Cooking Tips · Ingredients · Techniques

Flavor in your food – Natural or Artificial?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cooking Tips · Ingredients · Techniques

Cookies – make them the best they can be!

Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay

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

Baking pans

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

Shaping cookies

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

Rolling out dough

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

Doubling a recipe

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

Ingredients

Butter

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

Sugar

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

Leavening

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

Salt

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

Mix-ins

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

Freezing cookies and cookie dough

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

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

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Brining your turkey – is it worth it?

How do you cook your Thanksgiving turkey? Do you brine it or do you use a different method of preparation? What brining is, how to do it and whether it is worth it is the subject of this Cooking Tip. I am posting this Tip early with the hope that it will help you decide if it is something that you want to do this Thanksgiving.

Brining your turkey became popular a few decades ago and chefs everywhere proclaimed its usefulness and home cooks fell in step. However, it is not nearly as popular as it once was for a number of reasons. Even chefs who were once great proponents have fallen off the “brining bandwagon”. Before we investigate why this is so, let’s look at what it is and what it is supposed to do. I will start with the procedure for wet brining and then discuss a nice alternative of dry brining at the end.

A wet brine is basically just a strong solution of salt and water. It is said to have three goals – producing meat that is tender, juicy and well-seasoned. As your turkey (or other protein) sits in this solution, salt is drawn into the meat and the protein structure of the meat changes. This reduces its toughness and increases its capacity to hold on to water and stay juicy. It also seasons the meat all the way to its interior.

Brining is not a difficult process but you must adhere to the instructions. You need to take the following items into consideration. I am not going to list actual recipes as you can find them anywhere. Instead, I want to talk about some general principles. With those, you do not necessarily need a recipe.

Ratio of salt to water

  • This is the most important factor in successful brining.
  • Most experts recommend a 5-8% salt solution. This should be done by weight, not volume, although most recipes will have done the math for you.
  • Cooks Illustrated likes a 9% solution as their tasters liked the extra salt.
  • Many scientific studies have shown that the maximal moisture absorption occurs at 6% and this is the ratio that Serious Eats recommends.
  • Pay attention to what type of salt you are using if you are measuring by volume. A cup of table salt is going to weigh much more than a cup of kosher salt. Also, the weight can even vary among brands of kosher salt. Therefore, if you are making your own brine without a recipe, grab a kitchen scale and measure it correctly. Otherwise, note which salt your recipe specifies.

Submersion

  • Your turkey must be totally submerged in the solution. Depending on how large your turkey is, this can be difficult to achieve.
  • For smaller birds, a large stock pot may work.
  • Some people use coolers, other use plastic bags or some other large container. I must advise caution with these methods, though, due to the next concern – that of keeping it cold.

Temperature

  • Since your turkey is going to be brining for a long time, it needs to stay cold (under 40°F) during this entire time. That is not a problem if you have space in your refrigerator.
  • If not, you need to ensure it stays properly cold. If you live where the weather is cold, your garage may be a viable alternative. However, stay vigilant and check that the water solution stays cold.

Time

  • Most recipes will give you a range of times for brining. Although you always want to brine for at least the lower time, you do not need to go to the longest time. Most of the salt movement happens within the first 4 hours.
  • You can brine in less time by using a more concentrated salt solution. For example, Cooks Illustrated’s normal brine using ½ cup table salt per gallon of water recommends a time of 12-14 hours. However, if you increase this to 1 cup table salt per gallon of water, they recommend reducing the brining time to 4-6 hours.

Roasting

  • After brining, the turkey needs to be thoroughly dried. If you are short of time, you can just pat it dry.
  • For crispier skin, let it sit in the refrigerator, uncovered, for a few hours or even overnight.

Other

  • Do not brine kosher or self-basing (enhanced, injected) turkeys as they have already been treated with salt.
  • Many recipes add aromatics and sweeteners to the brine. These are totally unnecessary as they only will flavor the skin.
  • Turkey is not the only protein that you can brine but you can do the same with chicken, pork, etc.

If brining has been so popular, why would you not do it? Here are two main reasons.

  1. It is a hassle – see the technique discussion above.
  2. It washes out the turkey flavor. The added moisture that you get from a wet brine is mostly water that is absorbed into the turkey. This can lead to a watered down turkey flavor.

What is the alternative?

