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.

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Tomato Passata – what is it and do you need it?

As the summer winds down and, with it, the fresh tomato season, you might wonder if there is a way to get that fresh tomato taste throughout the year. I wrote an earlier Cooking Tip on different canned tomato products but now I want to concentrate on Passata. It Italian, it is known as “passata di pomodoro”, meaning tomatoes passed through a sieve.

Passata is basically a thick but pourable uncooked tomato sauce. It is made from crushed and strained tomatoes to remove skin/seeds. Although some will say it is the same as tomato purée, it is not exactly the same product. Purée is the cooked version of tomato passata. Although the latter can be used in many dishes as a substitute for passata, it will not give you the freshness and brightness of a real passata. There are some brands that use both names on the jar.

What do you use it for? It is a great base for a pizza & pasta sauces, Indian dishes, soups, stews, chili, etc. It makes a thicker, more intensely flavored sauce than using the same amount of crushed or diced canned tomatoes.

Tomato passata may or may not be available in your local supermarket. It is certainly available online. If you find the product in the store, look at the ingredient list as it should only contain tomatoes and salt. It should be sold in bottles or small boxes, not cans.

There is no real substitute for passata but if your recipe calls for it and you have none, you can try a substitute. If the recipe only calls for a tablespoon or two, just try tomato paste. If you need more, put your canned tomatoes in a blender and then through a strainer.

You can also make it yourself at home and would be a great use for excess tomatoes from your garden. The best tomatoes to use are those that are ripe and flavorful, especially San Marzano and Roma. They should have a high flesh content compared to seeds.

There are a couple of different methods that people recommend. One has you boil the tomatoes briefly until they are soft and tender. After straining, they are put through a food mill. You can push them through a coarse strainer but it will be a lot more work depending on how many tomatoes you have.

An alternative method is to put chopped fresh tomatoes into a blender and process until there are no visible chunks. Pour through a strainer and push on the contents so only the skins remain. Discard skins.

No matter which method you use, do not add seasoning until you want to use it as it might limit the versatility. If you want it thicker, some recommend reducing it on the heat. However, this does reduce the fresh flavor and the same can be achieved when you actually use it.

For storage, you may either can it (using a proper canning method) or freeze. To freeze, pour into ice cube trays, freeze and then store in a freezer bag/container. Good for up to 3 months frozen. Canned passata may last up to a year in your pantry.

Do any of you have passata in your pantry? What do you use it for? Enjoy the fresh tomatoes while you can and if you have enough, try making passata for those cold, winter months!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Chili Peppers — Heat or Flavor?

Have you noticed how everything today seems to be flavored with hot peppers? Each producer wants to outdo the other with how hot they can make their product. I must admit that I have a fondness for flavored potato chips. (Don’t tell anyone!) It used to be that you could get all sorts of interesting flavors. Today (sadly to me) it is all about being flavored with chilis and other ingredients that add hotness. This has certainly brought certain chili peppers into the everyday language of consumers and is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

The first thing to address is the word itself. Is it Chile, Chili or Chilli? It is often a matter of location. In American English, the preferred spelling is “chili” and it refers not only to the peppers but also to the delightful stew-like dish we all make. “Chilli” is the preferred spelling in British English whereas “chile” is the predominant spelling in Spanish-speaking countries.

Another interesting distinction is when you are referring to the ground powder. “Chili powder” generally means it is a mix of dried, ground chile peppers along with other spices. “Chile powder” should be solely dried chili peppers.

I do not know about you but I’m sure I vary how I spell the word without thinking about which is proper. In fact, I may alternate spellings within this Cooking Tip. If it is important to you, though, you now have the somewhat authoritative word on this subject.

I am much more interested in the different types of chili peppers, their heat level and their culinary uses.

The active ingredient in chili peppers is capsaicin. That amount that a plant contains depends on the genetic makeup of that plant but also on growing conditions and its ripeness. Higher temperatures and drought increase production of capsaicin. The amount of capsaicin increases until it begins to ripen when it starts to decline. It is maximum about the time that green fruit begins to change color.

Since those are items that you cannot control, what can you do to modulate the heat level in the dish you are making? Here are four factors that you can control.

