Cooking Tips · Techniques

Cooking Healthy Proteins

In the last Cooking Tip, I talked about choosing healthy proteins. In this Tip, I want to discuss how to cook those proteins so they are delicious as well as healthy.

As I mentioned in the last Tip, other than healthy fatty seafood, most of the best choices are lower in fat. That means they can easily dry out and be unappealing to eat. To prevent this, you need to take care when cooking them.

The best way to ensure your meat is not overcooked is to cook by internal temperature, not by time or appearance. I love the Thermapen by Thermoworks but there are other good thermometers out there that are less expensive. I wrote an earlier Tip on thermometers with more information.

When you are cooking that protein, you want to monitor the internal temperature intermittently and remove it from the heat before the internal temperature gets too high. For all meats, there will be what is called “carry-over cooking”. Once you take it off the heat, the internal temperature will continue to rise a few degrees – less with smaller pieces of meat, more with larger ones. So, you should pull it off a few degrees before hitting the desired temperature.

Below are some target numbers for different proteins. For a printable chart, click here.

  • Ground meat
    • Beef, pork, veal, lamb – 160°
    • Turkey, chicken – 165°
  • Fresh beef, pork, veal & lamb – 145° with a 3 minute rest
    • Note this does not account for varying temperatures between rare and well-done.
  • Poultry – 165°
    • Some feel that legs/thighs are more tender when cooked to 170-180° as it better breaks down the connective tissue.
    • Since chicken breasts are often over-cooked and unpalatable, see this article about cooking your chicken to a slightly lower temperature but holding it for a particular amount of time.
  • Salmon
    • Wild – 120°
    • Farmed – 125°

Another way to improve flavor among beef & pork is to salt at the appropriate time, which is either a minimum of 45 minutes before cooking or immediately before cooking. If you salt in between those times, you are assured of a drier end product. For more information, see this Tip.

Now for some great ideas with actual recipes. First, I highly recommend you become skilled at making pan sauces. They can add wonderful flavor without much added sugar or fat. See this Tip for how to do this. Adding a quick and flavorful sauce to your beef, pork or poultry can easily enliven your dinner table.

Proteins do not need to be the main star of your dinner table. Why not add them to a great dinner salad? One of our favorites is this Summer Salad with Cumin-Crusted Salmon. Not only will you be eating some great fiber but also healthy seafood. The seasoning rub on this salmon is also just a great one to use whenever, not just with this salad.

How about fish tacos? Try this recipe for Fish Tacos with Black Bean Salad from AllRecipes or Salmon Tacos with Collard Slaw from America’s Test Kitchen.

Let’s move to Poultry. Have you ever noticed how large chicken breasts are nowadays? Most chicken breasts that are for sale in the store are at least 8 ounces and, at times, can weigh 10-12 ounces. If you are paying attention to portion control, you should limit your intake of meat to about 3-4 ounces per serving. So, when you see a recipe that calls for 4 breasts and it says that the recipe will serve four people, that is based on much smaller breasts. Weigh your chicken pieces before cooking and then only use the amount that will give you that 3-4 ounces per person.

Another thing to notice about chicken breasts is that they always have one end thicker than the other side. If you cook them whole, the thinner side will be overdone before the thicker end is cooked through. You can solve this problem in a number of ways. You can pound the breasts to an even thickness before cooking. You can slice the chicken into two so that one piece is thicker and the other thinner. Then, cook them, monitoring the temperature and taking the thinner one out when it is done and continuing to cook the thicker one. Finally, something that I like to do is to cut the chicken either into similarly sized strips or cubes and cooking them. This is a quick and easy technique that works great unless you wish to serve an entire breast.

The important thing is not to overcook your chicken. That is best done by monitoring the internal temperature. An interesting method I ran across a few years ago is this method on TheKitchn.com. It is very easy and turns out great results. I like to use this method and then slice the chicken for sandwiches rather than buying the much less healthy deli meat.

Here are some other recipes that I like. First up is one from Ellie Krieger –– Balsamic Chicken with Baby Spinach. There is great flavor plus wonderful nutrients from the spinach and tomatoes. Serve with whole wheat couscous for another burst of nutrition. Here is a “go to” recipe for when you need a quick but tasty dinner – Caramelized Onion Chicken from Cooking Light. Note that it does contain jam, which is high in sugar. However, it only uses a small amount. For a company-worthy but healthy dinner, try this one from Epicurious – Sauteed Chicken with Shallot-Herb Vinaigrette. I will caution you, though, that the marinating time listed is too long. See this Tip for more information.

I love pork but do try to limit my intake of it. Cutting a pork tenderloin into medallions, cooking them stovetop and then making a flavorful pan sauce is something so easy to do. Pork also pairs so well with fruit. Here are a few ideas.