  • First, do not over-cook your turkey. Use care and an instant read thermometer to help you get a safe but not dry turkey.
  • Try spatchcocking your turkey. The downside of this is that you do not have the entire, pretty and golden turkey to put on your table.
  • Dry Brine
    • A dry brine is basically pre-salting your protein for an appropriate amount of time. See this Tip for more info on this.This method helps a turkey to retain its natural moisture without adding any water, leading to more intense flavors. Adding baking powder to the salt can help the skin to crisp up and brown better.Here is a basic dry brine – Mix ½ cup Diamond Crystal kosher salt or 6 Tbsp Morton’s kosher salt with 2 Tbsp baking powder. Pat turkey dry and sprinkle salt mixture on all surfaces. How much of this mixture you use will depend on the size of your bird. Set it on a rack set in a rimmed baking sheet and refrigerate, uncovered 12-24 hours. Proceed with roasting, without rinsing, but do not add any additional salt.
    • The proponents of this measure feel that Kosher salt is a must for easy sprinkling and prevention of clumping as it falls evenly over the surface.

So, there you have it – the pros and cons of brining. I hope this Tip helps make your Thanksgiving dinner prep just a bit less stressful.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients · Techniques

Egg Wash & Other Finishing Touches

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

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

Purpose of an egg wash

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

How to make an egg wash

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

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

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

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

Whole egg with no liquid

  • Rich golden color
  • Deep shine

Whole egg/water

  • Lighter brown color
  • Slightly glossy finish

Whole egg/milk

  • Excellent browning
  • Medium gloss

Whole egg/cream

  • Maximal browning
  • The most gloss

Egg white alone

  • Very little color
  • Nice shine

Egg white/water

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

Egg white/milk

  • Slight browning
  • Matte finish

Egg yolk alone

  • Vivid yellow color
  • Deep shine

Egg yolk/water

  • Paler yellow color
  • Less shine

Egg yolk/milk

  • Nice browning
  • Excellent shine

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

Milk (dairy or non-dairy)

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

Cream/Half & Half

  • Gives more shine than just milk but less than egg

Oil

  • Good shine
  • Crunchy texture

Butter, melted

  • Crispy texture
  • Browning
  • Buttery flavor

Honey or maple syrup thinned out with some milk

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

Water

  • Can create decent browning
  • Very little shine

Vegan egg wash

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

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

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

Happy Baking and Browning!

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Pie Plates – what are the differences?

As fall grows near and pie baking season approaches, many of you consider what type of pie crust you want to try and what fillings you wish to use. How many of you stopped to consider what type of pie plate to use and if there are differences among them? That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Other than holding your pie crust/filling, what should a good pie pan be like? Here are some of the considerations.

  • Durability – is it of high enough quality that it will last for many years?
  • Maneuverability – is it easy to put in and take out of oven and to the dinner table?
  • Browning – does it brown evenly from the top to the bottom and are the crusts crisp?
  • Versatility – does it perform equally well for flaky-crust pies and press-in crusts? Does the shape or size limit the recipes that can be used? Does it yield evenly baked, golden crusts and thoroughly-cooked fillings every time no matter the type of pie?
  • Size/Depth – The size needs to be able to hold the amount of filling you want for a fruit pie but not so big that it looks too small for icebox pies, custard pies or quiches. Most pie plates are 9-10 inches in diameter. Measure across the center from inside rim to opposite inside rim. Do not include the lip or handles. For depth, measure from top of rim to crease at bottom. A deep dish pie pan is said to be ½ to 2 inches in depth. A deep pan works best for double-crust and single crust pies with generous fillings. A 1½ inch pan can be used for both double and single crust pies.
  • Clean-up – how easy is it to clean? Is it dishwasher safe?
  • Value – how much does it cost?

There are three main materials out of which pie plates are made – glass, ceramic and metal. There are, of course, pros/cons to each.

Glass

  • Very affordable and widely available.
  • Heats slowly and allows heat to build gradually and evenly. This allows the pastry and filling to cook at the same moderate pace.
  • Bakes by both conduction and radiant heat energy, which allows the heat to go directly through the glass to the crust.
  • The clear bottom allows you to see how the bottom is baking.

Ceramic

  • Attractive with different designs and color.
  • Conducts heat slowly and evenly, leads to uniformly golden crusts and thoroughly cooked fillings.
  • Many can be used under the broiler.
  • Can’t see through them to check on the crust.
  • They are pricier and heavier.

Metal

  • Conducts heat rapidly and gets hotter in the oven leading to quicker browning. However, due to this, the pie can easily become over-browned if the pie filling needs to be in the oven for longer times.
  • One with a dull finish will absorb heat and bake faster than one with a shiny finish.
  • Choose a heavier pan made of a good heat conductor.

