They’re similar but different. Knowing the distinction can make you a smarter cook.
You consider yourself a clever cook. After all, you know how to make “buttermilk” from milk and lemon juice. You buy Golden Delicious apples for your pies, not Granny Smith, because you know the sunshine yellow-skinned apples are by far the best after your many apple pie-cooking experiments. You also are a stickler for roasting Yukon Gold potatoes because they’re buttery and smooth (unlike those dreadful Russet ones).
WATCH: Evaporated vs. Sweetened Condensed Milk
But even with your compilation of back-pocket ingredient facts, you may not know the differences between these foods. They’re commonly confused, so you’re not alone. Read about these dozen food pairs that are easy to mistake. You might learn a little something, too.
Club Soda vs. Seltzer
Both club soda and seltzer have two primary ingredients: water and carbon dioxide for bubbles. However, club soda has added minerals, such as sodium and potassium citrate. These minerals give club soda a slightly different flavor, which is most noticeable perhaps in cocktails.
If you find yourself serving as mixologist and the club soda bottle runs dry, you can use seltzer, but the cocktail will taste more watery. Compensate with more mixer, or lower your ratios so you have less seltzer.
Ice Cream vs. Gelato
A true frozen food aficionado would dare not confuse the two, but the average ice cream connoisseur could be forgiven for not being able to identify the differences between ice cream and gelato at the drop of a hat.
Ice cream starts with a rich custard made of milk, cream, sugar, and egg yolks. It’s then churned to incorporate air and turn the soupy mixture fluffy and light.
Gelato starts with a base of milk and sugar. It has cream, too, but much less than ice cream, and fewer eggs, if any. Gelato is churned slower so less air makes its way into the mixture. The result is a denser frozen dessert that’s silky, chewy, almost elastic.
Additionally, because the gelato has a lower ratio of fat (less cream in the mixture lowers the overall fat total, but it’s in no way a low-fat food), any flavors you add to the gelato base will be stronger and more pronounced. The extra fat from the cream won’t mask the great fruit, nutty, or chocolaty flavors.
Bananas vs. Plantains
Bananas and plantains look almost identical, and that’s where the similarities end. While they are members of the same family, they act, taste, and cook in uniquely different ways.
Bananas are sweet, eaten raw, and very high in sugar. Plantains, on the other hand, are starchy fruits that are more similar to potatoes than their cousins. Plantains can be mashed, sliced and roasted, or sweetened and fried in oil. There’s no swapping these foods. If you accidentally grab plantains thinking you’ve got a batch of browning bananas for bread, you’d better search for a Fried Plantains recipe if you need a dessert.
Ragout vs. Ragu
They’re pronounced the same (French and Italian spellings for the same word), but these dishes are quite different—but we’ll never be sad when either are served at our tables. French ragout is a thick braised stew of poultry, meat, or fish. It may be cooked with or without vegetables, and it’s typically eaten with a chunk of crusty white bread to sop up the juicy remainders.
Ragu, on the other hand, is an Italian meat sauce that’s made with ground meat, vegetables, and tomatoes. It’s served atop fresh pasta. A sprinkle of shaved Parmesan is also a great idea.
Yams vs. Sweet Potatoes
These two tubers may take the award for the most commonly confused foods, and to be honest, it’s not at all hard to see why. They’re only distantly related, but they’re often misidentified for one another. Well, more accurately, some sweet potatoes are frequently mislabeled as yams. Here’s a little more info to help you know what you’re holding at the store.
Yams are cylindrical tuber vegetables that are originally from Africa. The typical yam is white with a rough, scaly brown skin. They can also be orange with a red-brown skin or creamy white with a light brown skin.
Sweet potatoes are typically orange-fleshed tubers with a creamy red-brown skin. However, sweet potatoes can also have white, purple, or tan skin and flesh.
The hard variety was the only type of sweet potato Americans could find for decades. Then the softer variety was introduced. Because the soft and hard kinds look almost identical, grocery stores needed a way to differentiate the two, so, with the USDA’s blessing, the soft variety was often labeled yams. Unfortunately, that misnomer lingers today.
Actual yams are hard to find in the average American supermarket. In fact, you may not find them at all unless you seek them out at a specialty store or order them from an online market.
Jam vs. Jelly
They both have pectin and sugar, and they’re both delicious on biscuits, toast, scones, and more. Knowing the portion of the fruit that’s used to make the spread will teach you the difference.
