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

Browning

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.

Purple

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.

Green

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

White

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 TheKitchn.com 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?

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Coming everywhere – cage-free egg laws

If you are one of my readers that live in Colorado, you have probably heard that all eggs produced and sold in in this state as of January 2023 must now be Cage Free. What does that mean – not only for the chickens but also for you, the consumer? That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Colorado is not the only state to pass such laws. Other states with similar laws are:

  • Arizona
  • California
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Nevada
  • Oregon
  • Rhode Island
  • Utah
  • Washington

Although some will hail this trend and those states that have passed these laws, only two of those states are on the list of top 10 egg producing states. Here is that breakdown.

  1. Iowa
  2. Indiana
  3. Ohio
  4. Pennsylvania
  5. Texas
  6. Georgia
  7. Michigan
  8. North Carolina
  9. California
  10. Arkansas

If your state isn’t one of those listed with cage-free laws now, it may soon be as there is a nation-wide effort to get these laws in place. Each state’s law may be different. I will lay out Colorado’s law but if you are in another state, you will need to research that law to understand the definition.

According to Colorado law:

  • The chickens must have enclosure measurements of no less than 1 square foot per hen.
  • By 1 January 2025, there needs to be a “cage-free housing system”, which has requirements for more space.
  • Farm owners must obtain a certificate that affirms that the eggs produced are compliant with regulations, which must be renewed annually. The farmers are responsible for hiring an inspection provider.
  • After certification, egg cartons must contain the statement “CO-COM”. (Note there is no requirement to have “cage free” on the label although producers will most likely do this.)
  • The requirements do not apply to farming operations with less than 3,000 hens.

So, just what is the definition of cage free? The USDA states that “eggs labeled ‘cage-free’ or ‘from free-roaming hens’ are laid by hens that are allowed to roam in a room or open area, which is typically a barn or poultry house.” Note that nothing is said about being outdoors and, indeed, the hens may spend their entire lives indoors. They do, however, have more space to spread their wings, dig around in the dirt, etc.

Going cage free does mean egg prices are going to go up. One expense is the conversion of the facilities to the required cage-free environment. It also requires much more work from the farmers. One Maine farmer stated that he went from a flock of more than 33,000 hens down to 3,000. But, he had to increase his employees from five to eight just to help with the extra work taking care of the chickens. That all means higher egg prices.

Cage-free eggs aren’t just more expensive because farmers must convert their facilities. They also require more work from the farmers. The chickens tend to lay their eggs wherever they want to, not just in their designated nest boxes. That means the farmers must collect the eggs more frequently and the eggs shells get dirtier, resulting in more work to clean them.

Another interesting consequence of going cage free is discussed in an article by Watt Poultry and that is the possible demise of local family farms. The article argues that many of the consumers who desire cage-free eggs are the same people who prefer to frequent local, family-owned businesses. However, the push towards the practice of cage free egg production is expensive and may cause many small farms to close.

If cage-free is not enough for you, the next step would be to buy “free range” eggs. According to the USDA, “free range eggs must be produced by cage-free hens housed in a building, room or area that allows for unlimited access to food, water and continuous access to the outdoors during their laying cycle”. So, if you want to make sure your eggs come from hens that can actually get outdoors, you should choose “free range” rather than just “cage free”.

Pasture-Raised – pasture-raised is not a USDA regulated term. That means it is third-party certifiers that set the standards. Although there will be variation between brands, the general meaning of the term is that the hens are given the opportunity to roam on green, grassy pastures every day. In general, every hen has from 35 to 108 square feet of pasture to herself.

For eggs to be labeled organic, the hens must be raised according to USDA National Organic Program guidelines. The hens must be allowed to range freely and given access to the outdoors. They must be fed an organic diet and, if they do not have access to a pasture area, they must be provided with sprouted grains or fresh plants on a daily basis.

Antibiotic and/or Hormone Free – most eggs in the United States are antibiotic free, since antibiotics decrease egg production, and all eggs are hormone free since it is illegal to give hormones to chickens.

