Culinary linguistics: 17 idioms about cooking

Chef: idioms about cookingLike many others, I was recently glued to my TV wondering who was going to be crowned MasterChef 2015. As well as making me feel hungry, watching the contestants create culinary masterpieces got me thinking about common idioms and other phrases in English that are linked to cooking.

There are actually a lot more than I originally thought, so here’s a selection for your delectation…

Idioms about cooking to tickle your taste buds

Cooking on gas = making good progress and likely to succeed (gas being faster, easier and cleaner to cook with than a wood stove)

Cut and dried = a situation, issue or idea that’s completely settled or decided (the distinction was originally made between the ‘cut and dried’ herbs from herbalists’ shops and living herbs)

Flash in the pan = something which disappoints by failing to deliver anything of value, despite a showy beginning

Half-baked ideas = ideas that haven’t been thought through properly

It (all) boils down to = reducing a problem to its basic elements (based on the fact that a boiling liquid reduces in volume and becomes more concentrated as it evaporates)

On a knife-edge = in a tense situation, especially one that’s finely balanced between success and failure

On a plate = with little or no effort from the person concerned (usually used in conjunction with to hand or give)

To boil over = when someone can’t control their anger and starts to argue or fight (opposite of Simmer down)

To cook the books = falsify a company’s financial accounts

To cook someone’s goose = ruin someone’s plans or cause someone’s downfall (a goose used to be cherished and fattened up for a special occasion, so cooking and eating it prematurely would spoil the planned feast)

Curry favour: idioms about cookingTo curry favour = attempt to ingratiate oneself with someone through flattery

To grill someone = question someone without letting up

To jump out of the frying pan into the fire = go from a bad situation to an even worse one

To simmer down = become calm (opposite of Boil over)

To stew or be in a stew = be mentally agitated

To stir the pot = deliberately raise tension/emotion

To turn up the heat = intensify pressure or criticism on somebody/something

Pay heed to these proverbs

As well as numerous idioms about cooking, there are also a few proverbs. Proverbs are short, pithy sayings that express a traditionally held truth. Usually metaphorical, they often offer advice.

A watched pot never boils = time feels longer when you’re waiting for something to happen

If you can‘t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen = if you can’t cope, leave the work to someone who can

It’s no use crying over spilt milk = there’s no point being upset about something that happened in the past

Too many cooks spoil the broth = if too many people are involved in a task or activity, it may actually turn out worse

If this collection of idioms about cooking has whet your appetite for more, check out my other posts in the series. Meanwhile I’d love to know if I’ve missed out your favourite cooking idiom.

(chef image courtesy of Stuart Miles / curry image courtesy of tiramisustudio via

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11 comments on “Culinary linguistics: 17 idioms about cooking
  1. Heather says:

    Thanks for this wonderful article. I’m putting together a themed crossword using home and gardening idioms, and it was very helpful.

  2. Alicia says:

    Great article! I really enjoyed learning about these idioms and proverbs.
    I’m missing ‘to butter someone up’, althought it might be more related to food than to cooking.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it Alica. Always lovely to hear! Yours is a great phrase, but it does belong more to a post on food & drink idioms than cooking-related ones. Maybe that’s one for the future?

  3. Tony Long says:

    “Flash in the pan” has nothing to do with kitchens. It refers to the ignition pan of a flintlock pistol. The spark from the flint fell into a pan, which was loaded with fine gunpowder,situated under the hammer. The “flash” then went through a little hole to the main charge in the barrel which then ignited and fired the ball/bullet. A “flash in the pan” was a misfire, successful ignition in the pan that failed, for whatever reason, to reach the main charge. The rest of your definition works quite well, although the degree of failure could do with a bit more emphasis.

    • Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment Tony – it’s always appreciated!

      I realise that “flash in the pan” doesn’t actually have anything to do with cooking or kitchens (like many idioms it’s unrelated to what appears to be the obvious connection) but I included it here because of the fact it mentions “pan” which has culinary connotations.

      In terms of its origins, your explanation ties in with the one I’ve linked to on The Phrase Finder.

    • Matt says:

      I always thought ‘flash in the pan’ came from prospecting days when folks would pan for gold, and get excited by a flash in the pan, until they realised that it wasn’t actually gold glinting in the sunlight and were disappointed. Seems much less complicated than all that gun mechanism stuff.

  4. Tania Grechanyk says:

    🙂 🙂

  5. Tania Grechanyk says:

    Great selection of culinary idioms, many thanks! And immediately “have other / bigger fish to fry” springs to mind 🙂

    • Geraldine says:

      Glad you enjoyed them Tania! And yes, that’s a great addition – don’t know why I didn’t think of it myself as it’s one I use quite often…

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