Archives for Questions for Cooks

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.

Questions for cooks: Taste bud differences

Reader Megan submitted the following to Questions for cooks:

When I eat cilantro, it tastes like dish detergent. When my husband eats cilantro, he says it tastes yummy and nothing like soap. I don’t like the acidic taste of raw tomatoes, but my husband loves them. When cooking a meal, I know when things taste good to me, but how do I know if something I make will taste good to a guest? How different is the experience of taste from one person to another? How varied are one person’s taste buds from someone else’s taste buds?

I can confirm that individual food preferences will sometimes highly vary based on personal history, the concentration and quantity of taste buds, and scent memory. Finding common ground between you and your guests can be a challenge.

To avoid disappointed faces, try these approaches:

  • Use prior knowledge of your guests to guide your menu. If you can recall a time you’ve seen them enjoy Italian food, then keep that in mind when you step into the kitchen. Do you remember a conversation when they mentioned a hatred of mushrooms? Keep them out of your cooking at all costs.
  • If you have zero idea what they have enjoyed in the past, keep your cooking basic, then allow for individual customization. Tacos can be made with a small assortment of base fillings which guests pick during assembly. A plethora of toppings will provide further customization, keeping guests happy no matter what their tastes are.
  • While not the most cost effective or timely solution, you could prepare an assortment of options ahead of time and reheat/complete them when guests arrive. With enough time and preparation, you could have four or more meals ready to go in your freezer, ready to be reheated and completed with additional fresh ingredients. This would give your guests a potentially huge number of options at your disposal. Personally, I like to have a few glass Pyrex storage containers full of tasty meals hanging out in my freezer for just such an occasion. They can go into the microwave straight from the freezer, and are a breeze to clean.

Thank you, Megan, 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.

Questions for cooks: Meals that travel well without refrigeration

Reader Rose submitted the following to Questions for cooks:

I recently started a project that has me traveling to the other side of the state every other week. My flight leaves at 6:00 a.m. and arrives at 10:30 am. I then leave again at 4:40 p.m. and return home at 10:30 p.m.

I get a per diem to cover all three meals when I take these trips. But I really want to just pack my meals so I can pocket the per diem. Besides, the town I go to is very small and remote. There is a grocery store, but it’s selection is not good, and everything is expensive.

Anyway, I have to go through airport security and gelpack-type freezer packs are not allowed. I’ve heard things about using ice, but it seems to depend on the agent and the airport. So, I would like to avoid food that has to be refrigerated. To make matters worse, I have to strictly watch my salt intake, so most microwave and canned foods are not good options.

This is like a riddle or a word problem on a math test: “Rose needs 1,500 calories a day, but has to avoid refrigerated and preserved foods. How can it be done?”

Right off the bat, I know that fresh fruits and vegetables are going to be a good option for you. Apples, bananas, raw broccoli and cauliflower crudites, snap peas, and oranges shouldn’t cause a problem for you as you go through security. If the item is not refrigerated in your grocer’s produce section, you don’t need to refrigerate it in your lunch pail.

Bagels and bread should be fine. Same goes for almost all aged, hard cheeses. Cheese sandwiches aren’t usually exciting, but using a hearty bread and a wonderful cheese will be filling and enjoyable. I’m thinking something like a jalapeno cheddar bread with some pepper jack cheese, or a rustic Italian with a Parmesan or Manchengo.

Smoked salmon and cured meats travel well, too. I love a salumi that bites you back or causes you to take notice, like a Culatello di Zibello, a delicate prosciutto, a hot pepperoni, a crusted pancetta, or a spicy coppa. Don’t go overboard with the smoked and cured meats — just a little with crackers should be enough to give you some protein — because you don’t want to elevate your salt intake too wildly.

Cliff makes some wonderful granola bars that aren’t especially high in sodium or fat, and taste great. Talk to people who regularly go hiking, and they’ll also have great suggestions for you.

Thank you, Rose, for submitting your question for our Questions for cooks column. Check the comments for even more portable suggestions from our readers.

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.

Questions for cooks: Meal planning for picky eaters

Reader Katie submitted the following to Questions for cooks:

I was wondering if you have any suggestions or might do a post asking for reader suggestions about how to balance food likes/dislikes within a couple? There are a number of things that my husband and I are both particular about, but since I always do the cooking, I have a tendency to stay away from ingredients that I dislike but don’t always stay away from the ones he dislikes. I try to make dishes that are still easy enough to work around the stuff he doesn’t like, but I think it is probably still frustrating for him. Any ideas?

