By Amil Malik
Thanks to social distancing, I found myself with extra time at home. Hours I had spent commuting, shopping, and socializing were suddenly at my disposal.
Frightened by the prospect of having nothing to do, I turned to the kitchen. In the process of teaching myself to cook, I realized I had a lot to learn about the words people threw around in the kitchen.
So here’s a quick primer to help with some common kitchen terminology.
• Muffin vs Cupcake: Both are made of the same ingredients (flour, sugar, a binding agent, a leveling agent), so one would think the difference between a muffin and a cupcake is a moot point. But, that’s actually not the case. Muffins are heavier, with a coarser crumb structure.
They have a mushroom shape that is supposed to crust on top. As a result, they are typically cooked at a higher heat compared to cupcakes. The batter is thick and clumpy, with a 2:1:1 ratio of flour, sugar and fat. Cupcakes, on the other hand, have a finer crumb structure with a thin and smooth batter.
They have a 1:1:1 ratio of flour, sugar and fat, and are cooked at lower steady temperature (hence no crusting). Often topped with icing, cupcakes are typically considered a desert while muffins are considered a breakfast item.
• Achar vs. Chutney: There is less of a consensus on the distinction between achar and chutney. Typically, achars are vegetables or fruits pickled in oil, vinegar, lemon juice, or a salt solution (brine). Chutneys can also be preserves (even pickled preserves), though more often they are made of fresh ingredients. Nonetheless, some people use achar and chutney interchangeably. The main difference comes down to the fact that achars usually contain chunks of whole fruits or vegetables while chutneys have smaller, pureed pieces with a more homogenous consistency overall.
• Jam vs. Jelly: Jelly is a clear fruit spread made of fruit, sugar, and pectin. The fruit is often cooked and strained, so the final product has no solid pieces. Jams are thicker.
Made from pureed fruit and sugar, jams typically contain a bit of the fruit pulp.
(Marmalades are basically just thick jams traditionally made with citrusy or tangy fruits. That’s why it’s usually orange marmalade as opposed to strawberry jam, for instance.)
• Baking Soda vs. Baking Powder: Turns out the two leavening agents are not always interchangeable. Baking soda (or sodium bicarbonate) is naturally alkaline, so it needs an acidic ingredient and a liquid to become activated.
Upon activation, carbon dioxide is produced, causing baked goods to rise. This is why recipes using baking soda will include an acidic ingredient like lemon juice. It’s needed for the reaction to occur.
Baking powder, on the other hand, is a complete leveling agent, containing both an acid and a base. It usually includes a bit of cornstarch to prevent the acid from activating during storage.
Technically, there are both single and double acting baking powders. Single acting ones react when combined with a liquid at room temperature and double acting ones react a second time when the mixture is heated.
Bases on their own have a bitter taste, which is why using baking soda instead of baking powder in cake (without adding an acidic ingredient to neutralize the flavor) results in bitter food, and using baking powder instead of baking soda in Kashmiri tea leads to a tasteless beverage. (There isn’t enough base to react with the acidic discharge from the brewed green tea leaves, altering the taste.)
• Orange Pekoe vs. British Blend Tea: Contrary to what the packaging of many brands of tea may lead you to believe (Lipton, Red Label, Tetley), the term Orange Pekoe is not a flavor.
Rather, it refers to tea leaf size used in determining tea grade when discussing teas from India or Sri Lanka. (Black tea is graded according to the size of the leaf, which can affect its brewing rate and how nuanced the flavor is.)
Tea grades can get very specific within each of the major categories — OP (Orange Pekoe; whole leaves), FOP (Flowery Orange Pekoe; extra-large whole leaves), and BOP (Broken Orange Pekoe; broken leaves).
Pekoe is actually pronounced ‘pek-ho’ and is derived from a word for a special kind of Chinese tea, meaning white downy hair referring to the down-like hairs on the tea leaves that are the youngest and smallest on the plant.
The orange part most likely comes from the Dutch East India Company. The Dutch royal family was the House of Orange.
In the 1600s the Dutch East India Company brought its teas to Europe and the best of its black teas were reserved for the royal family.
When that tea was introduced to the public, it became known as the ‘Orange’ Pekoe, to associate it with royalty (the House of Orange).
Calling a tea British blend — or English breakfast — on the other hand, has more to do with taste. English breakfast is typically a blend of black, Ceylon tea, which has a bright taste, as opposed to Assam tea, which is found in most afternoon tea blends and has a more robust, malty flavor.
As you acquaint yourself with these terms, try your hand at some new recipes. It’s not as daunting as it seems, and in the process, you might just fall in love with your kitchen. I certainly did as a first time chef.