Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Honey & its many flavors

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I never knew different honeys could taste so unique until about 10 years ago. Prior to that, I had only tasted a generic supermarket honey. At a roadside stand, I had an opportunity to taste over 20 different honeys and each had a very different flavor. When my husband began beekeeping, it was so interesting to taste the honey from year to year and how they differed. Why was this? Today you will also see unusual honeys such as “hot honey”. What is that? Those are the topics that I will discuss in this Cooking Tip. I have written a prior Tip on how to cook with honey and so will not discuss that in this Tip.

Most store-bought honeys are purposely blended to taste the same so the customer knows what to expect each and every time they buy it. Although sweet, it will not have the flavor nuances of natural honey. The latter can be so complex and varied that honey tasters use a Honey Tasting Wheel to help define the flavors. Here is an example of one.

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There are really two ways that honey is flavored – natural and infused. In its natural state, honey’s flavor is totally dependent on the flowers on which the bees feast. Bees will forage up to 2-3 miles from their hive. What is in flower in that area is what will influence the flavor and color of the honey. My husband purposely plants abundant wildflowers that are native to Colorado. In season, you can see and hear the bees as they visit these flowers, eat the nectar and gather the pollen. He, therefore, labels his honey as “wildflower” honey. Even though the bees traveled outside of our property and will have visited other flowers, if it is labeled wildflower, the beekeeper believes that the honey was substantially produced from wildflowers.

Common varietals of natural honey include:

  • Acacia
  • Alfalfa
  • Clover
  • Orange Blossom
  • Wildflower

Other varietals include many more than the following but here are a few,

  • Avocado
  • Blueberry
  • Buckwheat
  • Chestnut
  • Eucalyptus
  • Fireweed
  • Sage
  • Tupelo

Infused honey is a product where additional flavors have been added to the honey by allowing the particular ingredient to sit in the honey, a process called infusion.

Here is a list of just some of the ingredients used for infusing flavor into honey.

  • Chili peppers
  • Citrus
  • Dried fruit
  • Elderflower
  • Herbs
  • Honeysuckle
  • Lavender
  • Rose
  • Spices – ginger, cinnamon, cardamon, cloves, etc.

Some people will heat the honey, which speeds up the infusion process. Heat is helpful when trying to extract flavors from dense items such as bark and roots. However, most experts say the heat can destroy some of the honey’s beneficial components. If not using heat, the process can take longer, up to a week or two or more but you do preserve all the healthy compounds.

Image by Hans from Pixabay

At times, the name of the honey can be confusing. For example, lavender honey might be made naturally because the bees feast on lavender blooms or it might be made by infusing the honey with lavender. If the label says “infused” or “lavender flavored”, you will know it is the latter. If it just says “lavender honey”, you may not know for sure unless you are buying the honey from someone you can ask.

The FDA has published a guidance document that says “If a food consists of honey and a flavor ingredient, such as natural raspberry flavor”, the name should “accurately describe the food with its characterizing flavor, such as “raspberry-flavored honey”. Also, “the labeling must include the common or usual name of each ingredient …. For a food consisting of honey and natural raspberry flavor, the ingredient statement would show “honey” and “natural flavor,” in descending order of predominance.” You would hope that would be true for honeys you see on shelves, but it is not guaranteed. That does not mean that an infused honey is necessarily bad. It is just that you want to know what you are purchasing.

Do you like honey? Have you tried any of the myriad of different varietals? If not, I encourage you to seek out a farmer’s market, a roadside stand, a local beekeeper or a store that specializes in honey.

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Fennel – an herb or a vegetable?

When you think of Fennel, do you think of the white bulb you can buy in the produce section or do you think of the little seeds that some of us have in our pantries? They are both from the same plant but have different uses. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Native to the Mediterranean region, the fennel plant has a white bulb at the base and feathery fronds at the top. It produces seeds that are dried into a spice. Even the plant’s pollen can be gathered and used as a finishing spice.

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Even though all of this is from the same plant, there are different types of fennel. Florence fennel is the one you will see in the store with its large bulb and sold as a vegetable. There is another variety, sweet or common fennel, that is a perennial plant grown for its fronds and seeds. It does not have a bulb. The above-mentioned pollen is normally harvested from the wild variety of this type of fennel. It grows many places but is especially abundant in California.

All parts of the fennel plant are edible. The white bulb of the Florence variety can be eaten raw or cooked. It is often used in ways similar to onions or celery. It can be very fibrous so it is best to slice thinly cross-wise or finely chop. The fronds can be used as a fresh herb and sprinkled on your dish.

