What makes up a cake?

I recently wrote about the difference between cupcakes and muffins. In that Tip, I mentioned I would be delving more into cakes. I wish to do just that in this and my next Cooking Tip. In this one, we will look at the ingredients and their function in cakes. In the next one, we will learn the different methods of incorporating these ingredients to achieve different types of cakes.

All cakes have similar ingredients – flour, sugar, eggs, a fat, maybe a leavener and flavorings. Let’s take each in turn along with a couple others.

In general, cake ingredients can be categorized as strengtheners or tenderizers. Great cakes are a balance of these two characteristics.

Strengtheners

  • Flour
  • Eggs

Tenderizers

  • Sugar
  • Fat

Flour

Flour gives cakes structure. However, just one look at the store shelves will tell you that there are many different types of flour. Choosing the right one for your cakes is important.

In the US, we name our flours based on the usage such as bread flour, cake flour, pastry flour and all-purpose flour. The differences between these flours is the protein (predominantly gluten). Even among these categories, protein content can vary from brand to brand or even within different shipments of the same brand. One company that pledges to always have the same protein content no matter where or when you buy their flour is King Arthur Flour Company.

The type of flour with one of the highest protein contents (12-16%) is bread flour. This is why when bread dough is kneaded, the gluten is developed leading to the structure and chewiness of artisan breads. It will not give you tender, moist cakes

Cake & pastry flours have the lowest protein content (7-9%) and are milled to a finer consistency. They are what gives the tenderness to these baked products and are often recommended for cakes. I will warn those of you that live at high altitude that this may not be the best choice. As one of the problems at altitude is lack of structure with resultant falling of the cake, cake flours are not ideal in this situation. See my Cooking Tip on cake flour for more info.

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

Eggs

  • Add structure in the form of protein.
  • Add volume to the cake when beaten.
  • Act as a binder keeping the cake together.
  • Yolks contain emulsifiers that help to form a thick batter that doesn’t separate.
  • Contribute to browning.
  • Contribute to the overall flavor partly because the fat in the yolks helps to carry other flavors.
  • Being mostly water, they contribute to the overall moisture content.
  • The fat in yolks helps to shorten gluten strands and tenderize the final product.

Sugar

  • Adds sweetness.
  • Aids in browning.
  • Assists in the aeration and stabilization of the batter.
  • Helps to keep the cake moist.
  • Helps to form a finer crumb due to its ability to impede gluten formation by attracting the water away from the flour.

Fat

  • Adds flavor.
  • Tenderizes the crumb.
  • Aids with browning.
  • Decreases gluten development by coating the gluten in the flour so it is less available to the liquid.
  • Solid fats are used to incorporate air bubbles to increase volume. This is done through the creaming method, which I will discuss more in next week’s Tip.
  • Oil will help keep the cake moist but can also yield a denser cake.

Salt

  • In cakes, the main purpose of salt is as a favor enhancer.

Leaveners

  • Aid in rising of the cake.
  • Chemical – usually baking powder.
  • Mechanical – by beating air into the batter.

Liquids

  • The most common liquid in cakes is milk but there could be other liquids specified in the recipe.
  • Add moisture.
  • Help dissolve the sugar and salt.
  • Provides steam for leavening.
  • On the caution side, liquids can increase gluten formation resulting in a tougher cake.

Flavorings

  • Spices, extracts, citrus zest, liqueurs can add flavor and aroma.

Now that you have a good idea of what all these ingredients do, stay tuned for next week’s
Cooking Tip to see how to put them all together!

Is it a muffin or is it a cupcake?

I have been working on a Holiday Brunch class that I will be teaching in November. I was testing a recipe for what was called “Chocolate Orange Muffins”. Doesn’t that sound like a wonderful holiday bread? As I was mixing them, I noticed that the directions were a bit different than what you find in most muffin recipes. When they were done baking, they looked beautiful and tasted delightful. However, they tasted almost more like a cupcake than a muffin. That led to this Cooking Tip – just what is the difference between a cupcake and a muffin?

There are actually real differences between these two items. The first (and most important) difference is the Mixing Method. There are numerous different mixing methods in the world of baked goods. (Stay tuned for a future Cooking Tip that will explain this more.) For now, let’s just mention the Muffin Method, which is also known as the one-stage method. All the dry ingredients are mixed together in one bowl and all the wet are mixed up in another bowl. Then, the wet ingredients are mixed into the dry ingredients. Any mix-ins such as fruit or chocolate chips are then gently folded into this batter. Apportion the batter into your muffin cups, bake and voila – you have muffins. Recipes written with this method in mind have all the dry ingredients listed together and all the wet ingredients together.

Cupcakes are really just small cakes and therefore, use a method more appropriate for cakes. There are multiple methods for cake making but the one called for in my recipe is what is termed the Creaming Method. In this method, softened butter and sugar are mixed up until light and pale yellow. Eggs are gently whisked together and gradually added to the mixture. Finally, the dry ingredients are mixed together and gently folded into the batter. There may or may not be milk also added, usually alternating with the flour as you mix it. The longer beating results in a tighter and more even crumb. The batter tends to be softer and smoother than a sturdier muffin batter. When you see “softened butter and sugar” in the ingredient list, you are probably going to use the creaming method.

