Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Baking Soda & its non-baking uses

I am sure we all have a box of baking soda in our pantries. Mine sits in a cupboard that contains most of my baking supplies – flour, sugar, baking powder, extracts, etc. However, baking soda has culinary uses beyond baking and that is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate, a naturally alkaline substance. Therefore, it raises the pH of foods to which we add it. Below are some ways that chefs like to use baking soda in the kitchen.

Leavening (chemical)

When combined with an acidic ingredient (buttermilk, yogurt), it produces CO2 gas bubbles, causing the batter or dough to rise. Because this chemical reaction occurs immediately upon moistening the baking soda, it should be mixed with the other dry ingredients before adding any liquid. Also, the batter should be placed in the oven immediately after combining or you will lose the lift it provides.

Color changes


Baking soda is well known for aiding in browning. Acidic items will be paler whereas alkaline ones will be darker. I was told in culinary school that if you see a recipe that just has a small amount of baking soda in it, it is probably there not for its leavening effect but for increased browning. It turns out there is a scientific reason for that.

To explain it, let me discuss two different but related reactions we often see in the kitchen – caramelization and the Maillard reaction. The Maillard reaction is also known as the “browning reaction”. It is a chemical action that takes place in food between sugar and amino acids as heat is applied. That is what is happening when you get that brown color on your steaks or other food items.

To caramelize something is to heat it until the sugar liquefies into a clear syrup and then continuing to cook it to stages of browning. It is similar to the Maillard reaction but note that it only involves sugar while Maillard is both sugar and amino acids.

As the pH of the environment rises, both of these reactions proceed at an accelerated rate leading to enhanced browning. Boiling bagels in water with baking soda added to it is just one example. A tiny pinch of baking soda added to veggies while roasting or sauteing accelerates the rate of these reactions, resulting in better browning.


The pigment anthocyanin is what gives the purple color to purple cabbage, purple asparagus, etc. It will turn blue or green in the presence of baking soda. (Conversely, the color becomes more red or pink in an acidic environment.) For a more detailed explanation of this along with photos and a fun experiment to do with your kids, see this article from Decoding Delicious.


Baking soda and its alkaline effect can actually help set the green color found in foods with chlorophyll.


Potatoes, onions, cauliflower, and the white parts of celery, cucumbers, and zucchini get their white color from flavones. They may turn a brownish-yellow when cooked with alkaline ingredients.

Softening effect

Pectin is a carbohydrate that occurs naturally in the cell walls of fruits and vegetables and is what gives them structure but will be broken down when cooking, resulting in softening.

Adding a pinch of baking soda creates an alkaline environment that breaks down the pectin and weakens the cell walls. This allows them to cook and soften more quickly.

Examples include veggies and dried beans. Adding baking soda to the latter can dramatically cut down the cooking time. One caution from experts is not to add more than ⅛ teaspoon per pound of soaked beans. This helps prevent developing an unpleasant taste that can occur with excessive baking soda. Soaking the beans overnight in a mixture of water and baking soda will help speed up the cooking time and lead to better texture. This is especially true if you are going to use them to make a great batch of hummus

The process of sauteing or caramelizing alliums (onions, shallots) can be sped up with the addition of just a bit of baking soda but too much can be detrimental to the final texture. Just ¼ teaspoon for every pound of sliced onions is recommended.

Polenta is a dish that should be creamy but starts with gritty cornmeal. Water must enter the cells causing the starch granules to swell and burst. Baking soda breaks down the pectin in those cell walls allowing the water to enter in a much shorter time.

Potatoes are wonderful when roasted. To do this, check out this recipe from Serious Eats, where the potatoes are par-boiled in water along with salt and baking soda. As J. Kenji López-Alt explains, “the alkaline water helps the exteriors of the potatoes break down more, creating much more of the starchy slurry that leads to an extra-crisp exterior. About a half teaspoon of baking soda for two quarts of water was the right amount.”

Although this recipe is highly recommended, not all find it lives up to the hype. When put it to the test, they were not able to duplicate the promised result of dark and very crispy potatoes.

Tempering Acidity

Baking soda has long been used to tone down the acidity of a dish such as tomato soup or even coffee. Different brands of canned tomatoes vary when it comes to acidity, but just ¼ teaspoon of baking soda can help to neutralize this excess acidity without impacting their texture or overall flavor.

Turning Spaghetti Into Ramen Noodles

Here is one last unusual use of baking soda, given to us by Serious Eats. That is turning angel hair pasta into ramen noodles. Ramen dough is said to include an alkaline mineral component called kansui, which gives the noodles their yellow hue and springy texture. According to Serious Eats, you can get somewhat similar results by adding baking soda to a boiling pot of angel hair. If you care to know more, see this post.

Did you know that baking soda could do all these things in your kitchen? And, that doesn’t even address non-culinary uses such as cleaning. Just make sure the baking soda you wish to use in your food, especially for leavening purposes, is fresh. Leave the older box for other purposes.

