Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Organic Produce – is it worth the cost?

I first wrote about Organic Foods a few years ago. I decided to update this Cooking Tip with some interesting data, but I am going to limit the discussion to produce. Organic meat and dairy will have to wait for a future Cooking Tip. I would suspect that most people buy organic as they think it is safer to eat. They might also think it is healthier. Since organic foods are more expensive than conventional, it would be good to know if either of these beliefs are true. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Let me start with something we all probably know. That is that there are very strong feelings on both sides of the “organic vs conventional” debate. The only one who can answer “is it worth it” for you and your family is you. One caveat is that more research probably needs to be done and the results of any future research could alter the current thought on organic foods.

There is a US-based environmental advocacy organization called the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Since 1995, they have produced an annual list of what they call The Dirty Dozen and The Clean 15. According to this group, the “Dirty Dozen” of produce has the greatest potential for containing pesticide residue. Therefore, the EWG recommends that consumers only purchase organic forms of these food items. Each year this list is produced and is highly publicized by our media. For the 2022 list, see this link. The “Clean 15” is a list of produce that they say had little to no traces of pesticides, and the EWG considers safe to consume in non-organic form.

On the other side of this discussion is a peer-reviewed study published in the Journal of Toxicology. This study concluded the following:

  • Exposures to the most commonly detected pesticides on the twelve commodities (celery, blueberries, kale, nectarines, peaches, potatoes, spinach, strawberries, cherries, apples, grapes (imported), bell peppers) pose negligible risks to consumers.
  • Substitution of organic forms of the twelve commodities for conventional forms does not result in any appreciable reduction of consumer risks.
  • The methodology used by the environmental advocacy group (EWG) to rank commodities with respect to pesticide risks lacks scientific credibility.

In a 2019 report (attach report) by the Pesticide Data Program (part of the USDA), they state “nearly 99 percent of the samples tested had residues below the tolerances established by the EPA with 42.5 percent having no detectable residue.” Of course, for this to have meaning to you, you must put trust in these levels established by the government.

Another interesting point is that organic farming does not mean that there are no pesticides used, only that the pesticides themselves are certified organic. This usually means that they are “natural” rather than “synthetic” but there are some synthetic chemicals that are allowed in organic farming. And, many scientists have concluded that organic pesticides pose the same health risks as non-organic ones.

As of now, there is no evidence that organic produce is more nutritious than conventional produce. In fact, most of the studies done on the health benefits of produce have been done on the conventional varieties. A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2011 concluded “The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.” There are some studies that have shown higher levels of Vitamin C, some minerals & antioxidants in organic produce although the experts say the differences are too small to have an impact on overall nutrition.

What is the cost? A 2015 Consumer Reports study showed, that on average, organic foods are 47% more costly than non-organic. As this is an average, you will see a significant range of cost differences depending on the food and the store. Interestingly, a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found it only costs farmers 5-7% more to use organic methods. In recent years, the price differences have become less as more traditional grocery stores start to offer their own organic versions.

This price difference is a concern for low-income shoppers. They have heard the same media reports about organic vs conventional produce but the expense does not allow them to purchase the organic versions. What is disappointing is that a 2016 study published in Nutrition Today found that rather than purchasing the conventional produce, they often chose to not purchase any produce at all, something that is not a positive for their diet and health.

Some industry professionals recommend concentrating more on “Buying Local” with the hopes that those fruit & vegetables are fresher and seasonal. Locally-grown produce does not mean it is necessarily organic although it may be depending on the farm. If you have the space & ability, there is no more local than growing your produce yourself. In that case, you will have no questions as to how or where it was grown.

As I said in the beginning, only you can decide if you want to go organic and to what extent. Just know there are arguments on both sides but the science, to this point, does not seem to support a strong preference for organic. Most importantly, eat a diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables. The nutrients that are found in those items are so necessary in your diet and resulting health.

Cooking Tips · Techniques

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

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

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

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

Now, for a bit more detail.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Pears — worth waiting for!

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

Bosc (Kaiser Pears)

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

They are available October through February.

