Kitchen Conundrums

Lessons in culinary terminology that every Southern cook should know.

Female cook in the kitchen with her apron on

Toss some spices, meat and veggies in a pot, let them simmer and serve it in a bowl with a ladle. Obviously, it’s a soup…but wait, is it actually a stew? And if a stew is just a thick soup, how thick does it have to be to before it crosses over into stew territory? And what about peas versus beans? We think we know a pea when we see one and a bean when we see one, but what is the difference?

Several staples in Southern culture appear similar but are not quite the same. For these dishes, the difference is in the details. Your grandmother would expect you to get it right.

Pie vs. cobbler vs. crumble vs. crisp vs. dump cake

Have you ever referred to a cobbler as a pie and received a pitying look from across the table? Here’s the difference.

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Pie: The defining feature of a proper pie is the crust, specifically the orientation. A pie has crust on both the bottom and sides, holding the filling. It may also have a crust over the top — think chicken pot pie — but this is not always the case — think pecan pie. Pies can be sweet or
savory, and filling can be anything from fruit to meat to chocolate.

Cobbler: A cobbler is a pie missing the bottom and side layers of dough (so, as it turns out, not a pie at all). The top crust can be made of a traditional pie crust or biscuit dough. Cobbler filling is typically sweet and made of fruit.

Crumble: Like a cobbler, a crumble usually contains a fruit filling. The difference is that a crumble doesn’t have a crust. Instead, it is dotted with streusel topping made of butter, sugar and flour.

Crisp: “Crisp” and “crumble” have long been used interchangeably, but if you want to be precise, the difference lies in one streusel topping ingredient: oats. Crisps have them and crumbles don’t.

Dump cake: Dump cakes are popularly made from prepackaged ingredients like canned pie filling and box cake mix. The name comes from the method (if you can call it that): Add filling to the bottom of your pan, dump boxed cake mix over the top, add dots of butter to the top and bake. The result is something like a crumble, but a whole lot easier.

Bundt vs. pound cake

While a cake by any other name would taste as sweet, Southerners can eat their cake and name it too — properly.

Bundt: Everyone knows a Bundt cake by its shape: a round cake with a hole in the middle. A cake must be baked in a Bundt pan to be considered a Bundt cake. However, you can use any cake recipe you’d like.

Pound: While the Bundt cake has no set recipe, a pound cake is completely the opposite. A pound cake is famously made with a pound of each of the following four ingredients: flour, butter, eggs, and sugar. It can be baked in any pan (including a Bundt pan).

Peas vs. beans

Peas and beans share a family but like most siblings, they have more differences than meets the eye.

Peas: Peas are typically round and green, the same as those vegetables that you pushed aside as a kid. They are usually frozen because they spoil faster than beans (and work wonders on an injury). They grow better in cooler temperatures. Now you might be asking, what about popular Southern peas? Field peas? Black-eyed peas? This may seem blasphemous, but they are actually beans!

Beans: Beans vary in shape and color. They take more time to cook, especially if they are dried. Beans prefer hot weather to grow and encompass everything from green beans to black-eyed peas, including those beans you can shell and those you consume inside and out.

Mayonnaise vs. aioli

One is perfect on an unfussy sandwich, whereas the other is more of a fancy drizzle. But what else separates these two condiments?

Mayonnaise: Creamy and always in the fridge, mayonnaise is made of vegetable oil emulsified into egg yolks with lemon juice or vinegar and salt.

Aioli: The method of making aioli is similar to making mayonnaise. In this case, garlic is made into a paste and olive oil is slowly poured in while whisking to emulsify. Sometimes egg yolks or lemon juice is added to up to creaminess.

Soup vs. stew vs. bisque vs. chowder 

Soups, stews, bisques and chowders are all comfort foods served in a bowl, perfect for a brisk fall day. But don’t be fooled into thinking they are interchangeable.

Soup: In soup, liquid is the primary ingredient. Soup can be completely liquefied, or it can consist of other ingredients such as vegetables and meat that are fully submerged in water, stock or broth.

Stew: At first, one might think that stew is just a thicker version of soup. However, soups can be quite thick, and, at the same time, not become a stew. This is because the cooking method is what defines a stew. The meats in stews are braised. Braising is a moist-heat cooking technique that breaks down the meat, often using tougher cuts, to make it tender. Braising occurs over low heat over a long period in a pot with a lid. 

Bisque: A bisque is a type of soup made with pureed ingredients, often vegetables and shellfish.

Chowder: This type of soup is heartier than bisques, which tend to be lighter, sweeter and more delicate. Chowder contains chunks of ingredients, often seafood and vegetables. Potatoes often appear in chowders, which contribute to their thick consistency. 

Now, wasn’t that easy?

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