Veggie Color & pH

Besides the wonderful nutrition they give us, vegetables also add great color and texture to our meals. If you are planning on cooking these veggies, you need to be aware that how you cook them will determine how they will look and taste on the plate. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Green veggies

What gives veggies a green color is chlorophyll. This chemical, though, is destroyed by acids, such as lemon juice and vinegar. To maintain the color, cook them quickly in minimal water. Leave off the lid so any acidic elements can escape.

Chlorophyll also has a tendency to turn dull and brown during extended cooking and storage.

Have you ever noticed that canned green beans tend to be a dull olive-brown color, whereas frozen green beans are intensely green? When green beans are canned, the acids that are naturally in the beans are released into the cooking water. Due to the canning process the acids stay in the can, which means they are cooked and stored under slightly acidic conditions. Thus, the darker color.

Frozen green beans, on the other hand, are blanched in water with a neutral pH, which is less detrimental to the color. They are then frozen to preserve their color and freshness.

Cooking in an alkaline environment causes different chemical changes that result in a greener color. As opposed to regular chlorophyll, the compound that results from these changes is water soluble. Therefore, you may see the cooking water turn very green as well. The downside of cooking in an alkaline environment is that the veggies can turn mushy.

White veggies

Potatoes, onions, cauliflower, and the white parts of celery, cucumbers, and zucchini get their white color from flavones. They may turn a brownish-yellow when cooked with alkaline ingredients. An acidic ingredient, such as cream of tartar, lemon juice or vinegar, may be added to help neutralize the alkaline environment in which these vegetables are cooked and prevent discoloration. Overcooking can give these veggies a very unappetizing gray color.

Yellow and orange veggies

Carotenoids are the yellow and orange pigments found in carrots, corn, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and winter squash. These pigments are very stable to acids and generally retain their color unless they are overcooked. In that case, the color may fade.

Red/purple produce

Anthocyanins impart the red & purple color found in red cabbage, beets, cherries, red and purple grapes. Under neutral conditions, anthocyanins are usually purple. Under acidic conditions, they can become a brighter red. When they’re exposed to alkaline conditions, they will appear more blue or green.

This reaction is reversible in that if your food has changed color due to the addition of too much of an acidic or alkaline ingredient, you may add more acid/alkali to balance the pH, which will reverse the color change. To see a visual of these changes, see this article by Decoding Delicious.

Another point about anthocyanins is that they tend to lose color rapidly during cooking. So, just like green vegetables with chlorophyll, fruits and vegetables with anthocyanins should be quickly cooked with little exposure to water or other fluids.

What does this all mean in practical terms as you are in your kitchen? First, if any these color changes occur, look at the ingredients to see if you can pinpoint the culprit. If you are unsure whether a food is acidic or alkaline, see this chart, which is free of health claims and cautions.

It can also help you improve the color of your veggies. For example, just a small amount of acid will give red beets and red cabbage a bright red color. Have you ever noticed how often cabbage is cooked with tart apples? The acid from the apples will brighten the color.

You do need to be careful about adding acid as it can toughen vegetables and prolong the cooking time. Therefore, if your recipe calls for an acid (lemon juice, tomatoes, vinegar), add just a bit at the beginning of cooking and put in the rest toward the end, after the vegetables have become tender.

If you have ever had your red cabbage lose its red color and turn green, there may be a chemical reaction going on producing both a blue and yellow pigment. When combined, blue and yellow make green. You can prevent this by adding a small amount of acid such as lemon juice or vinegar. If you are making a dish with baked cherries or walnuts, adding just a bit of buttermilk or yogurt may help prevent the discoloration.

There is much more to properly cooking veggies but we will have to leave that to another Tip!

Apple Cider vs Apple Juice — Is There a Difference?

As you can imagine, my email inbox is full of food/cooking related emails. My husband, on the other hand, gets his share of gardening emails. Once in a while there is an email that interests both of us. That happened with a recent email concerning apples and apple cider. Thus, this Cooking Tip was born.

What is the difference between apple cider and apple juice? The truth is – not too much. There is no federal legal standard although some states do try to make a distinction.  

I bought a bottle of apple cider from a Colorado producer – “Talbott’s Premium High Country Apple Cider”. It says it is 100% juice, freshly pressed, not from concentrate. That sounds good but when you look at the ingredient label, it says “apple juice” along with some preservatives. If you look on Talbott’s website, you will see two varieties of this product. Both are under the heading “Apple Juice & Cider” but the only two products are labeled on the front as “cider” and on the back as “juice”.

Another popular brand, Martinelli’s writes this on their website “Martinelli’s apple juice and cider are the same; the only difference is the label. Both are 100% juice from U.S. grown fresh apples. We continue to offer the cider label since some consumers simply prefer the traditional name for apple juice.”

For those people who try to distinguish between the two terms, it basically comes down to filtration. They define cider as being unfiltered and thus has more pulp or sediment. Juice is filtered to remove the sediment to enhance shelf life. In appearance, the cider will have a more cloudy look whereas juice will be clear. In flavor, the juice product is generally sweeter while cider is tarter with a more complex flavor. Cider may or may not be pasteurized, but if not, the FDA requires a warning label.

Although you can make apple cider/juice from any apple, there are certain varieties that are preferred for making this product. Some sources will divide apples into three categories:

  • Cider apples – these are very acidic and not great as an eating apple. There is a resurgence in interest in cider apples and specialist nurseries are now offering many varieties.
  • Eating apples – this is most of what you find in the stores and are more balanced between sweet and tart.
  • Cooking apples – these are very tart if eaten raw. That does not mean they are the only apple you can use for cooking. For another Tip I wrote on this, see this link.

There is one distinction of which you should be aware. Outside of the US, Cider is usually fermented, making it alcoholic. In the US, such a product will be labeled as “Hard Cider”.  Hard cider used to be very popular in the early years of the US but its popularity waned due to various reasons, including Prohibition. Today, there is a resurgence in interest and is said to be one of the fastest growing segments of the liquor industry.