Ingredients are another distinguishing factor. Although they do tend to call for very similar ingredients, cupcakes tend to have more sugar and fat than muffins. One expert source quoted a ratio of flour to sugar at 2-3 cups of flour to 1 cup sugar for muffins (a ratio of 0.5-0.33 sugar to flour) and 1½ cups flour to 1 cup sugar (a ratio of 0.66 sugar to flour) for cupcakes. Most cupcakes probably call for AP or maybe cake flour. Muffins often vary this by adding in a whole grain flour or other “healthier” flour.

Cupcakes usually use butter as the fat while muffins will often substitute a type of oil. Cupcakes also often have other “cakey” ingredients such as vanilla but do not normally have many add-ins or fillings. Muffins, though, are a great base for adding nuts, fruits, etc. Cupcakes are generally frosted whereas muffins are not. If muffins are topped with something, it will more likely be a crumb topping, a sprinkle of coarse sugar or a thin glaze.

You will also notice Textural differences, which is a result of the different mixing methods. Think of a great cupcake you have eaten. No doubt that it was soft and very easy to take a bite of. Contrast that with a muffin – the muffin will be denser and a bit harder.

Size/Shape – Although not 100%, cupcakes do tend to be smaller than muffins. Muffins often flow out of the cup in which they are baked. Many people love these “muffin tops”. Cupcakes do not generally do that.

So, what about my recipe? Was it a cupcake or a muffin? The author of the recipe called it a “muffin” but, let’s take a look at it.

  • Method – it used the creaming method
  • Flour to sugar ratio – 2½ cups flour to 1½ cup sugar, which is a ratio of 0.6 sugar to flour
  • Fat – butter, no oil
  • Other ingredients – it called for vanilla, milk and sour cream
  • Add-ins – orange zest and chocolate chips
  • Final texture – it was very soft and easy to eat but a bit denser than many cupcakes
  • Size/shape – no muffin tops here
  • Toppings – none

By most of the above measures, this does appear more of a cupcake than a muffin although you might be a bit confused when eating it. As my husband said, it’s a little bit of both muffin and cupcake. Despite what you call it, it was very yummy and just might make it onto my Holiday Brunch table!

Oregano – not just one herb!

I had a friend visiting and I took her to my favorite spice shop, Savory Spice, to restock her spice pantry. One of the items she wanted was Oregano. I asked her if she wanted Mediterranean Oregano or Mexican Oregano. She looked at me strangely and asked about the difference. She said she did not know there was more than one kind. Since she is a great cook, I figured if she didn’t know this that maybe many of you did not know either. Thus, this Cooking Tip was born.

What most cooks think of as oregano is probably the Mediterranean version. It is part of the mint family, Lamiaceae.

Mediterranean is a bit of a generic term for all types of oregano grown in that region. Different varieties include Greek, Italian and Turkish. Most supermarket versions will not specify what type it is but good spice shops will often list that information. The most common is probably Greek. It is typically known as the “true oregano” although some will also apply that term to the Italian variety.

Mediterranean oregano in general has a robust flavor with sweet, minty and peppery notes. It will, however, vary somewhat in taste depending on which variety it is. Some may be more bitter, sweet or peppery than others. Greek is said to be the most savory and earthy, Turkish is the most pungent and the Italian is the mildest. The latter is actually a hybrid of sweet marjoram (also a type of oregano) and common oregano.

Mexican oregano is native to Mexico, the southwestern United States and Central America. It is part of the Verbenaceae family, to which lemon verbena also belongs. Its flavor is different than Mediterranean oregano. It has pungent, citrusy flavors with a peppery note and a subtle licorice undertone.

When do you use which variety? Well, if you have read many of these Cooking Tips, you will know I do not have many hard and fast rules. However, the best results happen when you pair the particular variety to the cuisine of that geography.

Therefore, you would use the Mediterranean variety when you are making those dishes. It pairs well with flavors such as onion, garlic, basil, flat-leaf parsley and thyme. It is especially known for its use in Italian dishes including pizza & pasta sauce, herb butters and Italian vinaigrettes.

Pair your Mexican oregano with other spices such as cumin, chili and paprika. Use in dishes with Mexican or southwest-type flavors such as chili, enchiladas or salsa.

One last tidbit about oregano. Chefs generally prefer fresh herbs over dried herbs in many preparations. However, oregano maintains excellent flavor when dried. In fact, many feel that fresh oregano is too pungent and they prefer the dried.

Did you know that there were different types of oregano? Do you always use just one or do you switch it up depending on what you are cooking? Now that you know the differences, I hope you will feel much more comfortable using this wonderful herb!

Non-Recipe Culinary Books

I ran across an interesting culinary book the other day that was not a cookbook. It caused me to think about other such books that I have in my library or have found interesting. These books might also be a great gift for those cooks in your life and are the subject of this Cooking Tip.

What’s The Difference?