The taste is licorice- or anise-like. Because of this, it is often confused with the anise plant. However, these are two different plants. They may look similar but anise does not have a bulb. Another difference is that the only edible part of the anise plant is its seeds, while the entire fennel plant is edible. In flavor, fennel has a less intense licorice flavor.

Grocery stores may mistakenly label fennel bulbs as anise bulbs. I have even seen it labeled as “Anise Fennel”. However, if it is a large white bulb, it is fennel, not anise.

When shopping for fennel, choose bulbs that are firm and white with no bruising or browning. The bulbs should be large in proportion to the stems and fronds that are attached. If put into a paper or plastic bag and stored in the crisper drawer, it should keep for up to two weeks. If you have cut the fennel, wrap it in plastic before putting in the refrigerator to minimize browning.

Image by flomo001 from Pixabay

The seeds of the fennel plant can be bought in most grocery stores. It is a warm spice that can be used in both sweet & savory dishes. It is especially popular in Italian, Indian and Middle Eastern cooking. One place you will commonly find it is in Italian sausage. It is also often used in spice blends and dry rubs. Many infuse it in hot water as a type of tea. It can be used whole or ground. If whole, crack the seeds slightly before using to release the oils. As with the fresh fennel, it has a sweet and subtle licorice-like taste.

Fennel pollen is very expensive, just below saffron and vanilla. At my favorite spice store – Savory Spice – it sells for $35 per ounce. As mentioned earlier, it is harvested from wild-growing fennel. Its appearance is of golden-colored granules. Its flavor is said to be complex. One source describes its flavor as “licorice and citrus and a honeyed, marshmallow-like sweetness”. Due to the flavor profile and the cost, it is best to use as a finishing spice as a garnish over veggies, meat, pasta or added to a dip for bread.

Do you use fennel? I use it occasionally. One of my favorite uses is in this Peach & Fennel Slaw from Food & Wine, perfect for the upcoming summer months. I hope you enjoy it.

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Soy Sauces – aren’t they all the same?

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When you go to the supermarket to get soy sauce, you will probably only see a handful of brands and not much variety in terms of type of soy sauce. If, on the other hand, you go to an international market, you will see dozens and dozens of different brands and different types. How can there be that many different soy sauces and is it worth it to seek out those rather than the supermarket ones? That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Soy sauce, as its name implies, is made from soybeans. There are two methods of making soy sauce. It can be either naturally brewed/fermented or chemically produced.

Naturally brewed

This method involves mixing together soybeans, wheat, salt, water and a mold (koji). This “mash” is then left to ferment. Most will use stainless steel tanks although some will utilize barrels. During fermentation, proteins are broken down into amino acids. One of these, glutamic acid, is primarily responsible for the umami taste for which soy sauce is known. It is fermented for months or longer with the best said to be at least 2 years. This results in a much more complex flavor and aroma.

Chemically made

According to Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking, in this method “defatted soy meal, the residue of soybean oil production, is broken down (hydrolyzed) into amino acids and sugars with concentrated hydrochloric acid. This caustic mixture is then neutralized with alkaline sodium carbonate and flavored with corn syrup, caramel, water and salt.” This allows the production time to be reduced to days. However, it also results in a product that lacks the complex or nuanced flavor of brewed soy sauce. It tends to also be very salty.

I don’t know about you but chemically-made soy sauce doesn’t sound very appetizing. Yes, naturally brewed soy sauce may be more expensive ($3.00 vs $1.50 for a 10 ounce bottle) but it will certainly be worth it. To be able to tell the difference in the store, look for the words “brewed” or “traditionally brewed”. Also, look at the ingredient list. Here is an example:

  • Kikkoman traditionally brewed soy sauce – “water, soybeans, wheat, salt”
  • Store brand chemically made soy sauce – “water, hydrolyzed soy protein, salt, dextrose, caramel color”

There are different styles of soy sauce including Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian, Korean, Thai, Filipino and Peruvian. The main ones you will see in stores are Chinese and Japanese style and these will be the ones I discuss.

The Chinese style traditionally did not use wheat although today this style does contain wheat. It may also contain added sugar. In general, it has a denser and saltier flavor as well as being thicker & darker than Japanese soy sauce.

Japanese soy sauce is brewed with roasted wheat. It is slightly sweeter and has a more rounded flavor than the Chinese style.