A great question, and a problem we struggled with for years in our home. To name just a few items from the long list of foods my husband dislikes: he won’t eat pasta (unless I make it by hand), rice (unless it is accompanying Chinese or Thai food at a restaurant), or anything resembling a casserole (there aren’t any exceptions to this one). Before we met, I’m fairly certain he survived on hamburgers, hot dogs, and limes (that isn’t a joke, he really likes limes).

To be fair, I am also a picky eater. I don’t like store-bought mustard, mayo, or ketchup (I’ll eat them only if I make them) or anything containing one of these ingredients (deviled eggs, coleslaw). I won’t eat raw fish (it’s a texture thing), walnuts (I’m allergic), or heavily processed foods with ingredients I can’t identify (like Oreos and Velveeta).

After three years of eating out almost every meal at restaurants, I started craving home-cooked food and tried numerous strategies to find common ground. In the end, these are the ways we were able to finally sit down together and share a meal:

  • Three strikes. I will offer up three meals that I know he likes that I am also okay with eating. If he shoots down all three meal ideas, he has to make three alternate and legitimate suggestions (naming three things I hate is not acceptable). If he can’t come up with one option that interests both of us, I have to make three more suggestions. This back and forth idea generation distributes the burden of coming up with meals between the two of us, and it also makes us more willing to compromise and revisit a suggestion.
  • Mark it. I’ll get a cookbook (like Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone), read it, and mark every recipe that looks interesting to me with a removable flag. I’ll give him the cookbook, give him a due date (usually a week) for when I want it back, and ask him to look at the recipes I’ve flagged. He’ll then look at all the recipes I’ve flagged and remove the flag if he doesn’t like the recipe. We’ve never had a situation where he removes all of the flags, so the recipes that remain flagged are added to our notebook of recipes to try.
  • Recipe notebooks. As I just mentioned, we keep recipe notebooks. One notebook is full of recipes we both love, and the other is full of recipes we have agreed to try. We go through waves of creating meal plans out of the different notebooks. When we’re stressed, we tend to rely on our the book of our favorite recipes. When times aren’t so stressed and we’re feeling in a rut, we turn to the recipes we’d like to try. Both notebooks are arranged by type: Appetizers, Entrées, Side Dishes, Desserts, Drinks, etc.

Once or twice a month, we also have an on-our-own night. On these nights, we’ll both prepare dinner for our son, and then make whatever it is we want for ourselves. Our son might have leftovers, I might have a bowl of pasta, and my husband may pick up something from a drive-thru (another food type I usually avoid).

Thank you, Katie, for submitting your question for our Questions for cooks column. I hope I was able to give you some ideas, and please check the comments for even more suggestions from our readers.

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.

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.

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.

Questions for cooks: Cleaning cookware

Reader Andy submitted the following to Questions for cooks:

I have a couple of nice stainless steel pots and pans that I’ve completely blackened with high-temperature cooking experiments and burning oils. They are completely black on the bottom and top and in one of them, perpetually sticky with safflower oil. Is there any trick to restoring them to their original silver cleanliness?

The first thing I would do is ignore their color for a minute and instead look at their shape. If you set the pots and pans on a flat surface, do their bottoms completely lie flat? Or, are your pots and pans warped so that they wobble a bit or only directly connect to the surface in a few places? If the pots and pans are warped, it’s time to replace them. The unevenness is creating hot spots in your cookware and isn’t providing a consistent heat to the food you’re making. If they’re not warped, then consider cleaning methods.

If you need to buy new pots and pans, and if you can afford them, look for stainless steel ones with a copper metal core. The higher price will make you think twice before attempting crazy (fun) experiments, and the copper core will also be able to handle higher heats than likely what you have now (my guess is that your stainless steel currently has an aluminum core, which will scorch foods at higher temperatures). Also, if you get new pots and pans, please let them completely cool before ever running them under water. Your cookware will last much longer.

When cleaning stainless steel, you may need to try a few methods before finding the exact one that works for you. I recommend starting with the least caustic method and only increasing to a more caustic product if necessary.