Vitamin Enhanced – these are eggs laid by hens whose diets may include things like alfalfa, rice bran and sea kelp to produce eggs with more Vitamin B, A, D & E in the eggs.

Omega-3 Enriched – eggs laid by hens whose diets include things like flaxseed, algae & fish oils to boost the omega-3 content.

There are other terms that egg producers will put on their cartons but there is no regulatory or policy guidance from the USDA or the FDA. These include:

  • Farm Fresh
  • Natural or Naturally-raised – this term simply means that nothing was added to the egg like flavorings, brines or coloring. All eggs meet this criterion.
  • Animal Friendly
  • Happy Hens

There are non-governmental organizations that have certification programs that go above and beyond what the USDA requires. One is “Certified Humane”. Some companies that prescribe to those standards are Eggland’s Best, Kirkland Signature Cage-Free, Safeway Lucerne Cage-Free, Pete & Gerry’s, Nellie’s, Organic Valley and Trader Joe’s Pasture Raised.

Are any of these eggs healthier than others? Some of the egg producers say yes. The USDA says there are no significant nutritional differences between cage-free/free-range/etc. and conventional eggs. Rather, it is a choice you make based on the welfare of the chickens and your budget. The cage-free eggs I used to buy for $2.50 per dozen are now between $7 and $8 per dozen. In my state, I no longer have the choice to buy conventional eggs. If you still have the choice, what do you choose?

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Food Colors – Blue Jellybean, anyone?

Last week, we delved into the world of flavoring in foods and the difference between what is termed natural or artificial. Flavors are not the only additive in foods. Colors are another and probably cause even more concern than flavoring. That is why I am devoting this Cooking Tip to the subject of food coloring.

As the adage goes, “we eat first with our eyes”. When food looks attractive, we are more likely to want to eat it. Part of what makes food look appetizing is color. Just think of a plate of food that consists of different colors such as bright veggies, yellow pasta and a colorful sauce. That looks much more enticing than a plate that is all one color, especially if it is a pale color.

Image by Foodie Factor from Pixabay

Some may ask why we need to have colors added to our food at all. Companies do this to give foods more vibrant color, which they hope will lead to more consumer appeal. Colors might only enhance a food’s natural color. Or the other hand, colors can be used to create bright colors in items such as popsicles. Manufacturers also say that adding color helps to offset color loss of the food item due to exposure to light, air, moisture or temperature extremes.

Just as with flavoring, the FDA gets involved with what they term “color additives”. Their definition is:

A color additive is any substance that imparts color to a food, drug, cosmetic, or to the human body. Color additives include both synthetic substances and substances derived from natural sources. Color additives may be used in food to enhance natural colors, add color to colorless and ‘fun’ foods such as cake decorations, and help identify flavors (such as purple for grape flavor or yellow for lemon).

Just as with flavors, colors can be termed natural or artificial. The term “artificial” in food coloring can be misleading as I will explain below. Therefore, a better term is synthetic. To be called natural, the color must come from vegetables, fruits, minerals or animal sources. They are extracted from these sources using chemical solvents. Synthetic colors are created in labs, primarily from petroleum and coal sources.

Just a few examples of natural color sources are:

  • Annatto extract – yellow
  • Dehydrated beets – bluish-red to brown
  • Caramel – yellow to tan
  • Beta-carotene – yellow to orange
  • Grape skin extract – red & green

Natural and synthetic colors have other differences apart from how they are made. Synthetic colors are much more stable and have stronger and more vibrant hues. Synthetic colors can be mixed and matched to produce millions of colors that you cannot get from natural products. Natural colors are more subdued and consumers do not always like that. Natural colors are more expensive and could possibly introduce an unwanted flavor to the product. Synthetic colors are flavorless and less expensive.

You may wonder if these added colors, especially those from synthetic sources, are safe to ingest. You will find many opinions on this matter and it is a decision each of us must make individually. For an article with the most recent statement from the FDA on the safety of color additives, see this link. The colors approved by the FDA are considered by them to be safe as long as they are used according to their regulations, which specify:

  • The types of foods in which it can be used.
  • Any maximum amounts allowed to be used.
  • How the color additive should be identified on the food label.