Disposable aluminum pie plates

  • Due to their thin walls, these pans can’t hold or transfer a significant amount of heat from oven to crust. So, the crusts bake more slowly and need more time in the oven.
  • For par-baking, may need to bake at least 10 minutes more than usual.
  • For double-crust pies, increase baking time by 10 minutes and cover with foil if pie is getting too dark.
  • Place on a preheated baking sheet for a well-browned bottom crust and more stability when moving out of the oven. Another tip is to bake the pie inside a glass or ceramic pan, which will aid with even heat distribution and more stability.

As you would expect, different experts had different opinions about the best pans but there are some similarities.

Cooks Illustrated – 2017 testing

  • They tested 2 metal, 2 ceramic and 3 glass pie plates. They found that all produced nicely cooked fillings but the quality of the crusts varied. The two problems were poor crust release & pale bottom crusts.
  • All 3 glass plates had problems with crust relief. This was not a problem with ceramic or metal.
  • All double-crust pies had nice golden-brown top crusts but varied in the brownness of the bottom crust. Those baked in metal or ceramic plates had nicely browned bottoms but the glass ones had softer, paler bottom crusts.
  • They found that the ceramic plates had less versatility as the fluted edges could interfere with forming the crust as you want.
  • Overall, they felt that metal plates were better heat conductors than glass or ceramic.
  • Their overall favorite was the Williams Sonoma Goldtouch Pro Nonstick Pie Dish. It baked evenly with nicely browned crusts on top and bottom. The slices were easy to cut/remove. It cooled quickly for safe handling and is dishwasher safe. The only drawback was that it can easily scratch if using metal utensils. They felt that this was only cosmetic and didn’t affect the performance.

Food & Wine – testing updated as of June 2022

  • Their favorite was the Pyrex 9 inch glass pie plate. It is inexpensive and well-proportioned but lacked the volume of a deep dish pie plate. It had even heat conduction resulting in crisp, uniformly golden pastry. The slices came out easily. It did not scratch and the simple edge lent itself to whatever crimp you want to do.
  • For deep dish plates, they liked two ceramic choices – Baker’s Advantage Deep Dish Pie Plate and Emile Henry Modern Classics Pie Dish.
    • The Emile Henry dish had a generous capacity and produced excellent browning. Besides looking elegant, it is advertised as safe in the microwave, the freezer and the dishwasher. The biggest downside is that it is a pricey dish.The Baker’s pan is more affordable but otherwise very similar. It is one of the heaviest pans and so, may need longer bake times. It is not recommended for the dishwasher.
    • There were two shortcomings of these ceramic pans. First, removing the slices was not always clean and easy. Also, the generous capacity led to slumping of the fruit when baking a tall fruit pie leading to a gap between the top crust and filling.
  • Another pan they liked was the Creo SmartGlass Pie Plate. It was created to combine the best features of glass and ceramic plates. It pairs an extra-durable borosilicate glass interior with a stylish ceramic exterior. It is lighter in the hand than full ceramic dishes. They found it to be consistent with excellent heat conduction resulting in golden crusts without sticking or soggy bottoms.
  • They agreed with Cooks Illustrated about the Williams Sonoma Goldtouch pan. They found it did a great job with blind baking crusts and had easy and clean removal of slices. They did not think it was versatile enough to rate as their #1 choice as custardy pies (e.g., pumpkin) had the edges shrink and the crust set faster than filling.

Serious Eats – a 2022 review of essential pie making equipment by Stella Parks

  • Her favorite was tempered glass pie plates. She stated that they are inexpensive, sturdy and nonreactive. They conduct heat rapidly resulting in the butter melting quickly and thus releasing steam to give you not only a golden crust but one with flaky layers. She does say that a thin, lightweight ceramic pan would have similar results.
  • She did not like the thick ceramic pie plates as the crusts were pale and greasy. She contributes this to the fact that they conduct heat slowly and so, the crust bakes slowly. This causes the butter to ooze out without cooking through. She found that this resulted in a bottom crust that was dense and soft rather than layered and crisp.
  • Her complaint with metal pans is that they are reactive and so are not appropriate for pies such as lemon meringue or key lime.
  • Finally, she was surprised at how well disposable aluminum pans did as they yielded crusts that were crisp and golden and gave the best browning and texture of all the pans. She warned as they will bake faster, this might be a problem for custard pies that call for a longer bake time.