The insides of the pan may come clean by simply bringing 2 cups of water to a boil, adding 2 tablespoons of baking soda, stirring the mixture around for a few minutes, and then turning off the heat and letting the entire pan cool. Baking soda has a pH level of around 9, which is fairly high compared to other cleaning products. I’m always surprised by how well baking soda works as a cleaning agent.

If baking soda worked on the inside of the pans, then make a thick paste — 1 tablespoon of baking soda, a few drops of lemon juice, and a few drops of water — to use on the exteriors of the pans. Use it like you would any abrasive cleaners and scrub it in with a soft sponge before rinsing it clean. Don’t use a scouring pad on your cookware.

If the baking soda method is a failure, try the Bar Keepers Friend Cookware Cleanser. At $9 a can, it’s not that much more expensive than the baking soda option and is a trusted brand of cookware cleaner. Again, remember to use a soft sponge and not a scouring pad when cleaning your cookware.

Sadly, if neither of the previous methods work, look for a commercial degreaser that is specifically made for cleaning stainless steel cookware. You’ll need to head to your local restaurant supply store to get your hands on one that is guaranteed food safe by the USDA. Take a pot or pan with you, and the employee at the restaurant supply store may even let you try the product out in the store to make sure it will work for you (no guarantees, but they just might let you). If someone recommends you use regular Simple Green All-Purpose Cleaner, do not take this advice, as it is not food safe. Simple Green does make a commercial food-safe degreaser, but expect to pay $60 to $80 for a bottle of it. The food safe degreasers you’ll find at a restaurant supply store are a fraction of that price.

Thank you, Andy, for submitting your question for our Questions for cooks column. Please check the comments for even more suggestions from our readers.

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.

Questions for cooks: Storing food processor blades

Reader C submitted the following to Questions for cooks:

I live in a teeny tiny apartment, with a teeny tiny kitchen. One of the problems of the kitchen is that I have very little counter space, and no drawers whatsoever – just cupboards and shelves.

That being the case, do you have a creative suggestion for a food processor storage solution? The blades especially have been a huge storage problem.

Before I offer up some storage solutions, I have a few questions for you. How often do you use your food processor? Do you have other small appliances that can do the same thing? The reason I ask is because I don’t own one and have never had a need for one. Whenever a recipe calls for one, I’ve been able to use an alternative like a mandoline, blender, or a basic chef’s knife. The only time I’ve borrowed one was when making brioche for the first time (using one of the recipes in Cookwise), but since then I’ve just used my stand mixer with the same success.

If you’re regularly using your food processor, and aren’t interested in getting rid of it, I recommend checking with your appliance’s manufacturer to see if they make a storage solution.

What’s nice about storage solutions made by the product’s manufacturer is that the storage device is specifically suited to exactly what you have. In this case, the blades lock into the holder and there is a plastic cover that fits perfectly over the blades, which is incredibly safe.

If your model doesn’t have a manufacturer-designed storage solution, I’d use something like a CD spindle or a paper towel holder. Then, I’d look for a protective covering you can fit over everything (a plastic ice cream tub might work).

Another option might be to store them in a drawer or box with appropriately sized dividers.

Thank you, C, for submitting your question for our Questions for cooks column. Be sure to check the comments for even more ideas from our readers.

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.

Questions for cooks: Grilling for apartment dwellers

Reader L submitted the following to Questions for cooks:

With summer approaching, more and more recipes are for grilled foods. These sound delicious, but I live in an apartment and the logistics of grilling are challenging, to say the least. There is a concrete pad about 20 yards away from my back door and that is where I set up my small charcoal grill (I tried a gas grill but was constantly afraid I’d blow myself up!). So, all the ingredients, utensils, etc. have to be carried there and then I have to keep watch to ensure that no small children or pets get into the danger zone around the grill. My question is, first, do you have any tips for simplifying the task given the restrictions that I have? Second, is a grill pan or a broiler in the oven equally usable for a grilled recipe? If not, can some recipes be adapted to use this equipment, and how would I know which recipes they are? Do grill pans always smoke? Thanks for any suggestions you can offer!

I’m likely about to upset some folks, but I don’t believe cooking food on gas grills is grilling. In my opinion, it’s simply broiling food outdoors. There isn’t anything you can do with a gas grill outdoors that you can’t do with your broiler on your oven. I believe the purpose of grilling foods is to cook them outdoors, over an open flame, and infuse the foods with flavors from burning wood (which you can get from logs on a campfire or hardwood charcoal in a grill). So, I think the little grill you have on your patio is perfect for grilling.