In addition to FDA approval, any synthetic color additives need to go through a certification process each and every time a new batch of that color is manufactured. If the source of the color is considered natural, it is exempt from this certification process. However, it is not exempt from the requirement of FDA approval. There also may be state-specific restrictions on these color additives.

The FDA has certified 9 colors for use in foods.

  • FD&C Blue No. 1
  • FD&C Blue No. 2
  • FD&C Green No. 3
  • Orange B
  • Citrus Red No. 2 (only approved for use to color orange peels)
  • FD&C Red No. 3
  • FD&C Red No. 40
  • FD&C Yellow No. 5
  • FD&C Yellow No. 6

There are also labeling requirements so consumers know when FDA-certified colors have been added to foods. With certified colors, the name of the actual color (or an abbreviation) must be listed. If the colors are exempt from certification, the ingredient list might just say “artificial colors,” “artificial color added” or “color added”. One exception to this is if carmine or cochineal extract is used. It is a natural red, orange or pink color derived from the cochineal insect. Because there are known allergic reactions in some people, this color must be identified on the ingredient label.

Note that anytime a color is added to a product, whether it is a natural or synthetic colorant, it can be termed “artificial” by the FDA. This is because the manufacturer is intentionally (and artificially) coloring a food beyond what it would be in its natural state.

An example is Coca Cola. It is colored with caramel coloring, which is derived from natural sources. However, it is deemed to be artificially colored as without the caramel color, it would not look like Coca Cola.

In summary, if you thought the world of artificial versus natural flavors was confusing, you may find colors even more so. Just as with flavors, I hope this article simplifies things just a bit for you so you can be the educated and informed consumer we all want to be.

Cooking Tips · Ingredients · Techniques

Flavor in your food – Natural or Artificial?

Do you read labels on the food and beverages you buy? I have to admit that I do read the labels although probably not as much as I should. If you have read labels, I am sure you have come across the word “flavoring” or “flavors”. Sometimes these words will be preceded by other words – “natural” or “artificial”. What do these words mean? Does it even matter? That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

As with so many things, it is our government that defines these terms and the use of them. Their definitions may or may not be of much use to you as they are very wordy and not exactly easy to read and understand. If you wish to read the FDA’s definition of natural and artificial, see this link to the relevant section of the Code of Federal Regulations.

After wading through the government’s definitions, there are some points that can be pulled out.

  • Both natural and artificial flavors come from the laboratory. It is just that natural flavors come from plant or animal sources. Artificial flavors can be made from inedible substances. According to a professor at Harvard, natural and artificial flavors may be the same exact molecule. An example given by a spokesperson from the Museum of Food and Drink involves lemon flavor.

    “You can have a “natural” lemon flavor made from citral, which is a chemical found in lemon peel. You can also have an “artificial” lemon flavor made from citral, which is processed from petrochemicals. The only difference between these two chemicals is how they were synthesized. Your sensory experience of each will be exactly the same, because they are the same chemical. The most important thing to note is that “natural” citral does not need to come from lemons; it can come from plants like lemongrass and lemon myrtle, which also contain citral. In short, the word “natural” does not necessarily mean a product is better for you, or more sustainable.”

  • Both natural and artificial flavorings are added to the food item to obtain the desired flavor. For example, if a lemon-flavored beverage says it contains “water & lemon flavoring”, something was added to it to give the lemon flavor. Contrast that with an ingredient list that says “water and fresh lemon juice”. There, the lemon flavor is derived totally from the juice that is blended into the water.

  • Natural and artificial flavors can also be used together to achieve the flavor that consumers want.

  • The term “flavoring” does not necessarily mean just one flavor. The FDA does not require food/beverage companies to list each flavor separately although some companies will go to that extra step. For example, the ingredient list for a tea that I have reads “Green tea, Pomegranate Flavor and Acai Flavor”.

  • Although there is a difference in origin, there is no nutritional difference between natural and artificial flavors. The nutrition (or lack thereof) in a food comes from the food itself, not added flavor.

