A Myriad of Potatoes

What is your favorite Thanksgiving side dish? For many of us, it has to be mashed potatoes. There are more and more potato varieties in our store that I thought it would be a good time to write a Cooking Tip about potatoes. Afterall, potatoes are the most consumed vegetable in the US and, worldwide it is the fourth largest food crop.

According to Potatoes USA, potatoes were first cultivated around 8,000 BC to 5,000 BC by the Inca Indians in Peru. In the 1500s, Spanish Conquistadors conquered Peru, discovered the flavors of the potato, and took them to Europe. According to the same source, “potatoes arrived in the Colonies in 1621 when the Governor of Bermuda, Nathaniel Butler, sent two large cedar chests containing potatoes and other vegetables to Governor Francis Wyatt of Virginia at Jamestown.”

There are at least 200 varieties of potatoes although all of these can be put into the following categories: russet, yellow, red, white, blue/purple, fingerling and petite.

Another way to categorize is by texture – waxy or floury. Floury potatoes have more starch concentrated in the cells. These cells swell and separate when cooked resulting in a dry, fluffy texture. Waxy potatoes have cells that tend to stick together when cooked giving them a more dense and moist texture. Because of this difference, certain types are better suited to some uses than others. Others are in-between waxy and floury and tend to be more all-purpose. Let’s discuss these different types.

Russet – these potatoes are medium- to large-sized, oblong in shape and brown in color with whitish flesh. They are said to have a mild earthy flavor with a medium sugar content. They are a floury potato making them ideal for baking and frying resulting in a crispy exterior and a lighter, fluffy interior. They make wonderful mashed potatoes since light and fluffy is what we want in that dish. Particular varieties include Burbank, Norkotah, Ranger, Goldrush and Centennial.

Yellow – these can be very small to fairly large in size. They can be either oblong or round in shape. The skin is lighter in color in varying shades of yellow. Sugar content is medium and they are slightly waxy. When cooked, they produce a very creamy texture with a slightly sweet and buttery flavor. Great uses include baking, roasting or mashing. Names you may see include Yukon Gold, Yellow Finn, Agata, Santina and Bintje.

Red – these potatoes are usually small to medium with a rounded to slightly oblong shape. They have smooth, red skin and white flesh. This is a waxy potato with a slightly sweet flavor and a medium sugar content. The waxy texture allows the potato to stay firm throughout the cooking process. This, along with the attractive red color, means that they are great in salads, soups and stews. As a side dish, they are better boiled or roasted but can be mashed. Varieties include Chieftain, Norland, Red La Soda, Pontiac and Ruby.

White – these are small to medium in size with a round to long shape, very delicate white or tan skin and a white flesh. They have a medium starch content with a low sugar content. They can be used in a variety of ways including mashing, grilling or in salads. Names include White Rose, Cascade, Superior, Kennebec and Cobbler.

Purple/Blue – these potatoes are on the smaller to medium size with an oblong shape. The smaller oblong ones are called fingerlings. Their skins are a very pretty purple or blue with flesh that can range from white to pink to purple with shades in-between. The flavor is called earthy or nutty with a low sugar content. The flesh is moist but firm resulting in a potato that holds it shape, making it great in salads while adding a delightful color. To preserve this pretty color, they are best prepared in the microwave although you can also steam or bake them. Varieties are Purple Peruvian, Purple Majesty and Adirondack Blue.

Fingerlings – as the name suggests, these potatoes are finger-shaped. The skin color varies: red, orange, purple or white. The flesh also ranges from red to purple to yellow or white. They will often have colored veins throughout the flesh. Texture is firm and waxy. Flavor is buttery and nutty. Sugar content is medium. Pan-frying and roasting are great preparation techniques for these potatoes but they can also make an interesting potato salad. They are various varieties but they will usually just be called “Fingerlings” at the store.

Petite – these potatoes are named due to their size. The color of the skin and flesh will reflect the larger-sized varieties as will the shape, texture and sugar content. Flavor is said to be concentrated in the small size. They are great in salads and make nice roast potatoes.

Proper storage is important for the longevity of the potatoes as they continue to metabolize after harvest. Store them in a place where the temperature is about 45°-50° F and the humidity is high. Do not refrigerate. Minimize exposure to light and try to keep them in a well-ventilated place.

