I recently wrote a series of Cooking Tips on Healthy Eating and Cooking. Although I did not use the term “Mediterranean”, much of what I wrote about is very consistent with eating a Mediterranean diet. Since this is a very healthy way to cook and eat, I thought I would write this Cooking Tip on that very subject.
The term “Mediterranean cuisine” is not synonymous with the term “Mediterranean diet”. The cuisine of the Mediterranean is of a great variety as there are twenty-one countries bordering the Mediterranean. When the Mediterranean diet is referenced, most are referring to how they eat in Italy, Spain, southern France, Greece, the isle of Crete and the Middle East. All of these have a focus on the following type of diet.
Moderately high intake of fresh fish and low intake of poultry and meat
Moderate amounts of dairy products, mostly cheese that is not high in fat as well as yogurt
Garlic, nuts, herbs, spices all add flavor & interest
Potatoes & rice are eaten in restraint
Pasta is a side or first course, not a main course
Dessert is usually fresh fruit or, in some cases, honey-based sweets
Moderate alcohol consumption, preferably from wine and usually with meals
If you wish to start cooking and eating this way, start with stocking your pantry and refrigerator the Mediterranean way. Following is a list of common ingredients although it is far from complete.
Olive oil, usually extra-virgin (For a more in-depth discussion of olive oil, see this Tip.)
Herbs – common Mediterranean herbs are parsley, dill, rosemary, thyme, sage, mint, fennel, bay, tarragon, lemon verbena and oregano. As much as possible, try to use fresh herbs. Oregano might be one exception.
Dairy – cheese made from sheep’s and goat’s milk as well as yogurt.
Beans and lentils
Rice and grains, especially ones such as bulgur, farro, barley, wheat berries and quinoa. For more info, see this Tip.
Vinegars – balsamic, red wine and white wine
Pomegranate molasses – this is reduced pomegranate juice used especially in Middle Eastern and Persian cooking.
Preserved lemons – lemons pickled in salt and their own juices. Common in North African dishes.
Rose water – water that has been infused with the essence of rose and is often used in Middle Eastern, Indian and Persian cuisines.
Harissa – a spicy, fruity chili paste.
Tahini – ground sesame seed paste.
Once you have guidelines on ingredients and what to eat, cooking Mediterranean dishes is no different than any other cooking. Having decent knife skills, understanding the different types of cooking (sautéing, steaming, poaching, baking, roasting, etc.), knowing how to use herbs/spices and understanding what NOT to do in the kitchen are all skills that transcend cuisines. Check out my other Tips on these subjects. If you are in the Colorado area, consider booking a class to help you with any or all of these skills. For great ideas on how to cook Mediterranean, consider attending one of these upcoming classes.
When you think of Italian food, what do you think of? Is it pizza, spaghetti or lasagna? There is so much more to Italian food than that. One of those “other” dishes would be Gnocchi. What gnocchi is, how to make it and how to serve it are the subjects of this Cooking Tip.
The word “gnocchi” actually means “lumps”, although the word is said to derive from the old Lombard phrase knohha, meaning “knot” or from nocca, which means knuckles. We often call these” Potato Dumplings” but they were not always made with potato. This dish dates as far back as the 1300s when it was made from flour or breadcrumbs. A cookbook from 1570 contains a recipe made from flour/breadcrumbs/water and pushed through the holes of a cheese grater. The potato version probably began in the 16th or 17th century.
Since potato gnocchi are the main variety found outside Italy, let’s discuss how to make them. The goal is to make light and airy gnocchi although it is easy to end up with dense and heavy ones if you aren’t careful.
The type of potato is important. Almost all experts recommend using a dry, floury variety like Russets. Some feel that a white all-purpose or a Yukon gold are acceptable but if you have never made them before, stick with the Russet. They have a lower water content and a higher starch content. Because of this, you can add less flour, which means less gluten and an end product that is more tender.
How you cook the potatoes is a bit of a debate. There are those that only recommend baking them in their skins as this will remove moisture. Others feel the potatoes can be boiled but do advise to boil them in the skins to reduce moisture.
Whichever method you use to cook the potatoes, you then want to mash them while they are hot. The absolute best method for this (as well as making mashed potatoes) is to use a ricer. These are inexpensive tools that are worth the money.
After ricing (or mashing), the hot potatoes should be spread out on your cutting board or baking sheet so they cool and to maximize moisture evaporation.
Eggs are not a traditional ingredient although many recipes will add one as it makes an easier to handle gnocchi due to its capacity to help bind the dough together. This prevents the gnocchi from disintegrating in the boiling water. Eggs also add richness to the finished product. The downside is that the egg white can contribute to a denser and chewier gnocchi. Using only the yolk is a great alternative.
Once cool, it is time to make the dough. Mound up the cooled potatoes and start to add a bit of flour and egg, if using. As excess flour is the enemy to light and tender gnocchi, you only want to add as much flour as necessary to get a cohesive dough. Harold McGee says you should need less than 1 cup per pound of potatoes. Cook’s Illustrated recommends weighing your ingredients and using 4 ounces of flour to 16 ounces of riced potatoes. Whatever recipe you follow, do not add all the flour at once. Add it in stages to get the proper result.
The ingredients should be gently kneaded into a dough. Using something like a bench scraper and just scraping and folding can help in preventing over-kneading. Your goal is a moist but not sticky dough.
After you obtain a nice dough, it is portioned and rolled out into a thin rope. It is cut into pieces, generally about ¾ of an inch in size. Shaping into the traditional ridged C-shape is next. This can be done by using a gnocchi board or a fork. A wonderful friend who had lived in Italy gave me a gnocchi board and I love it. It is very easy to use.
