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.

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

An Essential Ingredient to Thai Curries

In the last couple of Cooking Tips, I discussed different aspects of Thai Cooking. In the first Tip, I explained the differences between a Thai curry and an Indian curry. Tip #2 was a more general discussion of important Thai ingredients. In this Tip, I want to spend a bit more time looking at one of those ingredients – curry paste.

The word curry can be used to either mean a dish or a spice mixture. In Indian cooking, that spice mixture would be made up of dry, ground spices. In Thai cooking, it is called curry paste and it is a moister mixture that is finely ground or pureed made not only from spices but also from many fresh ingredients.

There are many different versions of curry pastes and the ingredient list for each may vary depending on the cook and/or brand. Let’s first discuss ingredients and then the most common types of curry paste.

Ingredients

  • Chilis – depending on the variety of curry paste, it may contain red or green chilis, either in the dried or fresh forms.
  • Fresh aromatics – typical ones are shallots, garlic, lemongrass, galangal, cilantro root, makrut (aka kaffir) lime zest, grachai (a member of the ginger family), turmeric and ginger.
  • Dried spices – other than those pastes that have some Indian or Muslim influence, dried spices are not typically used. When they are included, you might see coriander seeds, cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, mace and cloves.
  • Umami boosters – shrimp paste and dried shrimp. Besides giving an umami boost, shrimp paste also gives an authentically Thai flavor.

Types of Curry Paste

Red
This paste is made with dried red chilis and can have up to 20 different varieties. Traditionally, the dried red chilis are soaked, which reduces some of the harshness and heat. One expert lists what he calls the “Basic 10” of ingredients – dried red chilis, garlic, shallots, lemongrass, galangal, cilantro root, makrut lime zest, white peppercorns, shrimp paste and salt. Others may also add coriander and cumin.

Green
The chilis used in this paste are very similar to those in red but here they are in their fresh (green) state. Besides the fresh green chilies, other typical ingredients are shallots, lemongrass, white pepper, coriander root, garlic, kaffir lime zest, shrimp paste and sea salt. This all gives this paste a green color. In the final dish, sweet basil leaves, round green Thai eggplant and kaffir lime leaves are often added, which contribute even more to an overall green hue. As compared to red curry paste, this one has a more balanced and herbier flavor.

Some consider red curry paste as the spiciest whereas others give that prize to green paste.

Traditionally, Thai people considered green curries as the hottest followed be red. As Thai food became popular in the West, the red curry emerged as the hottest. However, in authentic Thai cuisine, a green curry will always be spicier than a red.

Yellow
The color of this variety comes from fresh turmeric and curry powder. Other common ingredients are coriander, cumin, lemongrass, galangal, shrimp paste, dried red chilies, sea salt, ginger, garlic and shallots. It is milder than the other pastes but the actual spiciness will depend on the actual chilis used. It also often has a touch of sweetness.

Panang
This curry paste is similar to red but has the addition of ground peanuts as well as cumin, coriander seeds, dried red long chilies, shallots, garlic, galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime zest, coriander root, white pepper, salt and shrimp paste.

Massaman
Because of the Muslim in influence in this curry paste, it has abundant dry spices that are commonly seen in south Asia – cinnamon, star anise, cloves, cardamom and nutmeg. Other ingredients are dried red chilies, shallots, garlic, galangal, lemongrass, coriander, cumin, white pepper, salt and shrimp paste. It is a relatively mild curry paste.

The most common use for curry paste is in Thai curries where the curry paste is cooked with a protein and/or veggies and a liquid such as coconut milk or stock. That is not the only use, though and these pastes can be used as a marinade, a rub for chicken, fish or beef as well as in stir fries.

If you have been reading these Cooking Tips for very long, you know that I do not use or recommend many convenience items. For example, when you need a small amount of Chinese Five Spice, do not buy an entire bottle that may go stale before you use it all up. Rather, make your own from ingredients that are probably already in your pantry.

Curry pastes are different, though. You can certainly make these pastes from scratch but it is a fairly time consuming process and involves a whole host of ingredients, many of which are difficult to come by outside of a good Asian or international food market. Therefore, most of us will buy a good prepared curry paste.

A good curry paste is said to have an aroma strongly of herbs. When looking at the ingredients, there should only be herbs, spices, salt and shrimp paste. No oils, no additives and no water. Many Thai cooks strongly suggest only buying Thai brands.

Some differences that may be seen between store-bought & home-made is that the home-made version may have more complex flavors and may have a fresher taste as the herbs are added at the end and not further processed. Another advantage of home-made is that you can customize the blend to accommodate dietary restrictions and flavor preferences.