This little book is by Brette Warshaw and the chapters in it are very similar to these Cooking Tips. Some of the titles are:

  • Apple Cider vs. Apple Juice
  • Aioli vs. Mayonnaise
  • Dutch-Processed Cocoa Powder vs. Natural Cocoa Powder
  • Crème Fraîche vs. Sour Cream

Food FAQs: Substitutions, Yields & Equivalents

This extremely useful book has been put together by Linda Resnik and Dee Brock. They have painstakingly compiled lists and charts that answer questions such as:

  • How much juice in an average-sized lemon?
  • How many onions are required to make one cup of chopped onion?
  • What can I substitute for a quince?

The New Food Lover’s Companion

A culinary dictionary is a great addition to your collection and this one is by Rob and Sharon Tyler Herbst. My copy (and the one pictured here) was published in 2013 and is a great book to grab when you run across a term or an ingredient with which you are not familiar. The authors also published The Deluxe Food Lover’s Companion in 2015. It is a larger book both in size and content including information on more ethnic ingredients, food labels, ingredient substitutions and safe cooking temperatures.

Ratio: The Simple Code Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking

If you would like to be freed from using recipes all the time, this book by Michael Ruhlman may be for you. He discusses many dishes and breaks down the ratio of ingredients that are in each. He also includes representative recipes. Just some of his topics are:

  • Doughs
  • Batters
  • Stocks
  • Sauces
  • Custards

The Flavor Bible

Do you like to be creative in the kitchen but worry about what flavors work together? Karen Page & Andrew Dornenburg have put together an exhaustive guide to help you. It is full of easy-to-use charts arranged alphabetically by ingredient starting with Achiote Seeds and ending with Zucchini Blossoms.

The Spice Companion

This is a recent addition to my bookshelves and is written by Lior Lev Sercarz. It is beautifully illustrated with photographs of all the representative spices. He describes the spice’s flavor, aroma, origins and harvest season as well as listing traditional uses for the spice along with recommended pairings and recipe ideas.

I am sure that there are many other non-recipe culinary books that would be helpful for us home cooks.
Do you have a favorite. Let me know.

Nuts-so useful in your kitchen!

Nuts are delicious to eat and, in moderation, are thought to be a great part of a healthy diet. They are also wonderful to use in your culinary creations. Not only do they add a wonderful flavor but they also give a textural element that can elevate your dish. These great ingredients are the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Many recipes call for roasted nuts as it enhances the nutty flavor. It is usually preferable to roast your own as ones that you buy already roasted often have salt and other ingredients added to them.

How to roast/toast nuts

  • Oven – the preferred method for roasting nuts is in the oven as you get more even heat. To do this, preheat your oven to 350°F. Place the nuts on a baking sheet. Roast for 8-12 minutes, stirring occasionally, until fragrant and roasted. Remove immediately from the hot pan when done to prevent over-cooking. The timing can vary as whole nuts take longer to roast than chopped nuts and larger nuts will take longer than smaller ones.
  • Stovetop – for smaller quantities of nuts, you may toast them in a dry skillet over medium heat but watch them carefully. Shake the pan occasionally and remove from pan immediately when done.
  • Microwave – there are also those that love to toast small amounts of nuts in the microwave. They feel it is more even heating and, therefore, takes less stirring. Place nuts on a microwave-safe dish and microwave on high for one minute. Stir and repeat in 30 second to one minute bursts until done.

Storage

Nuts can easily go rancid and so, store your shelled nuts in the freezer to prevent this. Whole nuts still in the shell may be stored either in the refrigerator or at room temperature. Keep away from moisture and heat.

No matter which nuts or seeds you wish to use, buy them unsalted if you want to use them in a recipe. Save the salted ones for your snack bowl. Let’s look at a few specific nuts and how to use them in the kitchen.

Almonds

  • These nuts can be found whole, sliced or slivered.
  • Flour – you can buy almond flour or make your own to use as an alternative to wheat flour in baking or as a coating for fried foods.
  • Butter – almond butter is a tasty change from the ubiquitous peanut butter.
  • Almonds can be used in both sweet and savory applications. Some ideas include enrobing in chocolate, added to granola bars, as a salad topping, as a coating for meat (almond-crusted chicken) or as a sauce thickener.
  • Tossing sliced or slivered almonds into veggie dishes is common.

Cashews

  • In my book, there is no better way to enjoy cashews than right out of your hand.
  • Cashews are typically found in Indian dishes such as chicken korma or in Chinese dishes such as cashew chicken or other stir fries.
  • These nuts are often used by vegans to make cream soups or sauces.
  • Other uses include dips/spreads and they also make a great nut butter.

Hazelnuts

  • These are also known as filberts and are typically found in sweet applications especially paired with chocolate such as in truffles or the popular Nutella.
  • They can also be used in savory dishes, especially Italian ones, such as pasta, ravioli and pesto.
  • Roasting them followed by rubbing with a kitchen towel will help you remove most of the skins.
  • They have a lower oil content than other nuts, making it fine to toast them before baking. (see walnuts below)
  • Hazelnut spreads and butters are very popular.