Among these two styles there are also variations. The main variation I will discuss is light versus dark soy sauce, which is mostly due to the length of the aging. Light soy sauces are thinner in texture and lighter in color but more intense in flavor. Note that the word “light” does not mean low sodium. There are low sodium soy sauces, which can have 40% less salt. However, you must look on the label for this specifically. Also, you will probably not find a reduced salt version in the higher end soy sauces.

Chinese – the two varieties are known as Sheng Chou (light) and Lao Chou (dark).

The light variety is the most common. It is reddish brown in color and has a floral or port-like aroma. It is an all-purpose soy sauce and would be what to choose if the recipe doesn’t specify which type of soy sauce.

Good brands are:

  • Zhongba
  • Pearl River Bridge
  • Lee Kum Kee

Dark Chinese soy sauce is aged longer and often is sweeter due to the addition of a sweetener. Its taste is slightly sweet with a roasty and wine-like characteristic. It is darker brown and more viscous as well as being less salty than the light. It is often used to add color to dishes and is typically added towards the end of cooking and used sparingly.

Good brands are:

  • Pearl River Bridge
  • Lee Kum Kee
  • Zhongba
  • Kimian

Japanese – light Japanese soy sauces are known as Usukuchi Shoyu and dark is labeled Koikuchi Shoyu.

The Japanese light soy sauce is amber in color, thin in texture and saltier than the dark. It has sharp, acidic, bright, alcohol-like notes. It is used in Japanese dishes where you just want seasoning without changing the dish’s flavor, color or aroma.

Good brands are:

  • Kikkoman
  • Yamasa
  • Suehiro Shoyu

Japanese dark soy sauce is the most common even if the bottle does not say this. It is dark brown in color and sweeter than the light. Its taste is described as bright and bourbon-like with notes of salted caramel. This is the everyday and all-purpose soy sauce for Japanese cuisine. It is also probably what most of us think of when we think of soy sauce. Most major supermarket brands such as Kikkoman’s will not specify this on the label but they are most likely of this type. It is a very good all-purpose choice used in marinades, sauces, gravies, braising, stir fries.

Marudaizu” on the label means it is made only from whole soybeans rather than a combination of whole and defatted soybeans. Whole beans take longer to ferment, which means a more complex flavor.

Good brands are:

  • Kikkoman
  • Aloha Shoyu

There are some other types of Japanese soy sauce.


This is technically not soy sauce but the liquid byproduct formed during miso-making. It is thicker and richer than soy sauce and is made just with fermented soybeans but little or no wheat. Because of that, it is touted as a gluten free soy sauce. However, not all of the brands are totally free of wheat and so, you need to check the label. It is used in dipping sauces, for a finishing seasoning or glazing cooked meats.

Another product that some people use as a gluten free alternative to soy sauce is coconut aminos. See this Tip for more information on this product.

Good brands of tamari are:

  • San-J
  • Kikkoman
  • Yamasa

Shiro Shoyo

This variety is white or very light in color. It is used as a dipping sauce for raw, white fish or seasoning in clear soups. Since it is brewed with more wheat, it is lighter in both color and flavor.


This is a Japanese sweet soy sauce. It is a high end product and is primarily used for dipping sushi and sashimi.

Soy sauce is a long lasting product as long as you store it properly. Keep it in a dark place away from any heat source. Refrigeration is not necessary but it will extend its flavor and freshness.

If you are in a general supermarket, the best brand you are probably going to find is Kikkoman. I hope you venture out to an international market, though, to see and try some of these other products.

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

A Myriad of Culinary Oils – Part 2

In last week’s Cooking Tip, I explained about how oils are processed and what the labeling means and does not mean. In this Tip, I want to look at specific oils. They are not listed in order of importance or useability, but in alphabetical order.

I also want to note that this discussion is not going to address any health benefits or concerns about any of these oils. If you do an online search, you will find all sorts of opinions. For example, one source might tell you about all the health benefits of coconut oil and the next one will decry it as being very detrimental to your health. I will leave that concern to you and your doctor. For a general discussion of healthy fats, see this Tip.

Before I get into specific oils, you will notice I use the terms “refined” and “unrefined”. To understand this, please see my prior Tip on how oils are processed. Unrefined oils undergo little or no processing other than pressing the oil out of the fruit/nut/seed. This gives you an oil with more flavor, perhaps more nutrients but a lower smoke point. Refined oils often go though the RBD process – refined, bleached & deodorized. These oils are much more neutral in flavor and aroma, are perhaps lower in nutrients but do have a higher smoke point.