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Coriander & Cilantro – are they the same thing?

Last week’s Cooking Tip was about the wonderful spice, Cumin. Coriander is another spice that is often used in combination with cumin. That is why I decided to make it the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Just as with cumin, coriander is an ancient spice. Seeds have been found in the tombs of Pharaohs and history says that the Roman legions carried it as they progressed through Europe, using it to flavor their breads. Coriander also has its own mention in the Bible, comparing the taste of manna to that of coriander. (Exodus 16:31 & Numbers 11:7)

Coriander is part of the parsley and carrot family and is native to the Mediterranean and the Middle East. It is now grown in Brazil, Canada, Eastern Europe, Holland, India, North Africa, Russia, South America, South Asia and the US.

There are two varieties – Indian and Moroccan. Indian coriander seeds are larger and more golden as compared to the smaller, darker brown Moroccan variety. India tends to consume what it grows and so, what we have in the stores is usually Moroccan or European.

Coriander is one of the few spices that is completely edible from its roots to its leaves to its seeds. The seeds are small, about the size of peppercorns with a pale, creamy brown color. The herby leaves are green and have an appearance similar to Italian parsley.

In the UK and other European countries, coriander refers to both the herb and the spice whereas in the US, we use the word coriander for the spice and cilantro for the herb.

Besides being found in whole and ground form, coriander is also found in many spice mixtures such as curry powders and garam masala. As I mentioned above, coriander is often combined with cumin.

Many say the flavor differences between Moroccan and Indian coriander are minimal at most. Others feel that the Moroccan variety has a sweet, woodsy, spicy fragrance with a warm flavor whereas the Indian coriander has a sweeter and stronger aroma with more nuttiness and citrus notes.

On their own, the seeds are highly aromatic, warm and nutty with a hint of citrus. When left whole, the flavor is floral, citrusy and sweet. When ground, the roasted nuttiness comes out.

The flavor of the leaves is fresh, clean and bright unless you are one of those people who think it tastes like soap.

Coriander and/or cilantro is used in many cuisines such as Egyptian, Latin American, Mexican, Indian, Middle Eastern and Asian. The leaves/roots are especially used in Thai curries, Vietnamese pho, and Chinese stir fries as well as in dips, sauces, dressings, salsas and chutneys.

So, there you are. Coriander is another one of those spices that certainly deserves a place in your pantry, alongside cumin. Is it in yours?

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Cumin – a perfect cold weather spice!

In prior Cooking Tips, I have discussed a few different spices such as Cardamom, Cinnamon, Oregano, Paprika, Pepper, Saffron, Salt and Sumac. Some of those spices you probably use every day and others only occasionally or not at all. In this Cooking Tip, I would like to tell you about a spice that I use very frequently and I am wondering if that is the same for you. That spice is Cumin.

Cumin is the seed from an herb in the parsley family. It is an ancient spice having been used by the Romans and even mentioned in the Bible (Isaiah 28: 25, 27 & Matthew 23:23). It is also said to have been used as a preservative in the mummification process.

It was originally cultivated in Iran and the Mediterranean region and was introduced to the Americas by Portuguese and Spanish colonists.

Today, it is grown in many countries including Afghanistan, Chile, China, Egypt, India, Iran, Mexico, Morocco, Pakistan, Syria, Turkey and Uzbekistan. India is the main producer and consumer of cumin, accounting for about 70% of the world’s production and 63% of total consumption.

Cumin seeds are small, light brown and grooved along the surface. There is also a black cumin, which grows in Iran. The seeds are smaller in size with a sweeter aroma. It is not a good substitute for regular cumin. Cumin can be found in whole form as well as ground. See this Cooking Tip for the pros/cons of whole vs ground spices. In Morocco, ground cumin is kept on the table and used to season meats much as we would salt and pepper.

In our stores, you should be able to find both whole and ground cumin. You will also find that cumin is present in a number of different spice blends such as taco seasoning, achiote, garam masala, Baharat, chili powder and curry powders.

It is a very aromatic spice due to its high content of essential oils. The flavor is warm and earthy and slightly pungent and this flavor profile lend itself well to Mexican, Tex-Mex and Indian dishes. As with many spices, dry-frying or toasting the seeds before grinding will bring out the flavor.

Store in an airtight container in a dry, cool area away from light. The ground form is best used within six months whereas the whole seeds can last up to a year.

Add it to dishes where you want a warm, earthy flavor such as in soups, stews, meats and veggies. Vegetarians like to use it as it gives some of that savory/meaty flavor to their dishes. It is a necessary ingredient of my favorite chili recipe along with other dishes that have a southwest, Indian or Moroccan flair.

According to McCormick, it is currently one of the top 10 spices sold in the US. Is it one of the top 10 spices in your pantry?