For cooking, they are normally gently placed into boiling, salted water and cooked only until they rise to the surface. They are plated and dressed with a sauce. Some find that they can be cooked directly in the sauce without the boiling stage.
Sauces are varied but include marinara, pesto and a butter sauce with sage, herbs and/or garlic. One of my favorites is a sun-dried tomato pesto.
What are the problems that arise in making gnocchi?
Dense and chewy gnocchi – this is normally due to adding too much flour and/or kneading too aggressively.
Lumpy mashed potatoes – using a ricer will give you a smooth and airy result.
Bland flavor – cooking them in salted water and then serving with a flavorful sauce is the answer to this problem.
Every area of Italy has its distinct gnocchi style and sauce.
As mentioned above, gnocchi can be made with just flour and water although they will be heavier and denser than potato gnocchi.
Gnudi di Ricotta – ricotta dumplings
These are more common in Tuscany and use no potatoes. Rather, strained ricotta, egg, breadcrumbs and cheese are combined and rolled into balls before being dusted in semolina. After cooking, they are fried in butter until golden brown.
Gnocchi alla Romana – semolina gnocchi
This dish originated in Rome and is made with semolina flour. Traditionally, the dough is chilled, cut and baked with butter and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.
This is a French version of gnocchi. The base is a choux pastry (the dough used to make profiteroles.) The dough is dropped into water via a piping bag to cook followed by putting them into a pan of butter to crisp up. Finally, it is dressed with lemon juice and herbs.
Eaten on the Italian island of Sardinia, this variety is made with only semolina flour and water, sometimes colored with saffron. This results in a denser and chewier gnocchi.
The traditional sauce is Campidanese, a sausage, tomato and fennel ragu.
These are very colorful as they are made from ricotta, spinach and Parmesan bound together by semolina and egg. They tend to be larger than other gnocchi, about the size of a golf ball.
Fresh gnocchi can be frozen uncooked for up to 2 months. Boil them frozen although it will take a bit longer. Store cooked gnocchi in airtight container in refrigerator for up to 4 days.
Have you made gnocchi? Although they do take a bit of practice and patience, they can be a delightfully different Italian meal.
Many of you may know that I really do not like it when “Culinary Myths” are passed down without any thought to whether those myths are really true or not. This happens at all levels from home cooks to experienced chefs. I have already written two Cooking Tips on a number of such culinary myths. In this Tip, I want to discuss another topic that falls into this category. That is whether or not you preheat your pan before adding the fat.
I was taught a certain way in culinary school and just accepted it as fact. However, when you start to do a deeper dive into this subject, it is not as clear cut. I was taught that you heat your pan before adding the oil. There are also other individuals, well-respected in the culinary world, that also advise that. Because of this, I have often taught this to those who have attended my cooking classes. I began to wonder about the accuracy of this recommendation and decided to investigate.
There are two main reasons why preheating the pan before adding oil is advised. They are fat degradation and food sticking. You may also hear arguments about even food cooking and the pores in a pan.
Some feel that the longer the fat is in the pan being heated (such as would happen when you add the fat to the pan before heating it), the more likelihood there is of that fat breaking down into unpleasant and even unhealthy compounds.
While this may make sense on the surface, it really doesn’t when one considers that the fat will not start to deteriorate until it reaches its “smoke-point”. It doesn’t matter whether that fat is added to a cold or hot pan. All that matters is the temperature at which the respective fat starts to break down.
Here is a chart on smoke-points of various types of fat. As you can see from that chart, other than butter, extra-virgin olive oil, coconut oil and some nut oils, the smoke-points are above 360°F and often as high as 500°F. This is higher than you are going to use in most cooking situations. Therefore, the concern for fat degradation as a reason to preheat your pan really doesn’t stand up to scrutiny in most cases.
This reason goes like this adage – “Hot Pan, Cold Oil, Food Won’t Stick”. What makes food stick to a pan is if the pan isn’t hot enough. If you do not add your food until your pan is hot, it really doesn’t matter whether you put the oil in at the beginning of heating or after the pan is hot. If you put your food into a cold pan, it will stick no matter if there is oil in it or not.
If you heat your pan and add the “cold” oil (more like room temperature oil), the oil heats up immediately. You can see this for yourself by watching how quickly the oil starts to shimmer. As others have pointed out, the adage is incorrect in and of itself as in reality, it is “Hot Pan, Hot Oil, Food Won’t Stick.”
Pores in the pan
I was taught in culinary school that if you preheat your pan dry, the pores in it (microscopic holes) will close up allowing the oil to glide on the surface and prevent sticking. The proponents of this argue that if food is added before these pores close up, the pores will grab onto the food and cause sticking. However, the closure of the pores is a matter of the pan heating up, not when you add the oil. So, once again, make sure your pan is at the right temperature before adding the food.
If you put your fat into a cold pan and heat it, you will notice that the fat tends to pool around the side. Because of this, the temperature of your pan is going to be different at different spots. Some experts feel this will lead to uneven cooking. However, the difference in pan temperature occurs regardless of when you add the oil. It may be a good reason to make sure you are cooking with good quality cookware, which is more likely to heat evenly, but it is not a reason for preheating the pan before adding the oil.
With all that in mind, what is the home cook to do? For most situations, whether or not you preheat your pan before adding the oil really doesn’t matter. There are a few exceptions to this declaration. Here are some guidelines.
Almost always make sure your pan is hot before adding the food. Add the oil either before you start heating the pan or after it is hot but do not add the food until all is hot.
