Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Butter — which kind to use

Butter1Butter is a wonderful and tasty ingredient although I know it gets a bad rap for health reasons. We use it in all types of baking as well as savory applications. In this Cooking Tip, I would like to discuss whether the type of butter you choose makes a difference to your end result.

One of the main choices you will have to make when purchasing butter is whether to get salted butter or unsalted (sometimes called sweet) butter. Most chefs and food resources will tell you that you should only use unsalted butter in your cooking and baking. These are the reasons:

  • You want to control how much salt goes into your item. Since all salted butters contain different amounts of salt, it is better to go with unsalted butter and then add your own salt as desired.
  • Salt is used as a preservative and extends shelf life. In theory, then, unsalted butter (which has a shorter shelf life) should be fresher.
  • Unsalted butter has a lower water content, something that you want in baked goods. Excess water can interfere with gluten development – a concern for some baked goods. When Cooks Illustrated did side-by-side comparisons of brownies and biscuits made with the same brand of butter – one salted and unsalted – they found that those made with salted butter were a little mushy.
  • Salt can mask butter’s delicate flavor. This is a detriment where butter is the star ingredient such as in buttercream frostings, butter cookies and certain sauces such as beurre blanc.

There are times that salted butter may be preferred. It is great for spreading on bread, adding to your veggies or just when you are not concerned about the amount of salt in your dish. There are also certain recipes that have been developed using salted butter.

Does the brand of butter matter? Perhaps. Cooks Illustrated did a tasting of seven different supermarket brands of unsalted butters. They tasted the butters plain, in pound cake and in sugar cookies. Although there were definite flavor differences, they would not hesitate to recommend any of them for your use. Their ultimate winner was Challenge unsalted butter. I tend to use Land O Lakes. I especially like their half-sticks as I only need to take out a small amount at a time and leave the rest protected in the freezer.

For salted butters, Cooks Illustrated preferred Lurpak, a butter from Denmark. TheKitchn.com preferred President whereas Epicurious preferred Cabot Natural Creamery butter. I like Kerrygold as well as Kroger’s Private Selection Salted French Butter. So, what do you like? Let me know.

Some butters are termed “cultured”. In the culturing process, the cream is fermented before churning leading to that more complex flavors. This may be great for spreading on your bread but probably not so good for baking.

Another difference you will see is European-style butters (aka premium butters). They are touted for having a higher fat content than regular butters although this difference is small. Many think European-style butters are better for baking but this is a personal preference. Because of their higher fat and lower water content, King Arthur Flour cautions that if “used in a recipe not calling for it specifically, European-style butter can create a greasy, sometimes drier result than grade AA butter.”

People often wonder if they can substitute salted butter for unsalted and vice versa. As always, I strongly recommend going with whatever type is called for in your recipe, especially if it is a baked good. The usual question is if you can use salted butter when unsalted is called for. The answer is a qualified “yes” but be aware that you may want to decrease the other salt in your recipe. Try decreasing the salt by ¼ teaspoon per stick of butter.

If, by chance, your recipe calls for salted butter and all you have is unsalted, you may need to add salt. It can be difficult to know how much to add as brands vary in their salt content. Challenge recommends adding ¼ teaspoon for every stick of Challenge unsalted butter. Other brands do not always tell you what they recommend for their brand but Challenge’s suggestion is a good place to start.

Butter is a perishable food item and, therefore, should be stored properly. Most butter manufacturers recommend storing butter in the refrigerator. The American Butter Institute has a slightly different take. They say you may leave your butter at room temperature but there are cautions. First, since salted butter is less likely to go bad, if you want to leave your butter out, this is the kind to go for. If you have unsalted butter, refrigerate.

The FDA states that “traditional butter and margarine have had a long history of safety without time/temperature control.” (Time/temp control is a recommendation that tells us that foods can be dangerous to eat if not kept at the correct temperature for the correct amount of time.) When they say “traditional” butter, it means butter with at least 80% milk fat. Much more caution must be taken with products with lower fat, higher water and lower salt levels. It also presumes that the product is pasteurized.

Butter will eventually spoil. State Food Safety states “For best quality, keep butter in a covered dish and use it within 10 days. You can also refrigerate or freeze butter to extend its shelf life.” Keep butter in its original wrapping when refrigerated. For longer storage, you can freeze it. An additional wrapping of foil will help to preserve its freshness.

