Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Nonstick sprays – should you use them?

Most of us probably have a can of nonstick spray in our pantries and some of us will also have a can of baking spray with flour. Should we be using these sprays? If so, when should we use them and when should we not use them? Are there any alternatives? All these questions are the subject of this Cooking Tip.

These sprays are oil-based. For example, one of the most popular sprays, PAM, contains “canola oil, coconut oil, palm oil, soy lecithin (prevents sticking), dimethyl silicone (anti foaming agent) and a propellant”. The same company does make products that contain only one type of oil such as olive oil, canola oil, avocado oil or coconut oil rather than a mixture of oils. Of course, there are many other companies that also make similar products.

Baking sprays are different than cooking nonstick sprays. In the former, there is the addition of flour. This is said to decrease the chances that baked goods will stick to the pan. According to America’s Test Kitchen, the flour particles create an “extra gap between the metal and the pastry”. This helps with release but also (according to ATK) insulates the metal so it doesn’t cook as quicky, an advantage for some delicate baked goods.

Those that advocate for cooking sprays will say that it gives you more control over your oil consumption. A spray covers the entire surface of a pan much more easily than liquid oil while using less oil overall. Be aware, though, that these sprays are not calorie-free. Although the label may say a serving has zero calories, a serving size is a spray lasting only a fraction of a second. In typical usage, it would probably add about 30 calories.

Another use for nonstick sprays is for spraying your measuring cups/spoons before measuring out sticky ingredients such as honey or molasses. Due to the spray, these ingredients quickly and completely slide off. Similarly, you can give a spritz on your cheese grater before grating. A quick spray on your pan will also hold parchment paper in place.

Because of the flour, the baking spray is not recommended for cooking uses. It should be reserved for baking pans. America’s Test Kitchen tested different products on Bundt pans and found that a baking spray with flour worked better than plain nonstick sprays and also worked better than traditional greasing and flouring the pan.

Critics of these sprays point to the additives in the can and they say there are health concerns with these additives. They also bring up that many oils, including those in the sprays, are derived from GMO (genetically modified) crops. If you wish to avoid these, look carefully at the label to see whether there is a non-GMO seal. Some outlets also feel there are possible negative environmental effects from the propellants and antifoaming agents found in these cans.

No matter your opinion of these sprays, there is one time you should never use them. That is with nonstick pans. Such pans are typically coated with Teflon, a synthetic chemical. If you use sprays on top of this coating, it will build up and it is practically impossible to remove. This actually ends up ruining the nonstick quality of these pans. If you feel you need some extra insurance when using your nonstick pans, opt for oil or butter.

If you want an alternative to sprays, the easiest thing is to just use a liquid oil or butter. Some companies have introduced sprays that do not have the propellants. PAM is one such brand but their sprays do contain grain alcohol, which they say is for a uniform spray, and soy lecithin to prevent sticking. Whole Foods advertises their 365 brand as having “no additives or propellants”. If you search online, you can also find other brands.

You can also buy a pump spray bottle and use your own oil. Although these do allow to you to use the oil already in the pantry and do not have any other additives, none of them are going to work as well as a typical can using soy lecithin and a propellant. Cooks Illustrated tested a number of them and rated the Norpro Sprayer Mister as the best. Although not high on Cooks Illustrated list, other reviewers liked the Misto sprayer although they varied on which model they preferred. You might have to try several bottles until you find one you like. That may not be something you want to do as they can cost anywhere from $8 to $30. Make sure you know the return policy from the store before purchasing one.

There are also those who recommend making your own nonstick mixture for baking purposes. One such recommendation is to combine ½ cup vegetable oil, ½ cup butter/margarine and ½ cup flour. Other recipes call for vegetable shortening in place of the butter. When Food 52 put it to the test, they had mixed results. Their take-away was that it worked well for layer cakes or other recipes calling for the butter and flour technique. Here is the entire article if you wish to read it.

I have both nonstick cooking spray and baking spray in my pantry. I must say that I almost never use the nonstick cooking spray for cooking applications. Rather, I use oil or butter, depending on the recipe. I also like to oil my food rather than the pan as it leads to less splattering. I do use the spray products for baking applications if they are called for. What about you? What do you use?

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Mesquite Trees – so many uses!

A friend and Cooking Tip reader who recently moved to Texas sent me some information about mesquite trees and possible culinary uses. I have written another Cooking Tip on Foraging but it did not include anything about Mesquite Since it is an interesting tree, I decided to make it the subject of this Cooking Tip. As with any type of foraging, consult an expert before consuming anything you forage.

Mesquite trees commonly grow in the southwest part of the US. They have long been used by native Americans for food, beverages and medicine as well as non-culinary purposes. Long, green pods emerge in the Spring that turn to tan/reddish and become dry and brittle as they ripen.

Different parts of the tree are used for different purposes. The pods are said to be very sweet due to the presence of fructose. This type of sugar is said to have a low glycemic index as well as not requiring insulin to process.

One of the uses that many of us have probably heard of is as a type of smoke flavoring. It became the wood of choice for grilling in the 1980s.

