Six Of The Best English Cooking Idioms Ep 224

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📝 Author: Hilary

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Cooking Idioms

If you search for English language idiom articles on the Internet, you will find a lot of them titled; 100 idioms… or 1,000 idioms… or a million English idioms. They are useless, they are just a list of idioms with a basic description, they give you no value. You need not know 1,000 cooking idioms you need to know the 5-6 most commonly used today, right now in everyday English conversation.

Native British speakers often use idioms and old proverbs to make their conversation a little more interesting (or if you are learning English as a second language… a little harder!) The problem is which idioms are worth learning?

With so many English idioms and proverbs you would kill yourself trying to learn them all. If a native English speaker will only use 10-20% of the most common idioms in everyday English conversation. The other 80-90% of idioms are nice to know, but not that popular, so pointless you learning them. You need some help.

So this lesson is about saving you some time! We have identified which cooking idioms are worth learning and we explain each one of our chosen idioms in this lesson.

Why did we pick these idioms? Well, we’ve heard all of them recently being used by native English speakers, either in conversation or on TV. The point is a native English speaker is likely to use these idioms. Even if you don't use them yourself, at least you will understand (roughly) what they are about and that will help you in speaking English fluently.

We have a whole idioms category here, which covers many more of the more common English language idioms.

Most Unusual Words:


Most common 2 word phrases:

a knife13
cooking idioms9
cut and9
you might9
to boil8

Listen To The Audio Lesson Now

The mp3 audio and pdf transcript for this lesson is now part of the Adept English back catalogue . You can still download and listen to this lesson as part of one of our podcast bundles.

Transcript: Six Of The Best English Cooking Idioms

Hi there and welcome to this latest podcast from Adept English. Isn’t it a long time since we’ve done some English idioms? Do you remember what idioms are? Those phrases which we use all the time in English which say one thing, which have a literal meaning – but by which we really mean another meaning? And how about today we give our idioms a theme? What about cooking idioms? Well, if you go through the podcast archives on our website, you’ll find I’ve already covered two of these cooking idioms in a previous podcast. What about ‘Out of the frying pan into the fire’ and ‘A Flash in the pan’. Have a listen to those podcasts as well as this one.

So the idioms I’m going to cover today are these:-

  • To cook the books
  • Cut and dried
  • It all boils down to…
  • On a plate
  • On a knife edge
  • To boil over

To cook the books

OK, so let’s get started. What about ‘to cook’, which is a verb of course and is spelt C-O-O-K? Well just a word on British accent here. If you come from certain parts of the north of England, this word is pronounced ‘cook’, but if you’re from the south, you say ‘cuck’. I’m from the north, but I’ve been living in the south for so long that it’s become ‘cuck’ for me. So our first phrase might be pronounced ‘cook the books’ or ‘cook the books’, depending upon where you’re from. So if you cook something, it means usually that you take food and you apply heat to it, so that it’s nicer to eat. Cooking is what happens in a kitchen. So what about the phrase ‘to cook the books’? Well, you’re never literally going to ‘cook a book’ - that would be pretty pointless.


What we mean when we say that is the accounting books of a company or of a person have been fiddled or falsified. Accounting means any activity which documents or records financial or money-related transactions. So if you have a business, in most countries you have to do your accounts and show what money you’ve taken, what money you’ve spent. So if you do it in a false way, you put things into your accounts which aren’t true, that’s called ‘cooking the books’. So nothing to do with cooking at all!

Cut and dried

Another of these cooking idioms? What about the second one - ‘cut and dried’? So for those of you who like grammar, these words ‘cut’ and dried’ are past participles – so they’re from the verbs ‘to cut’ and ‘to dry’. Think about what happens to herbs – so herbs are leaves that you might grow in your garden, which give your food a particular flavour. Examples of herbs are parsley, basil or mint. And although you can eat herbs fresh in your food – they’re nice like that, you can also dry them. So you might have little bunches of herbs, tied together with string, hanging down from the ceiling in your kitchen. These would be ‘dried herbs’. And in the days before we could buy herbs at any time of year in the supermarket, you would harvest your herbs at the end of the summer, and dry them out, by hanging them upside down – so that you would be able to have herbs available for your cooking all through the winter. So when you’ve finished that task and they’re all hanging up, you might say of your herbs ‘they’re all cut and dried’. But when we use this idiom, we’re not normally talking about cooking or herbs. Instead when we say in English something is ‘All cut and dried’, it means it’s finished. It may have been a long process, but the decisions have been made, the work has been done and it’s over now, it’s completed. If you wanted to play a part in it, you can’t, it’s finished, it’s done, it’s ‘all cut and dried’.

The next idiom is ‘It all boils down to…..’ OK so what about the word boil, B-O-I-L, which is a verb again of course, ‘to boil’. So boiling is a method of cooking – you might do it with potatoes say. You put them into a pan and you add water and you heat it up – until the water reaches 100C – that is the temperature at which water boils. Boiling means it gets so hot that it bubbles. So you can boil water (and cook your potatoes in it) but you can also boil other liquids – like soup or sauce or gravy. If you’re making soup or sauce, you might boil something to ‘reduce it’, as a way of making it thicker, of reducing the amount of water in it. So the phrase ‘It all boils down to...’ is referring to this. It’s really saying ‘When you’ve taken all the excess water away, this is what you’re left with’. So if you reduce a problem or a simplify a problem or a situation to its basics, to its basic elements, this is what you’ve got. So you might say that in a job interview, it all boiled down to whether or not you had a current driving licence or if there’s been a crime, it might all boil down to who was in the building at a particular time. So there we are ‘to boil down to’.

