Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Making your baked goods rise!

If you are a baker, you know that many of the items you bake need to rise to achieve a proper result. There are different ways in which to get your item to rise and they all involve some type of leavening agent. What these leavening agents are and how to use them is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

There are three main categories of leavening agents – Chemical, Biological and Physical/Mechanical.

  • Chemical – These are ingredients that use a chemical reaction that releases gas bubbles into your baked goods, thereby causing them to rise. These are generally used in cakes and quick breads. There are two main chemical leavening agents.
    • Baking Soda is also known as bicarbonate of soda or sodium bicarbonate and is an alkaline substance. When combined with an acidic ingredient (vinegar, lemon juice, buttermilk, yogurt), a chemical reaction occurs that produces CO2 gas bubbles, causing the batter or dough to rise. Because this chemical reaction occurs immediately upon moistening the baking soda with the acidic ingredient, it should be mixed with the other dry ingredients before adding any liquid. Also, the batter should be placed in the oven immediately after combining or you will lose the lift it provides.
    • Baking powder is a mixture of baking soda, an acid (often cream of tartar) & a moisture absorber (such as cornstarch). It does not require an acid to activate it. When mixed with a liquid, it also produces CO2 gas bubbles that aid in rising. Most commonly found in our stores is double-acting baking powder. It releases some gas upon mixing with a liquid but the rest is released when exposed to the heat of the oven.
  • Biological/Organic
    • These are naturally occurring microorganisms that act in the fermentation process of baking. These agents break down sugars and produce CO2 gas bubbles. The main one of these that we use is Yeast. Please see this Cooking Tip for a more in-depth discussion of yeast. Sourdough starter is another example. These are essential to bread making.
  • Mechanical/Physical
    • This involves you putting air into the batter or dough by mixing the ingredients. As you whisk or beat things in your mixer, you are rapidly introducing air into your mixture. A common method is whipping eggs or just egg whites until they are full of air and then carefully folding in other ingredients. You must take care in this step as you do not want to deflate all that air you just put into it.
    • Steam is another example of physical leavening. Steam is produced by evaporation of water as the temperature increases. The gas that is produced by this lifts your baked good.

Both baking powder and soda lose their effectiveness over time. The shelf life of properly-stored (kept dry and cool) baking powder is 6 months to a year. For soda, it is 8 months to a year. Put the date you open these items on the canisters so you know how old they are.

There are tests you can do to see if they are still effective. For baking powder, put 1 teaspoon in ½ cup of hot water. It should bubble immediately and foam to the top. For baking soda, put 2 tablespoons of white vinegar in a cup. Add 1 teaspoon of baking soda. Stand back as it should froth like crazy. If your powder and/or soda does not react like this, throw it out. Just a caution – there are experts who feel that these tests don’t tell the whole story. They have determined that your baking powder and soda do not yield the same lift as they get older even if they perform well on the above tests. They recommend replacing these items every six months routinely.

One tidbit – you can make your own baking powder. Mix one part baking soda with one part cornstarch & two parts cream of tartar. Store in a cool, dry place for several months.

A last caution is for those of you who live at high altitude. The increased elevation, which leads to lower air pressure as well as a change in the temperature at which water boils, can cause problems with the rising of your baked goods. For a more thorough discussion, see this Tip on High Altitude Baking.

I hope this Tip demystifies those all-important leavening agents for producing delicious and airy baked goods!

Cooking Tips

Recipe Cautions

Image by Homegrounds from Pixabay

I would suspect that most of you use recipes when you cook. People tend to feel more comfortable that their dish is going to turn out if they follow the instructions of the “expert” who wrote the recipe. This may or may not be true depending on how the recipe is written, who wrote it and other variables. Knowing when to take caution in following a recipe is the subject of this Cooking Tip.


Understanding how to accurately measure is a skill that will lead to improvements in your cooking results. This is even more important with baking and especially if you live at a high altitude. As a back ground, see these links about using the proper measuring tools and how weighing ingredients is superior to cup measurements.

The problem with recipes and measurements is that I think some recipe writers do not understand the basics of proper measuring techniques. For example, say your recipe says “1 cup shallots, minced”. The way that is written implies you should measure a cup of shallots and then mince them. Obviously, you cannot really measure a cup of shallots. The correct way to write this would be “1 cup minced shallots”. Note the placement of the comma in the first example. That little comma is generally important in recipe writing.