The pods/seeds can be ground into meal that can be used as a type of gluten-free flour with a significant amount of protein and fiber. The flavor is described as sweet and nutty. It can be used in baking muffins, pancakes, tortillas and bread. Chefs will also add it to soups and sauces as well as meat and veggie dishes. Although you may have to use an online source, you can purchase commercially made mesquite flour.

The flowers can be collected and brewed as a tea to treat stomach aches or as an appetite stimulant. The beans can also be roasted and ground to make a type of coffee.

There is a clear sap that can be collected from mesquite trees. The sap is sweet and edible and has been used in a medicinal way for stomach aches or sore throats. There is also a black-colored sap that has been used in preparations to treat male pattern baldness, as an antiseptic wash and for soothing chapped lips and sunburns.

Some say the roots can be chewed to treat toothaches.

There you go – if you are into foraging and you are live in an area with mesquite trees, you may want to seek out an expert and give it a try. If you do, let me know!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients · Techniques

Homemade Pasta — why bother?

Do you make your own pasta? Or, do you purchase it? Making homemade pasta can be incredibly satisfying but, you won’t be able to re-create all types of pasta in your own kitchen. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Making pasta dough is not difficult and the ingredient list is short: flour, water, salt and eggs. As you will read below, the only one of these ingredients that is always used is flour. The others may or may not be used depending on the type of pasta you are making. Before we delve into the specifics of the ingredients, let me talk about what you want in the finished pasta dough.

There are two components to a good pasta dough – elasticity and plasticity. The former means the dough can be stretched and it will bounce back, making it easier to knead. Plasticity means the dough can be molded into a shape and it stays put. Many feel that the key to a good pasta dough is the right combination of elasticity and plasticity. This is achieved by having the right amount of protein and hydration in your flour. The proteins in flour are glutenin and gliadin, which when kneaded develop into a gluten network. Certain flours take more kneading than others to achieve the same level of gluten development.

You also want pasta that is firm enough to stand up to cooking without falling apart or sticking together into a ball. When done, it should be al dente, firm to the bite. This firmness is more easily achieved with a high protein flour.

Finally, you want a dough that doesn’t crack or get brittle when kneaded.


Most will agree that there is no single perfect flour for pasta making. It depends on what type of pasta you want to end up with. (See this Tip for an explanation of the different types of flour.) Most importantly, you want flour with a protein content of between 10 & 15%. This is to ensure there is enough gluten for the dough to be able to stretch without breaking while giving the eater the “bite” we like in a good pasta.

In any discussion of flour for pasta making, you will undoubtedly see the following flours.

AP flour

This flour is nice because we all have it in our pantries and it is less expensive than the specialty flours. Another plus it has a neutral flavor. Depending on the brand, it has a decent protein content but it does take more kneading to get the correct gluten network.

Because it has a fine texture, AP flour is good for making a soft pasta. The dough will be strong and elastic, which makes it good for making different shapes.

There are some downsides to using AP flour. It is easy to overcook and get mushy pasta. Pasta made from this is not great for drying but rather should be cooked fresh.

00 flour

This is a very finely ground flour with a mild flavor. It is the most common flour found in Italian households for making egg pasta by hand.

Some 00 flours may be lower in protein but not always. It depends on what kind of wheat it is ground from. If you do have a lower protein one, it may not be suitable for making pasta without eggs. It needs the egg to hold it together and give the pasta its toothy bite.

It makes a soft, tender pasta that holds up better if overcooked a bit. It is great for softer pasta shapes such as tagliatelle and ravioli.


Semolina is made from durum wheat but is not the same as durum flour. Semolina is more coarsely ground than durum flour and is good for thicker, coarser kinds of pasta, especially pasta that you want to hold onto a lot of sauce. It needs no egg to make the dough.

It has a very high gluten content, which leads to a firm texture. It has less elasticity than AP but much more plasticity. So, it is good for extruded pastas such as penne and macaroni – they don’t lose their shape when cooked.

Pasta mix

Some people like to combine some of the above flours to achieve the result they want. One typical make-at-home mix would be the following.

  • ½# (225 gm) unbleached AP flour
  • ¼# (115 gm) durum flour
  • ¼# (115 gm) semolina

King Arthur Baking Company sells a bag of “Pasta Flour Blend” and it is a blend of the above three flours. As of this writing, a 3# bag sells for $12.95.


Recipes for most fresh pasta will call for eggs. The eggs not only add moisture but also help with binding the dough together. As mentioned above, if you are using semolina as your flour, you probably do not need eggs. Dried pasta that you buy in the store will not be made with eggs.

Recipes will vary on how many eggs are called for. Some will call for whole eggs, some for yolks and some a combination. Here is a link to an interesting article on Serious Eats where the author tests all sorts of different versions. I recommend trying a few recipes and seeing what you like.

Now that you have your ingredients, how do you put them all together? The classic way to make pasta dough is by hand on a countertop. You mound up your flour and make a well in the middle. In the well place your eggs and salt. With a fork, you carefully start working the flour into the egg. As the mixture gets thicker, most pasta makers will switch from the fork to a bench scraper and use that to continue to fold the dough incorporating more flour as you go. When you have incorporated enough flour, you will start kneading the dough. As explained above, this is where the gluten network develops and certain flours (such as AP) will require more kneading to get that right balance of elasticity and plasticity.

