Vinegars — so many to choose from

Vinegars are certainly a pantry staple that are used in many different applications. Just as with so many things today, we are often faced with a myriad of choices. Looking at the vinegar shelf at your local supermarket, it can be overwhelming. In this Cooking Tip, let’s delve into this world of vinegars and which ones deserve a space in your pantry. I want to start with some general information about vinegar followed by an explanation of the types of vinegar and ending with recommendations for what to keep in your pantry.

Vinegar is made by turning fermented liquid into acetic acid by adding certain bacteria to the liquid. Acetic acid is important for a couple reasons. As it is a very potent antimicrobial agent, it is a very effective preservative. Acetic acid also contributes two flavor elements to food – an acidic/sour taste and a pungent aroma.

How acidic or tart it tastes depends on the strength, which is defined by the percent of acetic acid. The FDA says it must be at least 4% to be called vinegar. In the US, most industrially produced vinegars are adjusted to 5% acetic acid. Some wine vinegars may by 7% or higher. Mild rice vinegars may be only 4%. Balsamic vinegar is usually about 6% but could be up to 8%. In my supermarket, most of the bottles had the strength listed somewhere on the label.

The Vinegar Institute conducted studies about vinegar’s shelf life and confirmed that it is almost indefinite. According to them, “vinegar is self-preserving and does not need refrigeration. White distilled vinegar will remain virtually unchanged over an extended period of time. And, while some changes can be observed in other types of vinegars, such as color changes or the development of a haze or sediment, this is only an aesthetic change. The product can still be used and enjoyed with confidence.” If you do not like the sediment, you may strain it out.

Red wine vinegar

  • Made from red wine
  • Flavor
    • Very tart with significant grape flavor
    • Hot and robust
  • Uses
    • Marinades for red meat
    • Stirred into hearty stews
    • Tangy vinaigrettes

White wine vinegar

  • Made from white wine
  • Flavor
    • Lighter and more delicate in flavor than red wine vinegar
  • Uses
    • Light pan sauces
    • Marinating poultry
    • A lighter vinaigrette

Champagne vinegar

  • Made from the fermented juice of champagne grapes
  • Flavor
    • More delicate than white wine vinegar but most tasters cannot tell the difference
    • Lighter and less acidic than other wine vinegars
    • Light body, crisp
  • Uses
    • Good base for fruit and herb vinegars
    • Light vinaigrettes

Cider vinegar

  • Made from a base of yeast-fermented apple cider
    • Comes filtered or unfiltered. Filtered has had the cloudy sediment of the “mother” (bacteria from an established vinegar) removed. Cooks Illustrated tasters thought the unfiltered was more complex when tasted from the bottle. This preference continued in light pan sauces but the differences were minimal in stronger preparations such as BBQ sauce.
  • Flavor
    • Medium sharp vinegar with a very fruity quality
    • Tastes like hard apple cider
    • Mellow and slightly sweet
  • Uses
    • Use as wine vinegars but especially in salads with apples, pork marinades and braised pork dishes
    • Glazes, slaws, sauces

Fruit vinegar

  • These are made in one of two ways.
    • Many are just ordinary vinegars that are infused with macerated fruit or fruit purees.
    • True fruit vinegars are made by fermenting fruit juice into wine and then letting it mingle with acid.
  • Flavor – dependent on the fruit
  • Uses
    • Fruity vinaigrettes
    • Drizzle over grilled fruit

Malt vinegar

  • A dark colored vinegar made from ale (cereal grains, sprouted barley)
  • Flavor
    • Mellower than many vinegars
    • Nutty and toasty
  • Uses
    • Fish/chips
    • Potato dishes

Rice vinegar

  • Made from fermented rice, aka rice wine
    • Same as rice wine vinegar, but NOT rice wine
    • Comes seasoned (added salt/sugar) and unseasoned
  • Flavor
    • Prominent in Asian cuisines and is slightly different depending on where it is made
    • Mild, barely sweet flavor
  • Uses
    • Since this is the least sharp vinegar, it is very versatile
    • The seasoned variety is used for seasoning sushi rice, but the unseasoned variety is used for most other purposes.
    • Marinades, seasoning cooked veggies, dressing salads

Distilled white vinegar

  • In the US, this is made from grain alcohol (ethyl alcohol) and is among the purest form of acetic acid.
  • Flavor
    • This is the cleanest, sharpest and cheapest vinegar.
    • It is flavorless except for the acidity.
  • Uses
    • Great for cleaning
    • Pickling veggies
    • Not recommended for other culinary uses

Balsamic vinegar

Balsamic vinegar could be an entire Cooking Tip on its own. I am going to greatly simplify it for the purposes of this Vinegar Tip. There are different types of balsamic vinegar ranging from the very expensive, traditionally-made balsamic to what we call “imitation balsamics”.

The traditional is made only from grape musts, which are freshly crushed grapes. It is cooked down to a syrup and aged in wooden barrels for a minimum of 12 years. It is very dark, thick, sweet and meant to be more of a condiment than a cooking ingredient.

Supermarket balsamics are made from grape must and wine vinegar. These are meant for everyday use. Although it may have a nice taste, it will not be as complex as the traditional product. If the first ingredient listed is the vinegar, it will be more on the tart side. If grape must is the first ingredient, it will be mellower and sweeter. If “grape must” is not listed as an ingredient, it will be a much lower-end product.

Cooks Illustrated recommends a “hack” to improve the flavor of a cheaper balsamic. Combine 1/3 cup balsamic, 1 Tbsp sugar and 1 Tbsp port in saucepan and simmer until reduced by half. In a taste test, most could not tell the difference between this and the high-end balsamic vinegar.

White Balsamic

  • This is a milder version of red balsamic. It is created by cooking white Trebbiano grapes, at a higher pressure and lower temperature. This prevents caramelization and allows the vinegar to retain a pale, golden color.
  • While similar to red balsamic, white balsamic is milder and less-sweet. It also does not impart color to the dish.