With an ingredient like shallots, it may be self-evident what the recipe writer meant. What if a recipe reads “1 cup pecans, chopped finely”. Do you measure a cup of pecan halves and the chop them or do you chop them first and then measure? The way it is written you should do the former – measure and then chop. I see so many recipes written in what I consider a sloppy manner and do not take into account this basic recipe writing principle. Because of that, I do not always trust that the recipe was written accurately. As there is no way for you to know this, you are going to have to use caution when looking at measurements and use your best judgement.

It is also helpful to have some measurement conversions committed to memory or have a chart readily available. Here is one from Home Baking.

Another aspect of measurements is that some recipes are written unnecessarily vague as to the amount of the particular ingredients. Some examples are:

  • 1 onion, chopped
    • What type of onion – yellow, white, red or sweet? That makes a difference to the flavor of the dish.
    • What size – small, medium, large? Too much onion can hurt a dish. It would be better to say 3 oz onion or 1 cup chopped onion.
  • The juice of one lemon
    • How much juice is that? It depends on the size and ripeness of the lemon. It would be better to say 1 Tbsp of lemon juice.
  • 3 potatoes, sliced
    • What type of potatoes? Russets have different uses than red potatoes. You will achieve better results using the type that was used when the recipe was created.
    • What size of potatoes? Once again, it would be better to specify a weight.

If the recipe you want to try is vague in these ways, you need a bit of help. If it concerns a type of ingredient (such as what type of onion), do a bit of research on onions either on my site or elsewhere. If it is the amount that is unclear, consider consulting a book called Food FAQs by Linda Resnick & Dee Brock. They spent an enormous amount of time measuring food items to help you know how much, for example, the juice of one lemon is. Also, it is best to start with less than you think you will need, tasting and then adding more if it needs it.

Cooking/Baking Directions

Once you have figured out the proper measurements, the next caution is the cooking or baking instructions. This caution especially applies to “doneness” guidance or timing recommendations.

Please note that timing recommendations should only ever be understood as a guideline, not an absolute. How long things will need to cook or bake has many variables such as the pan you are using, the heat you are applying, your oven temperature, the size you cut the items, etc.

One very common instruction you will see in a recipe has to do with sautéing items. For example, the recipe might read, “Sauté onions for 2-3 minutes, until soft and translucent.” That 2-3 minute time-frame is only an estimate of how long it is going to take to get your onions to the proper stage. It is not what really matters. What matters is what comes after that word “until”. You want to end up with onions that are soft and translucent and it doesn’t matter if that takes 1 minute or 5 minutes. Use the time listed as a guide but then do your own assessment. After 2 minutes, look at the onions to see if they look translucent. Take a taste of them. Are they as soft as you would like them? If those answers are yes, you are done cooking them. If not, continue until you get the desired result.

With meat and baked items, it often lists a time frame followed by “or until done”. Your food item may or may not be done at the end of that time frame. For example, I was making some Mexican Hot Chocolate Brownies and the recipe instructed me to “bake for 20 minutes, until the top is cracked and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean”. At the end of the 20 minutes, I had some cracking but the inside was still somewhat liquid. So, I baked it longer until I had the proper result. If I had just taken those brownies out of the oven at 20 minutes, I would have had a gooey mess.

With both meat and baked items, it is good to get into the habit of using a digital thermometer. Here is a Tip I wrote on thermometers. The problem is that so many recipes, especially American recipes, do not give you doneness temperatures. Therefore, you should have a “cheat sheet” readily available that tells you proper doneness temperatures. I keep a chart right on my refrigerator so I do not have to rely on my memory. Here is one that shows not only meat temperatures, but also temps for baked items.

Other variables

Even if the recipe is well-written, there are other variables that can make a difference in the outcome. Here is a short and very interesting video from Jacques Pepin explaining why “following a recipe can lead to disaster”. He created and wrote a recipe for Pears in Caramel Sauce. Watch as he shows and explains how following the recipe exactly as written without taking into account all of these variables can lead to disaster.

If your recipe was found online, there will often be a “Comments” section. I find many of the comments very unhelpful as they might be written by someone who hasn’t even made the recipe or by someone who made so many substitutions that it is bound to be very different than the expected result. However, it can be useful to skim those looking for comments from people that might have something helpful to say.

How many times have you found a recipe that sounded wonderful but you ended up being disappointed in the results? Could it be the fault of the recipe? With this information, I hope you will better be able to analyze a recipe and then achieve better results.

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Burgers – to smash or not to smash?

Image by Thorsten Frenzel from Pixabay

My husband and I went out for a burger the other night as I had a coupon for a free burger. (Don’t you just love free?) This place did regular burgers but my husband also likes to go to a place that does smashed burgers. What is the difference and is one better than another? That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

If you want to learn to make a great burger at home, you may want to review two prior Cooking Tips. One was on what type of beef to use and the second was on burger cooking advice.

