Photos of broth soup, oatmeal raisin cookies, and chocolate cupcakes with logo overlay

What Do They Really Mean? Commonly Confused Cooking Terms

There are some terms that often get confused when it comes to cooking. I’ve broken down some of the most common cooking terms and what they really mean.

Have you ever read a recipe and were a bit confused about some of the terms? Or have you wondered what the difference was between things that seem the same?

The more I’ve been cooking, and writing about it for the blog, the more I’ve been thinking about this. There are a few words that are the most commonly confused cooking terms.

These terms seem to often be used interchangeably. But there has to be a difference in them. Otherwise, why would they be different words? Other than, you know, the English language can be really confusing in itself.

Originally Published On: November 28, 2017

Last Updated On: April 15, 2020

Cooking/Baking Commonly Confused Cooking Terms

Frosting vs Icing

 Commonly Confused Cooking Terms: Chocolate cupcakes in rows topped with pale frosting and red sprinkles

When I was working on my peppermint blondies last week, the original recipe that I based it off called it an icing but I kept saying frosting. So this made me wonder what the difference really is.

Frosting: a sweet mixture, cooked or uncooked, for coating or filling cakes, cookies, and the like.
Icing: a sweet, creamy spread, as of confectioners’ sugar, butter, and flavoring, for covering cakes, cookies, etc.

So according to that, there really isn’t much of a difference in the two terms. Typically frosting is able to be spread on something. For example the frosting on a cake or the frosting on the brownies. Icing usually refers to one that is thinner. It can be drizzled on something. Such as the icing that comes with a container of cinnamon rolls.

Dough vs Batter

Three oatmeal raisin cookies stacked on pieces of parchment paper with oats and raisins around them with a plate of cookies and a glass of milk behind all on a wooden surface (with logo overlay)

So this one also had me intrigued while working on the peppermint brownies. I know what dough is when it comes to bread products. But what’s the difference between a brownie batter and a cookie dough? Why do we call one dough and the other batter?

Dough: flour or meal combined with water, milk, etc., in a mass for baking into bread, cake, etc.
Batter: a mixture of flour, milk or water, eggs, etc., beaten together for use in cookery

Again, not much of a difference. From looking through a few different sources, it seems that it mostly has to do with the consistency. One that is more of a liquid is considered a batter. And anything that’s more firm is typically considered a dough. This explains why cookies are made from a dough. It’s thick enough to scoop. Brownies are made from batter because it’s a liquid that can be poured.

Baking Soda vs Baking Powder

 Commonly Confused Cooking Terms: Baking soda in a small metal strainer with more baking soda on the bamboo surface

I know there’s a difference. One can’t be substituted for the other. But what is the difference?

Baking Soda: sodium bicarbonate
Baking Powder: any of various powders used as a substitute for yeast in baking, composed of sodium bicarbonate mixed with an acid substance, as cream of tartar, capable of setting carbon dioxide free when the mixture is moistened, causing the dough to rise

Well now that we’ve cleared that up….. Or not. Basically, baking soda is used to react with an acid in a recipe, such as brown sugar, to create the carbon dioxide needed to help your baked goods rise. This is usually used for cakes and cookies and similar recipes.

Baking Powder is made with baking soda and a few other ingredients. Baking Powder is a leavening agent. It gets activated twice. First when it comes in contact with any wet ingredients and second when it is heated. Since it contains both an acid and a base (baking soda), it is usually used in recipes that don’t have an acidic ingredient in them.

Food Commonly Confused Cooking Terms

Stock vs Broth vs Consommé

 Commonly Confused Cooking Terms: Broth soup in a bowl next to a spoon with a napkin and plate underneath beside potatoes and leafy greens on a black surface

Some recipes call for chicken broth. Others call for chicken stock. Or beef broth, or vegetable broth. Is there a difference between the two? And don’t forget about the consommé as well!