Brands – Favorite store-bought brands are:

  • Maesri – one advantage of this brand is that it comes in small cans rather than larger containers.
  • Mae Ploy – this is my favorite brand but it does tend to be saltier than other brands.
  • Chef’s Choice – this brand is mostly found in Europe and Asia.
  • Mae Anong – a favorite of many Thai afficionados.

Storage
Curry paste can be refrigerated for at least a week or frozen for six months to a year.

With the info found in these last three Cooking Tips, you should be able to make your own kitchen your favorite Thai restaurant!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Oregano – not just one herb!

I had a friend visiting and I took her to my favorite spice shop, Savory Spice, to restock her spice pantry. One of the items she wanted was Oregano. I asked her if she wanted Mediterranean Oregano or Mexican Oregano. She looked at me strangely and asked about the difference. She said she did not know there was more than one kind. Since she is a great cook, I figured if she didn’t know this that maybe many of you did not know either. Thus, this Cooking Tip was born.

What most cooks think of as oregano is probably the Mediterranean version. It is part of the mint family, Lamiaceae.

Mediterranean is a bit of a generic term for all types of oregano grown in that region. Different varieties include Greek, Italian and Turkish. Most supermarket versions will not specify what type it is but good spice shops will often list that information. The most common is probably Greek. It is typically known as the “true oregano” although some will also apply that term to the Italian variety.

Mediterranean oregano in general has a robust flavor with sweet, minty and peppery notes. It will, however, vary somewhat in taste depending on which variety it is. Some may be more bitter, sweet or peppery than others. Greek is said to be the most savory and earthy, Turkish is the most pungent and the Italian is the mildest. The latter is actually a hybrid of sweet marjoram (also a type of oregano) and common oregano.

Mexican oregano is native to Mexico, the southwestern United States and Central America. It is part of the Verbenaceae family, to which lemon verbena also belongs. Its flavor is different than Mediterranean oregano. It has pungent, citrusy flavors with a peppery note and a subtle licorice undertone.

When do you use which variety? Well, if you have read many of these Cooking Tips, you will know I do not have many hard and fast rules. However, the best results happen when you pair the particular variety to the cuisine of that geography.

Therefore, you would use the Mediterranean variety when you are making those dishes. It pairs well with flavors such as onion, garlic, basil, flat-leaf parsley and thyme. It is especially known for its use in Italian dishes including pizza & pasta sauce, herb butters and Italian vinaigrettes.

Pair your Mexican oregano with other spices such as cumin, chili and paprika. Use in dishes with Mexican or southwest-type flavors such as chili, enchiladas or salsa.

One last tidbit about oregano. Chefs generally prefer fresh herbs over dried herbs in many preparations. However, oregano maintains excellent flavor when dried. In fact, many feel that fresh oregano is too pungent and they prefer the dried.

Did you know that there were different types of oregano? Do you always use just one or do you switch it up depending on what you are cooking? Now that you know the differences, I hope you will feel much more comfortable using this wonderful herb!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Fresh Lemon Substitutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Santa Cruz — organic lemon juice

Lakewood — organic lemon juice

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

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

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

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

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

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Vinegars — so many to choose from

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

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

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

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

Red wine vinegar

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

White wine vinegar

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

Champagne vinegar

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

Cider vinegar

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

Fruit vinegar

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

Malt vinegar

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

Rice vinegar

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

Distilled white vinegar

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

Balsamic vinegar

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

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

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

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

White Balsamic

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

Sherry vinegar

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

Herb vinegar

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Enliven your dishes with spices!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The reasons to make your own are:

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

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

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

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

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Salts Galore

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the US, there are two major brands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

The World of Hot Sauces

I am not a fan of very hot foods. I much prefer flavor over heat. I made the big mistake of ordering my dish “hot” at an Indian restaurant once despite my husband’s warning. Needless to say, I will never make that mistake again. Heat in foods, though, is certainly popular if you look around the supermarket. It seems like some sort of spiciness is added to every other food item and the hotter the better. According to Fortune Business Insights, the global hot sauce market in 2018 was valued at $2.29 billion and was projected to reach $3.77 billion by the end of 2026.

Due to its popularity, I am devoting this Cooking Tip to the world of hot sauces.

The spicy component of hot sauce is derived from the chili peppers, specifically capsaicin. The heat level of the peppers is often rated by the Scoville Heat Unit (SHU). This can range from zero for a bell pepper to over 2-3 million. I have written a prior tip on chili peppers with a link to the Scoville chart that can be found here.

