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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
I was reading the ingredients on the package of one of my favorite potato chips the other day and near the bottom of the list was “Torula Yeast”. As this is a very uncommon ingredient, I suspected many of you may have never heard of it. That spurred me to write this Cooking Tip about all kinds of yeast. It may be too hot right now to turn on the oven to yeasted items but it will not be too long before fall baking is something we all desire to do.
Before I explain the different types of yeast, let me mention the relationship between rising time (fermentation) and flavor. In our hurry-up world, we all seem to want results faster and faster. Even in the world of yeasts, manufacturers have developed products that lead to a faster rise. This may help you get that bread item on the table faster but it is often at the expense of a more complex flavor. Allowing your dough to slowly ferment, even overnight in the refrigerator, leads to more flavor. This may not be something we can or want to do all the time. Just realize that with convenience often comes decreased flavor.
Let’s start with the three major types of yeast followed by some newer creations. (One type that we will not be discussing as it is outside the scope of this Tip is a sourdough starter.) Today’s world of yeast is a bit confusing and I think, at times, the names are just a marketing ploy and do not necessarily translate to real differences between the types of yeast. That being said, let’s try to make some sense of this topic.
Fresh –this is also known as “cake” or “compressed” yeast. It is 70% water by weight and is composed of 100% living cells. It is soft and easy to crumble. To proof, allow it to soften in the water (95°-100°F) called for in your recipe along with a bit of sugar, which is food for the yeast. It should be foamy in about 10 minutes. Alternatively, you can add a teaspoon of sugar to the yeast and mix it together. If it doesn’t become looser, you can add just enough water to get it to loosen up. When it is bubbling, add it to your recipe.
It does produce the most carbon dioxide of any kind of yeast and yields a very distinctive flavor. However, it is not easy to find in most stores. It has a very short shelf life and so, you need to be aware of its expiration date. You can freeze this yeast but its activity may be lessened when you do you use it. You may need to use more or just accept a longer rising time. Before using the frozen yeast, allow it to come to room temperature before proofing it. Because this type of yeast is very moist, you may want to decrease the water in your recipe just a bit if the recipe was not written for fresh yeast.
Active Dry (ADY) – this yeast is 95% dry matter and is in the form of little granules made up of live yeast cells surrounded by dehydrated cells and a growth medium. This yeast requires proofing, which is rehydrating the granules in lukewarm water to activate them. This removes the dead cells that surround the live yeast. If the yeast is properly activated, it will foam after a few minutes in the water. If it doesn’t, don’t use it as your dough will not rise.
An interesting tidbit comes to us from King Arthur Flour. They say that the “classic ADY manufacturing process dried live yeast cells quickly, at a high temperature. The result? Only about 30% of the cells survived. Dead cells “cocooned” around the live ones, making it necessary to “proof” the yeast—dissolve it in warm water—before using. These days, ADY is manufactured using a much gentler process, resulting in many more live cells. Thus, it’s no longer necessary to dissolve ADY in warm water before using — feel free to mix it with the dry ingredients, just as you do instant yeast.” If this makes you nervous, go ahead and proof it first.
Instant – this is also in granular form, although smaller in size. It is about 95% dry matter. It undergoes a gentler drying process than active dry. This results in all the dried particles being alive. Its shelf life is at least 6 months in your panty and even longer when kept in the freezer. Instant yeast contains ascorbic acid, an ingredient not found in active dry yeast. It is a dough conditioner and is what makes the dough rise faster, improves the elasticity and increases the volume of the risen dough.
Its great advantage is that since the live yeast is not surrounded by dead cells, it does not require proofing in warm water. Just add it directly to the dough. It will activate quicker than other types as well as being a more consistent yeast. I know if you have been baking for a long time, it will be hard for you to skip this proofing step. I must admit that I see recipes that call for instant yeast and erroneously recommend proofing. It will not hurt anything to proof the yeast but it is an extra unneeded step.
RapidRise & Bread Machine yeasts are really just instant yeast. One of the manufacturers of these yeasts is Fleischmann’s (RapidRise is a name trademarked by them) and their website state that these yeasts are the same as each other and as instant yeast and can be used interchangeably. They explain these products in the following way – the yeast in these products is “grown with a higher level of nutrients and are dried to lower moisture content. The particle size of RapidRise and Bread Machine Yeast are finely granulated to allow complete hydration of the yeast cells during the mixing process … In addition, RapidRise and Bread Machine Yeast contain ascorbic acid resulting in increased loaf volumes.” This allows the baker to use the “rapid bake” cycle on bread machines. So, what is the difference between these two yeasts? Is there a difference, or as I mentioned, is it just marketing? To tell you the truth, I am not sure.
Because these yeasts are formulated to rise even faster than instant yeast, they are unsuitable for doughs that require a long rise, such as when you refrigerate the dough overnight. Neither are they good for doughs that undergo more than one rise. As I mentioned in the beginning, expect a blander and one-note flavor.