French Butter

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

They are available September through December.


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

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


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

Taylor’s Gold/Gold pear

Related to the Comice pear, its skin is a light golden brown and it is very aromatic. It is almost round with golden-brown skin. The flesh is sweet and juicy. They are great for making jams, jellies and sauces. has a nice graphic rating pears on texture and taste. Here is a summary of this graphic.

Pear varietyTexture from crisp (1) to soft/juicy (10)Taste from sweet (1) to very sweet (10)
Green Anjou76
Red Anjou76
Red Bartlett108

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Typical preparations include:

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

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

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Fresh Lemon Substitutes

In a prior Cooking Tip, I wrote about Lemons, different varieties and their uses. If you do not have the fresh fruit available, are there any suitable substitutes? That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

If your recipe calls for lemon zest, Better Homes & Gardens suggests trying the following although they do caution that you will not get the same flavor as you would with fresh zest.

For 1 teaspoon of freshly grated lemon zest, try one of the following.

  • ½ tsp lemon extract
  • 2 Tbsp bottled lemon juice
  • 1 tsp lime zest or other citrus zest

When it comes to using bottled lemon juice rather than fresh, there aren’t too many side-by-side taste comparisons.

Cook’s Illustrated tried making both lemon curd and lemonade with packaged products. Although none were ideal, they found that ReaLemon lemon juice from concentrate and True Lemon crystallized lemon juice both were acceptable.

A news organization did a taste test among five of their staff where they used fresh lemon juice or one of the substitutes in seltzer water. Only two of the five correctly identified the cup with fresh squeezed juice. However, the fresh juice was preferred for flavor overall.

The other consideration is the ingredient list. For fresh lemons, there is only one ingredient – fresh lemon juice. I looked at the ingredient list for different brands of lemon juice products at my local market. This is what I found and it should help guide you if wish to buy one of these products.

Kroger —lemon juice concentrate (water, lemon juice concentrate), sodium metabisulfite (preservative), lemon oil, sodium benzoate (preservative)

Italia —lemon juice, lemon oil, potassium metabisulfite as a preservative

Santa Cruz — organic lemon juice

Lakewood — organic lemon juice

Minute Maid frozen lemon juice – 100% lemon juice from concentrate

Tantillo — lemon juice (99.94%), essential lemon oil (0.12%), potassium metabisulfite (0.06%) (as a preservative)

ReaLemon —lemon juice from concentrated (water, concentrated lemon juice) and less than 2% of sodium benzoate, sodium metabisulfite and sodium sulfite (preservatives), lemon oil

I try to always have fresh lemons available. If kept wrapped in plastic in the produce drawer in the refrigerator, they will last quite a while. Alternatively, zest and juice the lemon and store them separately in the freezer. I am not a fan of the packaged products for dishes in which lemon is a predominant flavor although they can work in a pinch when you only need a small amount.

What about you? Have you ever done a taste test? Which do you prefer?

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Jam – Freezer or Preserved?

My husband has been harvesting beautiful and delicious fresh strawberries from his garden lately. Although they are great to just eat out of hand or make into some yummy dessert such as strawberry shortcake, we have more than enough to also make strawberry jam. I thought I would use this Cooking Tip to talk about the differences as well as the pros/cons between preserved and freezer jam.

Preserved jam is the type you see on store shelves. You cook your fruit mixture making it to your taste and preferred thickness level. It is then spooned into sterilized canning jars, sealed with lids and placed in a pot of boiling water for a specified amount of time. At the end of that time, the sealed jars are carefully removed from the water and set on a rack to cool. As they do, they seal, signified by a little popping sound.

Freezer jam on the other hand is either not cooked at all or only briefly. Generally, the fruit is mashed, sugar is added and left to macerate for a while before adding pectin. The jam mixture is once again placed into sterilized jars and sealed. However, rather than preserving it by placing it in the boiling water, it is cooled and stored in the freezer.

Preserved jam


  • It is shelf stable and does not need any refrigeration until it is opened.
  • It is thicker and more jam-like as it sets up better than freezer jam.
  • It has a smoother consistency than freezer jam.