Although I don’t face the same space restraints you do, I typically grill on a small Smokey Joe during the week if I’m just making dinner for my family. What is nice about these small grills is you don’t have to use much charcoal, they heat up quickly, they’re small enough not to have inconsistent heating issues, and the charcoal goes out faster after you finish. Larger grills are perfect for entertaining, but can be a waste of time and resources for your regular, daily grilling needs.

I have a metal box with a flap I use to store and transport all of my grilling supplies. It includes a bag of hardwood charcoal (I love the Trader Joe’s brand), a chimney starter, long matches, ash pans (I usually just get disposable, aluminum turkey roasters for cheap from the grocery store), grilling tongs and spatula, an oven mitt, a water spray bottle, meat thermometers, and a tool for scrubbing/brushing off the grill grate. It’s not the most portable solution, I’m certain, but it is nice to have a single place where all of these supplies safely live when not in use. (And, obviously, don’t ever put ashes into the storage box. When cool enough after grilling, I collect all of the ashes into the disposable roasting pan, completely submerge the ashes in water, let the wet ashes in the ash pan sit on my patio for a day or two, and then dispose of the entire soggy mess.) I think a portable grill kit like this could work well for you, so you’re at least reducing the number of trips indoors and out when grilling.

If the weather is nasty or if you just don’t feel like firing up the grill one night, you can always achieve a similar effect with your stove or oven. A grilling pan works reasonably well (technically you’ll be frying your food), and you can get ones that cover one or two burners on your stove top. If you buy cast iron, you can also use these pans on your outdoor grill, in your oven, and directly on a campfire. A broiling pan (one likely came with your oven) is great to use for grilling (technically broiling) foods in the oven. Simply adjust the top rack in your oven to be the same distance away from the flames that you would choose for your grill rack to be away from the charcoal (I prefer the second or third height from the top — the top height is too close to the flames in my oven). When broiling, be careful to monitor the meat and keep a box of baking soda nearby in case you have any grease flare ups. Small fires are rare, but you want to be prepared in case they happen.

Good luck to you with your summer’s grilling adventures! Thank you, L, for submitting your question for our Questions for cooks column. Also, check out the comments for even more suggestions from our readers.

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.

Questions for cooks: Baking for two and sharing extras with friends

Reader Ali submitted the following to Questions for cooks:

I love to bake, but my husband and I don’t need to be eating 2 dozen cookies. I love to give them away to our friends and neighbors, but I don’t want them to have to bring dishes back. What can I do to take baked goods to our friends and keep them fresh and looking pretty without cluttering my house with disposable goods?

My first thought is, “Why are you making two dozen cookies at a time?” Sharing with friends and family is fun — it’s certainly one reason why I bake — but it’s not necessary every time you want to fire up the oven.

Make up the dough like you would normally. Scoop onto a cookie sheet or into a small baking pan the amount of dessert you and your husband plan to eat that day. Bake up those goodies (if necessary, adjusting the baking time as appropriate for the smaller baking pan). And, immediately freeze the rest of the dough.

If you’re freezing cookie dough, I scoop it out of the mixing bowl and make it into a tube shape. I wrap the tube in parchment paper like a piece of hard candy, and put it in my freezer for up to six months. Cut discs off the still-frozen dough log as you want them and bake up only the number of cookies you desire each time. Don’t forget to tightly roll the dough back up and return it to the freezer after cutting off the discs.

For other types of doughs, I line the container I plan to use for baking with a piece of parchment paper (do NOT substitute wax paper) and pour in the appropriate amount of dough. Then, I put the pan and the parchment paper in the freezer. When the dough is frozen solid, I remove the pan and put the formed dough and parchment in a reusable food storage container. Mini cakes and breads are wonderful this way. I just drop the parchment paper and frozen dough into the pan when I’m ready to bake the mini-cake or bread and adjust the baking time for the frozen contents (usually this involves cooking the dough at a slightly lower temperature with a longer baking time).