Avocado Oil

This oil is made by pressing the pulp of ripe avocados and then using a centrifuge to separate the oil. It has a mild buttery flavor but it is subtle and should not overwhelm the flavor of your dish. Refined avocado oil has a higher smoke point than many oils, 510-520°F. It can, therefore, be used for sauteing, roasting, searing and grilling as well as drizzling and in salad dressings.

Canola oil

Made from the rapeseed plant, it is similar to vegetable oil in terms of flavor, color, smoke point and recommended usages. It was first developed in Canada in the 1970s, but eventually took on a more marketable name, canola. That comes from Canada oil and low acid. It has a smoke point of 400-450°F making it perfect for sautéing.

Coconut oil

There are two types of coconut oil – unrefined and refined. The former is also known as virgin coconut oil and has robust coconut flavor/aroma with a smoke point of only 350-385°F. The refined variety has a neutral flavor, is odorless and has a higher smoke point of 400°F. It can be used in sautéing and baking.

Corn oil

This is a refined oil that has a neutral flavor and a higher smoke point of 410-450F°. It is often used in commercial kitchens because of its low price point. It is good for high heat applications such as frying. It is not recommended for making dressings or dips as it is said to have an unpleasant flavor when used in unheated dishes.

Grapeseed oil

This oil is slightly less common but does have its supporters. It a byproduct of wine making. It is light green in color with a high smoke point of 390-420F° and a clean taste. It is often used in vinaigrettes as it is less expensive than EVOO and allows the other ingredients to shine through.

Olive Oil

Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) is the most expensive of the olive oil types. Only oil from the first cold pressing of olives can be called extra-virgin olive oil. It is graded by the amount of oleic acid it contains, sometimes referred to as its acidity. More oleic acid means that more of the oil has broken down into fatty acids as a result of the processing methods. EVOO should have less than 1% oleic acid. It has a robust flavor that is often described as buttery, spicy, fruity and/or grassy depending on the type of olive used to make the oil. It is not good for high heat cooking as its smoke point is only around 350°F. It is best for drizzling and vinaigrettes but can also be used for sauteing. Because of its price, though, many of us opt for a less expensive oil for this purpose.

Virgin olive oil is also made from the first pressing but can have up to 3% oleic acid.

Regular olive oil is also known as pure or light olive oil. It comes from the 2nd pressing and its oleic acid content may be up to 4%. After extracting EVOO with the first press, producers apply heat or chemicals as they press the olives to extract more oil, yielding olive oils with progressively less olive flavor. (“Light” olive oil refers to its light flavor/color, rather than to lower levels of fat or calories.) It is the lowest quality of olive oil and may even be mixed with other vegetable oils. As compared to EVOO, it has a more neutral flavor and higher smoke point of 465-470F°. Because of this along with its lower price, it is suitable for high heat cooking. It can be used for general cooking purposes as well as making vinaigrettes or dips where you do not want the strong flavor you might get from EVOO.

Peanut oil

If unrefined, peanut oil has a strong scent/flavor & smoke point of 350°F. This kind is used in marinades and Asian dishes where the peanut flavor is a positive. If refined, the flavor is more subtle and smoke point increases to 450°F. It is often used for deep fat frying.

Safflower oil

Made from the safflower plant and has a neutral flavor and a very high smoke point of ~510°F. It is used in marinades, sauces, dips as well as frying.

Sesame oil

If of the refined variety, sesame oil has a neutral flavor and a smoke point of 410°F. There is also a toasted variety, which has a nice nutty flavor. This variety should be reserved for uncooked applications such as dressings and for finishing stir-fries.

Sunflower oil

Because if its mild flavor and smoke point of 450°F, this oil is good for searing and sautéing.

Toasted nut oils

These oils are made by pressing raw or roasted nuts such as walnut, pistachio, macadamia and hazelnuts. This produces a delicate oil with a low smoke point and a nutty flavor. They are best used in dressings or as a finishing drizzle. The oils tend to go rancid quickly, so store them in the refrigerator.

Vegetable oil

Oils called “vegetable” are sometimes blends of many different refined oils but in our supermarkets, they usually just contain soybean oil. These vegetable oils have a neutral flavor and a smoke point of 400°F. This makes them good for high heat cooking and frying. They are also inexpensive.

There are other culinary oils but these are the ones you will most commonly find. My pantry contains EVOO, regular olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil and sesame oil. How about yours?

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

A Myriad of Culinary Oils

What oil do you use for your cooking? How many different oils do you have in your pantry? How many do you need? Explaining the myriad of oils and how to use them is the subject of this and the following Cooking Tip.

