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Tricks to Memorize 31 Spanish Verbs for Your Kitchen

Mnemonics and Other Tricks to Fortify Your Kitchen Vocabulary

“To cook” has two translations in Spanish that cannot be used interchangeably!

Photo credit: Gines-V licensed cc by 2.0

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A well-rounded Spanish immersion calls for Spanish in every aspect of your everyday existence. And everyday existence includes your kitchen in a big way, unless you hate cooking. You don’t necessarily have to be a borderline food-fanatic like me in order to appreciate this. Latinos are well-known for their kitchen-sorcery and the ability to talk about what they do with food is gonna go a long way winning them over. And I’m not even kidding! Here, we discuss some of the most commonly used verbs pertaining to various stages of cooking to equip you for a Hispanic kitchen.

1. Agregar (to Add)

You cannot cook much without having to add something to something else which is why this verb is probably the most important on this list. This should also be one of the easiest to recall as agregar is cognates with aggregate. You can also use this verb outside of the kitchen, e.g. when speaking of adding a friend on Facebook.

2. Ahumar (to Smoke)

This is not what you do to cigarettes. This is what you do to beef or salmons. What you do to cigarettes is fumar and what you do to food is ahumar. In fumar, you subject yourself to smoke. In ahumar, you subject your food to smoke. That being said, both fumar and ahumar derive from the same Latin source that gives us fume in English.

3. Batir (to Beat, to Whisk, to Churn)

Both beat and batir are near-cognates and I doubt you need any memory prop to remember them. Both whisking and churning are easily relatable to beating which should make it easy for you to have them all together in your memory.

4. Capear (to Cover)

Capear has a cap in it which should make learning it a cinch. However, capear is not meant to be used in all situations. You typically use it only when you cover something in a liquid for the purpose of cooking, like when you cover those fritters in butter while frying them. Outside of the kitchen, the verb also means to dodge or to ride out.

5. Congelar (to Deep-Freeze)

Congelar comes from the same Latin source that gave us the English verb, congeal. To congeal is to solidify or to coagulate by cooling. The verb is also not unrelated to gelatin. If you can recall congeal, although it’s rarely used in day-to-day communications, you’ll easily recall congelar.

6. Cortar (to Cut)

Cortar sounds very similar to curt which means short. The reason is etymology; both words derive from a common Latin source. So think of cortar as the act of making something curt. Cortar also means to carve, for example, meat.

7. Cubrir (to Cover)

Cubrir already sounds so much like its English counterpart, so remembering it should be a non-issue. You might wonder if capear and cubrir are synonyms since both mean to cover. And the answer is not really. While capear involves covering something in a liquid for the purpose of cooking, cubrir is when you actually place a lid on something to keep it warm or safe.

8. Derretir (to Melt, to Liquefy, to Thaw)

Think of liquids as more active and mobile than their solid version. Water, when spilled, wants to be all over the place whereas ice, on the other hand, stays where you place it. Think of solids as lazy old men who no longer enjoy moving. Think of them as retired liquids. By that analogy, turning solid into liquid sounds like de-retiring them, doesn’t it? That will help you remember derretir.

9. Desvenar (to Separate the Veins)

This one is another no-brainer. The “-venar” in desvenar should easily remind you of vein; As for “des-,” anyone can tell it’s analogous to “dis-” in English. Just as discourage is to remove courage from you, desvenar is to remove veins from, say, chillies. Think of the action as de-veining. Desvenar doesn’t have to involve chillies alone; you could do this to other things too, such as meat or plants.

10. Enharinar (to Flour)

This verb derives from harina, Spanish for flour. Just as covering something in balm is embalming in English, covering something in harina is enharinar in Spanish. Harina kinda rhymes with arena and a typical Roman arena is filled with sand. Relating flour to fine sand shouldn’t be difficult at all. Harina. Arena. Sand. Flour. Easy?

11. Flamear (to Burn)

Flamear comes with flame built in. That should already make it come naturally to you. However, do be careful with the verb because it’s not exactly meant to burn your food. That would be quemar. Flamear is more like, say, pouring brandy over food and igniting it as a show-off at the restaurant. You know this kind of dish as flambé.

12. Freír (to Fry)

This one, again, is a close cognate of its English counterpart and needs little effort to remember. You have probably heard it in the past-participle form, frita, in the expression papas fritas (French fries). Although freír officially means to fry, it can also be used colloquially for other purposes, such as to pester or to eat alive.

13. Guisar (to Cook, to Stew)

This is one of those rare Spanish verbs that come from Germanic sources instead of Romance. And yet etymology is of little help when it comes to memorizing it. What you can try though is picturing yourself guised as your favorite superhero busy preparing a meal of wild goose stew in your log cabin for your girlfriend. How romantic! That’s two memory hooks for you instead of one right there.