To understand this a bit more, let’s delve into what flavor is. What flavor you perceive when eating or drinking a food item is mostly determined by the volatile chemicals in the food. These not only contribute to flavor but also to aroma as smell makes up 80 to 90 percent of the sense of taste. An interesting fact is that a single flavor can consist of 50 to 100 different chemical compounds that might be derived from natural and/or artificial sources. Besides the actual flavor chemicals, flavorings also contain solvents, emulsifiers, flavor modifiers and preservatives. In fact, according to flavor experts, these often make up 80 to 90 percent of the mixture and are called “incidental additives.” The FDA defines these as “present in a food at insignificant levels and do not have any technical or functional effect in that food.” These do not require disclosure on food labels. The manufacturer might use a natural solvent such as ethanol but may also use synthetic solvents such as propylene glycol. An exception to this is that the flavor in “organic foods” must be produced without synthetic solvents, carriers and artificial preservatives.

The people that create flavors are incredibly talented and skilled professionals known as flavorists or flavor chemists. For natural flavors, the specific chemicals are identified and isolated from natural sources, such as essential oils from fruits. A flavorist will use this data to develop a specific flavor profile. Often, flavors are a combination of many different natural ingredients.

For artificial flavors, the flavorist looks at the chemical composition of the natural ingredients and then goes on to create flavor profiles using synthetic ingredients. This artificial flavor can then be added to foods and beverages.

Why create artificial flavors? It is a matter of cost, availability and flexibility. A flavorist at The International Flavors & Fragrances, Inc, uses the example of the flavor of passionfruit. According to her, if a vodka company wanted to use actual passionfruit for a passionfruit flavored beverage, it would require a quarter of the world’s passionfruit supply. That is, obviously, not feasible. So, the flavorists look for more inexpensive sources to create a flavor that mimics the actual fruit. The lab works to identify the molecular fingerprint of the fruit and then they look for similar compounds that are available in the flavor lab. In the case of passionfruit, it might start with grapefruit essential oils and then other tropical fruit oils might be added. The result is “passionfruit flavor”. It is created totally in the lab and may not contain even a gram of real passionfruit. However, it can still be called natural on the label.

Similarly, there are not enough vanilla beans in the world to meet demand for this extremely popular flavor. Also, as you may have noticed if you have recently purchased vanilla beans, their cost is extremely high. However, the compound that gives vanilla its favor profile (vanillin) can be synthetically derived from other sources at a much lower cost with more abundant supply.

So, we see that there is no difference in the flavor we perceive from artificial or natural flavorings and there is no nutritional difference. Is there a difference in safety? According to experts, unless you have an allergy to a specific ingredient, natural and artificial flavors are safe for consumption at intended levels. If you have very specific allergies, this may be a bit difficult as the manufacturer will not list all the chemicals involved in making the flavoring. Just because the intended flavor is banana, that does not mean that there is any banana in the product at all. Rather, it will be composed of many chemicals that when put together create the banana flavor. If you are this type of person, you may need to contact the company or, if possible, avoid any food or beverages with added flavoring.

How do you feel about natural versus artificial flavor? Does it matter to you? Everyone must make their own choice but I hope this article helps you to see it is not as simple a matter as it might seem. Stay tuned as next week, I will discuss all the colors that are added to food!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Alcohol in your kitchen – are there any good substitutes?

As I wrote in a prior Cooking Tip, many recipes call for some type of alcohol in both cooking and baking. There are reasons for that as discussed in that Tip. It is also not true that all of the alcohol cooks off. See this Article for a break-down of that subject.

What do you do, though, if you do not have the required alcohol or just really prefer not to use it? Are there any decent substitutes? Although using a substitute probably will not result in the exact flavor that would be in the dish with the alcohol, you can still produce good results.

There is a plethora of substitution lists if you just do an online search. Rather than just repeat this information, here is a link to one of the best lists from RecipeTips.com. I would rather just discuss some generalities as well as some less common ideas.

Black tea

This is often recommended as a substitute for red wine. The explanation is that both tea and wine contain tannins. One popularized idea is to add a dash of any kind of vinegar and a squish of tomato purée to a medium-strength black tea to use as a substitute for red wine.