Pizza Yeast – this is a product made by Fleischmann’s. It is meant for people who want pizza dough in a big hurry and do not want to have to take the time to let the dough rise. It contains not only yeast but dough relaxers, which inhibit the formation of strong gluten strands. That allows the dough to be easily stretched and quickly rise in the oven.
The downside is flavor & texture. Cooks Illustrated found it to be “leathery, not crisp on the exterior and spongy and soft on the interior.” They also found the flavor to be very bland as one might expect with a dough that has very little fermentation time. A tester at Cookistry.com tended to agree with this assessment.
Osmotolerant Yeast – this is a special strain of yeast that requires less water to function. Therefore, it is helpful in sweet doughs such as Challah. The sugar content of these doughs traps so much water that it interferes with activation of the yeast. If you make a lot of sweet doughs, you may want to consider trying this type of yeast as it will work faster than other types. The brand that is most available to home bakers is SAF in a gold package. Another brand is Instaferm.
Platinum yeast – this is a yeast marketed by Red Star. According to them, it is blended with “dough improvers” to make your dough more “forgiving”. Red Star’s regular instant yeast has the following ingredient list: “yeast, sorbitan monostearate, ascorbic acid”. Their platinum yeast contains “yeast, soy flour, ascorbic acid, sorbitan monostearate, wheat flour, enzymes”. So, as opposed to their regular yeast, it is not gluten free and also contains soy.
They also produce a Platinum Instant Sourdough yeast. Besides yeast, it contains sourdough culture. The ingredient list is “Cultured Rye Flour [rye flour, starter culture (Lactobacillus)], Yeast, Soy Flour, Ascorbic Acid, Sorbitan Monostearate, Wheat Flour, Enzymes”. It claims to give real sourdough flavor to your regular bread recipe. I have not tried it. If you have, let me know what you think.
Does the brand of yeast matter? Probably not as much as the type of yeast. Different manufacturers, though, might use different strains of yeast, which could mean different results. King Arthur Flour states that they do not like to use Fleischmann’s RapidRise. Even though the rising starts quicker than other brands, it also gives out sooner. They prefer SAF or Red Star because they like a longer rise, which leads to better flavor.
As with so many ingredients, I always recommend trying to stick with whatever is called for in the recipe. If you do need to substitute, here is a conversion chart.
Active dry yeast
Cautions with yeast
Don’t use hot water as it can kill the yeast. It should be lukewarm, 80-100°F.
Try not to add salt before the first proofing as it also can kill yeast. If your recipe calls for adding things all at once, do not put the salt right on top of the yeast. I generally mix all the other ingredients first and then add the salt and mix again.
Don’t use expired yeast.
If you are substituting instant for active dry, you can add it directly to the dough but you should also add the water that your recipe would have called for in the proofing step.
All the types of yeast we have discussed so far are known as “Baker’s” yeast as we use them in baking. There is another type of yeast called “Nutritional” yeast. It has been heated to deactivate its leavening power. It is consumed by vegans and vegetarians as it is a source of Vitamin B-12. It also adds a savory flavor due to its high level of glutamic acid. Some use it as an alternative to salt, especially for sprinkling on popcorn.
Torula yeast – this yeast is also inactive as far as leavening ability but is very savory and somewhat smoky and adds a great umami punch to dishes. It has become a popular replacement for MSG (for a Tip on MSG, click here) in products that tout “natural” food products, such as my aforementioned potato chips.
Brewer’s yeast – this is what is used in brewing beer.
Whew, who knew there was so much to know about yeast? To tell you the truth, this Tip has probably just scratched the surface. I hope, though, it has given you the information you need to bake those great yeasted breads!
After discussing cooking with cheese in general and then an explanation of some of the more popular hard/semi-hard cheeses in my last two Cooking Tips, I want to now turn to the world of softer cheeses.
As a review, here is the cheese categorization that I am using.
Semi-hard (or semi-firm)
Semi-soft cheeses contain much more moisture than the harder cheeses and, as a result, are much softer in texture.
Soft-ripened cheeses have a smooth interior and a thin rind.
Fresh cheeses are unaged with a high moisture content and a soft texture. Their flavor ranges from mild to tangy.
Fresh goat cheese (chèvre)
Blue cheeses contain blue veins created by the addition of mold during the cheese-making process.
Fontina – There are different styles and some are considered semi-hard and others semi-soft. The classic is from Italy but now it is made elsewhere.
Color – pale yellow
Flavor – can vary from mild & nutty to strong & tangy depending on age
Texture – classic is semi-soft
Aging – about 90 days
Muenster – an American cheese made in the style of the French Munster, which is a softer and tangier cheese.
Color – pale yellow
Flavor – mild, savory, sharp
Texture – smooth, moist, supple
Aging – few weeks
Havarti – made with Danish cheese-making techniques. Is often sold as a flavored Havarti such as caraway, chipotle and dill.
Color – pale yellow
Flavor – buttery, creamy, can vary from mild to sharp depending on aging
Texture – semisoft
Aging – 3 months
Brie – the best known of French cheeses and is nicknamed “The Queen of Cheeses”.
