Confit – A Delicious Cooking Method

If you have ever been to a French restaurant, you may have seen Duck Confit on the menu. If you ordered and eaten it, you know it is a special dish. My husband cooked the other night and made an absolutely delicious Rabbit Confit. If you think you do not like rabbit, you have probably never had it this way. Just what does “Confit” mean? That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

According to Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking, the word “confit” comes from the French verb “confire” and the Latin “conficere” meaning “to do, to produce, to make, to prepare.” This book goes on to explain that it was first applied to fruits cooked and preserved in a sugar syrup, honey or alcohol during medieval times. Later it was applied to vegetables pickled in vinegar, olives in oil, meats under fat and various food in salt.

Confit is not really a dish but a method of cooking. It is said to be a specialty of Gascony, France and to have derived from an ancient method of preserving meat where it is salted and cooked in its own fat. The meat was then packed into a crock and covered in its own cooking fat, which acted as a seal and a preservative.

Today, it is generally used to describe anything that has been cooked slowly and gently in fat to a wonderful consistency and flavor.

There are three basic components to this process.

  • A salt cure – salt is rubbed into the meat and then allowed to age for at least an hour or even up to 3 days. This draws out moisture, which then allows that water to be replaced by oil. This results in a very tender and flavorful product.
  • The fat – very common fats include duck, goose or chicken fat. An oil such as olive or vegetable can also be used. The food item is submerged in this fat.
  • A slow cooking process – after submerging the food item in the fat, it is cooked at a low temperature (~200-250°F) for a few hours. Often herbs and spices are added to infuse flavor.

Although you can eat the meat as soon as it is done cooking, there are those that say that it is not true confit unless you then store it submerged in the fat for two weeks. During this storage period, muscle and connective tissue continue to break down and tenderize the meat.

When stored properly, confit can be kept for several months. This means that it is fully covered in the oil without any air and it is kept cool, <40°F. Without this, there is a risk, albeit small, of botulism. This organism can grow in a low-oxygen environment. The meat is often salted again before storage to decrease this risk. Nitrates are also occasionally added.

You might ask how this is different from deep fat frying. The answer is the temperature. Confit is done at a relatively low temperature (~200-250°F) while deep fat frying is done at a much higher temperature (325-450°F). This higher temperature leads to quick moisture loss and a crispy exterior. Deep fat frying is also done in minutes, not hours as in confit.

Have you ever eaten duck (or other meat) confit? What did you think?
Even more, have you made it yourself? It is not hard; it just takes some time and care.
Let me know if you have or plan to make it.

Microwaves — Friend or Foe?

If I did a poll of all of you and asked if you had a microwave, I would suspect over 90% of you would respond in the affirmative. Statista.com reports that almost 13.5 million microwaves were shipped in the US in 2019. If you are a part of the group that does not have one, let me know and why you made that choice. In this Cooking Tip, I want to discuss this very useful but often maligned kitchen appliance.

Since most of us have a microwave, what should we be using them for and what should we keep out of them?

I mainly use my microwave for just a few tasks. I occasionally defrost food in them. I really do not like defrosting meat in them, though, as they often defrost unevenly and you can even get some cooked parts. I realize that it may be your only choice if you need to get that Chicken Marsala on the table quickly and your chicken is still frozen. If you can plan ahead and put your frozen item in the refrigerator the night before, that is the ideal situation. Another item I have mentioned in another Cooking Tip is a defrosting tray. This option is not as fast as a microwave but it is fairly quick and does a great job.

I will also use my microwave to melt butter and occasionally melt chocolate. The only real “cooking” I do is to heat frozen vegetables or to make my morning oatmeal.

Here are some other “non-cooking” ideas that others recommend.

  • Softening hard brown sugar — measure the amount of brown sugar you need into a microwave-safe bowl. You only want to warm the amount you need as the excess will just harden again. Place a dampened paper towel over the sugar and cover with plastic wrap. Warm in the microwave for 30 seconds at a time, checking often to avoid melting the sugar. I have done this and it does work well.
  • Toast nuts or spices – place in shallow bowl or pie plate in a thin, even layer. Start the microwave but stop, stir and check every 30 seconds until there is browning and you can smell the aroma. I must say that for a small amount of nuts/spices that this can be just as easily done stove-top in not much more time.
  • Softening the rawness of garlic – put unpeeled cloves in bowl and microwave for 15 seconds until cloves are warm. Not only does it soften the flavor but it also makes the cloves easy to peel.
  • Liquifying crystallized honey – Uncover honey jar and microwave 30 seconds or so. I prefer putting my jar of honey in a pot of hot water but the microwave method does work.
  • Soften stale bread — wrap bread in a damp paper towel, microwave for about 10 seconds. Check and repeat as needed.

What about the power levels? Microwaves work differently than your regular oven. In the latter, you turn down the temperature and the cooking temperature lowers. In a microwave, when you change the power level, the “magnetron” just cycles on and off. Because of this, Cook’s Illustrated recommends the following.