I am not a fan of beef and so, it is easy for me to have it only rarely. If you are going to indulge in a steak, review last week’s Tip on which cuts are best and the above info on making a pan sauce. That will allow the steak to be shown off but enhanced in a healthy way.

For an interesting take on burgers, try these Cherry Burgers from Eating Well. For a spicier bite, here is an interesting Southwest Burger from Cooking Light. Finally, a delicious winter dish is this Beef Tagine with Butternut Squash, also from Cooking Light.

I hope this gives you some help in putting fulfilling but still healthy meals on your table!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Proteins on a healthy diet

We are moving forward in this series on cooking/eating healthy. After discussing some general tips, grains, breads and veggies, in this Tip I want to look into the subject of proteins. According to a 2018 Gallup poll, only 5% of U.S. adults consider themselves to be vegetarian. Therefore, I will mostly be discussing meat/seafood. I will not be discussing cooking methods in this Tip but will leave that for the next one.

There are a couple of general recommendations that almost all experts will give. First is to avoid processed meats such as lunch meats, hot dogs, bacon, sausage and jerky. Second is to eat smaller portions of fish and meats. Given that, let’s move on to the sources of animal protein.

I am sure that most of you have heard that you should limit, or even eliminate, your intake of red meat. This includes beef, pork and lamb. Why is that? That recommendation is based on the fact that red meats have more saturated fat than other protein sources. I will note that there are some people out there that do not agree with this recommendation and feel that red meat is not as bad as everyone says. However, most experts feel that consuming red meat is often linked with cardiovascular disease.

When you do consume red meats, the recommendation is to eat leaner cuts. See the following chart for the USDA’a definition of lean versus extra-lean. These numbers are based on a 3½ ounce serving and will help you when looking at the nutritional labels in the store.

 LeanExtra-lean
Fat10 gm5gm
Saturated fat4.5 gm2 gm
Cholesterol95 mg95 mg

For beef, another recommendation is to choose “Choice” or “Select” cuts as they will have less fat than “Prime” cuts. For example, if you look at one of the most popular (although one of the fattiest) cuts of beef – Ribeye Steak – the fact content is 50% higher for Prime than Choice. For ground beef, choose a package that is labeled at least “90% lean” and, if you can find it, 93% or 95% lean.

A look at the nutritional label of different cuts can be enlightening. A package of Choice Sirloin steak shows 10 gm total fat and 3 grams of saturated fat, putting it into the “Lean” category. The same serving size of a Choice Ribeye contains 17 grams of total fat and 8 grams of saturated fat.

The reason the fattiest cuts are more popular is that fat contributes to flavor and moistness. When choosing the leaner cuts, you need to take care when cooking so they do not dry out. I will discuss this more in my next Tip.

For pork, the leanest choices are pork loin and pork tenderloin.

The leanest cuts of lamb are loin, leg and shanks.

Poultry

When most of us think of healthy meat, we think of poultry. The most common poultry we eat is chicken although turkey is another excellent choice. Much of the fat found in poultry is in the skin. The same serving size of skin-on poultry can have three times or more as much fat as skinless. Because the skin can protect the meat from moisture loss, many chefs will leave the skin on when cooking but remove it before eating.

Breasts will be the leanest type of poultry. Without the skin, chicken breasts have under 2 grams fat per 3 ounce serving and less than ½ gram of saturated fat. Chicken thighs can have twice as much fat as breast but would still qualify as lean. Many feel they have more flavor and are moister. Similar cuts of turkey will have even less fat than chicken although at these low levels, the difference is minimal. The lower fat content does, though, tend to make turkey drier.

Seafood

Seafood is something that most of us probably do not eat as often as we should. Although seafood can be relatively high in fat, it contains some very heart-healthy polyunsaturated fats known as omega-3 fatty acids. In fact, seafood is considered the best (but not the only) source of this type of fat. Other good sources of omega-3 fatty acids are flaxseed oil, flaxseeds, walnuts and chia seeds. There is another type of fatty acid known as omega-6 that is often discussed in tandem with omega-3. I will wait on the discussion of this fatty acid for an upcoming Tip on Fats.

Although the above mentioned fatty fish may be healthy, they are higher in total fat than other types of seafood. If you are in the market looking at the seafood, the flesh color will give you an indication of fat content. The leaner choices are those that are lighter in color whereas the darker ones are going to contain more fat, albeit healthy fats. Below is a chart showing you the fat content in a 3 ounce serving. The amount of omega-3 fatty acids in seafood also varies with the fattier kinds containing more omega-3s. Examples include salmon, herring, mackerel and sardines. If you want more detail on this, see this article from Seafood Health Facts.