Even though some date the origin of smashed burgers back to 2007 when the Smashburger chain opened its first restaurant, the method actually goes back much further. According to Blue MauMau, “The story is that the original Dairy Cheer hamburger shop owner Bill Culvertson, created the “smashed burger” when a worker discovered that smashing the meat with a No. 10 bean can while grilling was a great way to get the best flavor into a burger.”

What makes a smashed burger different than a regular/thick burger is the cooking method. To put it simply, the meat patty is put in a very hot pan and then smashed down into a thin burger. But, isn’t this counterintuitive to the recommendations for cooking burgers? Weren’t we taught that you should never squash your beef patty as all the juices would leak out, leading to a dry burger? It turns out that piece of advice is not necessarily true. (For other culinary myths, see these Cooking Tips – Part 1 & Part 2.)

The goal of a great smashed burger is creating a crispy outer crust and juicy interior. Let’s look at the method to create a smashed burger and the science behind it.

Start with good quality cold meat and form balls of about 2-3 ounces. Some recommend forming the balls and placing them back in the refrigerator for about 15 minutes. Each serving will be two patties. This gives you maximal crust and flavor. Heat a heavy skillet until very hot. Do not use a nonstick skillet. Not only will the nonstick surface inhibit the crust formation, but also the high heat can ruin your pan. Finally, the nonstick coating can vaporize and possibly be bad for your health.

Both Cooks Illustrated & Serious Eats recommend putting a small amount of oil in the skillet and rubbing it in with a paper towel. Then, proceed to heat the skillet over medium-low heat for 5 minutes. You can either season your meat just before placing it in the hot skillet or immediately afterwards. When the skillet is very hot, place your balls of meat in the skillet. Only place two balls in a 12-inch skillet. Now, immediately (within 30 seconds) firmly press down to form flat patties of about 4 to 4½ inches in diameter. One method is to wrap the bottom of another small skillet with foil and use this to press down on the patties. Others will use a firm metal spatula. You can even purchase a burger press.

Cook, without moving, until at least ¾ of each patty is no longer pink on top, about 1½ to 2 minutes. You want the patties to stick to the skillet. Use a thin metal spatula to loosen the patties from the skillet being sure to scrape up all the brown bits adhered to the skillet. Flip patties and cook until done, about another 15 to 30 seconds.

Now, to the science. It has to do with what is called the Maillard reaction. This is a type of browning that occurs due to a reaction between a sugar and an amino acid in the presence of heat. (This is different than caramelization, which only involves sugar.) Since the meat patties are pressed down for maximal contact, you get more of the Maillard reaction happening and thus, more browning and more delicious flavor. For this browning reaction to occur, the foods need to be heated to at least 300°F and are accelerated at temperatures higher than that.

There is a reason why you can do this pressing without losing moisture but you must do it early in the cooking phase. According to Serious Eats,

“When ground beef is cold, its fat is still solid and its juices are still held firmly in place inside small, chopped up segments of muscle fibers. That’s the reason why you can push and press on ground meat without squeezing out too much liquid, and the reason why you can smash a burger during the initial phases of cooking without fear of losing moisture.”

If you try to smash after a minute, you lose much more moisture and end up with a dry burger. According to Serious Eats, “a good 50% more moisture is lost in a burger smashed after 1 minute versus one smashed within 30 seconds.”

That is all there is to cooking a great smashed burger. Not only is cooking a smashed burger much quicker, it is also more fail-proof than cooking thicker burgers. And, in my opinion, even more tasty. Do you smash? If not, give it a try and let me know what you think.

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Organic Meat & Dairy

Last week, we looked at the subject of organic and conventional produce and I gave you some information to help you determine which you think is best for you and your family. In this week’s Cooking Tip, I want to talk about organic meat and dairy.

First, we need to understand what the word “organic” means in relation to meat and dairy. According to the USDA’s website:

  • The USDA organic label on dairy or meat products means that the animals … were raised in living conditions that accommodated their natural behaviors, without being administered hormones or antibiotics, and while grazing on pasture grown on healthy soil. Thereafter, the meat or dairy product is processed without any artificial colors, preservatives, or flavors before being packaged to avoid contact with any prohibited, nonorganic substances.” As part of this, the use of GMOs is prohibited.
  • The basic rule is to allow natural substances and prohibit synthetic. For livestock, however, vaccines play an important part in animal health, especially since antibiotic therapy is prohibited.
  • Yearly organic inspections are required including, but not limited to, seed sources, soil conditions, crop health, weed and pest management, water systems, inputs, contamination and commingling risks and prevention, and record-keeping.
  • Producers must use 100% organic feed, but they may provide allowed vitamin and mineral supplements.
Image by Penny from Pixabay

Are there any benefits of eating organic meat/dairy? Medical professionals at the Cleveland Clinic believe there are health benefits linked to choosing organic. However, they temper this by stating that “it’s not certain that eating organic foods will make a difference in one’s health.”