  • OK to use high power to:
    • Heat water, watery soups or beverages (But, see below for a warning about heating plain water.)
    • Make popcorn (or other foods less than ½ inch thick)
  • Use 50 percent power when:
    • Heating/reheating foods that can’t be stirred, such as lasagna, frozen chicken, potatoes
    • Bringing food to specific temperatures: softening butter, tempering chocolate
  • Lower power level OR stir frequently when:
    • Heating dairy-based foods such as chowder that can curdle
    • Heating splatter-prone foods such as tomato sauce
    • Melting splatter-prone butter

Here is some other general advice on using a microwave.

  • Always cover food. This not only protects the interior of the oven but it traps steam resulting in better cooking.
  • Stir or flip your food. This allows the microwaves to hit new parts of the food and promotes heat transfer.
  • Allow the food to rest when you take it out of the microwave. This allows the temperature of the food to even out.
  • Realize that not every container in your kitchen is microwave safe. If the item does not tell you that, GE Appliances recommends the following test.
    • Fill a microwave-safe cup with water.
    • Place the cup in the oven on or beside the utensil in question.
    • Microwave for only one minute on high.
    • If the water becomes hot and the dish remains cool, the dish is microwave safe. If the dish heats up, it should not be used for microwaving.

What about items you should not put in a microwave? We all know that foil or any type of metal is a no-no and I just mentioned not using dishes that are not meant for the microwaves but there are other items.

  • Nothing – do not run your microwave empty. Since there is nothing to absorb the microwaves, it can catch fire or otherwise damage the appliance.
  • Grapes – they can explode but I’m not sure why you would want to put your grapes in the microwave. For a scientific explanation, see this link. For a quirky video demonstrating this, see this link.
  • Eggs – whole eggs can explode and egg dishes such as scrambled eggs and frittatas will become rubbery.
  • Paper bags – these can release toxins and even catch fire.
  • Chili peppers – the capsaicin in these peppers can vaporize and irritate you when you open the door.
  • Plain water – water can actually become super-heated and bubble up vigorously and burn you. Putting something in the cup such as a wooden skewer helps to prevent this. It is still preferable, though, to heat your water either in an electric kettle or on the stovetop.

There are plenty of books and websites out there that talk about actually cooking meals with your microwave. I do not really see the point as you can put great food on your table using traditional cooking appliances in not that much time. Others feel differently. How about you? What do you use your microwave for? Let me know.

Puff Pastry — yummy layers of dough and butter!

After writing about Pastry Doughs in general, I wanted to get a bit more detailed about a few types. I already wrote about Phyllo Dough and in this Cooking Tip, I will expand on Puff Pastry.

The French call Puff Pastry by the name Pâte Feuilletée roughly translated to “pastry leaves”. It is a type of laminated dough, which means layers that are bonded together. In the pastry world, it is layers of dough and butter.

You can certainly buy puff pastry in the market. The most commonly-found and very highly rated is from Pepperidge Farm. They sell it not only in sheets but also in what they call cups and shells.

Making your own is not difficult in a technical manner but does take some time. You start by making something called a detrempe, which is the dough component. It is composed of flour, a small amount of butter, water and salt. The second component is the butter layer – the beurrage.

The detrempe is rolled into a large square and the butter layer is pounded into a slightly smaller square. There are different ways of incorporating the beurrage into the detrempe but most commonly, the beurrage is placed on top of the detrempe in a diamond pattern. Then, each corner of the detrempe is folded up to the center so that the butter layer is totally enclosed within the dough. This results in what is termed a paton. This paton is then rolled out to a rectangle and a process of rolling and folding commences. This process also involves chilling/resting the dough in between a number of these steps.

After the paton is rolled out, there are different types of folds you can do. One is called a “Book Fold” or “Double Fold”. This is where you fold both ends of the rectangular package into the center and then you fold one side over the other. This is termed “locking” the beurrage into the detrempe. This cycle of rolling out the dough and folding it again, turning the orientation by 90 degrees each time is repeated for at least 4 times.

Another type of fold is called a “Letter Fold”, which means just what it sounds like. You fold the dough like a letter. This has less layers than the book fold and so, it is recommended to repeat the rolling/folding 6 times.

How many layers do you end up obtaining? Many sources will quote all sorts of numbers from 500 to over 4000! Any mathematicians out there?

You might ask why a person would ever want to make their own puff pastry rather than buying it. Pros for store-bought are the convenience and consistency. The arguments for homemade are taste and the satisfaction of producing your own. You might also consider the ingredient list.

  • Pepperidge Farm ingredients – enriched wheat flour (flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), water, vegetable oils (palm, soybean, hydrogenated cottonseed), contains 2% or less of: high fructose corn syrup, salt, mono and diglycerides, soy lecithin, malted barley flour, turmeric and annatto extracts for color.
  • Homemade puff pastry – flour, butter, water, salt.

That being said, there are ones you can purchase with an ingredient list much closer to homemade but probably not in your local supermarket. Whole Foods Market does carry some although they are twice the price of Pepperidge Farm and, of course, there is always online.