  • It is more labor-intensive to make.
  • Because of the cooking process, the resulting jam is darker in color and has somewhat of a “cooked fruit” taste.
  • It requires more sugar than freezer jam.
  • You need to very careful to ensure the jars/lids seal properly.

Freezer jam


  • It is easier to make than preserved jam.
  • It requires little or no cooking, depending on the recipe.
  • Because it is not (or only slightly) cooked, it retains the bright color of the fruit.
  • Because the sugar used is more for sweetness rather than preserving, you generally use less sugar.
  • The jam may be put in any container that is meant for the freezer.
  • Perhaps the biggest pro is that it has more of a natural fruit taste. Because it is not cooked, it just tastes “fruitier”.


  • It can take up significant freezer space.
  • It results in a thinner jam.
  • If you are using a no cook recipe, the sugar and pectin might not fully dissolve causing a slightly gritty consistency.
  • It is not as good for gift giving as it must remain frozen, or at least refrigerated.

No matter which type of jam you wish to make, this is not a product where you can just “wing it”. For proper consistency, taste and safety, you really need to follow a tested recipe. The recipes contain four critical ingredients – fruit, pectin, acid and sugar.

Fruit is obviously needed for color and flavor.

Pectin is necessary for gel formation. Some fruits may be naturally higher in pectin and thus, not require additional pectin. Other fruits, or if you are making freezer jam, will need to have pectin added to the mixture. There is a type of pectin called “low or no sugar” pectin. It is used when jam makers want to put less sugar into the jam. Rather than using sugar to gel, it uses calcium. It will give you a thinner, less sweet but fruitier result.

Acid assists with gel formation as well as flavor. The right amount is necessary to set the pectin. Again, follow the recommendation from the recipe.

Sugar is vital for gel formation and flavor. It also acts as a preservative as it inhibits the growth of bacteria.

I remember the first time I tasted freezer jam and could not believe how much brighter and more fruit-like it tasted. Although, as noted above, there are advantages and disadvantages to both types of jam. Which do you like?

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

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.

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

All about Cherries

Are you a fan of fresh cherries? I am not although my husband loves them. I do, though, very much enjoy using them in cooking/baking. Just as with so many fruits, knowing just a bit about the fruit and the different varieties can help you have success in the kitchen. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

There are two main types of cherries – sweet and tart. Sweet cherries are those you eat out of hand as they have a much sweeter flavor than the tart varieties. The tarter version is usually turned into juice as well as being used in baking recipes where the tartness can be offset with sugar. They are also called sour or pie cherries.

With baking, most recipes will call for tart cherries. You can use either sweet or tart but you need to pay attention to the sugar content if the recipe calls for tart. One caution, though, is that sweet cherries can turn a bit mealy when baked. They do well when lightly cooked such as you would do in a pan sauce. An example is one of my favorite pork tenderloin recipes. It calls for roasting fresh cherries with shallots, turning that into a sauce and serving with spiced rubbed pork tenderloin. Another recipe that uses dried cherries is one where the pork is seasoned, seared and finished in the oven. In the same pan, you make a pan sauce with onions, dried cherries, port wine and just a touch of orange marmalade and butter. It is absolutely delicious.

There are many cherry varieties within the Sweet and Tart categories. I just want to mention the most common. They are a summer fruit but for more detail on availability, see this chart.

Sweet Cherries

  • Bing – this is the most popular variety. Its skin is deep red-purple to almost black and its flesh is dark red or purple. They are firm, sweet and juicy with a sweet, intense flavor. They have a 17-19% fruit sugar content. They are most available in May and June.
  • Rainier – these cherries are hard to miss as their skin is yellow with a pinkish blush. The flesh is also yellow and they have a colorless juice. The flavor is delicate and sweet with a 17-23% sugar content. Depending on where they are grown, you will see them in the stores from May through early July.
  • Chelan – ripening of Chelan cherries is about 2 weeks ahead of Bing, making them the leading early ripening sweet cherry of the Pacific Northwest. They are similar in appearance to Bings although a bit more mahogany. They have a 16-18% sugar level.
  • Lapin – these cherries ripen about 2 weeks after Bings. They are larger and very firm with a deep red skin and lighter red flesh. The sugar content is 16-18%.
  • Skeena – similar to Lapin, these ripen about 2 weeks after Bings. They are very dark red to almost black with a dark red flesh and a very dense texture. Sugar content is 16-20%.
  • Sweetheart – the appearance is evident from its name, heart-shaped. They are large with bright red skin and a similar flesh. They are harvested about 3 weeks after Bings. Their flavor is more mildly sweet with a 16-19% sugar content.

