A Short Introduction to Italian Cooking Terms

One occasionally hears mention of the following terms in Italian cooking-- battuto, soffritto, trito, crudo, al dente, and insaporire.   What do they mean?

Battuto, which is often used in the same sense as soffritto, means "beaten."   A battuto is usually a very finely chopped mixture of salt pork, pork fat, or pancetta along with garlic and onions.   It can also contain celery, carrots, hot or sweet chiles, and other ingredients as long as they are all very finely chopped.   The mixture, because it so finely chopped, almost looks like it's beaten together.   Once it is sautéed with some olive oil, it becomes a soffritto.

A soffritto at its most basic is a sauté of finely chopped onions in olive oil.   Although most dictionaries translate soffritto as "sauté," it really means to fry very gently, to under-fry (sotto friggere).   A soffritto is often the beginning point of a sauce or more involved dish.   A more complex soffritto would also sauté finely chopped garlic, celery, or herbs, usually parsley, in the olive oil.   As the onions begin to turn yellow, tomatoes or whatever else the dish requires, such as meat or vegetables, are added.   The soffritto concept also exists in Catalan cooking, where sofregit means the same thing.

A trito is the same as a battuto except that it usually doesn't contain pork; it's very finely chopped vegetables, usually including some combination of onions, celery, garlic, carrot, and parsley.   The concept also exists in French cooking, where it is called mirepoix.

Crudo can refer to a mirepoix of vegetables and herbs or other ingredients that are added uncooked to a dish or sauce, and then cooked.   It can also be a mirepoix of herbs and vegetables, or any combination of these, that is put directly on or mixed with cooked food--for example, tossed with freshly cooked pasta.

Al dente is a term used in reference to pasta cooking.   It means "to the teeth," saying that the pasta should have a slight bite to it, still offer a bit of resistance, after cooking.

Insaporire means "to enhance the flavor."   One would do this with an insaporiti, a mixture typically of consisting of olive oil or butter perhaps flavored with onion, garlic, and parsley added during or after the cooking.

(Photo: Riziculture in the delta of the Ebre river in Spain, futura-sciences.com)

The Arabs had established riziculture very early on in Spain and were exporting it from Sicily by the tenth century. Traders could find rice in Levantine ports and fourteenth century Majorcan rice was sold at fairs in Champagne. In Venice, a deliberation of the Council of Ten in July 7, 1533, exempts rice from an excise tax because it takes the place of vegetables. The Provencal writer Quiqueran de Beaujeu wrote in 1551 of riziculture in Provence. One can’t help but notice that rice was being eaten in Europe before the development of riziculture on the Lombardian plains. The fourteenth-century cookery manuscript known as the Libro per cuoco by an anonymous Venetian gives a recipe, rixo in bona manera--that is, a kind of porridge of rice cooked in almond milk with sugar. In Italy, a person who laughed easily was said to have eaten rice soup, a play on words: che aveva mangiato la minestra di riso (he had eaten laughter/rice soup).