Working with puff pastry

  • Use care when rolling out so you do not damage the structure. Do not roll over the edge as that will compress the edges.
  • Try to use even pressure as you roll so the butter is evenly distributed.
  • Try to let the pastry rest 5-10 minutes between rolling and cutting. After cutting, another rest period of 15 minutes helps to minimize shrinkage.
  • When you cut the rolled out dough, try to cut at a 90 degree angle so it will rise straight up in the oven.
  • Try to keep everything cold as you do not want the butter to melt before it goes into the oven.
  • Use a hot oven as you want maximal steam to puff it up.

Freezing puff pastry

This pastry freezes well either as a raw dough or when made up into the shape of your choice. It will be fine in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Any longer than that could result in fermentation and the dough turning gray.

Uses for puff pastry– both sweet and savory

  • It is often used to wrap items such as with a Beef Wellington or a sausage roll.
  • A sweet or savory tart or pie.
  • Palmiers (elephant ears) are an item that can be either sweet or savory depending on the filling/topping.
  • Cheese straws
  • Mille-feuille – French for a “thousand leaves”, it is very similar to what is known as a Napoleon. Both are composed of layers of puff pastry alternating with a sweet filling (often pastry cream) although a savory version can be made with a cheese filling.
  • Vol-au-vent – a creation where the puff pastry is baked into a sort of shell with a pastry lid and a filling.

Have you ever made your own Puff Pastry? Would you ever want to give it a try?

Let me know and I would be happy to show you how.

The Ins & Outs of Phyllo Dough

In my last Cooking Tip, I wrote in general terms about pastry doughs. In this Tip, I want to delve deeper into just one of those types — Phyllo Dough.

The word Phyllo (also known as filo/fillo) is said to come from “the Greek ancestor of the French word feuille, meaning leaf.” This type of pastry dough may go back as far as the 1500s in Istanbul.

It is made by making a stiff flour/water dough with a bit of salt and maybe some acid or oil. It is kneaded, rested and then stretched out so it gets thin enough to be translucent. In recipes calling for phyllo, these paper-thin sheets are layered to give a structure that is similar to puff pastry but the dough itself is virtually fat-free.

We will normally find phyllo in our stores in the freezer section. Although not the only brand, the major one you will find in our supermarkets is Athens and they make not only the sheets but also little phyllo cups. Because of the minimal fat content, many prefer these to little tart shells made with pie dough or puff pastry. They will be crunchier and more delicate, though.

It will most likely be frozen when you buy it and, most sources, including Athens, say phyllo should be allowed to defrost slowly in the refrigerator overnight. Some experts warn that if it thaws too quickly, the dough can become sticky. Others claim it can be thawed for several hours at room temperature. If at all possible, I would opt for thawing in the refrigerator.

Athens also recommends allowing it to sit at room temperature for a couple of hours before using. 

When you are ready to use it in your recipe, you must take certain precautions. Because of how thin it is, phyllo will quickly dry out and become brittle. The typical recommendation is to cover the sheets you are not using with a damp cloth to keep them moist and pliable. Cooks Illustrated finds that people often make the towel too wet leading to a sticky dough. They, therefore, recommend either covering the sheets with plastic wrap or parchment followed by a damp towel.

As the phyllo sheets are layered in a recipe, they are brushed or sprayed with oil or melted butter to keep them supple.  It is easy to get tears in the phyllo dough as you use it. If this happens, just make sure the tears don’t line up as you stack the phyllo sheets.

Bo Friberg in The Professional Pastry Chef warns that if phyllo is re-frozen, the sheets can become brittle. Athens say that you can store unused sheets in the refrigerator for up to 1 week if wrapped tightly in plastic wrap. They also say it can be refrozen for up to 2 months but recommend wrapping tightly in plastic wrap followed by foil. From personal experience, I can say that it does become more brittle the more you refreeze it.

Strudel is a variant of phyllo dough but it is made differently in that it is a wetter dough and contains more fat, often an egg. These two terms (phyllo & strudel) are sometimes used interchangeably and many apple strudel recipes are made with phyllo dough.

So, what can you make with phyllo dough? Many of us think of dishes such as baklava and spanakopita. It is also used in making both sweet and savory strudels. You can experiment and try phyllo in place of other pastry in items such as tarts and pies although the results will be different.

Yes, you can make your own phyllo dough but it does take some technique and quite a bit of practice. Have you ever made your own?  Let me know.

Pastry Doughs Explained

When you hear the word “Pastry”, what do you think of? Some just think of pies while others think of finicky French desserts. Even others think of something made by Sara Lee or Entenmann’s. In reality, the term “pastry” typically means a type of unleavened dough. However, “pastries” is a general term for sweet baked goods. There are different types of these unleavened doughs and they all have different purposes. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Different sources categorize pastry doughs in a slightly different manner. I hope you will find this categorization helpful and accurate. I will put these doughs into five categories.

