Archives for Ingredients

Questions for cooks: Making sense of specialty butters

Reader Craig submitted the following to Questions for cooks:

Since you have been writing about butter lately, I wanted to ask about cultured butter. When I was an exchange student in Belgium, all the butter my host family served was “cultured butter.” I’ve never seen it for sale in the US, but I would like to buy some. Is it “compound butter”? I see that on restaurant menus sometimes. Thanks.

Compound butter and cultured butter are not the same thing. (I’ll explain the differences below.) And, you can buy cultured butter in the U.S., at least you can where I live. Organic Valley dairy makes it, and it is available at my local Whole Foods. As someone who has had the joy of eating cultured butter while in Europe, I understand why you want more of it. Mmmmmmm …

Compound butter: Just a way of saying butter with stuff added to it, like in our herb butter recipe. Compound butter can be sweet or savory.

Cultured butter: This butter involves a live culture being added to the cream before it is churned. I think of it as yogurt butter, because often people just add yogurt to the milk as the way to introduce the live culture. It has more fat than regular butter, is noticeably sweeter, and is easy to make at home.

There are other types of butter you might also see mentioned in recipes, and they are …

Clarified butter: This butter is just the butter fat. You heat and melt butter until the milk solids separate from the fat, strain off the milk solids, and what remains is the butter fat. It’s great for high-temperature cooking because butter fat has a very high burn point. Again, this is easy to make at home.

Ghee: Similar to clarified butter, except the butter fat cooks for much longer than with clarified butter. This process makes ghee able to be stored on the counter instead of in the refrigerator. Once again, you can easily make ghee at home.

Thank you, Craig, for submitting your question for our Questions for cooks column. Now go out there and buy (or make) yourself some delicious cultured butter.

Do you have any unresolved questions about cooking styles, methods, ingredients, gadgets, meal planning, or anything even closely related to resolving stress or confusion in the kitchen? If so, send us your questions and we’ll find you an answer. If we don’t know the answer, we’ll send it out to a specialist who can, and we’ll all learn something! To submit your questions to Questions for Cooks, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Questions for Cooks.” Share as many details as possible — the more information we have about your specific question, the better.

Why you sauté some rice and pasta, but not all

A college roommate of mine regularly sautéed dry angel hair pasta in butter for a few minutes before tossing the pasta into boiling water. At the time, I remember thinking my roommate was weird.

A little more than a decade later, as I was sautéing dry arborio rice to make risotto, it dawned on me that I was doing essentially the same thing as my former roommate, but with rice. So then, I decided the person who wrote the risotto recipe was also weird.

Then yesterday, out of the blue, I got a ridiculous craving for Rice-A-Roni when I spotted a box of it at the grocery store. I wasn’t raised in a Rice-A-Roni home, so I’m not even sure how I knew what it tasted like. But, I decided to give into my spontaneous craving, and buy a box. When I brought it home, I noticed that the first step in making Rice-A-Roni is to sauté the dry rice and vermicelli pasta in butter. It was at this point where I started to think my roommate, the risotto recipe creator, and Golden Grains manufacturing might not be the weird ones and that instead I might be for not sautéing rice and pasta before eating it.

After perusing a handful of food science textbooks, I’ve realized my final assumption was correct — I’m the weird one, at least as far as narrow gauge pastas (like vermicelli and angel hair) and medium grain rices are concerned. It turns out, sautéing dried grains before immersing them in boiling water has two important benefits:

  1. The grains absorb flavors from the fat used for the sauté (like a nutty flavor from butter or a fruity flavor from olive oil), and
  2. When you’re sautéing, you’re also toasting the grain. You give the grain a crust-like exterior. This crust-like exterior keeps the rice from becoming too mushy (mush works great for rice pudding, but isn’t very good for a paella or risotto), makes it harder to overcook (something that is very easy to do with medium-grain rice), and keeps the grain separated, but still a little sticky (you want to feel like you’re eating rice, but don’t want individual grains to fall off your fork). It gives medium-grain rice and narrow gauge pastas some tooth.

Now that I understand the why, I’m realizing I can improve a number of pilaf recipes I’ve been flubbing lately. Sautéing a nice golden color on the rice first will eliminate the mushy results I’ve been getting.

Questions for cooks: What are the strange spices lingering in the spice cupboard?

Reader Kelly submitted the following to Questions for cooks:

My boyfriend is an awesome cook and I’m not. The other night while he was making dinner, I went exploring through his spice cabinet and found a bunch of things I had never heard of. I asked him to explain some stuff to me, but I think he was making up answers. They were totally over-the-top. So what is cream of tartar? Is allspice a blend of a bunch of spices and which ones? I tasted the ground mustard and it sort of tasted like the mustard you might put on a hot dog, but not enough that I’m convinced they’re the same things. Any help is appreciated!

What is cream of tartar? Unless you’re a winemaker, most folks have no idea what cream of tartar is or where it comes from. Winemakers know all about it, though, because it’s in grapes and helps to ferment them into wine (yummy, yummy wine). Technically, it’s potassium hydrogen tartrate, which is the salt in tartaric acid. Not-so-technically, it’s the stuff that makes you pucker when you bite into a really tart grape.