Color – pale cream with slight grayish tinge under a rind of white mold
Flavor – fruity, nutty, tangy
Texture – soft, runny
Aged at least 4 weeks
A classic dessert cheese but must be served at room temperature.
Pairs well with meat
Spread on a baguette
Baked with honey and apples
Camembert – the original was created from raw milk in Normandy, France by a woman called Marie Harel.
Color – pale yellow
Flavor – similar to Brie but with a deeper, more intense flavor. A young Camembert has a milky & sweet taste. As it matures, it becomes runny with a white rind and has a richer, buttery flavor. Rind is meant to be eaten.
Texture – soft
Aging – 3-5 weeks
Baked and served with crackers, bread
Eat as is with fruit
Breaded and deep-fried
Ricotta – this is an Italian whey cheese from cow, sheep or goat milk. Basically, it is made from what is left over after making other cheeses.
Color – white
Flavor – smooth, creamy, mildly sweet and fresh taste
Texture – soft but firm
Aging – generally unaged but can be up to 90 days
Can be used in both sweet and savory applications
Mozzarella – an Italian cheese traditionally made from buffalo’s milk but now often made from cow’s milk. You can buy either “block-style” which is low in moisture and melts well although rubbery in texture if you try to eat it raw or “fresh”, which is packed in water. This is the one you want to grab for if you are making a caprese salad.
Color – generally white
Flavor – very mild
Texture – often rolled into soft balls of different sizes
Aging – none
Mascarpone – It is an Italian cheese from the Lombardy region, made by curdling milk cream with citric acid or acetic acid.
Color – white
Flavor — milky and slightly sweet
Texture – smooth & thick. Has a very high fat content ranging from 60% to 75%.
Aging – none
Goat cheese – in its fresh form, it is called Chèvre. Can also find hard & semi-hard forms.
Color – white
Flavor – earthy, tangy, tart, which increases as it ages
Texture – soft but firm
Aging – varies but generally up to 4 months. Fresh (Chèvre) is unaged.
Blue cheese – there are many different types of blue cheese but they are all made by treating the cheese with a mold. Bacteria then proliferates, giving the cheese its distinctive pungent flavor and smell.
Color – yellow with blue veining
Flavor – yeasty, spicy, pungent
Texture – soft
Aging – 2-4 months
Softer blue cheeses can be used for spreading and melt well in cooking whereas higher-end, drier blues are better for snacking, sandwiches and cheese boards.
With grilled fruits
Topping for soups
Mixed with softened butter and placed on a grilled steak or burger
Feta – this cheese typically hails from Greece and there must be made from at least 70% sheep’s milk. In the US, it is commonly made from cow’s milk. It is salty, sharp and crumbles nicely.
Color – a white brined cheese
Flavor – salty, tangy, moist
Texture – from crumbly to moderately creamy
Aging – up to 2 months
Crumble over salads or veggies
Tacos in place of Cotija
As is with olives, peppers, olive oil, bread
What cheese is in your refrigerator right now? What is your favorite? Do you love the pungent ones like my husband does or you more of a mild cheese person? Let me know.
This is the second of a three-part series of Cooking Tips about cooking with cheese. In this one, I want to look at how cheese is categorized and then we will discuss some of the more popular hard or semi-hard cheeses. In Part III, I will concentrate on softer cheeses.
The categorization of cheese can vary somewhat. For simplicity sake, I will use the following listing.
Semi-hard (or semi-firm)
Hard cheeses have been aged to remove moisture, which also allows the salt in the cheese to crystallize, resulting in a sharp flavor and a slightly granular texture.
Semi-Hard (semi-firm) cheeses have more moisture than hard cheeses and a slightly smoother texture. The aged ones have a bolder, more complex flavor.
Cheddar – this must be one of the most popular cheeses in the US. I know it is one of my favorites. It was originally made in England by a process called “cheddaring”, in which curds are cut into slabs, stacked and pressed.
Color – Cheddars may be white or yellow, the latter created by dying it with annatto seeds.
Flavor – the flavors of Cheddars can vary from mild to sharp and are known for their tangy, nutty flavor.
Texture – it is dry and crumbly in texture
Aging – there is no minimum but best is at least one year
The mild cheddar has a higher moisture content and melts better than sharp cheddar. As cheddar ages, the texture becomes more firm and drier. It can tend to curdle when melted. To counteract this, one recommendation is to shred it and toss it with cornstarch or combine with a better melting cheese.
Grated over casseroles
Cheese sauces for mac/cheese, savory pies, quiches
Monterey Jack – this is a cheese that was born in California and is at times called Cali Jack cheese. Pepper Jack is the same cheese spiced up. It is a superior melting cheese with a mild flavor.
Color – pale yellow
Flavor – mild and buttery with slight tang
Texture — smooth
Aging – about 1-2 months
Jack is a great melting cheese
Casseroles and mac/cheese
Sprinkled over chili
Parmesan – I wrote a prior Cooking Tip on this cheese will that will give you more detail and describe the differences between Parmesan-Reggiano and Parmesan.