The ingredient list for all types of pastry dough is very similar – flour, fat and liquid. The flour can be pastry, all-purpose or even bread flour. The fat is typically butter, lard, or shortening. The liquid is most commonly water but could be other liquids. Some doughs (called enriched doughs) may contain eggs, milk, cream, sour cream, crème fraiche or cream cheese. All doughs will probably contain a small amount of salt and sugar may be added to make a sweet dough. Which actual ingredients are used and the technique of putting them together is what makes the difference between these categories.

Shortcrust pastry

This is what most of us think of when we think of “pie dough” and it is the most common type used in our kitchens. I wrote an earlier Cooking Tip on pie doughs. You can get it here.

This type of pastry is probably the easiest to make. It may also be the most versatile. The basic ingredients are flour, fat, water and salt although sugar and eggs may be added if you want a sweetened shortcrust dough. The technique involves rubbing the fat into the flour before adding the liquid. Some recommend rubbing the fat until you get small pea-sized particles of fat coated in flour. Another technique, and one I think is superior, is snapping the flour-covered pieces of fat between your fingers to get flattened pieces. The important thing is to work quickly so the butter does not melt and to stop while you still have visible pieces of fat. Only after this step do you add your liquid and gently form it into a cohesive dough. For variations on this technique, see my prior Cooking Tip.

Puff pastry

This type of pastry contains the same basic ingredients but has a greatly different technique. It is what is termed a “laminated dough”. It has alternating layers of dough and butter. It is rolled out, folded, and repeated for a specified number of “turns”. All should be kept chilled throughout the process. When you bake it, the butter melts, producing steam and thus, flaky and puffy layers.

It is used for pie crusts, wrapping meat (such as a Beef Wellington), palmiers, vol-au-vents, cream horns, and mille feuilles.

Croissants are made from a type of laminated dough that differs from puff pastry in that it contains yeast, milk and a small amount of sugar. Danish dough is another variation of laminated dough that also uses eggs.

Making your own laminated pastry dough is certainly not as easy as making a shortcrust dough and takes much more time. It is also something that takes experience to perfect. It can be, however, a fun and very satisfying challenge.

Flaky pastry

The definition of flaky pastry is one upon which many disagree. Some use it to mean American-style pie crusts and others use it to refer to something called “Rough Puff Pastry.” This type of pastry is what you think of when you put your fork into your pie and you get wonderful, flaky pieces of the crust breaking off. It is hard to get this effect when you make a shortcrust dough. You can do it, though, with this much easier version of puff pastry.

It has all the basic ingredients (flour, butter, water, salt). It is the technique, though, that really sets it apart both from shortcrust and true puff pastry. It is made with cold, diced butter that you toss in the flour and gently smash flat. This is then rolled and folded like puff pastry. To read more about this technique and a link to Stella Parks’ excellent recipe, see this link. For King Arthur’s take on the flaky pastry, see this link. Their recipe is a bit unique as they add baking powder and sour cream to the basic ingredients.

Once again, all the large pieces of cold butter melt in the oven, creating steam and the wonderful flakes we all like. It makes a great crust for sweet and savory pies, sausage rolls and turnovers.

Choux pastry

This is also called Pâte à Choux and is what is used to make eclairs or profiteroles (cream puffs). The ingredients are flour, water, butter, eggs and salt. This type of pastry dough has a very different technique.

It starts with combining water, butter and salt in a pot and heating until the butter melts. This is followed by beating in the flour, which helps traps steam. The mixture is then beaten (usually with a stand mixer) until it is cool. At that point, eggs are added until the desired consistency is obtained. When the trapped steam is released in the oven, it creates a puffed up pastry.

The dough is typically piped onto a baking sheet. Once baked, this process produces a crisp outer shell and hollow interior that can be filled with a variety of fillings, most commonly pastry cream or just whipped cream. The finished pastries are also often topped with chocolate.

Phyllo pastry

This is a type of unleavened pastry composed of very thin, delicate sheets of dough layered with melted butter or oil between them. For more information on this type of pastry dough, watch for the next Cooking Tip.

All of us should know how to make a good shortcrust pastry, which is fairly simple and very versatile. I encourage you to branch out and try your hand at one of the other pastry doughs. If you are unsure about tackling them, contact me and we can arrange a cooking class just for you.

Pumpkin Pie or Squash Pie?

Pumpkin season has definitely arrived and I suspect most of us use more of this ingredient during the fall & winter than the rest of the year. Even though it is a very recognizable ingredient, there are some things that most of us do not know about pumpkin. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Pumpkin is a type of squash and according to Harold McGee in his On Food and Cooking, it belongs to the same scientific class as summer squash, acorn squash and spaghetti squash.

Although most of us probably use pumpkin in many different dishes, one of the major pumpkin-based foods that will grace our tables this fall is Pumpkin Pie. Most of us probably grab for the can of pumpkin puree but have you ever thought if there was a better way to make that famous pie?