Through a purification process that I don’t fully understand but involves actually making wine, potassium hydrogen tartrate is released from the grape and is made into a white powder (when you touch it, it feels smooth like satin). This powder is then used primarily in baking to help things rise and keep their shape (like cakes and cookies). It’s also used in sugary things if you want them to be really smooth, like cake icing. If a recipe ever calls for baking powder and you don’t have any on hand, you can mix cream of tartar with baking soda and make your own baking powder. The ratio is pretty much 2 parts cream of tartar to 1 part baking soda. My favorite use of cream of tartar is in meringue cookies.

What is allspice? Although its name sort of implies it, allspice is not a blend of spices like a curry. It’s actually the unripe, dried, and ground berry of the pimenta dioica tree, which is usually just called an allspice tree. As a spice, it is sharp (it kind of stings when it first hits your tongue), but sweet. I think of it in a similar category as nutmeg and cloves, though not as bitter as either. People use it in all sorts of food preparations, both savory and sweet. If you’ve ever had Jamaican jerk chicken, you’ll be very familiar with the flavor. I like it and use it in apple allspice muffins.

What’s the difference between ground mustard and mustard you put on a hot dog? Ground mustard is simply ground-up dried mustard seeds from the mustard plant (there are numerous varieties of mustard plants, all producing seeds in a range of flavor intensity, which then go on to produce different types of mustard sauces). When combined with vinegar (or another liquid acid, like white wine or lemon juice) and some other ingredients, ground mustard becomes the condiment you put on hot dogs. The reason ground mustard doesn’t taste exactly like the sauce you put on your hot dog is because the acidic liquid amplifies the flavor and makes it hotter and/or more pungent. I recommend making your own mustard sauce some time and seeing how easy (and better) it is to do it at home.

Thank you, Kelly, for submitting your question for our Questions for cooks column. I hope I was able to help you in your spice exploration.

Do you have any unresolved questions about cooking styles, methods, ingredients, gadgets, meal planning, or anything even closely related to resolving stress or confusion in the kitchen? If so, send us your questions and we’ll find you an answer. If we don’t know the answer, we’ll send it out to a specialist who can, and we’ll all learn something! To submit your questions to Questions for Cooks, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Questions for Cooks.” Share as many details as possible — the more information we have about your specific question, the better.

Creating a cheese plate

Whenever we have guests, which is quite often during the warmer months of the year, I’ll set out a cheese plate for hors d’oeuvres. It’s incredibly simple to unwrap some cheese and crackers, so I’m able to spend more time with my guests instead of being stuck in the kitchen fixing something more elaborate. If I’m feeling fancy, I’ll add a spoonful fresh honey and fig jam, which takes just a minute more to prepare.

I’m a cheese person — I take cheese-making classes, I read a ridiculous amount of cheese news, I fantasize about working at Murray’s or becoming a cheese maker — and I love to put together a cheese plate with a theme for my guests. The plates might contain cheeses from France or all be soft cheeses or all pair nicely with a Riesling.

If you’ve never put together a cheese plate, but like the idea of a simple hors d’oeuvre, check out one of the following books for some inspiration:

I also strongly recommend checking out the section on cheese in Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking for a basic introduction to the science of cheese.

Post Script: The image at the beginning of the article is of Kerrygold Aged Cheddar with Irish Whiskey, a wonderfully sharp cheese I’ve already included on three cheese plates this spring (an Irish cheese plate, a cheddar plate, and an infused with alcohol plate).

Questions for cooks: Vegetables on pizza

Reader Serendipity submitted the following to Questions for cooks:

I love making homemade pizza, partly because it’s really yummy and partly because I can make it without tomato sauce, which I don’t much like. My favorite pizza toppings are mushrooms and bell peppers, but it seems like the water content of the vegetables makes the whole pizza a little soggy. I’ve tried putting the vegetables under the cheese, on top of the cheese, drying them off really well after washing them, and none of these things have really worked. Is there something else I should be doing to prevent the sogginess? Should they be cooked or something first? I’ve been putting them on raw.

I lightly cook almost all my non-cheese toppings before adding them to a pizza. The exception to this rule is olives, which don’t retain much water as a result of the salt curing process.

I even fry pepperoni before putting it on a pizza to expel a good portion of the grease that has no business swimming around on the top of my pie. I learned this pepperoni degreasing tip from the great Peter Reinhardt in his pizza cookbook American Pie. This simple tip transformed the pepperoni pizza experience for me since I had always found pepperoni pizza too greasy to enjoy.

Vegetables like mushrooms, peppers, and onions don’t have to be fried for very long, just long enough to get some of their water to evaporate. If you get all of the water out they can turn rubbery in the hot pizza oven, and no one enjoys rubbery vegetables on a pizza. To remove a little water, I put a frying pan on a burner and heat it to medium-high. Then, I toss my chopped and diced veggies into the pan. I’ll push them around, flip them over a few times, and cook them just a smidgen (less than a minute in a hot pan). After removing them from the heat, I pour them out onto a cooling rack until I’m ready to use them on the pizza. I prefer a cooling rack to a paper towel because the veggies can get soggy on a paper towel, defeating the whole purpose of cooking them beforehand.