I must admit that I love butter for all sorts of uses. An all-butter pie crust is delicious and flaky. Adding a small pat of butter to your pan sauce gives it a wonderful silky texture and fuller taste. Yes, we may need to watch how much we eat but I could never eliminate it totally. Could you?

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Egg Tidbits Part 2

I would like to continue our discussion of Eggs in this Cooking Tip with a few more helpful tidbits. In last week’s Tip, I told you how to interpret the dates on the carton to determine how old your eggs are when you buy them. What if you have had them in the refrigerator for a while, how do you know if they are still fresh? Here is an easy test.

Freshness of eggs – Place the egg in a bowl of water. If it lays on its side at the bottom, it is still fresh. If it stands upright on the bottom, it should be eaten fairly soon. If it floats, it may be time to throw it away. According to the USDA, “an egg can float in water when its air cell has enlarged sufficiently to keep it buoyant. This means the egg is old, but it may be perfectly safe to use. Crack the egg into a bowl and examine it for an off-odor or unusual appearance before deciding to use or discard it. A spoiled egg will have an unpleasant odor when you break open the shell, either when raw or cooked.”

Egg Storage – When properly handled and stored, eggs rarely spoil. However, if you keep them too long, they are likely to dry up. Refrigerate eggs at 40°F or less. Store them in their original carton on an inside shelf and away from pungent foods. The temperature on an inside shelf remains more constant than one on the door, which is opened and closed frequently. The carton keeps the eggs from picking up odors or flavors from other foods and helps prevent moisture loss.

Raw eggs that have been removed from their shells should be refrigerated in a tightly covered container. Refrigerated whole egg yolks should be covered with water to prevent them from drying out; drain before using. The following chart shows how long hard-boiled eggs and raw eggs last when stored in the refrigerator.

EGG STORAGE CHART

PRODUCT REFRIGERATOR FREEZER

Raw eggs in shell 3-5 weeks Do not freeze

Raw egg whites 2-4 days 12 months

Raw egg yolks 2-4 days Yolks do not freeze well

Hard cooked eggs, in shell 1 week Do not freeze

Casseroles made with eggs 3-4 days After baking, 2-3 months

Quiche with any kind of filling 3-4 days After baking, 1-2 months

Egg sizes — Size tells you the minimum required net weight per dozen eggs. It does not refer to the dimensions of an egg or how big it looks. It is not the size of each individual egg but it is the total weight of the dozen eggs that determines the size noted on the carton.

Size of Egg Minimum net weight per dozen Weight per egg

Peewee 15 ozs 1¼ ozs
Small 18 ozs 1½ ozs
Medium 21 ozs 1¾ ozs
Large 24 ozs 2 ozs
Extra Large 27 ozs 2¼ ozs
Jumbo 30 ozs 2½ ozs

If you are wondering if you can substitute one egg size for another, the American Egg Board recommends the following.

Large Jumbo X-Large Medium Small

1 1 1 1 1
2 2 2 2 3
3 2 3 3 4
4 3 4 5 5
5 4 4 6 7
6 5 5 7 8

Peeling eggs – I’m sure you all have had the problem of peeling a hard-boiled egg and taking off a large part of the egg with the shell. Is there a solution to this? Yes, but it involves using a technique that is very different than what you have heard before or what I was taught in culinary school. This topic arose in a class I just taught about hosting an Afternoon Tea party. I do not have an Instapot but many in the class did and raved about how easy it was to peel eggs cooked in this device. I believe this as it works similarly to the following method, which is what I use.

Serious Eats did a number of tests to determine the best way to cook eggs and be able to easily peel them without creating craters in your egg. The way most of us were taught is to put the eggs in cold water and then bring that water to a boil. What this does, in reality, is to cause the egg proteins to fuse to the inside of the shell, making it very difficult to peel. To prevent this, they suggest a different method.

They found carefully dropping the eggs into boiling water (or steam), lowering the water temperature then continuing to cook in barely simmering water is the best way. After removing, peel them under running cool water. While the eggs are still hot, the membrane and egg white are more easily separated. Here is a link to the actual recipe.

In this chef’s book, The Food Lab, he recommends adding some ice to help the water cool more quickly. If you have an Instapot, let me know if you agree if it is a wonder for boiled eggs. If not, give this technique a try and I think you will be pleased.