The first thing you need to know is that inside that can of Libby’s Pumpkin Puree is not what we think of as a traditional pumpkin. It is reported that up to 90% of the pumpkin puree sold in the US is made from a variety of squash known as the Dickinson pumpkin, closely related to butternut squash. The major (although not only) brand is Libby’s and according to them,

All pumpkins, including the Dickinson pumpkin variety LIBBY’S Special Seed were bred from, are a variety of squash belonging to the Cucurbitaceae family or gourd family (which also includes melons and cucumbers). Libby’s proudly uses nothing but 100% pumpkin in our Libby’s solid pack pumpkin. We do not use Hubbard squash, or other types of squash.

Our Libby’s pumpkins don’t look like traditional carving pumpkins, but that’s a good thing because they are much tastier and have a more pleasant texture than your average Jack O’ Lantern!

If you wish to make a pie from a fresh “pumpkin”, you have many choices. Numerous sources have done taste tests using multiple different types of squash. It is very difficult to really come to any sort of conclusion from all these different tests. They did not necessarily use the same types of squash/pumpkin and not all of them compared fresh to canned. Some just compared different varieties of fresh. Despite that, let me share some of those results with you.

The Cooking Channel – They tested Acorn, Sugar, Cheese, Kabocha and Red Kuri squash and compared those with canned pumpkin. Although they felt all made good pies, their favorite was Red Kuri followed closely by Kabocha.

Cooks Illustrated compared canned to sugar pumpkin in both pumpkin pie and bread. Their tasters found the bread made with the fresh pumpkin was “more vegetal and less sweet” whereas in pie, they preferred the fresh as they felt it tasted more of the squash and less of the spices.

Kelly from FoodTasia compared canned to sugar pumpkins, butternut squash and Kabocha squash. When it came to the finished pies, she and her tasters preferred the ones made with the Kabocha and butternut squash, at least partially to what they deemed superior texture. The taste won out, too, and was termed “sweet, deep, rich and pumpkiny”. Between the sugar and canned pumpkins, the sugar’s texture was considered smoother but the tasters preferred the taste of the pie made from the canned pumpkin.

Lindsay from Love and Olive Oil compared Honeynut squash, Kabocha, Pink Banana and Fairytale. Her winners were Honeynut and Pink Banana. They were considered “flavorful with sweet notes of fresh pumpkin and a creamy overall texture.” She felt the Kabocha made a dry pie without much flavor. The Fairytale was watery with a vegetal taste.

Melissa Clark from the New York Times put the following against each other – Acorn, Blue Hubbard, Butternut, Carnival, Cheese, Delicata, Kabocha, Sugar and Spaghetti. Her favorite was the butternut squash. She thought the flavor of the pie made with acorn squash was comparable but she preferred the color of the butternut, making it her number one choice.

Serious Eats is a champion of the butternut squash for your holiday pie. They prefer it over canned pumpkin as they feel it has more pumpkin flavor, a smoother texture and a brighter color.

Joanne, from Fifteen Spatulas found something that many of the other sources noted. That is, even without the flavor difference, they preferred the pies from fresh pumpkin because of a superior texture that was “thicker and more velvety”. She compared canned to only one fresh variety – the sugar pie pumpkin. Besides the textural differences, she also preferred the flavor from the fresh pumpkin.

The test kitchen from Taste of Home prefers canned pumpkin. They felt it was easier, more available and the taste & texture was more consistent. When they did a taste comparison, it was canned vs sugar pie pumpkin. Their tasters felt that the spices were more prominent in the fresh variety but the pumpkin flavor was more pronounced with the canned pumpkin.

So, as you can see, there is not a lot of consensus. One consistency, though, is that you should never try to make a pie using the traditional pumpkin that you would carve and set on your porch. If you want to try fresh, your safest bet is probably butternut squash.

The “normal” pie pumpkin is the Sugar Pumpkin and it is smaller, darker orange, more flavorful and denser and drier than the jack-o-lantern pumpkin. However, not all tasters liked that compared to butternut squash.

As for the rest of the varieties spoken of in the testing, obtaining them may be a challenge. A look on my preferred market’s website shows they carry pie (sugar) pumpkins, butternut squash, acorn squash, fairytale, knucklehead and buttercup squash. That is actually more than I would have expected. Other neighborhood stores did carry Kabocha.

One nice advantage to canned pumpkin puree is its consistency. Each can is assured to taste the same and just like you expect it. Whenever you are using fresh produce, each item can taste different from the same type of item sitting next to it. All you have to do is eat two of the same variety of apple – they are bound to taste different. Second to the consistency is the unarguable convenience and availability of canned pumpkin.

Another item you will see on the shelves is Pumpkin Pie Filling. As opposed to pumpkin puree, it also contains spices and sweetener. It is basically a shortcut for making pumpkin pie. Either can be used in making pumpkin pie, although I prefer the plain puree and adding my own spices. However, pumpkin puree can be used in many different applications, sweet or savory. That is not true with Pumpkin Pie Filling, which is specifically for pies.

Will there be pumpkin pie on your holiday table this year? If so, will you opt for good ole Libby’s (or another brand) or will you make your own pumpkin puree?

Let me know and Happy Baking!

Silcone or Parchment?