Fat ContentTypes of Seafood
High Fat (10 grams or more)Herring, Mackerel, Sardines, Salmon (Atlantic, Coho, Sockeye and Chinook)
Medium Fat (5 to 10 grams)Bluefish, Catfish, Rainbow Trout, Swordfish
Low Fat (2 to 5 grams)Tilapia, Halibut, Mussels, Ocean Perch, Oysters, Pacific Rockfish, Salmon (Chum, Pink)
Very Low Fat (less than 2 grams)Crab, Clams, Cod, Flounder/Sole, Haddock, Hake, Lobster, Mahi-mahi, Pollock, Scallops, Shrimp, Tuna

Plant sources of protein are great in that they do not contain saturated fats. Examples are beans, peas, lentils and nuts. They also provide dietary fiber and other nutrients.

Unless you are a committed vegetarian or vegan, it is good to know that both plant-based and animal protein have benefits and drawbacks. Animal foods are denser in essential amino acids and are more easily digestible.

Plant-based protein is often low in calories and high in fiber. It is, though, a little less digestible. Plant proteins rarely contain all the essential amino acids. This is not to say that you can’t get all the nutrients you need from plant foods; only that it takes effort and planning.

We all need protein although getting sufficient protein is not really a problem for most Americans. Learning how to pick and choose the best proteins is essential to a healthy diet. I hope this Tip combined with the next one on Cooking Methods will help you make better choices.

Cooking Tips · Techniques

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.

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Bacon, pancetta & other cured pork products

Even though we do not eat it on a regular basis, I always have bacon in my freezer. Not only do we love the taste and how versatile it can be in cooking, my husband makes his own bacon. So, our freezer always has a nice supply.

Bacon is something that is called a “cured pork product”. Curing is a method of preserving meat by removing moisture. The process makes it less hospitable for pathogens. It starts with salt, which is often mixed with nitrites and/or nitrates. These are used to ensure that the bacteria that produces the toxin responsible for botulism cannot grow. They also speed up the curing process, are what give the meat the pinkish color and add to flavor and texture. Curing also often involves smoking. Cured meat products may be cooked as in luncheon meats or uncooked as in bacon.

Bacon

In the US, bacon is a cured, lightly smoked pork belly. (In other countries, what they call “bacon” is made from other cuts of meat.) US bacon has a decent fat content but less salt than other cured pork products. Bacon can be cured in either a wet or a dry brine. The brine contains salt, sugar (honey, molasses, brown sugar, maple syrup, etc.) and a spice mixture. Nitrite is usually added either as a synthesized product (here is one example) or naturally occurring nitrates/nitrites derived from celery powder. Bacon is also smoked after the curing process.

Pancetta

We often refer to pancetta as “Italian bacon” but it is different. Similarly to bacon, it is made from the pork belly but is more heavily cured and has a higher salt content. It is usually not smoked but is seasoned with a mixture of garlic, black pepper, juniper berries and thyme. There is one form of pancetta that is smoked – pancetta affumicata. However, it still differs from bacon in its higher salt content and more curing.

There are two forms of pancetta – arrotolata and tesa. The former comes rolled into a log while tesa comes in a slab form, similar to bacon. Some experts recommend against buying the pre-sliced pancetta, which is often what we find in our supermarkets. They say they are usually of a lower quality and are less flavorful than pancetta that has not been pre-portioned. Of course, if that is all your stores carry, it is probably better than trying to substitute.

Prosciutto

This product comes from the hind leg of the pig with a curing process that lasts from a few months to a few years. This is one of the products that is typically eaten without cooking.

Prosciutto (made from the back leg of the pig) or dry cured ham comes in two different styles:  prosciutto cotto (cooked) or prosciutto crudo (uncooked). The former is bright pink and has a lighter flavor than the uncooked product. Although uncooked, crudo is cured and safe to eat as is. It is redder in color and more intensely flavored.

Salt Pork

This cut comes from the lower portion of the pork belly and is usually almost all fat with only a small layer of lean protein. This product is more heavily salted than bacon.

Guanciale

This word comes from the Italian guancia, meaning cheek. As the name implies, it comes from the pig jowl. This product will probably only be found in specialty butcher shops. It is often flavored with black pepper and herbs. However, the meat itself tastes different than the cuts from the belly. It is an extremely fatty product and is what gives the product its unique flavor. These unique characteristics mean it is very difficult to find an adequate substitute.

Lardo

This is made from the fat on the back of the pig (fatback). It is salt-cured and seasoned with herbs. This product is pure cured pork fat.

Substituting

When you are thinking about substituting these products for each other, there are some differences that should be considered.

  • Fat content
    Whereas bacon and pancetta are similar in fat content, guanciale has considerably more fat. Salt pork is almost all fat while lardo is 100% fat.
  • Smoking
    Bacon is a smoked product where as pancetta and guanciale are not.
  • Salt content
    If you do not take this into consideration, you could ruin your dish with too much salt. Pancetta, due to the curing process, will have a higher salt content than bacon. Prosciutto has an even higher salt content.