One exception to this is if you are cooking on a very gentle heat, such as sweating veggies or cooking fresh herbs or spices. In this case, you do not need to wait until your pan is hot. You can add both oil and ingredients to a cold pan and proceed to cook over a gentle heat. Many chefs feel that slower, more gentle heat/oil draws out more flavor. Too much heat can deactivate some flavor-producing enzymes in the allium family (onions, garlic) and/or drive off aromatic/flavorful essential oils in the herbs and spices.
If you want to sear a piece of protein to get that wonderful, flavorful crust, you may want to heat your pan first and then add the oil. If you have heated your pan so that it is above the smoke-point of your preferred fat, this will minimize the time that fat is in the extreme heat. Realize though, that fat degradation starts immediately upon reaching the smoke-point. If you are using something with a low smoke-point (such as butter) heat your pan, add your butter, add your protein and cook quickly. Another option is if you are using oil, you can brush the oil on the protein before putting it in the hot pan. That also leads to less splattering.
If you are pan frying or deep-fat frying, this takes much more oil than the typical sauteing or searing process. It could be quite dangerous to add this amount of oil to a hot pan. You are much better off adding the oil to a cold pan and heating them together.
The type of pan makes a difference.
Never pre-heat a dry non-stick pan. High heat can quickly cause the coating on such a pan to break down. Although non-stick pans do have their place (cooking eggs, making crepes, cooking delicate fish), they should not be used for any high-heat application.
Although rare, a cast-iron pan could crack if heated dry.
The thermal shock of adding cold oil to a preheated enameled cast-iron pot could cause cracking.
Check the instructions from your cookware manufacturer. Some advise against heating a dry pan.
So, there you go – another Culinary Myth busted. See my other two Tips (Part 1, Part 2) for more culinary myths. Have your ever heard anything about cooking and/or baking that you want investigated? Let me know.
I am going to be teaching a fun class on Crepes. I thought all of you might also enjoy learning all about these delightful creations. From very light and sweet crepes used to make Crepes Suzette to sturdier and nuttier Buckwheat crepes that you would use in a full-flavored savory dish, there is so much to learn. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.
Although you will find crepes used in other cuisines, they are French in origin. The word crêpe is French for pancake. They originated in Brittany in the northwest of France. At that time, they were not typically filled but rather eaten as bread. Buckwheat flour was the preferred flour up until about 100 years ago. A sidenote is that in some parts of France, the heartier Buckwheat crepe, normally containing a savory filling, is called a galette. The word “crepe” is reserved for the lighter and more likely sweet version.
February 2nd is known in France as Le Jour des Crêpes (the day of crepes). According to The Institute of Culinary Education, this celebration is “believed to have begun in the year 472 when crêpes were offered to French Catholic pilgrims visiting Rome for Candlemas by Pope Gelasio I. Now, Le Jour des Crêpes and Candlemas are synonymous occasions in France and Belgium, where crêpes take on additional meaning, their circular nature symbolizing either a coin or the sun.”
The ingredient list for crepes is small – flour, eggs, butter, milk and/or water. Other ingredients such as salt, sugar and vanilla are optional depending on the type of crepe you are making.
Flour – most standard crepes use just all-purpose flour. For a heartier crepe, buckwheat flour can be used. This is a very strong tasting flour, which can be tamed by using a combination of buckwheat and all-purpose flour. One advantage of using all buckwheat is that it is gluten-free. Rice flour can also be used for gluten-free crepes and is better suited when you want a lighter and/or sweet crepe. Other flours that can be used are garbanzo flour, chestnut flour and whole-wheat flour. Even cornmeal is sometimes used.
Liquid – some recipes may call only for water but this does lead to a bland crepe that lacks some structure. Milk gives you a richer crepe. There are those that feel all milk is too heavy and will use a mixture of milk and water.
Seasoning – for a savory crepe, just add a pinch of salt. For more variety, you can add finely chopped herbs, minced sun-dried tomatoes or other spices. For sweet crepes, add a touch of sugar and vanilla extract.
How to make crepes
Start by melting your butter and allowing it to cool just a bit so it doesn’t scramble the eggs. Browning your butter before using it adds a delightful nuttiness to the crepe. The easiest and best method for combining all these ingredients is by using a blender although you can do it by hand with a whisk. Just make sure everything is thoroughly incorporated and realize that your crepes might end up a bit denser than they would if you used a blender.
Some recipes will have you just add all the ingredients to the blender or bowl and then combine. Others will have you do it in steps. Those recipes have you start by first blending the liquid and eggs. This is followed by adding the flour and again blending. Finally, pour in the melted butter as the blender is running.
Most sources will tell you it is very important to rest your crepe batter for 30-60 minutes before cooking the crepes. You can even refrigerate it overnight. This allows the flour to fully hydrate, for bubbles to disappear and for the flavor to develop. There are those such as J. Kenji López-Alt of Serious Eats who feel the resting stage is not that important.
To cook them, you do not need any special equipment – only a small nonstick skillet. I have a special nonstick crepe pan that I love. It has a slightly larger surface area and shorter and straighter sides than a nonstick skillet. It looks something like this one. You can even purchase the type of crepe maker that you see experts using in crepe shops. The diameter of these is much larger and requires a bit of practice to learn how to twirl the batter to get a good result. I bought one for my husband and every time I get it out, I have to re-learn how to do it.