I was recently teaching a cooking class on making party appetizers. In that class, I used both a silicone baking mat as well as parchment paper. Some questions about those items arose and I thought it would make a good Cooking Tip for all of us.

If you are like me, you have parchment paper, wax paper as well as some silicone baking mats. When should you use one over the other?

Wax Paper

Wax paper is made by applying a coating of wax to paper. Historically, beeswax would be used. Today there are two major types of wax used. Most commonly is food-safe paraffin. A few companies market a soybean wax paper. The first company to make paraffin wax rolls was Reynolds. Their Cut-Rite product is still offered in almost every market today. In fact, Reynolds states each year they sell enough of this product to circle the globe more than 15 times.

Wax paper is mostly used due to its non-stick properties. It is great for goodies such as chocolate-dipped items. It is also often used to wrap food for storage, to pack them for gift giving or to place between items in the freezer. It should not be used in baking if it will be directly exposed to the heat of an oven as it can actually ignite. Reynolds does say it may be used as a pan liner if the dough or batter completely covers the wax paper.

Parchment Paper

This is paper that has been coated with silicone rather than wax. This makes parchment not only nonstick but also heat and water resistant. It come in rolls or individual sheets and in different shapes and sizes. Stores generally carry bleached parchment although you can also find unbleached if you look for it.

Although parchment is heat resistant, not all brands are equal in this characteristic. My favorite brand, King Arthur, is rated to tolerate heat up to 450°F although their unbleached variety’s maximum temperature is 425°F. Reynolds recommends a maximum temperature of 425°F. Walmart’s Great Value is only 420°F. Be sure to check for the rating on the one you buy.

You may ask if those temperatures are absolute or if it is safe to use parchment above the recommended maximum. Cooks Illustrated contacted a couple companies to ask this question. The companies responded that using parchment at a higher temperature than recommended does not release any noxious chemicals. Nor will it burn. You will see, though, that the paper will turn very brown and become brittle, even crumbling.

Although I have no experience with this next product, there is something called Super Parchment. Supposedly it is thin like parchment but reusable like a silicone mat. It may also be cut to size. Have you used it? Let me know what you thought.

Silicone Baking Mats

Most of these mats have a sturdy, woven fiberglass core that is surrounded by a silicone covering. Some brands are made without the fiberglass core but this means they are less sturdy. Maximum temperatures may vary anywhere from 400°F to 480°F.

These mats are nonstick and heat resistant. They were invented by Guy Demarle, a French baker, in 1965. That invention is still being sold today and the original is known as Silpat. Today you are able to find numerous different brands and, as with parchment, they come in different sizes and shapes. Since the brand “Silpat” will probably be the most expensive, some reviewers looked at whether or not they were superior to other brands. Although Silpat consistently rated at the top of the list, other highly rates brands were Kitzini, Mrs. Anderson’s, Amazon Basics and Artisan.

Another discussion point is whether there is a difference in using parchment versus a silicone mat. Here are some considerations.

  • Reusability – silicone mats will last you practically forever whereas you can only reuse a parchment sheet a few times.
  • Temperature toleration – most silicone mats are rated to withstand higher temperatures than parchment.
  • Baking time – since silicone mats add a layer of insulation, your baking times may be a minute or so longer.
  • Size – silicone mats come in different sizes but you are not supposed to cut them due to the fiberglass core. You will, therefore, need to purchase different mats for different sized pans. Parchment on the other hand can be cut to any size you wish.
  • Cookies – Cookies baked on silicone mats tend to spread more than those baked on parchment. 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. Cookies baked on mats also tend towards greasy. 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.
  • Nonstick characteristics – although both parchment and silicone mats are nonstick, the latter is more effective in this aspect. This makes a silicone mat a superior product for dealing with very sticky items such as sticky candy, brittle, toffee, etc.

Are you like me and have all of these products? Or, do you just have one or two?

What do you prefer to use? Let me know.

Honey — A Wonderful Sweetener

My husband recently harvested his 2020 Wildflower honey. It is very interesting to note the different flavors when compared to his 2019 honey as this year with its drought led to the bees feasting on different flowers/plants. (If you want to taste them or purchase any great local Colorado Wildflower honey, let me know.) I am getting ready to teach a class at Hudson Gardens on how to use honey in your cooking/baking and I thought you might enjoy reading this Cooking Tip that I first wrote last year.

Honey is a delightful sweetener and is lovely to have in your arsenal. Because honey attracts and holds water, it can add great moisture to your baked goods. It can also act as a binder and thickener for sauces, dressings, marinades and dips.

There are, however, some cautions about cooking with honey. You cannot make a 1-to-1 swap from your recipe’s current sweetener (such as granulated sugar) to honey.  With so many wonderful recipes that were created with honey as an ingredient, I encourage you just to find this type of recipe. Someone has already done all the experimentation to come up with the right mix and amount of ingredients.

If you would like to convert a recipe from its current sugar to honey, here are some guidelines.