Broth: any liquid that has had meat, fish, vegetables, or legumes cooked in it
Consommé: a clear soup made by boiling meat or chicken, bones, vegetables, etc., to extract their nutritive properties

Stock: liquid frombones, simmered for a long time to extract their gelatin and flavor


Broth also is usually seasoned. It can be consumed as it is with little to no additions. Stock is unseasoned. Consommé is made from taking a broth and adding egg whites and lean ground meat to the top while simmering. Those pull all the tiny food particles out, leaving a clear liquid behind.

In general, a broth is used when it is going to be consumed as is, or with very few things added. Stock is used for making more elaborate soups or sauces when you will be adding a lot of seasonings. Consommé is good for serving hot, as is, similar to a broth.

Sweet Potato vs Yam

 Commonly Confused Cooking Terms: Sweet potatoes with pieces cut off on a bamboo cutting board on a white surface

During the holidays, family and friends talk about what they make for their big family dinners. Some mention sweet potato casserole, others mention candied yams. But they both seem to be talking about a similar dish. Are sweet potatoes and yams the same thing? They get interchanged often, but what are they?

Sweet Potato: a plant, Ipomoea batatas, of the morning glory family, grown for its sweet, edible, tuberous roots
Yam: the starchy, tuberous root of any of various climbing vines of the genus Dioscorea, cultivated for food in warm regions

Umm…. what? So are they the same? No, they are very similar, both starchy tubular roots that come from plants. But they come from different plants. And from my research, most people have never actually eaten a yam. They are imported from Asia and Africa and are often in specialty stores only.

Yet if you go to the produce section of a grocery store, you are likely to see two different things, one labeled yam, and the other sweet potato. There are two main varieties of sweet potato: the ones that are firmer (even after cooking) with a paler flesh, and those that are softer inside with a more copper-colored flesh. Grocery stores tend to call the firmer ones a sweet potato, and the softer ones a yam. So when you are eating the orange-colored sweet potato, while that is technically a sweet potato, you are eating what the grocery stores label as a yam.

Still confused? Don’t look at the name on the labels. Just know if you want a firm potato and grab the paler ones, or a soft potato and grab the copper ones. PS: sweet potato casserole is usually made from the soft ones, labeled yams. So should we call it yam casserole?

Fruit Commonly Confused Cooking Terms

Rind vs Zest

 Commonly Confused Cooking Terms: Lemon being zested with a metal zester

Oftentimes, recipes say to garnish with lemon zest or to add orange rind to something. I have a zester tool that works great at shredding little pieces of the rind of a lemon. So am I using a lemon zest then or lemon rind?

Zest: the peel, especially the thin outer peel, of a citrus fruit used for flavoring
Rind: a thick and firm outer coat or covering, as of certain fruits, cheeses, and meats

So the zest is the outermost part, and the rind is the entire peel of a fruit. When you are making a recipe that calls for zest you are going to use just the outermost part, which is where all the flavor happens to be on the rind. Once you get to the white part of the rind you have gotten to the most bitter part of the fruit. The zest has almost all the same flavor as the inner part. You just don’t get the chunks and liquid from the fruit.

Jelly vs Jam vs Preserves

 Commonly Confused Cooking Terms: 3 small spreaders with a scoop of jelly on the first, jam in the middle, and preserves on the end spreader all on a white surface

Ok, this one still baffles me. The boys say they want a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The stuff I have in the refrigerator is technically a preserve. And then when you go to the grocery store, there are not only jelly and preserves but also jam. So which one do we really want?

Jelly: a food preparation of a soft, elastic consistency due to the presence of gelatin, pectin, etc., especially fruit juice boiled down with sugar and used as a sweet spread for bread and toast, as a filling for cakes or doughnuts, etc.
Jam: a preserve of whole fruit, slightly crushed, boiled with sugar
Preserves: to prepare (fruit, vegetables, etc.) by cooking with sugar, pickling, canning, or the like

For the most part, the difference comes down to texture. A jelly is strained when prepared so there are no chunks of the fruit left in it at all. Jam is made from fruits that are chopped and crushed or pureed. A bit of the pulp is left in there giving it a slightly chunky texture. Preserves use either large pieces or the entire fruit when being prepared. Those pieces are left in leaving it with large chunks of fruit and the thickest texture of the three.