Cooks Illustrated put these two products to the test. They took recipes for pork chops and glazed ham that called for apple cider and substituted unsweetened apple juice. Their tasters did not find this successful and said that the dishes made with the juice were too sweet. They felt that the “filtration process used in making juice removes some of the complex, tart, and bitter flavors that are still present in cider.” If you can’t find cider, they recommend substituting a mixture of ¾ cup apple juice and ¼ cup unsweetened applesauce for each cup of cider.

You may not know that both apple cider and apple juice can be made either from fresh apples or from concentrate. The label should specify this. Because the apples are inherently sweet, most will not contain added sugar but, again, look at the label. This does not mean they are low in sugar. In fact, most bottles will have over 25 grams of sugar per serving. Apple cider does not contain less sugar per serving than apple juice. However, it is more acidic and has a taste that is less sweet.

It is becoming more and more common to see companies trying to distinguish themselves by listing the variety of apple on the label. A look at my market advertised “Honeycrisp Cider”, “Cosmic Crisp Cider”, “Gala Apple Cider” as well as more generic apple ciders.

Do you have a favorite recipe that uses apple cider or juice? A classic use is for a pan sauce to serve with pork. It can also be used to make a wonderful vinaigrette. Apple cider caramels is one of my favorite recipes!  What about you? Let me know.

Marinating your food – surprising revelations!

Do you use marinades in your cooking? If so, stay tuned for this Cooking Tip for some advice. When discussing this topic, the first question you may encounter is whether it is “marinade” or “marinate”? It may help to remember that marinade is a noun whereas marinate is a verb. So, the liquid mixture you make to put your food into is the marinade. You make the marinade, add your food to it and allow it to marinate for the specified time. Got that?

Now that we have our grammar lesson out of the way, let’s get to what this all means in the kitchen. A marinade is usually a flavorful liquid in which foods are soaked in order absorb flavor and maybe tenderize them. Most (but not all) marinades will contain oil, an acid and aromatics (herbs, spices, veggies).

Oil

The oil helps to emulsify the marinade, making it thicker and easier to stick to the food item. Also, many of the aromatics are fat-soluble meaning that you will get a more even flavor distribution when you use oil. The oil also helps to cook the meat more evenly.

Acid

The acid can be citrus juice, vinegar, wine, fruit juice, buttermilk, yogurt, etc. This acidic component is what some say helps to tenderize tough cuts of meat. However, if you are not careful, it can do the exact opposite. The acid causes the proteins in the meat to denature into a loose mesh. At first, water is trapped within this mesh but if the marinating time goes on too long, the proteins tighten and squeeze the water out. This results in a tough piece of meat or seafood.

To avoid this, be sure that the more delicate the piece of protein you are using, the less acid you should be using. There are different recommendations for the acid to oil ratio. One source advises to use equal parts acid and oil, unless you have a specific reason for using more acid. Another chef recommends 3 parts oil to 1 part acid. If you are making your own marinade, I would start with the lower ratio.

This is especially true for marinating seafood as the acid in the marinade will start to cook the seafood – think ceviche. If left in too long, the tender seafood can become tough as if it were overcooked. Fine Cooking recommends only 1 part mild acid to 4 parts oil for marinating shrimp.

Another risk to an acidic marinade is a mushy texture, especially if left in the marinade too long. Nik Sharma in a post on Serious Eats agrees with this but notes that yogurt-based marinades are different due to the type of acid in yogurt. Longer marinating times are much better tolerated if the meats are placed in a yogurt-marinade rather than a more standard marinade. For a very in-depth discussion of the science behind this, see his article. Another good dairy choice is buttermilk. With one of these options, you can achieve a real tenderizing effect.

Because of these concerns with acid, Cooks Illustrated recommends against using acid. Acidic marinades do, though, add great flavor, though, and so are worth trying.

Aromatics

Most good marinades will also contain salt. As J. Kenji Lopez-Alt in The Food Lab states, the protein myosin that is found in the muscle of the meat will dissolve in a salty liquid. This results in a looser texture that allows it to retain more moisture. Cooks Illustrated recommends 1½ tsp per 3 Tbsp of liquid, making the mixture not only a marinade but also a brine.

The Food Lab also recommends adding a protease (an enzyme that breaks down proteins) such as soy sauce. Other ingredients similar to soy are fish sauce and Worcestershire sauce.

Additional aromatics include items such as garlic, shallots, dried spices, herbs or chilies. Finally, sweeteners such as sugar or honey add complexity and help brown food, another flavor booster.

Other types of marinades

  • Dry marinades or rubs – these are mixtures of herbs and spices, often moistened with some oil before rubbing onto the meat.
  • Fruit-based marinade – these are considered enzymatic rather than acidic. The enzymes (proteases) within the fruit are often touted to help tenderize meat. However, these types of marinades easily make the surface of the food mushy.

You may be surprised to know that your marinades do not penetrate very far into the meat According to J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, even after setting overnight in the refrigerator, the marinade does not penetrate more than a millimeter or two. He also states that the penetration rate actually slows the longer you allow it marinate. This all means that the marinade’s effect is mostly on the surface of the food item. For us home cooks, that means we can get by with shorter marinating times.

Veggies are one type of food for which marinating is a great choice. Since they are not composed of protein, many of the above cautions do not apply. Veggies are made of fiber, which helps them soak up the marinade, resulting in great flavor. Tofu acts similar to veggies.

How to marinade

You want to maximize contact between the food item and the marinade. An easy method is to put it all in a zip-lock plastic bag and squeeze the air out. You may also do it in any non-reactive bowl or container. Make sure the food is thoroughly coated in the marinade and turn it at least once to make sure all sides spend time in the marinade. Aim for about ½ cup liquid marinade for every 1# meat.

Be sure to refrigerate your food while it is marinating for food safety reasons.

Some marinades are cooked beforehand and others are not. Never use the liquid in which you have marinated meat as an uncooked sauce as it could be contaminated by the meat. If you want a sauce using the same marinade, there are two things that you can do. First, just hold some of the marinade aside for the sauce and put your meat into the remaining marinade. Or, you may cook the marinade for at least 5 minutes after removing the meat to kill any potential pathogens.

The biggest disagreement you will find is over how long to marinate. Due to the fact that the marinade doesn’t penetrate into your meat very far along with the possible detrimental effects from a long marinating time, many experts are now recommending a shorter time in the marinade. My Recipes test kitchen chef Mark Driskill feels that anything over 3-4 hours is unnecessary and maybe detrimental to your finished dish. Cooks Illustrated agrees saying it is “pointless to marinate for hours and hours”.

They, and others, recommend limiting the use of marinades to thin cuts of meat or meat that has been cut up for your dish. They say that larger cuts of meat would probably do better with a spice rub.

All that being said, we can make some general recommendations. No matter the recommendation, if your food starts to turn cloudy, you are starting to cook it. Take it out of the marinade immediately.

  • Shellfish (such as shrimp or scallops) – no longer than15 minutes
  • Other seafood – up to 30 minutes
  • Boneless chicken breast – about 2 hours
  • Pork loin – up to 4 hours
  • Lamb – 4-8 hours
  • Beef – Some will say up to 24 hours but you probably want to limit it no more than 8 hours.
  • Pork – about 6 hours
  • Kabob cuts (1½ – 2-inch cubes) – 2 hours
  • Firm tofu – 30 minutes
  • Hard veggies – 30 minutes to an hour
  • Tender veggies – 15-30 minutes

All of the above should make your decision to marinate easier when you look at some of these recommendations and when you realize that you do not need nearly as much time as you might have thought.

Salts Galore

The number one seasoning we use in the kitchen, whether in savory or sweet dishes, has to be salt. Although salt has received a bad rap in recent years for its role in high blood pressure, for most of us, it is not a major health concern. It is, though, an essential ingredient in almost all of our cooking and baking. There has also been an increased interest in specialty salts over the last few years. I wrote a short piece on salt a few years ago but thought it was time to update that and so, that is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Salt is either harvested from sea water or mined from salt mines but it is all basically just sodium chloride. Different salts, though, do differ in texture, shape and mineral content.

Granulated table salt
This is the densest form of salt and is in the form of small, cubic crystals. It is mined from underground salt deposits by pumping water through these deposits followed by evaporation of the water. It usually has additives that act as anti-caking agents, but these chemicals may also give an off-taste to the salt. It may be found either with the addition of iodine or without. Iodine began to be added in the 1920s to prevent iodine deficiency, but it can give a slight chemical flavor.

Because of its fine texture, table salt dissolves easily, especially in baked goods. It may also be used for dishes such as soups or stews where it is going to dissolve and distribute evenly. Just be sure to start with a lower amount and add as you need so you do not over-salt.

Kosher salt
The name of this salt comes from the fact that it is used in the koshering process for meats. It comes from salt mines. It is coarse but not as large and flaky as flake salt (discussed below) although the actual texture does vary by brand. It is generally recommended for everyday use as it is easy to pick up between your fingers and distribute evenly.

It is great for sprinkling on meat prior to cooking not only because it can be sprinkled evenly, but also because it melts on contact, sticking to the food item. It may also be used as a seasoning prior to serving. The finer version is suitable for baking.

In the US, there are two major brands.

  • Morton – this brand contains an anticaking agent and the crystals are flat due to a rolling process.
  • Diamond Crystal – there are no additives in this brand and it is made by a process known as “craft evaporation”. This results in hollow, multifaceted crystals that weigh less than those of the Morton brand.

Flake salt
This salt comes from evaporated sea water. The term is generally used for salt with crystals that have a large surface area and usually in the form of flat, irregularly-shaped particles that crumble and dissolve easily.

Since the crystals don’t pack together as with granulated salt, any given volume (such as a teaspoon) will weigh less than the equivalent volume of the granulated version. They are a great crunchy finishing salt.

Maldon sea salt from England is put into this category although its crystals are not flat but have a pyramidal shape. Because of its very flaky texture, it is a favorite among chefs.

Sea salt
This is a general term referring to salt that is made from evaporating sea water. It is usually coarse and irregularly shaped. It is minimally processed, which means it will contain trace minerals that result in a more complex flavor.

It can be either unrefined or refined. The unrefined will contain more minerals, contributing to its taste and appearance. It can range in color from white to grey, the latter containing more minerals that lead to the color and unique flavors. It can also be found in a fine texture or a larger, more flaky texture.

Finishing salts
These are salts that are generally added to food just before serving to add flavor and texture. Most sea salts are in this category. There are a few popular ones I will mention.

  • Himalayan pink salt – this is mined from the Khera salt mine in Pakistan and gains its pink color from trace elements and minerals. It has a mild but complex flavor. It can be in a fine texture or a very coarse texture.
  • Himalayan black salt – also known as kala namak. It is created by cooking the salt with charcoal, herbs, seeds and bark in a furnace. Because it contains sulfide compounds, it is said to have the flavor of a soft-boiled egg.
  • Hawaiian salt – It is harvested near the shores of Kauai. The red variety gets its brick red color from the volcanic clay. The black variety is made by adding activated charcoal, which also gives it an earthy flavor.

Fleur de sel
This is French for flower of the salt. The original is a special product of the sea-salt beds of Brittany, France although other places are now producing a similar product. The crystals that form at the surface of the beds are gently raked off before they can fall below the surface. This results in very delicate flakes without any traces of sediment. It is expensive as this is a very labor-intensive process. You might see different fleur de sels depending on where it comes from.

If you are concerned about sodium intake, you should always consult your physician. One thing to note, though, is that most of our salt intake comes not from the salt we use in cooking but from processed food. If you just make that one switch from eating so much store-bought processed foods or fast food and instead cook at home, you will significantly decrease your sodium intake.

Sel Gris (grey sea salt, Celtic sea salt)
As opposed to fleur de sel, this salt comes from below the surface of the salt beds. Its gray color comes from the clay from which it is harvested. It is said to have a slight mineral or briny taste.

Flavored and colored salts
These are salts which are used as a carrier for other flavors and colors. Examples are herb salts, garlic salt, celery salt, smoked salts and blended salts. They each have their own characteristic flavor.

So, which salts should you have in your pantry? If you wish to have only one, kosher salt is probably the most useful. It is inexpensive and can be used in various applications. You might also want to consider a finishing salt for that extra crunch/flavor for your dishes.

One thing to be aware of is that although these different types of salt have similar sodium contents by weight, the do vary by volume due to their differing sizes and shapes. This great chart from Serious Eats demonstrates this.

Type of saltWeight per cupWeight per tablespoon
Table salt10 ozs/280 g⅔ oz/18 g
Morton’s kosher salt8 ozs/225 g½ oz/14 g
Diamond Crystal kosher salt5 ozs/140 g⅓ oz/9 g
Maldon sea salt4 ozs/115 g¼ oz/7 g
Fleur de sel8 ozs/225 g½ oz/14 g

In practical terms, one tsp table salt is equivalent to 1½ tsp Morton kosher salt and 2 tsp Diamond Crystal kosher salt. Be aware of this if you want to substitute one kind for another.

Salt not only has its own taste but it also enhances the flavor of other ingredients. It can minimize bitterness, enhance sweetness and complement umami. Be sure to season as you go. Consistently taste your dish as you go along so the seasoning is to your taste. You do not want your dish to taste salty; you want it to taste balanced and delicious. And, for that, you will need salt!

Frittatas — No Recipe Needed

A question I get frequently is how to cook without always using a recipe. Although I am testing recipes quite frequently, I do like to be able to throw something on the dinner table without needing to look for and consult a recipe. This spring, I will be teaching a two-part series on doing just this – Cooking without a Recipe. If you would like to book a similar class for yourself, just email me. One of the dishes that you can do this with is a Frittata. How to do this is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Ingredients

There is only one absolute in making a frittata – eggs. However, most recipes will also add dairy. For the best flavor, the dairy should be full fat.

The most quoted ratio is 6 large eggs to ¼ cup diary and 1-2 cups of add-ins. If you are using cheese, aim for ½ to 1 cup for the same 6-egg frittata. Some sources alter this ratio by recommending only 1½ Tablespoons of dairy for 6 eggs.

Making it your own involves picking the other ingredients you might want to include. It often means whatever you have in your refrigerator or pantry as a frittata is a great way to use up these items. Here are some suggestions but it is not all-inclusive.

  • Meat – bacon, ham, sausage, smoked salmon, chorizo
  • Produce – onions (sautéed or caramelized), shallots, zucchini, yellow squash, spinach, potatoes, sweet potatoes, mushrooms, tomatoes, broccoli, bell pepper, garlic, corn
  • Herbs – parsley, tarragon, chives
  • Seasoning – salt, pepper, basil, parsley, thyme, paprika, ground mustard, hot sauce, pesto
  • Dairy – milk, half/half, cream, sour cream, unflavored yogurt
  • Cheese – cheddar, gruyère, fontina, mozzarella, gouda, goat’s cheese, feta

Cooking

  • Frittatas can be done totally on the stovetop or started on the stovetop and finished in the oven. If using the oven, make sure your skillet is oven-safe. A well-seasoned cast iron is great for frittatas. If you have an oven-safe non-stick pan, that is another good choice. You do not want your frittata sticking to the pan. For a 12-egg frittata, grab a 10-inch pan. For 6 eggs, try an 8-inch pan.
  • You should pre-cook your add-ins before adding your eggs. An exception is if you are using fresh herbs or tender greens. Be sure to season them unless they are already salty as with bacon. Whereas most veggies can be cooked in the pan, potatoes are helped by par-boiling before adding them to the pan.
  • Combine your dairy, eggs and seasonings. Stir in cheese, if using. Pour over the veggies and gently stir a few times.
  • Cook stovetop for a few minutes, just until the sides are barely set, before placing in a preheated (350°F) oven. Another method is to cook on the stovetop until the bottom is almost done and then finish for a few minutes under the broiler.
  • A no-oven method recommends cooking stove-top until the edges are beginning to set. Then, working over a sink, place a flat plate or lid on top of the skillet. Placing one hand on the plate, invert the skillet onto the plate. Slide frittata back into the skillet and continue cooking until the second side firms up.
  • If cooking in the oven, remove when just set. This could be anywhere between 10 and 30 minutes, depending on the size. You do not want to overcook it. Instead, you want the texture to be custardy and just set. The crust should not be browned as that means your interior is most likely over-cooked. If you really want a brown top, sprinkle some cheese on during the last few minutes of cooking.

Frittatas are great for any meal and can be served either warm or at room temperature. Leftovers can be stored in the refrigerator for 3-4 days and reheated for a quick lunch.

Do you have a favorite frittata? Have you ever tried to make one without resorting to a recipe? If you follow the above guidelines, I am sure you will put smiles on the people around the table.

Homemade Marshmallows — A Real Delight!

I have never been a fan of marshmallows. I do not even like them in my hot chocolate. That all changed, though, when I first made homemade marshmallows. They are such a different creature than store-bought and that is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

I was attempting to make a chocolate covered Easter egg filled with a light and fluffy center. I was using a recipe from Callebaut that had you mix some of their Gold chocolate (one of their specialty white chocolates containing caramelized sugar & milk) into the marshmallow mixture. I did not have that particular ingredient and so, used their milk chocolate. I tempered some chocolate to use in my Easter egg molds and filled them with this mixture. When I bit into them, I remembered how much I love homemade marshmallows. They reminded me of those marshmallow Easter eggs that you can buy but so much better.

According to Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking, these confections were first made in France from the gummy root juice of the marsh mallow, a relative of the hollyhock. Made by mixing this juice with eggs and sugar and then beaten to a foam, it was called pâte de Guimauve.

Making them is not difficult but does require working with gelatin and hot sugar syrup. Because of the latter, you do need to take some care to not burn yourself. Similarly, it is not a good project for children.

All recipes will call for you to soften gelatin in water (for a discussion on powdered vs leaf gelatin, see this Cooking Tip). You also make a sugar syrup with sugar, water and an invert sugar to prevent crystallization. Professional pastry chefs may use something called “trimoline”. Most home cooks use corn syrup or glucose syrup although honey may also be used. One caution with the latter, though, is that some honeys have such a strong flavor that it will dominate your marshmallow. If you want to try honey, use a lighter one. I used a clover honey and that worked wonderfully. The sugar syrup must be brought to a certain temperature (recall temperature adjustments when at high altitude). This mixture is then beaten in a mixer, the gelatin is added and mixing continues until you get a white and thick mixture that has doubled or tripled in volume.

Some recipes you will see call for whipped egg whites but most do not. The addition of whipped egg whites makes the marshmallows extra light, soft and fluffy as well as easier to pipe by slowing how quickly the marshmallows set up. The egg whites also change the mouth feel as well as shortening the life span of the finished product. Plus, there is the concern of ingesting uncooked egg whites.

The final mixture is very sticky and will start to set up fairly quickly. You can just spread it out on a baking sheet that has been sprayed with nonstick spray and coated with powdered sugar. The marshmallows should then be allowed to set up for a few hours or even overnight before cutting into your preferred shape. After cutting, toss them in either powdered sugar or a mixture of powdered sugar and corn starch. You can also pipe the mixture into shapes. Or, as I did, you can pipe it into chocolate shells.

Flavorings can be added. The most classic is just vanilla but as I mentioned, I added melted chocolate. A perusal of recipes showed peanut butter & jelly, mint, eggnog, berry-flavored, rose, birthday cake, lemonade, mocha, caramel, gingerbread and liquor flavored. Colors may also be added for variety.

Have you ever tasted homemade marshmallows? What did you think? Have you ever made them yourself? I’d love to know.

Water Temperatures for Cooking

Water is a substance we use in our cooking and baking on an almost daily basis. It might be water that we add to our dish or water in which we cook the food. I have written a prior Cooking Tip on different kinds of water. In this Tip, I want to address cooking in water.

In recipes, you will often see different terms when discussing heating water. One recipe might tell you to bring water to a boil, others might tell you to simmer, even others might direct you to do a low simmer. What do these terms mean and do they really make a difference?

According to Wordnik, the boiling point is “The temperature at which the vapor pressure of a liquid is equal to the ambient atmospheric pressure.” At sea level, that temperature is 212°F. Since many of you live at a higher altitude, as I do, you probably already know that that the temperature at which water boils decreases by 1°F for every 500 feet you rise in altitude. That means that where I live (6000 feet), my water boils at about 200°F. I have written before about what effect that has on your cooking, baking and candy making.

As your pot of water reaches that boiling point, the liquid water is converted to water vapor (steam) and this is what you see when looking at a pot of boiling water. Your water does not go from still to a boil in one step. As it heats up, the water goes through different stages.

Many sources use the following terms to describe the stages that water goes through at it comes up to a boil. Note that the temperatures that are listed are for sea level.

Quiver phase

  • 140 to 170°F
  • At this stage, tiny bubbles appear along the bottom and sides of the pan. The surface of the water starts to vibrate or quiver.
  • This temperature is good for gently poaching meats, fish & eggs with 160°F being the most recommended temperature.

Sub-simmer

  • 170-195°F
  • Bubbles are now starting to rise to the surface although you will only see occasional tiny streams of bubbles.
  • Here is where you want to cook your stocks or very slow-cooking dishes such as a braise or a stew.

Full simmer

  • 195-212°F
  • Now bubbles are breaking the surface of the water all over the pot.
  • This is the temperature for using below a steamer basket, for use in a double boiler for making delicate dishes or when your recipe tells you to simmer something.
  • Some experts just talk about “simmering”, which encompasses both sub-simmer and full simmer. This is a much gentler method of cooking that prevents your delicate food from breaking apart and keeps meats much more tender and moister. For stocks, simmering allows the fats/proteins to float to the top so it can be skimmed off resulting in a much clearer stock.

Full rolling boil

  • 212°F
  • We all recognize this stage.
  • This is where we want our water for blanching veggies, cooking pasta, etc. With vegetables, blanching them in boiling water helps them to cook quickly so they retain their color and flavor. The churning motion of the water keeps the pasta moving so it doesn’t stick and cooks more quickly. If you want to reduce a pot of liquid, this level causes rapid evaporation.
  • Using a full boil when it is not indicated can cause the exterior of the food to overcook while the interior dries out.

The Chinese have a different method of categorizing water that uses visual clues and includes the following stages.

  • Shrimp eyes – about 160°F
  • Crab eyes – 175°F
  • Fish eyes – 180°F
  • Rope of pearls –200-205°F
  • Raging torrent – a rapid boil

When you use water, you want to use cold water. This is not due to the temperature but because hot water contains more dissolved minerals that might result in unpleasant flavors.

What about adding salt to your water? Does it affect the boiling point of the water? Adding salt to water does cause an increase in the boiling point of that water. However, for cooking purposes, this difference is minimal. Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking, points out that it would take an entire ounce of salt to raise the temperature of a quart of water by 1°F. To put this into perspective, he says that this ratio of salt/water is about the same as that of the ocean. Here where I live, I would have to add more than ½ pound of salt to a quart of water to get that same 1 degree increase.

We have all seen recipes that tell you to “bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer”. In fact, one celebrity chef coins this “BTB, RTS”. You might ask why they tell you to take it to a boil if you are only going to reduce it back down. Probably the biggest reason is speed. To get a liquid to boil, we do that over high heat to do so efficiently. From there, it is very easy to reduce to a simmer. To put that same pot over a low-medium heat (a simmer heat) and get to a simmer would take longer.

In conclusion, if you, like my husband, argues that bubbles in your pot means boiling and that there are no differences between these stages, you now have the ammunition to make your point – in a gentle fashion!

The World of Hot Sauces

I am not a fan of very hot foods. I much prefer flavor over heat. I made the big mistake of ordering my dish “hot” at an Indian restaurant once despite my husband’s warning. Needless to say, I will never make that mistake again. Heat in foods, though, is certainly popular if you look around the supermarket. It seems like some sort of spiciness is added to every other food item and the hotter the better. According to Fortune Business Insights, the global hot sauce market in 2018 was valued at $2.29 billion and was projected to reach $3.77 billion by the end of 2026.

Due to its popularity, I am devoting this Cooking Tip to the world of hot sauces.

The spicy component of hot sauce is derived from the chili peppers, specifically capsaicin. The heat level of the peppers is often rated by the Scoville Heat Unit (SHU). This can range from zero for a bell pepper to over 2-3 million. I have written a prior tip on chili peppers with a link to the Scoville chart that can be found here.

There are different styles of hot sauce but all start with the peppers. Good hot sauces balance four elements – chiles, acid, aromatics and salt. Of course, there is a lot to those four variables such as the relative proportions, which type of chiles and acid and so forth. The particular brand’s blend of these ingredients along with other additions (garlic, sugar, molasses, fruit) is just one of the things that lead to different flavors and heat level.

Whereas the heat comes from the capsaicin, the flavor comes from the fruit of the actual pepper. It is easy to see that you will get different flavors in the hot sauce by varying which chili peppers are used and in what proportions. Also, some hot sauces are cooked whereas others are raw and even fermented. The type of sauce also varies from region to region of the world. Here is a map from Webstaurant Store. Let’s discuss some of the most popular hot sauces.

Tabasco

Tabasco is a registered trademark and is made by McIlhenny Company. It was founded by Edmund McIlhenny in 1868 on Avery Island, Louisiana. It always contains tabasco chili peppers (2500-5000 SHUs). The original is just a blend of the chili peppers, vinegar and salt. However, besides the original, you can find eight other varieties varying from Chipotle to Habanero. They will all have different ingredients and will rate different in SHUs. Although the SHU ratings are not on the bottles, Tabasco’s website allows you to see the heat level.

Frank’s RedHot Sauce

This popular brand is made from aged cayenne red peppers, distilled vinegar, water, salt and garlic powder. Although made from cayenne peppers, it rates relatively low (450 – 700 SHU) on the Scoville scale. They do sell a number of other varieties including the popular Buffalo sauce. Besides the ingredients found in the original sauce, the Buffalo sauce also contains canola oil, paprika, natural butter-type flavor and garlic powder.

Texas Pete

This hot sauce was developed in 1929 in North Carolina, despite the name. The full story of the name can be found here. Ingredients include vinegar, aged peppers and salt. It has a medium spiciness although hotter varieties as well as some with additional flavoring are offered.

Picante

This type of hot sauce is also known as “Mexican-style”. They are usually made from a combination of chiles. They contain little to no vinegar. One of the most common brands you will see is Cholula. The original is made from arbol and piquin peppers along with salt, vinegar and spices. Just as with Tabasco, they now have various other flavors with varying heat levels, which you can find on their website.

Sriracha

This sauce is named after the Thai seaside town of Si Racha. It is usually made from red jalapeno peppers, sugar, garlic, vinegar and salt. The most popular and highly rated is known as “rooster sauce” due to the logo on the bottle. It is made by Huy Fong and is easily available in most supermarkets. Because the pepper used is the fully ripened form of the jalapeno, it has a higher SHU than your typical green jalapeno. Another sriracha liked by tastes is made by Kikkoman.

Chili Garlic

This hot sauce is similar to Sriracha but is spicier with more garlic and less sugar. It is also thicker and chunkier. Once again, one of the favorite brands is Huy Fong.

Harissa

This is a spicy and aromatic chile paste with its origin in North Africa. Typical ingredient are hot chile peppers (often smoked), garlic, olive oil and spices (cumin, coriander, caraway and mint). Some versions also include tomatoes and rose petals.

Green/Red Chili sauce

We lived in New Mexico for a couple of years and whenever you ordered traditional food dishes, you were asked if you wanted “red” or “green” chili sauce with your meal, especially if you had ordered enchiladas. The green version is usually a mixture of green tomatillos, green chilies and other ingredients such as onions, garlic, vinegar and spices. The red sauce is made from a variety of red chilies, vinegar, onions, garlic and spices.

Gochujang

This is known as Korean red pepper paste. It is a thick fermented paste with a flavor that is sweet, spicy and savory. Typical ingredients are Korean red pepper flakes, fermented soybeans, glutinous rice, sweetener, and other spices. It is often made into a sauce with the addition of vinegar, a type of sweetener and oil rather than using the paste on its own.

How do you pick out a hot sauce? There are so many choices out there. My supermarket has no less than 15 brands with multiple styles within the brands. If you go to a farmers’ market, a bazaar or a specialty food store, you will also see many artisan and small producer brands.

Look at the label for the type of chili pepper as it will give you an idea of the heat level. If you are unsure, you may consult the particular brand’s website. Think about what you are serving it with. Is it southern food, an Asian dish or a traditional Mexican meal? Choose the hot sauce that will complement the dish. Use the above referenced map if you are unsure. If there is a way for you to sample it first, it will give you an idea of the flavor profile as well as heat level. Finally, you can make your own since the ingredients are easy to obtain.

Do you have a favorite hot sauce?
Let me know.

Culinary Myths Part 2

In last week’s Cooking Tip, we talked about Culinary Myths concerning meat. In this Tip, let’s investigate a few non-meat myths.

Alcohol cooks off during the cooking process
This is one of those myths that is partially true and partially false. You will often read that as you cook a dish to which alcohol has been added that it will be cooked off leaving little to no alcohol in the final dish. However, a study done by the US Department of Agriculture showed that even after baking or simmering an item for 30 minutes, 35% of the alcohol remained. After 2½ hours, 5% still remained. Adding alcohol to a boiling liquid and removing it from the heat resulted in 85% of the alcohol still in the dish. Even flaming the alcohol only caused 25% to dissipate; 75% of it was retained. Here is link to a chart that summarizes this study.

If cooking with melted butter, add olive oil to prevent burning
It is true that butter has a much lower smoke point than olive oil. The former is 350°F whereas the smoke point of olive oil can vary from as low as 325°F to a high of 460°F depending on what kind it is.

The myth is that if you combine butter and olive oil, you will be able to get the flavor from the butter but raise its smoke point so it doesn’t burn as easily. J. Kenji López-Alt put this to the test as explained in an article on Serious Eats. Heating butter by itself, he observed whiffs of smoke at 375°F. When he did the same with grapeseed oil, it didn’t start to smoke until 490°F. Finally, he heated up a mixture of the two and noted that smoke started at 375°F, the same as butter alone. He explained that it is the milk proteins that are the culprit and those are the same whether on their own in a pan or mixed with another oil. You might say they are the “lowest common denominator”. You may still want to cook with butter for its flavor but realize what is going on and what to watch out for.

Never rinse mushrooms or they will absorb too much water
I’m sure you have read this or been told this by someone. In 2009, on the blog Cooking Issues by the International Culinary Center, they claimed to debunk this myth. They cooked two batches of mushrooms side-by-side. One was washed in water and the other was just brushed off. They noted that although the mushrooms did take on water, it all cooked off in the hot pan. More importantly, in a taste test of these mushrooms, the tasters could not tell the difference. Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking agrees saying that since mushrooms are already mostly water, a rinse-off will not make them soggy. They both did agree that you should not clean them until just before cooking. For more on mushrooms, see this Cooking Tip.

Always cook pasta in a large amount of water
Almost every pasta recipe starts with “heat a large pot of salted water to boiling.” There are various reasons for this ranging from “pasta needs room to move around and cook properly” to “the pasta won’t stick as much”. But, is this true? López-Alt tested cooking pasta found that the pasta cooked just fine in just enough water to keep it covered as it expanded. He even found he didn’t need to keep the water at a good boil to get it to al dente. A nice simmer was enough. He does recommend stirring it a few times during the first couple of minutes to rinse off excessive starch and prevent sticking.

Harold McGee (On Food and Cooking) wrote an article in The New York Times about his pasta cooking experiments and he found he could cook pasta just fine in far less water than usually recommended. He even found that he could start the pasta in cold water rather than waiting until it reached a boil. He did note, though, that this method takes a bit more stirring. Lidia Bastianich agreed with the less water but not with starting it in cold water.

Add oil to your pasta water to prevent sticking
Have you ever added oil to a pot of water? What does it do? It floats on top; that is what it does. Remember, oil and water do not mix. That is why vinaigrettes without emulsifiers must be shaken up before using. The oil and water separate. If that is true, it is easy to see how adding oil to the pasta water is not going to do anything. To prevent your pasta from sticking, just stir it at the beginning and maybe now and then as it is cooking.

One thing oil does do is to prevent the water from boiling over. Of course, if you just simmer your pasta as discussed above, you do not have this worry.

On the same topic, do not add oil to your pasta after draining. The only thing that does is to coat the pasta in such a way that the sauce doesn’t stick.

Never put your cast iron is soapy water
All the “dos and don’ts” of cast iron care keep many people from using these great pans. The truth, though, is that the care is much easier than “experts” say. One of the most commonly repeated pieces of advice is to not put your pan in soapy water. Most experts disagree with this and say that today’s gentle soaps will not harm your pan. Once the seasoning has built up, you may also use gentle scrubbing along with the soap. It is not recommended, though, that you allow your cast iron pan to soak in water. Make it the last thing you clean. Thoroughly dry it and heat on the stovetop until hot. Follow this by rubbing the pan very lightly all over with an unsaturated cooking fat, like canola, vegetable, or corn oil. Buff it well to remove any visible oil. Repeat this process after every use and cleaning. One caveat, do not put it in the dishwasher.

There is only one way (or only one good way) to do something
I encourage you to have a bit of healthy skepticism when a chef or cookbook tells you their way is the only or the best way to do something. Rarely is that true. Let me give you a small example that concerns peeling ginger. If you do a search on peeling ginger, time after time you will get “experts” telling you to use a spoon. When I did a search, this was the first hit from Better Homes & Garden – “This Is the Only Way You Should Peel Ginger”. The entire first page of results all recommended this ONLY way and that is to use the side of a spoon. Sure, it works but is it really the ONLY way or is it even the BEST way? I much prefer to use a serrated peeler. It is easy and efficient. So, am I wrong? According to all the search results, I am. However, I like my way and will stick to it.

Do you have a favorite way of doing something that doesn’t agree with the experts? As long as it is doing the job, is not dangerous and gets great results, I say “Go for it!” There is rarely one way to do something in the kitchen and those that tell you there is are just perpetuating one more culinary myth. Now, just don’t tell my husband I said that. I will watch him doing something in the kitchen in a way that is different from the way I would do it and just shake my head. However, in those situations, I must say that my way is usually better!

Do you have a favorite Culinary Myth to share with others?
Just let me know.

Culinary Myths Part 1

I was chatting with a friend of mine the other day talking about a cookbook. I told her that one of my pet peeves about some cookbooks is that they perpetuate culinary myths. She encouraged me to write a Cooking Tip on this and so, Elisa, this series is dedicated to you.