  • Begin by substituting only half of the amount of sugar in the recipe with honey. You might be able to up this as you continue experimenting but if you do it all at once, your recipe is likely to fail.
  • Because honey is a liquid sweetener, reduce the liquid in your recipe by ¼ cup for each cup of honey used.
  • In cookie recipes where the only liquid is eggs, increase the flour by 2 tablespoons per cup of honey.
  • Honey is an acidic ingredient. Therefore, add about ½ teaspoon baking soda for each cup of honey used.
  • Reduce your oven temperature by 25-75° to prevent over-browning as honey browns faster than sugar.
  • Choose your honey carefully. Very strongly flavored honeys should be used judiciously and are best in items such as spice cakes, spicy marinades and glazes (jerk spice, spare ribs, BBQ sauce). For a lighter dish, choose a lighter honey.

One wonderful characteristic of honey is that it is its own preservative. Therefore, it keeps for years although the flavor is best within a year of harvesting.

Store it at room temperature in your pantry. If you put honey in the refrigerator, it accelerates crystallization. Speaking of that somewhat irritating aspect of honey, what do you do with your honey when it has crystallized? Do not throw it away; it is not an indicator of spoilage, impurity, age or quality. Rather, it is a natural process that occurs when the glucose molecules align into orderly arrangements known as crystals.

You can reverse crystallization by any of the following methods.

  • Bring a pan of water to a boil, turn off the heat, place the honey container in the water with cap open & leave until both have cooled and the crystals have dissolved.
  • Microwave it in 10-second increments until the crystals dissolve.
  • For a more permanent solution, you can add corn syrup (assuming you have no objections to this ingredient). Because crystallization can only occur if all the sugar molecules are of the same structure, by adding something different (such as corn syrup), it will not crystallize. You do not need much – stir in 2 teaspoons of corn syrup per cup of honey.

Honey is such a wonderful ingredient and I would suspect we all have some in the pantry. It is great to spread on your bread or drizzle in your oatmeal. It is also an ingredient that has so much more to offer. Go someplace where you can taste all the different varieties, choose what you enjoy and have fun!

Tomato Passata – what is it and do you need it?

As the summer winds down and, with it, the fresh tomato season, you might wonder if there is a way to get that fresh tomato taste throughout the year. I wrote an earlier Cooking Tip on different canned tomato products but now I want to concentrate on Passata. It Italian, it is known as “passata di pomodoro”, meaning tomatoes passed through a sieve.

Passata is basically a thick but pourable uncooked tomato sauce. It is made from crushed and strained tomatoes to remove skin/seeds. Although some will say it is the same as tomato purée, it is not exactly the same product. Purée is the cooked version of tomato passata. Although the latter can be used in many dishes as a substitute for passata, it will not give you the freshness and brightness of a real passata. There are some brands that use both names on the jar.

What do you use it for? It is a great base for a pizza & pasta sauces, Indian dishes, soups, stews, chili, etc. It makes a thicker, more intensely flavored sauce than using the same amount of crushed or diced canned tomatoes.

Tomato passata may or may not be available in your local supermarket. It is certainly available online. If you find the product in the store, look at the ingredient list as it should only contain tomatoes and salt. It should be sold in bottles or small boxes, not cans.

There is no real substitute for passata but if your recipe calls for it and you have none, you can try a substitute. If the recipe only calls for a tablespoon or two, just try tomato paste. If you need more, put your canned tomatoes in a blender and then through a strainer.

You can also make it yourself at home and would be a great use for excess tomatoes from your garden. The best tomatoes to use are those that are ripe and flavorful, especially San Marzano and Roma. They should have a high flesh content compared to seeds.

There are a couple of different methods that people recommend. One has you boil the tomatoes briefly until they are soft and tender. After straining, they are put through a food mill. You can push them through a coarse strainer but it will be a lot more work depending on how many tomatoes you have.

An alternative method is to put chopped fresh tomatoes into a blender and process until there are no visible chunks. Pour through a strainer and push on the contents so only the skins remain. Discard skins.

No matter which method you use, do not add seasoning until you want to use it as it might limit the versatility. If you want it thicker, some recommend reducing it on the heat. However, this does reduce the fresh flavor and the same can be achieved when you actually use it.

For storage, you may either can it (using a proper canning method) or freeze. To freeze, pour into ice cube trays, freeze and then store in a freezer bag/container. Good for up to 3 months frozen. Canned passata may last up to a year in your pantry.

Do any of you have passata in your pantry? What do you use it for? Enjoy the fresh tomatoes while you can and if you have enough, try making passata for those cold, winter months!

All about Cherries

Are you a fan of fresh cherries? I am not although my husband loves them. I do, though, very much enjoy using them in cooking/baking. Just as with so many fruits, knowing just a bit about the fruit and the different varieties can help you have success in the kitchen. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

There are two main types of cherries – sweet and tart. Sweet cherries are those you eat out of hand as they have a much sweeter flavor than the tart varieties. The tarter version is usually turned into juice as well as being used in baking recipes where the tartness can be offset with sugar. They are also called sour or pie cherries.