There is really no one all-purpose oil for culinary purposes. It depends on how you are going to use the oil. Although it is fun to try many different varieties of oil, you don’t need multiple kinds on a day-to-day basis. In this Tip, I will discuss the processing and terminology associated with culinary oils. In the next Tip, we will delve into some of the oils that you can buy.

There are a myriad of differences among culinary oils.

  • Source – what is used to make the oil such as olives, nuts, corn or other plants.
  • Flavor – some oils are very neutral in flavor while others carry a flavor from their source. Do a side-by-side taste testing of extra virgin olive oil and canola oil for an example. Deciding whether or not you want the flavor of the oil in your dish will help you decide which oil to use.
  • Smoke point – this is the temperature at which an oil starts to break down. As this happens, toxic fumes and harmful chemicals can be released. If you are cooking something that requires a high heat, you will want to use an oil with a higher smoke point. If on the other hand, you are using the oil to make a vinaigrette, smoke point is irrelevant. Here is a chart compiled from information on Serious Eats that shows the smoke points for different oils.
  • Processing – is the oil obtained with a chemical process or expeller processed?
    • Extraction
      • According to Centra Foods (a supplier of bulk oils), the fruit/nut/seeds are first ground into a paste. Next, this is washed with a solvent, commonly hexane, to release the fat. The solvent is then removed by heating it in a sealed chamber. Centra Food states the oil is left with “virtually no detectable levels in the oil (if the proper techniques have been applied). Microscopic proportions of up to 25 parts per million of hexane can theoretically remain in the meal, which is a very high debate point in the natural food industry.”

        At this point, the oil is considered “unrefined”. This is then subjected to further processing known as “RBD” – refined, bleached & deodorized. (These oils are sometimes known as RBD oils). This produces an oil that is light in color and flavor. This extraction method is very efficient, getting 97-99% of the oil out of the fruit/nut/seed. This is one reason why oil produced by this method is less expensive.
  • Expeller pressed
    • With the expeller method, oil is physically squeezed out under high pressure using a screw press. It can be termed either hot- or cold-pressed. Expeller pressing is not as efficient and thus, the oil is higher priced. Since it undergoes fewer chemical changes, manufacturers claim it has a more natural flavor with less damage to the nutrients. Hot pressed – with this method, heat is added prior to extraction. This makes it easier to extract the oil by cooking and drying the fruit/nut/seeds. Typically, this method can extract 87-95% of the oil. It can be used in sauteing, baking or in salad dressings where you are not looking to taste the oil. Cold pressed – there is no heat applied before extraction. Without the heat, the screw press must work harder and apply more torque. This causes friction, which can generate some heat although it has not been applied before the pressing process. To compensate for this heat production, a water cooled shaft is used to keep the press as cool as possible. It must be kept below 120°F at all times. The manufacturer may also use heat to dry the fruit/nut/seeds for storage. Centra Foods states that an oil should only be termed “cold pressed” if it is fully unrefined and heat is not applied at any part of the process. This removes the least amount of oil, making it the most expensive type of oil. It will also have the lowest smoke point.

      Although it is possible to cold press any fruit/nut/seed, this is most commonly done with certain types of olive oil and coconut oil. Chefs recommend saving this oil for uses where you want to taste the distinctive flavor of the oil and with foods that will not be cooked. Examples are vinaigrettes, marinades, dipping oils and frozen treats.
    • Most common to find in the supermarkets are oils made by the chemical extraction process. If the label does not list “expeller pressed” or something similar, it will be extraction oil.
  • Virgin vs Extra Virgin
    • Both of these terms apply to cold-pressed oils. Extra virgin means it is oil collected from the very first pressing. Virgin oils are from the second pressing, resulting in less flavor and aroma. These terms are mostly used with olive and coconut oil.

      In 2010, the USDA issued the “United States Standards for Grades of Olive Oil and Olive-Pomace Oil.” However, these standards are voluntary. So, producers may choose to seek certification by the USDA as “US Extra Virgin Olive Oil” if they wish, but that it is not mandatory. See this Cooking Tip on Extra Virgin Olive Oil for more information and why you may not be able to rely on these terms in the supermarket.

      These USDA standards do not apply to coconut oil. Since there is no legal standard for the terms “virgin” and “extra virgin” as applied to coconut oil, there is no consistency among the usage of these terms by manufacturers. In fact, one manufacturer, Carrington Farms, has dropped the use of the term “extra virgin” and opted for “Virgin, Unrefined”. You will, though, see certain brands still use the term “extra virgin”, probably attempting to piggyback off the popularity of extra virgin olive oil.