Cooking Tips · Ingredients · Techniques

Flavor in your food – Natural or Artificial?

Do you read labels on the food and beverages you buy? I have to admit that I do read the labels although probably not as much as I should. If you have read labels, I am sure you have come across the word “flavoring” or “flavors”. Sometimes these words will be preceded by other words – “natural” or “artificial”. What do these words mean? Does it even matter? That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

As with so many things, it is our government that defines these terms and the use of them. Their definitions may or may not be of much use to you as they are very wordy and not exactly easy to read and understand. If you wish to read the FDA’s definition of natural and artificial, see this link to the relevant section of the Code of Federal Regulations.

After wading through the government’s definitions, there are some points that can be pulled out.

  • Both natural and artificial flavors come from the laboratory. It is just that natural flavors come from plant or animal sources. Artificial flavors can be made from inedible substances. According to a professor at Harvard, natural and artificial flavors may be the same exact molecule. An example given by a spokesperson from the Museum of Food and Drink involves lemon flavor.

    “You can have a “natural” lemon flavor made from citral, which is a chemical found in lemon peel. You can also have an “artificial” lemon flavor made from citral, which is processed from petrochemicals. The only difference between these two chemicals is how they were synthesized. Your sensory experience of each will be exactly the same, because they are the same chemical. The most important thing to note is that “natural” citral does not need to come from lemons; it can come from plants like lemongrass and lemon myrtle, which also contain citral. In short, the word “natural” does not necessarily mean a product is better for you, or more sustainable.”

  • Both natural and artificial flavorings are added to the food item to obtain the desired flavor. For example, if a lemon-flavored beverage says it contains “water & lemon flavoring”, something was added to it to give the lemon flavor. Contrast that with an ingredient list that says “water and fresh lemon juice”. There, the lemon flavor is derived totally from the juice that is blended into the water.

  • Natural and artificial flavors can also be used together to achieve the flavor that consumers want.

  • The term “flavoring” does not necessarily mean just one flavor. The FDA does not require food/beverage companies to list each flavor separately although some companies will go to that extra step. For example, the ingredient list for a tea that I have reads “Green tea, Pomegranate Flavor and Acai Flavor”.

  • Although there is a difference in origin, there is no nutritional difference between natural and artificial flavors. The nutrition (or lack thereof) in a food comes from the food itself, not added flavor.

To understand this a bit more, let’s delve into what flavor is. What flavor you perceive when eating or drinking a food item is mostly determined by the volatile chemicals in the food. These not only contribute to flavor but also to aroma as smell makes up 80 to 90 percent of the sense of taste. An interesting fact is that a single flavor can consist of 50 to 100 different chemical compounds that might be derived from natural and/or artificial sources. Besides the actual flavor chemicals, flavorings also contain solvents, emulsifiers, flavor modifiers and preservatives. In fact, according to flavor experts, these often make up 80 to 90 percent of the mixture and are called “incidental additives.” The FDA defines these as “present in a food at insignificant levels and do not have any technical or functional effect in that food.” These do not require disclosure on food labels. The manufacturer might use a natural solvent such as ethanol but may also use synthetic solvents such as propylene glycol. An exception to this is that the flavor in “organic foods” must be produced without synthetic solvents, carriers and artificial preservatives.

The people that create flavors are incredibly talented and skilled professionals known as flavorists or flavor chemists. For natural flavors, the specific chemicals are identified and isolated from natural sources, such as essential oils from fruits. A flavorist will use this data to develop a specific flavor profile. Often, flavors are a combination of many different natural ingredients.

For artificial flavors, the flavorist looks at the chemical composition of the natural ingredients and then goes on to create flavor profiles using synthetic ingredients. This artificial flavor can then be added to foods and beverages.

Why create artificial flavors? It is a matter of cost, availability and flexibility. A flavorist at The International Flavors & Fragrances, Inc, uses the example of the flavor of passionfruit. According to her, if a vodka company wanted to use actual passionfruit for a passionfruit flavored beverage, it would require a quarter of the world’s passionfruit supply. That is, obviously, not feasible. So, the flavorists look for more inexpensive sources to create a flavor that mimics the actual fruit. The lab works to identify the molecular fingerprint of the fruit and then they look for similar compounds that are available in the flavor lab. In the case of passionfruit, it might start with grapefruit essential oils and then other tropical fruit oils might be added. The result is “passionfruit flavor”. It is created totally in the lab and may not contain even a gram of real passionfruit. However, it can still be called natural on the label.

Similarly, there are not enough vanilla beans in the world to meet demand for this extremely popular flavor. Also, as you may have noticed if you have recently purchased vanilla beans, their cost is extremely high. However, the compound that gives vanilla its favor profile (vanillin) can be synthetically derived from other sources at a much lower cost with more abundant supply.