  1. The variety of chili you use – if you want less heat, you can choose a chili that is known to have less capsaicin.
  2. The amount of chili you use – this is obvious but the more chili you use, the more capsaicin you will have in your dish.
  3. The presence or absence of the parts of the chili that contain the capsaicin – if you carefully remove the seeds and the membranes, you can decrease the amount of capsaicin you are left with.
  4. The length of time that the chili is in contact with the other ingredients – the longer the time, the hotter the dish.

Is there anything you can do to reduce the burn once you have ingested the capsaicin? Everyone has their own remedies but these are recommended although they are temporary measures.

  1. Ingest some dairy (not plant based). Dairy contains a protein that helps to break the bonds between the receptors in our mouths and the capsaicin and washes it away, like a detergent.
  2. Put something rough/solid into your mouth, such as a cracker or rice. The roughness distracts the nerves with a different type of signal.
  3. Take a spoonful of sugar. The sugar molecules bond well with the capsaicin.
  4. Wait it out. The pain caused by the capsaicin generally dissipates within 15 minutes.

Choosing which chilis are hotter depends on knowing a bit about the Scoville scale, which is a rating of pungency/heat level. The higher the pepper is on the scale, the hotter the pepper. The scale goes from zero for bell peppers to 15 million for pure capsaicin. A chili known as the Carolina Reaper was certified as the world’s hottest chili pepper by the Guinness World Records in 2017 at 2.2 million units. However, other peppers known as Dragon’s Breath (2.48 million units) and Pepper X (3.18 million units) claim they are hotter although their claims have not been certified. There are many charts you can find that list the ratings for different peppers but I like this compact one for easy use.

Which are the best peppers to have for your cooking? The following is far from a complete list of peppers but they are the ones that you are most likely to see in the supermarket. They are listed in order of heat level from lowest to highest.

Bell Peppers

These are zero on the Scoville chart, making them a great choice if you just want flavor without heat. These are part of the Cajun trinity (similar to mirepoix in French cooking) and are the base for Creole cooking. They add flavor, crunch and color (green, yellow, red, purple) when served raw on a salad or as part of a veggie tray. They are a great shape/size for making stuffed peppers. Roasting them adds some smokiness. One of my favorite pizza sauces is just puréed roasted red bell peppers.

Anaheim Pepper

This long pepper is also known as a California green chile or a New Mexican chile. The peppers originated in New Mexico, where they are still grown in different versions. They arrived in the city of Anaheim in southern California in 1894 and began to be grown commercially and thereby gaining its name. If grown in the Hatch region of New Mexico, it is known as a Hatch Chili Pepper. This pepper starts out green and turns red when mature. The Scoville rating is from 500-2500. They are very popular in salsas and southwestern dishes.

Poblano Peppers

This pepper is low on the Scoville scale (1000-2000 units) and is used greatly in southwestern cuisines. In dried form, they are called Ancho Chilis. They are fairly large in size and dark green in color until they fully ripen when they turn red. At that point, their hotness level increases. Green poblanos are very flavorful without burning. Think of chili relleno.

One caution about looking for poblano peppers in the store. Many stores mislabel them as Pasilla. In reality, pasilla peppers are the dried form of the Chilaca chile. I am really not sure as they look nothing alike although some say it is because the pasilla pepper looks similar to the dried poblano, the ancho chili.

Jalapeño Peppers

Other than bell peppers, this must be the most known and commonly used chili pepper in the US. It carries a Scoville rating of 3,500 to 8,000 units. We normally see it in its green form but it will turn red when it takes on a slightly fruity flavor. When dried, a jalapeño is called a chipotle. Jalapeños are used in many dishes but are most commonly used in salsas and sauces.

Fresno Pepper

Similar in appearance to a jalapeno, it is higher on the Scoville scale at 2500-10,000 units. In addition to the increased heat level, it also has more fruitiness than the jalapeno. Also like the jalapeno, they are great in salsas and hot sauces.

Serrano Pepper

Serranos are only a couple of inches long, with a tapered end. They are usually found in our stores in a green state but when ripe, they are red or yellowish-orange. It is a very spicy pepper rating between 6,000 and 23,000 on the Scoville scale. It is also said that the smaller the pepper, the hotter it is. These are used where you want a bit more heat, especially in Mexican and Thai cooking.