When you bake your pizza, be sure to have a very hot oven (530ºF or greater) and use your convection fan if you have one. The air movement and the extremely high heat will help evaporate a little more water out of the vegetables and create a perfect crust.

Thank you, Serendipity, for submitting your question for our Questions for cooks column.

Do you have any unresolved questions about cooking styles, methods, ingredients, gadgets, meal planning, or anything even closely related to resolving stress or confusion in the kitchen? If so, send us your questions and we’ll find you an answer. If we don’t know the answer, we’ll send it out to a specialist who can, and we’ll all learn something! To submit your questions to Questions for Cooks, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Questions for Cooks.” Share as many details as possible — the more information we have about your specific question, the better.

Buying the cow?

Growing up in a family with working farms on both my maternal and paternal sides, it wasn’t rare for me to have previously made acquaintance with the animal I was eating for dinner. The idea of this might freak out some people, especially those who like to imagine the meat they consume is grown in a sterile lab (see, Better Off Ted, season one, episode two). For me, however, it was just the way it worked.

After the animals would go to slaughter, my family would receive a quarter, half, or whole chicken, pig, and/or cow that my mom would butcher and put in our chest freezer. It wasn’t until both of my parents’ farms became grain farms that we started buying meat at the grocery store like the non-farmers did.

When my husband and I bought our first house, I brought up the subject of talking with our favorite butcher about buying a cow. Since this wasn’t the way my husband was raised, he was a little uneasy with the idea in the beginning. But, he eventually changed his tune after I showed him the numbers and did a little persuading.

Ordering a cow

The process of ordering a quarter, half, or whole cow can be extremely simple: you tell your butcher you’re interested, and he makes it happen. A little less easy, but not much more difficult, is to find a farm and contact it directly. I like to get the cow from a farm I can visit and inspect the environment where the animal was raised, medical treatment it received, and food it ate. This is easy to do in Virginia where we have a number of organic cattle farms and they’re accustom with working directly with consumers. If a farm in your area doesn’t work with consumers directly, they almost always use a CSA or small butcher shop as their coordinator.

The costs of buying a cow

Once you order a quarter, half, or whole cow, you’ll need a place to store the meat. A small chest freezer (under 10 cu. ft.) will fit a quarter or a half cow and the freezers retail anywhere between $200 to $350. The Energy Star website reports that a small chest freezer manufactured between 2001-2008 costs about $45 a year for electricity to operate and $38 a year for a newer model. Crunching the numbers on this, the first year to run the freezer you will pay around a dollar a day and less than 15 cents a day in the following years.

Quarter, half, or whole cows that you butcher at home, vacuum seal in meal-size portions, and freeze are about $3.50 per pound. This is in comparison to $5 to $30 per pound of store-bought, already butchered, small-servings from the butcher’s counter. The price of half a cow, a small chest freezer, and the energy to run a small chest freezer is still less than buying the store-bought, butchered, small-servings a couple times a week.

One thing to note is that if you buy half a cow (or a quarter or a whole), you’ll also want to purchase a meat grinder to make ground beef. I like the food grinder attachment for my Kitchen Aid mixer, which was $45. A steel one that attaches to your counter will work fine, too. If you have a food processor and don’t mind inconsistently ground meat and don’t plan to make sausages, you could probably use it, too.

Also, if you aren’t excited by the idea of butchering the whole, half, or quarter cow you plan to purchase, for a little extra money the butcher will usually cut it up into steaks, roasts, ribs, and ground beef for you (which mildly increases your cost per pound). If you’re uncomfortable with offal, your butcher and/or farm can also leave these out of your cuts.


Even though it’s financially beneficial to consume beef this way, and in many ways more environmentally friendly, these weren’t the reasons my husband eventually came around to the idea. His motivation came after reading an article on bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease). He realized that his chances of getting the infection are greatly reduced if he’s eating from just one cow over a six month period instead of dozens of cows. This never weighed into my decision-making process, but I thought it was worth mentioning in case other people have similar concerns about BFE.

Guide to frozen liquid desserts

Have you ever wondered what differentiates ice cream from gelato? Sorbet from sherbet? With this handy guide, you’ll wonder no longer.

Ice cream: By FDA regulation, ice cream sold in stores has to contain at least 10 percent milk fat and has to contain less than 1.4 percent eggs by weight of the finished product. (If it contains more, it is required to be called “frozen custard” or “french ice cream” or “french custard ice cream”.) Typically it is milk fat (cream, whole milk, condensed milk, etc.) and sugar, churned with a dasher to incorporate air into the mixture and frozen at a relatively quick speed to promote small crystal production. (This is why ice cream frozen with liquid nitrogen is so velvety, because the crystals are so small.) If you buy ice cream in the supermarket, it has to weigh at least 4.5 pounds per gallon because ice cream manufacturers used to inject so much air into their product that it should have been called ice air instead of ice cream.

