At The Peppermill we often get phone calls asking us to explain culinary terms found in cookbooks that are not as simple as the generic word “mix.” Some of these words are necessary to denote slight differences in the way a recipe is prepared but some are just used for variety and can be used interchangeably. We’ve put together a list of terms you might find in baking books and we’ll explain the differences between them. All of the following words are related to “mixing” and will give you a better understanding of why certain steps are important to proper recipe technique.
Batter—a thin mixture consisting of flour, liquid and leaveners, that can be poured or spread. Pourable batters are most often used for chiffon cakes, bundt cakes and pancakes. Pound cake batters are usually thicker and need to be spread in the pan with a spatula.
Beat—to mix ingredients rapidly until they are well combined. Usually used in relation to eggs or cream.
Blend—lightly combine ingredients by hand. This term may also refer to using an electric blender to combine ingredients.
Cream—to beat an ingredient, usually a fat like butter or margarine, until well softened and combined with sugar.
Dough—a mixture of flour, liquid and a leavening agent such as yeast or eggs, that is combined to form a mixture that is stiff but still pliable. Dough is either rolled out using a rolling pin or formed by hand.
Emulsion—a mixture of two or more liquids that don’t combine easily, like oil and vinegar. Emulsions can achieved with a hand-held whisk or electric blender and food processor. The most common emulsions are salad dressing vinaigrettes
Fold—to incorporate a light, fluffy mixture, such as egg whites or whipped cream, into a heavier mixture. Folding is done by lifting the mixture from the bottom of the bowl and literally “folding” it over the batter at the top of the bowl. The act of folding prevents the delicate structure of the egg whites from being crushed by strong strokes. Folding is best accomplished with a silicone spatula or spoonula. Never attempt to fold using an electric mixer—even a low speeds. The strength of the mixer will always flatten the egg whites. Folding is a technique used when preparing mousse, chiffon or sponge cakes and meringues.
Immersion blender—an electric hand-held blender with the blade at the end of a long narrow handle. Immersion blenders are great for pureeing soups right in the pot. They also work well for emulsifying salad dressings and vinaigrettes. If your immersion blender has a whisk attachment, you can use it to beat egg whites as well.
Knead—to mix workable dough with your hands, a mixer or food processor in order to develop gluten, the proteins which make dough elastic. The longer a dough is kneaded the more gluten it develops, a feature that is desired when baking bread. However, when preparing pie dough, the less you knead the better. Too much gluten will cause the dough to shrink unattractively in your pie plate.
Meringue—egg whites that have been combined with sugar and beaten until stiff. Meringues are usually baked until crisp and dry on the outside and soft and fluffy within. When adding sugar to egg whites to make meringue, first beat the egg whites at high speed until they form soft peaks that will fall over when the beater is lifted out of the bowl. Continue beating at high speed and add sugar gradually until the peaks have become stiff enough so that when the beater is removed from the bowl the peaks of egg whites remain standing stiffly. Do not continue to beat at that point because the added beating will begin to break the curds that have formed and the meringue will fall.
Pastry blender—a device with curved wires or blades that is used to cut butter, margarine or shortening into flour until the mixture resembles large crumbs. This tool works much better than the instructions that say “two knives, used scissor-like” for making light pie crusts and cobbler toppings. It’s also handy for chopping eggs and mashing canned tuna fish.
Sift—to pour flour or other dry ingredients through a sifter; a tool with a mesh bottom used to remove lumps and impurities from dry ingredients. Sifters come in many different sizes suitable for varying tasks. Large sifters are useful for flour when baking in large quantities while smaller sifters are used for a sprinkle of confectioners’ sugar which tends to be lumpy. Sifting cocoa is also advisable as it is often clumped and will form unattractive, bitter spots in your cake. Some sifters feature cranks or shaker handles to help break up any unwanted chunks. When adding dry ingredients, many recipes suggest sifting together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. This makes the ingredients light and airy as well as prevents them from forming lumps in the batter.
Toss—to quickly mix ingredients such as vegetables for a salad. Tossing is most often done with a fork or spoon.
Whip—beat rapidly, by hand or with an electric mixer to incorporate air and increase volume. This term is most often used in conjunction with egg whites or cream