I started this Cooking Tip by mentioning mashed potatoes. Let me end by helping you make the perfect dish of mashed potatoes. First, start by choosing the right potato. Classically, this is the Russet but Golden Yukons go a great job, too. Scrub the potatoes. You can peel either before or after cooking them. There are those who feel that cooking them with the skin on leads to better flavor. Some even advocate not peeling at all because they like the flavor/texture of the skins in the final dish. I’m sure we have all been told that most of the nutrients are in the skin. According to the Idaho Potato Commission, the skin does contain about half of the fiber in a potato but more than half of the nutrients are in the flesh. If you score the skin around the middle of the potato, you can just pinch off the skin after cooking. Here’s a video on how to do that.

Put your potatoes (peeled or not, cubed or not) in a pot and cover with cold water. This way they cook more evenly. If you drop them in boiling water, the outside can cook before the interior. Make sure you add salt to the water so that it will penetrate the potato and add flavor that you really cannot get by just salting afterwards. Simmer for 20-30 minutes, until tender. Drain and return to the pot. Put the pot back over low heat to dry the potatoes. Now, mash the potatoes. I prefer using a ricer but if you wish a more rustic dish, use a hand masher. Mixers and food processors can be used but are not recommended as they often lead to gummy results.

I always add a bit of butter to my mashed potatoes. I soften or melt it first so it mixes in easily and I do not over-mix them. Many people add warm dairy (so it doesn’t cool the potatoes) such as milk or cream but for every-day mashed potatoes, I save some of the cooking water and use that to thin out my potatoes. It not only makes them creamy but also adds salt. So, be sure to taste before adding any additional salt. Other additions are up to you – parmesan cheese, herbs, garlic – whatever your heart desires.

Happy Thanksgiving. I am very thankful for all of you and that you take the time to read about my favorite topic – Food! Please let me know if there is anything specific you wish I would discuss.

Cookie Success

Do you love to make cookies for the holidays? Many of us do and we especially delight in the satisfied look on faces as they devour those cookies. Because we are embarking upon this cookie making time, I thought I would re-run a Cooking Tip on Cookie Success that I wrote earlier. I have added a few additional tips for you. Here it is!

Do you prefer your cookies chewier or crispier? Did you know that there are modifications you can make to your cookie recipes to get the result you prefer? This tip will outline some of those changes.

For those of you (including me) who prefer chewy cookies, try the following.

  1. Keep things cold. Chilling the dough will slow down spreading of the cookies. Chilling the baking sheet helps even more.
  2. After removing one baking sheet of cookies from the oven, do not immediately put more cookies on the hot sheet. Wait for it to cool thoroughly. You may want to running cold water over the baking sheet. If the baking sheet is still warm, the butter will melt faster resulting in spreading of the cookies and a thinner, crispier result.
  3. Use solid shortening. Since butter melts faster than solid shortening, cookies made with butter will spread more. If you really want the taste of the butter, try half butter and half shortening.
  4. Adjust your sugar. Use a larger proportion of brown sugar to white. Using dark brown sugar attracts more moisture from the air, thus resulting in a chewier cookie. Also, cookies made with honey will become soft as they stand after baking.
  5. Use yolks only or add one extra yolk. Egg whites are drying. If a recipe calls for two eggs, only use one egg plus one egg yolk.
  6. Use baking powder rather than baking soda. This gives a more acidic environment, which spreads less. Use 1 teaspoon per cup of flour.
  7. Watch your baking time carefully. Don’t over-bake and consider taking them out of the oven one or two minutes before the recommended time.

For crispy cookie fanatics, here are your tips.

  1. Use butter rather than shortening.
  2. Use a bit more liquid in the batter as this helps the cookies spread more.
  3. Substitute 1 tablespoon corn syrup for 1 tablespoon of the sugar.
  4. Replace the egg in the recipe with milk.
  5. Using baking soda rather than baking powder. Use ½ teaspoon baking soda per cup of flour.

Here are some more tips for all cookies.