The difference between soft serve and hard ice cream is that soft serve is served immediately after churning (never being stored in a freezer) and has a significant amount of air pumped into it (sometimes up to 50 or 60 percent of its total weight).

Frozen yogurt: As far as the FDA is concerned, “frozen yogurt” is ice cream (since yogurt is a milk fat). Yogurt is typically the primary type of milk fat used in frozen yogurt, but other milk fats can be legally included, and usually are. Because yogurt has a high level of lactic acid from its fermentation process, it tends to lend a more tart taste to the end product. This flavor difference is likely why “frozen yogurt” appears on the product label instead of “ice cream made with yogurt.”

Fat-free frozen yogurt and fat-free ice cream are usually made with corn syrup, which can mimic the presence of milk fat. Also, these fat-free products usually contain twice the amount of sugar to help with freezing (letting the product freeze at a higher temperature) and flavor (without the yumminess of fat, the desserts taste bland so manufacturers pump up the sugar content).

Frozen custard: As mentioned above, frozen custard is like ice cream but with more than 1.4 percent eggs by weight. When making custard at home, be sure to cook the egg mixture first before churning it or use pasteurized eggs. You don’t want to give you, your family, and friends salmonella poisoning.

Gelato: Similar to ice cream, but with less milk fat (usually between 5 and 10 percent by weight). Think of it like ice milk. It’s on the frozen dairy scale between sherbet and ice cream.

Sherbet: A product containing milk fat and churned like ice cream, but with 1 to 2 percent milk fat. It also is usually fruit- or alcohol-infused. Sherbet feels and looks creamy, though, because it either has eggs (like custard) or gelatin added to it.

Sorbet/Italian ice/Water ice: As far as I can tell, sorbet, Italian ice, and water ice are the same products in the U.S. They’re made with a simple sugar syrup and fruit juice, fruit puree, or alcohol (no milk). Think of them like a snow cone, but churned like ice cream instead of shaved.

Granita/Glaces/Shave ice/Snow cone/Slush: A frozen mixture of simple sugar syrup and fruit juice, fruit puree, alcohol, or other popular drinks (like coffee or soda) that is shaved before serving. Granitas typically don’t contain milk fat.

A couple other favorite frozen liquid desserts:

Wendy’s frosty: It is similar to a milk shake, but containing corn syrup as a main ingredient, and many other things not typically in a milk shake you might make at home. From Wendy’s website: “Milk, Sugar, Corn Syrup, Cream, Whey, Nonfat Dry Milk, Cocoa (processed with alkali), Guar Gum, Mono and Diglycerides, Cellulose Gum, Carrageenan, Calcium Sulfate, Disodium Phosphate, Artificial and Natural Flavoring, Vitamin A Palmitate.”

Tasti D-Lite: This popular New York chain’s product is similar to a soft-serve gelato, but containing water as its main ingredient with corn syrup as its fourth. Also contains a lot of ingredients we don’t typically use when making homemade gelato … like guar gum and locust bean gum. The ingredients for its vanilla product, from Tasti D-Lite’s website: “water, nonfat milk, sugar, corn syrup, cream, guar gum, locust bean gum, carrageenan, vanilla, lactase.”

Questions for cooks: Egg substitutes

Reader M submitted the following to Questions for cooks:

My son is allergic to egg. I’m wondering if you know if any substitutions for eggs you can use in recipes such as meatloaf and meatballs that use egg as the binder. I’m also looking for substitutions for eggs in the standard breading procedure like you would find for breading chicken and other things. Thanks!

Since we talked about restricted diets earlier in the week, I thought it might be nice to continue this conversation into Friday’s column.

I don’t have any personal experience with an egg allergy, so I talked to a number of my vegan friends who abstain from eating eggs. They said that they use a number of alternatives for binding agents that will likely go over well with your son.

About 1/4 cup of blended tofu, combined with a few drops of soy sauce or barbecue sauce can be a nice replacement for an egg in meatloaf (my vegan friends weren’t hip on the meat part, but all confirmed it works with vegetableloaf). Mashed potatoes and tomato paste (also good for meatloaf) work well for savory dishes, and apple sauce is a great replacement in sweet baked goods. The consensus was that 1/4 cup of these items all work for one egg, but that you may need to tweak things a little for each recipe.

For breading on pork chops or chicken, I use buttermilk. I don’t actually like using eggs for breading, as I find the egg too heavy. I like a light, crispy texture and the buttermilk does this. I highly recommend the Crispy Pan-Fried Pork Chop recipe from Cook’s Illustrated as a primer on amazing breading.

Thank you, M, for submitting your question for our Questions for cooks column. Please check the comments for even more suggestions from our readers on alternatives to eggs.

Do you have any unresolved questions about cooking styles, methods, ingredients, gadgets, meal planning, or anything even closely related to resolving stress or confusion in the kitchen? If so, send us your questions and we’ll find you an answer. If we don’t know the answer, we’ll send it out to a specialist who can, and we’ll all learn something! To submit your questions to Questions for Cooks, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Questions for Cooks.” Share as many details as possible — the more information we have about your specific question, the better.