14. Helar (to Freeze)

Hielo is Spanish for ice and should immediately remind you of hail, those icy droppings from heaven during a cold storm. Helar is the verb that corresponds to hielo and it’s easy to tell. Although you might think of helar and congelar as synonyms, they actually aren’t. Think of helar as freezing something because that thing is meant to be eaten frozen, e.g. un helado (an ice-cream). On the other hand, congelado is when you freeze (rather, deep-freeze) something for the purpose of preservation and it must be thawed before being consumed, e.g. frozen meat.

15. Hervir (to Boil)

Hervir is a corruption of Latin fervere. Another corruption of this word is the English word fever. The analogy between boiling and high temperatures and between high temperatures and fever is a no-brainer here. Heat is the common thread here.

16. Hornear (to Bake)

Horno is Spanish for oven and hornear is the verb that derives from it. So if you can remember horno, you can remember hornear. Now horno derives from Latin furnus, which also gives us the English word furnace! A lot of Latin words starting with “f-” dropped their first letter in favor of “h-” while entering Spanish. I wonder if the Iberians had a thing against the proverbial “f-words.” Just kidding.

17. Llenar (to Fill) / Rellenar (to Stuff)

Llenar derives from lleno (full) and lleno comes from Latin plēnus which also gives us plenty. Many “pl-” words turned into “ll-” words when they moved from latin into Spanish. The ideas of abundance and full are easy to relate. In Spanish, “re-” is the prefix that intensifies the verb it attaches to. That’s what it does to llenar when the latter becomes rellenar. Filling is one thing but stuffing? See the difference?

18. Machacar (to Grind, to Crush)

Forget etymology, just imagine a burly macho Hulk crush your car with his fists. Now try shaking that image off your head. Told you, it was gonna be hard to forget. In Spain, machacar has some other fun, albeit colloquial, uses outside the kitchen. One of them is to blow, e.g. money. It can also mean to go on insisting, to study, or to pull an all-nighter.

19. Mezclar (to Mix, to Blend)

Doesn’t mezclar, at least its first syllable if not the whole word, already sound like mix? The verb comes from Latin miscēre, which also gives us English derivatives like miscible and immiscible. Remember those words from high-school chemistry?

20. Napar (to Cover)

Yet again? How many words do these Latinos have for cover? Well, there’s a bit of a context to each one of them and they’re not exactly synonymous. Think of napar as the same as capear except that capear happens while cooking whereas napar happens while serving. Think of napar as when you cover your pastry in thick chocolate syrup before serving it to yourself. Or imagine drowning your cake in fresh wine from Napa Valley for a date night with yourself? The wine from Napa will also help you recall napar.

21. Nevar (to Frost)

Nevar is the verb for nieve (snow), and happens to be the source of Nevada’s name. Funny how Nevada is largely desert and yet named after snow. Blame it on Sierra Nevada which is legitimately snow-covered all year round. However, in the kitchen, nevar means to frost a dish with something white, e.g., egg-white. The analogy still holds so making a mental connection shouldn’t be hard. By the way, nieve also refers to ice-cream in colloquial Mexican Spanish.

22. Pelar (to Peel)

Pelar and peel – don’t they sound almost exactly alike? That’s because they share a common Latin heritage. But pelar is not just to peel. It goes much further than that. It can also mean to shell, to skin, to flay, or to fleece. And just as fleecing can be a euphemism for cheating or robbing in English, so can pelar.

23. Quemar (to Burn)

This one is the most direct Spanish for burn. While flamear refers to flambé action, quemar is actually the act of burning something down. The verb has an interesting history. It derives from Latin cremāre (to burn) which also gives us the English verb cremate. Quemar. Cremate. Not that hard to see a semblance, is it? In Uruguay, quemar is also a colloquial term meaning to lose favor or to crash and burn, if you know what I mean.

24. Remover (to Stir)

Remover sounds like remove but don’t fall for that booby trap! The prefix “re-” serves to add a certain degree of overkill to a Spanish verb as you can see in words like rellenar and refreír. In other words, it intensifies the action the verb in question involves. If llenar is to fill, rellenar is to stuff. If freír is to fry, refreír is to deep-fry. Similarly, if mover is to move, remover is to move it thoroughly, i.e. to stir. See how it works?

25. Salar (to Salt)

Sal is Spanish for salt and both words come almost unaltered from Latin. This relationship is hard to miss. And if sal comes easy to you, so will its corresponding verb salar. Whatever you do, don’t ever confuse salar with saltar (to jump). The two verbs are absolutely unrelated! In Latin America, salar has a colloquial translation too – to ruin or to jinx.