Sherry vinegar

  • Made from sherry wine although the grapes may differ, giving a different flavor profile. All sherry vinegar is fermented in oak barrels for at least 6 months, Reserva is aged for 2 years and Gran Reserva for a minimum of 10.
  • Flavor
    • Acetic acid concentration can reach 10%.
    • The flavor is warm, toasty, nutty and less sweet than balsamic.
  • Uses – It is great for pan sauces and Spanish dishes.

Herb vinegar

These are actually infusions. Highly aromatic herbs like tarragon, sage, rosemary or basil are added to light-flavored vinegars and set aside to steep for 3-4 weeks before discarding the herbs. They add fresh flavor to salad dressings and marinades.

What you keep in your pantry somewhat depends on your taste and cooking style. However, you will want, at a minimum, the following multi-purpose vinegars.

  • Wine vinegar – red and/or white
  • Cider vinegar
  • Rice wine vinegar

You may want to consider a good balsamic and possibly a sherry vinegar, as there are really no substitutes for these.

The remainder of the vinegars are fine to have in your pantry but are not necessary and either can be replaced by one of the multi-purpose vinegars or have a very limited use.

What vinegars do you have in your pantry? Which ones do you use the most? Some of the specialty vinegars are fun to play with but you certainly do not need them.

Moist heat cooking — what is it?

In my last Cooking Tip, I mentioned that when we cook, we use either Dry Heat, Moist Heat or a combination of the two. Having discussed the Dry Heat cooking methods, I want to address Moist Heat methods in this Cooking Tip.

Moist Heat methods include poaching, simmering, boiling and steaming.

Poaching

When you are poaching, you are using the lowest cooking temperature of any cooking method, only between 160°F and 180°F. (For a discussion on water temperatures, see this Cooking Tip.) The liquid in which you poach is not bubbling and has very little motion. You should carefully monitor the liquid so it doesn’t start to simmer or boil.

This method is mostly used for tender items such as eggs, fish or poultry. Because the poaching liquid not only cooks the food but adds flavor, choose the liquid with that in mind.

The method is as follows.

  • Bring a flavorful liquid to a full boil in a pan large enough to accommodate your food.
  • Place your food item in the liquid either directly or on a rack. It can be either fully or partially submerged.
  • Adjust heat so it is just below a simmer.
  • You may turn the item if necessary.
  • Remove when the item is fully cooked.

Simmering

The temperature of the cooking liquid is somewhat higher – 185°F to 205°F. The liquid should only have slight movement with only a few bubbles around the edges.

This method is mostly used for pasta, beans, potatoes and rice. Meat is not normally simmered as it can toughen it. Rather, use the poaching method.

To simmer:

  • Bring liquid to a full boil.
  • Add food as in poaching. With a simmer, the food should be fully submerged.
  • Adjust heat to maintain a simmer.
  • If necessary, turn food.
  • Remove when fully done.

Boiling

We all know what a boil looks like with the rapidly bubbling liquid. This type of motion is not recommended for cooking. Even if you start foods in boiling water, the heat should be reduced so that the food is cooked with the liquid no higher than a simmer.

Steaming

In the above moist methods, the food is in direct contact with the hot liquid. With steaming, the heat is applied in an indirect method as the food is held above the liquid.

The liquid may be water or a more flavorful liquid such as stock, court bouillon or wine. Aromatics may also be added to the liquid, especially if you wish to serve the liquid along with the steamed item.

Since this method will not tenderize food, use this method only for foods that are already tender.

Method:

  • Place a small amount of water (or other liquid) in a pan that will accommodate a steaming rack/basket.
  • Heat water to full boil and you can see the steam escaping.
  • Put food in the steamer basket.
  • Reduce heat to a simmer.
  • Place lid on pot to keep the steam inside.
  • Remove when food is cooked.

Cooking “En Papillote” is a version of steaming where the food item is cooked in a parchment paper package where it steams in its own juices.

There are a couple of cooking methods that are a combination of both dry heat and moist heat. These are braising and stewing.

Braising

A braise normally starts with browning a piece of meat with direct dry heat. It is then cooked in a moist heat environment by placing it in a flavorful liquid and finishing in the oven. This method is best for tough cuts of meat.

Stewing

This is very similar to a braise although the meat is normally cut into smaller pieces. Those pieces are often browned in a dry heat method before being submerged in the cooking liquid.

There you have it – both dry heat and moist heat cooking methods. For me, sautéing and simmering are the two I use the most. What about you?

Sauteing & other dry heat cooking methods

When you cook food, you are either using a dry heat method, a moist heat method or sometimes both. If you understand these methods, it will help you get better results with less frustration. In this Cooking Tip, I want to discuss Dry Heat Cooking Methods.

Let me first define two terms – conduction and convection. The first refers to cooking food by direct heat transfer. Examples are broiling, grilling and sautéing. Convection cooking involves indirect heat transfer such as you find with roasting, baking, frying and smoking.

Sauté

One of the most commonly used dry heat cooking methods is sautéing. In this method, you cook food quickly in a small amount of oil (or other fat) in a skillet or sauté pan over a relatively high heat. Since the word “sauté” comes from the French verb “sauter” meaning “to jump”, this is a type of cooking where you are stirring or tossing the food in the pan and cooking it quickly.

It is an ideal method for foods that only need brief cooking, such as tender vegetables, steaks, and chicken breast. It is also how we brown aromatics (onion, garlic) that are then going to be used to make a soup or stew.

Here are the steps to a proper sauté.

  • Preheat a dry pan until hot. Use a pan with short sides and one that is wider than it is tall and preferably with sloped sides rather than straight.
  • Add just enough oil to coat the bottom and swirl for even distribution. Since you are cooking over a relatively high heat, you want to use a fat with a high smoke point.
  • Continue to heat until the oil is shimmering or looks rippled but not smoking.
  • Put food into pan and cook until done.
    • Make sure food is dry before putting into pan.
    • Cut food into similar sized pieces.
    • If the food is cut into pieces, toss them intermittently so they cook evenly. You want enough contact time to brown the food.
    • If it is one large piece, you won’t stir/toss the food. Rather, turn when it is browned on the first side. Finish cooking on second side. Turn only once, if possible. (Some would call this pan frying – see discussion below.)
  • Do not overcrowd the pan; keep items in a single layer. If the pan is too full, the food will steam rather than sauté.
  • Sautéing is often followed by making a pan sauce in the same pan.