Nitrites/Nitrates

Although the discussion of the safety of nitrites/nitrates is outside the scope of this Cooking Tip, I will just mention a few items for consideration.

The cancer warning from many years ago has not stood up to the test of time and scientific sources do note that there are health benefits to these chemicals. Most of the nitrites/nitrates we eat are from natural sources – mostly vegetables such as lettuce, celery, and carrots. There is a debate, though, whether the synthetically derived compounds are worse for us than the natural ones. I will leave that debate to you to investigate.

If you are a cured meat lover, you may want to try to make your own as my husband does with bacon. I, for one, am not interested in that skill as there are plenty of great products in the market. Do you have a favorite? Let me know.

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Confit – A Delicious Cooking Method

If you have ever been to a French restaurant, you may have seen Duck Confit on the menu. If you ordered and eaten it, you know it is a special dish. My husband cooked the other night and made an absolutely delicious Rabbit Confit. If you think you do not like rabbit, you have probably never had it this way. Just what does “Confit” mean? That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

According to Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking, the word “confit” comes from the French verb “confire” and the Latin “conficere” meaning “to do, to produce, to make, to prepare.” This book goes on to explain that it was first applied to fruits cooked and preserved in a sugar syrup, honey or alcohol during medieval times. Later it was applied to vegetables pickled in vinegar, olives in oil, meats under fat and various food in salt.

Confit is not really a dish but a method of cooking. It is said to be a specialty of Gascony, France and to have derived from an ancient method of preserving meat where it is salted and cooked in its own fat. The meat was then packed into a crock and covered in its own cooking fat, which acted as a seal and a preservative.

Today, it is generally used to describe anything that has been cooked slowly and gently in fat to a wonderful consistency and flavor.

There are three basic components to this process.

  • A salt cure – salt is rubbed into the meat and then allowed to age for at least an hour or even up to 3 days. This draws out moisture, which then allows that water to be replaced by oil. This results in a very tender and flavorful product.
  • The fat – very common fats include duck, goose or chicken fat. An oil such as olive or vegetable can also be used. The food item is submerged in this fat.
  • A slow cooking process – after submerging the food item in the fat, it is cooked at a low temperature (~200-250°F) for a few hours. Often herbs and spices are added to infuse flavor.

Although you can eat the meat as soon as it is done cooking, there are those that say that it is not true confit unless you then store it submerged in the fat for two weeks. During this storage period, muscle and connective tissue continue to break down and tenderize the meat.

When stored properly, confit can be kept for several months. This means that it is fully covered in the oil without any air and it is kept cool, <40°F. Without this, there is a risk, albeit small, of botulism. This organism can grow in a low-oxygen environment. The meat is often salted again before storage to decrease this risk. Nitrates are also occasionally added.

You might ask how this is different from deep fat frying. The answer is the temperature. Confit is done at a relatively low temperature (~200-250°F) while deep fat frying is done at a much higher temperature (325-450°F). This higher temperature leads to quick moisture loss and a crispy exterior. Deep fat frying is also done in minutes, not hours as in confit.

Have you ever eaten duck (or other meat) confit? What did you think?
Even more, have you made it yourself? It is not hard; it just takes some time and care.
Let me know if you have or plan to make it.

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Focus on Shrimp

Shrimp are wonderful any time of the year but they are especially great in the summer because they cook so quickly with minimal effort. There are a few things to know about shrimp, though, and that is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

When you go to your supermarket, or if you are lucky to have a fish market, you may be faced with different varieties of shrimp. Here is a discussion of some of those.

A common question is if there is a difference between Shrimp and Prawns. Although both terms are used interchangeably in the US, there are anatomical differences. Prawns are larger, have a branching gill structure, longer front legs and a second set of pinchers that are larger than the front set. They also carry their eggs inside their body, which tend to be larger than those of shrimp.

Shrimp are of a different sub-family and tend to be smaller, have a lamellar gill structure, shorter front legs, larger front pinchers, they carry their eggs outside their body and have smaller eggs.

From a culinary perspective, there is not much of a flavor difference and they can be used similarly. What makes more of a difference in flavor and texture is the diet and habitat. Even within the same category of shrimp, these factors can make them taste differently.

Brown Shrimp

The shells of this category of shrimp are reddish-brown. They are also known as “summer”, “redtail” or “golden” shrimp. They are firmer in texture than other shrimp and have a mild but mineral-like flavor. When cooked, the flesh turns somewhat redder than white shrimp.

Pink Shrimp

This category encompasses different species of shrimp. They tend to be pink when raw but can look anywhere between white and gray. They are usually small and sometimes termed “Salad Shrimp”. They are mild and sweet.