Possible benefits:

  • Reduced exposure to pesticides and insecticides.
  • Increased exposure to omega-3 fatty acids as livestock fed through grazing usually have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Lower levels of cadmium in organic grains.
  • Increased levels of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other beneficial micronutrients.
  • Less exposure to bacteria in meat.
  • Less exposure to antibiotics and growth hormones.

According to Healthline, there are pros and cons to organic milk.

Image by Penny from Pixabay


  • Organic cow’s milk is higher in polyunsaturated fatty acids than conventional milk. However, once again, these differences may only be marginal and not offer more nutritional benefits than conventional milk. Also, some experts say this improved fatty acid content is due to farming practices that allow cows to graze and forage and not the organic farming itself.
  • Organic milk has lower levels of drug residues (including antibiotics & growth hormones) than regular milk, although the amounts in regular milk are still considered safe. As for antibiotics, researchers at the University of California, Davis explain that there are never any antibiotics in any type of milk. This is due to policies in place by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and American Veterinary Medicine Association that control drug use. For more detail, see this article.
  • Organic milk has a longer shelf life due to the pasteurization processes it undergoes.


  • Organic milk is lower in iodine and selenium, two nutrients that are important for thyroid health.
  • Organic milk is slightly higher in calories.
  • Organic milk has a higher saturated fat content.
  • Organic milk is more expensive.


  • Both have comparable levels of calcium, potassium, and sodium.

Although the discussion of the environmental impacts of organic versus conventional farming is outside the scope of this Tip, if you are interested, here is a very well-researched article on this subject by researchers at the University of California at Davis. Let me just say it is not as clear cut as organic proponents say it is. As with so many topics, the truth is more nuanced.

I hope this article and the one about produce will help you determine if and when you wish to pay the increased cost associated with organic foods. It is a very personal decision but one that should be made with the data required to make an informed decision.

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Organic Produce – is it worth the cost?

I first wrote about Organic Foods a few years ago. I decided to update this Cooking Tip with some interesting data, but I am going to limit the discussion to produce. Organic meat and dairy will have to wait for a future Cooking Tip. I would suspect that most people buy organic as they think it is safer to eat. They might also think it is healthier. Since organic foods are more expensive than conventional, it would be good to know if either of these beliefs are true. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Let me start with something we all probably know. That is that there are very strong feelings on both sides of the “organic vs conventional” debate. The only one who can answer “is it worth it” for you and your family is you. One caveat is that more research probably needs to be done and the results of any future research could alter the current thought on organic foods.

There is a US-based environmental advocacy organization called the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Since 1995, they have produced an annual list of what they call The Dirty Dozen and The Clean 15. According to this group, the “Dirty Dozen” of produce has the greatest potential for containing pesticide residue. Therefore, the EWG recommends that consumers only purchase organic forms of these food items. Each year this list is produced and is highly publicized by our media. For the 2022 list, see this link. The “Clean 15” is a list of produce that they say had little to no traces of pesticides, and the EWG considers safe to consume in non-organic form.

On the other side of this discussion is a peer-reviewed study published in the Journal of Toxicology. This study concluded the following:

  • Exposures to the most commonly detected pesticides on the twelve commodities (celery, blueberries, kale, nectarines, peaches, potatoes, spinach, strawberries, cherries, apples, grapes (imported), bell peppers) pose negligible risks to consumers.
  • Substitution of organic forms of the twelve commodities for conventional forms does not result in any appreciable reduction of consumer risks.
  • The methodology used by the environmental advocacy group (EWG) to rank commodities with respect to pesticide risks lacks scientific credibility.

In a 2019 report (attach report) by the Pesticide Data Program (part of the USDA), they state “nearly 99 percent of the samples tested had residues below the tolerances established by the EPA with 42.5 percent having no detectable residue.” Of course, for this to have meaning to you, you must put trust in these levels established by the government.

Another interesting point is that organic farming does not mean that there are no pesticides used, only that the pesticides themselves are certified organic. This usually means that they are “natural” rather than “synthetic” but there are some synthetic chemicals that are allowed in organic farming. And, many scientists have concluded that organic pesticides pose the same health risks as non-organic ones.