Cayenne Pepper

This little chili is slender and tapered. In our stores, you are more likely to find it in its dried, ground form—known as ground red pepper or just cayenne pepper. It is often also found in spice mixtures such as some chili powders. It is spicy with a rating of between 30,000 and 50,000 units. Use sparingly in any dish you want a bit of heat.

Thai Pepper

Thai peppers are spicy chili peppers with a wide range of heat – from 50,000 – 100,000. Although in our stores we will probably just see something called “Thai chili peppers”, there are many different varieties. What they all have in common is that they are small in size but high in heat.

Habañero Pepper

Having become popular in recent years, this pepper is now easier to find in the stores. It should be used with care, though, as it rates between 150,000 to 350,000. It is small and bulbous and has a fruity flavor underneath the heat. They are often used to make hot sauces.

As I mentioned, there are so many different chili peppers that it impossible to mention all of them in this Cooking Tip. Being able to recognize the above, where they fit on the heat level and how to use them will help you to harness the power and flavor of Chili Peppers!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Fresh Herbs – A Cook’s Best Friend

It’s that time of the year when many of us cooks get excited because we can have all sorts of fresh herbs growing in our garden that we can snip and use in so many ways. Nowadays, you can buy fresh herbs of many varieties year round but it is so nice to have a personal garden with beautiful and flavorful herbs growing. Right now, our herb garden is growing tarragon, chives, sage, rosemary, basil, thyme, oregano, chamomile, mint, borage & parsley. In this Cooking Tip, I would like to talk about how to get the best out of these fresh herbs. I did write a prior Cooking Tip on storing fresh herbs. If you would like to receive that Tip, just let me know. I will also be teaching a Cooking with Herbs class for Hudson Gardens on Saturday, June 13. My class will be preceded by a Growing Herbs session taught by a member of the Hudson Gardens staff. Join us there as we will be making and tasting many different dishes where herbs are the main star.

Why use fresh herbs? They can take a plain dish to an extraordinary dish. They can add flavor, color & even just a tiny bit of texture. There are no absolute rules for using fresh herbs but there are some recommendations that will help you use them to their best potential.

If you do grow your own, cut them in the morning after the dew has dried. It is at that time that they are the most aromatic and flavorful. Prepare them as your recipe indicates. It is good to use either a sharp knife or kitchen scissors to cut the herbs to prevent excessive cell wall breakage.

For more robust herbs such as rosemary, oregano & thyme, you can add them at any point in the cooking. They do well in longer cooking dishes such as stews. For the more delicate herbs such as basil, parsley and chives, add them at the very end of the cooking process to preserve their color, flavor & aroma.

For most herbs, you are just going to use the leaves. However, for some herbs such as cilantro and parsley, the stems contain quite a bit of flavor and are tender enough that they can be chopped up with the leaves.

Here are some recommendations for using specific herbs. For a fairly complete chart of when/how to use various herbs, see this link.

Basil

  • Varieties – the most common in our herb gardens is Italian basil, which is used in making Genovese Pesto. Other varieties are Thai basil, cinnamon basil, lemon basil and purple basil.
  • Flavor – sweet, floral & slightly peppery.
  • Typical uses — Tomato dishes/sauces, light pasta dishes, summer veggies.

Chives

  • This herb is in the onion family.
  • Flavor – an herbal, green taste with onion overtones.
  • Typical uses – egg dishes, potato dishes or as a pretty garnish on many savory plates.

Cilantro

  • This herb is also known as coriander leaf. There are some people who claim it tastes “soapy”, something that is related to that person’s genetic makeup.
  • Flavor – it adds a bright and citrusy zing to dishes.
  • Typical uses – Latin American and Asian cooking.

Dill

  • Flavor – this is a tangy & grassy herb.
  • Typical uses – it is ideal for poultry or seafood & pairs great with lemon & yogurt.

Marjoram

  • Flavor – has a grassy but slightly sweet flavor.
  • Typical uses – it works well in soups, risottos and dressings & pairs well with chicken, fish and tofu.