Rock Shrimp

Named for their rock-hard shells, they are normally sold cleaned and de-shelled as doing this process yourself can be difficult. Their taste and texture is similar to lobster and so, could be a substitute for lobster.

Tiger Prawns

Also known as Tiger Shrimp, they have a striped pattern on their body. They can be up to a foot in length and have a very strong shrimp flavor.

White Shrimp

Once again, this category includes different species of shrimp. When uncooked, they look translucent and blueish-green but turn pink when cooked. They have a sweet flavor, a tender texture and are easy to peel.

Another concern when you are shopping is the size of the shrimp or the “count per pound.” For example, if you see 41/50 on a label, it means there are between 41 and 50 shrimps per pound. Here is a breakdown of the terminology from Cooks Illustrated. Other sources may vary slightly in the shrimp count.

TYPICAL NAMECOUNT PER POUND (U = UNDER)
ColossalU/12 (under 12 per pound)
Extra-JumboU/15
Jumbo16/20 (16 to 20 per pound)
Extra-Large21/25
Large26/30
Medium-Large31/40
Medium41/50
Small51/60
Extra-Small61/70

If your recipe calls for 1½ pounds of shrimp and you buy shell-on, you must account for the weight of the shells. Generally, 12 ounces of shrimp with shells intact will give you 8 ounces of shelled shrimp.

If you buy shrimp with the shells on, you must peel and possibly devein them. Peeling is rather easy. Just open the shell on the belly side and peel it back and remove making sure to also get all the legs. If not done already, the intestinal track should be removed – called deveining. Make a shallow slit along the back from the head to tail end. This will expose the “vein”. Insert the tip of a knife under the vein and lift it out. Finish by rinsing.

If you are so inclined, throw the shells in a plastic bag and put in the freezer. When you have a sufficient number of shells, you can make shrimp stock for your chowders, stews and gumbo.

When cooking shrimp, the important thing to remember is that they cook very quickly and you want to prevent over-cooking. Although you can use almost any method of cooking, they are particularly well-suited to grilling or sautéing. If you have read my Cooking Tips for any length of time, you know I am a big fan of taking internal temperatures to gauge doneness. However, that is not feasible with shrimp. Instead, you want to see the shrimp turn from translucent to opaque and from gray to pink. They will also start to curl into a C-shape. If you are unsure, take one shrimp out of the pan and cut in half to ensure it is cooked through.

The shrimp can be cooked and served on their own or can be used in shrimp & grits, risotto or any number of dishes. What is your favorite way to cook and serve shrimp? Let me know.

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Don't fear cooking seafood!

Cooking seafood often instills fear in people. I can understand why. Good seafood is not inexpensive and over-cooking it is all too common. I do enjoy a good seafood dish but I am unhappy when it is dry and overdone. In this Cooking Tip, I want to help you turn out that perfect plate of seafood. This Tip will not cover all seafood, just some of the most popular. Nor am I going to discuss the topics of sustainability, environmental concerns or mercury content. I will leave that for you to research and make your own decisions. I am merely going to talk about cooking seafood.

The fattiness or leanness of the fish species helps to determine proper cooking methods. Cooking methods are broken into moist cooking and dry cooking. Moist cooking methods include poaching, steaming, cooking en papillote and simmering. Dry cooking methods include baking, broiling, grilling and sautéing – either with or without cooking fat.

Fatty fish are especially well suited to cooking with dry heat. For example, baking or broiling are a good choice and these methods actually help to cut down on the oiliness of the fish. You can also use the dry heat method with the addition of fat. Just do not use so much that you cause the fish to be greasy. However, fatty fish can also be cooked with moist heat.

Lean fish are best cooked with moist heat as it helps to preserve the moistness of the fish. If you wish to use a dry cooking method, consider basting the fish in butter or oil. Or, the lean fish can be sautéed or fried with the use of oil.

If you are not sure about the fat content of the fish, ask at the fish counter. Briefly, fatty fish include salmon, mackerel and herring. Trout is considered to have a medium level of fat. Lean fish include orange roughy, bass, cod, flounder, haddock, Mahi-Mahi, grouper, snapper, tilapia and tuna.

The main problem I see with cooking fish is overcooking it. Most fish do not take very long to cook. An average recommended cooking time is 8-10 minutes per inch of thickness. Remember that there is going to be some carry-over cooking and, therefore, you can remove it from the heat when it is just slightly underdone. You can gauge this by visual changes. It is easy to see the color change with salmon. It is more difficult with white fish. You may need to use a paring knife and look inside. If the flesh is still translucent, it is still underdone. Perfectly cooked fish should be opaque but still flaky and moist. Overcooked fish is dry and falls apart easily.

The FDA states that fish with fins should be cooked to 145° or until the flesh is opaque and separates easily with a fork. Shrimp, lobster, crab, and scallops should be cooked until the flesh is pearly or white, and opaque.