Macadamia nuts

  • These nuts are typically used in sweet applications but can also make a surprising addition to pesto.
  • As they are grown in Hawaii, you will often find them paired with tropical flavors such as pineapple.
  • They are very high in oil, the highest fat content of any tree nut, which results in a very buttery flavor when baked.

Peanuts

  • Peanuts are not only a staple in many American households (usually as peanut butter) but are also often found in many Asian recipes such as sate sauce.

Pecans

  • Pecans are very versatile easily going from sweet desserts to salads.
  • The also pair well with spices in savory dishes and are often found in chicken salad. Just as with almonds, they can make a wonderful crust on your chicken or fish.
  • They can be ground with butter and sugar to make a gluten free pie crust.

Pine nuts

  • Pine nuts have a soft, nutty flavor with an undercurrent of sweetness, similar to cashews.
  • These are an essential ingredient in traditional pesto but can also be used in salads, dips, desserts and even pastry dough.

Pistachios

  • All nuts can be pricey but pistachios are near the top. Buying them in the shells is more cost effective if you are willing to take the time to shuck them.
  • They are commonly used in Middle Eastern dishes (think baklava) and are often used as a garnish due to their pretty green color.

Walnuts

  • Toasting walnuts decreases the bitterness that can be found in walnuts. Because of the high oil content, walnuts toast more quickly than other nuts. It is, therefore, recommended that you use raw walnuts in baking to prevent burning.
  • Walnuts are commonly used in Chinese and Mediterranean dishes as well as sweet applications such as brownies or just tossed in a salad.

Nuts are a great pantry staple all year-round but as we approach the fall and holiday season, they especially shine.
Embrace the use of nuts in your kitchen!

Is it a crisp, a cobbler, a crumble or something else?

My husband has a fruit tree that was supposed to have been an apricot tree or so the tag attached to it said. As it grew and started to produce fruit, it was clear as it was not an apricot but was an apple tree. (I was sad as I love apricots.) We do not know what kind of apple tree it is other than it is an early producer. This year we harvested a nice supply of apples from this tree and I decided to make a cobbler. Or, was it an apple crisp? Maybe an apple crumble? Do you know the difference and does it even matter? That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Although not the definitive word, let’s start with some definitions from The New Food Lover’s Companion by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Rob Herbst.

  • Betty (aka brown betty) – Baked puddings made of layers of sugared and spiced fruit and buttered breadcrumbs.
  • Buckle – This is an old term for a single layer cake made with fruit.
  • Clafouti – A French country dessert made by topping a layer of fresh fruit with batter.
  • Cobbler – A baked, deep-dish fruit dessert topped with a thick biscuit crust sprinkled with sugar.
  • Crisp – A dessert of fruit topped with a crumbly, sweet pastry mixture and baked until brown and crisp.
  • Crumble – A British dessert in which raw fruit is topped with a crumbly pastry mixture and baked.
  • Slump (aka grunt) – An old-fashioned New England dessert topped with biscuit dough and stewed until the topping is cooked through.

Now, for a bit more detail.

Betty is a dish similar to a crisp or crumble but has a breadcrumb topping that is layered into the fruit mixture before baking.

Buckles traditionally had a cake-like base with fruit placed on top and as the batter rose during baking, the fruit would fall into it, making the top look “buckled”. Today, the fruit may be incorporated into the batter or sprinkled on top of the batter before baking.

Clafoutis is a dessert with French countryside origins. It is very similar to a buckle in that it has fruit and a batter. Some have a cake-like batter over the fruit while other batters are more custard-like.

Cobbler – This dish seems to date back to the mid-1800s and is generally thought to be fruit baked with a dough. In its origins, it really was a fruit pie and only later came to be defined by a topping either of biscuit-type dough or a cake-type batter. The topping is often just dropped over the fruit in large spoonfuls. When making a cobbler, it is recommended to use firmer fruit as it will take longer to release its juices, allowing the topping to begin cooking without getting soggy.

Crisps have a topping that is a bit crispier and crumblier than cobblers, more streusel-like. This dish dates to the early 1900s in the US. The topping is made of butter and sugar along with a binder. The latter might be flour, oatmeal or a combination. It might also include nuts. This topping bakes up a bit crispy and ends up with a crumbly texture. Because of this, many people will call a crisp a crumble. Crisps are better for your riper fruit and you want to see the filling release its juices and bubble up and into the topping.

Crumbles are similar to a crisp but the topping has a different texture. Oatmeal or nuts are typically not included in the topping, which has a denser texture than a crisp. It is thought to have been created during the time of WWII. Choose fruits similar to those for a crisp.

Slumps/grunts are made by spooning biscuit dough over stewed fruit, which is steamed stove-top until the topping is cooked.

Back to what I made. It truly was a cobbler as it had that cake-like topping. If you want to call it something else, that is fine with me. However, knowing what type of topping you want will help you to find the best recipe for you.

Canned Milk Products

I was making homemade ice cream this week and my recipe called for a can of evaporated milk. That caused me to wonder if the average person knows the difference between that product and the other canned milk product – sweetened condensed milk – and when to use them. Afterall, they are both in little cans that look similar but they are very different products. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Let’s start with the definition of milk. According to the FDA, “Milk is the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows … that shall have been pasteurized or ultra-pasteurized.” All of us know what milk is and where it comes from but have you ever defined it like that? That’s government-speak for you.