As of now, there is no evidence that organic produce is more nutritious than conventional produce. In fact, most of the studies done on the health benefits of produce have been done on the conventional varieties. A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2011 concluded “The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.” There are some studies that have shown higher levels of Vitamin C, some minerals & antioxidants in organic produce although the experts say the differences are too small to have an impact on overall nutrition.

What is the cost? A 2015 Consumer Reports study showed, that on average, organic foods are 47% more costly than non-organic. As this is an average, you will see a significant range of cost differences depending on the food and the store. Interestingly, a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found it only costs farmers 5-7% more to use organic methods. In recent years, the price differences have become less as more traditional grocery stores start to offer their own organic versions.

This price difference is a concern for low-income shoppers. They have heard the same media reports about organic vs conventional produce but the expense does not allow them to purchase the organic versions. What is disappointing is that a 2016 study published in Nutrition Today found that rather than purchasing the conventional produce, they often chose to not purchase any produce at all, something that is not a positive for their diet and health.

Some industry professionals recommend concentrating more on “Buying Local” with the hopes that those fruit & vegetables are fresher and seasonal. Locally-grown produce does not mean it is necessarily organic although it may be depending on the farm. If you have the space & ability, there is no more local than growing your produce yourself. In that case, you will have no questions as to how or where it was grown.

As I said in the beginning, only you can decide if you want to go organic and to what extent. Just know there are arguments on both sides but the science, to this point, does not seem to support a strong preference for organic. Most importantly, eat a diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables. The nutrients that are found in those items are so necessary in your diet and resulting health.

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Clean Eating – Good or Bad?

A phrase we have all probably heard over the past few years is Clean Eating. Is it just a catch phrase, a trendy talking point or is there more to it than that? That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Since the term “clean eating” is not a regulated term, there is no one definition for it. Food manufacturers can put that label on their food products but, without an agreed-upon definition, it is pretty meaningless. Also, it can mean different things to different people.

At its most basic, clean eating is healthy eating. If you had to compare it to something that the consumer is more likely to understand, it is very similar to the Mediterranean way of eating.

It generally means a type of eating that includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy proteins and healthy fats. It also means limiting refined grains, preservatives, unhealthy fats and excessive added sugar and salt. Earlier this year, I wrote a series of Cooking Tips on just this subject of cooking and eating healthy. Rather than repeat all of that in this Tip, see these prior Tips for more information.

Some Clean Eating advocates will emphasize other requirements such as:

  • Only eating organic produce. For some of the pros/cons of buying organic, see next week’s Cooking Tip.
  • Gluten Free
  • Dairy Free
  • Some will also include the environment in the list of items to consider.

Although trying to eat healthier and trying to incorporate Mediterranean eating principles is a good thing, there are cautions to be made if this “Clean Eating” is taken to an extreme. Some clean eating recommendations can be so restrictive that the intake of essential nutrients suffers.

There is even an eating disorder termed Orthorexia Nervosa (ON) that has been defined as “an obsession with proper or healthful eating”. It has not been added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) as an actual disorder but is being recognized more and more.

Currently, there is no universally shared definition of ON. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, some warning signs and symptoms are:

  • Compulsive checking of ingredient lists and nutritional labels
  • An increase in concern about the health of ingredients
  • Cutting out an increasing number of food groups (all sugar, all carbs, all dairy, all meat, all animal products)
  • An inability to eat anything but a narrow group of foods that are deemed “healthy” or “pure”
  • Unusual interest in the health of what others are eating
  • Spending hours per day thinking about what food might be served at upcoming events
  • Showing high levels of distress when “safe” or “healthy” foods aren’t available
  • Obsessive following of food and healthy lifestyle blogs on social media
  • Body image concerns may or may not be present

This can lead to distress, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsiveness. According to Rachel Hartley Nutrition,

“Clean eating creates guilt and shame around food by creating hierarchies – clean, good foods vs. dirty, unhealthy bad foods. This binary approach is nutritionally inaccurate. While certainly there are foods that contain more nutrients than others, what makes a food a “healthier” choice is much more nuanced than vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Convenience, social and cultural connection, as well as other situational and individual factors all play roles that are just as important. Even if nutrition was as simple as good vs. bad foods, labeling food in such a way doesn’t actually help you eat those foods in a healthy way. Labelling food as good and bad fuels disordered eating behaviors, especially the restrict-binge cycle. In other words, thinking of a food as bad doesn’t necessarily mean you would be eating less of it, just that you would be eating it more chaotically.”

Clean eating is also very isolating as it makes it very difficult to socialize with friends/family if any sort of meal is involved. This, in itself, can be damaging to a person’s overall health.