Thermoworks recommends the following:

  • Salmon – 125°
  • Halibut – 130°
  • Lobster – 140°
  • Scallops – 130°
  • Shrimp — 120°

Cook’s Illustrated recommends:

  • 120° for wild salmon
  • 125° for farmed salmon
  • 135° for whitefish

Let me discuss a few particular types of fish.

Salmon – I covered salmon in detail in a prior Cooking Tip. Refer to that article for more information.

Scallops – Scallops are wonderful, sweet and delicate but can easily be turned rubbery and unappetizing by improper cooking.

The experts will tell you to always choose “dry” scallops (vs. “wet” scallops) at the store. Wet scallops (aka treated scallops) have been soaked in a liquid solution containing phosphates that is supposed to prolong their freshness. However, the scallops also absorb the water, which you end up paying for since you buy them by the pound. This water evaporates as they cook, which can lead to the following problems. First, the water that is released causes them to steam and it makes it more difficult to get that nice caramelized crust. As the water evaporates, you end up with smaller and tougher scallops. The phosphate may impart a slightly soapy flavor to the scallops. It is generally easy to discern treated scallops as they will usually appear very white in color.

“Dry” is the seafood industry term for natural or untreated scallops. They look more tan in color. They are preferred because they are easier to sear and get the desired caramelization, they taste sweet & natural and you are not paying for added water. That said, I think it is very hard to find dry scallops in your supermarket. To obtain these, you probably need to visit a quality seafood market or order online.

Whatever scallops you purchase, they should be cooked quickly over high heat. Pat the scallops dry. To prevent more moisture from exuding from the scallop, hold off on salting until just before they go in the pan. Leave space between them so they do not steam and cook very quickly over high heat. A typical large scallop only needs about 90 seconds per side. Allow them to rest for a few minutes before serving.

Shrimp is another very popular type of seafood. If not done before you buy them, you need to peel and devein the shrimp before cooking. They can be broiled in as little as 2-3 minutes. Boiling is another common method of cooking shrimp. For a 1 pound of shrimp, bring 4 cups water along with 1 teaspoon salt to a boil. Add shrimp and simmer, uncovered, 1 to 3 minutes or until shrimp turn opaque, stirring occasionally. Drain and rinse shrimp in a colander under cold running water.

You may also cook them on the stovetop by heating a skillet over medium-high. Add oil to hot skillet and then add the shrimp. Cook 3 to 6 minutes until shrimp are pink and opaque.

Seafood is something all of us should increase in our diet. It is also such a quick and easy ingredient to cook, making it perfect for a quick weeknight meal. Just watch it and don’t overcook it. If you do that, I am sure you will enjoy a seafood meal!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients · Techniques

Making a Great Burger!

In last week’s Cooking Tip, I discussed how to understand ground beef labeling and what would be best for the dish you will be making. Since burgers are one of the main reasons that people buy ground beef, in this Cooking Tip, I would like to give you some advice on cooking that perfect burger.

As we learned in the prior Cooking Tip, you will want to use either ground chuck or a mixture of ground chuck and ground sirloin for your burgers. If you cannot find that in the store, opt for a ground beef with at least 20% fat (labeled as 80/20). The next step is seasoning that meat so it tastes even better. For a classic burger, all you will need is salt and pepper. But, when do you salt the meat? Does it make a difference?

Cooks Illustrated is a proponent of salting the meat before shaping it into patties. They recommend putting the meat in a bowl, gently breaking it up, adding 1 teaspoon table salt for 1½# of meat and then gently mixing it in as you shape them into patties.

A contrary view is voiced by SeriousEats.com. One of their staff did a testing of this. They salted burgers in three ways: seasoned only on the exterior just before cooking, seasoned by tossing the ground meat with salt (like Cooks Illustrated recommends), and seasoning the meat by salting cubes of beef and then grinding it yourself. They used 1 teaspoon kosher salt (equivalent to ½ teaspoon table salt) per 5-oz patty. Other than the salt difference, the burgers were all treated the same.

What they discovered was salting the burgers right before cooking led to the best burger with a loose, tender, open structure. They found this result meant the burger breaks down into small pieces in your mouth while still allowing the burger to hold onto juices. Salting ahead of time caused the burgers to be more sausage-like with a tighter and bouncy texture. If you want to read the entire study, here is the link.

