossary

A to Z commonly used food's glossary and cooking terms.



A vegetarian alternative to gelatine, agar-agar is the jelly that results from boiling several kinds of seaweed together. It's dried and sold in powder form, flakes or bars and is also used as a stabiliser or thickener in many food products. It's available from the larger branches of most supermarkets as well as Asian grocers (it's frequently used in Asian cuisines). Useful if you want to make a jelly using pineapple, kiwi fruit or papaya, because these fruits break down the protein found in gelatine, preventing the jelly from setting.

An aromatic spice that looks like a large, smooth peppercorn (about the size of a pea), allspice is the dried berry of the West Indian allspice tree. It's also called Jamaican pepper or pimento and is so called because its taste is said to resemble a combination of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and black pepper. Allspice can be bought whole or ground and is used in both sweet and savoury dishes including mulled drinks, Christmas pudding, pickles and marinades, and Jamaican jerk chicken.

Also known as Chinese spinach or callaloo in Caribbean cooking, amaranth is a tall plant with broad leaves that produces thousands of tiny seeds. Both leaves and seeds are edible. The green leaves are sturdy and have a good, slightly sweet flavour. They can be cooked or eaten raw in salads.

Anchovies vary in size and can be bought either fresh or cured. Fresh anchovies look and taste similar to sardines. They’re not easy to find in the UK because there isn’t a great demand for them, but try Italian or Spanish delis.

Anchovy Essence
A natural juice concentrate from anchovies, this is the British equivalent of Asian fish sauce and is a good substitute for it. Used sparingly it can add an extra kick to soups, stews and sauces.

A paste produced from achiote seeds, which are ground and used as a spice in parts of Latin America. Annatto is more important as a colouring agent than as a spice. It's used to make a bright orange-yellow dye that's produced commercially and used to colour butter, margarine, cheese (such as Cheshire and Lancashire) and smoked fish such as mackerel and kippers.

Argan Oil
Believed to be one of the rarest oils in the world, argan oil comes from the nuts of the argan tree which is indigenous to Morocco. Argan trees used to cover much of North Africa but they're now greatly reduced in numbers, hence the high price of argan oil. It's related to the olive but has a distinct flavour of its own.

A starch extract of the root of a tropical plant native to the Americas called maranta. Arrowroot is used for thickening sauces, juices and syrups; when heated the starch turns to jelly and so thickens the liquid. Its great advantage over cornflour is that it's completely tasteless (whereas cornflour can need cooking to get rid of its 'raw' taste) and gives a clear finish when used to thicken certain soups, fruit syrups or sauces.

An extremely pungent spice extracted from a plant of the giant fennel family, asafoetida is frequently used in Indian and Middle Eastern cooking. In fact, asafoetida's strong, garlicky, dung-like smell is quite off-putting. But if you can overcome the stink, which disappears in the cooking process, the smallest amount of it transforms vegetable dishes, meat stews and fish. Buy it in powdered form rather than chunks, which are hard to break down.

Sometimes called an avocado pear, the avocado is the fruit of the Persea Americana tree, which is native to the subtropical regions of the American continent. It has green, buttery flesh and a large central stone. It's very high in both protein and oil.




Baked Alaska
A dessert made of a layer of sponge cake topped with ice cream, all of which is then coated in a layer of meringue. Bake the Alaska quickly (for about five minutes) in a very hot oven until the outside is golden-brown. The meringue insulates the ice cream and stops it from melting.

Baking Powder
A raising agent used in cakes, biscuits and breads. Commercial baking powder contains bicarbonate of soda and tartaric acid (with a dried starch or flour to absorb any moisture during storage). When these chemicals become moist and warm they react and give off carbon dioxide, which causes food to rise.

This sweet, nutty pastry is a feature of Greek, Cypriot and Turkish cuisine. It is made from sheets of filo pastry, brushed with butter and layered one on top of the other in a baking dish and filled with sugar, honey and ground nuts (almonds, pistachios or walnuts usually). A sweet rosewater-honey syrup is poured over the pastry after it is baked and left to soak into the layers before the baklava is served.

Balsamic Vinegar
A dark-brown syrupy vinegar with a smooth sweet-sour flavour, produced in the Modena region of Italy. It's made from reduced grape juice that's aged in wooden casks. The best quality balsamic vinegar can be more than 100 years old but is more commonly sold at three to four years of age.

A versatile and widely used aromatic herb. There are numerous species of basil; some have scents reminiscent of pineapple, lemon, cinnamon or cloves; others have beautiful purple leaves. The plant grows well in warm climates and is widely used throughout southern Europe, particularly the Mediterranean, and in many parts of Asia.

Basmati Rice
Basmati is a long-grain rice from India, considered to be one of the best-quality white rices. It has a distinctive aroma and, when cooked, each grain should remain separate, giving a light, fluffy result. Basmati should be rinsed thoroughly in a few changes of water before cooking, in order to remove the starch. It's the perfect accompaniment to Indian curries or used in biryani and pilaf dishes.

The process of spooning stock or fat over meat at intervals to prevent it from drying out during roasting. You can buy a bulb baster - a kind of large pipette - for the job. They're made of glass or plastic; although delicate, the glass one tends to be better because the plastic ones can melt if the liquid is very hot.