There are a few important tips on how to cook them. First, you want to add melted butter or oil to your hot pan. Add a small amount and wipe out the excess with a paper towel. Since you want a thin crepe, it is critical to only add enough batter to get this result. How much you add will depend on the size of your pan but for an 8-inch pan, you will want to try about 3 tablespoons. Add the batter to the center of the pan and quickly tilt and rotate the pan so the batter flows out and covers the bottom. As you cook a few, you will soon find the best amount of batter for your pan. For a scientific explanation of the best method, see this article from Physics.
Some recommend the “pour out” method in which you pour in more batter than you need, swirl the pan once to get an even coating followed quickly by pouring the excess batter back into your bowl. Try both methods and see which you prefer.
Cook them only until the bottom is set. This shouldn’t be more than 15-30 seconds. Carefully flip the crepe and finish cooking the other side for an additional 30 seconds or until set. If you cook them too long, they could get rubbery. Realize that crepes are similar to pancakes in that the first one often does not turn out. You will get better results as you do additional crepes.
Crepes are best eaten just after cooking. However, you can store them in the refrigerator in an airtight container for three days. Gently reheat them in a skillet before serving. They can be frozen up to a month. Be sure to place either wax paper or parchment between each crepe before placing in an airtight freezer bag.
Crepes are delicious but they are really just a type of envelope to hold the filling. This could be nothing more than my husband’s favorite of a sprinkling of lemon juice and sugar. It could also be whipped cream/berries, chocolate sauce, Nutella or the classic Crepes Suzette.
The French way to fill a crepe is to place the filling on the crepe and then fold it into quarters. You can also just roll them like an enchilada, fold them into a square or do a simple fold-over. Here is a link to a nice description of some of the most common folds.
Once you learn the basics and practice just a bit, you will be able to easily impress your friends and family with these delectable creations!
I have been working on a class I will be teaching on Crêpes. In the class, I will be teaching how to make different varieties of crêpes as well as numerous fillings, both savory and sweet. One of the sweet ones is an Orange Custard filling. Custards are delicious and wonderful creations and it is a technique that all cooks should know. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.
A custard is nothing more than a mixture of milk, eggs and often sugar that is cooked into a thickened product. It forms the filling not only for crêpes but also is the basis of crème brulee, flan, ice cream, quiche and more. It is not difficult to make a custard but there are some hints that I hope you find helpful. I also recommend that you invest in a good instant read thermometer as it will help you make a delicious custard that is safe to eat but not overcooked.
Custards can be categorized in a couple different ways. The first is by the cooking technique.
Baked custards are typically started on the stovetop but baked in the oven. Examples are crème brûlée, flan and cheesecake.
Stovetop (stirred) custards are, as the name implies, cooked totally on the cooktop. These custards are smooth, creamy and thickened but do not gel as with a baked custard. Examples are crème anglaise, pastry cream and zabaglione.
The other way to categorize custards is by how they are thickened.
Basic custards – thickened by eggs alone. They are delicate and care must be taken to not overcook them. They thicken between 160° and 180°F. Cooking it beyond 185°F may cause it to curdle and lose its shape as the egg proteins break down. You also run the risk of creating scrambled eggs. To prevent this, these custards are usually cooked by using a double boiler. They should never be boiled.
These custards are meant to be very soft and creamy although the thickness can be adjusted by changing the proportion of the egg content. If you use more whole eggs or egg whites, the custard will turn out firmer and glossier. More egg yolks (or yolks alone) produce a softer, creamier custard.
Examples – crème anglaise (which can be frozen into ice cream), flan, pot de crème, crème caramel.
Starch-thickened – this type of custard is thickened with the aid of a starch such as flour or cornstarch. They have more body and are not quite as delicate as the starch helps to protect against curdling. The recommended amount is one tablespoon of flour or two teaspoons cornstarch (or arrowroot) for every cup of liquid. Whereas this does help guard against curdling, it can also turn a smooth, creamy dish into a thicker and coarser one. This type of custard needs to be brought to a simmer to ensure it is cooked properly. A guideline is to cook it for 1-2 minutes after bubbles appear. For more information types of thickeners, see the Tip.
Examples – puddings, pastry cream, cheesecake.
Gelatin-set – gelatin is used to produce a set-up custard that can stand on its own after it has been chilled properly. I love using leaf gelatin rather than powdered for the silkiest texture. See this Tip for more info on gelatin types.
Examples – a classic example is a Bavarian, which is usually set in a decorative mold. A basic custard may also have gelatin added to it, often along with a fruit puree or chocolate. It then can be made into an icebox pie.
Now for some technique advice. Many custards start by having you beat/whisk the eggs (whole or just yolks) together with the sugar until it has thickened and turned light yellow. Some will recommend you continue to the “ribbon” stage, which means the mixture will form a ribbon as you lift up your spoon and allow the mixture to fall back into the bowl. These instructions are meant to help you ensure that the sugar has mostly dissolved. You do not necessarily need to go all the way to ribbon stage but a good mixing until the color and consistency changes is a good idea.
Some recipes will have you heat the dairy (milk, cream) before adding it to the egg/sugar mixture. This is not necessary unless you want to infuse flavor into the dairy. For example, I have a custard tart recipe in which I infuse vanilla seeds and orange zest into milk. This is achieved by bringing the dairy to a boil, adding those two ingredients, covering it, taking it off the heat and allowing to steep for 30 minutes. That steeped dairy is then whisked into the egg mixture. If I did not want to infuse any flavors, I could have added everything together and then heated it on the stovetop.
If you are told to add hot milk/cream to the egg mixture, the danger is that the eggs will start to cook and you will end up with a scrambled egg mixture. To avoid this, you should “temper” the hot liquid into the eggs. This simply means adding some of the hot liquid very slowly into the eggs while whisking. Once the eggs have been diluted with the dairy, you can put it all back into the pot and continue with the recipe.