So, we see that there is no difference in the flavor we perceive from artificial or natural flavorings and there is no nutritional difference. Is there a difference in safety? According to experts, unless you have an allergy to a specific ingredient, natural and artificial flavors are safe for consumption at intended levels. If you have very specific allergies, this may be a bit difficult as the manufacturer will not list all the chemicals involved in making the flavoring. Just because the intended flavor is banana, that does not mean that there is any banana in the product at all. Rather, it will be composed of many chemicals that when put together create the banana flavor. If you are this type of person, you may need to contact the company or, if possible, avoid any food or beverages with added flavoring.

How do you feel about natural versus artificial flavor? Does it matter to you? Everyone must make their own choice but I hope this article helps you to see it is not as simple a matter as it might seem. Stay tuned as next week, I will discuss all the colors that are added to food!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Spice Blends – Buy or Make?

Spices are such a necessary component in our cooking and baking. Continuing to expand your knowledge of spices is one way to improve your culinary creations. I have written a prior Tip on spices in general and I have written some other Tips on particular spices. In this Tip, I would like to discuss some of the more common Spice Blends.

If you ask ten different chefs for a list of their favorite spice blends, you would get ten different lists although I dare say there would be some commonalities. I am going to try to focus on those commonalities to help you understand the world of spice blends.

Spice blends are just what the name says – mixtures of different spices. I usually encourage all of you to make your own spice blends rather than buying numerous blends made by some company. You can make only the amount you want and you can personalize it to your own preferences. This is especially true for spice blends that contain individual spices that you already have in your pantry. That being said, there is a place for purchasing premade blends.

If it is a blend that you are going to use a lot, go ahead and purchase it. Also, if it is a blend that contains individual spices that you do not normally have on hand, it might be good to just purchase that blend. Just try to purchase the freshest and smallest amount you can. Something else to be aware of is even though a spice blend from Company A has the same name as one from Company B, that does not mean they will taste the same. They might have different amounts of the spices and might even have different spices in them. So, read the labels carefully and when you find one you like, stick with that particular brand.

Now, on to some popular blends that you might want to consider.

Barbecue seasoning

This blend usually adds heat and smokiness to your dish and is normally used to season meats before grilling or roasting. Common spices include salt, garlic, red pepper, onion, sugar and smoke flavoring. This is certainly one that you could make just when you need it, but if you have a favorite premade blend, go ahead and purchase it.


Hailing from Ethiopia, this blend is a sweet & hot blend that is used in beef stews, lentils, chicken recipes and veggie dishes. Blends can vary but you will commonly find cinnamon, paprika, fenugreek, cardamom, coriander, cumin, cloves, nutmeg, garlic powder, onion powder pepper (red & black), ginger and salt.

Cajun seasoning

Blends carrying this name vary widely but are typically hot. This blend is used in Cajun cooking, especially in stews and seafood, rice and veggie dishes. It can be added to coatings or just directly onto your ingredients. Common spices include onion powder, garlic powder, paprika, thyme, oregano, chili, salt and pepper (white, black & red).

Chili Powder (not chile powder – see this Tip for why)

This is a blend of spices commonly found in Latin American cooking. It is another blend where the actual spices can vary greatly but you will often find different types of ground chilis (ancho, cayenne, chipotle), paprika, cumin, Mexican oregano and salt. Occasionally you will also find garlic powder and onion powder.

Curry Powder

Curry powder is actually a British invention that was meant to help them create an Indian dish. You will not find a bottle of “curry powder” in an Indian kitchen. Each cook will make his/her own and it can vary greatly from cook to cook and from region to region. What we find on our shelves typically includes turmeric, coriander, cumin, fenugreek and red/black pepper. Some varieties might also include mustard, ginger, anise, cinnamon and/or cardamom.


This is an Egyptian blend that contains not only spices but also nuts. Typical ingredients include anise, coriander, sesame seeds, hazelnuts/almonds. It adds a nice crunch to a coating or to a grain dish.

Five-Spice Powder

This blend has a warm spicy-sweet flavor. It usually includes five spices but not always the same five. It is one of the blends that I think you would be better off making yourself when you need it as you will probably already have most of the individual spices – cinnamon, star anise, fennel and cloves. The final traditional spice that you may not have is Sichuan peppercorns. These are not true peppercorns but rather are the dried berries of the Chinese prickly ash bush, a member of the citrus family. They are not hot but are said to impart a tingling sensation. Some mixtures may also contain ginger, galangal, white pepper and/or nutmeg. To make your own without the Sichuan peppercorns, just use a generic peppercorn. Even some premade blends will do this.

Garam Masala

Synonymous with India, the name of this spice mix could be translated to “hot spice mixture”. The actual mixture of spices will vary just as with curry powder. It is used to add heat and a wonderful aroma to your Indian dishes. Common spices in this mix are cumin, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, bay leaf, mace, nutmeg, star anise, fennel and black pepper.