Epicurious – tested first in 2019 & updated in 2022

  • Just as with Cooks Illustrated, their top pick was the Williams Sonoma Goldtouch Pro Nonstick Pie Dish. They found it to be sturdy and pies baked evenly with nice browning. The slices came out easily. They could even lift out an entire pie without it falling apart. It was lightweight and easy to transport. They also found that it would scratch with metal utensils but this did not interfere with its performance.
  • Their runner-up was the Pyrex 9 inch glass pie plate. As with others, they found it to be sturdy and inexpensive. It baked evenly and they liked the see-through bottom. They also agreed with Cooks Illustrated that it was slightly harder to clean and noted “stickage issues” with graham cracker crusts.

My “go-to” pie plate has always been one of the tempered glass plates. After looking at all the reviews, I may have to try the Williams Sonoma Goldtouch pan. What about you?

Cooking Tips · Techniques

The Final Step to a Great Pie

(Updated September 2022)

In the last few Cooking Tips, we have been discussing how to put that perfect pie on your dinner table. We looked at ingredients and techniques for making a great pie crust. You are now ready to put it in the oven but there is another subject to discuss – blind baking your pie crust. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Blind baking a pie crust is simply pre-baking your crust (either partially or totally) before adding your filling. So, when do you blind bake your crust? The simple answer you might say is – when the recipe tells you to do so. Yes, that is true, but there are general guidelines to let you know whether you should do this.

Pies that have fillings that are not baked require a fully baked pie crust. An example is a yummy French Silk Pie. Since the pie is not going into the oven after adding the filling, the pie crust needs to be fully baked.

Other times you want to blind bake is with custard pies or pies with delicate fillings. With custard pies (such as pumpkin), the moisture in the filling might make the crust soggy before the crust is fully baked. Partially baking the crust before adding the filling helps to prevent this. There are also some delicate fillings that are only briefly cooked on the stovetop. If you do not blind bake the crust but rather put the filling in an unbaked crust, the filling would be over-cooked before the crust is fully baked. An example is Chocolate Cream pie.

One time you do not want to blind bake is if you are making a double-crust pie. If you blind bake the bottom crust, your top crust won’t adhere to the bottom crust. If your filling is such that you would prefer a blind-baked crust to prevent sogginess, you can place decorative pieces of crust over the top to give you a type of open double crust such as in this Gooseberry Pie recipe.

Blind baking is not as simple as putting your unfilled pie crust in the oven. If you do that without adding some weight, your pie crust will puff up – not ideal if you want to put a delicious filling into it. It also makes it much more likely that the sides of your crust will droop before it sets.

Now we know why we need to blind bake a crust, how do we do it? There are three recommended ways depending on what you are looking for in your finished pie.

If you want a pie with a pretty crimped edge or you have a tall crust, line the unbaked crust with foil or parchment making sure it fully covers the crust and the edges of the pie crust. Foil is often preferred over parchment as you can get it into the corners better as well as folding it over the crust to prevent overbrowning. Fill the crust at least 2/3 full with something to weight the crust down as it bakes. I love ceramic pie weights. They conduct heat well and fill up the entire crust. Just make sure you have enough to fully cover the crust. I tend to use two boxes of these for one pie crust.

You have probably heard that you can use dry beans or rice. Those are poor heat conductors resulting in a longer baking time to get to the proper stage.  Another option is granulated sugar, an excellent heat conductor.

Stacey Ballis with MyRecipes.com did an experiment testing different types of weights. Her favorite method was granulated sugar, which conducts heat as well as the ceramic weights but gets into the corners of the pie crust better. She uses the sugar a couple of times and then uses it in her baking. Since it has slightly caramelized by being in the oven, she recommends using it for meringues. Serious Eats agrees with this choice. If you don’t want to use sugar, the ceramic weights are a close second.

As I discussed in last week’s Tip, you should have chilled your pie crust. If you haven’t done that by this step, you may chill it with the weights in place. After chilling, place it in a 375° oven for 20 minutes. Remove from oven and carefully remove the very hot pie weights. Prick the bottom with a fork and return crust to the oven. If you will be baking the pie filling, bake the crust for another 5-8 minutes. If you are not baking the filling, bake the crust for another 12-20 minutes until fully baked. This method should work for most pie crusts but some recipes may have slightly different baking temperatures and times.