  1. If possible, use light-colored baking sheets. This ensure more even cooking. Dark cookies sheets can also lead to over-baked bottoms.
  2. Baking sheets should be heavy and preferably, not non-stick.
  3. If your recipe calls for room temperature ingredients, make sure your ingredients are really at room temperature. There are scientific reasons for this but let’s just say it will give you superior results.
  4. If you have the time, let your dough rest before baking. It will improve the flavor and color of the cookies. Refrigerate the dough in an airtight container at least overnight and up to 3 days.
  5. If your cookies are browning too quickly, put a second baking sheet under the first while they are cooking.
  6. Cool your cookies on a wire rack, not directly on the counter or on a plate. There needs to be room for air to circulate around the cookies to prevent condensation and soggy bottoms.

There are more tips/techniques out there but, for now, try these tips for your favorite cookie recipe. If you are making chewy ones, save one for me!

Flavoring Choices

Spices and flavors have been used for thousands of years all over the world. So much of our food would be pretty bland without these ingredients. In this Cooking Tip, I would like to explore this world of Flavors and Flavoring.

Did you know if you combine lemon, banana, raspberry and pineapple essences that you end up with strawberry? I sure didn’t know that but people who are educated and trained as Flavorists know this and so much more. These scientists have looked at items that bring us flavor such as fruits, vegetables, spices and leaves. Through their investigations, they have identified “flavoring substances” and how they work together to please our palates.

As the Flavor & Extract Manufacturers Association (FEMA) points out, there are hundreds of natural substances in a strawberry that lead to what we taste as strawberry flavor. Flavorists isolate these compounds to develop a strawberry flavor that we can add to our foods. They also design new flavor combinations that we love to try.

Do you look forward to those new Lay’s potato chip flavors each year? (The most recent offering – Grilled Cheese & Tomato Soup – was supposed to be on shelves October 21.) How do they do it? According to FEMA, “when a food company decides it wants to introduce a new product to consumers … they often contact flavorists at companies that specialize in creating flavors, and they ask them to create a flavor that meets their requirements and will be appealing to the consumer.”

If you look at an ingredient list on a product, you may see “natural flavor” or “artificial flavor”. We probably all prefer the term “natural” but they may not be that very different. FEMA’s definition is “Natural flavors are ingredients that come from natural sources such as a spice, fruit, or vegetable.  They can even come from herbs, barks, roots, or similar plant materials.  Natural flavors also come from meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, and dairy products.”

And, “artificial flavors are flavorings that don’t meet the definition of natural flavor. There isn’t much difference in the chemical compositions of natural and artificial flavorings.  What is different is the source.  For example, an artificial strawberry flavor may contain the same individual substances as a natural one, but the ingredients come from a source other than a strawberry.” Of course, companies must abide by the FDA’s rules, which are found here, if you are interested. Other countries have their own rules.

Many times, we home cooks use flavoring extracts in our cooking and baking. I am sure we all have extracts in our pantry but what are they? FEMA defines them as “a solution that contains essential components of a complex material.  A flavor extract is such a solution, but composed specifically of compounds that create flavors.”

The most commonly used in the USA is Vanilla. I have written another Cooking Tip on Vanilla and it can be found here. What other ones do you have in your pantry? Besides vanilla, I have almond, anise, banana, lemon, orange, peppermint, raspberry and spearmint. There are many more, of course. Just check out your favorite supermarket or online supplier.

One little tidbit I want to tell you is that you will often see “Mint” extract on the shelves. You may also see “Peppermint” and less commonly “Spearmint”. If it just says “Mint”, it is most likely a mixture of peppermint and spearmint. If you are using it to make those holiday baked treats, you probably want pure peppermint. Plain mint can be used but will give you a slightly different taste.

There is also something relatively new to our supermarket shelves and that is flavoring pastes. Once again, vanilla paste is the most common but there are others. They all usually have natural flavors but also often have sugar or corn syrup as well as some sort of thickener (Gum Tragacanth , Xantham Gum, Carrageenan). The company with the most varieties is Taylor & Colledge.

If you look at a bottle of any kind of extract, you will always see alcohol. That is because it is used in the distillation process. There are those that say because alcohol evaporates during baking, extracts are not the best forms of flavor for baked goods. Rather, they recommend saving your extracts for cold applications such as beverages or sorbet. Here is a video from Natures Flavors that explains that.