Mint

  • Varieties – most common are spearmint and peppermint but you might also want to check out chocolate, pineapple, apple and mojito mint. One of my favorites sold by my local nursery is Candy Peppermint. It tastes just like its name.
  • Flavor – adds a refreshing & cooling flavor.
  • Typical uses – most commonly used in sweet dishes but, can also be used in savory dishes. It is wonderful with fresh fruit or in summer beverages.

Oregano

  • Varieties – there is a Greek and Mexican oregano.
  • Flavor – the Greek variety is pungent and peppery. The Mexican variety has a stronger, more earthy flavor with a citrus note.
  • Typical uses – the Green variety is classically used in Italian sauces and dressings. The Mexican oregano pairs well with southwestern dishes.

Parsley

  • Varieties – along with basil, this is one of the most used and enjoyed herb. In stores, you often find only curly parsley but you should try to find (or grow) Italian flat-leaf parsley as it is more flavorful.
  • Flavor – is mild and subtle while adding freshness.
  • Typical uses – often used as a garnish on many dishes, especially poultry and seafood but is also used in making stock. Try it with pasta, eggs, potatoes or lemony dishes. It is also a very prominent ingredient in tabbouleh.

Rosemary

  • Flavor – this is a robust and sturdy herb that has an almost pungent flavor.
  • Typical uses – great with heartier dishes such as lamb, pork or roasted vegetables.

Sage

  • Flavor – this is a woodsy –flavored herb that is fairly distinctive.
  • Typical uses – does great in stuffings, soups, risottos and really shines in a brown butter sauce. It also pairs well with game meats, poultry & root vegetables.

Tarragon

  • Flavor – this is a very aromatic herb with a peppery and licorice-like flavor.
  • Typical uses – often used in egg dishes, salad dressings and as a garnish.

Thyme

  • Varieties – this is a classic herb in French cooking with leaves that are very aromatic. There is both a common thyme as well as lemon thyme.
  • Flavor – spicy with notes of cloves & mint. The lemon variety adds a citrus note.
  • Typical uses – it can be used in so many ways including meat dishes, soups, stews & sauces. It can also be added to breads and desserts.

Although I am mostly talking about fresh herbs in this Tip, I have just a bit to say about dried herbs. Fresh herbs give just that – freshness – to a dish. When an herb is dried, it loses that freshness and has a more concentrated flavor that can be very different than its fresh counterpart. When substituting one for the other, use only ⅓ to ½ as much of the dried form as the fresh herb.

Those delicate herbs such as basil, parsley and chives tend to taste better fresh Tougher herbs such as rosemary, oregano and thyme can do very well in either fresh or dried forms.

Fresh herbs are a cook’s best friend and can add so much to a dish. Whether you grow your own or not, they should be a part of your culinary arsenal!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Umami Flavors

As we grew up, we learned about the different tastes: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. More recently, people have begun talking about another taste – umami. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip – what is umami and how do we get umami in our foods.

Umami is a savory taste. It is actually a Japanese term that roughly translates to “good flavor” or “good taste”. It has also been thought of as a full-bodied, meaty flavor.

Umami was first studied in 1907 by isolating a compound thought to be responsible for this savory flavor. It was later identified as monosodium glutamate, a sodium salt that produces a strong savory taste. For a discussion on MSG, see this Cooking Tip.

MSG has often been added to foods to boost the umami flavor in foods. However, there are many foods that inherently have this taste, specifically those that contain a high level of the amino acid glutamate. Although not totally comprehensive, here is a list of many such foods.

  • Meat has high levels of glutamate
  • Soy sauce (to be forwarded a Cooking Tip on soy sauce, email me.)
  • Tomatoes, including sun-dried tomatoes
  • Miso
  • Anchovies
  • Mushrooms
  • Potatoes
  • Cheese with the more aged and stronger having more umami. For example, an aged parmesan.
  • Seaweed
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • Fish sauce
  • Coconut aminos (see this Cooking Tip)
  • Tree nuts such as walnuts and almonds. These are especially helpful to adding umami to vegetarian meals.

We know what most of these items are but I would like to elaborate on just a few.