Italian Seasoning

This is more of an herb blend than a spice blend. It is made from dried herbs, commonly basil, Greek oregano, thyme, rosemary and maybe marjoram and/or garlic. It is used to season meat, sauces and other Italian dishes.

Jamaican Jerk seasoning

Another blend with some kick to it, this seasoning can be used on fish or meat and also in marinades and dressings. The actual spices can vary but commonly include salt, sugar, allspice, thyme, cloves, ginger, cinnamon, onion and chile pepper. Some may add black pepper, nutmeg and/or brown sugar.

Lemon Pepper seasoning

A simple blend of black pepper and lemon zest, it can add a citrusy note to your meat or veggies.

Old Bay Seasoning

This is a trademarked American seasoning mix originating from Baltimore, Maryland. It is used in seafood dishes such as chowders, bisques and pastas but can also be used in veggie dishes. According to the container, it includes “celery seed, salt, spices (including red and black pepper) and paprika”. A more detailed list shows those spices might be allspice, bay leaf, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, mace, ginger, and mustard.

Poultry Seasoning

This is a combination of herbs and spices like nutmeg, sage, thyme, marjoram, rosemary, and black pepper. It can be used to season not only poultry but also seafood and veggies.

Pumpkin Pie mix

This is also in my “make your own” list because the components are so common – cinnamon, ginger, allspice, nutmeg and cloves.

Quatre Epices

The translation to English is “four spices”. This is a French blend of black and/or white pepper, cloves, nutmeg and ginger. It is perfect for soups, stews, veggies, sausage and pate.

Ras el Hanout

This is a North African blend that is used to season lamb, chicken, lentils and veggie dishes. It often contains cinnamon, cumin, turmeric and pepper (black & red). A 12-spice blend is common but others can contain more than 30 spices. Besides the above, other commonly included spices are allspice, paprika, coriander, cloves, cardamom, mace, nutmeg, ginger and/or anise.

Seafood Seasoning

This is a general purpose seafood seasoning mix that is typically made of celery salt, mustard, red pepper, black pepper, bay, cloves, allspice, ginger, mace, cardamom, cinnamon and paprika. It may also include parsley, sage, rosemary and/or marjoram.


A common Middle Eastern blend that is often used on grilled veggies or added to yogurt or hummus. It commonly contains thyme, sesame seeds, salt and sumac. Sumac is classic for this blend and gives it a slightly sour and citrusy component. Some blends also include oregano, cumin, black pepper, marjoram and/or savory.

As you can imagine, the above is just a short list of some of the most popular spice mixes. The one I always keep in my spice drawer is Italian seasoning. Even though I could easily make this mixture, it is something that I use often and I like the taste of the one I buy. I also usually have a chili powder (along with some chile powders such as ancho & chipotle) and a couple different curry powders. I do have a mixture of premade blends but they are there only because they were free gifts. The other blends I have are all homemade such as five spice powder, jerk seasoning and garam masala.

What about you? Do you have many blends? Do you purchase them or make them yourself? Whichever, have fun enlivening your dishes with all of these wonderful and delicious spices!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Sumac – a Taste of the Middle East

I have written prior Cooking Tips on herbs and spices in general and also some specific spices and/or herbs. In this Tip, I want to discuss a less common spice – Sumac.

Sumac comes from the berries of a plant that is native to the Mediterranean, the Middle East and parts of Asia. It is a relative to the cashew family. Because of that, avoidance is advised for those with nut allergies. Although most varieties of the sumac plant are not poisonous, there is a poisonous sumac – Toxicodendron vernix. It has whitish berries rather than red.

The sumac plant bears white flowers that develop into rust-colored berries and grow in dense clusters. The berries are harvested before they ripen and dried in the sun. They can be left whole or ground into a powder. The latter is how you will find it in most of our markets. This is at least in part due to the fact that grinding the berries is very difficult in a home environment and so, is usually done where they are picked.

The flavor of sumac is primarily tart and citrusy with some floral notes and an astringent finish. It is said that the Romans used sumac as we would use lemon juice or vinegar.

Besides adding that tartness to the flavor of a dish, it also imparts a dark red color. Lior Lev Sercarz, author of The Spice Companion, notes that the color of sumac can vary depending on the season. He says that has caused some marketers to add beet powder. They also salt to prevent clumping. Check the label of what you purchase to see if anything has been added. If it does contain salt, reduce the amount of salt in your recipe to compensate for this.

The use of sumac is prominent in Middle Eastern cooking but it can be used any time you wish to add a tart element to your dish. Because of its red color, it is also often used as a pretty garnish.

Common uses include:

  • Rubbing on kebabs and grilled meats
  • Stirred into rice dishes
  • A garnish for hummus or tahini
  • It is a major ingredient in the Middle Eastern spice blend known as za’atar.
  • Marinades and dressings

Serious Eats polled a number of chefs and asked how they liked to use sumac. Their answers were varied.