A second method is called the “Low & Slow” method. With this method, the pie crust is baked at 350° with pie weights in place for an hour. Baking at a more moderate heat is said to reduce shrinkage & puffing.

A third method is to sandwich the crust between two pans and bake upside down. This method is good for pies with a flat edge that do not need the extra height or when you are not looking for a decorative edge. To use this method, place the crust in the pan and flatten its edge. Spray the outside of another pie pan and nestle into the crust. You may also line the crust with parchment before putting pans together. At this point, chill for 30 minutes to solidify fats and prevent shrinkage.

Now, place the pans upside down on a baking sheet so that the empty pan is on the bottom. Bake for 20 minutes in 375° oven. As the proponents of this method say, “Gravity ensures that as your crust slips ‘down’ the side of the pan, it’s actually moving up!” When baked, remove from the oven and use a spatula to carefully turn over and prick with fork. Return the crust to the oven right side up without second pan and bake for 15-20 minutes until golden brown. You may now fill the crust. When would you want to do this method? It is ideal for pies where the edge of the pie is not as important as its top, such as Lemon Meringue.

What about your pie plate? That is the subject of next week’s Cooking Tip. See you then!

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Techniques for a great pie crust

(Updated September 2022)

After discussing the ingredients you need to make a pie crust, I now want to turn to bringing that crust into reality. That is the subject of this week’s Cooking Tip – how to make a great pie crust. As you read this Tip, you will notice that I often give you different recommendations. Everyone has their preferred method and I want to give you alternatives so you can find what works best for you.

The first point I want to make is COLD is your friend when making pie crusts. The fat that you cut into the flour needs to stay solid as long as possible so that once it is in the oven, it will melt at the appropriate time creating steam and thus, the flaky layers we all crave in pie crusts.

The fist method is the hand method. Start by putting your flour and salt in a bowl and whisk together. I highly recommend weighing your ingredients but if not, measure carefully. At this point, if your kitchen is warm, you may want to refrigerate the bowl/ingredients/equipment. Your aim (no matter the ambient temperature) is a final dough temperature of 65° to 70°. Yes, you can take the temperature of your dough. Just one more reason to have a good digital thermometer in your kitchen armamentarium.

Serious Eats points out that if your room temperature is above 73°, everything that touches the dough will warm it. You may have noticed that your dough seems to need less water on a hot day. That is because the butter is softer making it act more like a liquid. Although you may be tempted to use less water, this may lead to a weaker dough giving you headaches when you try to roll it out.

A solution is to chill everything with an aim to keeping your dough temperature below 70°. Take everything (your bowl with the dry ingredients, your rolling pin and your pie pan) and put them all in the refrigerator. Your fat and your water should already be in there keeping COLD until you need them. If your countertop is warm, fill some plastic bags with ice water and place on the countertop to cool it.

Next, add your COLD fat – butter, shortening or a combination. If you are using a combination, cut up the shortening and add first. Mix it in until the mixture is like sand. Then, add your butter, which should be cut into small cubes, and toss gently in the flour. Working quickly, cut the butter into the flour. I think no tool works as well as your hands to do this step although you can use a pastry cutter. Using a snapping motion between your fingers and thumbs, you will flatten out the butter cubes. Continue this until all the butter is flattened. If your hands are warm, you may want to cool them under the cold tap first. Do not overmix – you want to be left with an uneven mixture with butter pieces that vary in size. Remember, this is what is going to give your crust its flaky layers. So, you do not want your butter to melt or totally disintegrate as you are doing this.

This is the point where you add the ICE water. One train of thought is to never add all the water at once. Add it incrementally so the dough does not get too wet. Start with drizzling in a few tablespoons and gently tossing the mixture. A bowl scraper works great for this. Continue until the dough holds together if you squeeze it in your palm. The reasoning for this is that excess water can lead to more gluten development. However, a too-dry dough can be very difficult to roll out.

Another point of view is that gluten is not necessarily the enemy of soft, flaky crusts. Adding the water listed in the recipe all at once and mixing until it comes together will give you a dough that is easier to roll out without tearing.

After adding the water and mixing, empty the bowl onto a very lightly floured surface or onto a piece of parchment paper. There are two ways you can proceed from here. The easiest is to just gently gather the dough into a ball. If it is still too dry, add more ice water but a small amount at a time. A spritz from a spray bottle may be all you need. If you have added too much water, sprinkle a bit more flour and gently mix it in.