Some people like to use a food processor. Put your flour and salt in the bowl and process to combine. Add the eggs and process for 30-60 seconds, until it comes together into a ball. If it doesn’t come together, you may want to add a teaspoon of water. Put dough on the counter and finish with hand-kneading. Alternatively, some experts recommend taking it out of the processor before it pulls together into a ball. When it forms into small clumps, take it out and finish by hand. Since the processor does quite a bit of kneading, you will not to do your hand kneading for as long.

No matter what method you use to make the dough, it should be wrapped in plastic and rested before proceeding with rolling it out. This allows the dough ball to fully hydrate as well as giving the gluten strands time to relax, which will make it much easier to roll.

After resting, the dough is ready to form into your desired pasta shape. Using a pasta machine to roll out your dough will give you superior results. You can try rolling it out with a rolling pin although you probably won’t get it as smooth and thin as you would with a machine. Some sources recommend recipes that they created specifically for hand rolling. If hand rolling, you would then cut it using a knife or a hand pasta cutter or stamp. If using a pasta machine, it usually comes with attachments for cutting strips such as fettuccini.

There are many shapes that you can make by hand. See this fun video from Bon Appetit that shows a pasta expert making 29 different shapes by hand although some did require some additional simple tools.

I mentioned in the beginning that you won’t be able to re-create all pasta types in your kitchen. Although you can certainly try using some of the techniques shown in the above video, it will be very time consuming with a large learning curve. Pasta companies use machines that push the dough through metal dies to create all the different shapes as well as a very carefully controlled drying process. That is why there will always be a place for dried pasta on our shelves.

I do not make homemade pasta as often as I should. When I do, it is primarily to make ravioli or lasagna sheets such as the spinach pasta sheets used in this traditional lasagna recipe. It is a fair amount of work but oh so worth it!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Pasta Shapes

Quick, if I asked you to write down all the pasta shapes you can think of, how many would be on your list? I would suspect the average person would write down between 5 and 10 different shapes. How many different shapes do you have in your pantry? My local supermarket has over 25 different shapes. Why do you even need multiple shapes? Afterall, aren’t they all just pasta? That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Depending on the source you look at, there are between 350 and 600 different pasta shapes. There is no way I can cover all of these. Rather, I would like to categorize them, give you examples in each category and how to use them.

Soup Pastapastina

This pasta type is great added to broths or soups. They vary in size from very small for light soups to slightly larger shapes for more robust soups. Probably the most common in our stores will be Acini Di Pepe. It is also the smallest, sometimes compared in size to peppercorns. You may also occasionally find Alfabeti or alphabet pasta. This is pasta made into the shape of numbers and letters, especially appealing to children. A third one is Conchigliette, little sea shells. Finally, there is the easy to find Orzo, which can be used both in soups and in pasta dishes.

Long Pastapasta lunga

This is the type of pasta that I suspect most of us have in our pantries. It can vary from very fine, Capelli D’Angelo (angel hair) to the ubiquitous Spaghetti to the slightly fatter Linguini to even larger in the form of Bucatini. One of the largest tubes is known as Candele as it resembles candles. The thinnest forms are best served with delicate sauces with the larger ones suited to heartier meat sauces.

Tube Pasta

Tubular-shaped pasta generally have thicker walls, making them great for capturing thicker sauces whether it be tomato, meat or cheese. Some tube-shaped pastas have ridged surfaces that help them hold onto olive-oil based sauces. This type of sauce tends to just run off from smooth-surfaced pasta. A tube shape pasta that is easy to find is Fusilli, which looks like corkscrews. The very common Penne is another one although the diameter can vary. One of the largest tube pastas is Rigatoni, which we often use in baked pasta dishes.

Ribbon Pasta

The most common is probably Fettuccini, little ribbons. Other ones that may be in your supermarket are Tagliatelle and Pappardelle. The former is very thin but slightly wider than Fettucini. Pappardelle is wider still. In the fresh form, it tends to have fluted edges whereas the dry variety normally has a straight edge.

Shell pasta

This common in our stores and can vary from the tiny Conchigliette mentioned above to a medium size to a giant size. The medium shells are great for tomato and meat sauces whereas the larger ones work well when stuffed and baked.


A cute bowtie or butterfly shaped pasta. Serve with simple oil-based, butter or tomato sauces.

Ruote (rotelle)

This translates to wheel and this unique shape looks like a wheel with spokes. If you find them, they will sometimes be in a package of three colors. The spokes are great for trapping meat and cheese-based sauces.

Sheet pasta

we couldn’t make lasagna without it!

Stuffed Pasta

We are all familiar with Ravioli and Tortellini but you may also run across Capelletti (little hats) and Cannelloni (large reeds). All of these are stuffed with some type of filling but vary in size and shape.