  • An all-around Mediterranean dish topper such as sprinkling on feta cheese, baba ganoush, hummus, roasted fish/chicken
  • Popcorn duster along with salt
  • Add to oil used for dipping bread
  • Season fried foods such as corn fritters, fried brussels sprouts, fried garbanzo beans
  • Meat loaf
  • Meat marinades
  • Sumac donuts
  • Chocolate sumac ganache

Although it is not that difficult to find, some people want to know what to substitute if they do not have sumac. If you are making a dish for the first time and it calls for sumac, I strongly advise you not to substitute. If you do, you will not know how the dish is really supposed to taste.

That being said, here are some possible substitutes. The first four are more strongly sour and so, should be used sparingly as a substitute.

  • Lemon zest
  • Lemon pepper seasoning
  • Lemon juice
  • Vinegar
  • If looking for the red color for garnish, consider paprika.

I do have sumac in my spice cabinet but, I must admit, I do not often use it. I need to think of it more often to add that citrusy, tart flavor as well as the red color. How about you? Does it deserve a place in your kitchen?

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Parsley — Garnish or Ingredient?

Have you ever seen that for recipes that call for parsley, some specify “flat-leaf” or “Italian” while others do not specify what kind? What are these types and does it really matter which you use? That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Although your local grocery store will probably only carry one or two kinds of parsley, there are four main varieties.


  • This is the most common variety and is sometimes known as “common parsley”. It is easily recognizable by its curly leaves.
  • It has a milder flavor than flat-leaf and it is somewhat on the grassy side. Older plants will yield leaves that are more bitter.
  • Although it can be used in cooking, it is more often used as a garnish.


  • This is also known as “Italian parsley” and has leaves that are flat and serrated.
  • Although curly is known as “common parsley”, the flat-leaf variety is what is normally called for in recipes as it has a bolder and more aromatic flavor than the curly kind.


  • This perennial variety is native to Asia and has leaves that are more pointed than other kinds.
  • The entire plant is edible. The leaves are normally used as a seasoning, the roots are eaten like a vegetable and the sprouts are often put on salads.
  • It does have a more bitter flavor than other varieties.


  • Other names for this variety include “root parsley” and “Dutch rooted parsley”.
  • It looks similar to flat-leaf parsley but the leaves are not eaten due to the strong flavor.
  • It has long, thick roots that look like a parsnip and is said to taste like a combination of celery and carrot. It is normally not eaten raw but used in soups and stews.

Uses for parsley

  • Recipes will often call for using parsley as a pretty garnish but it is also added to dishes for flavor.
  • It can be added to salads of mixed greens and/or herbs.
  • It is usually a component of a bouquet garni, which is a bundle of herbs used to flavor soups/stews. A typical mixture contains parsley, thyme, peppercorns and bay leaf. It is tied together before adding to the dish so you can easily remove it at the end.
  • Some dishes have parsley as one of the main ingredients.
    • Chimichurri – an Argentinian sauce served with grilled steak and composed of fresh herbs (including parsley) along with garlic, vinegar, olive oil and seasonings.
    • Tabbouleh – a Lebanese salad made with bulgur, parsley, tomatoes and a dressing.
    • Gremolata – a condiment of parsley, lemon zest, and garlic. In Italy, it is traditionally served with Osso Bucco.
    • Parsley Pesto – rather than making a classic pesto with basil and pine nuts, you can mix it up with other herbs, including parsley.

Parsley is a very versatile herb that is great to have on hand. If you have a green thumb, it is also easy to grow. We probably mostly use it as a garnish or secondary ingredient, but don’t forget it can also star in many dishes.

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Basil — the taste of summer!

If you had to name one herb that spoke to you of the hope of summer, which would it be? I suspect many of you would agree with me that herb would be basil. Because basil is not just one herb, this Cooking Tip will enlighten you on some of the many types and uses for basil. There are over 100 varieties of basil although you will most likely only be able to find one or two in your supermarket. The other ones will need to be sought out in a good garden center.

Basil is native to tropical Asia and Africa and cultivated in many Asian and Mediterranean countries as well as the US. I am just going to discuss a few of the many, many varieties.

The most common variety is what is known as Sweet Basil. Its smooth leaves are oval in shape with a medium green color. It has a sweet but slightly spicy flavor. It is abundantly used in Italian dishes such as pesto sauce, salads, pasta and pizza. If your recipe does not specify a particular type of basil, this is your best choice. An interesting tidbit is that it also naturally repels mosquitos.

Genovese basil is the 2nd most common basil. It is very similar to Sweet Basil and, in fact, some growers will use these terms interchangeably. Some call it a variety of sweet basil. It does though, have larger and darker green leaves. Just as with Sweet Basil, it is a staple in Italian cooking although it does have a stronger flavor. When using this variety, start with just a small amount and then add more to your desired flavor.