On a plate

What about if something is ‘on a plate’? Well, you probably know the word plate, P-L-A-T-E. If you eat in a restaurant and you have a main course, so the middle part of your meal, it’s likely to be served on a plate and you’ll eat it with a knife and fork. So in cooking, you would put things ‘on a plate’ to serve them, to put them on the table for people to eat. However, if you use this as an idiom ‘on a plate’ means something is ‘there to be taken’ or even ‘there to be taken advantage of’. You’re not having to do anything extra to get whatever is on the plate. It’s there for you to take without any effort. So examples of this usage might be in a football match, ‘The other team is not going to hand you a victory on a plate’. Or a teacher might say ‘I’m not going to give you the answers to the questions on a plate. No, you’re gonna to have to work for them!’

I’m just going to pause there a minute to remind you to have a look at our courses page on our website. If you’re at the stage where you want to improve your English conversation, then our Course One: Activate Your Listening would be really helpful to you. It’s got lots of conversations and vocabulary explanations and different voices as well as mine! So have a look at our courses page at, if you haven’t already.

On a knife edge

Back to the cooking idioms. What about the idiom ‘On a knife edge’? Well, again you probably know the word knife, K-N-I-F-E. It’s one of those words with a silent letter that you don’t pronounce so you don’t say the letter K at the start of the word, of course. Now a knife can be, as I’ve already mentioned what you hold in your hand when you eat your food – and it goes with a fork. However, we use knife also to mean the large, sharper knives (note the plural is ‘knives’ with a v in the middle) that we use in the kitchen when we want to cut up vegetables or meat. And the edge of a knife – would mean the part that does the cutting – the sharp bit.

So in reality, not much can rest on a knife edge – it’s so thin, so narrow for one thing. But if you say ‘On a knife edge’ as an idiom – you would be ‘on a knife edge’ if there’s a really uncomfortable situation that you care about, but you don’t yet know what’s going to happen. If you think back to the last World Cup, then if your team had a penalty shoot-out to decide the match, you might have been ‘on a knife edge’ when you were watching it. We often use this if we’re waiting for news, about whether something has gone really well or really badly, and you might describe yourself as being ‘on a knife edge’. It could go one way or the other.


A photograph of a man holding a baby you cannot tell the gender of the baby. Used to help explain English grammar she, he and they.

©️ Adept English 2019

To boil over

Let’s do a couple more. What about ‘to boil over’? That’s another cooking term. This one feels more obvious perhaps, now you know the meaning of the verb ‘to boil’. If you put some milk to heat in a pan and you don’t keep an eye on it, you don’t watch it well, then the chances are that fairly quickly, it will ‘boil over’. This means is that the milk bubbles up and rises up the sides of the pan – and whoops – it comes over the sides of the pan and makes a mess everywhere! So this is to ‘boil over’ - the milk or the soup or whatever liquid has ‘boiled over’ the sides. So when we use this verb as an idiom, we’re usually meaning that feelings or a situation has escalated, suddenly become more serious, more dramatic and things have ‘boiled over’.

Download The Podcast Audio & Transcript

You might use this expression when you‘re talking about people’s feelings. It might be that there’s a situation where someone feels strong feelings, usually angry feelings, I guess – and this anger boils over into a confrontation or an argument. ‘Things were tense between my father and my sister – and it all boiled over, when we went to the pub’. Or ‘There was a peaceful demonstration until the crowd met with the police and then feelings boiled over’.


So just to summarise these expressions:-

  • To cook the books – means to falsify your accounting
  • All cut and dried – means something is finished and done, completed
  • It all boils down to – is a phrase we use to mean if you reduce a problem to its basic elements
  • On a plate – means something is there ‘for the taking’, you can have it without any effort
  • On a knife edge – means uh – you’re really uncomfortable. You don’t know what’s going to happen and you really care about the result. You’re on a knife edge
  • To boil over – usually we mean that about feelings. So things boil over, escalate into an argument or a confrontation


Anyway, that’s certainly enough vocabulary and enough cooking idioms for one podcast! Enough for now. Speak to you again soon. Goodbye.

PS: Keep yourself focused, English is a huge language. learn the important stuff first

You will learn to speak English faster if you stay focused on learning the most important or common 20% of any part of the English language.

Idioms is definitely one of those English language topics where “less is more”. Knowing a few interesting and commonly used idioms will get you by in most everyday English conversations. You would just be killing yourself for no reason, if you tried to learn them all.

Yes, if you like idioms, please learn them all. But our advice is to focus on the important ones first. Once your happy with your English language fluency then you can go learn them all. There are books full of idioms, and they can interest us as they capture the history of England and the way things used to be. Some keep their relevance even today and that's why native English speakers still like to use them.

Deep down I think most British English speakers are nostalgic about days gone by, and like to keep the old ways of thinking about things alive just by saying them out loud.

Our course the Most Common 500 English Words is built around the "learn the important stuff, first" principle. You can read more about that here.

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