This company recommends using “flavor concentrates” or “flavor emulsions” in baking. Here is a video (scroll to the bottom of the page) about the concentrates and one about the emulsions. According to the company, these items are “extremely concentrated water soluble liquids containing no alcohol or sugar and are set in a Natural Gum Acacia Base.” They are made to withstand high temperatures, making them the preferred use in baking.

For even more info, check out this video that contrasts extracts with concentrates with oils and powders. I give you these links because I think this company explains things well. I have not tried their products (they do look fun, though) and they are not the only producer in the market.

I suspect that most of us home cooks use these kinds of flavorings in the extract form. We have done that for years and I would think that practice will continue to be the main one we use. With this Cooking Tip, I hope you will see that there is more to flavoring than just extracts. Just have fun in adding flavor to your foods and let me know how it goes!

The final step to a great pie — blind baking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about your pie plate? SeriousEats.com looked at the types of pie plates and recommends either tempered glass or aluminum. They found that ceramic pie plates conduct heat too slowly resulting in more melting of the butter giving you a more mealy and less flaky crust.

Now you have all the information you need to make that beautiful and delicious pie. Get into your kitchen, give the many recommendations a try and let me know what works best for you. And, send me a photo of that wonderful pie!

Techniques for a Great Pie Crust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The next step varies by which expert you prefer to follow. One recommendation is to wrap your dough into plastic and put in the refrigerator for a minimum of 30 minutes. This hardens the fat, which has warmed and softened during the mixing process. It also allows the gluten to relax. You may wish to freeze the dough at this point for use at a future time. If so, wrap in plastic and then in foil before putting in the freezer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many recommend a compromise by first refrigerating the dough for approximately 40 minutes to relax the gluten to minimize shrinkage followed by putting it in the freezer for 20 minutes to improve flakiness. Yes, this does require a bit more timing but could lead to a superior result.

Now you are ready to choose your favorite filling. However, before putting your filling in the pan, stop and ask yourself if you need to par-bake your crust. Stay tuned for next week’s Tip as we delve into what par-baking is, when you need to do it and how to par-bake. See you then!

A Great Foundation for your Pie

In last week’s Cooking Tip about apples, I mentioned the foundation for any good pie is a great pie crust. Do you make your own or do you use Pillsbury? Making a pie crust is so incredibly easy. In fact, I made four different pie crusts today in only about an hour. They are now chilling in the refrigerator waiting to be topped and turned into beautiful pies. Although pre-bought crusts may be fine in a pinch, I encourage you to start making your own. They freeze beautifully and you will always be ready for pie. There are really two parts to making a great pie crust – your ingredients and your technique. In this week’s Cooking Tip, we will discuss the ingredients. The technique will come next week.

The ingredients that go into most pie crusts are minimal – flour, fat and water. Some will also have a bit of sugar, eggs, dairy (such as sour cream or cream cheese) or even nut flours. Let’s address these one by one.

Flour – most of us are going to use all-purpose flour for our pie crusts. I recommend mastering the technique with this flour before branching out as other flours will act differently.

Fat – the main fats used in pie crusts are butter and/or shortening. Lard used to be a stand-by but, today it is hard to get good quality lard. This is a subject for another Cooking Tip. For now, let’s stick with butter and shortening.

The main advantage of butter is flavor. It will give you a flaky crust since as the water in butter converts to steam, it puffs up the crust. The downside is that because butter has a low melting point, it is hard to maintain a nice crimp to your pie crust.

Shortening has a higher melting point allowing it to stay in solid form longer. Therefore, the crimp has a chance to set before it melts. There are those that think that this higher melting point also leads to a flakier crust than butter. It does lack, though, the wonderful flavor of butter.

This contrast is what leads to the recommendation of using both butter and shortening. They claim that using a ratio of 3:2 butter to shortening gives you the best of both worlds.

Personally, I think there is nothing better than an all-butter crust. Yes, the crimp does slump but you can try to somewhat prevent this by proper chilling of the dough, discussed in next week’s Tip. What about you? What is your favorite?