Using science to go beyond simple cookie dough

Ah, the science of baking.

While Alton Brown does a great job incorporating science into all of his shows, my favorite chemical explanations happen on Good Eats: Chips for Sister Marsha. This is the episode where he alters the classic Nestle Toll House cookie recipe in three ways to create impressively different variations. I was won over with this episode, especially because he explains everything so thoroughly (with help from Cookie Monster’s brother). If you haven’t seen it, you can find the episode on YouTube: part one and part two.

At some point while watching the episode, it occurred to me that I could take these three recipes, order them by their ingredients, and highlight the scientific baking explanations within each grouping. Having the recipes in one place would also make it easy to try them all and contrast their differences. As a result, I made a chart to put in my recipe binder to help me in all my future cookie baking endeavors and I thought you might benefit from it, too:

If you’re interested in printing a copy of the cookie chart, you can download the PDF.

Questions for cooks: Tips for reducing salt

Reader Rose submitted the following to Questions for cooks:

My doctor told me to cut back on my salt. This inspired me to start cooking more, and now I have a couple questions.

I see a lot of recipes call for salt. Initially I thought I would just leave the salt out and add in a dash at the end if I think it needs the flavor. But, I see it so often in recipes and in such quantities that I’m wondering if it does something more than just add flavor. And does it really matter if I add it at the end of a recipe or at the beginning?

Are there situations where I should not leave out the salt? (One recipe I’m specially concerned about is home-made bread.)

The easiest way to cut a large amount of salt out of your diet at home is to stop eating foods with complex ingredient lists on their packaging. Aim to eat foods that don’t come in packaging (fresh fruits and vegetables) or foods with only one or two ingredients (milk, salt-free frozen vegetables). Consider switching to kosher or dry-processed chicken and turkey that haven’t had salt water pumped into their skin at the meat processing plant.

Also, stay away from bitter foods that require a lot of salt to taste better — foods like brussels sprouts and mustard greens. Salt chemically reacts with the molecules in bitter foods to make them more palatable. Actually, salt makes almost all foods taste better, which is why humans use it.

Invest in some wonderful fleur de sel. Fleur de sel is a finishing salt that is only used immediately before eating. It has large crystals that give off a strong “salty” flavor, so you use less of it (barely any at all) and it can reduce or eliminate the need for using salt during the cooking process. If your doctor recommended you consume less than 1/2 a teaspoon or a teaspoon of salt a day, you can measure out the fleur de sel each morning and then limit yourself to only using that specific amount.

According to food scientist Harold McGee, adding salt to boiling water helps vegetables retain their flavors and nutritious substances. As a result, you may want to saute or roast your vegetables instead of boiling them. And, you can completely eliminate the salt when boiling water for grains and pastas. You can replace any lost flavor from these foods with herb-intense sauces and seasonings.

Addressing your question about bread, McGee also answers this question:

Salt contributes to a balanced taste and intensifies aroma in bread, but it also affects structure and texture. Salt makes a dough less sticky, the gluten more stretchy, and the finished loaf lighter. In sourdoughs, salt helps control the growth of acid-producing, gluten-weakening bacteria.

In short, you can probably reduce (but not eliminate) the amount of salt in homemade bread as long as you’re using a high gluten bread flour. Make some test loafs, adjusting the amount of salt in each one, and see where your lower limit lies. My bread recipe only requires 1-1/2 teaspoons for the entire loaf, containing only trace amounts of sodium chloride in each slice.

Substitute canola or olive oil as much as possible for butter, make your own salad dressings and soup stocks, and start using fresh herbs for alternate seasonings. Fresh herbs pack a greater punch than their dried brethren, so the stronger flavors won’t make you miss the salt. Oh, and avoid seasoning mixes unless they specifically say they are salt free (like Mrs. Dash). I’m not fond of fake salts because I think they have a bitter aftertaste.

Good luck on your new reduced salt adventure. Your eating experience doesn’t have to be bland from this point forward as long as you make good decisions about when to use salt. Thank you, Rose, for submitting your question for our Questions for cooks column.

Do you have any unresolved questions about cooking styles, methods, ingredients, gadgets, meal planning, or anything even closely related to resolving stress or confusion in the kitchen? If so, send us your questions and we’ll find you an answer. If we don’t know the answer, we’ll send it out to a specialist who can, and we’ll all learn something! To submit your questions to Questions for Cooks, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Questions for Cooks.” Share as many details as possible — the more information we have about your specific question, the better.

Lentil soup (sans ham)

When I’m sick, I want a bowl of lentil soup. When the weather changes, I want a bowl of lentil soup. When I’ve had a good day, I want a bowl of lentil soup. Honestly, most every day I have a craving for lentil soup.

In addition to their scrumptious nutty and woody flavor, lentils are rich in dietary fiber, iron, and protein, and they’re also low in calories. They are one of nature’s healthiest foods, and are inexpensive with a long shelf life. As far as I’m concerned, lentils are a perfect food.