Worcestershire sauce – each manufacturer has its own recipe but a typical list of ingredients is fermented anchovies, onions, garlic, vinegar, molasses, tamarind paste, salt, sugar, and a seasoning mixture that often includes coriander, mustard seed & cloves. It adds an umami punch to marinades, meat dishes, soups/stews.

Miso is a Japanese fermented paste and is typically fermented soybeans, a grain, salt, and koji (a mold). It can be fermented from a few weeks to several years. The most common use of miso is in Japanese-style miso soup, but also adds its unique flavor to marinades, ramen, or vegetable and tofu dishes.

Anchovies are a fatty fish that are most often served cured. After removing the head and inner parts, they are coated in salt, pressed and held in a temperature-controlled environment. During this time, chemical reactions occur which lead to flavor development. Being high in glutamic acid, they are full of umami. They are essential to a traditional Caesar dressing and are often added to Mediterranean dishes, meat dishes and pizza sauces.

Fish sauce is one of those ingredients essential to Asian (especially Thai) dishes. It is made from fermented (at least 12 mos) fish, typically anchovies. The fish breaks down and the salty liquid that forms is collected and filtered before bottling. It is both a condiment and an ingredient. Again, it is full of glutamates that result in a rich, savory taste and a brininess that brings out depth and flavor in everything from dipping sauces and soups to stir-fries and marinades.

Many recipes will call for some of the umami rich ingredients. However, you may also want to experiment on your own. Add a bit of soy sauce to that pasta sauce. Chop some anchovies and throw them in your beef stew. How do you up ramp up umami in your dishes? Let me know.

Cooking Tips · Ingredients · Techniques

Flavoring Choices

Spices and flavors have been used for thousands of years all over the world. So much of our food would be pretty bland without these ingredients. In this Cooking Tip, I would like to explore this world of Flavors and Flavoring.

Did you know if you combine lemon, banana, raspberry and pineapple essences that you end up with strawberry? I sure didn’t know that but people who are educated and trained as Flavorists know this and so much more. These scientists have looked at items that bring us flavor such as fruits, vegetables, spices and leaves. Through their investigations, they have identified “flavoring substances” and how they work together to please our palates.

As the Flavor & Extract Manufacturers Association (FEMA) points out, there are hundreds of natural substances in a strawberry that lead to what we taste as strawberry flavor. Flavorists isolate these compounds to develop a strawberry flavor that we can add to our foods. They also design new flavor combinations that we love to try.

Do you look forward to those new Lay’s potato chip flavors each year? (The most recent offering – Grilled Cheese & Tomato Soup – was supposed to be on shelves October 21.) How do they do it? According to FEMA, “when a food company decides it wants to introduce a new product to consumers … they often contact flavorists at companies that specialize in creating flavors, and they ask them to create a flavor that meets their requirements and will be appealing to the consumer.”

If you look at an ingredient list on a product, you may see “natural flavor” or “artificial flavor”. We probably all prefer the term “natural” but they may not be that very different. FEMA’s definition is “Natural flavors are ingredients that come from natural sources such as a spice, fruit, or vegetable.  They can even come from herbs, barks, roots, or similar plant materials.  Natural flavors also come from meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, and dairy products.”

And, “artificial flavors are flavorings that don’t meet the definition of natural flavor. There isn’t much difference in the chemical compositions of natural and artificial flavorings.  What is different is the source.  For example, an artificial strawberry flavor may contain the same individual substances as a natural one, but the ingredients come from a source other than a strawberry.” Of course, companies must abide by the FDA’s rules, which are found here, if you are interested. Other countries have their own rules.

Many times, we home cooks use flavoring extracts in our cooking and baking. I am sure we all have extracts in our pantry but what are they? FEMA defines them as “a solution that contains essential components of a complex material.  A flavor extract is such a solution, but composed specifically of compounds that create flavors.”

The most commonly used in the USA is Vanilla. I have written another Cooking Tip on Vanilla and it can be found here. What other ones do you have in your pantry? Besides vanilla, I have almond, anise, banana, lemon, orange, peppermint, raspberry and spearmint. There are many more, of course. Just check out your favorite supermarket or online supplier.