According to Leite’s Culinaria, there is one basic rule for pairing pasta with the correct sauce. “Take into account the heaviness of the noodles compared to the weightiness of the sauce. You want the two to be balanced. Big, hearty noodles are made to stand up to big, hearty sauces, whereas thinner and more delicate noodles need to be tossed with lighter and more delicate sauces.” That rule leads to the following recommendations.

  • Long, skinny pasta such as spaghetti and angel hair are best with a light tomato sauce.
  • Long flat noodles such as fettucine and linguine will stand up to a richer sauce such as an alfredro sauce or even a Bolognese if you are using the wider versions.
  • Tube pastas such as penne and rigatoni are great in baked pasta dishes, richer tomato sauces or in everyone’s favorite – macaroni and cheese.
  • Shapes such as farfalle and fusilli have curves that are perfect for capturing creamy sauces.
  • Stuffed pastas are best with sauces that do not overpower the filling. Serve these with a brown butter sauce, some delicious olive oil or a light pesto.
  • Pastina or soup pastas are meant to give a bit of texture to soups.

So, yes, all of these are pasta but they do give you great variety in your pasta dishes. Just try them in appropriate sauces to highlight their uniqueness.

Cooking Tips · Ingredients · Techniques

Flour — so much to know!

When you go to the baking isle in the grocery store, you are often met with a myriad of flour choices. Not only are there a number of different brands but there are also different types of flours. In this Cooking Tip, I will attempt to help you navigate these choices. For this Tip, I am only going to discuss white wheat flour, not whole grain varieties or gluten-free alternatives.

In the US, we name our flours based on the recommended usage such as bread flour, cake flour, pastry flour and all-purpose flour. The differences between these flours is the protein (predominantly gluten) content due to what wheat variety is used in the milling of the flour. Even among these usage categories, protein content can vary from brand to brand or even within different shipments of the same brand. One company that pledges to always have the same protein content no matter where or when you buy their flour is King Arthur Baking Company. King Arthur will also list the protein percentage on the package whereas most other brands will not do so. You can get an idea by looking at the amount of protein on the nutrition label but that is not as straightforward as you would think. The government requires the company to round the amount of protein and list that amount rather than the exact amount. So, any protein content between 3.5 and 4.4 grams would be listed as 4 grams of protein. However, a flour with 3.5 grams would have a protein percentage of 11.6% and 4.4 grams would be 14.6%. Although the government may think that is the same, in terms of baking, those two flours would act differently.

Cake & pastry flours have the lowest protein content (7-9%) and are milled to a fine consistency. They are what gives the tenderness to baked products. (See this Tip that explains why these flours may not be the best choice for bakers in high altitude.)

All-purpose (AP) flour has a protein content in the middle: 10-12%. If you only want one flour in your cupboard, this is the one to choose. Because it has a moderate protein content, you can use it for almost any purpose. You won’t necessarily get the same result as you would if using one of the other flours, but it will most likely be acceptable.

The type of flour with one of the highest protein contents (12-16%) is Bread flour. This is why when bread dough is kneaded, the gluten is developed leading to the structure and chewiness of artisan breads.

Other countries name their flours differently. I will only discuss Italy and France, two countries very well-known for excellent baking. Most European countries name their flours according to the amount of refinement. To explain this, let me review that there are 3 components to a kernel of wheat.

  • Bran – the fiber-rich outer layer.
  • Germ – the core of the seed that is high in fat.
  • Endosperm – the interior layer that is composed of carbohydrates and protein and is the largest percentage of the kernel.

Flour refinement consists of removing the bran and germ and leaving just the endosperm. There is a relationship between refinement and strength. The less refined the flour, the stronger it will be. However, the amount of protein (strength) also relates to the type of wheat used in making the flour and the season it is grown. A full discussion of this is beyond the scope of this Cooking Tip.

In Italy, the flours are named according to the level of refinement.

  • Type 00 – sometimes known as “double zero” flour, this type must contain at least 99.45% endosperm. It is recommended for pastry and pasta making.
  • Type 0 – protein content is between 10-12%, making it more versatile.
  • Type 1 – very similar to Type 0 but it does have a coarser grind. Both types 0 and 1 are used for everyday pastries, bread and pizza.
  • Type 2 – with a protein content of 10-13%, this is what we would call white whole wheat and would be used in more rustic products.

The French have their own labeling system. It is a numbering system where the larger number represents a higher amount of whole grain.

  • Type 45 – the “whitest” of flours, it is best for cakes, croissants, brioche and scones. It is similar to Italian 00 flour and US cake/pastry flour. Protein content is about 8.5-9.5%
  • Type 55 – great for bread, croissants and baguettes. It is the most versatile of French flours with a protein content of 10-12% and compared to Italian type 0 and US all-purpose flour.
  • Type 65 – similar to T55 but with a rougher feel, making it great for artisan breads. It is similar to Italian type 1 and bread flour with a protein content of 12-13.5%
  • Type 80 – in between white and whole grain, similar to Italian type 1 and US high-gluten flour.
  • Type 110 – great for bread baking and close to Italian type 2, white whole wheat flour.
  • Type 150 – whole grain flour, similar to Italian type 2 and whole grain flour. Protein content of 12-13.5%.