Most lentil soup recipes call for diced ham, but ham isn’t usually something I have stocked in my refrigerator. Also, if you use vegetable broth, the soup can be enjoyed by vegetarians and vegans. It’s a simple, delicious, and nutritious soup that cooks up with little attention needed by the chef and usually in just an hour.

Sans Ham Lentil Soup

  • 1 Tbl canola oil
  • 2 large cloves of shallot or half a small white onion, finely diced
  • 1 large clove of garlic, finely diced
  • 8 oz vegetable, chicken, or beef broth
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 cup dried green lentils
  • For finishing: A pinch of Kosher salt or smoked garlic salt and a tsp of balsamic vinegar

Warm the canola oil in a soup pot on the stove over medium heat. Add the shallot (or onion) and garlic, and lightly sauté them for 2 or 3 minutes. When the shallot and garlic start to turn transparent, add the broth and water and turn the burner up to high. Bring the liquid up to a boil.

Add the lentils and bring the liquid back to a boil. Once the liquid is boiling again, turn the burner to low and simmer the soup, uncovered, for 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Every 15 minutes during cooking, give the soup a stir and check the liquid in the pot. Until the last few minutes of cooking, you want the lentils to be slightly submerged in water. You may need to add water, 1/4 cup at a time, during the cooking process to make sure this happens. You’re more likely to have to add water during the winter and in dry climates.

When the soup is ready, the lentils should be moist and a little mushy. You don’t want al dente lentils, but you also don’t want to overcook them into a paste.

Serve the soup with a pinch of Kosher salt or smoked garlic salt and a teaspoon of balsamic vinegar added to each bowl. Don’t add the salt earlier in the cooking process or the lentils will have difficulty getting soft.

I prefer to use Kiawe Smoked Garlic Sea Salt from the Aloha Spice Company, which I order from Hawaii (yum!):

In addition to the ingredients listed above, you might also want to add diced carrots or celery. If you do, add these at the same time as the shallot and garlic, and increase the sauté time until it’s easy to pierce the carrots with a fork (about 5 to 7 minutes).

Questions for cooks: Measuring foods that don’t fit in measuring cups

Reader Ziegler submitted the following to Questions for cooks:

I’ve been wanting to make more attempts at cooking and I keep looking at healthier recipes. My problem is, sometimes recipes tell you to use a cup of fresh spinach or romaine or some other lettucy type thing, how am I supposed to measure that? If it doesn’t fit in a measuring cup I’m clueless!

Also, I’ve seen recipes that ask for something like 2 cups of “cooked” pasta. How am I supposed to figure out how much dry pasta to use in order for it to end up as 2 cups once it’s cooked?

The easiest way to measure foods that don’t conveniently fit into measuring cups is to use a digital food scale. Then, find an ingredient conversion list that provides data on the specific item you’re using. Lately, I’ve been relying on the ingredient conversion list at the back of the Canyon Ranch Cooks cookbook because it’s extensive, incredibly specific, and I already own it.

For spinach, Canyon Ranch Cooks lists 1 pound of raw spinach to be equivalent to 10 cups raw or 2 cups cooked spinach. For all types of lettuce, it lists 1 pound of lettuce to be 6 cups of chopped or torn lettuce or 4 cups of shredded lettuce.

Doing a little math, this means a cup of raw spinach is 1/10th of a pound, which is 1.6 ounces or approximately 45 grams. (1 pound = 16 ounces, 1 ounce = 28.3495231 grams) And a cup of torn lettuce is 1/6th of a pound, which is 2.7 ounces or approximately 77 grams.

Now, to answer your question about how much uncooked pasta becomes cooked pasta, I turned to the National Pasta Association for an answer. (I’m not kidding, there really is a National Pasta Association.) According to their website, 8 ounces of uncooked pasta is usually 4 cups of cooked pasta. So, you would need 2 ounces (approximately 57 grams) of uncooked pasta to get 1 cup of cooked pasta. For an exact measurement, again I recommend using a digital food scale and weighing out the uncooked pasta.

Many recipes in cookbooks are now starting to list weight measurements, which eliminates the need for doing math. If you’re not a numbers person, I definitely recommend checking out these types of cookbooks.

Thank you, Ziegler, for submitting your question for our Questions for cooks column.

Do you have any unresolved questions about cooking styles, methods, ingredients, gadgets, meal planning, or anything even closely related to resolving stress or confusion in the kitchen? If so, send us your questions and we’ll find you an answer. If we don’t know the answer, we’ll send it out to a specialist who can, and we’ll all learn something! To submit your questions to Questions for Cooks, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Questions for Cooks.” Share as many details as possible — the more information we have about your specific question, the better.

Learning basic baking ratios

I recently made a batch of scones from a recipe a friend gave to me, and something was wrong with the scones. They were fluffy — they rose like a cake — and very, very bitter.