There is much more to this wonderful foodstuff we call Eggs. However, I suspect that you have had enough. So, I will finish this second Cooking Tip on Eggs. If there are other egg-related topics that you would like for me to discuss, just let me know!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients · Techniques

Custards and the miracle of eggs

When we lived in England, my husband loved some little custard tarts that we would buy from a Portuguese bakery in the town in which we lived. Since then, I have been attempting to re-create them to his satisfaction. Recently, I was testing a recipe from Emeril Lagasse and it turned out to be a winner. Hurray! This testing caused me to think about custard and what a wonderful creation it is. It is something all cooks should know how to do and this is why I am writing this Cooking Tip.

A custard is nothing more than a mixture of milk, eggs and often sugar that is cooked into a thickened product. It forms the filling for these little Portuguese tartlets but a custard is also the basis of crème brûlée, flan, ice cream, quiche and more. It is not difficult to make a custard but there are some hints that I hope you find helpful.

Many custards start by having you beat/whisk the eggs (whole or just yolks) together with the sugar until it has thickened and turned light yellow. Some will recommend you continue to the “ribbon” stage, which means the mixture will form a ribbon as you lift up your spoon and allow the mixture to fall back into the bowl. These instructions are meant to help you ensure that the sugar has mostly dissolved. You do not necessarily need to go all the way to ribbon stage but a good mixing until the color and consistency changes is a good idea.

Some recipes will have you heat the dairy (milk, cream) before adding it to the egg/sugar mixture. This is not necessary unless you want to infuse flavor into the dairy. For example, my tartlet recipe had me infuse vanilla seeds and orange zest into the milk. This was achieved by bringing the cream to a boil, adding those two ingredients, covering it, taking it off the heat and allowing to steep for 30 minutes. I then whisked that steeped dairy into my egg mixture. If I did not want to infuse any flavors, I could have added everything together and then heated it on the stovetop.

If you are told to add hot milk/cream to the egg mixture, the danger is that the eggs will start to cook and you will end up with a scrambled egg mixture. To avoid this, you should “temper” the hot liquid into the eggs. This simply means adding some of the hot liquid very slowly into the eggs while whisking. Once the eggs have been diluted with the dairy, you can put it all back into the pot and continue with the recipe.

If your egg/dairy mixture is started cold, the recipe will instruct you to heat it so as to cook the eggs and thicken the mixture. This heating should be done very gently. Resist the temptation to turn up the heat to speed the process. I love how Harold McGee puts it in his book, On Food and Cooking.

“Turning up the heat is like accelerating on a wet road while you’re looking for an unfamiliar driveway. You get to your destination faster, but you may not be able to brake in time to avoid skidding past it.”

As he goes on to explain, the chemical reactions that cause the thickening of the custard don’t stop just because you take it off the heat. So, if you try to hurry this step, you may easily get to the point of curdling or overcooking.

Some custards are meant to be very soft and creamy while others (such as those that need to be turned out of the container before serving) are firmer. This can be adjusted by changing the proportion of the egg content. If you use more whole eggs or egg whites, the custard will turn out firmer and glossier. More egg yolks (or even yolks alone) produces a softer, creamier custard.

Some recipes will have you add a starch such as flour or cornstarch. These ingredients help with thickening while also protecting against curdling. The recommended amount is one tablespoon of flour or two teaspoons cornstarch (or arrowroot) for every cup of liquid. Whereas this does help guard against curdling, it can also turn a smooth, creamy dish into a thicker and coarser one. Whether your custard is made totally on the stovetop or ends up in the oven, if there is no starch in it, it requires gentle heating. On a stovetop, this generally means using the double boiler method with constant stirring. If in the oven, a water bath should be used. On the other hand, if you do add a starch to the mixture, the custard can be cooked over direct heat on the stovetop or without a water bath in the oven.

A water bath just means putting the custard dishes in a larger pan (such as a roasting pan) that has enough hot water in it to go up about half-way the height of the custard dishes. Even though your oven temperature may be set at 350°F, the water in the pan won’t exceed 212°F (or even less if you live at altitude). This means the custards are exposed to a gentler & more even heat. Some recommend putting a rack in the bottom upon which you place the custard dishes so that they are not directly exposed to the hot bottom of the pan. Without a water bath, the outside of your custard could overcook before the center is done. With a water bath, you are more likely to catch them at the perfect degree of doneness.