True artisan bread makers also pay attention to something called the W-value of different flours. It is related to the strength of the flours. A discussion is beyond the purpose of this Tip but here is a video that talks about it if you are interested.

Who knew there was so much to know about flour? Believe me, I only scratched the surface of the topic of flour. I only hope that not only will it help those of you who are novice bakers but also will stir interest if you are interested in trying French or Italian flours.

Cooking Tips

Culinary Misnomers

I was speaking to a friend the other day and she mentioned she was going to make a German Chocolate Cake for her husband’s birthday. As we were discussing this and looking at recipes, we discovered that the name was a bit of a misnomer. In this Cooking Tip, I will explain that and other confusing names in the culinary world.

German Chocolate Cake

The correct name is “German’s Chocolate Cake”. It has nothing to do with Germany. The story starts with an English-American baker, Samuel German, who worked for the Baker’s Chocolate Company. In their employ in the 1800s, he created a new type of baking chocolate that contained more sugar than the average semi-sweet baking chocolate. It was named Baker’s German’s Sweet Chocolate after its creator. Then, in the 1950s, the Dallas Morning News published a chocolate cake recipe from Mrs. George Clay (Calay), a Texas homemaker. Because she used this German’s Sweet Chocolate, she titled her recipe “German’s Chocolate Cake”. The recipe was picked up by the Baker’s company and widely distributed. Publishers subsequently changed the name from “German’s” to “German”.

French Fries

These tasty snacks did not originate in France. Most food historians feel that these were first made in Belgium. The story is that the residents of some poorer French-speaking regions of Belgium commonly fried up tiny fish from a river. When the river froze over during the winter, they cut up potatoes in the same size/shape of the fish and fried them. It is speculated that they are called “French” after the process of julienning the potatoes, a method of cutting up food that originated in France.


This well-known cereal from Post does not contain grapes or nuts but is made from wheat and barley. There are different explanations for the name. One claims that the name comes from the nutty taste of the cereal and the belief that glucose (grape sugar) is formed during the baking process. A different explanation is merely that the cereal resembles grape seeds.

Long Island Iced Tea

This cocktail is made from vodka, gin, rum, triple sec and/or tequila along with mixers. The original recipe contained no tea at all although today some bartenders do use iced tea. One story is that the drink was created by a bartender on Long Island and it was named for this location. An alternative explanation places the origins in a Tennessee community called Long Island during prohibition. The name “Long Island Iced Tea” appeared very innocent during this time.

Refried beans

Although this name implies that the beans have been fried more than once, they are typically only fried once. Some will argue that the name is appropriate as they are cooked in water first and then fried. However, that is not the way most of us would understand the term “refried”. A better explanation has to do with the translation from Spanish to English. The Spanish name is Frijoles Refritos. The prefix of “re” is often added to words for emphasis. Therefore, refritos means “very fried” or “well fried”. However, when translated to English, the “re” takes on a different meaning, which in this case, leads to a culinary misnomer.

Plum Pudding

This is a classic British Christmas dessert. From the name, you would expect plums to be in the ingredient list. You would be incorrect as there are no plums in it. There are, however, prunes, the dried form of plums along with other dried fruit.

Pork Butt

The names of meat cuts can be confusing and this one is no exception. It does not come from the hindquarters of the pig as you might expect. Rather, it comes from the shoulder area. So, why is it called “butt”? The explanation is that in colonial New England, butchers packed these cuts into large barrels, called butts, for storage and transportation. The name of the cut then took on this misnomer of a name.

Rocky Mountain Oysters

This one is probably fairly well-known. These deep fried bites are not oysters at all. Rather, they are made from the testicles of bulls, pigs or sheep.


If you are expecting a bread that tastes sweet, you would be wrong. These are made from the pancreas and thymus gland from young calves, pigs or lambs. The name might have partially come from the fact that organ meats are typically rich and somewhat sweet in flavor. Along with the fact that the Old English word for meat was brǣd, you get “sweetbread”.

These are just a few of what I am calling Culinary Misnomers. There are many more names that might be confusing due to the country’s language. For example, while Americans have a specific idea of what a “biscuit” is, the British use the same term to mean cookies. When we think of pudding, we think of a soft and creamy dessert. In Britain, it can mean any sweet dessert. Then, there are names that seem to give you no idea of what the food is. In this category are “Bubble & Squeak”, “Ants on a Log” and “Eton Mess”. Do you have a favorite Culinary Misnomer or just strange food name?

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Gooseberries — an uncommon fruit

My husband just started harvesting Gooseberries – the photo is a sampling of his harvest. Gooseberries are one of those fruits that we do not see much in the US. The typical supermarket is probably not going to carry them except as a canned item and then, they might only be available around the holidays. You might find them in a good farmer’s market although I suspect that will also be hit or miss.

Although gooseberries are fairly popular in Britain, most Americans have probably never tried them. One of the reasons is undoubtedly because until the 1960s, there had been a federal ban on growing them as well as their relative, currants.