Jam is chunkier thanks to chopped or crushed fruit that’s cooked down with the sugar and pectin until thicker and spreadable. Jelly, on the other hand, is made from fruit juice (no actual pieces of fruit) that’s boiled with sugar and pectin. Jelly firms into a gel-like spread.
Green Beans vs. Haricots Verts
Translated from French, haricots verts means green beans, but in the American grocery market, these are two different foods. Haricots verts are a younger, more tender and slender type of green bean. (They also tend to be more expensive.) These flavorful beans can be quickly sauteed or steamed for an easy side, so they’re great for a weeknight side dish.
Traditional green beans on the other hand are tougher and chewier. They need to be cooked for a longer period of time to make them tender enough to eat.
Pasta vs. Noodles
Pasta is made of durum semolina wheat and water. Noodles are most often made from wheat flour, eggs, and salt.
Pasta is kneaded into a stiff dough and then pressed through a one of hundreds of moulds or dies to make the pasta shapes you know and love—spaghetti, lasagna, or macaroni, for example. Noodles are also pressed through a die, but are typically only made into long, thin strands. They may be flat or rounded.
Will you know the difference if you eat a package of noodles that are accidentally labeled pasta? No, because the fact is many noodles are labeled pasta, and pasta is colloquially called noodles all the time. However, some sticklers for pasta purity (namely the Italians) require that pasta be 100 percent durum semolina if it’s going to wear that honorable name.
Pasta is cooked to al dente, a toothsome texture that has a little bite. Noodles, however, can be downright silky when properly cooked. Noodles also tend to be used in Japanese dishes, served in broth with vegetables or meat, and pasta is most commonly served with a tomato-, oil-, or cream-based sauces.
Cold Brew vs. Iced Coffee
Cold brew coffee is, as the name suggests, brewed with cold water. The coffee grounds steep in cool or room-temperature water for several hours. The resulting coffee is often deeply concentrated. It’s typically diluted with water or milk, and it’s frequently served over ice as a chilled coffee beverage.
Iced coffee, on the other hand, is brewed the same way as hot coffee. Then it’s chilled and served over ice to dilute the coffee flavor.
Cold water doesn’t activate the coffee grinds’ caffeine and acids the way hot water does, so cold brew coffee tends to be less acidic and lower in caffeine. It’s also fridge-stable for several days, where iced coffee will develop a “sour” flavor several hours after it’s brewed.
Macaroon vs. Macaron
These two sweet treats are branches of the same dessert tree: they started out together at one point but ended up in very different places.
Both macaroons and macarons begin with a mixture of egg whites and sugar. If shredded coconut is added, the dough is spooned onto a cookie sheet, and baked until solidified and brown around the edges. These are coconut macaroons, a classic Passover treat.
If powdered sugar and finely ground almonds are added (and possibly flavorful syrups or extracts), the dough will be piped into rounds and baked until delicately crisp. Two rounds then sandwich a rich and creamy filling to make the macaron, a colorful two-bite cookie.
Nectarines vs. Peaches
These stone fruits are peak summer fruit perfection, and they’re nearly genetically identical. However, those recessive and dominant genes you learned about in middle school science class will help you understand the difference between these two fruits.
A dominant gene trait gives a peach its soft, fuzzy skin. A recessive gene is responsible for a nectarine’s fuzz-free, smooth skin. Nectarines also tend to be smaller and firmer than peaches, which means they aren’t as likely to bruise or puncture as peaches. Besides that, you’ll be hard-pressed to find real differences, personal opinions about taste aside.
Raw Sugar vs. Brown Sugar
They’re both brown, and they’re both sugar. But how they got to their end result is a tale of two very different journeys.
In a lengthy process, sugar cane is refined and treated until it’s a large-grained golden brown sugar. This is raw sugar—and the end of the line for this product. It’s packaged and sold as is.
For brown sugar, the process continues: the natural molasses in raw sugar is removed. This results in a white granulated sugar, the kind that’s used in everything from cookies to simple syrups for cocktails. To make brown sugar, some of the molasses that was extracted from the sugar several steps earlier is added back to the white sugar, and this is brown sugar. In short, brown sugar is just enhanced white sugar. Raw sugar isn’t really raw; it’s just slightly less processed than white or brown sugar.