Just What Am I Cooking Exactly?

Are you still trying to figure out the difference between foie gras and pate? Navigating through culinary terminology can feel like mastering a second language. Professional chefs toss around names of ingredients, foods, and techniques with ease reflecting their training and experience. Dine out or cook enough and sooner or later you might be pondering the subtle differences between these foods.

  • Panna Cotta vs. Flan
    Both of these desserts are served cold and resemble molded, opaque puddings. Panna cotta is an Italian dessert with a base of unflavored gelatin, heavy cream, sugar, and another dairy source such as milk. Often, panna cotta is topped with berries or flavored in a variety of ways. Flan is a Mexican dessert which also has cream and sugar but contains eggs and no gelatin. Traditionally, flan has a caramel top, but creative chefs use flavors ranging from coffee to asparagus.
  • Butter vs. Ghee
    Butter, which contains 80% milk fat, is made by separating milk and churning the cream to create a solid form. The butter is colored yellow, is available salted or unsalted, and is a staple of all types of cooking, especially baking. Ghee is made by melting butter until it separates and then browning the milk solids to give them a roasted flavor. With a smoke point of 375 degrees, ghee does not burn easily as butter and is ideal for direct cooking. Ghee is typically found in Indian cooking.
  • Sour Cream vs. Creme Fraiche
    Both of these dairy products are the result of a fermentation process where the bacteria within thickens and sours the cream. This process occurs naturally only if the cream is not pasteurized. In the United States, artificial fermentation is used to create both products, although creme fraiche is more of a European item. Creme fraiche is not as sour as sour cream, it can be whipped, and it does not curdle when cooked.

More confusing combinations exist, but one of the advantages to a culinary arts program is that chefs learn the properties of each ingredient and when to utilize each one. Furthermore, with the added study of several international cuisines, chefs can accurately move a recipe or ingredient across several cultures.