Stir Fry

Although similar to sautéing, it differs in that the food is constantly being moved and tossed in an intensely heated pan. With sautéing, the pan is only over moderate high heat and the food is not constantly in motion. Finally, with sautéing, the cooked food is removed from the pan while you make a pan sauce. With stir-frying, the sauce is usually made in the pan with the food and everything is thoroughly coated in the sauce.

Pan-frying/Shallow frying/Deep fat frying

There is a difference of opinion on how to use the words pan-frying and shallow-frying. Some consider pan-frying to be when you cook a single piece of meat such as a filet in a small amount of oil. (If you are cooking cut up pieces of meat in a small amount of oil, it is a sauté.) These people would define shallow-frying as a cooking method where you use enough oil to reach halfway up the side of the food in the pan.

Others would consider a sauté to be cooking the food in minimal oil no matter whether it is one piece or cut up pieces. They would define pan-frying and shallow frying as the same thing and is when the food is cooked in oil that comes up the side of the food halfway.

No matter which camp you are in with regards to those terms, deep-frying is cooking the food in enough oil to submerge it completely. With both sauteing and pan-frying and/or shallow frying, the food is in contact with the surface of the pan, aiding browning. In deep fat frying, the food does not touch the pan as it is surrounded by oil.

Steps to pan fry/shallow fry (for purposes of the Cooking Tip, we will consider these the same)

  • Dry & season food. Pan-fried food is usually coated before frying (flour, breadcrumbs, cracker meal, cornmeal). Coatings create a crispy crust and insulate the food to prevent over-cooking. Coat in 3 steps: dust in flour, dip into egg wash and dredge in main coating.
  • Heat pan, add oil so it comes half-way up the side of the food and heat oil.
  • For frying, the ideal oil temperature is 350°F. The oil will have a slight shimmer to it at this temperature. You could also dip a corner of the breaded food into the oil. At the correct temperature, the oil will bubble around the food and the coating will start to brown in about 45 seconds.
  • Carefully add the food to the hot oil, laying it in the pan away from you to prevent hot oil splattering on you. Do not crowd food.
  • When the first side is a golden color, turn the food and continue to cook the second side until golden. If the food item is thin, it will cook through on the stovetop. If it is thicker, you may want to place the food item on a baking sheet and finish cooking in the oven.

Deep-frying method

  • Ensure food is cut into uniform size. Dry and season. Coat as desired.
  • Add sufficient oil to a large pot or wok or a countertop deep fat fryer so the food will be submerged in the oil.
  • Heat oil to about 350°F. It is best to use a thermometer as the oil temperature needs to stay fairly steady throughout the frying process.
  • Carefully place food in oil away from you using tongs or put them in the fryer basket if you have a deep fat fryer. Do not drop the food into the oil. Get close to the surface of the oil as you place the food in it.
  • At first, the items will sink to the bottom but will rise to the surface as it cooks. Use tongs or chopsticks to move the food around as it cooks.
  • When food is cooked, remove from hot oil either using a spider or by lifting out the fryer basket.
  • Season food immediately after removing from the oil.

Broiling

Food is heated by conduction from above the food. It is very intense heat and a very quick method of cooking.

Grilling

One source defines grilling as “broiling turned upside down”. It also uses conductive heat but the heat comes from below the food item. It is also a very intense source of heat. Grilling imparts a smoky, slightly charred flavor to the foods

Roasting/Baking

This is a convective type of cooking that results from dry heated air in an enclosed environment (oven). The term “roasting” generally applies to meat/poultry whereas “baking” is used more for fish, fruits, breads, and pastries.

Smoking

A cooking process that uses dry indirect convective heat from smoldering wood chips. It uses a low temperature over a long period of time.

Although it is good to have a working knowledge of all the dry cooking methods, sautéing is probably the method you will use the most. If you learn that skill, you are able to get a great dinner on the table in very little time.

Enliven your dishes with spices!

How can you take a piece of chicken (or other protein) and one night you make something with Thai flavors, another night you use a similar piece of chicken to make an Indian dish and another night, the chicken can be infused with Italian flavors? What allows you to do this are spices. In this Cooking Tip, I want to help you pick out spices, keep them fresh and how to use them to get the most flavor into your dish. I have written other Cooking Tips on herbs as well as individual spices and flavoring/seasoning agents such as paprika, chili peppers, garlic, salt, and pepper. In this one, let’s take a more general look at spices. If you live within driving distance of Parker, Colorado, I will come to your house and design a Spice class just for you. Contact me for info.

Before we get into what spices to buy, allow me to mention how to buy spices. Many spices come in two forms – the whole spice and a ground version. For example, you can buy cumin seeds as well as ground cumin. The whole version is always the preferred choice because it retains its flavor much better. Once a spice is ground, it starts to lose the essential oils that contain the flavor. Whole spices can last up to a year or even two whereas a ground one will start to lose its potency within a few months.

Although I say this, I know that most of you will have mostly (if not only) ground spices in your pantry. I, too, have many ground versions. Because of how quickly these can lose their flavor, you want to have the freshest you can. This means buying from a reputable spice merchant and buying the smallest quantities that you can so that you will be able to use them up within a few months. Although I do the majority of my grocery shopping at a regular grocery store, I almost never buy my spices there. First, they typically come in larger quantities than I want. Second, you have no idea how long ago that spice was ground. If you have a shop that specializes in spices, you are going to get much better quality and they will be much fresher. That means superior flavor for your dishes and they will last longer for you. The spice merchant that I like is Savory Spice. I am fortunate to have a shop fairly close to me but, if not, you can order online.

I challenge you to go through all of your spices and take a whiff of them. If they do not smell of much, neither will they impart much flavor in your dish. Many chefs will date their spices as soon as they open them so they know when it is time to get a fresh supply. Store them in a cool, dark cupboard/drawer to keep them away from heat, light and moisture.

If you choose to buy whole spices, it is relatively easy to grind them. If you just want a small amount, a mortar/pestle will quickly take care of the job. If you want a larger quantity, a spice grinder is great.