If you’re still interested in baking extras for your friends and family, I simply recommend wrapping things in parchment paper and delivering them like little packages. Sadly, the parchment can’t be recycled, but it will cut down on people having to return your containers. Or, show up at their door with a container of yours, and just ask to put the goodies in one of their containers before you leave. This method would certainly cut down on waste.

Thank you, Ali, for submitting your question for our Questions for cooks column. Check the comments for even more ideas from our readers.

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.

Questions for cooks: Skin-on or skin-less chicken?

Reader Rhonda submitted the following to Questions for cooks about chicken:

Do I remove the skin prior to cooking or after? I know you get better flavor (I am told) cooking with the bone but the skin contributes fat as well as flavor. I want the best flavor but want to limit animal fats as well. As a new cook who is cooking my own food for better health I need to know when something is critical for flavor or authenticity — I want it to taste like it was meant to taste and when it can be eliminated. I don’t need to be stringent with fats, just be aware of my choices, cutting back on animal fats where it doesn’t matter so I can use it where it does.

For a more authentic and succulent chicken flavor, you would leave the skin on during cooking.

When you cook a chicken with the skin on it, always start with a high heat so the fat can “fry” the skin (this works with both roasting and frying). You’ll know the fat is working to fry the skin when the skin turns a golden brown. Once you have a nice browned skin and the fat is no longer in a solid form between the skin and the meat, you should turn the heat down and slowly roast the bird at a lower temperature (the lower temperature helps keep the meat from getting unbearably dry).

Initially cooking the meat at a high temperature keeps most of the animal fat in the skin, which you can then choose to eat or not. If you cook the meat at a lower temperature from the very beginning, the fat won’t fry the skin but rather liquefy and soak into the meat. Some of the fat will do this even at high temperatures, but considerably less so.

For a less authentic flavor, but a less-fat option, you can remove the skin before cooking. However, chicken cooked without skin is prone to getting rubbery and very dry, so you’re more limited in your cooking methods.

I like to use skinned chicken in soups because boiling (or poaching) the meat with liquid keeps it tender. Also, any fat that made it into the soup can be skimmed off the surface when the soup cools. Grilling is also good because the hardwood charcoal infuses a smokiness into the meat. Adding breading and/or sauces can also help to spice up the flavors of skinless chicken.

Buying ground chicken is an alternative, too. With the addition of spices (and a splash or two of hot sauce), you can form patties and make a nice chicken burger.

The one method I don’t recommend for you is making a confit. In this method, you literally pack the chicken in fat before cooking. It tastes incredibly yummy, but it isn’t going to help you on your fat-reduction quest.

If I were you, I’d switch up the routine and keep things in moderation. Some times, I’d keep the skin on and then choose not to eat the skin at the meal. (Actually, I’d probably sneak a couple bites of the skin, but mostly I would pick it off.) Then, other times, I would cook the chicken without the skin.

Next week, I’ll have a post explaining how I cook a whole chicken. This might also be of some help to you.

Thank you, Rhonda, for submitting your question for our Questions for cooks column. Please check the comments for even more chicken-related cooking suggestions from our readers.

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.

Questions for cooks: Single-serving cooking

Reader Alice submitted the following to Questions for cooks:

I’m single and not very brave or experienced in the kitchen. My staples are takeout food and frozen dinners. I’d like to eat at home a little more often, but I could use some tips on how to make that work for my situation.

One challenge I face in particular is if I cook a meal designed for four, then I end up with wasted food or having to eat the same meal four times in a row. I’d appreciate suggestions for things I can cook and then freeze in individual portions, and the best methods for storing/reheating (mini plastic containers? Ziplocs?).

My first recommendation is to avoid strict recipes for awhile and just start experimenting in your kitchen with single portions of proteins and vegetables. Walk through the produce area of your grocery store and only buy as much of a vegetable that you would eat in a single meal. Get one small zucchini or a handful of fresh green beans or one Russet potato. Then, head to the fish and meat counters and get just one steak or one pork chop or one fish fillet.

If don’t already own one, also get an instant read thermometer. When you cook the meat, you’ll want the thermometer to help you figure out when the food is done. Consult the Safe Minimum Internal Temperatures list if you are unfamiliar with these temperatures.

The next step is to pull out a skillet and give cooking a try. Wash the vegetables and skin them or cut them up, if necessary. A dollop of canola oil in the bottom of a medium-heated pan and a little bit of salt over the vegetables is usually all you need for cooking them. The exception to this would be a potato, which you might prefer to bake.