There are different styles of hot sauce but all start with the peppers. Good hot sauces balance four elements – chiles, acid, aromatics and salt. Of course, there is a lot to those four variables such as the relative proportions, which type of chiles and acid and so forth. The particular brand’s blend of these ingredients along with other additions (garlic, sugar, molasses, fruit) is just one of the things that lead to different flavors and heat level.

Whereas the heat comes from the capsaicin, the flavor comes from the fruit of the actual pepper. It is easy to see that you will get different flavors in the hot sauce by varying which chili peppers are used and in what proportions. Also, some hot sauces are cooked whereas others are raw and even fermented. The type of sauce also varies from region to region of the world. Here is a map from Webstaurant Store. Let’s discuss some of the most popular hot sauces.

Tabasco

Tabasco is a registered trademark and is made by McIlhenny Company. It was founded by Edmund McIlhenny in 1868 on Avery Island, Louisiana. It always contains tabasco chili peppers (2500-5000 SHUs). The original is just a blend of the chili peppers, vinegar and salt. However, besides the original, you can find eight other varieties varying from Chipotle to Habanero. They will all have different ingredients and will rate different in SHUs. Although the SHU ratings are not on the bottles, Tabasco’s website allows you to see the heat level.

Frank’s RedHot Sauce

This popular brand is made from aged cayenne red peppers, distilled vinegar, water, salt and garlic powder. Although made from cayenne peppers, it rates relatively low (450 – 700 SHU) on the Scoville scale. They do sell a number of other varieties including the popular Buffalo sauce. Besides the ingredients found in the original sauce, the Buffalo sauce also contains canola oil, paprika, natural butter-type flavor and garlic powder.

Texas Pete

This hot sauce was developed in 1929 in North Carolina, despite the name. The full story of the name can be found here. Ingredients include vinegar, aged peppers and salt. It has a medium spiciness although hotter varieties as well as some with additional flavoring are offered.

Picante

This type of hot sauce is also known as “Mexican-style”. They are usually made from a combination of chiles. They contain little to no vinegar. One of the most common brands you will see is Cholula. The original is made from arbol and piquin peppers along with salt, vinegar and spices. Just as with Tabasco, they now have various other flavors with varying heat levels, which you can find on their website.

Sriracha

This sauce is named after the Thai seaside town of Si Racha. It is usually made from red jalapeno peppers, sugar, garlic, vinegar and salt. The most popular and highly rated is known as “rooster sauce” due to the logo on the bottle. It is made by Huy Fong and is easily available in most supermarkets. Because the pepper used is the fully ripened form of the jalapeno, it has a higher SHU than your typical green jalapeno. Another sriracha liked by tasters is made by Kikkoman.

Chili Garlic

This hot sauce is similar to Sriracha but is spicier with more garlic and less sugar. It is also thicker and chunkier. Once again, one of the favorite brands is Huy Fong.

Harissa

This is a spicy and aromatic chile paste with its origin in North Africa. Typical ingredient are hot chile peppers (often smoked), garlic, olive oil and spices (cumin, coriander, caraway and mint). Some versions also include tomatoes and rose petals.

Green/Red Chili sauce

We lived in New Mexico for a couple of years and whenever you ordered traditional food dishes, you were asked if you wanted “red” or “green” chili sauce with your meal, especially if you had ordered enchiladas. The green version is usually a mixture of green tomatillos, green chilies and other ingredients such as onions, garlic, vinegar and spices. The red sauce is made from a variety of red chilies, vinegar, onions, garlic and spices.

Gochujang

This is known as Korean red pepper paste. It is a thick fermented paste with a flavor that is sweet, spicy and savory. Typical ingredients are Korean red pepper flakes, fermented soybeans, glutinous rice, sweetener, and other spices. It is often made into a sauce with the addition of vinegar, a type of sweetener and oil rather than using the paste on its own.

How do you pick out a hot sauce? There are so many choices out there. My supermarket has no less than 15 brands with multiple styles within the brands. If you go to a farmers’ market, a bazaar or a specialty food store, you will also see many artisan and small producer brands.

Look at the label for the type of chili pepper as it will give you an idea of the heat level. If you are unsure, you may consult the particular brand’s website. Think about what you are serving it with. Is it southern food, an Asian dish or a traditional Mexican meal? Choose the hot sauce that will complement the dish. Use the above referenced map if you are unsure. If there is a way for you to sample it first, it will give you an idea of the flavor profile as well as heat level. Finally, you can make your own since the ingredients are easy to obtain.

Do you have a favorite hot sauce?
Let me know.