There are a handful of spices that are difficult to grind at home and are usually bought ground. Those are mace, dried ginger & turmeric, cinnamon and cassia.

Many spices benefit from a quick dry roast in a skillet. For whole spices, do this prior to grinding to get maximal flavor and aroma. You can dry roast ground spices but be very careful so as to not burn them. You could also do what is called “blooming”. Heat some oil in small pan, add your spices and cook for about 30 seconds. You may want to add some aromatics (onion, garlic) first followed by the spices and then finish your dish as desired.

You might ask what spices you should always have on hand. You can do an online search and different sources will give you their recommendation of the top ten, fifteen or twenty spices that you should have. I have close to 50 different individual spices in my spice drawers since I am in the culinary business. You do not need anywhere near that many. I would recommend that how you stock your spice pantry depends on what you like to cook and eat.

A friend recently referred me to a chef’s website. I loved how he put spices into what he called “Spice Teams”. These are groupings of spices that work together to give you a flavor profile of a country’s cuisine. I have included his “Teams” here.

CuisineSeasonings
ItalianGarlic, Oregano, Basil
LatinCumin, Coriander, Cilantro
FrenchMarjoram, Thyme, Rosemary
ChineseAnise, Cinnamon, Cloves, Szechuan Pepper, Fennel Seed
JamaicanAllspice, Cloves, Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Thyme, Garlic, Cayenne
IndianTurmeric, Cumin, Coriander, Red Pepper
SpanishPaprika, Garlic, Cayenne, Saffron
GreekGarlic, Mint, Black Pepper, Oregano
JapaneseGinger, Sesame, Orange Peel, Wasabi Powder
ThaiCoriander, Nutmeg, Cloves, Cinnamon, Anise, Peanuts

Another grouping you might find helpful is the following chart that lists spices that complement different proteins.

Food TypeSeasonings
BeefBasil, Bay Leaf, Black Pepper, Cayenne, Cumin, Curry Powder, Dry Mustard Powder, Garlic, Green Pepper, Onion, Oregano, Rosemary, Sage, Thyme
FishBay Leaf, Cayenne, Curry Powder, Celery Seed, Chives, Dill, Fennel, Lemon Zest, Marjoram, Mint, Mustard, Onion, Paprika, Parsley, Red Pepper, Saffron, Sage, Sesame Seed, Tarragon, Thyme, Turmeric
LambBay Leaf, Cayenne, Curry Powder, Celery Seed, Chives, Dill, Fennel, Lemon Zest, Marjoram, Mint, Mustard, Onion, Paprika, Parsley, Red Pepper, Saffron, Sage, Sesame Seed, Tarragon, Thyme, Turmeric
PoultryBasil, Bay Leaf, Cilantro, Cinnamon, Curry Powder, Garlic, Mace, Marjoram, Mint, Onion, Paprika, Parsley, Rosemary, Sage, Saffron, Savory, Tarragon, Thyme
PorkAllspice, Caraway, Celery Seed, Cloves, Coriander, Fennel, Ginger, Juniper Berries, Mustard, Paprika, Sage, Savory
VealBay Leaf, Black Pepper, Curry Powder, Dill, Ginger, Lemon Peel, Marjoram, Mint, Oregano, Paprika, Parsley, Saffron, Sage, Tarragon
EggsBasil, Chives, Curry Powder, Mustard, Green or Red Pepper, Onion, Paprika, Parsley, Tarragon
CheeseBasil, Chives, Curry Powder, Mustard, Green or Red Pepper, Onion, Paprika, Parsley, Tarragon

A final topic I want to mention is that of Spice Blends. These are mixtures of spices used to create a certain flavor in your dish. Examples are Garam Masala, Curry Powder, Italian Seasoning and Jerk Seasoning. Most of these you can buy in the stores pre-blended. I generally recommend that you not purchase these but make your own blends although there are exceptions.

The reasons to make your own are:

  • You get a fresher mix.
  • You only need to make what you need. Why buy a entire bottle of a particular blend when you only use it twice a year? By the second time, it won’t be fresh and flavorful.
  • You control which spices go into it.

On the other hand, there are reasons you might want to purchase a blend.

  • It is a blend that you use frequently and will use it up before it loses its flavor. For example, I keep an Italian blend on hand as I use it almost every week.
  • It is a blend that you absolutely love and do not think you could reproduce it.
  • The blend has a large number of individual spices that you think you would never use again.

Spices are a wonderful way to enliven your cooking and please the palates of your friends and family. I hope the above will help you stock your spice pantry in a way that works for you and will assist you in putting wonderful, flavorful dishes on the table!

Veggie Color & pH

Besides the wonderful nutrition they give us, vegetables also add great color and texture to our meals. If you are planning on cooking these veggies, you need to be aware that how you cook them will determine how they will look and taste on the plate. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Green veggies

What gives veggies a green color is chlorophyll. This chemical, though, is destroyed by acids, such as lemon juice and vinegar. To maintain the color, cook them quickly in minimal water. Leave off the lid so any acidic elements can escape.

Chlorophyll also has a tendency to turn dull and brown during extended cooking and storage.

Have you ever noticed that canned green beans tend to be a dull olive-brown color, whereas frozen green beans are intensely green? When green beans are canned, the acids that are naturally in the beans are released into the cooking water. Due to the canning process the acids stay in the can, which means they are cooked and stored under slightly acidic conditions. Thus, the darker color.

Frozen green beans, on the other hand, are blanched in water with a neutral pH, which is less detrimental to the color. They are then frozen to preserve their color and freshness.

Cooking in an alkaline environment causes different chemical changes that result in a greener color. As opposed to regular chlorophyll, the compound that results from these changes is water soluble. Therefore, you may see the cooking water turn very green as well. The downside of cooking in an alkaline environment is that the veggies can turn mushy.

White veggies

Potatoes, onions, cauliflower, and the white parts of celery, cucumbers, and zucchini get their white color from flavones. They may turn a brownish-yellow when cooked with alkaline ingredients. An acidic ingredient, such as cream of tartar, lemon juice or vinegar, may be added to help neutralize the alkaline environment in which these vegetables are cooked and prevent discoloration. Overcooking can give these veggies a very unappetizing gray color.