Color – cream
Flavor – a strong, nutty taste that is more pronounced as it ages
Texture – a hard granular cheese
Aging – Parmesan-Reggiano should be aged at least 12 months and up to 36 months. Domestic parmesans have a varying length of aging.
Grated over pasta, casseroles, salads
Eaten as a snack
Add to panko and eggs to make a coating for chicken
Gruyère – Produced in France and Switzerland and made from cow’s milk.
Color – yellow
Flavor – sweet but slightly salty & nutty. Flavor does vary with age.
Texture – a hard cheese
Aging – the best is aged for about a year
Great for melting
French onion soup
Grated in salads and pasta
Swiss cheese – now made elsewhere, the traditional is Emmentaler Swiss cheese. The holes are formed when bacteria release carbon dioxide as the cheese ages.
Color – pale yellow
Flavor –mild, sweet and nutty
Texture – medium hard
Aging – from 3 to over 6 months
Savory pies, frittatas, souffles, omelets
Emmentaler – an Alpine-style or Mountain cheese that originated from the milk of cows that were led up into the Alps to graze over multiple seasons. Native to Switzerland.
Color – pale yellow
Flavor – mild, slightly sweet, slightly nutty
Texture – semi-hard with large holes
Aging – at least 4 months and up to 14 months
A good melting cheese
Chicken cordon bleu
Traditional for fondue
Gouda – this is a cow’s milk cheese originating from the Netherlands and is one of the most popular cheeses worldwide. Today, the name is applied to any cheese produced in the traditional Dutch manner.
Color – yellow
Flavor – sweet & nutty
Texture – a semi-hard to hard cheese
Aging – at least 4 weeks but better if at least a year
Young gouda can be melted
Aged gouda is better grated over salads or casseroles
Provolone – an Italian cheese of two forms – Dolce and Piccante
Color – white to pale yellow
Flavor – varies with age. Dolce is milder and sweeter. Piccante is sharper. Some versions are smoked.
Texture – a semi-hard cheese
Aging – Dolce is 2-3 months. Piccante is more than 4 months.
Baked pasta dishes
Edam – A Dutch cheese
Color – traditionally sold in spheres with pale yellow interior and coat of red wax
Flavor – very mild but slightly salty and nutty. Flavor sharpens as it ages.
Texture – a semi-hard cheese
Aging – 3 – 12 months
Manchego – A Spanish sheep’s milk cheese
Color – ivory to straw yellow
Flavor – younger ones have a buttery, rich flavor and aged ones are deeply salty with crystals
Texture – a firm, compact cheese
Aging – 60 days to 2 years
Eat as is, especially paired with quince paste
Asiago – an Italian cheese with two forms – fresh and mature
Color – ranges from off-white to yellowish depending on age
Flavor – nutty with the fresh form being milder in flavor
Texture – fresh is smoother and mature is somewhat crumbly
Grating on dishes
American Cheese – Made from blending cheese with emulsifiers and stabilizers. It must be labeled as “process cheese product” because it is only partly cheese. Try to buy one where the first ingredient is “cultured pasteurized milk” to ensure the best quality.
Color – yellow
Favor – reminds you of your childhood
Texture — smooth
Creamy, smooth cheese made from blending natural cheeses.
Forms: individually wrapped slices or blocks
Good for melting
That is quite a few cheeses but it only scratches the surface on hard and semi-hard cheeses. I encourage to go to a cheese-monger or your supermarket specialty cheese department and have fun! Stay tuned for another Tip on softer cheeses.
There are an unbelievable number of cheeses today and they are becoming more and more available in our supermarkets. Cheeses are not just for eating out of hand or putting on sandwiches. In this Cooking Tip, I want to discuss how to use cheeses to their best advantage in your culinary creations. This will not be an exhausting list, but will hopefully cover some of the most commonly called for cheeses in recipes. In this first of three Cooking Tips, I want to discuss general storage and cooking tips.
When purchasing cheese, makes sure the packaging is tightly wrapped & sealed and that the cheese does not look dry or discolored. For fresh cheeses, check the date on the wrapper and you want it to be as fresh as possible. Once opened, follow certain guidelines.
First, all cheeses should be refrigerated if you are not consuming it immediately. Store in the veggie drawer at about 35°- 45°F.
Most cheese makers will tell you to remove the cheese from the original plastic wrapping. Similarly, they recommend against wrapping the cheese in plastic wrap. Harold McGee writes in his culinary reference book, On Food and Cooking, that there are three reasons to avoid tight plastic wrap.
Tight wrapping traps moisture and restricts oxygen flow and will promote the growth of bacteria and mold that are not naturally found in the cheese.
Tight wrapping prevents the dissipation of ammonia. Some cheeses have bacteria that naturally emit ammonia and it needs to be released to prevent the development of unpleasant flavors.
Trace volatile compounds and plastic chemicals migrate from the plastic into the cheese.
According to Castello Cheese, it also alters the protective rind that preserves the cheese, eventually removing flavor/texture.