Knowing this, when you are making foods such as a pb&j, it really comes down to preference on which you prefer. Now that I know the difference, I can say I prefer a jam or preserve over jelly. There’s just something strange about it being so smooth to me that I don’t like, and the chunks of fruit in jams and preserves add to the flavor.

Working in the Kitchen

40 thoughts on “What Do They Really Mean? Commonly Confused Cooking Terms”

  1. Ha ha! I LOVE LOVE LOVE this article! I totally learned something new about baking powder and I am very excited about finally knowing what it does chemically in a recipe. I admit I might still be confused about Yams…lol.

  2. This was extremely helpful. I can follow a recipe well and I like to think I’m a good cook but for some reason I would always confuse baking powder and baking soda. Mystery solved!

  3. This is SO fantastic! The only one I felt I was sure on was the frosting vs icing. But I wasn’t exactly right there either. I thought of it as you did, that icing was thinner and able to be drizzled. I’m also intrigued that I have probably never eaten a true yam!

  4. This is such a great resource! It seriously can get so confusing in the cooking world with all these different meanings or words that mean the same thing but how would anyone know that! Thanks to this – they will!

  5. This is nice explanation, its true it get confusing and this is really was helpful. Gonna have to share with family and friends. Great job!

  6. The icing verses frosting is not one I have thought about but is interesting. I always took batter has something you poured where dough was far too thick for that. I had no idea the differences of broth, stock, and consomme. What a fascinating post!

  7. YES to the lemon zest, orange too! My dad just made stock with the turkey bones…
    Thanks for this interesting post, I never thought about it until now and I love thinking about new things like this and learning : )
    fun read!

  8. I’m a jam girl myself. Jelly is too jiggly and watery. I do like preserves when I want to be fancy and eat them at a hotel or something. Strangely I don’t buy preserves though. Weird shopping habits I guess.

  9. This is extremely helpful! Thank you so so much…I had no idea what the difference was between baking soda and baking powder, thank you so much for clarifying it for me.

    1. I did too. Or at least, I always wondered why there were two different terms and never thought more about it until I started writing recipes and figured it would be good to know!

  10. Awesome information! I always use sweet potatoes and yams interchangeably, good to know the difference. When following a recipe I have to check and quickly get whatever is needed, baking powder or baking soda because I have one next to the other and get easily confused.

    1. I think a lot of people mix up the two, I know I did! And I keep my baking soda and powder together too. I always check 2 or 3 times before adding it into a recipe since they also look very similar!

  11. ah, that takes me back to culinary school! We had dictionaries and all! I wonder how we managed to learn all these hahaha! What a great post! Unleashing our inner chefs!

    1. Oh I’m sure there were so many more things you learned in culinary school! I’ve been self-taught in the kitchen, so had to do some searching online over the years for various things like this.

  12. Wow, I didn’t know there was a big difference for commonly cooking terms that sound like each. I always thought frosting and icing meant the same thing. Thanks for the information!

    1. I figured there had to be some difference, but I had no idea what it was until doing some searching online. It’s funny how we can interchange words so easily and not know it!

  13. This was a great post to come across. I create a lot of recipes, so I need to make sure I use the proper terms. I had never thought about the difference between icing and frosting before!!

  14. This is a really helpful article on commonly confused terms. I actually had the yam problem a couple years ago and had to research to find the correct item to make sweet potatoes for thanksgiving and that’s when I realized the difference!

    1. I’ve never made the sweet potatoes for Thanksgiving, so it wasn’t something I really considered. It’s only recently that we’ve made sweet potatoes for a few meals that I learned the difference.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *