Cooking Tips · Ingredients · Techniques

Cookies – make them the best they can be!

Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay

Although making cookies is something we do all year-round, it certainly ramps up during the holiday season. Many of you probably have wonderful memories of making cookies with your mother or grandmother and want to create similar memories with your own children. Others of you just love to make – and eat – cookies. You do want your cookies to turn out well and I have written a prior Tip with some great advice on how to get the type of cookies you want. I encourage you to read that Tip. In this Cooking Tip, I want to share with you some ideas from cookie chefs out there who are always seeking that perfect cookie.

Baking pans

  • In my prior Tip, I mentioned that light-colored baking sheets are better than dark-colored ones.  That is still an excellent recommendation.
  • A number of sources advise against greasing your baking sheets. They feel it can cause your cookies to spread too much and lead to a greasy cookie. If your cookies stick, the pan may be the culprit due to the residue that accumulates over years of baking. In fact, spraying your pans with a nonstick spray is one of the items that leads to the residue build-up. To avoid sticking, the other choices are to get a new pan or use parchment or silicone mats.
  • Cookie experts do have some words of caution as to parchment and silicone.
    • Cookies baked on silicone mats tend to spread more than those baked on parchment.
    • Cookies baked on silicone also tend towards greasiness.
    • There is a bit of disagreement on the browning aspect of the cookies. Some feel that the cookies brown more with parchment and others think that is true for the silicone mats.
    • If using a silicone mat, try to remove the baked cookies to a rack as soon as you can. As silicone doesn’t breathe, cookies left on a mat to cool may sweat, affecting the texture.
  • Don’t rotate the pans. You may have heard that if you have more than one baking sheet in the oven that you should rotate them half-way through the baking time. This is said to help with even baking and the problems of hot spots in your oven.  Cookies, though, bake for a relatively short amount of time. When you open the oven, you immediately lose heat and this can lead to cookies that do not properly brown or rise as you would expect. So, you may want to skip the rotation advice with cookies.
Image by Silvia from Pixabay

Shaping cookies

  • If making a drop cookie, use a cookie or ice cream scoop. This not only helps with better shape but also ensures the cookies balls are equal in size and, therefore, bake more evenly.
  • It also helps to gently roll the balls between your hands to get as perfect of a round shape as you can before baking.
  • If making “slice & bake” cookies where the dough is rolled into a log and put in the refrigerator to chill, it can flatten as it sits. Put your dough in a slit open cylinder from a roll of paper towels before placing in the refrigerator. This will help the log keep its round shape.

Rolling out dough

  • As you have seen from cookie recipes, most advise chilling the cookie dough before rolling it out. However, it can crack if it is too cold. An alternative is to roll it out before you chill it. It will make it easier if you divide the dough in half before rolling. Just-made dough will be sticky and so, you will want to roll it between wax or parchment paper. You probably will not need to dust the surface with flour to prevent sticking. The paper also makes it easy to flip over during the rolling process to get an evenly rolled dough. It will need to be chilled after rolling before you cut out the shapes. This helps the dough to firm up but having it rolled out first means it will chill much faster than a whole block of dough.
  • Some cookie experts recommend rolling out your cookie dough on a surface sprinkled with powdered sugar rather than flour. This prevents sticking to the counter without adding extra flour to the cookies.

Doubling a recipe

  • If you wish to make a double batch of cookies, pay attention to these tidbits of cookie wisdom.
  • Make sure your mixer will hold a double batch. If you have too full of a bowl, not only can it get messy but it can lead to over-mixing as you try to get all the ingredients incorporated.
  • Know which ingredients can be scaled straight-up.
    • The main ingredients (flour, sugar, milk, etc.) can be doubled without a problem.
    • With spices, be careful you are not adding too much as some spices are very powerful.
    • Baking powder or soda can be a problem. Adding too much can lead to premature rising and subsequent collapsing when they come out of the oven. So, one expert recommends you use the following formula for these leavening ingredients. For every one cup of flour, use 1 to 1¼ teaspoon of baking powder and ¼ teaspoon of baking soda. If your recipe has both in the ingredient list, look at the ratio of one to the other and try to maintain that ratio.
  • I have written about this before but it is worth repeating. Write down the doubled measurements directly on your recipe so you don’t get partway through and then forget to double an ingredient; something that is so easy to do if you are just doubling things in your head.
  • If you are rolling out the cookie dough, divide it in half for rolling. Keep the other half in the refrigerator while rolling out the first half.

Ingredients

Butter

  • As mentioned in my prior Tip, your choice of fat affects both the flavor and texture of the cookies. Butter gives you superior flavor and a more tender cookie but leads to more cookie spread. Shortening melts slower and, therefore, you get less spread. Some recommend a 50/50 blend to try to get the butter flavor without excessive spread.
  • J. Kenji López-Alt, author of The Food Lab likes 1 part flour to 1 part sugar to 0.8 parts butter. He claims this leads to cookies with moderate spread and no “cakiness”.
  • The form of the butter can also make a difference.
    • Creamed butter yields lighter/firmer cookies.
    • Melted butter leads to denser/chewier cookies.

Sugar

  • Granulated sugar yields thin, crisp cookies.
  • Brown sugar results in taller and more moist cookies
  • For a good balance, you may want to try a mixture of the two sugars.
  • Corn syrup – this is another sweetener and can yield cookies that are soft, wide and darker in color. If you like a chewy cookie, swap out some of the sugar for corn syrup.

Leavening

  • Baking powder produces cakier cookies that rise higher during baking with smoother tops.
  • Baking soda will give you cookies that are craggier and denser.

Salt

  • Do not forget the salt as it brings out the sweetness and flavor of your cookies.

Mix-ins

  • Chefs who have tested different types of chocolate prefer hand chopped chocolate from bars saying it gives the most intense flavor and a more interesting texture.
  • Press a few of the chunky ingredients (chocolate chips, cranberries, peanut butter chips, etc.), into the tops of the cookie dough balls before baking. It tells people what is in the cookies, it is attractive and helps with the texture.

Freezing cookies and cookie dough

  • Do not freeze cookies with a more liquid batter (tuiles, Florentines, pizzelles).
  • Very cakey cookies such as Madeleines do not freeze well.
  • Baked cookies that freeze well are bar cookies, sugar cookies, drop cookies, biscotti. Place cookies on a baking sheet and freeze solid and then put in an airtight container.
  • To thaw, take out of container and allow to sit at room temp.
  • Can gently reheat cookies in a 275°F oven for a few minutes.
  • Any doughs with a good amount of fat freeze well. Examples are shortbread, gingerbread, drop cookies (oatmeal, chocolate chip, etc.), icebox cookies and sugar cookies.
  • For drop cookies, form dough balls, place on a baking sheet, freeze and then transfer to a plastic bag or storage container.
  • For icebox cookies, wrap logs in plastic wrap, put into freezer bags and then freeze.
  • For roll-out cookies, wrap the dough in plastic wrap and then in a freezer bag. Can also roll the dough out between parchment paper, wrap in plastic wrap and freeze.
  • If your cookie recipe calls for a dip in powdered sugar, freeze the dough balls without the sugar. Roll in the sugar just before baking.
  • Most cookies can be baked straight from the freezer but may need a few extra minutes in the oven.

I hope this Tip along with my prior Tip help you achieve wonderful Cookie Success!

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Brining your turkey – is it worth it?

How do you cook your Thanksgiving turkey? Do you brine it or do you use a different method of preparation? What brining is, how to do it and whether it is worth it is the subject of this Cooking Tip. I am posting this Tip early with the hope that it will help you decide if it is something that you want to do this Thanksgiving.

Brining your turkey became popular a few decades ago and chefs everywhere proclaimed its usefulness and home cooks fell in step. However, it is not nearly as popular as it once was for a number of reasons. Even chefs who were once great proponents have fallen off the “brining bandwagon”. Before we investigate why this is so, let’s look at what it is and what it is supposed to do. I will start with the procedure for wet brining and then discuss a nice alternative of dry brining at the end.

A wet brine is basically just a strong solution of salt and water. It is said to have three goals – producing meat that is tender, juicy and well-seasoned. As your turkey (or other protein) sits in this solution, salt is drawn into the meat and the protein structure of the meat changes. This reduces its toughness and increases its capacity to hold on to water and stay juicy. It also seasons the meat all the way to its interior.

Brining is not a difficult process but you must adhere to the instructions. You need to take the following items into consideration. I am not going to list actual recipes as you can find them anywhere. Instead, I want to talk about some general principles. With those, you do not necessarily need a recipe.

Ratio of salt to water

  • This is the most important factor in successful brining.
  • Most experts recommend a 5-8% salt solution. This should be done by weight, not volume, although most recipes will have done the math for you.
  • Cooks Illustrated likes a 9% solution as their tasters liked the extra salt.
  • Many scientific studies have shown that the maximal moisture absorption occurs at 6% and this is the ratio that Serious Eats recommends.
  • Pay attention to what type of salt you are using if you are measuring by volume. A cup of table salt is going to weigh much more than a cup of kosher salt. Also, the weight can even vary among brands of kosher salt. Therefore, if you are making your own brine without a recipe, grab a kitchen scale and measure it correctly. Otherwise, note which salt your recipe specifies.

Submersion

  • Your turkey must be totally submerged in the solution. Depending on how large your turkey is, this can be difficult to achieve.
  • For smaller birds, a large stock pot may work.
  • Some people use coolers, other use plastic bags or some other large container. I must advise caution with these methods, though, due to the next concern – that of keeping it cold.

Temperature

  • Since your turkey is going to be brining for a long time, it needs to stay cold (under 40°F) during this entire time. That is not a problem if you have space in your refrigerator.
  • If not, you need to ensure it stays properly cold. If you live where the weather is cold, your garage may be a viable alternative. However, stay vigilant and check that the water solution stays cold.

Time

  • Most recipes will give you a range of times for brining. Although you always want to brine for at least the lower time, you do not need to go to the longest time. Most of the salt movement happens within the first 4 hours.
  • You can brine in less time by using a more concentrated salt solution. For example, Cooks Illustrated’s normal brine using ½ cup table salt per gallon of water recommends a time of 12-14 hours. However, if you increase this to 1 cup table salt per gallon of water, they recommend reducing the brining time to 4-6 hours.

Roasting

  • After brining, the turkey needs to be thoroughly dried. If you are short of time, you can just pat it dry.
  • For crispier skin, let it sit in the refrigerator, uncovered, for a few hours or even overnight.

Other

  • Do not brine kosher or self-basing (enhanced, injected) turkeys as they have already been treated with salt.
  • Many recipes add aromatics and sweeteners to the brine. These are totally unnecessary as they only will flavor the skin.
  • Turkey is not the only protein that you can brine but you can do the same with chicken, pork, etc.

If brining has been so popular, why would you not do it? Here are two main reasons.

  1. It is a hassle – see the technique discussion above.
  2. It washes out the turkey flavor. The added moisture that you get from a wet brine is mostly water that is absorbed into the turkey. This can lead to a watered down turkey flavor.

What is the alternative?

  • First, do not over-cook your turkey. Use care and an instant read thermometer to help you get a safe but not dry turkey.
  • Try spatchcocking your turkey. The downside of this is that you do not have the entire, pretty and golden turkey to put on your table.
  • Dry Brine
    • A dry brine is basically pre-salting your protein for an appropriate amount of time. See this Tip for more info on this.This method helps a turkey to retain its natural moisture without adding any water, leading to more intense flavors. Adding baking powder to the salt can help the skin to crisp up and brown better.Here is a basic dry brine – Mix ½ cup Diamond Crystal kosher salt or 6 Tbsp Morton’s kosher salt with 2 Tbsp baking powder. Pat turkey dry and sprinkle salt mixture on all surfaces. How much of this mixture you use will depend on the size of your bird. Set it on a rack set in a rimmed baking sheet and refrigerate, uncovered 12-24 hours. Proceed with roasting, without rinsing, but do not add any additional salt.
    • The proponents of this measure feel that Kosher salt is a must for easy sprinkling and prevention of clumping as it falls evenly over the surface.

So, there you have it – the pros and cons of brining. I hope this Tip helps make your Thanksgiving dinner prep just a bit less stressful.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Cooking Tips

Apple Butter – a wonderful holiday food gift!

As the holiday season approaches, many of us are probably starting to think about gift giving. Something we always give are homemade food gifts. One item you might want to consider gifting is homemade Apple Butter. What it is and how to make it is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

The first question you may ask is how much butter it contains. The answer is none. The name has more to do with the consistency and spreadability that is akin to butter.

The second question is if apple butter is the same as applesauce. They are not the same thing. Applesauce is made from apples, some form of liquid, warm spices and sugar. It is all cooked down to a mushy consistency. It can be pureed or left a bit chunky. It is lighter in consistency and flavor than apple butter due to the larger amount of liquid in the end product. It has a spoonable and soft consistency.

Apple butter is cooked longer, resulting in a thicker, darker and more spreadable end product. Some describe it as between jam and peanut butter.

You can make apple butter on the stovetop, in your slow cooker or in your Instant Pot although they all basically involve cooking apples until they are very soft and then processed to your desired consistency. Whether or not you peel the apples before cooking depends on the method you will use to process the cooked mixture. If you are going to put it through a food mill that will catch the peelings, all you need to do is core and slice the apples. If you are going to process it in a blender or food processor, most will peel the apples first. Leaving the peel on, however, means more naturally-occurring pectin, which results in a thicker, more jam-like consistency. Others prefer to leave the peels on so that they remain in the final product.

Stovetop

With this method, the apples are simmered with a liquid, typically apple cider or apple cider vinegar. Sugar (white, brown or a combination) is added along with spices such as cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and cloves. Some will add the sugar to the apples as they are cooking. Others like a two-step approach. In the first step, you cook the apples with your liquid until very soft and then put them through a food mill or puree them. The second step is putting the resulting mixture back into the pot along with the spices and sugar and cooking a second time until thick and dark brown in color. Often, lemon juice is added to balance the sweetness.

There are a couple of reasons for recommending the two-step method. If you add the sugar to the cooking apples while they are simmering, the sugar could burn before the apples soften sufficiently. The second reason is that the sugar and spices will be more thoroughly incorporated into the apples after they are pureed.

Slow Cooker

This is more of a hands-off method. Proponents of using a slow cooker claim it results in a smoother and richer texture.

Instant Pot

As with other uses of this appliance, it is faster than the slow cooker method. You also have the choice to sauté the apples first, which concentrates and darkens the mixture. Or, you can skip this step and just cook the apples for a longer time.

As with any apple dish, there is always an argument as to which are the best apples to use. You can use any variety but using softer apples means a quicker cook time. Many chefs like to use a combination of different apples for the best flavor. For more information on types of apples, see this prior Tip

Apple butter can be used as any fruit spread. It is great on toast, biscuits, pancakes or waffles. You can stir it into your oatmeal or add it to baked goods. It is also wonderful with pork or poultry dishes.

In an airtight container, it will last in the refrigerator up to 2 weeks. It may also be frozen for up to 6 months. Canning is another option although you should be sure to use an appropriate method.

This gift-giving season, why not whip up a batch of beautiful and delicious apple butter, package it in a pretty jar, decorate with a ribbon and give to those you care about. They will love it!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients · Techniques

Egg Wash & Other Finishing Touches

If you bake very much, I am sure you will run across directions to brush on an egg wash, milk, cream or even water. Have you ever wondered if this is necessary or if you can substitute something when you are down to your last egg and don’t want to “waste” it, especially at today’s prices? Read on as that is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Let’s start what an egg wash is. An egg wash is just an egg whisked together with or without additional liquid and then lightly brushed on your baked item before putting it in the oven.

Purpose of an egg wash

  • Color – an egg wash will give your baked item a brown, slightly shiny and more professional look. It also highlights details such as latticework. This is purely for aesthetic reasons.
  • Sealer – an egg wash can help seal together edges such as in a double-crusted pie, empanadas or other hand pies.
  • Binder – it can act as a binder to help coatings or decorations stick to the surface of your food item.
  • Protection – sometimes an egg wash is brushed on your pie dough before the filling is added to help prevent a soggy bottom.

How to make an egg wash

A standard recipe will have you whisk together one egg (or yolk or white) together with or without additional liquid in the form of water or milk. The liquid is added primarily to help thin the mixture somewhat to make it easier to brush on your baked item.

Many recommend adding a pinch of salt and allowing it to sit for 5 minutes. The salt starts to denature the egg proteins, loosening its consistency and making it easier to brush evenly without added liquid. Some feel diluting the egg with other liquid is not necessary and can inhibit its sealing ability, a concern if that is your main reason for using an egg wash.

After whisking and ensuring a nice consistency, the best way to apply it to the baked item is with a pastry brush. Use a gentle and light hand as applying too much might result in it running down the baked item, pooling and settling into any nooks/crannies.

Your choice of what part of the egg to use as well as what liquid you use, if any, will affect the final result. Here is a run-down of the results you can expect from different iterations.

Whole egg with no liquid

  • Rich golden color
  • Deep shine

Whole egg/water

  • Lighter brown color
  • Slightly glossy finish

Whole egg/milk

  • Excellent browning
  • Medium gloss

Whole egg/cream

  • Maximal browning
  • The most gloss

Egg white alone

  • Very little color
  • Nice shine

Egg white/water

  • Light browning
  • Nice gloss, great when you are also sprinkling on sanding sugar as it gives you a sparkly look.

Egg white/milk

  • Slight browning
  • Matte finish

Egg yolk alone

  • Vivid yellow color
  • Deep shine

Egg yolk/water

  • Paler yellow color
  • Less shine

Egg yolk/milk

  • Nice browning
  • Excellent shine

If you do not want to use any egg, here are a few alternatives

Milk (dairy or non-dairy)

  • Good browning
  • Moderate shine but more matte than using egg

Cream/Half & Half

  • Gives more shine than just milk but less than egg

Oil

  • Good shine
  • Crunchy texture

Butter, melted

  • Crispy texture
  • Browning
  • Buttery flavor

Honey or maple syrup thinned out with some milk

  • Very nice browning but you need to use caution as it can burn quickly in a hot oven. May want to apply only towards the end of baking.

Water

  • Can create decent browning
  • Very little shine

Vegan egg wash

  • Coconut oil – nice golden brown
  • Non-dairy milk/agave – nice shine and browning

If you opt for an egg wash, you may store it in an airtight container in the refrigerator up to 3 days. If you do not have another baking project coming up, throw it in a scrambled egg dish.

There is no doubt that adding a wash that will give your baked item a nice golden color will add to its appeal. However, if you are only using it for its visual effects, it is entirely optional. If you are using it for sealing, you should not leave it out or your layers will not seal properly.

Happy Baking and Browning!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Buttermilk – does it have butter in it?

What do you think of when you hear the word “buttermilk”? I know I think of buttermilk pancakes but that is certainly not the only use for buttermilk. What it is and how to use it is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Before the 1920s, buttermilk was different than it is today. Cooks left their unpasteurized cream to sit for a few days to thicken before churning into butter. During this time, naturally occurring bacteria caused it to ferment by converting milk sugars into lactic acid. This resulted in a liquid with a mildly sour taste and a slightly thickened texture. This is also where the name buttermilk comes from as it results from the process of churning butter.

Today, almost all milk/cream is pasteurized at high temperatures, killing the bacteria. Makers of buttermilk reintroduce lactic acid bacteria into this pasteurized milk. This is called “Cultured Buttermilk” and is what you will find in the store.

When you use buttermilk, it is often combined with baking soda. The lactic acid paired with the alkaline baking soda causes a chemical reaction that leads to the rise that you want in pancakes or buttermilk biscuits. It adds a tangy flavor as well as acting as a tenderizer in baked goods. You can also use it in cooking but it can curdle if heated too quickly. To incorporate into hot dishes, warm it separately in a saucepan over medium-low heat first.

Most recipes only call for a small amount of buttermilk and most stores only sell it in 1 quart or ½ gallon sizes. Less commonly, you might be able to find it in a pint size. It does last longer in the refrigerator than other dairy products as the lactic acid inhibits bacterial growth. According to the USDA, buttermilk can be kept in the refrigerator for about two weeks. It can also be frozen for up to three months. To do this, pour into an ice cube tray and once solid, move to a plastic bag. You can defrost it overnight in the refrigerator although it will separate. A quick whisking will bring it back together. You can also microwave it on medium power. Testers have found there is not much difference using frozen as compared to fresh buttermilk.

What if you don’t have any buttermilk on hand and do not want to buy it in the quantities offered? A look in cookbooks and websites will give you a number of alternatives. Here is a list.

  • Milk and vinegar
  • Milk and lemon juice
  • Milk and cream of tartar
  • Sour cream
  • Yogurt
  • Powdered buttermilk

Many of these sources just repeat what they have been told or read without asking if they are good alternatives. Do they really work as well as real buttermilk? I have found a couple sources (Cooks’ Illustrated and TheKitchn.com) that have actually put these alternatives to the test. I will try to summarize the results.

Milk & acid

  • This is done by adding 1 tablespoon of either lemon juice or vinegar to 1 cup whole milk, stirring together and then allowing it to sit for 10 minutes to thicken. A different acid that can also be used is cream of tartar. Add 1¾ teaspoon to 1 cup whole milk.
  • Although mixing vinegar, lemon juice or cream of tartar into whole milk will produce an acidified product, they do not compare to real buttermilk.
    • Lemon juice adds a distinct lemony taste that you may not want.
    • Pancakes do not brown as well and do not get as puffy as with real buttermilk.
    • Cream of tartar can lead to very rubbery pancakes. If you decide to try this, the cream of tartar should be added to the dry ingredients as it will clump when added to the milk.
  • Cooks’ Country found better results with recipes for biscuits and chocolate cakes. The biscuits made with either buttermilk powder (see below) or soured milk were lighter and fluffier as compared with liquid buttermilk. Many also preferred the flavor of those made with soured milk.  The upshot was that all were acceptable.

Sour cream or yogurt

  • Both of these products should be thinned with water. Most recommend using ¾ cup of the dairy product and ¼ cup of water. They should be whisked together but no resting time is necessary.
  • Some testers found that both sour cream and yogurt performed better than the acidulated milk but not as good as real buttermilk.
  • They also concluded that Greek yogurt the best choice. Whisk together ⅓ cup whole milk Greek yogurt with ¾ cup 1% milk. This was an excellent alternative in terms of results.
  • Cooks’ Country tested yogurt and buttermilk in biscuits, pancakes and sheet cake. They tried just yogurt, just buttermilk and also a mixture of half yogurt and half buttermilk. In sheet cakes & biscuits, all worked well. In pancakes, pure yogurt did not work as the batter was too thick making it hard to cook all the way through without getting the exteriors too dark. However, the 50/50 mixture worked well.

Buttermilk powder

  • This product is made from buttermilk that has been heated and dehydrated to produce a stable powder. The product made by Saco Pantry (not the only brand available) is made from actual cultured, churned sweet cream buttermilk. Because of this, some feel that there is more richness as compared to its liquid counterpart. The latter is made from skim milk that has been inoculated with bacteria.
  • Another great thing about this product is that is has a long shelf life. Once opened, it should be refrigerated. It is usable up to the expiration date, which is about 2 years after you buy it.
  • To use the buttermilk powder, follow the instructions on the canister, which has you mix the powder with the same amount of water as the buttermilk that is called for in the recipe. For baked goods, it is best to add the powder to the dry ingredients and then add the water when the recipe says to add the buttermilk.
  • It is said to add flavor, tenderness and richness as well as improved moisture retention and enhanced browning. King Arthur’s Test Kitchen Charlotte Rutledge uses it in her pie dough as she says it impedes gluten development and makes rolling it out easier and increases the crust’s delicate texture.
  • In testing, King Arthur flour tried it in buttermilk pie, buttermilk cake, biscuits and sugar cookies. They liked how it worked in all the recipes. They did find two differences as compared to using liquid buttermilk. Those baked goods made with the powder are slightly lighter in color and the flavor is more creamy-buttery rather than tangy. They state they you can use milk rather than water, which gives even better texture and flavor.
  • Cooks’ Illustrated also loved it for baking applications. However, they found problems in other recipes such as coleslaw and mashed potatoes. It led to watery, looser results. The recommend decreasing the water by 25% while using the normal amount of powder. When used for coating fried chicken, the coating did not stick. They found no way around this problem.
  • Finally, it was the favorite from the testing done on TheKitchn.com although the only recipe tested was a buttermilk pancake recipe. They found its flavor was the closest to true buttermilk and the pancakes were evenly golden with a light and fluffy interior.

In summary, if you usually have liquid buttermilk on hand, that’s great. If you don’t, though, you may want to grab a can of powdered buttermilk. It can do as well and sometimes even better than the liquid buttermilk in most applications. I know I always have a can in my refrigerator. What about you? What do you use?

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Pie Plates – what are the differences?

As fall grows near and pie baking season approaches, many of you consider what type of pie crust you want to try and what fillings you wish to use. How many of you stopped to consider what type of pie plate to use and if there are differences among them? That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Other than holding your pie crust/filling, what should a good pie pan be like? Here are some of the considerations.

  • Durability – is it of high enough quality that it will last for many years?
  • Maneuverability – is it easy to put in and take out of oven and to the dinner table?
  • Browning – does it brown evenly from the top to the bottom and are the crusts crisp?
  • Versatility – does it perform equally well for flaky-crust pies and press-in crusts? Does the shape or size limit the recipes that can be used? Does it yield evenly baked, golden crusts and thoroughly-cooked fillings every time no matter the type of pie?
  • Size/Depth – The size needs to be able to hold the amount of filling you want for a fruit pie but not so big that it looks too small for icebox pies, custard pies or quiches. Most pie plates are 9-10 inches in diameter. Measure across the center from inside rim to opposite inside rim. Do not include the lip or handles. For depth, measure from top of rim to crease at bottom. A deep dish pie pan is said to be ½ to 2 inches in depth. A deep pan works best for double-crust and single crust pies with generous fillings. A 1½ inch pan can be used for both double and single crust pies.
  • Clean-up – how easy is it to clean? Is it dishwasher safe?
  • Value – how much does it cost?

There are three main materials out of which pie plates are made – glass, ceramic and metal. There are, of course, pros/cons to each.

Glass

  • Very affordable and widely available.
  • Heats slowly and allows heat to build gradually and evenly. This allows the pastry and filling to cook at the same moderate pace.
  • Bakes by both conduction and radiant heat energy, which allows the heat to go directly through the glass to the crust.
  • The clear bottom allows you to see how the bottom is baking.

Ceramic

  • Attractive with different designs and color.
  • Conducts heat slowly and evenly, leads to uniformly golden crusts and thoroughly cooked fillings.
  • Many can be used under the broiler.
  • Can’t see through them to check on the crust.
  • They are pricier and heavier.

Metal

  • Conducts heat rapidly and gets hotter in the oven leading to quicker browning. However, due to this, the pie can easily become over-browned if the pie filling needs to be in the oven for longer times.
  • One with a dull finish will absorb heat and bake faster than one with a shiny finish.
  • Choose a heavier pan made of a good heat conductor.

Disposable aluminum pie plates

  • Due to their thin walls, these pans can’t hold or transfer a significant amount of heat from oven to crust. So, the crusts bake more slowly and need more time in the oven.
  • For par-baking, may need to bake at least 10 minutes more than usual.
  • For double-crust pies, increase baking time by 10 minutes and cover with foil if pie is getting too dark.
  • Place on a preheated baking sheet for a well-browned bottom crust and more stability when moving out of the oven. Another tip is to bake the pie inside a glass or ceramic pan, which will aid with even heat distribution and more stability.

As you would expect, different experts had different opinions about the best pans but there are some similarities.

Cooks Illustrated – 2017 testing

  • They tested 2 metal, 2 ceramic and 3 glass pie plates. They found that all produced nicely cooked fillings but the quality of the crusts varied. The two problems were poor crust release & pale bottom crusts.
  • All 3 glass plates had problems with crust relief. This was not a problem with ceramic or metal.
  • All double-crust pies had nice golden-brown top crusts but varied in the brownness of the bottom crust. Those baked in metal or ceramic plates had nicely browned bottoms but the glass ones had softer, paler bottom crusts.
  • They found that the ceramic plates had less versatility as the fluted edges could interfere with forming the crust as you want.
  • Overall, they felt that metal plates were better heat conductors than glass or ceramic.
  • Their overall favorite was the Williams Sonoma Goldtouch Pro Nonstick Pie Dish. It baked evenly with nicely browned crusts on top and bottom. The slices were easy to cut/remove. It cooled quickly for safe handling and is dishwasher safe. The only drawback was that it can easily scratch if using metal utensils. They felt that this was only cosmetic and didn’t affect the performance.

Food & Wine – testing updated as of June 2022

  • Their favorite was the Pyrex 9 inch glass pie plate. It is inexpensive and well-proportioned but lacked the volume of a deep dish pie plate. It had even heat conduction resulting in crisp, uniformly golden pastry. The slices came out easily. It did not scratch and the simple edge lent itself to whatever crimp you want to do.
  • For deep dish plates, they liked two ceramic choices – Baker’s Advantage Deep Dish Pie Plate and Emile Henry Modern Classics Pie Dish.
    • The Emile Henry dish had a generous capacity and produced excellent browning. Besides looking elegant, it is advertised as safe in the microwave, the freezer and the dishwasher. The biggest downside is that it is a pricey dish.The Baker’s pan is more affordable but otherwise very similar. It is one of the heaviest pans and so, may need longer bake times. It is not recommended for the dishwasher.
    • There were two shortcomings of these ceramic pans. First, removing the slices was not always clean and easy. Also, the generous capacity led to slumping of the fruit when baking a tall fruit pie leading to a gap between the top crust and filling.
  • Another pan they liked was the Creo SmartGlass Pie Plate. It was created to combine the best features of glass and ceramic plates. It pairs an extra-durable borosilicate glass interior with a stylish ceramic exterior. It is lighter in the hand than full ceramic dishes. They found it to be consistent with excellent heat conduction resulting in golden crusts without sticking or soggy bottoms.
  • They agreed with Cooks Illustrated about the Williams Sonoma Goldtouch pan. They found it did a great job with blind baking crusts and had easy and clean removal of slices. They did not think it was versatile enough to rate as their #1 choice as custardy pies (e.g., pumpkin) had the edges shrink and the crust set faster than filling.

Serious Eats – a 2022 review of essential pie making equipment by Stella Parks

  • Her favorite was tempered glass pie plates. She stated that they are inexpensive, sturdy and nonreactive. They conduct heat rapidly resulting in the butter melting quickly and thus releasing steam to give you not only a golden crust but one with flaky layers. She does say that a thin, lightweight ceramic pan would have similar results.
  • She did not like the thick ceramic pie plates as the crusts were pale and greasy. She contributes this to the fact that they conduct heat slowly and so, the crust bakes slowly. This causes the butter to ooze out without cooking through. She found that this resulted in a bottom crust that was dense and soft rather than layered and crisp.
  • Her complaint with metal pans is that they are reactive and so are not appropriate for pies such as lemon meringue or key lime.
  • Finally, she was surprised at how well disposable aluminum pans did as they yielded crusts that were crisp and golden and gave the best browning and texture of all the pans. She warned as they will bake faster, this might be a problem for custard pies that call for a longer bake time.

Epicurious – tested first in 2019 & updated in 2022

  • Just as with Cooks Illustrated, their top pick was the Williams Sonoma Goldtouch Pro Nonstick Pie Dish. They found it to be sturdy and pies baked evenly with nice browning. The slices came out easily. They could even lift out an entire pie without it falling apart. It was lightweight and easy to transport. They also found that it would scratch with metal utensils but this did not interfere with its performance.
  • Their runner-up was the Pyrex 9 inch glass pie plate. As with others, they found it to be sturdy and inexpensive. It baked evenly and they liked the see-through bottom. They also agreed with Cooks Illustrated that it was slightly harder to clean and noted “stickage issues” with graham cracker crusts.

My “go-to” pie plate has always been one of the tempered glass plates. After looking at all the reviews, I may have to try the Williams Sonoma Goldtouch pan. What about you?

Cooking Tips · Techniques

The Final Step to a Great Pie

(Updated September 2022)

In the last few Cooking Tips, we have been discussing how to put that perfect pie on your dinner table. We looked at ingredients and techniques for making a great pie crust. You are now ready to put it in the oven but there is another subject to discuss – blind baking your pie crust. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Blind baking a pie crust is simply pre-baking your crust (either partially or totally) before adding your filling. So, when do you blind bake your crust? The simple answer you might say is – when the recipe tells you to do so. Yes, that is true, but there are general guidelines to let you know whether you should do this.

Pies that have fillings that are not baked require a fully baked pie crust. An example is a yummy French Silk Pie. Since the pie is not going into the oven after adding the filling, the pie crust needs to be fully baked.

Other times you want to blind bake is with custard pies or pies with delicate fillings. With custard pies (such as pumpkin), the moisture in the filling might make the crust soggy before the crust is fully baked. Partially baking the crust before adding the filling helps to prevent this. There are also some delicate fillings that are only briefly cooked on the stovetop. If you do not blind bake the crust but rather put the filling in an unbaked crust, the filling would be over-cooked before the crust is fully baked. An example is Chocolate Cream pie.

One time you do not want to blind bake is if you are making a double-crust pie. If you blind bake the bottom crust, your top crust won’t adhere to the bottom crust. If your filling is such that you would prefer a blind-baked crust to prevent sogginess, you can place decorative pieces of crust over the top to give you a type of open double crust such as in this Gooseberry Pie recipe.

Blind baking is not as simple as putting your unfilled pie crust in the oven. If you do that without adding some weight, your pie crust will puff up – not ideal if you want to put a delicious filling into it. It also makes it much more likely that the sides of your crust will droop before it sets.

Now we know why we need to blind bake a crust, how do we do it? There are three recommended ways depending on what you are looking for in your finished pie.

If you want a pie with a pretty crimped edge or you have a tall crust, line the unbaked crust with foil or parchment making sure it fully covers the crust and the edges of the pie crust. Foil is often preferred over parchment as you can get it into the corners better as well as folding it over the crust to prevent overbrowning. Fill the crust at least 2/3 full with something to weight the crust down as it bakes. I love ceramic pie weights. They conduct heat well and fill up the entire crust. Just make sure you have enough to fully cover the crust. I tend to use two boxes of these for one pie crust.

You have probably heard that you can use dry beans or rice. Those are poor heat conductors resulting in a longer baking time to get to the proper stage.  Another option is granulated sugar, an excellent heat conductor.

Stacey Ballis with MyRecipes.com did an experiment testing different types of weights. Her favorite method was granulated sugar, which conducts heat as well as the ceramic weights but gets into the corners of the pie crust better. She uses the sugar a couple of times and then uses it in her baking. Since it has slightly caramelized by being in the oven, she recommends using it for meringues. Serious Eats agrees with this choice. If you don’t want to use sugar, the ceramic weights are a close second.

As I discussed in last week’s Tip, you should have chilled your pie crust. If you haven’t done that by this step, you may chill it with the weights in place. After chilling, place it in a 375° oven for 20 minutes. Remove from oven and carefully remove the very hot pie weights. Prick the bottom with a fork and return crust to the oven. If you will be baking the pie filling, bake the crust for another 5-8 minutes. If you are not baking the filling, bake the crust for another 12-20 minutes until fully baked. This method should work for most pie crusts but some recipes may have slightly different baking temperatures and times.

A second method is called the “Low & Slow” method. With this method, the pie crust is baked at 350° with pie weights in place for an hour. Baking at a more moderate heat is said to reduce shrinkage & puffing.

A third method is to sandwich the crust between two pans and bake upside down. This method is good for pies with a flat edge that do not need the extra height or when you are not looking for a decorative edge. To use this method, place the crust in the pan and flatten its edge. Spray the outside of another pie pan and nestle into the crust. You may also line the crust with parchment before putting pans together. At this point, chill for 30 minutes to solidify fats and prevent shrinkage.

Now, place the pans upside down on a baking sheet so that the empty pan is on the bottom. Bake for 20 minutes in 375° oven. As the proponents of this method say, “Gravity ensures that as your crust slips ‘down’ the side of the pan, it’s actually moving up!” When baked, remove from the oven and use a spatula to carefully turn over and prick with fork. Return the crust to the oven right side up without second pan and bake for 15-20 minutes until golden brown. You may now fill the crust. When would you want to do this method? It is ideal for pies where the edge of the pie is not as important as its top, such as Lemon Meringue.

What about your pie plate? That is the subject of next week’s Cooking Tip. See you then!

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Techniques for a great pie crust

(Updated September 2022)

After discussing the ingredients you need to make a pie crust, I now want to turn to bringing that crust into reality. That is the subject of this week’s Cooking Tip – how to make a great pie crust. As you read this Tip, you will notice that I often give you different recommendations. Everyone has their preferred method and I want to give you alternatives so you can find what works best for you.

The first point I want to make is COLD is your friend when making pie crusts. The fat that you cut into the flour needs to stay solid as long as possible so that once it is in the oven, it will melt at the appropriate time creating steam and thus, the flaky layers we all crave in pie crusts.

The fist method is the hand method. Start by putting your flour and salt in a bowl and whisk together. I highly recommend weighing your ingredients but if not, measure carefully. At this point, if your kitchen is warm, you may want to refrigerate the bowl/ingredients/equipment. Your aim (no matter the ambient temperature) is a final dough temperature of 65° to 70°. Yes, you can take the temperature of your dough. Just one more reason to have a good digital thermometer in your kitchen armamentarium.

Serious Eats points out that if your room temperature is above 73°, everything that touches the dough will warm it. You may have noticed that your dough seems to need less water on a hot day. That is because the butter is softer making it act more like a liquid. Although you may be tempted to use less water, this may lead to a weaker dough giving you headaches when you try to roll it out.

A solution is to chill everything with an aim to keeping your dough temperature below 70°. Take everything (your bowl with the dry ingredients, your rolling pin and your pie pan) and put them all in the refrigerator. Your fat and your water should already be in there keeping COLD until you need them. If your countertop is warm, fill some plastic bags with ice water and place on the countertop to cool it.

Next, add your COLD fat – butter, shortening or a combination. If you are using a combination, cut up the shortening and add first. Mix it in until the mixture is like sand. Then, add your butter, which should be cut into small cubes, and toss gently in the flour. Working quickly, cut the butter into the flour. I think no tool works as well as your hands to do this step although you can use a pastry cutter. Using a snapping motion between your fingers and thumbs, you will flatten out the butter cubes. Continue this until all the butter is flattened. If your hands are warm, you may want to cool them under the cold tap first. Do not overmix – you want to be left with an uneven mixture with butter pieces that vary in size. Remember, this is what is going to give your crust its flaky layers. So, you do not want your butter to melt or totally disintegrate as you are doing this.

This is the point where you add the ICE water. One train of thought is to never add all the water at once. Add it incrementally so the dough does not get too wet. Start with drizzling in a few tablespoons and gently tossing the mixture. A bowl scraper works great for this. Continue until the dough holds together if you squeeze it in your palm. The reasoning for this is that excess water can lead to more gluten development. However, a too-dry dough can be very difficult to roll out.

Another point of view is that gluten is not necessarily the enemy of soft, flaky crusts. Adding the water listed in the recipe all at once and mixing until it comes together will give you a dough that is easier to roll out without tearing.

After adding the water and mixing, empty the bowl onto a very lightly floured surface or onto a piece of parchment paper. There are two ways you can proceed from here. The easiest is to just gently gather the dough into a ball. If it is still too dry, add more ice water but a small amount at a time. A spritz from a spray bottle may be all you need. If you have added too much water, sprinkle a bit more flour and gently mix it in.

A second way of finishing your pie dough is only slightly more work but gives you even more flaky layers. For this method, you may want to put your dough onto a piece of parchment. Press your dough into a rectangle and then, using the paper to assist you, fold it into thirds – just as you would a business letter — and then fold in half so it is square-shaped. If necessary, using a water bottle, spritz any dry areas with the ice water and then fold. You can also do this folding without parchment by putting your dough onto a floured counter and use a bench scraper to help with the folding.

At this point, shape your dough into the shape of the pan into which you will put it. This will make it easier to roll out to the correct shape. If you have made enough dough for a double crust, cut the dough in half before shaping. Some recommend rolling the shaped dough’s sides along a floured surface to smooth the edges.

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, formerly of Serious Eats, loves using a food processor to make the dough. He claims his method creates a tender and flaky dough that is very easy to roll out. He puts 2/3 of the flour in the food processor bowl along with salt and any sugar and pulses to incorporate. He then adds the cut-up butter and pulse until all the dry flour is gone followed by spreading the dough around the bowl with a rubber spatula. The rest of the flour is sprinkled over the dough and pulsed until the dough is slightly broken up. At this point, transfer the dough to a bowl, sprinkle with water and use the spatula to fold and press the dough until it comes together into a ball. If you want to read about his reasoning, see this article.

No matter which of the mixing methods you use, you need to next chill the dough. One recommendation is to wrap your dough into plastic and put in the refrigerator for a minimum of 30 minutes. This hardens the fat, which has warmed and softened during the mixing process. It also allows the gluten to relax. You may wish to freeze the dough at this point for use at a future time. If so, wrap in plastic and then in foil before putting in the freezer.

When you are ready to actually assemble your pie, remove the chilled crust from the refrigerator. If it has chilled longer than 30 minutes, you may need to let it warm up just a bit on the counter, leaving it wrapped. It needs to be soft enough to roll but should still be cold to the touch. As you roll it out, you should see large pieces of flattened butter.

Since rolling the dough “wakes” up the gluten and softens the butter, a different recommendation is to roll out your dough and put it in the pan right after you make it. Then, chill it thoroughly in the pie pan – about two hours.

Transferring it to the pan can be done by folding the rolled-out dough into quarters, placing it in the pan and unfolding it. Another method is to gently roll the dough around your rolling pin and then unrolling it over your pan.

You are now ready to finish your pie, right? No, remember the word I mentioned in the beginning – COLD. You want to chill your pie crust before filling it. Once again, this chilling helps to solidify that wonderful fat as well as minimizing shrinkage during baking.

Some just recommend refrigerating the dough after being put in the pie plate. As you have mixed and rolled out the dough, the gluten strands that have developed are stretched and want to snap back. You have probably seen that as you roll your dough; it doesn’t always stay put but tends to shrink. Resting the dough allows the tension in the strands to ease so they remain stretched and don’t shrink back when heated. However, as the pie is baked, the dough is not well set by the time the butter vaporizes. So, the air pockets created by the steam when the butter melts disappear. The soft, not-yet-set dough sinks into those spaces resulting in less flakiness.

Others recommend freezing the dough before baking. As you bake frozen dough, it heats up and sets relatively quickly in comparison to the time it takes the butter to melt. By the time the water in the butter starts to turn to steam, the dough is well into its setting stage. The air spaces occupied by the frozen butter, now that it has largely turned to steam, hold their shape because the dough has started to set. Thus, flakier layers. The downside is that as the water freezes, it holds the stretched gluten in place rather than allowing it to relax. So, when you bake it, the gluten strands snap back and the crust shrinks.

Many recommend a compromise by first refrigerating the dough for approximately 40 minutes to relax the gluten to minimize shrinkage followed by putting it in the freezer for 20 minutes to improve flakiness. Yes, this does require a bit more timing but could lead to a superior result. Now you are ready to choose your favorite filling. However, before putting your filling in the pan, stop and ask yourself if you need to par-bake your crust. Stay tuned for next week’s Tip as we delve into what par-baking is, when you need to do it and how to par-bake. See you then!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

The Foundation to a Great Pie

(updated September 2022)

As Fall is approaching, many of us start to think about pie making. In the next few Cooking Tips, I will discuss ingredients, techniques and equipment. Let’s start with ingredients for the foundation of your pie — the pie crust.

Do you make your own or do you use Pillsbury? Making a pie crust is so incredibly easy. Although store-bought crusts may be fine in a pinch, I encourage you to start making your own. They freeze beautifully and you will always be ready for pie. There are really two parts to making a great pie crust – your ingredients and your technique.

The ingredients that go into most pie crusts are minimal – flour, fat and water. Some will also have a bit of sugar, eggs, dairy (such as sour cream or cream cheese) or even nut flours. Let’s address these one by one.

Flour – most of us are going to use all-purpose flour for our pie crusts. I recommend mastering the technique with this flour before branching out as other flours will act differently.

Fat – the main fats used in pie crusts are butter and/or shortening. Lard used to be a stand-by but, today it is hard to get good quality lard. This is a subject for another Cooking Tip. For now, let’s stick with butter and shortening.

The main advantage of butter is flavor. It will give you a flaky crust since as the water in butter converts to steam, it puffs up the crust. The downside is that because butter has a low melting point, it is hard to maintain a nice crimp to your pie crust.

Shortening has a higher melting point allowing it to stay in solid form longer. Therefore, the crimp has a chance to set before it melts. There are those that think that this higher melting point also leads to a flakier crust than butter. It does lack, though, the wonderful flavor of butter.

This contrast is what leads to the recommendation of using both butter and shortening. Some claim that using a ratio of 3:2 butter to shortening gives you the best of both worlds.

Personally, I think there is nothing better than an all-butter crust. Yes, the crimp does slump but you can try to somewhat prevent this by proper chilling of the dough, discussed in next week’s Tip.

Water – all pie doughs need some sort of liquid to pull everything together. It is usually, although not always, in the form of water. Occasionally the liquid will be provided by another ingredient such as eggs, sour cream or other dairy. One point that is very important is that in order to keep the fat in the dough solid as long as possible, the water should be very cold.

There is a debate about how much water to add to the dry ingredients. Because water leads to the development of gluten, some say to add your water gradually just until you have a cohesive dough. They caution that too much water will result in a tougher crust due to the increased gluten. Others say that gluten is not necessarily a bad thing as it helps your dough to be stronger and less prone to tearing as you roll it out. I will discuss this more in next week’s Tip on the proper techniques of making pie dough.

This balance of too much/not enough water is what leads some experts to recommend adding vodka or any 80-proof spirit for part of the water. There is no discernible alcohol taste but they claim it is easier to roll out the dough. The reasoning is that although gluten forms with the water, it does not with alcohol. They recommend mixing ¼ cup of water with the same amount of vodka and using this mixture in your pie dough. A tender but very easy to roll out dough is the result. I must say that I have not noticed this is much of an advantage when I have tried it.

What about the old recommendation of adding vinegar or lemon juice to your pie dough? The sources that recommend this say it reduces gluten development. However, when put to scientific tests, it has been found that slightly acidic doughs actually have more gluten. To get the desired tenderizing effect, you would have to use about ¼ cup of acid, which would give your dough a very sour taste.  So, this is one “old wives’ tale” that we can put to rest.

For basic pie dough, called Pâte Brisée (translated broken paste or dough), the only ingredients are flour, fat and water. An easy to remember ratio is 3:2:1 – 3 parts flour, 2 parts fat and 1 part water where 1 part is 4 ounces. Another recommendation is 2 parts flour to 2 parts fat with 1 part water. As I mentioned above, I use all butter as my fat but you could also do a mixture of butter and shortening. This type of pie crust can be used for any application.

There may be times when you want a sweeter dough, called Pâte Sucré (sugar paste/dough). Although recipes vary, the one I like to use contains flour, fat, sugar and eggs. The latter is what provides the liquid. Any sweet pie or tart filling works great with this dough. A delicious example is a Lemon Tart.

A third version is Pâte Sablé (sand paste). In this type of dough, you use a nut flour in addition to your AP flour. Other ingredients are sugar, butter and eggs. This is the only pie dough of these three where the ingredients are better at room temperature as they will be creamed together in a mixer. This dough can be made into cookies or used in other sweet pastry applications.

Now that you have the necessary ingredients, stay tuned for next week’s Tip on technique. Although ingredients are important, it is really the technique that will make or break your pie crust. It sure is getting delicious around here, isn’t it?  See you next week!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Cardamom – what it is & how to use it

I am about to teach a class on “Elegant Dining”. One of the desserts we will be making is an adaptation of the French Napoleon. Part of the recipe involves making an orange compote that is sweetened by honey and spiced with cardamom. Cardamom is one of those spices that probably does not have a space in many of our pantries. The subject of this Cooking Tip is to help you decide whether you need it in your pantry.

Cardamom is the seed of a fruit in the ginger family. The seeds are enclosed in an oval-shaped pod. Today, Guatemala is the world’s largest producer followed by India and Sri Lanka. It is one of the top three most expensive spices in the world along with saffron and vanilla.

There are three main varieties – green, white and black.

Green cardamom (India cardamom)

  • This is the most common variety and is what is probably called for if the recipe does not specify. It can be used in both sweet and savory dishes.
  • The whole pods can be steeped in liquid where its flavor is slowly extracted overtime.
  • For more potency, the pods can be ground although they can be difficult to grind and often leave woody shards behind.
  • The inner seeds can be used whole, crushed or ground.
  • Its flavor is intense and pungent. It is described as spicy and floral with citrus and herbal notes along with undertones of eucalyptus and camphor.

White cardamom

  • This is just a bleached version of the green. Bleaching does improve storage but also gives it a somewhat muted flavor.
  • It is mainly used in Persian and Scandinavian cuisines, especially Scandinavian breads and pastries. It is interesting that in a cookbook given to us by my husband’s brother and his Finnish wife, The Great Scandinavian Baking Book, they only mention the white version when talking about cardamom.
  • There are two theories on how white cardamom came to be such a popular spice in Scandinavia. The first claims that the Vikings took it to Scandinavia after encountering it in the bazaars of Constantinople about 1000 years ago. However, Daniel Serra, a culinary archeologist, says there is no evidence of this. He believes the Moors introduced it to Scandinavia after inhabiting the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century. It is first mentioned by a Danish monk in a 13th century cookbook.
  • It is also said that the green pods probably bleached in the sun during the long voyage from Asia. Scandinavians liked the flavor and still prefer the white pods to this day.

Black cardamom (Nepal cardamom, brown cardamon)

  • Although in the same family, the flavor profile of black cardamom is different from green and white. It is characterized by a smokiness, which comes from the practice of drying the spice over a fire.
  • Due to the flavor, it is mostly used in savory dishes. However, some chefs will add the whole pods to boiling water along with fruit and honey to make a beverage. Others find this smokiness gives an interesting taste to their chocolate truffles.
  • Besides the smokiness, black cardamon also has flavors/aromas of pine, eucalyptus, camphor and menthol.
  • It is one of the main ingredients in garam masala and is sometimes used in Chinese five-spice powder

Thai cardamom (Siam cardamom)

  • This is a type of cardamon that is rarely mentioned. According to Spiceography, the best Thai cardamon comes from the Chanthaburi province in southern Thailand.
  • It is a relative of green cardamom but looks very similar to garbanzo beans.
  • Its flavor is similar to green but has less camphor-notes and more floral and citrus notes with a mild minty fragrance.
  • It is a key ingredient in massaman curry and beef noodle soup. It is also used in Vietnamese pho broth as well as chai seasoning.

Besides what I mentioned above, cardamom is an important ingredient in Indian curry blends. It is often used in beverages such as a flavoring in coffee or Chai tea blends. It is an essential flavoring in Arab and Turkish coffees. Other uses include rice, meat, poultry and seafood dishes. It can be used to flavor punch and mulled wines.

You can easily buy green cardamom but may find it a bit harder to find white or black. Thai cardamom will take some searching. Cardamom can be purchased as whole pods, seeds or ground. As with most spices, the whole has a much longer shelf life, at least a year. Seeds that have been removed from the pods quickly start to lose flavor with exposure to air.

It will have more pungency if you grind just before you use it. As it is so expensive, only grind what you need. To grind, use a mortar/pestle rather than a spice grinder if you only need a small amount. The seeds are so small that it will be hard to grind in a spice grinder. If you want to grind it along with other spices, a spice grinder will probably work just fine.

You can use cardamom in any of its forms. If using the whole pod, it will give you a milder flavor. Some recommend to slightly split or crush the pods to expose the seeds. The pods can then be slowly cooked to extract the flavor. It might be best to put the pods into a spice bag as biting the actual cardamom can be bitter. It also allows for easy removal if you wish to do so.

If using whole seeds, bruise them with the back of a knife before adding them. The final option is to grind the seeds as mentioned above.

If you do remove the seeds from the pods, you can keep the pods and steep them in water or milk for coffee or tea.

Although black cardamon can be treated the same way, some say the best way to use is to use the whole pod.

When using cardamon, be sure to not use it in excess as it can overwhelm other spices and give a bitter note. Cooks Illustrated claims that 12 cardamom pods will yield about 1 teaspoon of whole or coarsely ground seeds or ¾ teaspoon of finely ground seeds. In my experience, I think it takes more than 12 pods to get a teaspoon of seeds but this will give you a starting point.

What if you do not have cardamom and do not want to buy it? Although nothing tastes exactly the same and leaving it out of a dish is not a good option, here are some ideas for substitutions.

Substitute for green cardamom

  • A blend of ground cloves and cinnamon – cloves give you astringency and cinnamon lends a sweet, woody note. For 1 teaspoon cardamon, use ½ teaspoon of each. This would work for meat and seafood dishes.
  • A blend of cinnamon and nutmeg – use the same measurements and use in savory dishes.
  • Cinnamon or nutmeg – You could try either of these on its own but the flavor will be different. They will, though, add the warm notes that cardamom in known for. Start with half the amount called for and adjust.
  • Other individual spices that might work are allspice, ginger and coriander.

Substitute for black cardamom

  • The best substitute will be green cardamom but it will give more citrus notes with less smokiness and astringency. Use equivalent amounts.
  • Garam masala – black cardamom is often a component of this Indian spice blend and so could be used as long as the other spices in that mixture complement your dish.
  • Allspice and galangal have been recommended along with apple pie spice.

Do you have cardamom in your pantry? I have green and white cardamom but only in the whole pod form as I do not use it very often. I have never tried black or Thai cardamon. Have you?