Yellow and orange veggies

Carotenoids are the yellow and orange pigments found in carrots, corn, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and winter squash. These pigments are very stable to acids and generally retain their color unless they are overcooked. In that case, the color may fade.

Red/purple produce

Anthocyanins impart the red & purple color found in red cabbage, beets, cherries, red and purple grapes. Under neutral conditions, anthocyanins are usually purple. Under acidic conditions, they can become a brighter red. When they’re exposed to alkaline conditions, they will appear more blue or green.

This reaction is reversible in that if your food has changed color due to the addition of too much of an acidic or alkaline ingredient, you may add more acid/alkali to balance the pH, which will reverse the color change. To see a visual of these changes, see this article by Decoding Delicious.

Another point about anthocyanins is that they tend to lose color rapidly during cooking. So, just like green vegetables with chlorophyll, fruits and vegetables with anthocyanins should be quickly cooked with little exposure to water or other fluids.

What does this all mean in practical terms as you are in your kitchen? First, if any these color changes occur, look at the ingredients to see if you can pinpoint the culprit. If you are unsure whether a food is acidic or alkaline, see this chart, which is free of health claims and cautions.

It can also help you improve the color of your veggies. For example, just a small amount of acid will give red beets and red cabbage a bright red color. Have you ever noticed how often cabbage is cooked with tart apples? The acid from the apples will brighten the color.

You do need to be careful about adding acid as it can toughen vegetables and prolong the cooking time. Therefore, if your recipe calls for an acid (lemon juice, tomatoes, vinegar), add just a bit at the beginning of cooking and put in the rest toward the end, after the vegetables have become tender.

If you have ever had your red cabbage lose its red color and turn green, there may be a chemical reaction going on producing both a blue and yellow pigment. When combined, blue and yellow make green. You can prevent this by adding a small amount of acid such as lemon juice or vinegar. If you are making a dish with baked cherries or walnuts, adding just a bit of buttermilk or yogurt may help prevent the discoloration.

There is much more to properly cooking veggies but we will have to leave that to another Tip!

Apple Cider vs Apple Juice — Is There a Difference?

As you can imagine, my email inbox is full of food/cooking related emails. My husband, on the other hand, gets his share of gardening emails. Once in a while there is an email that interests both of us. That happened with a recent email concerning apples and apple cider. Thus, this Cooking Tip was born.

What is the difference between apple cider and apple juice? The truth is – not too much. There is no federal legal standard although some states do try to make a distinction.  

I bought a bottle of apple cider from a Colorado producer – “Talbott’s Premium High Country Apple Cider”. It says it is 100% juice, freshly pressed, not from concentrate. That sounds good but when you look at the ingredient label, it says “apple juice” along with some preservatives. If you look on Talbott’s website, you will see two varieties of this product. Both are under the heading “Apple Juice & Cider” but the only two products are labeled on the front as “cider” and on the back as “juice”.

Another popular brand, Martinelli’s writes this on their website “Martinelli’s apple juice and cider are the same; the only difference is the label. Both are 100% juice from U.S. grown fresh apples. We continue to offer the cider label since some consumers simply prefer the traditional name for apple juice.”

For those people who try to distinguish between the two terms, it basically comes down to filtration. They define cider as being unfiltered and thus has more pulp or sediment. Juice is filtered to remove the sediment to enhance shelf life. In appearance, the cider will have a more cloudy look whereas juice will be clear. In flavor, the juice product is generally sweeter while cider is tarter with a more complex flavor. Cider may or may not be pasteurized, but if not, the FDA requires a warning label.

Although you can make apple cider/juice from any apple, there are certain varieties that are preferred for making this product. Some sources will divide apples into three categories:

  • Cider apples – these are very acidic and not great as an eating apple. There is a resurgence in interest in cider apples and specialist nurseries are now offering many varieties.
  • Eating apples – this is most of what you find in the stores and are more balanced between sweet and tart.
  • Cooking apples – these are very tart if eaten raw. That does not mean they are the only apple you can use for cooking. For another Tip I wrote on this, see this link.

There is one distinction of which you should be aware. Outside of the US, Cider is usually fermented, making it alcoholic. In the US, such a product will be labeled as “Hard Cider”.  Hard cider used to be very popular in the early years of the US but its popularity waned due to various reasons, including Prohibition. Today, there is a resurgence in interest and is said to be one of the fastest growing segments of the liquor industry.

Cooks Illustrated put these two products to the test. They took recipes for pork chops and glazed ham that called for apple cider and substituted unsweetened apple juice. Their tasters did not find this successful and said that the dishes made with the juice were too sweet. They felt that the “filtration process used in making juice removes some of the complex, tart, and bitter flavors that are still present in cider.” If you can’t find cider, they recommend substituting a mixture of ¾ cup apple juice and ¼ cup unsweetened applesauce for each cup of cider.

You may not know that both apple cider and apple juice can be made either from fresh apples or from concentrate. The label should specify this. Because the apples are inherently sweet, most will not contain added sugar but, again, look at the label. This does not mean they are low in sugar. In fact, most bottles will have over 25 grams of sugar per serving. Apple cider does not contain less sugar per serving than apple juice. However, it is more acidic and has a taste that is less sweet.

It is becoming more and more common to see companies trying to distinguish themselves by listing the variety of apple on the label. A look at my market advertised “Honeycrisp Cider”, “Cosmic Crisp Cider”, “Gala Apple Cider” as well as more generic apple ciders.

Do you have a favorite recipe that uses apple cider or juice? A classic use is for a pan sauce to serve with pork. It can also be used to make a wonderful vinaigrette. Apple cider caramels is one of my favorite recipes!  What about you? Let me know.

Marinating your food – surprising revelations!

Do you use marinades in your cooking? If so, stay tuned for this Cooking Tip for some advice. When discussing this topic, the first question you may encounter is whether it is “marinade” or “marinate”? It may help to remember that marinade is a noun whereas marinate is a verb. So, the liquid mixture you make to put your food into is the marinade. You make the marinade, add your food to it and allow it to marinate for the specified time. Got that?