Tart cherries

  • Montmorency – this is the most popular tart cherry with about 75% being grown in Michigan. They are bright red with a pale yellow and very juicy flesh. You often find them dried, frozen or canned unless you near where they are grown.
  • Morello – this is really a family of cherries. It is another tart cherry with very dark skin, flesh and juice. They are often grown in the UK and there they are the most popular cooking cherry. English Morello cherry trees are popular in the United States with varieties such as the Kansas Sweet and Northstar.

They are also the dominant kind grown in Hungary. A Hungarian variety known as the Balaton cherry is now commercially cultivated in Michigan. The tart cherry season is short, July into August.

Since tart cherries are hard to find fresh, your choices are to buy them jarred, frozen or canned. Cooks Illustrated did a testing of various types of cherries (both fresh and processed) in making cherry cobbler. They found only one variety that passed their tasters’ muster. That was jarred Morello cherries from Trader Joe’s. However, I do not see it on their website and even on Amazon, it is unavailable.

Maraschino cherries

According to Harold McGee in On Food & Cooking, these cherries originated centuries ago in NE Italy and the Balkans, where the local “mascara” cherry was preserved in its own liqueur for the winter. In today’s version the cherries are bleached and stored in brine and then infused with sugar syrup, dyed a cherry color, flavored with almond extract and pasteurized. Hmm, no wonder I do not like them.

The real maraschino cherry is still available and made by a company called Luxardo. They are said to be the “original” maraschino cherries and supposedly taste nothing like what you find on our store shelves. Have you tried them? I haven’t and at the price (on Amazon, a 14 oz jar sells for $19), I’m not sure I will. If you do, let me know.

How to choose cherries

Try to select cherries that are plump, shiny (a sign of ripeness) and firm with green stems. Look for those that are deeply colored. Avoid ones that are bruised or cracked. It is better to choose ones with the stem on as they deteriorate faster with the stem removed.

Storing cherries

Since cherries should be completely ripe when shipped, they are very perishable. Refrigerate them as soon as you get them home. Do not wash them until you are ready to use them. If possible, store them in layers between paper towels. Cherries like the cold. According to James Michael (vice president of Northwest Cherry Growers), “They lose more quality in an hour at room temperature than they do all day at refrigerator temperature.” They will keep well in the refrigerator for about a week.

Freezing cherries

Remove stems, wash and pat dry. You may pit if desired. Place on a baking sheet and freeze in a single layer. Then, transfer to a freezer safe container.

Cooking/Baking with Cherries

To use them in cooking/baking, you will need to pit them. You can use a sharp paring knife but a cherry pitter will make your life much easier. I use one made by Oxo and find it does a good job. Cooks Illustrated tested a number of different styles and found the Tovolo the winner. In an update on this review, this product had been discontinued. The runner-up was the Chef’n QuickPit Cherry Pitter.

One helpful tidbit is that one pound of fresh cherries will yield 2½ cups of pitted cherries.

Even though as I write this, we are past peak cherry season, I hope this information will help you as you look forward to next year’s harvest!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Oranges are not just for eating!

The last two Cooking Tips discussed lemons and limes. In this Cooking Tip, I want to expand on what is probably the citrus that is most commonly eaten out of hand – Oranges. Oranges are not just for eating, though. They can be used to delicious effects in your culinary creations.