Water – all pie doughs need some sort of liquid to pull everything together. It is usually, although not always, in the form of water. Occasionally the liquid will be provided by another ingredient such as eggs, sour cream or other dairy. One point that is very important is that in order to keep our fat in the dough solid as long as possible, the water should be very cold.

There is a debate about how much water to add to the dry ingredients. Because water leads to the development of gluten, some say to add your water gradually just until you have a cohesive dough. They caution that too much water will result in a tougher crust due to the increased gluten. Others say that gluten is not necessarily a bad thing as it helps your dough to be stronger and less prone to tearing as you roll it out. I will discuss this more in next week’s Tip on the proper techniques of making pie dough.

This balance of too much/not enough water is what leads some experts to recommend adding vodka or any 80-proof spirit for part of the water. There is no discernable alcohol taste but they claim it is easier to roll out. The reasoning is that although gluten forms with the water, it does not with alcohol. They recommend mixing ¼ cup of water with the same amount of vodka and using this mixture in your pie dough. A tender but very easy to roll out dough is the result. I must say that I have not noticed this is much of an advantage when I have tried it.  Have you tried it?

What about the old recommendation of adding vinegar or lemon juice to your pie dough? The sources that recommend this say it reduces gluten development. However, when put to scientific tests, it has been found that slightly acidic doughs actually have more gluten. To get the desired tenderizing effect, you would have to use about ¼ cup, which would give your dough a very sour taste.  So, this is one “old wives’ tale” that we can put to rest.

For basic pie dough, called Pâte Brisée (translated broken paste or dough), the only ingredients are flour, fat and water. An easy to remember ratio is 3:2:1 – 3 parts flour, 2 parts fat and 1 part water where 1 part is 4 ounces. Another recommendation is 2 parts flour to 2 parts fat with 1 part water. As I mentioned above, I use all butter as my fat but you could also do a mixture of butter and shortening. This type of pie crust can be used for any application.

There may be times when you want a sweeter dough, called Pâte Sucré (sugar paste/dough). Although recipes vary, the one I like to use contains flour, fat, sugar and eggs. The latter is what provides the liquid. Any sweet pie or tart filling works great with this dough. A delicious example is a Lemon Tart.

A third version is Pâte Sablé (sand paste). In this type of dough, you use a nut flour in addition to your AP flour. Other ingredients are sugar, butter and eggs. This is the only pie dough of these three where the ingredients are better at room temperature as they will be creamed together in a mixer. This dough can be made into cookies or used in other sweet pastry applications.

Now that you have the necessary ingredients, stay tuned for next week’s Tip on technique. Although ingredients are important, it is really the technique that will make or break your pie crust. It sure is getting delicious around here, isn’t it?  See you next week!

It’s Apple Pie Time!

We are right in the middle of apple harvest time according to the Colorado Produce Calendar. I must say that a good apple pie is hard to beat this time of the year. With so many different varieties of apples out there, though, which one do you pick? One of my local supermarkets lists eight different varieties for sale while another one has over twenty! How’s a cook to choose? That is the subject of this week’s Cooking Tip.

Before I get to apples, I want to mention that the foundation of a great pie is a delicious, flaky and tender crust. I am teaching a class on how to make different pie crusts in a few days. If you aren’t able to make it to that class, I can come to your house and teach a “Pie Making” class at your convenience. See my website for more information.

Apples3

When picking an apple to put in your cart, it should be firm with tight, unbroken skins. As many varieties have naturally dull surfaces, do not be afraid of those that do not have the very shiny finish that you often see in the supermarkets. Choose apples without bruises that feel firm and heavy. The fragrance of an apple is a good indicator of freshness and quality.

That is the easy part – more difficult is what variety of apple you should use. I wish I could tell you that there were only certain apples that were suited for certain purposes. That is not true although different “experts” will give you their recommendations. What I have done for you is to consult nine different sources and made a chart of which apples each of these separate sources recommend. If you want the entire chart, email me. What I will do here is to give you a list of the apples that seemed to be favorites with at least four of these sites.