Here are some things that everyone (almost) agrees with:

  • Don’t overwork the meat as you will end up with dense and rubbery burgers.
  • Shape your patty a bit wider than the bun. Then, make a shallow indentation in the center of the patty before cooking. This helps to prevent your burger expanding into a large ball. One caveat, this step is less necessary if you are pan-frying them rather than grilling or broiling.
  • Don’t overcook. This may be a bit controversial for food safety reasons. According to the USDA, ground beef should be cooked to 160°.   If you are sure about the safety of your ground beef, others recommend the following internal temperatures, checked with a food thermometer. (This is my favorite and one of the best on the market.)
    • Rare – 120°
    • Medium-rare – 125-130°
    • Medium – 135-140°
    • Medium-well – 145-160°
    • Well-done – 160 and up°
  • Keep your ground meat cold until right before forming the patties. You do not want the fat to start melting before cooking.

Once they are on the grill or in the pan, another debate occurs. Many say that you should only flip them once and never press down on them as it squeezes out flavorful juices. Or, as my husband likes to quip, “What has that burger ever done to you to treat it like that?”

Once again, SeriousEats.com begs to disagree. Their testing showed that gently flipping the burgers as often as every 15 seconds resulted in a quicker and more even internal cooking. They found this decreased the cooking time about 1/3.

Once your burger is cooked, you can make it your own by your choice of bun, sauce and toppings. What is your favorite burger? Let me know and have a wonderful Labor Day Weekend!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Is all ground beef the same?

Are you planning a Labor Day cookout? If you are, I’m sure burgers are on the menu. When you go to the supermarket to get your ground beef, which kind do you buy? Which kind should you buy? In this Cooking Tip, I wish to discuss the different types of ground beef and their best uses.

According to butchers, ground beef is made out of “trimmings”. These are pieces of beef trimmed off a larger cut of beef. The particular type of ground beef will be made from trimmings from that specific primal cut. For example, ground chuck comes from the chuck area (aka shoulder). See this illustration for the primal cuts. It is interesting to note that these trimmings may come from multiple animals.

When you are shopping for ground beef, note the following terms..

Ground beef – this is a general term for ground beef that can be from any cut or combination of cuts. According the USDA, it can have up to a maximum of 30% fat. Because of the high fat content, it can have nice flavor but also tends towards being greasy and mushy. It is usually the most affordable.

Ground chuck – this is cut from the chuck (or shoulder) and ranges from 15-25% fat. It is the best choice for burgers because of its rich flavor, its tenderness and moistness. The most typical fat/meat ratio on the label is 80/20 – meaning 80% meat and 20% fat.

Ground sirloin – this is cut from the short loin, the midsection near the hip. The fat content is only 7-10%. Despite its low fat content, sirloin is a very flavorful cut. It is also very tender but can be a bit dry. It is also more expensive than other cuts. Many, but not all, ground sirloin is labeled 90/10. If it is used for burgers; it is often mixed with ground chuck to give it more flavor and moisture. A mixture is also great for chili and similar uses.

Ground round – this comes from the rear upper leg and rump. With a fat content of 10-15%, it tends to be less juicy, can be gristly and often lacks a robust beef flavor. Ground rounds are often sold as 85/15. Burgers made with ground round tend to be a little dry from the lack of fat content. It is best used in soups, stews or spaghetti. Adding ground round to dishes with other liquids helps to compensate for the lack of moisture in the fat.

Hamburger – this is another generic term and is a mix of whatever is left over from other cuts. It is usually not labeled with the fat content or which cuts were used. The USDA allows beef fat to be added to “hamburger” whereas no fat is added to “ground beef”.

I took a look at the ground beef available in my local supermarket. If I went to the meat counter, they had what was labeled “ground chuck” and “ground sirloin”. However, in the refrigerated meat section with the prepackaged packaged products. Every single package there was labeled “ground beef”. It did have the fat content listed but not the cut. I spoke to the meat department manager and he confirmed that all his products labeled “ground beef” could be a mixture of many different cuts but there was no way for the customer to know which cuts. Is it the same in your market? Let me know.

Besides checking the name of the cut as well as the fat content, you want your ground beef to be as freshly ground as possible. Look for something that was ground the day you are buying it. It should be bright red-pink in color with visible flecks of meat and fat in it. If you have a butcher, you could ask them to grind it or you could also learn to grind your own beef. However, the USDA cautions against this saying “In a USDA-inspected plant, trimmed beef destined for grinding is tested for the presence of E. coli. However, primal cuts, such as steaks and roasts, are usually not tested. When stores or consumers grind these primal cuts, it’s possible that pathogens may be present on the raw beef, and neither you nor meat market employees can see, smell, or taste dangerous bacteria. In addition, USDA-inspected plants have Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures that cover policies such as the cleaning of grinding machines and the handling and chilling of ground beef. Consumers and stores might not follow such stringent sanitary procedures.”   