Oranges can be divided into two major categories – Sweet and Bitter. There are over 400 varieties of oranges. Let’s discuss just a few. Within the sweet category, you find the common orange, blood orange, navel orange and acid-less orange. For the bitter category, it is further subdivided into the Seville orange and Bergamot orange.

  • Valencia oranges are one of the most common in the US. It is sweet with low acidity and a bright orange color. It can be eaten but is more commonly juiced.
  • Navel oranges are the most popular eating orange. It is a bit more bitter than Valencia with a thicker peel but no seeds. Besides eating out of hand, they can be thrown in salads or compotes or used in your cooking/baking.
  • Clementines are a hybrid of a sweet orange and a mandarin. They are very small, very sweet, very juicy and seedless with a very loose skin.
  • Cara Cara oranges are a type of naval orange that are pink in color. The flavor is very sweet but also complex with berry undertones.
  • Blood oranges are thought to be a natural mutation of a regular orange. Its flesh is red due to a high level of anthocyanins, an antioxidant that is not present in most oranges. They are very pretty but less sweet than the Cara Cara. Recommended uses are in salads, compotes, vinaigrettes or just eating out of hand.
  • Tangerines (also known as mandarins) are an orange-colored citrus although not technically an orange. The zest is delightful in baking. Other uses include salads or in cooking.
  • Bitter oranges (Seville or sour orange) are not generally eaten or juiced for drinking due to the absence of sweetness. The peel is extremely fragrant and is often used as a flavoring. These are often used in marmalade as well as in vinaigrettes and other culinary uses.
  • Bergamot orange is a hybrid of the lemon and bitter orange. It is lime-green or yellowish in color. The peel can be either smooth or bumpy and it is full of seeds. The juice is extremely sour. The essential oil from this orange is what is used to flavor Earl Grey tea.
  • Lima oranges are an acid-less orange. Although not zero, the acid level is very low. This results in a sweeter flavor. The flesh is lighter than other oranges.

When choosing an orange in the store, it should have a fragrant, citrusy scent. Similar to lemons and limes, select an orange that feels heavy. When squeezing it, the flesh should be firm, not soft or squishy.

What culinary uses (other than eating and drinking the juice) are there for oranges? Again, the zest is where the essential oils lie and can give you a great flavor burst. Add it to vinaigrettes, marinades, sauces and even in baked goods.

Tossing oranges in salads is a great idea. To do this, you might want to learn how to make supremes, which produces orange segments with no pith or membranes. Here is a video on how to do this.

Drinking fresh-squeezed orange juice can be a delight but that juice can also be used in other beverages as well as ice creams and sorbets. Juice can also be part of the liquid you use to cook couscous, adding a delightful flavor.

I love the flavor of oranges and love using it in my cooking and baking. How about you? If you only eat or drink your oranges, branch out and experiment with using them in your cooking and baking. They can give you delicious results!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Is a lime just a green lemon?

Last week’s Cooking Tip was all about Lemons. They are not the only citrus fruit that has wonderful culinary uses. In this Cooking Tip, let’s look at Limes. Many of the points made about lemons are also true of limes as far as buying them, storing them and the importance of the zest along with the juice. I won’t repeat those in this Tip but, rather, discuss some of the differences.

Limes are the most acidic of all citrus fruits. As much as 8% of their weight comes from citric acid. They are much less sweet with more bitter notes than lemons. Just as with lemons, there are different varieties. The most common in supermarkets are the Persian or Tahitian lime although you will also see others.

I advised staying away from greenish lemons as they are probably underripe. This is not a good indicator for limes as their natural color is green. Also, limes are generally harvested while they are not completely ripe. Limes tend to turn yellowish-green when they are at their best. If buying a Persian lime, try to buy one that is lighter green with hints of yellowing. Feel the skin and opt for those with smooth skin. Just as with lemons, choose ones that seem heavy for their size and ones that give a bit upon pressing.

Persian limes (Bearss limes & Tahitian limes) are larger than other limes, oval in shape and less acidic. The Tahitian variety is even more oblong in shape. For culinary purposes, the Tahitian and Bearss can be used interchangeably. Some sources say they are less tart than Key limes and others claim they are tarter. You will have to do a taste test to decide for yourself. They are certainly the juiciest.