A final comment about storage. Oil does not last indefinitely and must be stored properly. Since heat and light can damage oil, store it in a cool, dark place. In that case, most oils can last up to a year. There are specific oils, though, that require refrigeration. Check the label but examples are grapeseed and nut oils. Some culinary experts recommend storing all your oils in the refrigerator. If you did that, some may thicken and you will need to let them sit out on your counter a few minutes to come to room temperature. Stay tuned for next week’s Tip as we look at individual oils that you might to use.

Cooking Tips · Ingredients · Techniques

Making a roux – a necessary skill

Something that is often used in our kitchens is something called a “roux”. Whether or not you knew the name, I am sure you have made it. What a roux is, how to make it and how to use it is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Roux is a French term that literally translates to Red. In simple terms, it is a mixture of starch and fat that, after being cooked over heat, is used to thicken liquids but it also adds flavor. The starch that is most commonly used is flour and the classic fat is butter. The Professional Chef by The Culinary Institute of America defines a basic roux as 6 parts flour to 4 parts fat, by weight. However, most sources recommend a 1:1 ratio of flour to fat.

One can use either the stovetop or oven method although the stovetop is the most common. The procedure is to melt the fat in a saucepan without browning it. The flour is whisked into the melted fat to form a paste. This is then cooked to eliminate the raw flour taste and aroma. How long you cook it will depend on what type of roux you want. The length of cooking does affect the thickening ability of the roux. The longer you cook it, some of the starch in the flour breaks down resulting in less thickening power. To compensate for this, add about 25% more flour for a longer cooking roux.

Liquid is then added in a thin, steady stream (or a couple of tablespoons at a time), whisking all the time to achieve a homogenous consistency. Adding it slowly or in small increments will produce a much smoother sauce. If you do get clumps, whisk vigorously or use an immersion blender to smooth it out. As the sauce is then brought to a simmer, it will start to thicken. The heat should be reduced as you continue to stir until the sauce coats the back of a spoon (nappé stage). At this point, season with salt and pepper and any other desired seasoning.

The advantage of the stovetop method is that it cooks relatively quickly. The downside is you must keep your eye on it so it doesn’t darken too much or burn.

A roux may also be cooked in an oven but for a blond roux, it can take up to 1½ hours at 350 degrees. It must cook even longer for a darker roux. It can cook without a lot of your attention but what you save in that aspect, you lose in time.

Substitutions for butter

  • Lard – better for more rustic dishes such as gumbo than for delicate white sauces.
  • Oil – it is fine to use an oil but realize that stronger flavored oils will give that same flavor to your roux and eventual sauce. Therefore, you will probably want to use a neutral oil. Also, if you are going to do a darker roux, you will want an oil with a high smoke point. Oil will not, though, give you the richness that butter imparts.

Substitutions for flour

  • Rice flour – this is a nice gluten-free alternative and can be substituted 1:1 for the flour.
  • Cornstarch– this has a higher starch content than flour and therefore, will need more liquid. It is usually made into a “slurry” by mixing it with liquid and added near the end of the cooking process to achieve the thickness you want. Start be mixing 1 tablespoon of cornstarch with 1 tablespoon of cold liquid.
  • Arrowroot – similar to cornstarch but use only 2½ teaspoons to 1 cup of liquid. Arrowroot does not require cooking. In fact, heat and abundant stirring can inhibit the thickening power.
  • There are some other differences between these starches.
    • A grain-based starch (flour, cornstarch, rice) gives you great thickening but does look slightly opaque when it is cool. It can actually set up into a gel that can be sliced or molded. It can be re-heated without thinning out but should not be frozen as it can get watery when thawed.
    • A root or tuber starch (arrowroot, potato starch, tapioca starch) is great when you want the product to be clear and glossy when set. Although it thickens well, it does thin some when it cools. It will thin if reheated but does freeze and thaw well.

Types of roux

  • White roux – it is barely colored, chalky or very light beige. It normally takes less than 5 minutes to make. It is used to make a white sauce such as a bechamel, which can be served on its own or used to make a macaroni and cheese. It is also used to thicken soups.
  • Blond roux – this is golden in color with a slight nutty aroma. It may take up to 15 minutes to get to a blond color. This is commonly used to make gravy but can be used in other sauces and to thicken soups.
  • Brown roux – this roux is deep brown with a pronounced nutty aroma and may take up to 30 minutes or so. It is typically used to make a brown sauce such as espagnole.
  • Dark roux – taking up to 45 minutes, it is commonly used for Cajun and Creole dishes. Because of the prolonged cooking time, it will add flavor but will have lost much of its thickening ability. Most cooks will opt for oil over butter due to the long cooking time as it would be very easy to burn butter.