A second way of finishing your pie dough is only slightly more work but gives you even more flaky layers. For this method, you may want to put your dough onto a piece of parchment. Press your dough into a rectangle and then, using the paper to assist you, fold it into thirds – just as you would a business letter — and then fold in half so it is square-shaped. If necessary, using a water bottle, spritz any dry areas with the ice water and then fold. You can also do this folding without parchment by putting your dough onto a floured counter and use a bench scraper to help with the folding.

At this point, shape your dough into the shape of the pan into which you will put it. This will make it easier to roll out to the correct shape. If you have made enough dough for a double crust, cut the dough in half before shaping. Some recommend rolling the shaped dough’s sides along a floured surface to smooth the edges.

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, formerly of Serious Eats, loves using a food processor to make the dough. He claims his method creates a tender and flaky dough that is very easy to roll out. He puts 2/3 of the flour in the food processor bowl along with salt and any sugar and pulses to incorporate. He then adds the cut-up butter and pulse until all the dry flour is gone followed by spreading the dough around the bowl with a rubber spatula. The rest of the flour is sprinkled over the dough and pulsed until the dough is slightly broken up. At this point, transfer the dough to a bowl, sprinkle with water and use the spatula to fold and press the dough until it comes together into a ball. If you want to read about his reasoning, see this article.

No matter which of the mixing methods you use, you need to next chill the dough. One recommendation is to wrap your dough into plastic and put in the refrigerator for a minimum of 30 minutes. This hardens the fat, which has warmed and softened during the mixing process. It also allows the gluten to relax. You may wish to freeze the dough at this point for use at a future time. If so, wrap in plastic and then in foil before putting in the freezer.

When you are ready to actually assemble your pie, remove the chilled crust from the refrigerator. If it has chilled longer than 30 minutes, you may need to let it warm up just a bit on the counter, leaving it wrapped. It needs to be soft enough to roll but should still be cold to the touch. As you roll it out, you should see large pieces of flattened butter.

Since rolling the dough “wakes” up the gluten and softens the butter, a different recommendation is to roll out your dough and put it in the pan right after you make it. Then, chill it thoroughly in the pie pan – about two hours.

Transferring it to the pan can be done by folding the rolled-out dough into quarters, placing it in the pan and unfolding it. Another method is to gently roll the dough around your rolling pin and then unrolling it over your pan.

You are now ready to finish your pie, right? No, remember the word I mentioned in the beginning – COLD. You want to chill your pie crust before filling it. Once again, this chilling helps to solidify that wonderful fat as well as minimizing shrinkage during baking.

Some just recommend refrigerating the dough after being put in the pie plate. As you have mixed and rolled out the dough, the gluten strands that have developed are stretched and want to snap back. You have probably seen that as you roll your dough; it doesn’t always stay put but tends to shrink. Resting the dough allows the tension in the strands to ease so they remain stretched and don’t shrink back when heated. However, as the pie is baked, the dough is not well set by the time the butter vaporizes. So, the air pockets created by the steam when the butter melts disappear. The soft, not-yet-set dough sinks into those spaces resulting in less flakiness.

Others recommend freezing the dough before baking. As you bake frozen dough, it heats up and sets relatively quickly in comparison to the time it takes the butter to melt. By the time the water in the butter starts to turn to steam, the dough is well into its setting stage. The air spaces occupied by the frozen butter, now that it has largely turned to steam, hold their shape because the dough has started to set. Thus, flakier layers. The downside is that as the water freezes, it holds the stretched gluten in place rather than allowing it to relax. So, when you bake it, the gluten strands snap back and the crust shrinks.

Many recommend a compromise by first refrigerating the dough for approximately 40 minutes to relax the gluten to minimize shrinkage followed by putting it in the freezer for 20 minutes to improve flakiness. Yes, this does require a bit more timing but could lead to a superior result. Now you are ready to choose your favorite filling. However, before putting your filling in the pan, stop and ask yourself if you need to par-bake your crust. Stay tuned for next week’s Tip as we delve into what par-baking is, when you need to do it and how to par-bake. See you then!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients · Techniques

Homemade Pasta — why bother?

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

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

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

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

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

Flour

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

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

AP flour

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

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

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

00 flour

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

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

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

Semolina

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

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

Pasta mix

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

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

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

Eggs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cooking Tips · Ingredients · Techniques

Flour — so much to know!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cooking Tips · Ingredients · Techniques

Is it Caramel, Toffee or Butterscotch?

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

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

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

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

Differences

Ingredients

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

Flavor

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

Temperature

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

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