One little tidbit I want to tell you is that you will often see “Mint” extract on the shelves. You may also see “Peppermint” and less commonly “Spearmint”. If it just says “Mint”, it is most likely a mixture of peppermint and spearmint. If you are using it to make those holiday baked treats, you probably want pure peppermint. Plain mint can be used but will give you a slightly different taste.

There is also something relatively new to our supermarket shelves and that is flavoring pastes. Once again, vanilla paste is the most common but there are others. They all usually have natural flavors but also often have sugar or corn syrup as well as some sort of thickener (Gum Tragacanth , Xantham Gum, Carrageenan). The company with the most varieties is Taylor & Colledge.

If you look at a bottle of any kind of extract, you will always see alcohol. That is because it is used in the distillation process. There are those that say because alcohol evaporates during baking, extracts are not the best forms of flavor for baked goods. Rather, they recommend saving your extracts for cold applications such as beverages or sorbet. Here is a video from Natures Flavors that explains that.

This company recommends using “flavor concentrates” or “flavor emulsions” in baking. Here is a video about the concentrates and one about the emulsions. According to the company, these items are “extremely concentrated water soluble liquids containing no alcohol or sugar and are set in a Natural Gum Acacia Base.” They are made to withstand high temperatures, making them the preferred use in baking.

For even more info, check out this video that contrasts extracts with concentrates with oils and powders. I give you these links because I think this company explains things well. I have not tried their products (they do look fun, though) and they are not the only producer in the market.

I suspect that most of us home cooks use these kinds of flavorings in the extract form. We have done that for years and I would think that practice will continue to be the main one we use. With this Cooking Tip, I hope you will see that there is more to flavoring than just extracts. Just have fun in adding flavor to your foods and let me know how it goes!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Should you try Coconut Aminos?

I was teaching a Thai cooking class for a bridal shower recently. (Thank you, Diane for booking it! If anyone is interested in booking a fun and yummy cooking party, email me for more information.) We were discussing some of the typical Thai ingredients such as fish sauce, soy sauce, tamarind, etc. Someone asked what I thought of Coconut Aminos. This is an ingredient that although I knew about, I had never used. I decided it was time to learn a bit more about it and Voilà, this Cooking Tip!

Sushi with soy sauceAminos are liquid amino acids. Recall from your high school chemistry/biology classes that amino acids are the building blocks for protein. In recent years, consuming liquid amino acids has become somewhat of a health trend. There are two types: one is soy-based and one is coconut-based. Both forms contain all or almost all of the essential amino acids. This Tip will concentrate on the coconut version.

Coconut aminos is derived from the nectar (or sap) of the coconut palm blossom. It has added salt and undergoes a natural fermentation.

Proponents of coconut aminos claim the following:

  1. If you have a soy or gluten intolerance, coconut aminos could be for you as it is both soy- and gluten-free. (Be aware that non coconut-based liquid aminos are not soy-free.)
  2. These products are lower in sodium than soy sauce. Regular soy sauce is very high in sodium. There is lower sodium soy sauce but that is still higher in sodium than coconut aminos. Be sure to check the label, though, as the different brands of coconut aminos in my local market varied from 200 to 600 mg of sodium per 1 tablespoon. In comparison, my favorite soy sauce has 920 mg/tablespoon and a lower sodium variety has 575 mg. Soy-based liquid aminos may have as much sodium as regular soy sauce. (I wrote another Cooking Tip on how to tell a good soy sauce from an inferior one. If you wish to read it, let me know and I will send it to you.)
  3. Coconut aminos are free of MSG (monosodium glutamate). Some people may have unpleasant reactions to MSG. (  Here is a link to another Tip I wrote about MSG. Be aware that liquid aminos made from soy may contain MSG. I do not want to get too far in the weeds but some scientists say that coconut aminos does contain glutamate, a byproduct of the natural fermentation process. These scientists say that the glutamate in fermented coconut aminos is better tolerated in sensitive individuals. An exception is Braggs, as it is not fermented. However, Braggs coconut aminos is a bit different than the typical coconut aminos in that not only is it non-fermented, it also has added apple cider vinegar.
  4. If you are concerned about GMO ingredients, coconut aminos are made from coconut tree sap, something which is not genetically modified. In contrast, many soybeans are. As always, check the label to ensure it is non-GMO.
  5. It is approved for the Paleo diet.
  6. May will tout other health benefits but be wary of these claims. There is really no true scientific evidence for anything other than the above.