One ounce of roux will thicken one cup of liquid to the nappé stage. You may adjust the amount of roux based on how thick you want the finished product.


Let cool to room temperature; transfer to air-tight container or bag. Refrigerate and it should last up to a month. For longer storage, freeze either in small bags or ice cube trays. It can last up to a year.

As I said earlier, I am sure you have made a roux but for most of us, it would probably have been a white roux or maybe a blond one. I hope this Tip will not only help you understand a roux but will help you see how you can manipulate it for different results.

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

All cocoa powders are not the same.

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Cocoa powder is a mainstay in our pantries if we do much baking of chocolate-flavored items. If you go to the store to buy some cocoa powder, you will be faced with not only different brands but also different types. Knowing which one(s) to pick and when to use them is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Cocoa powder is made by grinding cocoa solids that have been separated from the cacao beans. This makes it a very concentrated form of chocolate flavor. There are two main types of cocoa powder – natural and Dutched (or Dutch process). Not every container of cocoa powder will tell you which kind it is. One hint is that if it is an American brand, it will most likely be natural whereas most European brands are Dutched.

Natural cocoa powder may also be labeled unsweetened cocoa powder or even pure cocoa powder. Cocoa beans are acidic (pH of 5-6) and because there is no further processing after grinding, cocoa powder is also acidic. It is light brown in color with a reddish tint and tastes sharp, fruity and bitter.

Dutch-process cocoa powder has been alkalized. The cacao beans are soaked in an alkaline solution. This leads to a cocoa powder where the acidity has been neutralized. The color is darker brown and the flavor is mellower and more earthy. Because manufacturers use different alkalinizing agents as well as different ways of processing, one brand can vary greatly from another. There are different subtypes of Dutched cocoa, which I will discuss later in this Tip.

These two types of cocoa powder are not always interchangeable. It depends on what you are making, the other ingredients in your recipe and your desired result. This is due to chemistry, specifically acid-base chemistry. Review this Tip on leaveners for more info.

If you are making a baked recipe that calls for natural cocoa powder, it often also calls for baking soda. The latter is an alkaline leavener that is activated by acids. (E.g., yogurt or buttermilk.) Without the interaction of the acidic ingredient and the alkaline baking soda, the leavening won’t occur. Therefore, if you swap out the natural cocoa for Dutched, this reaction will be muted leading to less rise of your baked goods. Some people like this, though, as the results are very moist and fudgy as compared to lighter and drier baked goods when using natural cocoa.

Recipes that call for Dutched cocoa typically call for baking powder. Baking powder is mixture of baking soda and an acid (often cream of tartar). Therefore, it does not require another acid to activate it and start the rising process. In this instance, the cocoa is not part of the leavening process but it is there mostly for flavor and color.

Many pastry chefs recommend Dutch-processed cocoa for unbaked chocolate items and natural cocoa for recipes that require baking. If, however, the batter needs to remain moist, a Dutch-processed cocoa should be used even if it is a baked item.

King Arthur Baking has a nice guide to how to substitute one type of cocoa for another. It is always best to use whatever type that the recipe specifies. They state that if a recipe doesn’t specify which type of cocoa to use, it should have been developed to work with either type. I must say I do not have the same faith in recipe writers as discussed in this Recipe Caution tip. King Arthur does say that an exception is if you are using older American recipes as Dutch-processed cocoa wasn’t widely available throughout most of the 20th century. In this case, you would be better to choose a natural cocoa.

They recommend Dutch-process if the recipe calls for baking powder and natural cocoa for those recipes that are leavened with baking soda alone or if baking soda is the predominant leavener. On the other hand, if baking powder is the main leavener, the cocoa will often be Dutched. If the recipe does not include acidic ingredients, feel free to use natural cocoa.

If neither baking soda or powder is in the list of ingredients, use either cocoa. Examples would be puddings, sauces, souffles, etc.

Here are some tips from King Arthur’s substitution guide.

If you use natural cocoa in place of Dutched, expect the following.

  • Color – baked goods will be lighter in color.
  • Rise – as a recipe that calls for Dutched cocoa will probably call for baking powder, you shouldn’t notice a difference in rise.
  • Flavor – the flavor may be a bit tangy and slightly bitter.
  • Recommendations
    • If the recipe calls for 3 tablespoons or less of cocoa powder, use the same amount.
    • If it specifies more than 3 tablespoons, replace the baking powder with half the amount of baking soda.
    • If the recipe calls for not only baking powder but also baking soda, no changes are needed.