In the early 1800s, they were extremely popular in Europe and this popularity also brought them to the US. In the early 1900s, growing of gooseberries and currants was banned due to a fungal disease known as “white pine blister rust”. Although the disease does minimal damage to the fruits, it is fatal to the white pine trees. As more disease-resistant gooseberry/currant plants were propagated, the federal ban was shifted to the individual states in the mid-1960s. Most states once again allowed the production although there are still some states where it is banned, mostly those in the east where white pines are an important part of the economy. The only state-by-state listing I could find was from 2015. It is recommended to be sure to check with your local extension office for the latest guidance.

There are two main types of gooseberry plants and both are of the genus Ribes.

  • American gooseberry (Ribes hirtellum) – This variety produces smaller fruits that are more resistant to mildew. The plants are usually healthier and more productive. It is native to northeastern and north-central US and the adjacent Canadian regions.
  • European gooseberry (Ribes uva-crispa) – This variety yields larger fruit that is also said to be more flavorful. It is native to the Caucasus Mountains and North Africa.
  • Other plants that use the name gooseberry but are distinctively different include Cape gooseberry, Chinese gooseberry (kiwi) and Indian gooseberry.

The time for finding fresh gooseberries in your market (or harvesting them yourself), is from early June to early August. Early in the season, the fruit will be green with a veined skin. They will be firm and very tart. These are not normally eaten raw but rather cooked so they can be sweetened and then used in sweet or savory dishes. Those that ripen a bit later produce softer and sweeter fruit that can be yellow or red and are good eaten raw.

If you have the good fortune of finding fresh gooseberries, they do require just a bit of prep work. After rinsing them, they should be topped and tailed with a scissors. They are one of the most shelf-stable berries and will keep in your refrigerator in a covered container for at least a week and possibly up to three weeks. For longer storage, they freeze extremely well.

What can you do with them? As I mentioned, they can be used in both sweet and savory applications. As everyone’s palate is different and the actual gooseberries may vary in tartness, getting them to the proper sweetness is something you need to do bit by bit. One recommendation is to start with two parts gooseberries to one part sugar and then adjust to your taste.

Here are a few ideas.

  • Jam
  • Jelly
  • Compote
  • Chutney
  • Pie
  • Ice cream and sorbet
  • Beverages such as lemonade, cordials or cocktails.
  • Trifle
  • British Fool
  • They pair extremely well with seasonal fruit such as elderflowers and strawberries.

My husband’s preferred way is to make them into a gooseberry pie. This recipe from a working farm in New York called Beekman 1802 uses fresh ginger and orange in the flavoring and is delicious.

Have you tried gooseberries? Where do you get them? Do you grow them? What is your favorite way to use them? If you have never tried them, I encourage you to seek them out although I must admit it may be difficult unless you have a wonderful farmer husband as I do!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Spice Blends – Buy or Make?

Spices are such a necessary component in our cooking and baking. Continuing to expand your knowledge of spices is one way to improve your culinary creations. I have written a prior Tip on spices in general and I have written some other Tips on particular spices. In this Tip, I would like to discuss some of the more common Spice Blends.

If you ask ten different chefs for a list of their favorite spice blends, you would get ten different lists although I dare say there would be some commonalities. I am going to try to focus on those commonalities to help you understand the world of spice blends.

Spice blends are just what the name says – mixtures of different spices. I usually encourage all of you to make your own spice blends rather than buying numerous blends made by some company. You can make only the amount you want and you can personalize it to your own preferences. This is especially true for spice blends that contain individual spices that you already have in your pantry. That being said, there is a place for purchasing premade blends.

If it is a blend that you are going to use a lot, go ahead and purchase it. Also, if it is a blend that contains individual spices that you do not normally have on hand, it might be good to just purchase that blend. Just try to purchase the freshest and smallest amount you can. Something else to be aware of is even though a spice blend from Company A has the same name as one from Company B, that does not mean they will taste the same. They might have different amounts of the spices and might even have different spices in them. So, read the labels carefully and when you find one you like, stick with that particular brand.

Now, on to some popular blends that you might want to consider.

Barbecue seasoning

This blend usually adds heat and smokiness to your dish and is normally used to season meats before grilling or roasting. Common spices include salt, garlic, red pepper, onion, sugar and smoke flavoring. This is certainly one that you could make just when you need it, but if you have a favorite premade blend, go ahead and purchase it.


Hailing from Ethiopia, this blend is a sweet & hot blend that is used in beef stews, lentils, chicken recipes and veggie dishes. Blends can vary but you will commonly find cinnamon, paprika, fenugreek, cardamom, coriander, cumin, cloves, nutmeg, garlic powder, onion powder pepper (red & black), ginger and salt.

Cajun seasoning

Blends carrying this name vary widely but are typically hot. This blend is used in Cajun cooking, especially in stews and seafood, rice and veggie dishes. It can be added to coatings or just directly onto your ingredients. Common spices include onion powder, garlic powder, paprika, thyme, oregano, chili, salt and pepper (white, black & red).