Lemon basil – this variety is a mix of basil and lemon with a delightful citrusy scent and light green leaves. Because of the lemon component, it compliments poultry, fish dishes and grilled veggies.

Lime basil – The bright green, narrow leaves of this plant yield a rich citrusy scent like limes.

Greek basil – this variety is smaller than other basils and has delicate light green leaves. The flavor has a spicy quality to it and thus, is often paired with meat dishes or used in soups. It is also frequently used as a garnish due to its unique appearance. Many people like it for container gardening due to its compact size.

Cinnamon basil – with its small green leaves and purple stems/flowers, this is an especially attractive basil. It can also be referred to as Mexican Basil. It has a mild flavor with cinnamon undertones. It is often used in Asian cooking as well as in beverages. Due to the warm cinnamon notes, it pairs well with meat dishes.

Thai basil – this variety has light green leaves and purple flowers. It is very aromatic with a licorice flavor. As noted in its name, it is primarily used in Thai cuisine. It is one basil that retains its flavor when cooked at high temperatures.

Holy basil – also known as Tulsi basil, it has small leaves with a spicy fragrance and is often used in Indian dishes. It should be cooked as it can be bitter in the raw state.

Purple basil – there are different varieties that are sometimes called “purple basil”. Two of the most common are Purple Ruffles and Dark Opal. Purple Ruffles is actually a cross between Green Ruffles and Dark Opal. They both have purple leaves but the Ruffles variety has ruffled leaves. Neither are as sweet as other basil varieties and carry more of a spicy note.

Here are a few tips for using basil in the kitchen

  • Pick the type of basil that is best for your dish. Use sweet basil for European dishes, especially those from the Mediterranean. For Thai dishes, use Thai basil. If you are cooking up an Indian dish, consider Holy Basil.
  • Add the basil at the right time. The aroma can dissipate quickly as the herb is cooked and it does not stand up to long cooking times. So, add it towards the end of the cooking process. Note the exception above about Thai Basil.
  • Store basil in an upright container with its ends submerged in water after trimming the stems. Leave it on the counter uncovered and do not refrigerate. Replace the water daily.

What are your favorite uses for basil? Pesto is probably high on everyone’s list. Another classic and one of the simplest is a Caprese Salad. One of my favorites is a NYT recipe for Heirloom Tomato Tart. How about making a basil simple syrup and then using it to make a Strawberry Basil Soda? Whip up a batch of Basil-Lemon Scones (courtesy of Tea Time Magazine) for a great afternoon treat. Try making them with Lemon Basil.

Whatever you make, as we move into summer, enjoy the wonderful herb known as Basil!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Tarragon — a wonderful culinary herb

I feel like Tarragon is similar to Cilantro in that people either love it or hate it. However, tarragon is much less common and I would suspect many people have never tried it. I was a bit concerned about this herb as I heard it had a licorice flavor and there are few things I dislike more than licorice. This was an unfair judgement, though, and now I know it is a wonderful herb to have in your kitchen. Perhaps some of you feel the same as I did and this Cooking Tip is for you.

Tarragon is a perennial and is part of the sunflower family. Just as with many culinary herbs, there are different varieties of tarragon. The main three are French, Russian and Mexican.

French –this is the one with the best flavor and the one preferred by most chefs. The leaves are much more aromatic than the Russian variety.

Russian – as it is easier and cheaper to grow, much of the tarragon you will see is of this variety. Its flavor is much milder than the French tarragon. Since the tarragon you buy in the supermarket may not be labeled, the only way to tell which variety you have is to crush the leaves and smell it. If you do not have that classic licorice aroma, it is probably Russian.

Mexican – known as Mexican Marigold Mint

As can be seen by its name, this is not a true tarragon. However, this plant grows better in hotter climates and has a similar anise/licorice aroma and flavor.

Tarragon’s primary flavor is light licorice. It also has notes of citrus, grass, vanilla, mint and a bit of spiciness. Because its flavor is fairly prominent, don’t overdo it by adding too much.

There is also a dried version and, unlike many herbs, dried tarragon does retain much of its licorice flavor but the other flavor notes disappear. Therefore, dried tarragon has a strong but less complex flavor.

You can use it like other fresh herbs but it is great with dishes containing chicken, fish, shellfish, eggs, butter and cream. Lemon also complements it well because of the citrusy notes in the herb.

As with most herbs, fresh tarragon should normally be added towards the end of cooking to retain its flavor. The dried should be added earlier in the cooking process. If you do use dried in a recipe that calls for fresh, remember the 3-to-1 rule. Whatever amount of fresh is specified, only use ⅓ of the amount of dried.

There is no real substitute for tarragon because of its unique flavor. Some feel chervil and fennel (bulb, fronds, seeds) do a decent job but true tarragon is still preferred.

Tarragon can be stored similarly to basil – in a glass of water on the counter. Or, roll the leaves in a damp paper towel, put in a plastic bag and in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator.