As with so many things in life, Clean Eating is not all good nor all bad. If it helps you to get on the path to healthy eating, that is a good thing. If taken to the extreme, it can be dangerous. Let’s all make this year one of enjoying food in a healthy manner, which can greatly enhance our lives.

Image by S K from Pixabay
Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Tea – A British Tradition

Even if you do not like to drink tea, I would bet that many of you enjoy sitting down to a beautiful and tasty Afternoon Tea or even just a simple Cream Tea. Just what these events are and some of the arguments around them is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Image by Ji-yeon Yun from Pixabay

The first piece of disagreement about Afternoon Tea is the name. Here in the US, most people use the term High Tea rather than Afternoon Tea but this is a misnomer. The concept of Afternoon Tea started in England in the 1840s when The Duchess of Bedford wanted a small bite between lunch and dinner. It started out as just tea and a small snack, but the popularity grew once she started inviting her friends over and it became a social gathering for the wealthy social class. It developed into a light meal composed of three courses – tea sandwiches and savories, scones with clotted cream and jam, and sweet pastries. Everything was bite-sized and eaten with fingers. Afternoon tea time was around 4:00 pm. It was not meant to replace dinner but instead to tide someone over until dinner, which was usually served at 8:00 pm for the upper class. Afternoon tea is also called Low Tea since it was enjoyed on low tables with comfortable chairs and sofas in the drawing room.

High Tea, on the other hand, was a working class family evening meal or supper. High Tea time was between 5:00 pm & 7:00 pm after the working class came home from work. The menu consisted of much heartier dishes meant to nourish after a long day at work. High Tea was served at a high dining table where supper was eaten and thus, the name.

Cream Tea is a simple delight consisting only of scones (with clotted cream and jam) and tea.

Another interesting argument has to do with the scone course and it is one that continues to divide people in Britain. The debate is about how you put the jam and clotted cream onto the scones. Do you put the jam on first or do you put the clotted cream on first? The two counties from which clotted cream originated are Devon and Cornwall and they vehemently disagree on this topic. In Devon, the cream is spread on the scone first followed by the jam. In Cornwall, they say the jam must go on first. Here is a summary of their respective arguments.

Cornwall – jam first

  • It is easier to spread the jam on first and then add cream.
  • The jam does not slide off the cream.
  • You can taste the cream better.
  • You usually put cream on the top of other desserts, e.g., pie, fruit, cake.

Devon – cream first

  • The cream is like butter for the scone.
  • The jam will lie flatter on the cream, making it a bit easier to eat.
  • You are at less of a risk of getting cream on your face.
  • It originates from when jam was expensive so you would just put a small amount on top.

A final topic is just what clotted cream is. Authentic clotted cream is made in either Devon or Cornwall, England. It is made by heating unpasteurized cow’s milk for many hours, which causes the cream to rise to the surface and “clot.” The historians say that clotted cream was originally made by farmers to reduce spoilage. As they did not have refrigeration, heating the milk was a way of separating the cream from the watery whey, which is where the bacteria were found. This also produced a thick and rich cream that became very popular.

Just as champagne cannot be called that unless it is from the Champagne region of France, products can only be labeled as “Cornish clotted cream” if they are made with milk from Cornwall cows and are a minimum of 55% butterfat. The farmers tell us that it is the grass eaten by Cornish cows that gives the clotted cream its yellow color.

Clotted cream should be distinguished from other dairy products. If the cream is allowed to separate naturally – without the application of heat – you get different products. If you allow the milk to separate just once, it produces “single cream”. If there is a second separation, it produces “double cream.” These products contain less fat and, therefore, are thinner and have a lighter taste.

You may wonder how these dairy items compare to American products. In the US, our heavy cream is 36-40% fat, whipping cream is 30-36%, and light (table) cream is 18-30%. Half-and-half is a mixture of cream and whole milk. It contains 10-12% fat. The British double cream is 48% fat, whipping cream is 35% fat, and single cream is 18%. As we noted above, clotted cream is at least 55% fat but some is up to 65%.

What is your preference? Do you prefer a traditional Afternoon Tea or a simple Cream Tea. I know when my husband and I lived in England and were visiting different villages, we loved to find a tea house and sit down for a relaxing Cream Tea. It was a wonderful delight!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Baking Soda & its non-baking uses

I am sure we all have a box of baking soda in our pantries. Mine sits in a cupboard that contains most of my baking supplies – flour, sugar, baking powder, extracts, etc. However, baking soda has culinary uses beyond baking and that is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate, a naturally alkaline substance. Therefore, it raises the pH of foods to which we add it. Below are some ways that chefs like to use baking soda in the kitchen.