In culinary terms, a baton means something - usually a vegetable, such as a carrot, courgette or piece of celery - cut into a long, thin rectangle shape. Vegetables cut into this shape are often steamed or sautéed, or served raw, as in a classic French crudité selection. If you're making a crudité selection, the recipe below would make a good dip.

Bay Leaves
The aromatic leaf from the bay laurel tree, it is an essential component of the classic bouqet garni: parsley, thyme and a bay leaf. It's one of the few herbs that doesn't lose its flavour when dried. Although fresh leaves are becoming more widely available, they're usually sold dried.

Beans can be divided into two main groups: those with edible pods (green beans) and those with edible seeds. The former group includes French beans, runner beans and yellow 'wax' beans; the latter includes the likes of cannellini or borlotti beans and a myriad of similar varieties. Dried beans need to be soaked, preferably overnight, before using.

Bird's-eye Chillies
These small, tapered red or green chillies are extremely pungent and very, very hot. Although they're sometimes called Thai chillies, they're Mexican in origin. They're often used in Chinese and South-east Asian cooking. See also chilli.

These hard Italian biscuits are traditionally made with hazelnut and aniseed but are now flavoured with a wide variety of nuts, lemon or orange rind. They're hard and crunchy because they're twice-cooked ('bis' is Italian for twice and 'cotti' for cooked) making them ideal for dipping in dessert wine or coffee. Recipes for biscotti date back as far as the 13th century in Italy.

A rich, creamy soup, usually made with lobster or crayfish, wine, brandy, spices and cream.

Black Bream
The black bream is a dark grey sea fish with tough scales that need to be removed before cooking. It isn't a hugely popular fish so is relatively inexpensive, but it has sweet firm flesh and is delicious eaten whole after being stuffed and baked, or as fillets.

Black Butter
This is a classic accompaniment to fish, particularly skate and plaice. It is made by browning butter in a pan and adding lemon juice and parsley.

Black Pepper
Black pepper comes from a climbing vine, the fruits of which - small round berries - ripen from green to red and finally to brown. Black peppercorns are actually berries that are picked when they're just turning red. They're then dried whole before being sold. Peppercorns can be green, white or black, depending on when they're harvested. Pink 'peppercorns', however, aren't true pepper.

The process of plunging food, frequently vegetables, into and out of boiling water for just a few seconds or minutes. Blanching preserves the colour and texture of food, and can be used to get rid of strong flavours (such as older garlic cloves). Blanching can also be used to par-cook food. For example, potatoes can be blanched before roasting or sautéing. The process can also help to loosen the skins of nuts, tomatoes or other fruits before skinning them.

A stew of white meat (veal, lamb or poultry) cooked in white stock or water with aromatic flavourings. The cooking liquor is thickened to make a sauce after the meat is cooked and finished with egg yolks and cream. Blanquettes are also made with fish and vegetables.

Blind Baking
A method of preparing a pastry case before adding the filling, in order to prevent the bottom becoming soggy and undercooked. The pastry is first baked with a lining weighted with beans. You can use dried beans (haricot beans are good) or you can buy ceramic or glass baking beans from good cook shops specifically made for the purpose. Crumpled up tin foil also does the job if you haven't got any beans in your cupboard.

Bluefin Tuna
Regarded as the highest grade tuna, bluefin tuna is used in top-class restaurants for sashimi and sushi. However, the southern blue-fin tuna is endangered, so be very choosy about what exactly you're buying.

Bok Choi
Closely related to the pak choi, this leafy green Chinese vegetable belongs to the cabbage family (although it tastes nothing like cabbage!). It has fleshy, white, slightly ribbed leaf stalks and soft, oval green leaves. The leaves and stems are best suited to brief stir-frying or steaming so they retain their mild flavour. Occasionally you may be able to find baby bok choi, which can be cooked whole.

Bolognese Sauce
Bolognese, often known simply as ragù, is the all-purpose thick Italian sauce made from minced beef and tomatoes. It can form the basis of lasagne or be served with spaghetti. Slow cooking is the key, until the sauce has reduced to a thick, mahogany richness.

Large fish from the same family as tuna and mackerel. Bonito is an oily fish and is prepared in the same way as tuna. It's labelled as skipjack tuna when tinned.

Bouquet Garni
A small bunch of herbs, classically a bay leaf, a few parsley sprigs and a few sprigs of thyme, wrapped in a leek leaf or bunched with a piece of celery and tied with string. It's ideal for flavouring soups, stews and stocks during cooking and is removed before serving.

A cut of beef taken from just below the shoulder along the length of the chest/breast. It's a fairly firm cut, so it's inexpensive, and benefits from long, slow cooking. Sold on the bone, or boned and rolled, it's often cooked in one piece. Delicious pot-roasted, poached or braised and used in casseroles or stews.

Italian bread (usually ciabatta), that's sliced and grilled or toasted, then rubbed with a clove of garlic and drizzled with extra virgin olive oil, before being finished off with a variety of toppings (ripe plum tomatoes and fresh basil is a classic combination). Bruschetta can be served with drinks before a meal, or as a light starter.

Buttermilk is traditionally a by-product of butter-making - the liquid that's left over after butter is churned from cream. It is now made commercially by adding a bacterial culture to skimmed milk. It has a slightly sour, acidic taste and is used for making scones and soda breads. It can also be used to replace milk for a healthier milkshake.



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