All this talk of custards has me salivating over those little Portuguese custard tartlets that I made. I have a few left and those will definitely be dessert tonight! How about you? Is a custard in your near future? Let me know!

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Meringues — French, Swiss & Italian

Last week’s Cooking Tip talked about different styles of mousse and how some styles used a meringue as part of the dish. In this week’s Tip, I would to spend more time discussing the different types of meringue – French, Swiss and Italian.

In the simplest terms, a meringue is a mixture of beaten egg whites and sugar. It can be used to fold into cake or cookie batters, as a filling, topping or a stand-alone cookie that melts in your mouth when you eat it. Since the basis of a meringue is beaten egg whites, you may want to review the prior Cooking Tip on egg white foams before attempting these different types of meringues.

French meringue is the most basic of the meringues. It is made by beating egg whites to the foamy stage (45-60 seconds) and then slowly adding sugar and continuing to beat into a soft, airy and light mixture. Adding the sugar too early or too late can lead to disappointing results. Adding it after about a minute of beating when the whites have reached the foamy stage but before they begin to form peaks is ideal. This type of meringue is the easiest to make but is also the least stable. Therefore, it is usually used when it is going to be baked – either in a cake batter, meringue cookies or a meringue shell that is then topped with fruit, whipped cream or a type of mousse.

Swiss meringue is prepared differently. Egg whites and sugar are put into a bowl that sits above boiling water – a type of bain marie. When the mixture reaches the temperature of about 120° to 140°F, the mixture is removed from the heat and then beaten to stiff peaks. This method results in a meringue that is less fluffy than French and less stable then Italian. The recipe testers at Serious Eats, though, claim to have found a technique that will make your Swiss meringue as light as a French meringue but as stable as Italian. They do this by cooking it to a higher temperature – up to 175°F. They also whip it vigorously at high speed for about 5 minutes, until it is very glossy, thick & stiff. This type of meringue is often used as the base for buttercream frosting.

Italian meringue starts by putting the egg whites into your mixer bowl and beating to soft peaks. Then, a sugar syrup that has been heated to 240°F is slowly drizzled in while you continue to whip until the meringue is very voluminous and reaches the desired peak. Because this sugar syrup is very hot, one must be very careful when using this method to prevent burns. It is the most stable of the meringues but is also heavy and thick. It is what is used to make nougat and is also the best one for topping meringue pies.

Watching egg whites transform into a beautiful fluffy meringue is almost miraculous. Using this meringue to then top your pie, to lighten your cake batter or to bake into a pavlova or meringue cookie is further evidence of the wonderfulness of eggs!

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Egg White Foam

Have you heard of the term “Egg White Foam”? It is a culinary term that describes what happens when you beat egg whites – they increase in volume and turn into a foam. It is what you do when you want to make an angel food cake, a meringue or a soufflé. This tip will go over how to achieve the best foam, what could go wrong and the adjustments that those of us who live at altitude need to make.

If you read about how to whip egg whites, you will probably run across many Dos & Don’ts. As with so much cooking advice, these rules keep getting passed on without anyone stopping to test whether they are really true. In this Cooking Tip, I have sought out real research to help you have success.

  • The temperature of the egg whites can make a difference.
    Warmer egg whites may whip up faster but you can still easily whip cold egg whites. It may take slightly longer but it is not a game-changer.

  • The age of the egg whites can make a difference.
    There seems to be a debate among experts but the general consensus is that older egg whites whip up faster but the resulting foam will be less stable than if you had used fresher egg whites. So, decide based on which is more important to you –volume or stability. Or, just use what is in your refrigerator knowing that the age can make a difference.

  • Your bowl can make a difference.
    The basis for this rule is that plastic bowls may harbor grease on their surfaces which is hard to eliminate with washing. This grease may inhibit the forming of a great foam. If given the choice, it is best to use a glass or stainless-steel bowl. However, if plastic is all you have, just make sure it is clean. You will probably be OK.

  • Don’t add salt to your foam.
    Adding salt used to be recommended to help stabilize the foam. It has been shown that salt, in fact, can act as a destabilizer. If your recipe calls for salt, add it to the dry ingredients, not your egg whites.

  • Cream of tartar is a good idea.
    Cream of tartar helps to prevent overbeating of your egg whites, which can lead to a recipe failure.