Once the vegetables are done to your liking, put them on your plate, give the pan a quick wiping, add another dollop of canola oil, warm the pan back up to a medium heat, and put your protein in the pan. When the meat is finished, put it on your plate and enjoy your meal.

After a few weeks of the single protein and vegetable method, you’ll likely become bored and want to move on to more interesting meals. With your new-found confidence, though, you can branch out to more exciting things. I’ve just started reading the book Ratio, and I think it would be a good match for you, too. The book gives you the tools to adapt recipes so you can make just the amount you need. You can look at a recipe for 10 people and figure out how to make it work for one or two.

As far as storing and reheating are concerned, the best method is the one you will use. In the first few months of exploring your kitchen, it might be easiest for you to store food in zip-top bags (don’t reheat in a zip-top bag, though, just put the food on a plate or in a pan). The more comfortable you become, the more interested you might be in buying something like the Rubbermaid Easy Find Lid storage set (which is BPA-free) or a glass storage set like the Anchor Hocking TrueSeal containers. Label all the containers (you can use a reusable label or a piece of masking tape) with what is inside the container and the date you put it into the freezer. Freezing is a perfect idea for things like casseroles and other items that are difficult to reduce to a single serving size.

Thank you, Alice, for submitting your question for our Questions for cooks column. Be sure to check out the comments for even more helpful advice from our readers.

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.

Questions for cooks: What knives do I need?

Reader Jackie submitted the following to Questions for cooks:

I’m getting married this summer (!!) and my future husband and I have plans to register for gifts April 16. We like to cook, but our equipment isn’t very good. We have already agreed we want to register for a good knife set, but neither of us know what makes a knife good or what we need. Can you help?

Jackie, I’ve actually dedicated a couple of this week’s posts to talking about knives because I knew I would be using your question for today’s column. It’s hard to give a good answer about knives in just one post. Knife buying can be confusing, even for those of us who have purchased them before.

I’m of the opinion that you only need three knives to work efficiently in your kitchen:

  1. A chef’s knife (I prefer a 10″ blade but you might like 8″ if you have smaller hands and 12″ or 14″ if you or your future hubby can palm a basketball) — A chef’s knife is the go-to knife in the kitchen with a straight-edge blade. It’s good for slicing and chopping meat and vegetables.
  2. A paring knife (anywhere between a 2″ and 4″ blade) — This short straight-edge blade knife is good for working with small foods and garnishes.
  3. A bread knife (anywhere between a 8″ and 12″ blade) — This serrated blade knife, as its name implies, is best for cutting bread and other items that tend to squish when applied with pressure. I also use mine on tomatoes.

I have more knives than this in my kitchen, though. I also keep:

  1. A boning knife (mine has a 6″ blade) — This straight-edge blade knife is flexible so you can move it along curved surfaces, like around bones (hence, its name). It’s also good for trimming fat and removing gristle and silver skin from meat.
  2. A slicer/carving knife (mine has an 8″ blade) — This straight edge blade knife looks like a large paring knife. It has a stiff blade and is for the purposes of carving cooked meats, like roasts. Some styles have rounded tips and a granton edge. A granton edge has varied thickness on the edge, which looks like a wave or scallop pattern. The waves help to keep what you’re slicing from sticking to the knife as you work.
  3. A ceramic vegetable knife (I use a 7″ blade) — As discussed Wednesday, this type of knife is perfect for cutting fibrous vegetables.
  4. Poultry shears — A good pair of shears will cut through animal joints, pizza crust, and pretty much every thing you throw their way.
  5. 8 serrated steak knives — Obviously, they’re great for using on steaks. They’re also wonderful utility knives around the kitchen when you’re not entertaining guests.
  6. A mandoline — If you slice a large number of items at a time and want perfect cuts each time, a mandoline can make fast work of it. Personally, I love waffle fries, and the waffle slicer attachment is the easiest way to make them.

Many people also have Santoku-Bocho knives in their kitchens. Santoku knives usually have a granton edge, like a carving knife might, to keep food from sticking to it. People use them in place of or in addition to a chef’s knife.

Congratulations on your upcoming marriage and I hope I was able to help you navigate the knife-buying process. Please check the comments for more advice from our readers. Thank you, Jackie, 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.