Now that we have our grammar lesson out of the way, let’s get to what this all means in the kitchen. A marinade is usually a flavorful liquid in which foods are soaked in order absorb flavor and maybe tenderize them. Most (but not all) marinades will contain oil, an acid and aromatics (herbs, spices, veggies).

Oil

The oil helps to emulsify the marinade, making it thicker and easier to stick to the food item. Also, many of the aromatics are fat-soluble meaning that you will get a more even flavor distribution when you use oil. The oil also helps to cook the meat more evenly.

Acid

The acid can be citrus juice, vinegar, wine, fruit juice, buttermilk, yogurt, etc. This acidic component is what some say helps to tenderize tough cuts of meat. However, if you are not careful, it can do the exact opposite. The acid causes the proteins in the meat to denature into a loose mesh. At first, water is trapped within this mesh but if the marinating time goes on too long, the proteins tighten and squeeze the water out. This results in a tough piece of meat or seafood.

To avoid this, be sure that the more delicate the piece of protein you are using, the less acid you should be using. There are different recommendations for the acid to oil ratio. One source advises to use equal parts acid and oil, unless you have a specific reason for using more acid. Another chef recommends 3 parts oil to 1 part acid. If you are making your own marinade, I would start with the lower ratio.

This is especially true for marinating seafood as the acid in the marinade will start to cook the seafood – think ceviche. If left in too long, the tender seafood can become tough as if it were overcooked. Fine Cooking recommends only 1 part mild acid to 4 parts oil for marinating shrimp.

Another risk to an acidic marinade is a mushy texture, especially if left in the marinade too long. Nik Sharma in a post on Serious Eats agrees with this but notes that yogurt-based marinades are different due to the type of acid in yogurt. Longer marinating times are much better tolerated if the meats are placed in a yogurt-marinade rather than a more standard marinade. For a very in-depth discussion of the science behind this, see his article. Another good dairy choice is buttermilk. With one of these options, you can achieve a real tenderizing effect.

Because of these concerns with acid, Cooks Illustrated recommends against using acid. Acidic marinades do, though, add great flavor, though, and so are worth trying.

Aromatics

Most good marinades will also contain salt. As J. Kenji Lopez-Alt in The Food Lab states, the protein myosin that is found in the muscle of the meat will dissolve in a salty liquid. This results in a looser texture that allows it to retain more moisture. Cooks Illustrated recommends 1½ tsp per 3 Tbsp of liquid, making the mixture not only a marinade but also a brine.

The Food Lab also recommends adding a protease (an enzyme that breaks down proteins) such as soy sauce. Other ingredients similar to soy are fish sauce and Worcestershire sauce.

Additional aromatics include items such as garlic, shallots, dried spices, herbs or chilies. Finally, sweeteners such as sugar or honey add complexity and help brown food, another flavor booster.

Other types of marinades

  • Dry marinades or rubs – these are mixtures of herbs and spices, often moistened with some oil before rubbing onto the meat.
  • Fruit-based marinade – these are considered enzymatic rather than acidic. The enzymes (proteases) within the fruit are often touted to help tenderize meat. However, these types of marinades easily make the surface of the food mushy.

You may be surprised to know that your marinades do not penetrate very far into the meat According to J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, even after setting overnight in the refrigerator, the marinade does not penetrate more than a millimeter or two. He also states that the penetration rate actually slows the longer you allow it marinate. This all means that the marinade’s effect is mostly on the surface of the food item. For us home cooks, that means we can get by with shorter marinating times.

Veggies are one type of food for which marinating is a great choice. Since they are not composed of protein, many of the above cautions do not apply. Veggies are made of fiber, which helps them soak up the marinade, resulting in great flavor. Tofu acts similar to veggies.

How to marinade

You want to maximize contact between the food item and the marinade. An easy method is to put it all in a zip-lock plastic bag and squeeze the air out. You may also do it in any non-reactive bowl or container. Make sure the food is thoroughly coated in the marinade and turn it at least once to make sure all sides spend time in the marinade. Aim for about ½ cup liquid marinade for every 1# meat.

Be sure to refrigerate your food while it is marinating for food safety reasons.

Some marinades are cooked beforehand and others are not. Never use the liquid in which you have marinated meat as an uncooked sauce as it could be contaminated by the meat. If you want a sauce using the same marinade, there are two things that you can do. First, just hold some of the marinade aside for the sauce and put your meat into the remaining marinade. Or, you may cook the marinade for at least 5 minutes after removing the meat to kill any potential pathogens.

The biggest disagreement you will find is over how long to marinate. Due to the fact that the marinade doesn’t penetrate into your meat very far along with the possible detrimental effects from a long marinating time, many experts are now recommending a shorter time in the marinade. My Recipes test kitchen chef Mark Driskill feels that anything over 3-4 hours is unnecessary and maybe detrimental to your finished dish. Cooks Illustrated agrees saying it is “pointless to marinate for hours and hours”.

They, and others, recommend limiting the use of marinades to thin cuts of meat or meat that has been cut up for your dish. They say that larger cuts of meat would probably do better with a spice rub.

All that being said, we can make some general recommendations. No matter the recommendation, if your food starts to turn cloudy, you are starting to cook it. Take it out of the marinade immediately.

  • Shellfish (such as shrimp or scallops) – no longer than15 minutes
  • Other seafood – up to 30 minutes
  • Boneless chicken breast – about 2 hours
  • Pork loin – up to 4 hours
  • Lamb – 4-8 hours
  • Beef – Some will say up to 24 hours but you probably want to limit it no more than 8 hours.
  • Pork – about 6 hours
  • Kabob cuts (1½ – 2-inch cubes) – 2 hours
  • Firm tofu – 30 minutes
  • Hard veggies – 30 minutes to an hour
  • Tender veggies – 15-30 minutes

All of the above should make your decision to marinate easier when you look at some of these recommendations and when you realize that you do not need nearly as much time as you might have thought.