The different types of milk and other dairy products vary by their milkfat content. Here are the percentages of each kind from the highest to the lowest fat content. This will help you make decisions about substitutions for the canned milk if necessary.

  • Heavy cream – not less than 36% milkfat
  • Light whipping cream – between 30% and 36% milkfat
  • Light cream – not less than 18% milkfat
  • Half and half – a mixture of milk and cream to create a product that is between 10.5% and 18% milkfat
  • Whole milk – not less than 3.25% milkfat
  • Reduced fat – about 2% milkfat
  • Low fat – about 1% milkfat
  • Skim/fat-free – essentially no fat

Evaporated Milk

To make this product, fresh milk is simmered until the liquid is reduced by about 60%. This results in a product that is concentrated and creamy. The cooking process breaks down the milk proteins (caseins), which means it is less likely to curdle in your recipes.

According to the FDA, it must contain not less than 6.5% milkfat. It is homogenized and contains vitamin D. The addition of vitamin A is optional. It is processed by heat to prevent spoilage.

It will be sweeter than regular milk as the natural sugar in milk, lactose, has been concentrated during the evaporation process.

This type of milk is often used to give a creamy texture to dishes such as sauces, macaroni/cheese, mashed potatoes, puddings, fudge, etc.

It can stand in as a substitute for regular milk in recipes by adding an equal amount of water. However, it will cause a deeper color with a slightly sweet, caramelized flavor. So, it may not be something you want to use for your bechamel sauce.

If you do not have a can in your pantry, you can use a fresh dairy product. Use the milkfat content info above to pick a suitable choice. You may also use a mixture such as for one cup of evaporated milk, mix ¼ cup cream with ¾ cup whole milk.

Another alternative is to make your own. All you have to do is to simmer milk until the volume is reduced by about 60%. It can be stored in the refrigerator in an air-tight container for up to 10 days.

Condensed Milk

This is also known as “sweetened condensed milk” and therein lies the difference between this product and evaporated milk. Sugar to the tune of 40-45% is added to the milk. As it is boiled down, it becomes very thick and caramelized.

Due to the sugar, this product is mostly used in desserts such as puddings and sweet custards. It is also a key ingredient to Thai iced tea. In baked goods, it provides tenderness, moisture and flavor as well as adding color to pastry crusts.

According to the FDA, it must contain not less than 8% milkfat. It is pasteurized and homogenized and contains vitamin D. The addition of vitamin A is optional. The sweetener must be added in sufficient quantity to prevent spoilage.

Because of the sugar, it cannot substitute for evaporated or regular milk. Once again, though, you can make your own. There are different recipes but here are two.

  1. Mix ¾ cup sugar, ½ cup water and 1⅛ cup dry powdered milk and simmer until thickened, stirring frequently.
  2. Heat ⅓ cup + 2 Tbsp evaporated milk or regular milk with 1 cup sugar and 3 Tbsp margarine/butter until sugar dissolves.

Because both of these products are shelf-stable and have different purposes in the kitchen, it is a good idea to have some available rather than substituting. Once opened, just keep the left-overs in an air-tight container in the refrigerator. Do you have some in your pantry right now? I hope so!

Great Meals in a Hurry!

Fall seems to be such a busy time of the year for many, especially for parents as the children are back in school with all that entails including a myriad of activities. It may seem very difficult to get a home-cooked, healthy meal on the table. In this Cooking Tip, I would like to give you some ideas that might help.

Although a lot of us do not like to hear this, the number one piece of advice is Meal Planning. It sounds like a chore and will take some time and thought but will help you in the long run. Meal planning is simply deciding what you are going to make for the upcoming week. Once you know what you want to make, you can ensure you have all the ingredients on hand. So, when Tuesday comes, you do not have to wonder what you are going to make; you already know and you already have everything you need in your pantry/refrigerator.

If you need help planning your meals for a week, there are plenty of websites that offer weekly meal planning suggestions. Even my local supermarket sends out such an email each week. You may want to consult more than one as you probably won’t like all the suggestions from just one site.

Here are just a few to get you started but there are plenty more out there.

  • Prep from Eating Well
  • Whole Foods Market offers what they call the Easy Weekly Meal Plan
  • Tastes Better From Scratch has premade plans and also offers an option for you to customize the plans from their repertoire of recipes.
  • King Soopers offers Weekly Meal Recipes

As part of your meal planning, have your recipes (if using) ready to go. Have a folder for printed copies. Bookmark recipes that you find online so you can find them again easily.

You can’t make great meals if you do not have a stocked pantry/freezer/refrigerator. Once again, there are plenty of Pantry Essential lists available with suggestions for what to have on hand at all times. Here is one I wrote.

Planning ahead also allows you to take freezer items out to thaw either the night before or the day of your meal.

When you have the time, cook ahead. Make larger batches and freeze in dinner-sized portions for future use. When you are really short of time, grab for one of your own make-ahead meals rather than a store-bought one.