With baking, most recipes will call for tart cherries. You can use either sweet or tart but you need to pay attention to the sugar content if the recipe calls for tart. One caution, though, is that sweet cherries can turn a bit mealy when baked. They do well when lightly cooked such as you would do in a pan sauce. An example is one of my favorite pork tenderloin recipes. It calls for roasting fresh cherries with shallots, turning that into a sauce and serving with spiced rubbed pork tenderloin. Another recipe that uses dried cherries is one where the pork is seasoned, seared and finished in the oven. In the same pan, you make a pan sauce with onions, dried cherries, port wine and just a touch of orange marmalade and butter. It is absolutely delicious.

There are many cherry varieties within the Sweet and Tart categories. I just want to mention the most common. They are a summer fruit but for more detail on availability, see this chart.

Sweet Cherries

  • Bing – this is the most popular variety. Its skin is deep red-purple to almost black and its flesh is dark red or purple. They are firm, sweet and juicy with a sweet, intense flavor. They have a 17-19% fruit sugar content. They are most available in May and June.
  • Rainier – these cherries are hard to miss as their skin is yellow with a pinkish blush. The flesh is also yellow and they have a colorless juice. The flavor is delicate and sweet with a 17-23% sugar content. Depending on where they are grown, you will see them in the stores from May through early July.
  • Chelan – ripening of Chelan cherries is about 2 weeks ahead of Bing, making them the leading early ripening sweet cherry of the Pacific Northwest. They are similar in appearance to Bings although a bit more mahogany. They have a 16-18% sugar level.
  • Lapin – these cherries ripen about 2 weeks after Bings. They are larger and very firm with a deep red skin and lighter red flesh. The sugar content is 16-18%.
  • Skeena – similar to Lapin, these ripen about 2 weeks after Bings. They are very dark red to almost black with a dark red flesh and a very dense texture. Sugar content is 16-20%.
  • Sweetheart – the appearance is evident from its name, heart-shaped. They are large with bright red skin and a similar flesh. They are harvested about 3 weeks after Bings. Their flavor is more mildly sweet with a 16-19% sugar content.

Tart cherries

  • Montmorency – this is the most popular tart cherry with about 75% being grown in Michigan. They are bright red with a pale yellow and very juicy flesh. You often find them dried, frozen or canned unless you near where they are grown.
  • Morello – this is really a family of cherries. It is another tart cherry with very dark skin, flesh and juice. They are often grown in the UK and there they are the most popular cooking cherry. English Morello cherry trees are popular in the United States with varieties such as the Kansas Sweet and Northstar.

They are also the dominant kind grown in Hungary. A Hungarian variety known as the Balaton cherry is now commercially cultivated in Michigan. The tart cherry season is short, July into August.

Since tart cherries are hard to find fresh, your choices are to buy them jarred, frozen or canned. Cooks Illustrated did a testing of various types of cherries (both fresh and processed) in making cherry cobbler. They found only one variety that passed their tasters’ muster. That was jarred Morello cherries from Trader Joe’s. However, I do not see it on their website and even on Amazon, it is unavailable.

Maraschino cherries

According to Harold McGee in On Food & Cooking, these cherries originated centuries ago in NE Italy and the Balkans, where the local “mascara” cherry was preserved in its own liqueur for the winter. In today’s version the cherries are bleached and stored in brine and then infused with sugar syrup, dyed a cherry color, flavored with almond extract and pasteurized. Hmm, no wonder I do not like them.

The real maraschino cherry is still available and made by a company called Luxardo. They are said to be the “original” maraschino cherries and supposedly taste nothing like what you find on our store shelves. Have you tried them? I haven’t and at the price (on Amazon, a 14 oz jar sells for $19), I’m not sure I will. If you do, let me know.

How to choose cherries

Try to select cherries that are plump, shiny (a sign of ripeness) and firm with green stems. Look for those that are deeply colored. Avoid ones that are bruised or cracked. It is better to choose ones with the stem on as they deteriorate faster with the stem removed.

Storing cherries

Since cherries should be completely ripe when shipped, they are very perishable. Refrigerate them as soon as you get them home. Do not wash them until you are ready to use them. If possible, store them in layers between paper towels. Cherries like the cold. According to James Michael (vice president of Northwest Cherry Growers), “They lose more quality in an hour at room temperature than they do all day at refrigerator temperature.” They will keep well in the refrigerator for about a week.

Freezing cherries

Remove stems, wash and pat dry. You may pit if desired. Place on a baking sheet and freeze in a single layer. Then, transfer to a freezer safe container.

Cooking/Baking with Cherries

To use them in cooking/baking, you will need to pit them. You can use a sharp paring knife but a cherry pitter will make your life much easier. I use one made by Oxo and find it does a good job. Cooks Illustrated tested a number of different styles and found the Tovolo the winner. In an update on this review, this product had been discontinued. The runner-up was the Chef’n QuickPit Cherry Pitter.

One helpful tidbit is that one pound of fresh cherries will yield 2½ cups of pitted cherries.

Even though as I write this, we are past peak cherry season, I hope this information will help you as you look forward to next year’s harvest!