Chili Powder (not chile powder – see this Tip for why)

This is a blend of spices commonly found in Latin American cooking. It is another blend where the actual spices can vary greatly but you will often find different types of ground chilis (ancho, cayenne, chipotle), paprika, cumin, Mexican oregano and salt. Occasionally you will also find garlic powder and onion powder.

Curry Powder

Curry powder is actually a British invention that was meant to help them create an Indian dish. You will not find a bottle of “curry powder” in an Indian kitchen. Each cook will make his/her own and it can vary greatly from cook to cook and from region to region. What we find on our shelves typically includes turmeric, coriander, cumin, fenugreek and red/black pepper. Some varieties might also include mustard, ginger, anise, cinnamon and/or cardamom.


This is an Egyptian blend that contains not only spices but also nuts. Typical ingredients include anise, coriander, sesame seeds, hazelnuts/almonds. It adds a nice crunch to a coating or to a grain dish.

Five-Spice Powder

This blend has a warm spicy-sweet flavor. It usually includes five spices but not always the same five. It is one of the blends that I think you would be better off making yourself when you need it as you will probably already have most of the individual spices – cinnamon, star anise, fennel and cloves. The final traditional spice that you may not have is Sichuan peppercorns. These are not true peppercorns but rather are the dried berries of the Chinese prickly ash bush, a member of the citrus family. They are not hot but are said to impart a tingling sensation. Some mixtures may also contain ginger, galangal, white pepper and/or nutmeg. To make your own without the Sichuan peppercorns, just use a generic peppercorn. Even some premade blends will do this.

Garam Masala

Synonymous with India, the name of this spice mix could be translated to “hot spice mixture”. The actual mixture of spices will vary just as with curry powder. It is used to add heat and a wonderful aroma to your Indian dishes. Common spices in this mix are cumin, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, bay leaf, mace, nutmeg, star anise, fennel and black pepper.

Italian Seasoning

This is more of an herb blend than a spice blend. It is made from dried herbs, commonly basil, Greek oregano, thyme, rosemary and maybe marjoram and/or garlic. It is used to season meat, sauces and other Italian dishes.

Jamaican Jerk seasoning

Another blend with some kick to it, this seasoning can be used on fish or meat and also in marinades and dressings. The actual spices can vary but commonly include salt, sugar, allspice, thyme, cloves, ginger, cinnamon, onion and chile pepper. Some may add black pepper, nutmeg and/or brown sugar.

Lemon Pepper seasoning

A simple blend of black pepper and lemon zest, it can add a citrusy note to your meat or veggies.

Old Bay Seasoning

This is a trademarked American seasoning mix originating from Baltimore, Maryland. It is used in seafood dishes such as chowders, bisques and pastas but can also be used in veggie dishes. According to the container, it includes “celery seed, salt, spices (including red and black pepper) and paprika”. A more detailed list shows those spices might be allspice, bay leaf, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, mace, ginger, and mustard.

Poultry Seasoning

This is a combination of herbs and spices like nutmeg, sage, thyme, marjoram, rosemary, and black pepper. It can be used to season not only poultry but also seafood and veggies.

Pumpkin Pie mix

This is also in my “make your own” list because the components are so common – cinnamon, ginger, allspice, nutmeg and cloves.

Quatre Epices

The translation to English is “four spices”. This is a French blend of black and/or white pepper, cloves, nutmeg and ginger. It is perfect for soups, stews, veggies, sausage and pate.

Ras el Hanout

This is a North African blend that is used to season lamb, chicken, lentils and veggie dishes. It often contains cinnamon, cumin, turmeric and pepper (black & red). A 12-spice blend is common but others can contain more than 30 spices. Besides the above, other commonly included spices are allspice, paprika, coriander, cloves, cardamom, mace, nutmeg, ginger and/or anise.

Seafood Seasoning

This is a general purpose seafood seasoning mix that is typically made of celery salt, mustard, red pepper, black pepper, bay, cloves, allspice, ginger, mace, cardamom, cinnamon and paprika. It may also include parsley, sage, rosemary and/or marjoram.


A common Middle Eastern blend that is often used on grilled veggies or added to yogurt or hummus. It commonly contains thyme, sesame seeds, salt and sumac. Sumac is classic for this blend and gives it a slightly sour and citrusy component. Some blends also include oregano, cumin, black pepper, marjoram and/or savory.

As you can imagine, the above is just a short list of some of the most popular spice mixes. The one I always keep in my spice drawer is Italian seasoning. Even though I could easily make this mixture, it is something that I use often and I like the taste of the one I buy. I also usually have a chili powder (along with some chile powders such as ancho & chipotle) and a couple different curry powders. I do have a mixture of premade blends but they are there only because they were free gifts. The other blends I have are all homemade such as five spice powder, jerk seasoning and garam masala.

What about you? Do you have many blends? Do you purchase them or make them yourself? Whichever, have fun enlivening your dishes with all of these wonderful and delicious spices!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients · Techniques

Is it Caramel, Toffee or Butterscotch?