As tarragon is beloved in French cuisine, you will often see it in French recipes. For example, Béarnaise sauce is a classic French sauce containing tarragon which is considered a derivative of hollandaise sauce. It is one of the ingredients in the dried herb mixture of Herbes de Provence. It is also an important component of the fresh herb mixture known as Fines Herbes. This is also known as PCCT – a mixture of parsley, chives, chervil and tarragon and it is the seasoning in a classic French omelet.

Although our supermarkets carry many more flavored vinegars than they used to, tarragon vinegar is one I have difficulty finding. However, you can make it yourself with white wine vinegar and fresh tarragon. This can then be used in vinaigrettes, on salads or on roasted veggies

One of my favorite uses for fresh tarragon is in a recipe by Australian chef, Bill Granger, for Chicken, Leek and Tarragon Pie. It also makes a nice addition to egg salad.

A classic French recipe Suprêmes de Poulet à l’Estragon (Supremes of Chicken with Tarragon) from the book Classic French Recipes for Special Occasions by Carole Clements and Elizabeth Wolf-Cohen demonstrates a company-worthy dish featuring both fresh and dried tarragon.

Those are just a few ideas for using this wonderful culinary herb. If you have never tried it, I hope some of these will inspire you to get on the tarragon wagon!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Saffron – A beautiful but expensive ingredient

I was writing out my grocery list and as I added saffron to the list, I wondered how many of you used saffron or were familiar with how to use it. I would suspect that the average cook doesn’t have saffron in their pantry. This is probably due to not only their unfamiliarity with this ingredient but also due to the significant cost. I want to delve into this world of saffron in this Cooking Tip.

Saffron is the dried stigma a flowering blue saffron crocus. The reason that it is so expensive is that it is a very labor-intensive harvesting process, something that can only be done by hand. Each crocus flower contains three stigmas. It is only open for a few hours, which is when it must be hand-picked. The stigmas are then separated out by hand and dried. It is estimated to take 200 hours of labor to harvest enough crocus flowers (~70,000) to yield 1 pound of saffron, which can be sold for up to $5000.

The best saffron is said to come from Iran. It is currently illegal to import Iranian saffron to the US due to trade sanctions. Other good saffron comes from Spain, Morocco and India. Some estimate that most of the “Spanish” saffron is actually from Iran and then repackaged and labeled as Spanish, a process that is illegal in the US. A small amount is grown in the US, mostly in Pennsylvania.

Because it is so expensive, imitators have emerged. At times, safflower will be marketed as saffron. Saffron threads may be mixed with yellow crocus stamens (which are tasteless) or even silk threads. Other take saffron powder and extend it by adding turmeric or paprika. If the price seems to too low, don’t buy it. The only way to distinguish real from adulterated is that real saffron is soluble in water and will start to bleed its color as soon as you put it in the warm water. Because of this problem, be sure to buy your saffron from a reputable source. Some stores offer a ground saffron. Because you never know what is in that type of saffron, it is best to grind your own with a mortar and pestle.

Once you purchase it, it should be stored in a cool, dark and airtight environment. Properly stored, it will keep for months or even years.

Due to a pigment called crocin, saffron will color foods a bright yellow. The taste is said to vary depending on where it is grown and the amount of crocin it contains. People have a difficult time describing the flavor but commonly it is felt to be pungent and earthy with notes of honey, fruit and/or flowers.

As mentioned above, it is the most expensive spice you can buy. The good thing is that you do not use very much in each application. Many recipes call for a “pinch”, which is not a standard measurement. It is usually just few threads, enough that you can notice it in the dish but not be wasteful or overpowering.

To use saffron, it must be “bloomed” in a hot liquid. For a dish that is hot and contains plenty of liquid (soups, stews, braises), you can add the saffron directly to the dish. Add it early in the cooking process to allow enough time for it to properly flavor the dish. Otherwise, the threads should be crumbled or ground in a mortar and pestle and steeped in a hot liquid for 10-20 minutes. Because not all the carotenoids in the saffron threads are water soluble, you may want to add a bit of alcohol to the steeping liquid.

Saffron has many culinary uses. It is most frequently used in cuisines from countries where it is harvested such as Spain, Morocco, India, etc. It is often used in fish and seafood broths to give them a golden color. Paella gets its signature golden color from saffron. In the Middle East, it is used along with cardamom to flavor coffees. Scandinavians use it in a saffron bread called Lussekatter for a celebration for the feast of the patron saint Santa Lucia. The Pennsylvania Dutch use it in their signature potpies.

The flavor pairs well with almonds, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, mint and nutmeg.

Because of the price tag, many ask if there is a suitable substitute. The answer is not really. Turmeric will give a similar color but not the same flavor profile.

Do you have saffron in your pantry? It may be something to consider, especially if you are a fan of the above mentioned dishes. Just be prepared to pay for a quality product and then store and use it properly to maximize your investment.