When it comes time to actually cook, speed up the process with some simple techniques.

  • Cut for speed – rather than cooking whole chicken breasts, cut them into strips or cubes. They will cook much faster. Rather than roasting an entire pork tenderloin, cut it into small medallions and cook quickly on the top of the stove.
  • Multi-task – while your potatoes/grains are cooking, get organized to cook your meat. Don’t waste “down” time. While a dish is simmering, wash a few dishes, wipe down your counters, etc. Clean up will be easier and quicker if you do it along the way rather than waiting until the end of the meal.
  • Embrace pan sauces – making a pan sauce is quick and easy and can transform your meat into something special and something different each time you make it. See this prior Cooking Tip on how to make a pan sauce.
  • Utilize eggs – eggs are not just for breakfast. Eggs are nutritious and cook so very quickly. Whether they are used in omelets, frittatas or just fried, they can make a very easy and delicious dinner. Make them your own by adding cheese, veggies, bacon/sausage, etc.
  • Consider dinner salads – boil some eggs before you leave for the day and put them in the refrigerator. For dinner, put them on top of a large plate of greens, veggies, cheese or whatever toppings you want.
  • Make grains ahead of time – although many starch/grains don’t take that long to cook, some of the whole grain ones might take a bit longer than you wish. If you are making something that takes under a half-hour, just put it on to cook as soon as you get home. For the longer cooking ones, make large batches when you have the time. They will keep in the refrigerator for a few days and for longer storage, you can freeze them.
  • Consider Bowl Meals – See this Cooking Tip for how to quickly put together Bowl Meals, a tasty, healthy and colorful meal choice. Some do call for a bit of veggie chopping. If you do that ahead of time and store in the refrigerator, putting the bowls together is a cinch, especially if you have those grains stored in your refrigerator.
  • Make it Pizza Night – if you make a simple pizza dough and freeze the dough balls, you can have a fun dinner on the table quickly. Take the dough balls out of the freezer in the morning. Top as desired, bake and see the smiles at the dinner table. I always have a bag of pizza balls in my freezer for those busy nights when I need a simple dinner.

What about you? What are your favorite strategies for speeding up meal prep? Do you have a favorite meal planning site?

Let me know!

Tomatoes — Heirloom or Hybrid?

It is Tomato Central at our house right now due to the proliferation of what is growing in my husband’s garden. (If you live in my area and want buy some, let me know.) I find the number of tomatoes he grows humorous as neither one of us is a fan of fresh store-bought tomatoes. I love a good pasta sauce or using them in other ways but not to just eat them fresh. However, as he has branched out to grow heirloom varieties, I can now enjoy a caprese salad or a tomato tart. All these types of fresh tomatoes and what to do with them is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

There are two main types of tomatoes – Hybrid and Heirloom. Hybrids are intentionally cross-bred by the plant breeders. This produces tomatoes that are more disease-resistant, have longer shelf lives, better yields, uniform appearance and so forth. Like so much fruit (and veggies), they are bred to give the consumer what “looks” good, not necessarily what tastes good. They are the main type of tomato that you will see in the supermarket.

Heirloom tomatoes are grown from seeds that have been saved and passed down through the generations. Farmers would save the seeds from the best fruits and then use them to grow more. It is said that some varieties can date back 100 years or more.

The reason that many people rave about heirloom tomatoes is that they think they have superior taste. I can personally attest to that but I suppose it depends on your taste buds. They can look unusual, both in color and shape. Note that the term “heirloom” is unregulated. It is one of those terms that has become popular and growers want to jump on the bandwagon. So, try to buy from someone you trust or grow your own.

If you are a gardener, here are a few pros/cons to help you decide what to grow.

Heirloom Pros

  • Flavor—many think it is superior to hybrids
  • Variety – more variety in color, size, texture
  • Tradition – continuing to propagate heirlooms contributes to greater genetic diversity in tomato plants
  • Replanting – the seeds can be reused season after season with the fruit being identical to the parents

Heirloom Cons

  • Appearance – although some people love how different they look, others do not
  • Yield – they have a lower yield than hybrids (You would never know that by looking at my husband’s garden!)

Hybrid Pros

  • Growing conditions – they are more disease- and heat-resistant and manage harsh weather better than heirlooms
  • Yield – these produce more fruits per plant than heirlooms
  • Consistency – with hybrids, you are going to get a more consistent and dependable harvest

Hybrid Cons

  • Replanting – the seeds cannot be replanted as they have been cross bred and the next season, they will not be like the parent and could be very undesirable.
  • Flavor – as the growers try to make better growing fruit, it often loses in the flavor department.

There are thousands of heirloom varieties. One gardening site listed almost 300 varieties with interesting names such as Aunt Ginny, Banana Legs, Black Sea Man, Cosmonaut Volkov, Cream Sausage, Hillbilly, Potato Leaf, Nebraska Wedding, Pink Ping Pong, Sugar Lump and Ten Fingers of Naples.

Every list of “favorites” you look at is different. Therefore, let me just list those my husband is currently growing in Colorado.