26. Sancochar (to Parboil)

This one is better understood in Latin America than in Spain. Sancochar and hervir are almost the same thing with a key difference – Hervir involves boiling a liquid whereas sancochar is boiling a liquid with something solid in it with the intention of cooking that solid stuff. Think rice. You cannot boil rice because it’s not a liquid. Instead, you boil water with rice in it. What’s happening to rice here is sancochar. In order to remember this verb, I have a wacky recipe for you to imagine. Picture a dish that involves boiling some sand with a few live cockroaches in water. Sand plus roach will lead you to sancochar. Try it, you’ll be surprised how hard it will be to shake off once you imagine it! Just don’t blame me if you actually try this in your kitchen and the result makes you nauseous.

27. Sazonar (to Garnish)

Sazonar sounds so much like season, I’m positive you need no help with it. Speaking of season, fruits also ripen in season, don’t they? That’s probably why sazonar is also to ripen. You can also use the verb reflexively for people or their style and when you do, it means to mature. In the Caribbean, sazonar also means to sweeten, which translates elsewhere as endulzar, deriving from dulce (sweet). Oh and when you need to specify the thing you’re seasoning your food with, sazonar goes with the preposition de.

28. Trocear (to Cut Up)

Trocear is to cut up into pieces as is cortar. However, trocear seems to involve a finer action than cortar. While chopping something into bigger chunks is cortar, trocear is more akin to shredding. In other words, while cortar might result in cubes, trocear would give you, say, juliennes. How do you remember this verb though? I have no idea where it comes from so can’t help you with etymology. But you could imagine a truck with fine treads running over your onions resulting in finely-chopped pieces. Now that’s one strange way to prepare your onions but the similarity between truck and the first syllable of trocear should help you remember the verb without a fuss.

29. Untar (to Spread)

Untar comes from Latin unctus which gives us words like anoint and ointment. Both ointment and anointing involve spreading action which should help although the rhyme between untar and ointment is remote at best. You could also picture untying a sachet of yoghurt resulting in the contents spreading all over the place. Untar also carries a colloquial meaning – to bribe or to grease one’s palm.

There you go, the 29 most important verbs you’ll ever need in a Latin kitchen. Wait a minute, didn’t I promise like 31? Yikes, just when I thought I was gonna get away with it! Well, jokes aside, I had saved the best for the last. The two verbs below both refer to cooking itself. How can any list of kitchen-verbs be complete without involving the very act of cooking?

“To cook” has two translations in Spanish that cannot be used interchangeably! “To cook” has two translations in Spanish that cannot be used interchangeably!
Gines-V licensed cc by 2.0

30/31. Two Ways to Cook in Spanish

Spanish has two verbs for cooking – cocinar and cocer. Both mean to cook and yet a native speaker would rarely use them interchangeably. Let’s find out why.

Cocina is Spanish for kitchen and is closely related to the English word cuisine. From cocina we get the verb cocinar which involves everything that goes into making your food – chopping, peeling, boiling, stewing, frying, etc. In English, the catch-all verb for the whole shebang is to cook. Cocina, in this sense, should be fairly easy to get – the processes that take place inside the cocina (not including having sex on the kitchen counter).

If cocinar is to cook, what is cocer? Let’s go back to the processes involved. While steps like chopping and peeling are integral to making food, they are not technically cooking. A chef would categorize them under preparation. The actual cooking takes place on the stove; that is when everything you prepared actually starts turning into something edible over fire. It’s the heat that cooks. See the difference? This specific stage of the entire process where heat is involved is cocer. In English cooking refers to both processes, generic (including preparation) as well as specific (excluding preparation). Not so in Spanish.

Thus, cocinar is everything including chopping, peeling, boiling, frying, etc. And cocer is everything on heat, e.g., frying, boiling, roasting, baking, etc. It’s easy to remember the two words. It’s not easy to remember which one refers to what action. So here’s a very easy trick: Cocinar being the more generic verb involves more steps and as a result takes longer. Cocer excludes the preparation stage and as a result is a much shorter process. Could that be why cocinar is longer than cocer, spelling-wise? Longer word, longer process. Shorter word, shorter process.

Now here’s a fun trivia: Cocina is slang for the back seats in a guagua, slang for bus in Dominican Republic. Don’t ask me how this came to be or if people actually cook their meals back there. But the association is an intriguing one for sure.

So you see, I did keep my promise after all! Think of any verb I missed out on? Do feel free to share in the comments below. No matter how twisted the word, it just can’t escape a cleverly spawned hack. Mnemonics and memory tricks exist for virtually anything that needs to be committed to one’s memory. But more importantly, try coming up with mnemonics of your own and let us know how well you did. Remember, a mnemonic you came up with yourself is always gonna work better than the one someone else did for you. Go ahead, try it.



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