  • Be careful of when you add sugar to your foam.
    If you add all the sugar at the beginning, it inhibits the foam’s capacity for holding air. If you add it slowly only after you have soft peaks & a significant increase in volume, you allow the foam to incorporate the necessary air. Also, adding it slowly helps to prevent the sugar crystals from popping your wonderful air bubbles.

  • Don’t overbeat your egg whites.
    This is one rule that is actually very important. Overbeating your whites is another thing that will lead to that dreaded recipe failure. Most recipes will specify what you should do – beat your whites to soft peaks or stiff peaks.

Soft peaks do not stand up on their own and will start to become glossy. Stiff peaks will be sharp and not droopy. Overbeaten whites will look dry or even lumpy. You may also see a watery mess at the bottom of the bowl. If this happens, there is no solution. You must dump them out and start over.

Once you reach soft peaks, it does not take much time to get to stiff peaks. It is so easy to overbeat. So, it is better to under-beat. This is especially true at altitude. Let me give you an example. Some recipes for soufflés call for you to beat to stiff peaks. However, if you do this, your soufflé will probably not rise. When you put it in the oven, all those beautiful air bubbles will pop and deflate before the surrounding cake has time to set.

If you beat only to soft peaks, you will get much better results. When you tilt the bowl containing the egg whites, they should still move just a tiny bit. These air bubbles can retain their volume while the surrounding cake sets – giving you a beautiful risen soufflé.

  • Beware of getting fat/yolk into your egg whites.
    As with so many things, this is partially true. Fat does inhibit creating a nice foam. It will take longer to beat up to peaks, the volume will be less and the resulting foam will be less stable.

The other side of this is that it depends on how much fat gets into your whites. Will a speck of yolk destroy your foam? No. Will a larger amount of yolk cause you problems? Yes, depending on how much yolk and how many whites you are beating. Here is a link to a great site with photos that actually tested this theory.

  • Don’t beat too quickly.
    For the best and most stable foam, start out beating slowly. Use a low or med-low speed. The whites will lighten in color, develop large air bubbles & look foamy. As you continue to beat at this speed, the foam will start to increase in volume, become whiter and the size of the air bubbles will decrease. As the bubbles become even smaller, you can increase to medium high to achieve your desired peak.

The holidays are a great excuse to make that wonderful, special dessert such as a meringue or a souffle. With these tips, I trust you will have success. Let me know and send me a picture of your results!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Parmesan Cheese — what is it and how do you use it?

Some people love all kinds of cheese; some have a more limited palate and then some of us (including me) have definite likes and dislikes but tend towards the former. One cheese, though, that most of us probably enjoy is Parmesan – and I am not talking about powdered stuff that comes in a green can!

Parmesan is a hard, dry cheese made from skimmed or partially skimmed cow’s milk. It is made in multiple countries but the most famous and sought-after is Parmigiano-Reggiano from Italy. To be called that, there are very strict controls as to how it is made and from where it is made. Not only that, but in 2008, European courts ruled that this Parmigiano-Reggiano is the only cheese that can be called Parmesan. Most of the world followed this ruling but not the US. Here, you fill find a parmesan-style cheese called Parmesan but to be called Parmigiano-Reggiano, it must come from that specific area of Italy.

There are so many wonderful cheeses out there to eat and with which to cook. Many are European but we also have excellent cheese makers here in the US. More and more of our supermarkets are expanding their specialty cheese selection. Get out there and try some. There are bound to be cheeses that will please everyone!

Cheese lovers will tell you that you should only use the “real” thing – Parmigiano-Reggiano. If you choose a cheese labeled as such, you won’t disappointed but it will cost you more than other cheeses just labeled “Parmesan”. I encourage you to do taste tests and decide for yourself. Also, it may be worth the higher price for a cheese board but it might not if all you are doing is grating it on pasta. The choice is yours – and isn’t it wonderful to have such choices?

Another bit of advice for you is not to throw away the rind when you are finished with your Parmesan cheese. When you are finished, toss the rinds in an airtight plastic bag and put in the freezer. Then, when you are making a pot of minestrone or other soup, toss in a rind. Another ingenious use is to make a stock out of the leftover rinds. Here is a link to a recipe to do just that. Once you have the cheese broth, use it in your risottos, pasta dishes or meat dishes.