Therefore, the cheese should be loosely wrapped in a more porous material such as wax or parchment paper. After wrapping, you may then either place it in an open plastic bag or wrap in plastic to discourage moisture loss. For extremely pungent cheeses, you may want to place them in an airtight container to prevent their aroma/flavor from permeating other foods. Firm cheeses also do well wrapped in foil.
There is a cheese paper made especially for cheese. The main brand is Formaticum and it comes in both bags and rolls. It is becoming easier to obtain although a bit expensive. Even my local supermarket carries it in their specialty cheese department. I recently received a gift of food storage wrappers made from cotton and beeswax and there are a number of brands available. There are even instructions for making your own. I have not seen a cheese maker mention these but I have been using them and so far, they have done a nice job of maintaining my cheese freshness.
Another recommendation is to replace the wrapping after every use so you don’t introduce bacteria from your hands or other foods.
Some cheeses should be stored in their original packaging. For instance, fresh cheeses such as mozzarella and soft ripened cheeses such as Brie and Camembert. They don’t breathe the same way as harder cheeses do and won’t absorb unpleasant flavors. If they come packaged in a liquid, store them in that same liquid.
What if mold develops? According to the Mayo Clinic and the USDA, if it is a soft or fresh cheese such as cream cheese, cottage cheese, ricotta, fresh goat cheese or if it has been shredded, crumbled or sliced, it should be thrown away. With a hard or semi-hard cheese such as Cheddar, Parmesan and Swiss, they say the mold does not penetrate the entire piece of cheese. So, you can just cut off the moldy part with about an inch border and continue to use it.
What about freezing cheese? It can be done at times but, it is not recommended. Hard cheeses freeze the best. Cut into small pieces (less than ½# and less than 1-inch thick) & wrap tightly in plastic wrap. To thaw, leave in refrigerator for several hours and use shortly afterwards.
Some cheeses freeze better than others, in particular Cheddar, Havarti and Gouda. Soft cheeses should not be frozen. Examples include Brie, blue cheeses and cream cheese. Those high in moisture such as mozzarella can be frozen but they do suffer texturally and are best served in a cooked manner after thawing.
Let’s switch to some advice to help you with using that cheese in your cooking.
For grating and shredding, keep your cheese cold as it will be much easier without turning to mush.
Removing rinds that are edible is optional; it depends on your taste. Be forewarned, some can be quite intense.
In general, you want to use a low cooking temperature for a short amount of time.
If you are melting shredded or crumbled cheese into a hot dish, toss it in just before serving.
For casserole-type dishes, consider adding a bit of milk or cream so the cheese doesn’t dry out during the longer cooking times. Bake no higher than 375°F so it doesn’t break the cheese sauce.
If adding cheese to a béchamel sauce to make a mornay sauce, keep your roux on the lighter side so it doesn’t compete with the cheese. Remove the sauce from heat before adding so it doesn’t break.
If just want to use the cheese as a topping, putting it briefly under the broiler is all you need.
You can also add cheese chunks to cold dishes such as pasta or a veggie dish, especially fresh cheeses such as Chèvre or Queso Fresco.
If you wish to add a little lemon juice to your cheese sauce, do not add so much that it will curdle. Alternatively, you might want to consider adding just the zest, which will give you that nice, bright flavor without fear of curdling.
Some final words on melting and non-melting cheeses. At about 90°F, the milk fat in the cheese melts, which makes the cheese more supple and often brings little beads of melted fat to the surface. At higher temperatures, enough of the protein bonds are broken such that the protein matrix collapses allowing the cheese to flow as a thick liquid.
For soft cheeses, this occurs around 130°F.
For harder cheeses such as Cheddar and Swiss, it is about 150 F.
For very hard and low moisture cheeses such as Parmesan and Pecorino, it doesn’t happen until about 180°F.
Some cheeses are not meant to melt and if you try, they will just get drier and stiffer. These include:
Latin queso blanco
Most fresh goat cheeses
You may have noticed that some cheeses get stringy when melted. There is a chemical explanation for this that causes stringiness in cheeses that are moderate in acid, moisture, salt & age. The worst offenders are Mozzarella, Emmental and Cheddar. To counteract this if you wish to use one of these cheeses, try the following.
Grate the cheese very finely so it can disperse evenly.
Heat the dish as little as possible after the cheese has been added.
Don’t let the dish cool too much before serving.
Include starch ingredients such as flour, cornstarch, arrowroot.
If the flavor of your dish permits, add an acid such as lemon juice or wine.
I hope this gets you started in understanding the basics of cooking with cheese. In the next two Tips, we will look at some of the cheeses more in-depth.
We are in the middle of a wonderful season – fresh sweet corn season! It is definitely one of the greatest treats of the summer. Whether you grow your own or buy it in the store or the farmer’s market, you may want to consider not only cooking some for your dinner but also storing some for future use. In this Cooking Tip, we will discuss the best ways to do just that.