Vinegars

Since wine is often used to make vinegars and the latter contain the same compounds found in wine, vinegar is often used as a wine substitute for liquid recipes such as vinaigrettes and marinades. For beef, pork or veggies, try red wine vinegar. For chicken and fish dishes, white wine vinegar is a better choice. However, vinegars are more acidic than wine. You may, therefore, want to dilute with water in a 1:1 ratio.

Fruit juices

Since wine comes from fruit, fruit juice may be a good substitute. Although any fruit juice could theoretically be used, some of the more recommended ones are pomegranate, cranberry and grape. If your chosen juice is less acidic than wine, add a splash of vinegar. Also, check the labels of any/all fruit juices for the sugar content. You may need to decrease any additional sugar called for in your recipe.

Citrus juices

These have great acidity but diluting them with some water will help prevent imparting too much of the citrus flavor to your dish.

Pickling liquid

You will find this in things such as sauerkraut. Adding it to the end of your sauce is said to add brightness, acidity and complexity. One caution is that the liquid will be high in salt and so, make appropriate adjustments.

Liquid from canned mushrooms.

This could be used in savory dishes as a substitute for red wine. Once again, beware of the sodium content. Some chefs like to mix the mushroom liquid with an equal amount of cranberry, pomegranate or grape juice to achieve a sweeter result.

Tomato juice

Although it does not have a fruity flavor profile, it does have similar colors and acidity levels to red wine. On its own, it can be bitter but mixed with a fruit juice, it can work well.

America’s Test Kitchen recently came up with some creative substitutions using pantry ingredients.

Rum

  • Combine ⅔ cup boiling water, ¼ cup raisins, 2 Tbsp unsalted butter, 4 tsp molasses and a pinch of salt. Add 1 black tea bag (or equivalent of loose-leaf tea), steep for 4 minutes followed by a rest in the refrigerator for an hour. Strain and use in place of dark rum.

Red wine

  • Steep 1 black tea bag in ½ cup boiling water until it cools. Stir in 1 tsp distilled white vinegar.

White wine

  • Substitute ½ cup chicken broth mixed with either 1 tsp white wine vinegar or 1 tsp lemon juice.

If you check out the link I gave you above from Recipe Tips, you can see many more options for substitutions. In full disclosure, I have not tried these ideas as I generally opt for what the recipe specifies. If you have played around with some of these, let me know how it turned out!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients · Techniques

Cookies – make them the best they can be!

Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay

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

Baking pans

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

Shaping cookies

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

Rolling out dough

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

Doubling a recipe

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

Ingredients

Butter

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

Sugar

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

Leavening

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

Salt

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

Mix-ins

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

Freezing cookies and cookie dough

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

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

Cooking Tips · Ingredients · Techniques

Egg Wash & Other Finishing Touches

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

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

Purpose of an egg wash

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

How to make an egg wash

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

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

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

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

Whole egg with no liquid

  • Rich golden color
  • Deep shine

Whole egg/water

  • Lighter brown color
  • Slightly glossy finish

Whole egg/milk

  • Excellent browning
  • Medium gloss

Whole egg/cream

  • Maximal browning
  • The most gloss

Egg white alone

  • Very little color
  • Nice shine

Egg white/water

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

Egg white/milk

  • Slight browning
  • Matte finish

Egg yolk alone

  • Vivid yellow color
  • Deep shine

Egg yolk/water

  • Paler yellow color
  • Less shine

Egg yolk/milk

  • Nice browning
  • Excellent shine

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

Milk (dairy or non-dairy)

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

Cream/Half & Half

  • Gives more shine than just milk but less than egg

Oil

  • Good shine
  • Crunchy texture

Butter, melted

  • Crispy texture
  • Browning
  • Buttery flavor

Honey or maple syrup thinned out with some milk

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

Water

  • Can create decent browning
  • Very little shine

Vegan egg wash

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

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

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

Happy Baking and Browning!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Buttermilk – does it have butter in it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Milk & acid

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

Sour cream or yogurt

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

Buttermilk powder

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

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