Key limes (sometimes called Mexican limes) are very small (1-2 inches in diameter) and round. They are sought out for dishes/cocktails due to the intense flavor. Due to their small size, you would have to squeeze about 40 of them to get one cup of juice. That compares to 6-8 Persian limes to obtain the same yield. The average medium lime (2½-3oz) will yield about 1½-2 tablespoons of juice.

For an interesting perspective on Key limes, see this article from Serious Eats. In summary, the author feels that Key limes are more of a “Key Lie” since we import them from Mexico and she feels they are not like the authentic version. She brings up the subject of “terroir”, a concept that is usually applied to grapes/wine. The terroir is everything that could affect the taste & quality of the item from soil to climate to harvesting techniques and so much more. Just as we are not allowed to call a sparkling white wine “Champagne” unless it is grown in that region of France, Mexican Key Limes are a misnomer.

She states the Key limes that were grown in the Florida Keys were “fat and juicy, with well-rounded acidity and a rather yellow rind; a point of pride for Florida growers.” Our Mexican key limes are tiny, dry and bitter. For more detail, see the article. Just as with lemons, the bottled key lime juice is nothing like the fresh. I have tried the one that our store carries, Nellie & Joe’s Key West Lime Juice, and, in my opinion, it was nothing short of terrible. Although I could not find documentation of this, the author of this article implies that it is made with imported Mexican limes although the company has “Key Lime” in its name. Have you tried it? If so, let me know what you thought.

There are also some more uncommon fruits in the lime category. The Kaffir lime looks distinctive with a very bumpy skin. They are small, very tart, very acidic with very little juice. Because of these characteristics, they are not really used for cooking. Rather the peel and leaves are what is used and are very common to Thai cooking.

Finger limes, native to Australia do not really look like a lime. They have bumpy skin and a cylindrical shape. They are sometimes called “caviar lime” due to the flesh that looks like small caviar pearls rather than the typical juice sacs. They have a very tangy and sour juice.

The Philippine lime is also known as calamansi, calamondin or musk lime. It is a very tart lime used in Philippine cooking. It is very small and orange in color. They do not travel well and so, will not be something you will normally find in the US.

Using limes is similar to using lemons. At times, you want that distinctive lime flavor. Limes also adds a characteristic tartness and flavor to salsas, southwestern and Asian dishes. Lime is commonly added to cocktails and other beverages. Also, just like with lemons, a dash as you finish your dish adds a wonderful brightness.

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Add the Zing of Lemons to Your Dishes!

My husband’s Meyer lemon tree

So many of our dishes – both sweet and savory – call for the addition of lemon in some form. Since most of us who live in more northern areas do not have a lemon tree growing in our backyard, that means we need to buy them in the store. (My husband has been attempting to grow a Meyer lemon tree. Here is a photo of that small tree.) In this Cooking Tip, we will look at types of lemons, how to buy them and how to use them.

Although there are a number of different types of lemons, it is said the two most commonly found in our supermarkets are the Lisbon and the Eureka lemon, which are grown in California and Arizona. Grown in Florida, a third common variety is the Bearss. Another variety that you might see in your stores is the Meyer lemon. Other than identifying the Meyer lemon by that name, the store will probably not list the particular variety of lemon. I just bought two lemons from my local supermarket and the tag indicated they were from Argentina from a company called Citrusvil. Even looking at the direct source, it does not tell me what variety I have. However, since all of the varieties which you find in your supermarket (except for the Meyer lemon) have very similar flavor profiles, don’t worry about the actual name.

The typical lemon found in our stores has that classic tart and acidic lemony flavor. Meyer lemons are thought to be a cross between a lemon and either a mandarin or orange. Their skins are thinner and smoother, they are rounder in shape, and have a deeper yellow-orange hue. They are less acidic than regular lemons, and due to the presence of thymol, they carry thyme-like undertones. Although they can be substituted for regular lemons in many applications, they are not great when you really want the bold flavor and acidity such as in a vinaigrette.