Toffee has been on my mind recently for a couple of reasons. First, I am getting ready for our local Honey Festival. One of the goodies I make for this festival is Orange Blossom Honey & Walnut Toffee. The other reason is that I am also prepping for a class I will be teaching on British Fare. One of the British desserts I might be making is Banoffee Pie. It gets its name be combining the two major ingredients – bananas and toffee. I have written a prior Cooking Tip on Caramel before but decided to write a Tip on how those two differ from each other and from butterscotch. I will give you the classic differences but please realize that many recipes may depart from these classical definitions and use the names interchangeably.

Caramel is basically cooked sugar. There are two main methods of making caramel – a wet method and a dry method. The difference is whether or not water is used. See the above referenced Tip for more detailed information. Whether you use the dry or wet method, when you are done, you have caramel. However, to turn that into a beautiful caramel sauce, you will want to add cream to the finished caramel.

Toffee is actually a candy made from caramel and butter that is cooked to the hard-crack stage. To make it, you add white sugar, water and butter to a pan and cook until the butter melts and the sugar begins to turn brown. It is done when it reaches the appropriate temperature.

Butterscotch is made with butter and brown sugar that is heated to the soft crack stage. Since brown sugar contains molasses, this gives butterscotch a darker color and a deeper favor. It is also moister and more acidic, the latter which helps to fight crystallization.



  • Caramel is made from white sugar either by itself or with water and then cream.
  • Toffee is made from white sugar and butter.
  • Butterscotch is made from brown sugar and butter


  • Caramel usually contains cream rather than butter. Cream contains lactose. As lactose cooks, it undergoes a process known as the Maillard reaction. This gives it a brown color but also a deep, nutty flavor.
  • Toffee will have a darker flavor since it is cooked much longer.
  • Butterscotch will have the flavor that is imparted from the molasses in the brown sugar.


  • Caramel is cooked to whatever darkness you like.
  • Toffee is cooked to the hard-crack stage.
  • Butterscotch is cooked to the soft crack stage.

Have you every tried making these delightful confections? Caramel is probably the trickiest due the crystallization risk as explained in my prior Tip. The other concern with all of these is for those of us who live at altitude. You will notice that when I mentioned cooking them, I talked of hard and soft crack stage. Although these correlate with certain temperatures, those are meant for people who live closer to sea level. See my Tip on Candy Making for altitude adjustments.

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Sumac – a Taste of the Middle East

I have written prior Cooking Tips on herbs and spices in general and also some specific spices and/or herbs. In this Tip, I want to discuss a less common spice – Sumac.

Sumac comes from the berries of a plant that is native to the Mediterranean, the Middle East and parts of Asia. It is a relative to the cashew family. Because of that, avoidance is advised for those with nut allergies. Although most varieties of the sumac plant are not poisonous, there is a poisonous sumac – Toxicodendron vernix. It has whitish berries rather than red.

The sumac plant bears white flowers that develop into rust-colored berries and grow in dense clusters. The berries are harvested before they ripen and dried in the sun. They can be left whole or ground into a powder. The latter is how you will find it in most of our markets. This is at least in part due to the fact that grinding the berries is very difficult in a home environment and so, is usually done where they are picked.

The flavor of sumac is primarily tart and citrusy with some floral notes and an astringent finish. It is said that the Romans used sumac as we would use lemon juice or vinegar.

Besides adding that tartness to the flavor of a dish, it also imparts a dark red color. Lior Lev Sercarz, author of The Spice Companion, notes that the color of sumac can vary depending on the season. He says that has caused some marketers to add beet powder. They also salt to prevent clumping. Check the label of what you purchase to see if anything has been added. If it does contain salt, reduce the amount of salt in your recipe to compensate for this.

The use of sumac is prominent in Middle Eastern cooking but it can be used any time you wish to add a tart element to your dish. Because of its red color, it is also often used as a pretty garnish.

Common uses include:

  • Rubbing on kebabs and grilled meats
  • Stirred into rice dishes
  • A garnish for hummus or tahini
  • It is a major ingredient in the Middle Eastern spice blend known as za’atar.
  • Marinades and dressings

Serious Eats polled a number of chefs and asked how they liked to use sumac. Their answers were varied.

  • An all-around Mediterranean dish topper such as sprinkling on feta cheese, baba ganoush, hummus, roasted fish/chicken
  • Popcorn duster along with salt
  • Add to oil used for dipping bread
  • Season fried foods such as corn fritters, fried brussels sprouts, fried garbanzo beans
  • Meat loaf
  • Meat marinades
  • Sumac donuts
  • Chocolate sumac ganache

Although it is not that difficult to find, some people want to know what to substitute if they do not have sumac. If you are making a dish for the first time and it calls for sumac, I strongly advise you not to substitute. If you do, you will not know how the dish is really supposed to taste.

That being said, here are some possible substitutes. The first four are more strongly sour and so, should be used sparingly as a substitute.

  • Lemon zest
  • Lemon pepper seasoning
  • Lemon juice
  • Vinegar
  • If looking for the red color for garnish, consider paprika.

I do have sumac in my spice cabinet but, I must admit, I do not often use it. I need to think of it more often to add that citrusy, tart flavor as well as the red color. How about you? Does it deserve a place in your kitchen?