Salts Galore

The number one seasoning we use in the kitchen, whether in savory or sweet dishes, has to be salt. Although salt has received a bad rap in recent years for its role in high blood pressure, for most of us, it is not a major health concern. It is, though, an essential ingredient in almost all of our cooking and baking. There has also been an increased interest in specialty salts over the last few years. I wrote a short piece on salt a few years ago but thought it was time to update that and so, that is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Salt is either harvested from sea water or mined from salt mines but it is all basically just sodium chloride. Different salts, though, do differ in texture, shape and mineral content.

Granulated table salt
This is the densest form of salt and is in the form of small, cubic crystals. It is mined from underground salt deposits by pumping water through these deposits followed by evaporation of the water. It usually has additives that act as anti-caking agents, but these chemicals may also give an off-taste to the salt. It may be found either with the addition of iodine or without. Iodine began to be added in the 1920s to prevent iodine deficiency, but it can give a slight chemical flavor.

Because of its fine texture, table salt dissolves easily, especially in baked goods. It may also be used for dishes such as soups or stews where it is going to dissolve and distribute evenly. Just be sure to start with a lower amount and add as you need so you do not over-salt.

Kosher salt
The name of this salt comes from the fact that it is used in the koshering process for meats. It comes from salt mines. It is coarse but not as large and flaky as flake salt (discussed below) although the actual texture does vary by brand. It is generally recommended for everyday use as it is easy to pick up between your fingers and distribute evenly.

It is great for sprinkling on meat prior to cooking not only because it can be sprinkled evenly, but also because it melts on contact, sticking to the food item. It may also be used as a seasoning prior to serving. The finer version is suitable for baking.

In the US, there are two major brands.

  • Morton – this brand contains an anticaking agent and the crystals are flat due to a rolling process.
  • Diamond Crystal – there are no additives in this brand and it is made by a process known as “craft evaporation”. This results in hollow, multifaceted crystals that weigh less than those of the Morton brand.

Flake salt
This salt comes from evaporated sea water. The term is generally used for salt with crystals that have a large surface area and usually in the form of flat, irregularly-shaped particles that crumble and dissolve easily.

Since the crystals don’t pack together as with granulated salt, any given volume (such as a teaspoon) will weigh less than the equivalent volume of the granulated version. They are a great crunchy finishing salt.

Maldon sea salt from England is put into this category although its crystals are not flat but have a pyramidal shape. Because of its very flaky texture, it is a favorite among chefs.

Sea salt
This is a general term referring to salt that is made from evaporating sea water. It is usually coarse and irregularly shaped. It is minimally processed, which means it will contain trace minerals that result in a more complex flavor.

It can be either unrefined or refined. The unrefined will contain more minerals, contributing to its taste and appearance. It can range in color from white to grey, the latter containing more minerals that lead to the color and unique flavors. It can also be found in a fine texture or a larger, more flaky texture.

Finishing salts
These are salts that are generally added to food just before serving to add flavor and texture. Most sea salts are in this category. There are a few popular ones I will mention.

  • Himalayan pink salt – this is mined from the Khera salt mine in Pakistan and gains its pink color from trace elements and minerals. It has a mild but complex flavor. It can be in a fine texture or a very coarse texture.
  • Himalayan black salt – also known as kala namak. It is created by cooking the salt with charcoal, herbs, seeds and bark in a furnace. Because it contains sulfide compounds, it is said to have the flavor of a soft-boiled egg.
  • Hawaiian salt – It is harvested near the shores of Kauai. The red variety gets its brick red color from the volcanic clay. The black variety is made by adding activated charcoal, which also gives it an earthy flavor.

Fleur de sel
This is French for flower of the salt. The original is a special product of the sea-salt beds of Brittany, France although other places are now producing a similar product. The crystals that form at the surface of the beds are gently raked off before they can fall below the surface. This results in very delicate flakes without any traces of sediment. It is expensive as this is a very labor-intensive process. You might see different fleur de sels depending on where it comes from.

If you are concerned about sodium intake, you should always consult your physician. One thing to note, though, is that most of our salt intake comes not from the salt we use in cooking but from processed food. If you just make that one switch from eating so much store-bought processed foods or fast food and instead cook at home, you will significantly decrease your sodium intake.

Sel Gris (grey sea salt, Celtic sea salt)
As opposed to fleur de sel, this salt comes from below the surface of the salt beds. Its gray color comes from the clay from which it is harvested. It is said to have a slight mineral or briny taste.

Flavored and colored salts
These are salts which are used as a carrier for other flavors and colors. Examples are herb salts, garlic salt, celery salt, smoked salts and blended salts. They each have their own characteristic flavor.

So, which salts should you have in your pantry? If you wish to have only one, kosher salt is probably the most useful. It is inexpensive and can be used in various applications. You might also want to consider a finishing salt for that extra crunch/flavor for your dishes.

One thing to be aware of is that although these different types of salt have similar sodium contents by weight, the do vary by volume due to their differing sizes and shapes. This great chart from Serious Eats demonstrates this.

Type of saltWeight per cupWeight per tablespoon
Table salt10 ozs/280 g⅔ oz/18 g
Morton’s kosher salt8 ozs/225 g½ oz/14 g
Diamond Crystal kosher salt5 ozs/140 g⅓ oz/9 g
Maldon sea salt4 ozs/115 g¼ oz/7 g
Fleur de sel8 ozs/225 g½ oz/14 g

In practical terms, one tsp table salt is equivalent to 1½ tsp Morton kosher salt and 2 tsp Diamond Crystal kosher salt. Be aware of this if you want to substitute one kind for another.

Salt not only has its own taste but it also enhances the flavor of other ingredients. It can minimize bitterness, enhance sweetness and complement umami. Be sure to season as you go. Consistently taste your dish as you go along so the seasoning is to your taste. You do not want your dish to taste salty; you want it to taste balanced and delicious. And, for that, you will need salt!

Frittatas — No Recipe Needed

A question I get frequently is how to cook without always using a recipe. Although I am testing recipes quite frequently, I do like to be able to throw something on the dinner table without needing to look for and consult a recipe. This spring, I will be teaching a two-part series on doing just this – Cooking without a Recipe. If you would like to book a similar class for yourself, just email me. One of the dishes that you can do this with is a Frittata. How to do this is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Ingredients

There is only one absolute in making a frittata – eggs. However, most recipes will also add dairy. For the best flavor, the dairy should be full fat.