Culinary myths are directions and guidance that have been passed down from chef to cook to all of us without anyone questioning them and no one really testing them to see if they are true or not. Many will not harm your cooking but they are often unnecessary and time-wasting steps. Some of the myths that have related to a particular topic, I have addressed before in those particular Tips. In this series of Tips, I put them in one place. This Tip will relate to myths that concern meat.

Bring your meat to room temperature before cooking

Even very well-respected chefs will tell you this. In fact, I was recently reviewing a very interesting technique-oriented cookbook that had been published only three years ago that emphasized this. These sources will tell you if you do not let your meat set out of the refrigerator and come to room temperature, it will cook unevenly. I was taught this and always believed it until recently.

In one of my favorite books, The Food Lab by J. Kenji López-Alt, he actually puts this directive to a test. As he notes, it is true that your meat will cook more evenly if it is at room temperature before going in the pan. However, allowing it to sit on your counter for a half-hour won’t get it to room temperature.

To test this, López-Alt cut a refrigerated 15-ounce New York strip steak in half. He put one half on the counter and the other went back into refrigerator. When it came out of the refrigerator, the steak’s internal temperature was 38°F with his kitchen’s room temperature registering at 70°F. He then proceeded to take temperature readings every ten minutes.

Most chefs will recommend a “setting” time of 20 minutes. At that time, the steak’s reading was 39.8°F. After 1 hour and 50 minutes, the steak was only up to 49.6°F. He called it quits after two hours. Proceeding to cook the two steaks side by side, he found they came up to their final cooking temperature at nearly the same time. They also showed the same relative evenness of cooking as well as searing the same.

The author of AmazingRibs.com did a similar test with similar results. The upshot is that this is an unnecessary and time-wasting step. There are better ways to get the result you want such as making sure your meat is dry before searing it and salting it and allowing it to rest uncovered in the refrigerator for at least a few hours or overnight. See next myth for that discussion.

Don’t salt your steak until after it is cooked

Many will tell you that you should not salt your steak until after it is cooked to prevent drying it out and ending up with a tough piece of meat. It turns out that this one is very wrong.

Once again, The Food Lab shows how salting your meat far ahead will lead to a much tastier and moister result. It is true that when you salt a piece of meat, it will begin to draw out moisture. To get a good sear, you will then have to blot the meat dry, taking most of the salt with you. If, however, you leave it setting for at least 45 minutes (or for better results, overnight), the “brine” that has accumulated on the outside will be reabsorbed, leaving the meat’s surface dry and carrying the seasoning inside the meat.

According to Samin Nosrat in Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, salting ahead of time gives the salt plenty of time to diffuse evenly throughout the meat. Also, she states the salt will dissolve the protein strands into a gel, allowing them to absorb and retain water better as they cook. She recommends seasoning the meat the day before cooking or at least in the morning or afternoon.

This recommendation, according to López-Alt, does not extend to burgers. He cautions that those should be salted just before cooking. Although not without significant criticism, here is his testing and reasoning. If you read through the comments, you will find disagreement. On the other hand, Cooks Illustrated agrees with López-Alt. One last proponent of only salting just before cooking is found in this experiment by GenuineIdeas.com.

You should wash your chicken before cooking

This has been one bit of advice passed down through the generations as it was thought to decrease the chance of food-borne illnesses. Even Julia Child recommended this. However, it is not true and may even increase the chances of spreading bacteria.

According to a 2019 study by the USDA, washing poultry can easily spread bacteria to other surfaces and foods. The study showed that of the study participants who washed their raw poultry, 60% had bacteria in their sink afterwards and 14% still had bacteria in their sinks after they attempted to clean the sink. A full 26% of participants transferred bacteria from that raw poultry to their salad lettuce. However, of those that did not wash their raw poultry, 31% still managed to get bacteria from the raw poultry onto their salad lettuce. That speaks to the need for thorough handwashing and sanitizing of surfaces that come into contact with raw poultry.

Their recommendations were threefold:

  • Prepare uncooked foods before dealing with the poultry.
  • Thoroughly clean and sanitize any surface that has potentially touched or been contaminated with poultry juices.
  • Cook the meat to the proper temperature as this will kill any concerning organisms.

Searing meat will seal in juices

This myth comes from the theory that the crust that is formed from searing will help the meat to retain moisture. However, this crusty barrier is not waterproof or even water-resistant. The best advice is to cook your steak gently and finish with a high heat sear. It will cook more evenly and produce a juicy and flavorful result. That final sear, though, is not for searing in juices but for producing a flavorful crust. If anything helps to “seal” in juices, it is allowing your meat to rest after cooking before cutting into it.

Bone-in steak is more flavorful

I hear this one commonly. It is one of the reasons we are told to buy bone-in meat. The Food Lab put this one to the test by cooking identical pieces of meat – one was bone-in, one had the bone removed but tied back on and the third had the bone removed but when tied back on, he put a layer of foil between the bone and the meat, presumably to prevent any supposed flavor transfer. They all tasted identical. That being said, there are other reasons you may want to buy bone-in meat but those are for another Tip.

Do not flip your meat very much, preferably only once

People who have tested this have found that multiple flipping actually causes the meat to cook much faster and more evenly. This includes López-Alt but is also echoed by Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking. In the latter, he states that if you really want grill marks, only flip once or twice. But, if texture and moistness are more important, flip every minute. As he explains, neither side has the time to absorb or release large amounts of heat, meaning the meat will cook faster and the outer layers will be less overdone. When a food editor from the Los Angeles Times tried this method, he found that indeed the meat cooked more quickly, more evenly, and also developed a nice brown crust. In addition, he found the “one-flip” rib-eyes seemed to curl during cooking whereas the one flipped more frequently came off the grill flat.

Well, that is enough of the meat-related culinary myths. Stay tuned for more myths in Part 2.