Leavening (chemical)

When combined with an acidic ingredient (buttermilk, yogurt), it produces CO2 gas bubbles, causing the batter or dough to rise. Because this chemical reaction occurs immediately upon moistening the baking soda, it should be mixed with the other dry ingredients before adding any liquid. Also, the batter should be placed in the oven immediately after combining or you will lose the lift it provides.

Color changes


Baking soda is well known for aiding in browning. Acidic items will be paler whereas alkaline ones will be darker. I was told in culinary school that if you see a recipe that just has a small amount of baking soda in it, it is probably there not for its leavening effect but for increased browning. It turns out there is a scientific reason for that.

To explain it, let me discuss two different but related reactions we often see in the kitchen – caramelization and the Maillard reaction. The Maillard reaction is also known as the “browning reaction”. It is a chemical action that takes place in food between sugar and amino acids as heat is applied. That is what is happening when you get that brown color on your steaks or other food items.

To caramelize something is to heat it until the sugar liquefies into a clear syrup and then continuing to cook it to stages of browning. It is similar to the Maillard reaction but note that it only involves sugar while Maillard is both sugar and amino acids.

As the pH of the environment rises, both of these reactions proceed at an accelerated rate leading to enhanced browning. Boiling bagels in water with baking soda added to it is just one example. A tiny pinch of baking soda added to veggies while roasting or sauteing accelerates the rate of these reactions, resulting in better browning.


The pigment anthocyanin is what gives the purple color to purple cabbage, purple asparagus, etc. It will turn blue or green in the presence of baking soda. (Conversely, the color becomes more red or pink in an acidic environment.) For a more detailed explanation of this along with photos and a fun experiment to do with your kids, see this article from Decoding Delicious.


Baking soda and its alkaline effect can actually help set the green color found in foods with chlorophyll.


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.

Softening effect

Pectin is a carbohydrate that occurs naturally in the cell walls of fruits and vegetables and is what gives them structure but will be broken down when cooking, resulting in softening.

Adding a pinch of baking soda creates an alkaline environment that breaks down the pectin and weakens the cell walls. This allows them to cook and soften more quickly.

Examples include veggies and dried beans. Adding baking soda to the latter can dramatically cut down the cooking time. One caution from experts is not to add more than ⅛ teaspoon per pound of soaked beans. This helps prevent developing an unpleasant taste that can occur with excessive baking soda. Soaking the beans overnight in a mixture of water and baking soda will help speed up the cooking time and lead to better texture. This is especially true if you are going to use them to make a great batch of hummus

The process of sauteing or caramelizing alliums (onions, shallots) can be sped up with the addition of just a bit of baking soda but too much can be detrimental to the final texture. Just ¼ teaspoon for every pound of sliced onions is recommended.

Polenta is a dish that should be creamy but starts with gritty cornmeal. Water must enter the cells causing the starch granules to swell and burst. Baking soda breaks down the pectin in those cell walls allowing the water to enter in a much shorter time.

Potatoes are wonderful when roasted. To do this, check out this recipe from Serious Eats, where the potatoes are par-boiled in water along with salt and baking soda. As J. Kenji López-Alt explains, “the alkaline water helps the exteriors of the potatoes break down more, creating much more of the starchy slurry that leads to an extra-crisp exterior. About a half teaspoon of baking soda for two quarts of water was the right amount.”

Although this recipe is highly recommended, not all find it lives up to the hype. When put it to the test, they were not able to duplicate the promised result of dark and very crispy potatoes.

Tempering Acidity

Baking soda has long been used to tone down the acidity of a dish such as tomato soup or even coffee. Different brands of canned tomatoes vary when it comes to acidity, but just ¼ teaspoon of baking soda can help to neutralize this excess acidity without impacting their texture or overall flavor.

Turning Spaghetti Into Ramen Noodles

Here is one last unusual use of baking soda, given to us by Serious Eats. That is turning angel hair pasta into ramen noodles. Ramen dough is said to include an alkaline mineral component called kansui, which gives the noodles their yellow hue and springy texture. According to Serious Eats, you can get somewhat similar results by adding baking soda to a boiling pot of angel hair. If you care to know more, see this post.

Did you know that baking soda could do all these things in your kitchen? And, that doesn’t even address non-culinary uses such as cleaning. Just make sure the baking soda you wish to use in your food, especially for leavening purposes, is fresh. Leave the older box for other purposes.

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Coriander & Cilantro – are they the same thing?