Amish Paste – this heirloom is thought to have originated in the 1870s with the Amish people in Wisconsin and later in Pennsylvania. It is fairly large and known for its juicy flesh. Although they can be eaten fresh, they are a superb sauce tomato.

Beefsteak – the most common heirloom with several varieties. There is also a type of hybrid by the same name. The tomatoes are large, about a pound or more.

Black Krim – named for the Crimean Peninsula of Ukraine, it is another beefsteak type tomato that is dark red and salty.

Brandywine – relatively large tomatoes with an excellent flavor and a pink hue. We grow both a red and yellow variety.

Cherokee Purple – a beefsteak tomato with a green shoulder and purplish/blackish interior.

Mr. Stripey – these huge, beefsteak-type tomatoes are very pretty due to their red and yellow coloring. The background color is yellow to light orange, with red spots/stripes radiating out from the stem. They have a high sugar content, making them particularly delicious.

Old German – this tomato was a favorite of Mennonite families from the Shenandoah Valley area of Virginia, and dates back to the mid-1800s. It is in the beefsteak family and can grow to a size of almost 2 pounds. It is bi-colored, featuring golden yellow and reddish stripes.

There is another way to categorize tomatoes apart from heirloom vs hybrid.

  • Cherry tomatoes – these are round, bite-sized and juicy tomatoes. They are great for salads, snacks or kebabs.
  • Grape tomatoes – sources say they should be half the size of cherry tomatoes but I must say this doesn’t appear so when you look at the boxes in the supermarket. They are more oblong in shape, are less sweet than cherry tomatoes, contain less water and a thicker skin. You may use as you would cherry tomatoes.
  • Roma tomatoes – these are larger than either grape or cherry and are also known as plum tomatoes. Due to their sweetness and juiciness, they are good for canning or sauces.
  • Beefsteak tomatoes – large and firm enough to hold their shape when sliced. They are often preferred for sandwiches or burgers although they can also be canned or used in making a sauce.
  • Tomatoes on the vine – sold still attached to the vine, which prolongs their shelf life. Good for sandwiches, canning and sauces.

So, what’s the deal with San Marzano tomatoes? This is probably one of the best known tomato varieties and is a type of plum tomato. The authentic San Marzano is grown in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius in volcanic soil, leading to a lower acidity and a sweeter flavor As with so many things, there are fakes out there. In the supermarket, you will mostly find them canned. Look for the D.O.P label Pomodoro San Marzano dell’Agro Sarnese Nocerino.

Chefs will claim that this is the preferred tomato for making sauce due to its sweet taste and thick flesh. When put under taste tests, neither Cooks Illustrated nor Serious Eats found it necessarily lived up to its hype.

Most of us in the cooking world have been taught that you should never refrigerate tomatoes. It turns out that this is one more of the culinary myths that has been perpetuated through the years. (For more culinary myths, see the two Cooking Tips I wrote on this subject. Find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.)

Taste testers have found that tomatoes do fine in the refrigerator and the shelf life is prolonged by up to 5 days. If they have been cut, put them in an airtight container to prevent them from picking up odors.

Another myth is that you need to remove the seeds. You do not. They do not affect the flavor but if you want them removed for aesthetic reasons, then go right ahead.

What is the best use for heirloom tomatoes? Use them in a way that they can shine such as caprese salads or tomato tarts. Here are two great recipes. The first is a Tomato & Basil Tart, which is like a caprese salad baked in a pie crust. The second is an Heirloom Tomato Tart with a custard filling. Both are excellent.

What about you? Are you a tomato lover? Have you tried heirlooms? What is your favorite?

Pears — worth waiting for!

Summer is now winding down and fall is soon to arrive. That makes me sad – not because fall is not a beautiful time of the year, but because it portends the arrival of winter. Anyone who knows me knows that winter is not a happy time for me. Back to fall, though. One of the nice things about fall is fall produce. Pears are one of my favorite fall fruits. That wonderful fruit is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Since we see pears in our stores year round, we may not realize that they are at their peak in fall. As with so many kinds of fruit, there are many varieties out there but we only see a few at our local market. Let’s look at some of those that are easy to find as well as few that aren’t.

Anjou

This pear is short, squat, very plump with almost no neck. It’s skin is smooth and the flesh is firm but juicy. It is not overly sweet and has a hint of citrus. It comes in both red and green varieties. Although they differ in appearance, they are very close in flavor. The red ones are really more brownish than true red.

It is a great all-purpose pear and can be eaten raw, baked, poached or even used in savory dishes. It is available October through May.

Asian

Also known as the “Apple Pear”, this pear looks and tastes quite different than what we normally think of as pears. Other names include Japanese pear, Korean pear and Taiwan pear.

It is apple-shaped with matte light brown skin that is a bit gritty and rough. Biting into them, they will be crisp, almost crunchy and not very juicy. The flavor is sometimes described as a cross between jicama and apple.

These are best to eat raw in salads and slaws and are available August through February.

Bartlett

Another name for this popular pear is Williams Pear. They have delicate, thin skin, a sweet taste and a soft/juicy bite. You can find both red and yellow varieties. Although one of the favorites in terms of pear flavor, they are also very perishable.