Before I do that, I want to mention one recommendation that you read over and over. That is to use a combination of different apples in your pie. Some apples are considered “Sweet & Firm” while others are considered “Tart & Soft”. Therefore, they will react differently in the pie dish. Many chefs feel you can get the best of both worlds by combining apples from these two different categories. Choose one to provide more texture and another to amp up the flavor. Not all agree, though. Serious Eats states when you do this, you “end up with a pie that’s got nice firm chunks of apple interspersed with brown apple mush.” The choice is up to you. Think of all the great experimenting you can do!

The firm/sweet apples are those that tend to hold their shape better. The soft/tart varieties will cook down to a mushier filling. Here is list of some of those.

FIRM/SWEET

SOFT/TART

Ambrosia Belle de Boskoop
Cortland Bramley
Elstar Cox’s Orange Pippin
Gala Granny Smith
Golden Delicious Gravenstein
Golden Russet Jonathan
Jonagold Macintosh
Liberty Newton Pippin
Pink Lady Northern Spy
Prima
Spartan

Now, here are the apples that seem to please a majority of the sites I consulted if you are making apple pie. Fortunately, most of these are easily found in your supermarket or farmer’s market.

  • Braeburn
  • Golden Delicious
  • Granny Smith
  • Honeycrisp
  • Jonagold

Now that you have picked your apples and brought them home, how can you prolong their freshness? Apple experts recommend:

  • Refrigerate them – apples ripen 6-10 times faster on the counter than in the fridge. Some recommend putting them in a plastic bag before refrigerating. The best temperature is between 30-32°F. The rate at which apples lose flavor and juiciness is proportional to the temperature at which they are stored.
  • Separate apples – wrap each apple in sheets of paper, which prevents one apple going bad and then ripening the rest of them.
  • Picking apples – some are better for longer storage than others. Best keepers are McIntosh, Fuji, Rome and Granny Smith. Apples harvested later in the season are better keepers.
  • Avoid apples with bruises, cuts or soft spots.

We also all know that apples turn brown when cut. This is due to a chemical reaction that occurs when an enzyme is released when the apple is cut and then reacts with oxygen. We probably all have our favorite solution for this. They work either by blocking the oxygen, reversing this chemical reaction, changing the pH of the environment or stopping the reaction by altering the temperature. Here are a few of the suggested actions:

  • Acidulated water – Toss the apples in a bit of water to which an acid has been added, typically lemon juice or cider vinegar.
  • Honey water – Add 2 tablespoons honey to 1 cup water and pour over apple slices. This can keep your apples white for more than 24 hours. Even a 30-second submersion can prevent browning for up to 8 hours.
  • Saltwater solution – Add ½ teaspoon kosher salt to 1 cup water. Add apples and soak for 10 minutes. Drain and store until ready for use. Rinse salt off with tap water just before serving.
  • Plain water – Submerge apples in plain water using a paper towel on top to keep them under the water and away from the oxygen in the air. Or, put the apples and water in a zipper-lock bag with the air pressed out. Do not soak for more than about 15 minutes to avoid altering the texture.
  • Plastic wrap – Wrap cut apples in plastic wrap to keep the oxygen away.
  • Carbonated drinks – Submerge apples in a carbonated beverage such as lemon-lime soda, ginger ale or seltzer for 3-5 minutes. Drain and rinse before use.

There is one final thought I want to leave you with. Have any of you thought, like I do, that fruit just doesn’t taste as good as it used to? I think this all the time. How many times have you bitten into an apple just to find its flavor is bland?  According to Eat The Seasons, “The apples sold in supermarkets are varieties developed for good disease resistance or storage properties, often at the expense of flavor. As author Elspeth Huxley wrote: ‘You cannot sell a blemished apple in the supermarket, but you can sell a tasteless one provided it is shiny, smooth, even, uniform and bright.’ For more interesting and flavorsome varieties, look out for growers’ stalls in farmers’ markets or visit a pick your own orchard.”

When visiting a fruit stand in California, we were told the same thing about strawberries. He told us that what people want to buy are the large, red strawberries. Although they may look pretty, they are often so tasteless whereas the small, less-desired berries are more likely chock-full of flavor. If we would all be more discerning consumers, maybe this would eventually change. In the meantime, I feel fortunate that my husband loves to grow his own fruit and vegetables!