Let’s first discuss how to pick out the best corn if you are purchasing it. Contrary to what so many people do in the store, you should not remove the husks before purchasing it. The husks/silks protect the corn and keep it fresher for you until you can prepare it. You may ask how you know it is a good ear if you do not look. First, feel the corn to make sure the kernels feel firm and not soft.
The corn husk should be bright green, wrapped tightly against the corn and slightly damp. Do not choose ones that are starting to yellow or feel dry. Also, avoid any with small brown holes, which could mean insects. The bottom of the corn where the ear was broken off the stalk in the field should not be brown as that indicates it may not be the freshest.
The tassel should be light brown or gold, and slightly sticky to the touch. If you smell it, it should smell slightly sweet. Avoid corn that has a tassel that is dry, black or mushy.
Once you get home, it’s fine to store your corn at room temperature if you’re going to cook it within the next few hours. If you don’t plan on eating it right away, it’s best to refrigerate the corn in the crisper with the husks on, tightly wrapped in a plastic bag.
You may have heard the adage that you shouldn’t pick the corn until the water is boiling. This is based on the concern that corn’s sugars turn quickly into starch after picking. This may have been true at one time but about 25 years ago, corn began to be modified to be much sweeter with a longer shelf life, giving more time for you before its sweetness deteriorates.
When you are ready to eat it, it is time to remove the husks and silk. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Carefully lower the cobs into the pot, cover and return it to a boil. No need to add salt as it won’t penetrate the corn. There are also those that feel salt makes the kernels tougher. Boil for 3-5 minutes or until tender. Some varieties will cook faster than others as will fresher corn.
What do you put on the corn once it is on your plate? Butter, of course! To liven it up a bit, you may want to try an herb butter, a chipotle butter or some other type of compound butter.
If you want to keep the corn for later use, think of freezing it. The main debate is whether or not you need to blanch the corn before removing the kernels for freezing. Cooks Illustrated looked at this and decided there was no need to do so. They compared freezing kernels raw and after blanching for a minute. Their tasters preferred corn kernels that had been frozen raw rather than those that had been blanched.
If you choose to blanch, be sure to put them into an ice bath to chill after removing from the hot water. This prevents over-cooking.
Whether you blanch or not, cut the kernels from the cobs, spread evenly on a rimmed baking sheet and place in the freezer. Once they are frozen, transfer the kernels to a zipper-lock bag and freeze them for up to two months.
Although you can freeze whole cobs, the result is generally disappointing. So, take the bit of time to remove the kernels before freezing.
I love corn on its own but it is also great in a salsa, in a side dish like Esquites (a Mexican corn dish) or Maque Choux (a very rich Creole dish) or just sautéed in a hot skillet. You may prefer to grill it. Do you have a favorite way to enjoy summer corn? Let me know. Enjoy the season while it is here and put some away for a dreary winter day!
The last two Cooking Tips discussed lemons and limes. In this Cooking Tip, I want to expand on what is probably the citrus that is most commonly eaten out of hand – Oranges. Oranges are not just for eating, though. They can be used to delicious effects in your culinary creations.
Oranges can be divided into two major categories – Sweet and Bitter. There are over 400 varieties of oranges. Let’s discuss just a few. Within the sweet category, you find the common orange, blood orange, navel orange and acid-less orange. For the bitter category, it is further subdivided into the Seville orange and Bergamot orange.
Valencia oranges are one of the most common in the US. It is sweet with low acidity and a bright orange color. It can be eaten but is more commonly juiced.
Navel oranges are the most popular eating orange. It is a bit more bitter than Valencia with a thicker peel but no seeds. Besides eating out of hand, they can be thrown in salads or compotes or used in your cooking/baking.
Clementines are a hybrid of a sweet orange and a mandarin. They are very small, very sweet, very juicy and seedless with a very loose skin.
Cara Cara oranges are a type of naval orange that are pink in color. The flavor is very sweet but also complex with berry undertones.
Blood oranges are thought to be a natural mutation of a regular orange. Its flesh is red due to a high level of anthocyanins, an antioxidant that is not present in most oranges. They are very pretty but less sweet than the Cara Cara. Recommended uses are in salads, compotes, vinaigrettes or just eating out of hand.
Tangerines (also known as mandarins) are an orange-colored citrus although not technically an orange. The zest is delightful in baking. Other uses include salads or in cooking.
Bitter oranges (Seville or sour orange) are not generally eaten or juiced for drinking due to the absence of sweetness. The peel is extremely fragrant and is often used as a flavoring. These are often used in marmalade as well as in vinaigrettes and other culinary uses.
Bergamot orange is a hybrid of the lemon and bitter orange. It is lime-green or yellowish in color. The peel can be either smooth or bumpy and it is full of seeds. The juice is extremely sour. The essential oil from this orange is what is used to flavor Earl Grey tea.
Lima oranges are an acid-less orange. Although not zero, the acid level is very low. This results in a sweeter flavor. The flesh is lighter than other oranges.
When choosing an orange in the store, it should have a fragrant, citrusy scent. Similar to lemons and limes, select an orange that feels heavy. When squeezing it, the flesh should be firm, not soft or squishy.
