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When do you use "cook" and when do you use "make" while you are talking about preparing food? In other words: Which (type of) food are cooked which (type of) food are made?

According to dictionary :

Cook means: To prepare (food) for eating by applying heat.

Make means: to ​produce something, often using a ​particular ​substance or ​material.

So I can see that the main element in cooking is using the "heat", but there are some food that can be "made" using "heat" (in the oven or on the stove) and I have problem in using the correct verb while I'm talking about preparing such food.

For example; shall I say

  • "to cook a cake" or " to make a cake"?

  • "to cook a pizza" or "to make a pizza"?

  • "to cook omelette" or " to make omelette"?

  • "to cook stew" or "to make stew"?

  • "to cook steak" or "to make steak"?

Are there any general rules for using these two verbs?

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    As a note, you don't "cook" cakes... you "bake" them. If the preparation is done on the stovetop or in a microwave or on a grill, it could be called cooking but whenever something is inside an oven, it's much more likely to be "bake" or "roast" or other terms that are specific to cooking in an oven. – Catija Apr 8 '16 at 19:29
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    +1 for including the definitions and explaining why it's still confusing. – ColleenV Apr 8 '16 at 19:29
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    It may be context dependent (although I have to think about it some more before I try to write an answer) I say both 'I'm going to make a pizza tonight.' and 'I cook pizza on a very high heat because I don't like soggy crust.' I don't know that I would be likely to say "I'm going to cook a pizza tonight". I think the difference is whether you are focused on the actual cooking or if you are focused on creating the meal. @Catija – ColleenV Apr 8 '16 at 20:02
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    In many contexts (cooking/making pizza or an omelette, for example), either verb could be used, though it's worth bearing in mind that they can mean different things - so it's quite possible to say She made the pizza, but he cooked it. I should also point out that whereas it's just about possible to say She cooked a cake, I can't really imagine anyone saying He made a steak (except maybe if he was a butcher, cutting the steak from a larger piece of meat). – FumbleFingers Apr 8 '16 at 20:05
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    @ColleenV - I'm looking forward to reading that answer. Here's another thought for you: I'm more likely to say "make a pizza" if I'm, say, spreading the sauce and putting on the toppings, but more likely to say "cook (or bake) a pizza" if I'm just pulling a frozen pizza out of the freezer and putting it in the oven. – J.R. Apr 8 '16 at 20:19
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"Cook" focuses more narrowly on the act of applying heat and the transformation that the food undergoes because of the heat. Commenters on the question have properly noted that the more specific "bake" should be used instead of "cook" when the heat is applied in an oven (especially when the transformation is more than just increasing the temperature of the food).
"Make" is more general and covers other aspects of food preparation that do not necessarily involve the application of heat.

For example, you "make" a salad but you don't "cook" a salad, because there's no heat (usually). You might cook chicken as part of making a salad.

You "bake" a cake by putting it in the oven, and it is implied by context that you took other steps as well (such as mixing the ingredients, greasing the pan, frosting it, etc.) but if you "make" a cake those other steps are more explicitly stated and more emphasized.

In your examples, I would tend to use "make" more often unless "cooking" was about the only step in food preparation (e.g. "cook a steak" for some preparations). I would also use "cook" or "bake" if the heat component was the focus of my narrative (e.g. "I went to cook the pasta and discovered that my stove didn't work" or "I feel hot and tired because I've been baking bread all day").

One also hears people talking about how "accurately measuring ingredients tends to be more important in baking than in general cooking," because the ratios of one ingredient to another are important for the chemical reactions that take place while baking.

If you use "cook/bake" interchangeably with "make" when referring to food preparation with heat, or if you always use "make" for food preparation, the meaning will be quite clear*, and you don't need to worry about using the wrong one. The StackExchange Q&A site for chefs is even "cooking.stackexchange.com." However, if you want to understand the subtle distinction a bit more, I hope the answer above has helped.


(*) with very few exceptions, such as if you're a known sushi lover talking about "making fish for dinner" with an intended meal partner who strongly prefers that the fish be cooked; this is someone who might seek clarification.