I reread the recipe and instantly knew what was wrong with it. There was a mistake, and the recipe asked for far too much baking powder. I hadn’t been paying close attention when I was adding ingredients to the mixing bowl, and I blindly followed the recipe without questioning it. When used correctly, baking powder is a great leavening agent and lifts cakes and other baked goods to beautiful heights. When used in overabundance, it makes baked goods bitter and metallic.

The recipe from my friend called for 2 tablespoons of baking powder for 1-1/2 cups flour.

Usually the ratio is just 1 to 2 teaspoons of baking powder for 1 cup of flour. (If you weigh your ingredients, it’s about 5 to 10 grams of baking powder for 140 grams of flour.)

Mistakes like writing tablespoons instead of teaspoons are very common. Knowing what to expect in a recipe can help you to identify these typos before adding ingredients so you don’t waste your time and money.

I’ve found Irma Rombauer and her family’s Joy of Cooking to be good for teaching these basics, especially the “Know Your Ingredients” section. Knowing these baking principles also are wonderful for creating your own recipes and creations.

What resources have you turned to for helping you learn these baking basics? Share your resources in the comments.

Deciphering nutrition recommendations

One of the unfortunate things about The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 released on Tuesday is that it doesn’t give many concrete examples of its dietary recommendations. This is actually a complaint I have of many nutrition guides. Telling readers to consume fewer than 2,300 mg of sodium a day is pointless if you don’t also explain what 2,300 mg of sodium actually looks like on a plate.

I’ve gone through a handful of items from the section of text that I quoted yesterday on the site, and put into common examples the advice. Feel welcome to look through The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 and add your translations of additional recommendations into the comment section of this post.

  • The guide says to reduce sodium (salt) intake to 2,300 mg a day. This means you need to consume less than 1 teaspoon of salt per day. Not only is this salt you might add to food once it has been served, but also salt used in the cooking process of all of the foods you eat. Baked goods and commercially canned soups and vegetables use very large amounts of salt in their preparations. Chefs in restaurants also add lots of salt to their meals because it reduces bitterness and enhances flavors. Cooking all of your meals at home, using salt-free ingredients, and diligently monitoring how much salt you use is the best way to keep your salt intake to less than 1 teaspoon per day.
  • The alternative 1,500 mg suggestion of sodium (salt) per day for “persons who are 51 and older and those of any age who are African American or have hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease” is about 1/2 teaspoon of salt per day. Truth be told, this number is extremely difficult to achieve unless you are vigilant at monitoring your intake.
  • Less than 300 mg per day of dietary cholesterol means you should be eating very little fats from animals. Dietary cholesterol is in red meats, lard, milk, cheese, butter, and egg yolks. It’s also present, but in lower amounts, in white meats (like pork loin and poultry). A single egg yolk contains a little more than 200 mg of cholesterol, so if you have two eggs for breakfast you’ve already exceeded the limit — before you’ve had lunch, dinner, or put some milk in your coffee. Since butter, milk, and eggs are prominent in baked goods, a slice of cake can put you over the 300 mg per day recommendation. Abstaining from egg yolks and red meats most every day, consuming only skim milk, and using canola oil instead of butter are good first steps to getting closer to the recommendation. Also, diligently read nutrition information levels to evaluate cholesterol in packaged products.
  • The suggestion to “use oils to replace solid fats” is a more specific suggestion than other ones in the report, but fails to mention that not all oils are created equally. Instead of using lard, butter, margarine, or a vegetable shortening (like Crisco), try to use instead a monounsaturated oil. The two monounsaturated oils easiest to find in your grocery store are canola oil (which doesn’t impart much flavor into your food) and olive oil (which gives your food a hint of nut or olive flavor). Polyunsaturated oils (like corn, sunflower, soy, and safflower oils), are better for you than solid fats, but should be used in moderation. Finally, you should AVOID partially hydrogenated oils, like vegetable oil. The advice should have been “use monounsaturated oils to replace solid fats and partially hydrogenated oils in your diet.”

Good fish

I grew up in a family where the only fish we ate were fish we caught. A few times a year, my dad would load us into his car and we would head to a river or lake to catch some fresh water fish. We’d fry up the trout, bass, catfish, or crappie just minutes after we caught it. The only exception to this was canned tuna, and that was used in mom’s tuna casserole with egg noodles, a can of cream of mushroom soup, some melted cheddar, and Corn Flakes crushed on top.

I was in high school the first time I had salmon, and college the first time I ate sushi. Even now, as a regular preparer and consumer of fish, I feel like it’s a delicacy. I am less adventurous with it in the kitchen than I am with other foods. I’d actually say I’m nervous around it. What if I don’t get out all the bones? What if I undercook it? What if I overcook it? Is it safe to eat? Will I accidentally poison myself and my family?

Fish isn’t something to be feared, but it does require more finesse when working with it than other meats do. The main reason these scaly creatures require more finesse is because fish are cold-blooded. In contrast, most of the meats we cook in our homes are from warm-blooded creatures, and the proteins in warm-blooded creatures’ muscles are more forgiving. They can take a wider range of temperatures and cooking times. Fish are finicky and aren’t forgiving.