What culinary uses (other than eating and drinking the juice) are there for oranges? Again, the zest is where the essential oils lie and can give you a great flavor burst. Add it to vinaigrettes, marinades, sauces and even in baked goods.
Tossing oranges in salads is a great idea. To do this, you might want to learn how to make supremes, which produces orange segments with no pith or membranes. Here is a video on how to do this.
Drinking fresh-squeezed orange juice can be a delight but that juice can also be used in other beverages as well as ice creams and sorbets. Juice can also be part of the liquid you use to cook couscous, adding a delightful flavor.
I love the flavor of oranges and love using it in my cooking and baking. How about you? If you only eat or drink your oranges, branch out and experiment with using them in your cooking and baking. They can give you delicious results!
Last week’s Cooking Tip was all about Lemons. They are not the only citrus fruit that has wonderful culinary uses. In this Cooking Tip, let’s look at Limes. Many of the points made about lemons are also true of limes as far as buying them, storing them and the importance of the zest along with the juice. I won’t repeat those in this Tip but, rather, discuss some of the differences.
Limes are the most acidic of all citrus fruits. As much as 8% of their weight comes from citric acid. They are much less sweet with more bitter notes than lemons. Just as with lemons, there are different varieties. The most common in supermarkets are the Persian or Tahitian lime although you will also see others.
I advised staying away from greenish lemons as they are probably underripe. This is not a good indicator for limes as their natural color is green. Also, limes are generally harvested while they are not completely ripe. Limes tend to turn yellowish-green when they are at their best. If buying a Persian lime, try to buy one that is lighter green with hints of yellowing. Feel the skin and opt for those with smooth skin. Just as with lemons, choose ones that seem heavy for their size and ones that give a bit upon pressing.
Persian limes (Bearss limes & Tahitian limes) are larger than other limes, oval in shape and less acidic. The Tahitian variety is even more oblong in shape. For culinary purposes, the Tahitian and Bearss can be used interchangeably. Some sources say they are less tart than Key limes and others claim they are tarter. You will have to do a taste test to decide for yourself. They are certainly the juiciest.
Key limes (sometimes called Mexican limes) are very small (1-2 inches in diameter) and round. They are sought out for dishes/cocktails due to the intense flavor. Due to their small size, you would have to squeeze about 40 of them to get one cup of juice. That compares to 6-8 Persian limes to obtain the same yield. The average medium lime (2½-3oz) will yield about 1½-2 tablespoons of juice.
For an interesting perspective on Key limes, see this article from Serious Eats. In summary, the author feels that Key limes are more of a “Key Lie” since we import them from Mexico and she feels they are not like the authentic version. She brings up the subject of “terroir”, a concept that is usually applied to grapes/wine. The terroir is everything that could affect the taste & quality of the item from soil to climate to harvesting techniques and so much more. Just as we are not allowed to call a sparkling white wine “Champagne” unless it is grown in that region of France, Mexican Key Limes are a misnomer.
She states the Key limes that were grown in the Florida Keys were “fat and juicy, with well-rounded acidity and a rather yellow rind; a point of pride for Florida growers.” Our Mexican key limes are tiny, dry and bitter. For more detail, see the article. Just as with lemons, the bottled key lime juice is nothing like the fresh. I have tried the one that our store carries, Nellie & Joe’s Key West Lime Juice, and, in my opinion, it was nothing short of terrible. Although I could not find documentation of this, the author of this article implies that it is made with imported Mexican limes although the company has “Key Lime” in its name. Have you tried it? If so, let me know what you thought.
There are also some more uncommon fruits in the lime category. The Kaffir lime looks distinctive with a very bumpy skin. They are small, very tart, very acidic with very little juice. Because of these characteristics, they are not really used for cooking. Rather the peel and leaves are what is used and are very common to Thai cooking.
Finger limes, native to Australia do not really look like a lime. They have bumpy skin and a cylindrical shape. They are sometimes called “caviar lime” due to the flesh that looks like small caviar pearls rather than the typical juice sacs. They have a very tangy and sour juice.
The Philippine lime is also known as calamansi, calamondin or musk lime. It is a very tart lime used in Philippine cooking. It is very small and orange in color. They do not travel well and so, will not be something you will normally find in the US.
Using limes is similar to using lemons. At times, you want that distinctive lime flavor. Limes also adds a characteristic tartness and flavor to salsas, southwestern and Asian dishes. Lime is commonly added to cocktails and other beverages. Also, just like with lemons, a dash as you finish your dish adds a wonderful brightness.
So many of our dishes – both sweet and savory – call for the addition of lemon in some form. Since most of us who live in more northern areas do not have a lemon tree growing in our backyard, that means we need to buy them in the store. (My husband has been attempting to grow a Meyer lemon tree. Here is a photo of that small tree.) In this Cooking Tip, we will look at types of lemons, how to buy them and how to use them.