If your egg/dairy mixture is started cold, the heating should be done very gently so as not cook the eggs but still thicken the mixture. Resist the temptation to turn up the heat to speed the process. I love how Harold McGee puts it in his book, On Food and Cooking.
“Turning up the heat is like accelerating on a wet road while you’re looking for an unfamiliar driveway. You get to your destination faster, but you may not be able to brake in time to avoid skidding past it.”
As he goes on to explain, the chemical reactions that cause the thickening of the custard don’t stop just because you take it off the heat. So, if you try to hurry this step, you may easily get to the point of curdling or overcooking.
Whether your custard is made totally on the stovetop or ends up in the oven, if there is no starch in it, it requires gentle heating. On a stovetop, this generally means using the double boiler method with constant stirring. If in the oven, a water bath should be used. A water bath just means putting the custard dishes in a larger pan (such as a roasting pan) that has enough hot water in it to go up about half-way the height of the custard dishes. Even though your oven temperature may be set at 350°F, the water in the pan won’t exceed 212°F (or even less if you live at altitude). This means the custards are exposed to a gentler & more even heat. Some recommend putting a rack in the bottom upon which you place the custard dishes so that they are not directly exposed to the hot bottom of the pan. Without a water bath, the outside of your custard could overcook before the center is done. With a water bath, you are more likely to catch them at the perfect degree of doneness.
If you are concerned about egg safety, you may be wondering if the eggs in a stovetop custard are cooked enough to sterilize them. As long as the mixture is cooked to at least 160°F, you will be fine. As mentioned above, you do not want the mixture to go above 185° or it might curdle. A basic crème anglaise should be ready between 175°-180°F but some recommend taking it to 180-185°F if using it to make ice cream as it will be a bit thicker.
Baked custards should come out of the oven when they are still jiggling when gently shaken, which will be around 170°-175°F.
Who doesn’t love a custardy dish? Whether you want to make a savory quiche, a chocolate pudding or an elegant crème brûlée, I trust this Tip will help you impress your friends/family.
Do you make your own bread? Do you want to learn how to make your own bread? When you look at recipes, there are certain similarities among the ingredients such as flour, yeast & water. However, other recipes might call for sugar, eggs, butter or milk. Why these ingredients are added in some recipes and not in others is the subject of this Cooking Tip.
All bread dough is not the same. There are different ways to categorize doughs but for the sake of this Tip, we will look at just one way. Doughs can be thought of as either Lean Doughs or Enriched Doughs.
This type of dough has a short ingredient list, generally only flour, salt, yeast and water. Some lean doughs may contain sugar/honey or even oil but only in very small amounts. For example, my favorite pizza dough recipe is a lean dough although it contains olive oil but only 2 tablespoons for a pound of flour.
When baked, lean doughs produce a bread with a crusty exterior and an airy open crumb (the interior). It also has a hollow sound when baked.
Examples of lean dough products
French & Italian breads
These doughs will have added ingredients such as fat, dairy, eggs and/or sugar. These ingredients enhance flavor and give you a bread with a soft and tender texture.
Fat tenderizes the dough by coating and shortening the gluten strands, creating a softer and more tender crumb.
Sugar weakens the gluten network by bonding to water molecules, blocking the flour proteins from doing the same. Remember that flour contains the proteins glutenin and gliadin. When these are mixed with water, the proteins combine to form gluten. So, by limiting the interaction of the flour and the water, you are limiting gluten development.
Sugar also absorbs water giving a moist, tender crumb.
Sugar browns quickly and so, many enriched doughs are baked at lower temperatures.
A sugar content of more than 10% will slow down yeast activity by pulling water away from the yeast, which means a longer fermentation time. Some recipes will call for an increased amount of yeast to compensate for this. You may also use what is termed “Osmotolerant” yeast. It is a special strain of yeast that works well in this environment.
This dough will also be heavier since sugar, butter and eggs are heavy ingredients.
Egg yolks will weaken the gluten network by bonding to flour proteins.
Egg whites contribute to the dough’s structure.
Breads made with eggs are tender and slower to stale.
This is another ingredient that weakens the gluten network while also yielding tender breads with a longer shelf life.
Examples of enriched dough products
Soft dinner rolls
You may ask why this should make a difference to you. Afterall, you just want to follow the recipe and end up with a delicious bread. Knowing the above information can help you achieve the end result you want. By looking at the ingredients in the recipe, you can immediately see if it is a lean or enriched dough. You will then know what your bread will be like – either crunchy and chewy or soft and tender. If you know what type of bread you want to have, you can then pick out a recipe that will produce that result. If you want those soft, pillowy dinner rolls, you are going to want an enriched dough recipe. On the other hand, if you want that chewy baguette, don’t use a recipe with those added ingredients.
Some people may ask which dough is better but it isn’t really a matter of better or worse. They are both equally great doughs but just give you different results. If you bake much bread, you will want to have both in your repertoire.
In this final installment of my series of Cooking Tips on healthy cooking/eating, I want to discuss fats and oils and the place they play in healthy cooking.
Ever since the 1970s, fat has been proclaimed as the worst offender in our diets. However, we are finally beginning to realize that not all fats are bad and that sugar plays at least as big, if not larger, role in unhealthy diets. As I mentioned in a prior Tip, the fats that you want to limit and/or avoid are saturated fats and, especially trans fats. (I must mention that the recommendation to avoid all saturated fats is not totally without disagreement. For a scholarly review of this subject, see this article published in a 2018 issue of Nutrients.) Even with sugar, it is not all sugar you need to limit but what is called “added sugar” – the sugar that is not natural in the food.
