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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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 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
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.