Buying fish can also rattle the nerves. The safest fish to buy are ones that were frozen on the boat and sold frozen in the store. You lose some flavor quality this way, but run less of a chance of getting food poisoning. If you’re new to cooking fish, I recommend starting with individually wrapped frozen tilapia fillets from your grocer’s freezer (make sure you get the U.S. raised tilapia). The more comfortable you become with cooking fish, you can leave these frozen fillets behind and strike up a relationship with a fishmonger.

When you’re ready to work with fresh fish, start by researching all the fish markets and grocery stores in your community to learn which fishmonger has the highest product turnover and best reputation. Introduce yourself to the fishmonger when the market is slow and he or she can take some time to talk with you. Then, have your fishmonger teach you to identify fresh fish. Ask as many questions as you need to — including your fishmonger’s name — before making any purchases. Also ask to have your purchase wrapped in crushed ice, and bring an insulated bag with you to store the fish until you get home. You will want to eat the fish the day you buy it.

Over-fishing, mercury buildup, and toxins are fears many people have with consuming fish. These are legitimate concerns, and I strongly suggest checking the Environmental Defense Fund’s Eco-Best Fish page to stay current with recommendations. You can also get updates to the list via their Twitter account @SeafoodSelector. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also tracks this information, but I like the chart on EDF’s page better. Both sites have really great fish safety and preparation information.

When I’m in a hurry, I like to make a broiled tilapia sandwich with an olive tapenade (the tapenade is sold by the jar in the condiment aisle at most grocery stores). This recipe is good for you, and simple to make. I don’t have a recipe in the strictest sense of the word, but this is the cooking and assembling method I follow:

  • In the morning before work, I move an individually wrapped frozen tilapia fillet (U.S.) from the freezer to the refrigerator (or however many I need — one per person usually is enough).
  • After work when I’m ready for dinner, I turn on my stove’s broiler with the top oven shelf in the second to top setting.
  • Unwrap the fillet and set it on a square of aluminum foil or a cookie sheet.
  • Squeeze a little lemon juice (usually bottled, but fresh if I’m feeling zesty) over the fillet.
  • Broil the fish for 3 to 5 minutes on each side. I like the internal temperature to be 145º F and the outside of the fish to be a bit stiff for this sandwich.
  • I slather a hotdog bun, French roll, or an Italian roll with store-bought olive tapenade. Then, I put the fillet on the bun and enjoy.
  • Don’t forget to turn off the oven when you’re finished.

If you don’t like sandwiches, simply plate the fillet and put a few spoonfuls of the tapenade on the top. If I eat it without a bun, I like to squeeze a little more lemon on it to finish the dish. Either way, this entree is fast and simple to make, and great for someone just starting to cook fish at home.

Elastic recipes: Using leftovers to unclutter a fridge

I love a good meatloaf. On cold days, my thoughts uncontrollably zero in on a hot slice of that home-cooked, belly-warming classic, brimming with juicy flavor, and served up next to some fluffy mashed potatoes.

What I dig about meatloaf is how easily it lends itself to such varied ingredients. Sometimes, I throw in some frozen peas or an onion soup mix packet if I have one handy. Pre-made sauces really work well, too. Do you like Teriyaki sauce? I do, and sometimes I’ll add a half cup, which gives my meatloaf a nice sweet tang. I think meatloaf is a truly adaptable meal. It’s almost elastic, wouldn’t you say?

That elasticity got me thinking. Since meatloaf allows so many substitutions, couldn’t I break down the recipe into components and create new versions on the fly, like a template?

To me, the basic formula for putting together a meatloaf looks like this:

Elastic recipe: Meatloaf

  • 3 parts meat (ground beef, poultry, pork, lamb, and Italian/breakfast sausage are all contenders)
  • 1 part absorbent starch (packaged breadcrumbs or cubed white, wheat, rye, pumpernickel, cornbread, or oatmeal)
  • binder and liquids (eggs, sauces, oils, milk, and/or canned soup)
  • flavorful optional component (veggies, cheeses, spices, soup mix)

Your oven should be preheated to 325º F. Mix the ingredients well (feel welcome to use your clean hands and squish everything together) and bake it in a lightly greased or parchment paper-lined 10″ loaf pan. You’ll want to cook the meatloaf until the internal temperature is at least 160º F for red meats or 165º F for poultry.

By Simplifying a recipe down to its basic components, you can change it into something super adaptable. Making a formula instead of a precise recipe helps you utilize whatever leftovers or ingredients you have available.

Of course, part of using an elastic recipe is knowing how the ingredients interact. To help you make sure the results are delicious, I will add a paragraph or two in future elastic recipes explaining some food theory pointers to show why things work the way they do.

I find that some meals lend themselves well to become an elastic recipe better than others. Stew, hash, and stir fried rice are some of the best dishes that use up leftovers because they are so adaptable. This kind of problem solving helps me clean out a fridge full of misfit ingredients and create something delicious by mealtime.

In the end, it may not taste exactly like your mother’s Sunday night meatloaf, but you could very well turn out something your stomach loves. Look for more elastic recipes from me in the future.