Questions for Cooks: Open air fruit and vegetable storage

Reader Help (do you think it’s his/her real name?) submitted the following to Questions for cooks:

How can I properly store my non-refrigerated produce without forgetting about it so long it goes bad? I have individual bins in a dark place for potatoes, onions, and garlic. However, my counters are covered with winter squash, apples, oranges, bananas, avocado, etc. We go through it quickly enough that I don’t need to refrigerate it (no room in the fridge), but leaving it all out on the counter isn’t working.

My grandmother’s farm had a root cellar for exactly these types of foods. Fruits and vegetables seemed to last all winter down there, well, if we could keep the rodents and snakes from taking up residence. Since you wrote in with this question, though, I’m going to assume you don’t have a spare root cellar on your property you just happened to forget you owned.

If you’re a hardcore homesteader and live in a cold climate, you can build a root cellar in an unfinished basement or in your backyard. I didn’t get the hardcore homesteader vibe from you, however.

For those of us who regularly visit grocery stores and who live in cities or suburbia, fruit bowls on tables and a cupboard shelf dedicated to vegetables are probably more our style. Fruit bowls are great when left in areas where people gather and snack. And, a shelf in a kitchen cupboard is typically dry and dark, which are good for the vegetables.

Air circulation is really important for fruits and vegetables. They need it to dissipate the ethylene gas that they give off as they age. On a table, fruits shouldn’t have an issue since they’re in the open air. Rotate the fruits in the bowl, though, so a piece isn’t at the bottom for days on end. In a cupboard, vegetables will need some air circulation to stay fresher longer — so put them in a cupboard you access at least once a day. (Plus, you won’t forget about them if they’re in a cupboard you regularly open.) Also, line the shelf with fruit shelf liner to help air circulate beneath the veggies.

For both fruits and vegetables, if you notice anything rotting, immediately remove it from the bowl or shelf. The increased production of ethylene gas during the rotting process will make the foods around it ripen and rot faster than they normally would. Conversely, if you want a green banana to ripen faster, stick it in a closed paper bag with an older apple. Apples give off high amounts of ethylene gas and will help speed up the ripening process of the banana.

Thank you, Help, for submitting your question for our Questions for cooks column. Check the comments for even more ideas from our readers.

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.

Questions for cooks: Splatter free

Reader Nagle submitted the following to Questions for cooks:

I have always wondered how people avoid having a kitchen coated in splatter when using their stove-top griddles for cooking steaks, etc. It seems to me that the clean-up is not worth the “convenience” of cooking inside. So, I avoid doing it … Is there a trick I don’t know about?

When cooking steaks, frying something on the stove, or making a tomato-based sauce, I simply use a splatter guard. It significantly reduces the amount of oil, fat, and sauce splatter that makes it onto the stove, underside of the microwave, into the air, and on me.

Splatter guards don’t last very long — maybe six months — so I get the least expensive one with the smallest mesh I can find. I toss it into the dishwasher after a meal, and recycle it when it’s time to get a new one.

I also keep a damp sponge with a dollop of dishwashing detergent on it next to the stove as I cook. If I notice any spills or splatters, I clean them up immediately before they can dry and become difficult to remove. Cleaning as you go saves a lot of time over the long term. I also throw the sponge into the dishwasher at the end of the day to clean it. Then, after it has gone through the dishwasher, I’ll get the sponge damp again and throw it into the microwave for a few minutes to kill any remaining bacteria and germs — just be sure to let the sponge cool thoroughly before touching it again.

I have to say, though, that I like grilling and I think it’s fun to do even in the coldest of winter. If cooking outside is something you enjoy year round, by all means keep cooking outdoors. I especially like how it keeps the mess out my kitchen, too.

Thank you, Nagle, for submitting your question for our Questions for cooks column. Be sure to check the comments for even more ideas from our readers.

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.

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.

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.

Questions for Cooks

One of our favorite features on our sister site Unclutterer is Ask Unclutterer. Readers send us questions about uncluttering, organizing, and simple living, and once a week we pick one from the pile and answer it.

We would like to start a similar feature here on SimpliFried. Send us your unresolved questions about cooking styles, methods, ingredients, gadgets, meal planning, or anything even closely related to resolving stress or confusion in the kitchen, 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.

We look forward to reading your questions.

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