If you use Dutched cocoa in place of natural, expect the following.

  • Color – baked goods will be darker in color.
  • Rise – baked items will not rise as much.
  • Flavor – you may taste a soapy element as the baking soda hasn’t been totally neutralized.
  • Recommendations
    • Replace the baking soda with twice the amount of baking powder unless the recipe calls for both ingredients and, in that case, no change is needed.
    • Same if the recipe calls for an acidic element such as vinegar or yogurt.

As I noted above, there are actually some subtypes of Dutch-process cocoa.

  • Black Cocoa – Thisis considered ultra-Dutch processed. It is very dark in color and is said to be how Oreo cookies get their dark color. It will give your cakes, cookies or chocolate sauce a rich dark brown, almost black, color. It will also have a smoother, less bitter taste than either natural or regular Dutched cocoa. On the down side, many feel it has less of a chocolate flavor.
  • Rouge Cocoa – This is also known as red cocoa powder. In terms of alkalinity, it is between regular Dutch cocoa and black cocoa. It has a burgundy color. According to Guittard, one of the makers of this type of cocoa, it has a “fudgy, bittersweet flavor right at home in pastries and baked goods”.
  • Double Dutch – This is a blend of regular Dutch cocoa powder and black cocoa powder. This allows the dark color to shine while still having a great chocolate flavor.

Another interesting product offered by King Arthur is what is known as a Triple Cocoa Blend. According to the company, triple cocoa powder is made by mixing Dutch cocoa powder, natural cocoa powder, and black cocoa powder. They market it as an all-purpose cocoa powder that can be used in any recipe. Its color is darker than natural or regular Dutched cocoa but not as dark as black cocoa. The flavor is characterized as having “earthier, mellower notes of a Dutched cocoa powder with some of the acidity and more rounded fruity chocolate notes of natural cocoa powder.”

Everyone will have their favorite cocoa even among these different types. Cooks Illustrated did a testing of 8 different cocoa powders, 4 Dutched and 4 natural. They used them in two different sheet cake recipes. One called for natural cocoa powder and the one specified Dutched. They also made a cookie recipe that didn’t specify the type of cocoa.

Their results were as follows.

  • The natural cocoas produced cakes and cookies that were taller, more airy but more crumbly.
  • The Dutched powders led to less rise and a fudgier texture.

They also found that not all brands reacted the same and they attributed this to fat content. When analyzed, three of their cocoas had a 10-12% fat content while the others had a 20-22% fat content. The latter cocoas are what ended scoring the highest in taste tests. Those items made with a higher fat cocoa tended to be more chewy and fudgy than those made with the lower fat ones. The lower fat products gave a drier and crumblier baked item.

A final factor they mentioned was starch content. The lower the fat content of the cocoa was, the higher the starch content. As starch is very good at absorbing liquid, the cakes and cookies made with these cocoas were drier.

Their recommendation was that to obtain moist and tender baked goods, choose a Dutch-process cocoa that is high in fat and therefore, lower in starch. They suggested choosing a product with at least 1 gram of fat per 5-gram serving. Their favorites were all higher fat Dutched products.

  • Droste
  • Guittard
  • Valrhona

Bon Appetit’s recommended products are:

  • Guittard Cocoa Rouge (a Dutch processed cocoa)
  • Droste
  • For a natural cocoa, they recommended either Hershey’s or Scharffen Berger.

Chef’s Pencil (an international food magazine) rated the following as the best chef-recommended cocoa powders.

  • Valrhona Pure Cocoa Powder, a French, Dutched cocoa
  • Callebaut Cocoa Powder, a Dutched cocoa from Belgium
  • Ghirardelli Majestic Premium Cocoa Powder, an American product
  • Cacao Barry Cocoa Powder 100% Cocoa Extra Brute, a French, Dutched cocoa

Serious Eats recommended the following Dutched cocoas with most of them being higher in fat content.

  • Nu Naturals
  • Cacao Barry Extra Brute
  • Callebaut CP777
  • King Arthur Bensdorp Royal Dutch
  • Droste
  • Valrhona

If in the past, you have just grabbed whatever carton of cocoa powder you saw on the shelf, I hope this Tip will give you the information you need to make a more informed decision.

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Making your baked goods rise!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Organic Meat & Dairy

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

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

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

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

Possible benefits:

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

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

Image by Penny from Pixabay


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


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


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

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

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

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Organic Produce – is it worth the cost?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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