You may have heard the terms “good fats” and “bad fats”. Bad fats are usually thought of as saturated (see above article reference) and trans fats. As I mentioned in a prior tip, trans fats are normally found in packaged and processed foods. Sources of saturated fats are:
Meat products – lard, bacon, red meat, poultry skin
Good fats are:
Monounsaturated fats – found in olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, avocados, olives & nuts.
Omega-3 fatty acids – found in fatty fish, walnuts, chia seeds & flaxseeds.
Omega-6 fatty acids – found in vegetable oils (safflower, sunflower, oil and soybean) as well as sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and walnuts.
In the literature, there is some caution about omega-6 fatty acids based on the fact that the body can convert the most common omega-6 fatty acid, linolenic acid, into another fatty acid, arachidonic acid. The latter is a building block for molecules that can promote inflammation, blood clotting and blood vessel constriction. However, the body can also convert arachidonic acid into other molecules that calm inflammation and fight blood clots.
Most Americans eat more omega-6 fats than omega-3 fats, about 10 X more. Some will look at the ratio of omega-3 fatty acids to omega-6 fatty acids and advise us to cut back on omega-6 fats to improve this ratio. However, the problem is felt not so much to be an excess of omega-6 fats but a deficiency of omega-3 fats. So, you want to improve the intake of omega-3 fats but not decrease your intake of omega-6 fats. Here is a chart from Nutrition Action that breaks down oils in terms of saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated content.
Apart from health, there are other considerations for choosing which oil you should choose for cooking. There is really no one all-purpose oil for culinary purposes. It depends on how you are going to use the oil and something called the “smoke point”. This is the temperature at which the oil starts smoking and breaking down. Therefore, some oils are better suited to higher temperature cooking. See this chart from Serious Eats on smoke points. Here are some recommendations for oils to have in your kitchen.
A high-heat neutral-tasting oil – this is the type of oil you should reach for when you are doing high-heat cooking or in dishes where you do not want to taste the flavor of the oil. Examples include canola, safflower, sunflower, corn, grapeseed & peanut oil.
Olive oil – there is a difference between light or refined olive oil and extra-virgin olive oil. The latter has a lower smoke point and is generally more expensive. Most of us recommend saving this extra-virgin olive oil for making salad dressings or for dishes such as dips where you want the flavor to come through. For other uses, use a less expensive and more refined olive oil. (Stay tuned for a Tip specifically on extra-virgin olive oils.)
Specialty oils – if you cook Asian food, sesame oil is indispensable. Also, a nut oil such as walnut oil lends a wonderful flavor to nutty vinaigrettes. These are considered seasoning oils rather than cooking oils.
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 do that, some may thicken and you will need to let them sit out on your counter a few minutes to come to room temperature.
With this Tip, I bring my series on healthy cooking/eating to a close. I hope you found it helpful and it will be an impetus to improve your diet. Allow me to end with some advice with which I started this series. Get in your kitchen and cook more from scratch. Try to get away from processed and packaged foods. Just that one change will be a giant step in the right direction!
In the last Cooking Tip, I talked about choosing healthy proteins. In this Tip, I want to discuss how to cook those proteins so they are delicious as well as healthy.
As I mentioned in the last Tip, other than healthy fatty seafood, most of the best choices are lower in fat. That means they can easily dry out and be unappealing to eat. To prevent this, you need to take care when cooking them.
The best way to ensure your meat is not overcooked is to cook by internal temperature, not by time or appearance. I love the Thermapen by Thermoworks but there are other good thermometers out there that are less expensive. I wrote an earlier Tip on thermometers with more information.
When you are cooking that protein, you want to monitor the internal temperature intermittently and remove it from the heat before the internal temperature gets too high. For all meats, there will be what is called “carry-over cooking”. Once you take it off the heat, the internal temperature will continue to rise a few degrees – less with smaller pieces of meat, more with larger ones. So, you should pull it off a few degrees before hitting the desired temperature.
Below are some target numbers for different proteins. For a printable chart, click here.
Beef, pork, veal, lamb – 160°
Turkey, chicken – 165°
Fresh beef, pork, veal & lamb – 145° with a 3 minute rest
Note this does not account for varying temperatures between rare and well-done.
Poultry – 165°
Some feel that legs/thighs are more tender when cooked to 170-180° as it better breaks down the connective tissue.
Since chicken breasts are often over-cooked and unpalatable, see this article about cooking your chicken to a slightly lower temperature but holding it for a particular amount of time.
Wild – 120°
Farmed – 125°
Another way to improve flavor among beef & pork is to salt at the appropriate time, which is either a minimum of 45 minutes before cooking or immediately before cooking. If you salt in between those times, you are assured of a drier end product. For more information, see this Tip.
Now for some great ideas with actual recipes. First, I highly recommend you become skilled at making pan sauces. They can add wonderful flavor without much added sugar or fat. See this Tip for how to do this. Adding a quick and flavorful sauce to your beef, pork or poultry can easily enliven your dinner table.
Proteins do not need to be the main star of your dinner table. Why not add them to a great dinner salad? One of our favorites is this Summer Salad with Cumin-Crusted Salmon. Not only will you be eating some great fiber but also healthy seafood. The seasoning rub on this salmon is also just a great one to use whenever, not just with this salad.
Let’s move to Poultry. Have you ever noticed how large chicken breasts are nowadays? Most chicken breasts that are for sale in the store are at least 8 ounces and, at times, can weigh 10-12 ounces. If you are paying attention to portion control, you should limit your intake of meat to about 3-4 ounces per serving. So, when you see a recipe that calls for 4 breasts and it says that the recipe will serve four people, that is based on much smaller breasts. Weigh your chicken pieces before cooking and then only use the amount that will give you that 3-4 ounces per person.