How should you use it? While coconut aminos will add an umami punch to your dishes/sauces, it is not a perfect substitute for soy sauce. Although it is still savory, it will also add a touch of sweetness. If you do not like coconut, do not worry about coconut aminos. It really has no coconut taste. It will also be thinner in consistency.

Are there any downsides to using Coconut Aminos?

  • Some say it is too sweet and is not as savory as soy sauce.
  • Although it is lower in sodium than soy sauce, it is still not a low-sodium product. As always, read the label and follow your doctor’s advice for your sodium intake.
  • It is also much more expensive than soy sauce. Whereas a good soy sauce may be as little as $.25 per ounce, coconut aminos are usually upwards of twice that.

One last comment – If you are just looking for a gluten-free alternative to soy sauce, consider Tamari. Although it is made without wheat, it is still soy-based and has a high sodium content.

Have you tried Coconut Aminos? If so, let me know what you thought. I am going to try it in the near future. If you are interested in my impressions, just email me.

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Tomatoes — canned or fresh?

20190815_180834aDespite being summer when fresh tomatoes are at their best, I suspect every one of us has canned tomatoes and tomato products in our pantry right now. If you don’t, email me and let me know why not. For the rest of us, we probably have at least some (if not all) of the following: whole tomatoes, diced tomatoes, fire-roasted tomatoes, tomato puree, tomato paste and tomato sauce. These products are the subject of this Cooking Tip.
 

  1.  You can turn whole tomatoes into almost any other tomato product whereas diced tomatoes cannot be magically transformed into whole tomatoes.
  2.  Whole tomatoes come packed either in juice or puree, giving you more choice. She recommends packed in juice if you want a fresher tomato flavor and packed in puree for a deeper tomato flavor.
  3.  Diced tomatoes have calcium chloride added, which helps the diced tomatoes retain their shape. This may be what you want in a salsa but whole tomatoes will cook down better. Most American whole tomatoes also have calcium chloride added but Cooks Illustrated found that it mostly acts near the surface, leaving the interior very tender. You can find whole tomatoes without calcium chloride but you will need to look at the Italian imports. I looked at the whole tomato products at my normal market. They carried their own store brands, Muir Glen, Hunts and Kuner’s. The only one that did not have calcium chloride was a higher-end store brand. Although my store didn’t carry them, the Cento brand does not have calcium chloride listed as an ingredient. A quick perusal of Amazon showed that if you want to stay away from calcium chloride, imported is going to be your choice.
  4.  No seasoning is added, thus giving you more control over the seasoning in your dish. Tomato sauce and stewed tomatoes are going to have a number of things added to them. If you have looked on your grocer’s tomato shelf, it is getting even harder to find any diced tomatoes without some added seasoning.

 
What about substituting one type of canned tomatoes for another? For example, if your recipe calls for diced, will your can of whole tomatoes work? It depends – if you want the tomatoes to hold their shape, whole tomatoes will not do this well. If you do not care about the shape/texture, feel free to substitute. Another caution about substituting is to remember that some of these canned products contain added seasonings, which you may or may not want in your dish.
 
I’m sure most of you have heard that the best tomatoes are San Marzano, the name coming from the region of Italy where they are grown from specific seeds. Today, you can find tomatoes grown elsewhere from the same seeds. Cooks Illustrated did a taste test and found they did not live up to the hype. If you want to read their entire results, here is a link although you will need a membership to view it. For purposes of this Cooking Tip, I will tell you that they preferred Muir Glen, an American brand that was very acidic with a high sugar content. Their runner-up was Hunt’s. Serious Eats agreed that the San Marzano designation wasn’t necessarily a winner. Their preference was for Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. Finally, just to show you how much an individual’s taste matters, a taste test from TheKitchn put Cento at the top, Muir Glen at #3 and Trader Joe’s last at #9. Who do you agree with? San Marzano or not? Let me know.
 
Tomato products are one of those pantry staples that are a boon to a cook. With this Cooking Tip, I hope you will take a minute to read labels to ensure you get the right product for your dish. Happy Tomato Cooking!