Whether you are having burgers for your Labor Day meal or not, I hope the information in this Cooking Tip will help you choose the best ground beef for your dish. In a subsequent tip, I will help you turn that ground beef into the best burger possible. Stay tuned!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Salmon — wild or farmed

I was making salmon for dinner and started thinking that I could hardly wait for the time that fresh, wild Pacific salmon is in the stores again. Why is that? Because, in my opinion, it is the best tasting salmon ever. I thought some of you might enjoy a Cooking Tip about this very subject. Now, I am not going to address environmental concerns over farmed versus wild or similar topics. Nor am I going to focus on the health benefits/concerns although wild-caught salmon is felt to be an extremely healthy and nutritious food. I am approaching this Tip purely from a culinary perspective.

Salmon are fish that live naturally in the northern Atlantic & Pacific oceans. The two main groups of salmon around North America are Atlantic and Pacific salmon. There is only one type of Atlantic salmon but there are quite a few from the Pacific ocean.

Chinook salmon (aka King) is the largest and found mainly in Alaska but also down the west coast. It is known for its smooth, melting texture and a rich, buttery flavor.

Chum salmon (aka dog or silverbrite salmon) is found in Alaska down to the northwest tip of the US. As you can assume from the name, this is not a highly desired salmon. There are those, though, that say as long as it is handled properly, it is a perfectly acceptable salmon with a lighter flavor. It is often used for grilling and smoking.

Coho salmon (aka silver salmon) is greatly prized and is found in Alaska and down the west coast.

Pink salmon is the most abundant but also the smallest. It is the type used for canned salmon.

Sockeye salmon (aka red salmon) is named for its colorful red flesh.

All Atlantic salmon is farm-raised, mostly from the states of Washington and Maine. There are also international farms in Canada, Norway and Chili. It is harvested year-round. At times, you will see terms other than Atlantic vs Pacific. For instance, it might say Chilean, Norwegian, Scottish, etc. These salmon are undoubtably Atlantic, and therefore farmed. If in doubt, ask the fishmonger.

If you want wild salmon, you must buy Pacific. The harvest season is from May through September.

Why do I eagerly await the fresh, wild salmon season? The succinct answer is TASTE. In my opinion, the taste of wild salmon is far superior to that of farmed salmon. You will have those that disagree, though, as they prefer the milder flavor of the Atlantic. Another item to consider is that if you look at the signs advertising the Atlantic salmon, you will usually see “color added”. Because of its diet, wild Pacific salmon is naturally orange, pink or reddish. On the other hand, Atlantic salmon is very pale and unappetizing looking. To counter this, the fish are fed an ingredient called “astaxanthin”. Although this ingredient can be produced naturally thorough algae or pulverized crustaceans, it is often synthesized in a lab from petroleum products. Its purpose is to add color to the flesh.

Another term you will notice that I have used is “fresh”. That term distinguishes it from frozen salmon. Pacific (preferably Alaskan) salmon that has never been frozen and has been wild-caught is my preference any day of the week – not only for the superior flavor but also because I like the texture better. Many fishmongers will tell you if the fish has been handled properly after catching and then flash frozen, it is just as good, if not better, than fish that has been transported in a fresh state to the store. One researcher postulated that this may be true for more fatty salmon – either King salmon or Atlantic salmon. Other Pacific salmon is leaner and may not stand up as well to freezing.

Wild, fresh, Pacific salmon will be more expensive. I think it is totally worth it. If you are going to spend the money for this great fish, you want to make sure to cook it properly. There are many different ways to cook salmon – pan-frying, grilling, baking, broiling or poaching. They will all give you different results. The most important thing is to not overcook it. I still remember when we lived in Guam and we went to a very nice restaurant. I ordered salmon and when the server asked me how I wanted it cooked, I said well-done. He looked at me and asked me to try it medium as the Chef recommended. If I didn’t like it, he would ask the chef to cook it more. I agreed. When it came out, I was so surprised at how tasty, moist and succulent it was. It was cooked all the way through but it was not overcooked. I never returned to the land of “well-cooked salmon”!

The best way to ensure you do not overcook your salmon is to use an instant read thermometer. Salmon is a very quick cooking fish. The actual cooking time will vary depending on the thickness of the fish portion and the cooking technique. It can be as little as 6 or 7 minutes or up to 15 minutes. Some experts recommend four to six minutes per half-inch of thickness.

There are some visual signs of doneness. The flesh will turn lighter and more opaque. The middle of the salmon, though, should still be slightly translucent. If it is opaque all the way through, it is over-cooked. The salmon should give way a bit but not necessarily flake. If it flakes, once again it is probably over-cooked. Since these visual cues can be somewhat subjective, taking the internal temperature is the best way to gauge doneness. Many sources will tell you to cook your salmon to 145°. I find that much too high. Cooks Illustrated agrees. They recommend cooking farmed salmon to 125° and wild salmon to 120°. The difference is due to the lower fat content in most wild salmon.

You may balk at those temperature recommendations. However, if you give it a try, I suspect that just as I was in that restaurant in Guam, you will be amazed at the results. Let me know!