Last week’s Cooking Tip was about the wonderful spice, Cumin. Coriander is another spice that is often used in combination with cumin. That is why I decided to make it the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Just as with cumin, coriander is an ancient spice. Seeds have been found in the tombs of Pharaohs and history says that the Roman legions carried it as they progressed through Europe, using it to flavor their breads. Coriander also has its own mention in the Bible, comparing the taste of manna to that of coriander. (Exodus 16:31 & Numbers 11:7)

Coriander is part of the parsley and carrot family and is native to the Mediterranean and the Middle East. It is now grown in Brazil, Canada, Eastern Europe, Holland, India, North Africa, Russia, South America, South Asia and the US.

There are two varieties – Indian and Moroccan. Indian coriander seeds are larger and more golden as compared to the smaller, darker brown Moroccan variety. India tends to consume what it grows and so, what we have in the stores is usually Moroccan or European.

Coriander is one of the few spices that is completely edible from its roots to its leaves to its seeds. The seeds are small, about the size of peppercorns with a pale, creamy brown color. The herby leaves are green and have an appearance similar to Italian parsley.

In the UK and other European countries, coriander refers to both the herb and the spice whereas in the US, we use the word coriander for the spice and cilantro for the herb.

Besides being found in whole and ground form, coriander is also found in many spice mixtures such as curry powders and garam masala. As I mentioned above, coriander is often combined with cumin.

Many say the flavor differences between Moroccan and Indian coriander are minimal at most. Others feel that the Moroccan variety has a sweet, woodsy, spicy fragrance with a warm flavor whereas the Indian coriander has a sweeter and stronger aroma with more nuttiness and citrus notes.

On their own, the seeds are highly aromatic, warm and nutty with a hint of citrus. When left whole, the flavor is floral, citrusy and sweet. When ground, the roasted nuttiness comes out.

The flavor of the leaves is fresh, clean and bright unless you are one of those people who think it tastes like soap.

Coriander and/or cilantro is used in many cuisines such as Egyptian, Latin American, Mexican, Indian, Middle Eastern and Asian. The leaves/roots are especially used in Thai curries, Vietnamese pho, and Chinese stir fries as well as in dips, sauces, dressings, salsas and chutneys.

So, there you are. Coriander is another one of those spices that certainly deserves a place in your pantry, alongside cumin. Is it in yours?

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Cumin – a perfect cold weather spice!

In prior Cooking Tips, I have discussed a few different spices such as Cardamom, Cinnamon, Oregano, Paprika, Pepper, Saffron, Salt and Sumac. Some of those spices you probably use every day and others only occasionally or not at all. In this Cooking Tip, I would like to tell you about a spice that I use very frequently and I am wondering if that is the same for you. That spice is Cumin.

Cumin is the seed from an herb in the parsley family. It is an ancient spice having been used by the Romans and even mentioned in the Bible (Isaiah 28: 25, 27 & Matthew 23:23). It is also said to have been used as a preservative in the mummification process.

It was originally cultivated in Iran and the Mediterranean region and was introduced to the Americas by Portuguese and Spanish colonists.

Today, it is grown in many countries including Afghanistan, Chile, China, Egypt, India, Iran, Mexico, Morocco, Pakistan, Syria, Turkey and Uzbekistan. India is the main producer and consumer of cumin, accounting for about 70% of the world’s production and 63% of total consumption.

Cumin seeds are small, light brown and grooved along the surface. There is also a black cumin, which grows in Iran. The seeds are smaller in size with a sweeter aroma. It is not a good substitute for regular cumin. Cumin can be found in whole form as well as ground. See this Cooking Tip for the pros/cons of whole vs ground spices. In Morocco, ground cumin is kept on the table and used to season meats much as we would salt and pepper.

In our stores, you should be able to find both whole and ground cumin. You will also find that cumin is present in a number of different spice blends such as taco seasoning, achiote, garam masala, Baharat, chili powder and curry powders.

It is a very aromatic spice due to its high content of essential oils. The flavor is warm and earthy and slightly pungent and this flavor profile lend itself well to Mexican, Tex-Mex and Indian dishes. As with many spices, dry-frying or toasting the seeds before grinding will bring out the flavor.

Store in an airtight container in a dry, cool area away from light. The ground form is best used within six months whereas the whole seeds can last up to a year.

Add it to dishes where you want a warm, earthy flavor such as in soups, stews, meats and veggies. Vegetarians like to use it as it gives some of that savory/meaty flavor to their dishes. It is a necessary ingredient of my favorite chili recipe along with other dishes that have a southwest, Indian or Moroccan flair.

According to McCormick, it is currently one of the top 10 spices sold in the US. Is it one of the top 10 spices in your pantry?