  • @AlanCarmack That is what I meant to say. Edited to add "necessarily" as clarification. – WBT Apr 9 '16 at 3:38
  • Heat is applied in an oven when you roast a turkey, but it isn't baking. In the context of cooking, “baking” relates specifically to bread, cakes, tarts, pies, cookies, etc. and isn't really a catch-all for cooking in an oven, which your 2nd sentence implies. A simple rule might be that meat and vegetables are roasted while mixtures are baked. Maybe that's an over-simplification, but an obvious exception evades me. – Emmet Apr 13 '16 at 16:33
  • @Emmet hence the parenthetical. Meat and vegetables can be heated in an oven without being "roasted;" "roast" is more specific. I think any English speaker would understand what is meant by "bake a turkey" or "bake a meatloaf" (put it in the oven, turn the heat on) even if the turkey isn't undergoing the same kinds of chemical transformations a cake does. In those cases, "cook" is also correct. – WBT Apr 13 '16 at 18:37
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To supplement WBT's answer, I would also say that there are dialectal differences. My fiancée is American and I am Irish. I would say “I am going to cook an egg” (or, more likely, something more specific like “boil”, “fry” or “scramble”) whereas she tends to say “I am going to make eggs”, which sounds to me like she is going to squat down on the kitchen floor and lay an egg like a hen (I sometimes make clucking sounds when she says this :). To me “make”, as it relates to food, involves some kind of assembly of ingredients, whereas to her it really doesn't.

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I think the problem with your examples is that "cook" and "make" are both very general-purpose words. Usually it is more idiomatic to use a more specific verb. You don't "cook a potato", you boil, bake, fry, or roast it (and the four different methods of cooking it produce very different results). Similarly you don't "cook a steak", you fry, grill, or braise it.

You can use "cook" or "make" in situations where you would typically be using several different methods to prepare the food, and the details are not significant or interesting. For example you can "cook dinner", "make dinner," or "make a salad".

You could also you the generic verb "prepare", which seems to be appropriate for every possible method of turning a collection of ingredients into "food".

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If 'cook' is making food using 'heat/fire', then 'making' in the reference of making food is when you don't use heat/fire.

She's cooking rice (fire/heat needed)

But...

She's making a vegetable sandwich for me (no fire/heat needed).

So, in your all examples, if heat/fire needed, use 'cook' or else 'make' should go fine, I think!

Note that it is not a strict rule.

She makes delicious dishes

Best oil for making french fries

is okay!

With these examples, I conclude that when 'heat/fire' is used, both the terms 'cook' and 'make' would go unnoticed. But when you don't require heat/fire, 'make' seems to be better choice.

Check -

I'm cooking a sandwich - does not sound right unless it is a grill sandwich or something else for what you require heat.

That's the reason, 'cooking' is not possible when it comes to 'juices/shakes'.

She's cooking making an orange juice.

-1

To cook is an specific act, about preparing food.

There are other scenarios which require the same logic, for example:

  • to build/to develop software (not TO MAKE SOFTWARE)

TO MAKE is something generic, much more related with attitudes than physical things.

For example:

  • to make it happen (present)
  • I made it (past)
  • make some noise! (present) - in this sentence, it is much more related with an attitude, without specifying PHYSICAL interaction
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    It would be very kind of you if you tell me, what was incorrect about my signature. Could you please inform me the guidelines of the community, @Catija? – ivanleoncz Apr 8 '16 at 21:19
  • Signatures are generally discouraged all over SE sites. They are unnecessary, as are things like "thanks" and "hope this helps". It's the way SE is. – Catija Apr 8 '16 at 21:23
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    Thinking of that we are dealing with human beings that are seeking for help, and maybe sometimes this help can be very important in crucial moments, I believe that things like that area appreciated. Thanks for you explanation. – ivanleoncz Apr 8 '16 at 21:26
  • Hi Ivan, there's more information in this thread: Should 'Hi', 'thanks', taglines, and salutations be removed from posts?. One thing to think about - what if a learner had a question about 'regards' or 'helps' and was searching for an answer, but everyone finished their answers with "Hope this helps" and "Regards"? It would make it really hard to find relevant information about those words. Pop into English Language Learners Chat though if you want more connection with the folks in the community. No-one bites :) – ColleenV Apr 8 '16 at 21:55
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    Make can also be used for food, though. I can make a sandwich, make a milk shake, make a casserole, make potato salad, make couscous, make toast, make rice, make lunch, or make dinner. Those are all common, idiomatic constructs. – J.R. Apr 8 '16 at 22:08

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