When buying a lemon, look for one that is fully yellow. Greenish hues indicate under-ripeness. Try to pick ones that are heavy for the size and yield to gentle pressure, indicating more juice. The best way to store them is in a sealed plastic bag in the refrigerator.

I really do not like recipes that call for the juice of one lemon or ½ lemon because the amount of juice you can get from a lemon does depend on its size. A typical small lemon (weighing about 4 ozs) should give you about 3 tablespoons of juice, a medium (5 oz) lemon will give you 4 tablespoons and a large lemon (6 oz) should yield 5 tablespoons. How much juice you get also depends on your method of juicing. Before juicing it, roll it on the counter to help it release as much juice as possible. Some recommend putting it in the microwave for 10 seconds, especially if it is cold. Cut off any points at the ends of the lemon. Many chefs prefer a wooden reamer with a sharp tip to do the juicing. I have an electric citrus squeezer, which does an amazing job of extracting every last drop of juice. It is not something that I would normally buy but I won it and now absolutely love it. Another tip you might see is to place your lemons in the freezer. This causes the juice to expand and break the cell walls, resulting in a softer lemon that is easier to squeeze. This may not be best for flavor, though, as I will discuss below. If you wish to squeeze the fruit by hand, cutting it lengthwise makes it easier to hold and get more juice. If using a hand-held citrus juicer, it is better to cut it crosswise and then put the cut-end down before squeezing.

If you are wanting the juice for a beverage, it is recommended to juice the lemon a few hours (no more than six hours) before using. This allows some oxidation to occur which improves the flavor. This is also true of limes but not oranges. The latter have a different compound that can make the juice turn bitter when exposed to air.

The juice of a lemon is wonderful but even more flavorful is the zest. That is where the essential oils lie and that is what gives you the most flavor punch. You do not want to get any of the white pith, though, as it is bitter. There are many zesters on the market today that will do the job easily for you. One of the most popular is made by a company called Microplane. If you have ever taken one of my classes, you will know that I am a big believer in using as much of your food as you can, minimizing waste. That is why I always zest my citrus fruit before juicing it whether or not my recipe calls for zest. I then store that zest in the freezer to pull out when I don’t have a lemon available. Although the color of the zest will darken, the flavor remains vivid for about 3 weeks. Zest stored in the pantry or refrigerator does not fare nearly as well. If you only want the zest from a lemon, be sure to wrap the zested lemon in plastic before storing in the refrigerator to prevent drying out.

The juice from frozen and thawed whole lemons can have a muted flavor, a definite negative to freezing whole lemons. Many people do, though, recommend freezing excess lemon juice in ice cube trays for when you need some in a pinch. It may not be the absolute best if you want the full-blown lemon flavor but it is certainly better than leaving the lemon out of a dish.

What if you have no citrus in your house? Are there any of those lemon juice substitutes that do not disappoint? Not really but Cooks Illustrated found that ReaLemon juice from concentrate and True Lemon crystallized lemon juice could be acceptable in some applications. Something else to note though are the additives in these products. ReaLemon contains “lemon juice from concentrate, sodium benzoate, sodium metabisulfite, sodium sulfite and lemon oil.” The True Lemon product is much cleaner with “citric acid, lemon oil and lemon juice.” If you are just looking for a bit of acidity and not the lemon flavor, citric acid can also be used. Cooks Illustrated found it worked in a pan sauce and risotto.

Why is lemon such an important ingredient in cooking/baking? First, the flavor of lemon is essential to such things as lemon curd, lemon meringue pie or lemon chicken. The other thing is that lemon adds acidity to dishes. Acidity is integral to balancing the oil in a vinaigrette and lemon juice, along with other acids, is often used. If you have ever tasted a dish and said, “It needs something”, the first thing to try is to add a bit of salt. After that, a dash of acidity often works wonders. Adding a splash of lemon juice as a finishing touch to many dishes is a chef’s secret.

Even though they are perishable, try to think of fresh lemons as an essential pantry item. You will grab for them over and over for so many different reasons.