Another thing to notice about chicken breasts is that they always have one end thicker than the other side. If you cook them whole, the thinner side will be overdone before the thicker end is cooked through. You can solve this problem in a number of ways. You can pound the breasts to an even thickness before cooking. You can slice the chicken into two so that one piece is thicker and the other thinner. Then, cook them, monitoring the temperature and taking the thinner one out when it is done and continuing to cook the thicker one. Finally, something that I like to do is to cut the chicken either into similarly sized strips or cubes and cooking them. This is a quick and easy technique that works great unless you wish to serve an entire breast.
The important thing is not to overcook your chicken. That is best done by monitoring the internal temperature. An interesting method I ran across a few years ago is this method on TheKitchn.com. It is very easy and turns out great results. I like to use this method and then slice the chicken for sandwiches rather than buying the much less healthy deli meat.
Here are some other recipes that I like. First up is one from Ellie Krieger –– Balsamic Chicken with Baby Spinach. There is great flavor plus wonderful nutrients from the spinach and tomatoes. Serve with whole wheat couscous for another burst of nutrition. Here is a “go to” recipe for when you need a quick but tasty dinner – Caramelized Onion Chicken from Cooking Light. Note that it does contain jam, which is high in sugar. However, it only uses a small amount. For a company-worthy but healthy dinner, try this one from Epicurious – Sauteed Chicken with Shallot-Herb Vinaigrette. I will caution you, though, that the marinating time listed is too long. See this Tip for more information.
I love pork but do try to limit my intake of it. Cutting a pork tenderloin into medallions, cooking them stovetop and then making a flavorful pan sauce is something so easy to do. Pork also pairs so well with fruit. Here are a few ideas.
I am not a fan of beef and so, it is easy for me to have it only rarely. If you are going to indulge in a steak, review last week’s Tip on which cuts are best and the above info on making a pan sauce. That will allow the steak to be shown off but enhanced in a healthy way.
Do you love bread as much as I do? I made some wonderful “Honey Butter Yeast Rolls” for Christmas dinner. Yes, they were fun to make. Yes, they were delicious. However, healthy they were not. Are you able to eat a healthy diet and still consume bread? That is the subject of this Cooking Tip, the 3rd in my series on Healthy Cooking & Eating.
Let me start with the disclaimer that I am not a dietician or a nutritionist. Also, I will acknowledge that there are those who feel we should never eat bread of any kind. Starting from the viewpoint that never consuming bread is not realistic for most of us, let’s try to see if some bread is better to eat than other kinds. I am also limiting this discussion to wheat bread, not gluten-free alternatives.
In my 1st Cooking Tip in this series, I mentioned a definition of healthy foods from the American Fitness Professionals Association. “Healthy foods … are those that are close to how we would find them in nature, have undergone few industrial processes, and contain few to no additives.” How does that apply to wheat bread?
When you find grains of wheat in nature, they are composed of an outer bran layer, an inner core called the endosperm, and the germ.
The bran is a fibrous outer layer that has abundant B vitamins, insoluble fiber, antioxidants and phytochemicals as well as a small amount of protein. This layer also contains most of the minerals in grain, such as iron, copper, zinc and magnesium.
The endosperm makes up about 85% of the kernel. It is about 50-75% starch and protein although it also contains some iron, B vitamins and soluble fiber. This is the part that becomes white flour.
The germ is high in fatty acids, a small amount of protein, trace minerals, B vitamins, vitamin E and phytochemicals.
To make white flour, the bran and the germ are removed leaving only the white endosperm. Because that process removes so many of the natural nutrients, the flour is then “enriched” by adding back in some of these nutrients. Minimum standards of how much should be added is set by the FDA. The whole grain also contains something called “phytochemicals”, the most important being antioxidants. According to Science Direct, “phytochemicals are defined as bioactive nutrient plant chemicals in fruits, vegetables, grains, and other plant foods that may provide desirable health benefits beyond basic nutrition to reduce the risk of major chronic diseases.” It is thought that over 75% of these are removed from the wheat kernel when making white flour. The healthy fatty acids in the germ are also removed to improve shelf life.
There are those that feel enriched white bread is not a bad choice because so many of the nutrients are put back into the flour. There are others that feel that the nutrients that are added in are not as healthful as they are not “natural” to the wheat. Most of those added nutrients are vitamins and minerals (although not all of them are replaced) and not the phytochemicals. One item that is definitely less in white flour is fiber but, once again, some feel the difference in fiber content between white flour and whole wheat flour is not significant. You will have to determine what is important for your family and yourself.
There is what is known as “ancient wheat”. This is a type of wheat that has been grown since the ancient times. One variety is called “Einkorn” and is felt by many to be far superior to our modern wheat. I have personally known people who cannot eat our processed flours who have no problem with einkorn. This even includes those with celiac disease. It is not a trial you should undertake, though, without your doctor’s advice. Still considered “ancient” but slightly different than einkorn are “Durum” and “Emmer” wheat.
How do you use all of this information? Whether you bake your own bread or buy bakery bread, you need to learn to read food labels. Even among the same type of flour or bread, the ingredients will vary according to brand. Let’s start with flours.
If you like white flour but want it enriched, it will be easy for you. Most of the standard supermarket brands will be enriched. If you would prefer to stay away from enriched flours, you need to look at the labels carefully to make sure they don’t list those items. For example, Gold Medal All-Purpose flour’s label shows this: “Bleached Wheat Flour, Niacin, Iron, Thiamin Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Enzymes, Folic Acid”. That is obviously enriched.