Although there are a number of different types of lemons, it is said the two most commonly found in our supermarkets are the Lisbon and the Eureka lemon, which are grown in California and Arizona. Grown in Florida, a third common variety is the Bearss. Another variety that you might see in your stores is the Meyer lemon. Other than identifying the Meyer lemon by that name, the store will probably not list the particular variety of lemon. I just bought two lemons from my local supermarket and the tag indicated they were from Argentina from a company called Citrusvil. Even looking at the direct source, it does not tell me what variety I have. However, since all of the varieties which you find in your supermarket (except for the Meyer lemon) have very similar flavor profiles, don’t worry about the actual name.
The typical lemon found in our stores has that classic tart and acidic lemony flavor. Meyer lemons are thought to be a cross between a lemon and either a mandarin or orange. Their skins are thinner and smoother, they are rounder in shape, and have a deeper yellow-orange hue. They are less acidic than regular lemons, and due to the presence of thymol, they carry thyme-like undertones. Although they can be substituted for regular lemons in many applications, they are not great when you really want the bold flavor and acidity such as in a vinaigrette.
When buying a lemon, look for one that is fully yellow. Greenish hues indicate under-ripeness. Try to pick ones that are heavy for the size and yield to gentle pressure, indicating more juice. The best way to store them is in a sealed plastic bag in the refrigerator.
I really do not like recipes that call for the juice of one lemon or ½ lemon because the amount of juice you can get from a lemon does depend on its size. A typical small lemon (weighing about 4 ozs) should give you about 3 tablespoons of juice, a medium (5 oz) lemon will give you 4 tablespoons and a large lemon (6 oz) should yield 5 tablespoons. How much juice you get also depends on your method of juicing. Before juicing it, roll it on the counter to help it release as much juice as possible. Some recommend putting it in the microwave for 10 seconds, especially if it is cold. Cut off any points at the ends of the lemon. Many chefs prefer a wooden reamer with a sharp tip to do the juicing. I have an electric citrus squeezer, which does an amazing job of extracting every last drop of juice. It is not something that I would normally buy but I won it and now absolutely love it. Another tip you might see is to place your lemons in the freezer. This causes the juice to expand and break the cell walls, resulting in a softer lemon that is easier to squeeze. This may not be best for flavor, though, as I will discuss below. If you wish to squeeze the fruit by hand, cutting it lengthwise makes it easier to hold and get more juice. If using a hand-held citrus juicer, it is better to cut it crosswise and then put the cut-end down before squeezing.
If you are wanting the juice for a beverage, it is recommended to juice the lemon a few hours (no more than six hours) before using. This allows some oxidation to occur which improves the flavor. This is also true of limes but not oranges. The latter have a different compound that can make the juice turn bitter when exposed to air.
The juice of a lemon is wonderful but even more flavorful is the zest. That is where the essential oils lie and that is what gives you the most flavor punch. You do not want to get any of the white pith, though, as it is bitter. There are many zesters on the market today that will do the job easily for you. One of the most popular is made by a company called Microplane. If you have ever taken one of my classes, you will know that I am a big believer in using as much of your food as you can, minimizing waste. That is why I always zest my citrus fruit before juicing it whether or not my recipe calls for zest. I then store that zest in the freezer to pull out when I don’t have a lemon available. Although the color of the zest will darken, the flavor remains vivid for about 3 weeks. Zest stored in the pantry or refrigerator does not fare nearly as well. If you only want the zest from a lemon, be sure to wrap the zested lemon in plastic before storing in the refrigerator to prevent drying out.
The juice from frozen and thawed whole lemons can have a muted flavor, a definite negative to freezing whole lemons. Many people do, though, recommend freezing excess lemon juice in ice cube trays for when you need some in a pinch. It may not be the absolute best if you want the full-blown lemon flavor but it is certainly better than leaving the lemon out of a dish.
What if you have no citrus in your house? Are there any of those lemon juice substitutes that do not disappoint? Not really but Cooks Illustrated found that ReaLemon juice from concentrate and True Lemon crystallized lemon juice could be acceptable in some applications. Something else to note though are the additives in these products. ReaLemon contains “lemon juice from concentrate, sodium benzoate, sodium metabisulfite, sodium sulfite and lemon oil.” The True Lemon product is much cleaner with “citric acid, lemon oil and lemon juice.” If you are just looking for a bit of acidity and not the lemon flavor, citric acid can also be used. Cooks Illustrated found it worked in a pan sauce and risotto.
Why is lemon such an important ingredient in cooking/baking? First, the flavor of lemon is essential to such things as lemon curd, lemon meringue pie or lemon chicken. The other thing is that lemon adds acidity to dishes. Acidity is integral to balancing the oil in a vinaigrette and lemon juice, along with other acids, is often used. If you have ever tasted a dish and said, “It needs something”, the first thing to try is to add a bit of salt. After that, a dash of acidity often works wonders. Adding a splash of lemon juice as a finishing touch to many dishes is a chef’s secret.
Even though they are perishable, try to think of fresh lemons as an essential pantry item. You will grab for them over and over for so many different reasons.