These are wonderful for eating raw. They do lose their shape in cooking and so are good for using is sauces or making pear butter. Most canned and processed pears are Bartletts. They are available July through early winter.

Bosc (Kaiser Pears)

The skins of this type of pear may have a mottled brownish appearance with rough patches of light brown and a greenish skin. They are taller than other pears with an elongated slender neck and are fairly firm even when ripe. The flesh is white, sweet and crisp but can have a grainy texture. They have a strong pear aroma.

It can certainly be eaten raw, but since this pear holds its shape when cooked or baked, it is often called for in recipes where you want that shape such as in a poached pear dish, a pear tart or a salad. It is available September through the winter.

Comice

This pear has a wide, round shape with a bit of tartness and a soft texture. It is often called the “Christmas pear” due to it’s popularity in holiday gift baskets. It has yellow-green skin and often has a red marking on one side that comes from the sun hitting that spot. It has a delicate skin with sweet and creamy flesh.

It is delicious when eaten raw due to a fruity flavor and aroma and is particularly suited to pairing with cheese. It does not have the grittiness that you can get with some pears. It is also good for baking and is available September through February.

Concorde

These are a brighter green than other pears and have longer necks. They are very juicy and sweet. As they ripen, they develop a mellower and vanilla-scented flavor. Their flesh retains its color and doesn’t brown much when cut.

They are good for eating raw and for cooking as they retain their shape. They are available September through February.

Forelle

These are smaller oval-shaped pears and are known by their “lenticels”. As they ripen, their yellow-green skin turns bright yellow and red freckling/lenticels appears. They are very sweet and delicate.

They are available October through February.

French Butter

This is a European variety that is great for pear butter. They start off green and turn golden yellow as they ripen. They can be quite sour and tough if not ripe. Once fully ripe, they become juicy and soft with a slight lemony flavor.

They are available September through December.

Seckel

Another small pear (one or two bites) with firm flesh, they are great when you want to show off the whole pear such as in poached pears. The color ranges from pale green to deep red. They are more tart than other pears and can have a somewhat bitter taste.

They can be eaten raw, cooked or even canned. They are so small that that they can be preserved whole and are available September to February.

Starkrimson

These pears have a deep red color and a mild flavor that is a bit floral and sweet. They are available August through December.

Taylor’s Gold/Gold pear

Related to the Comice pear, its skin is a light golden brown and it is very aromatic. It is almost round with golden-brown skin. The flesh is sweet and juicy. They are great for making jams, jellies and sauces.

USAPears.org has a nice graphic rating pears on texture and taste. Here is a summary of this graphic.

Pear varietyTexture from crisp (1) to soft/juicy (10)Taste from sweet (1) to very sweet (10)
Green Anjou76
Red Anjou76
Bartlett108
Red Bartlett108
Bosc23
Comice910
Concorde410
Forelle41
Seckel23
Starkrimson108

When picking out pears, choose ones with smooth, unblemished skin and that are firm to the touch. Check for ripeness by gently pressing the neck and if it gives a bit, the pear is ripe. Pears do not fully ripen on the tree. (An exception is the Asian pear, which does ripen on the tree. They do not soften or get sweeter after picking.) Once you bring them home, allow them to ripen on the counter at room temperature, which may take 3-6 days. Once ripe, use within a few days or put in fridge. Put Asian pears in fridge right away.

Most pears do not change color was they ripen. The ones that do are:

  • Bartletts – turn from green to yellow
  • Red Bartlett and Starkrimson – turn a brighter red as they ripen
  • French Butter – turn from green to yellow
  • Forelle – turn bright yellow with red lenticels

So, what do you do with pears? I think the best thing is to eat them raw. Here are the best pears for that purpose.

  • Anjou – firm, mild flavor, juicy
  • Asian – crunchy, mild flavor
  • Bartlett – very juicy and among the sweetest of pears
  • Bosc – crisp with delicate sweet flavor, very pear-like
  • Comice – less grainy than other pears, clean, bright pear flavor, sweet, soft, juicy. Some say it is the absolute best pear to eat raw.
  • Concorde – juicy, vanilla-like flavor, smooth texture
  • French Butter and Seckel – make sure they are fully ripe

If you want a pear that keeps it shape when cooked/baked, Bosc is the best option but Anjou, Concord and French Butter can also work.

If you want a pear that falls apart, choose Bartlett. A nice option is to use a mixture of Bartlett & Bosc allowing you to get the best of both worlds.

When cooking with pears, they can be peeled or not. Some peels are smoother and some are rougher. Also, some peels get tougher when heated. Complementary spices to use are cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger.

Typical preparations include:

  • Poached in wine, syrup, fruit juice, water
  • Baking – tarts, pies, cakes
  • Jams, preserves, chutneys
  • Since they are related to apples, pears would be a suitable substitute for apples in recipes
  • Slice and toss in a salad. One of my favorites is a spinach & pear salad with a maple-bacon vinaigrette.

I wish it were easy to find all the different pear varieties in my local market. Right now, I can get Anjou, Asian, Bartlett, Bosc, Concord and Comice. What about you? What’s your favorite? What can you get where you live?