The most quoted ratio is 6 large eggs to ¼ cup diary and 1-2 cups of add-ins. If you are using cheese, aim for ½ to 1 cup for the same 6-egg frittata. Some sources alter this ratio by recommending only 1½ Tablespoons of dairy for 6 eggs.

Making it your own involves picking the other ingredients you might want to include. It often means whatever you have in your refrigerator or pantry as a frittata is a great way to use up these items. Here are some suggestions but it is not all-inclusive.

  • Meat – bacon, ham, sausage, smoked salmon, chorizo
  • Produce – onions (sautéed or caramelized), shallots, zucchini, yellow squash, spinach, potatoes, sweet potatoes, mushrooms, tomatoes, broccoli, bell pepper, garlic, corn
  • Herbs – parsley, tarragon, chives
  • Seasoning – salt, pepper, basil, parsley, thyme, paprika, ground mustard, hot sauce, pesto
  • Dairy – milk, half/half, cream, sour cream, unflavored yogurt
  • Cheese – cheddar, gruyère, fontina, mozzarella, gouda, goat’s cheese, feta

Cooking

  • Frittatas can be done totally on the stovetop or started on the stovetop and finished in the oven. If using the oven, make sure your skillet is oven-safe. A well-seasoned cast iron is great for frittatas. If you have an oven-safe non-stick pan, that is another good choice. You do not want your frittata sticking to the pan. For a 12-egg frittata, grab a 10-inch pan. For 6 eggs, try an 8-inch pan.
  • You should pre-cook your add-ins before adding your eggs. An exception is if you are using fresh herbs or tender greens. Be sure to season them unless they are already salty as with bacon. Whereas most veggies can be cooked in the pan, potatoes are helped by par-boiling before adding them to the pan.
  • Combine your dairy, eggs and seasonings. Stir in cheese, if using. Pour over the veggies and gently stir a few times.
  • Cook stovetop for a few minutes, just until the sides are barely set, before placing in a preheated (350°F) oven. Another method is to cook on the stovetop until the bottom is almost done and then finish for a few minutes under the broiler.
  • A no-oven method recommends cooking stove-top until the edges are beginning to set. Then, working over a sink, place a flat plate or lid on top of the skillet. Placing one hand on the plate, invert the skillet onto the plate. Slide frittata back into the skillet and continue cooking until the second side firms up.
  • If cooking in the oven, remove when just set. This could be anywhere between 10 and 30 minutes, depending on the size. You do not want to overcook it. Instead, you want the texture to be custardy and just set. The crust should not be browned as that means your interior is most likely over-cooked. If you really want a brown top, sprinkle some cheese on during the last few minutes of cooking.

Frittatas are great for any meal and can be served either warm or at room temperature. Leftovers can be stored in the refrigerator for 3-4 days and reheated for a quick lunch.

Do you have a favorite frittata? Have you ever tried to make one without resorting to a recipe? If you follow the above guidelines, I am sure you will put smiles on the people around the table.

Homemade Marshmallows — A Real Delight!

I have never been a fan of marshmallows. I do not even like them in my hot chocolate. That all changed, though, when I first made homemade marshmallows. They are such a different creature than store-bought and that is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

I was attempting to make a chocolate covered Easter egg filled with a light and fluffy center. I was using a recipe from Callebaut that had you mix some of their Gold chocolate (one of their specialty white chocolates containing caramelized sugar & milk) into the marshmallow mixture. I did not have that particular ingredient and so, used their milk chocolate. I tempered some chocolate to use in my Easter egg molds and filled them with this mixture. When I bit into them, I remembered how much I love homemade marshmallows. They reminded me of those marshmallow Easter eggs that you can buy but so much better.

According to Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking, these confections were first made in France from the gummy root juice of the marsh mallow, a relative of the hollyhock. Made by mixing this juice with eggs and sugar and then beaten to a foam, it was called pâte de Guimauve.

Making them is not difficult but does require working with gelatin and hot sugar syrup. Because of the latter, you do need to take some care to not burn yourself. Similarly, it is not a good project for children.

All recipes will call for you to soften gelatin in water (for a discussion on powdered vs leaf gelatin, see this Cooking Tip). You also make a sugar syrup with sugar, water and an invert sugar to prevent crystallization. Professional pastry chefs may use something called “trimoline”. Most home cooks use corn syrup or glucose syrup although honey may also be used. One caution with the latter, though, is that some honeys have such a strong flavor that it will dominate your marshmallow. If you want to try honey, use a lighter one. I used a clover honey and that worked wonderfully. The sugar syrup must be brought to a certain temperature (recall temperature adjustments when at high altitude). This mixture is then beaten in a mixer, the gelatin is added and mixing continues until you get a white and thick mixture that has doubled or tripled in volume.

Some recipes you will see call for whipped egg whites but most do not. The addition of whipped egg whites makes the marshmallows extra light, soft and fluffy as well as easier to pipe by slowing how quickly the marshmallows set up. The egg whites also change the mouth feel as well as shortening the life span of the finished product. Plus, there is the concern of ingesting uncooked egg whites.

The final mixture is very sticky and will start to set up fairly quickly. You can just spread it out on a baking sheet that has been sprayed with nonstick spray and coated with powdered sugar. The marshmallows should then be allowed to set up for a few hours or even overnight before cutting into your preferred shape. After cutting, toss them in either powdered sugar or a mixture of powdered sugar and corn starch. You can also pipe the mixture into shapes. Or, as I did, you can pipe it into chocolate shells.

Flavorings can be added. The most classic is just vanilla but as I mentioned, I added melted chocolate. A perusal of recipes showed peanut butter & jelly, mint, eggnog, berry-flavored, rose, birthday cake, lemonade, mocha, caramel, gingerbread and liquor flavored. Colors may also be added for variety.

Have you ever tasted homemade marshmallows? What did you think? Have you ever made them yourself? I’d love to know.