On the other hand, King Arthur All-Purpose flour has this ingredient list: “Unbleached Hard Red Wheat Flour, Malted Barley Flour”. No enrichment there. Bob’s Red Mill is another brand that has chosen not to enrich their white flour. A third one you can sometimes find in the stores is from Arrowhead Mills.
If you would rather get your nutrients in a whole form, opt for whole wheat flour. There should be at least a few options available where you shop. Baking with whole wheat flour, though, is not as simple as swapping it one-for-one for white flour. You should find recipes meant for whole wheat flours and do some experimenting.
Some people say they do not like the taste of whole wheat products as they are heavier and nuttier. There is a product called White Whole Wheat although not all companies make this. This type of flour is made from a different type of wheat but is still whole-grain. Baked goods using this will be lighter in texture and flavor. Not all brands make this product but King Arthur Flour does. I also saw a listing for a Kroger white whole wheat.
There are some wonderful whole wheat/grain bread recipes if you have the time to bake your own. Here are two that I have tried and liked.
If you do not want to make your own bread but just want to buy something acceptable, turn to the labels once again. Do not pay attention to the name of the bread as it can be confusing. The name might say whole wheat, multi-grain, all-natural, etc. This doesn’t really tell you much. What you want to see on the ingredient list is “whole grain” or “whole wheat”. Preferably, choose a bread where it says “100% whole-grain” or “100% whole-wheat”. At a minimum, you want the first ingredient to be whole wheat even if there are other ingredients following that. Even among different 100% whole grain products, look at the fiber content and buy the one that is highest. Try to avoid ones with added sugars. Looking at a number of 100% whole wheat breads in my local market showed the sugar content to vary from 1 gm to 4 gm per serving.
Just as you should check the labels on the store-bought bread, you should also check the nutritional facts for your home-made bread. Other than the preservatives (which I prefer to avoid) that are in the store-bought versions, the other nutritional facts may not be that different. For example, let’s look at this comparison. As you look at these, please note that one serving is one slice although the size of that slice might differ.
King Arthur 100% Whole Wheat Bread
Kroger 100% Whole Wheat Bread
Private Selection 100% Whole Wheat Bread
1 slice/55 grams
1 slice/34 gm
1 slice/45 grams
I think most of us would agree that bread is delicious and very satisfying. It is not something, though, that should be eaten with abandon on a healthy diet. I hope with this information, you will be able to make the best choices for you.
In this Part 2 of my Cooking Tips series on healthy cooking, I want to talk about one very important thing you can do and that is to eat more Whole Grains. I will not be talking about flours and bread in this Tip. That will be in a future Tip. For this one, I will concentrate on grains we may serve as a side dish. All recipes I note are ones that I have tested and find very tasty. Try these recipes as a way to get more whole grains into your diet in a delicious way but also as a starting point to experiment.
What are whole grains? Grains are the edible seeds of plants and for it to be “whole”, it must contain all of the main three parts of the seed.
Bran – fiber-rich outer layer with B vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals. The latter are naturally found in food and are felt to be important in disease prevention.
Germ – the core of the seed that is rich in healthy fats, vitamin E, B vitamins, antioxidants and phytochemicals.
Endosperm – the interior layer composed of carbohydrates, protein and small amounts of B vitamins and minerals.
When you are shopping, you need to pay attention to the nutritional facts label. It is not always straightforward. A 2013 study by Public Health Nutrition looked at products considered Whole Grain and evaluated them to see what would be most useful for the consumer as far as labeling. What they found was that just looking for the term “whole grain” can be misleading. You should see “whole grain” on the label and try to pick products where it is at the top of the ingredient list. However, also look for products with more fiber but less sugar, sodium and trans-fat.
There are many wonderful whole grains out there. Although you can get all of them online, I am going to limit my discussion to those you are most likely to find in your local supermarket. Some of these are gluten free and others are not. I will note that in the description.
Before discussing the individual grains, I want to talk about cooking them. I tend to cook whole grains with the “pasta method.” Cover the grains with liquid, bring to a boil, cover, reduce to simmer and cook until done. Here is a chart from the Whole Grains Council that will give you more specifics. If you are one of us that lives at high altitude, review this Tip on Cooking at High Altitude. You will need more water and more time to cook most of these whole grains.
To liven up the final dish, here are a few ideas.
Cook using low/no sodium broth. Can also cook in fruit juice but those are high in sugar. Vegetable juice is another alternative.
Toasting the grains before you cook them heightens the flavor. Those that take toasting well are amaranth, millet, oats, quinoa & wheat berries.
Whole kernels are ground into cornmeal, which is then often used in baking.
Popcorn is a different strain of corn but is still a whole grain.
Polenta, toss fresh corn in salads, soups and quiches.
This is not really a grain but a pasta made from semolina flour, and therefore, is not a whole grain. There are whole grain varieties that are made of whole wheat durum flour. They are much harder to find in stores but are readily available online.
The whole kernels of hard red spring wheat before it is ground into flour.
Because they are whole and firm, they take a while to cook. It is often recommended that you soak them overnight to shorten the cooking time.
Cook them in simmering liquid for anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour or cook them in a slow cooker.
It is chewy & nutty.
Add to soup, chili, salads, side dishes.
That is quite a bit of information but just scratches the surface on whole grains. I hope you are intrigued and challenged to try some of these whole grains. I know my favorites are bulgur and farro. What about you? Do you have a favorite?