Questions and Answers About Cooking

Q: What are the best apples for baking?

A: Cortland, or Ida Redor Paula Red. You want a large apple that will hold its texture (and its flavor) during the long baking process. Apples that are good for applesauce, such as Macintosh, are useless for baking because they’ll turn to mush.

Q: Can you substitute baking soda and baking powder for one another?

A: Not directly. But baking soda—sodium bicarbonate—is a good leaven in pastries that contain acid such as buttermilk, sour cream, or yogurt. If there is little or no acid in a recipe and you want to use baking soda (or you’ve run out of baking powder), mix 1 teaspoon baking soda and 2 teaspoons cream of tartar. This works because cream of tartar is acidic and eliminates the need for additional acid in the batter. You can use this as a replacement for commercial baking powder—on a one-for-one basis—but you must work quickly once you combine wet and dry ingredients.

Why? Because this homemade baking powder is a single-action baking powder and begins to do its work the instant it is combined with liquid. Commercial baking powders are double-action; they partly begin to work when exposed to liquid, but another part works only when exposed to heat. You can see this: Little bubbles form between the time you combine ingredients and move the batter to the pan, but the batter continues to rise in the oven.

Commercial baking powder, therefore, is more effective than the homemade kind. But it isn’t necessarily more desirable because it has a distinctive flavor. (This is especially true of those containing aluminum.) It also becomes less effective over time. You should replace your baking powder, even if it isn’t used up, at least once a year.

Q: What sort of training do I need to become a professional chef?

A: If you want to train to be a practical chef—the kind of person who runs a hotel restaurant, a restaurant that’s part of a chain, a large catering operation, or anything corporate—it’s best to go to an accredited cooking school. They exist in almost every major metropolitan center and at many universities.

If you want to be a celebrity chef, however, all you need are ambition, personality, creativity, talent, about 15 years of hard work, and a lot of luck. The best way to start is to apprentice under an old-fashioned chef and stick with it.

Q: When I roast a whole chicken, what’s the best way of testing whether it is fully cooked?

A: To be sure, you need two methods: The first is an instant-read thermometer inserted into the meatiest part of the thigh; it should read at least 155 degrees (some people say 165 or more to insure perfect safety). The second is to make sure the juices in the cavity and at the bone joints run clear, not bloody (a touch of pink is probably okay). Usually, the thermometer is enough, and the second method just a precaution; it depends on your level of paranoia. In time, you will know when a chicken is done just by looking and touching.

Q: If a cake recipe requires three 8-by-2-inch cake pans, is it OK to use three 9-by-2-inch pans instead?

A: Yes—as long as you keep an eye on things; the cooking time will be significantly shorter, but as nocooking times are ironclad it should be fine.

Q: Does searing a large cut of meat such as tenderloin before roasting it really ‘seal in’ all of the juices and flavor?

A: Not at all. You can’t seal the juices in a piece of meat any more than you can seal the blood in your body (sorry, but it’s the best analogy). If you poke a hole, some of those juices will come out, and searing will do nothing to change that. (On the other hand, poking a hole is not the same as popping a balloon but more like cutting yourself; some juices will come out, but on the whole the damage will not be noticeable.)

However, searing—or browning, a more understandable word—adds flavor to foods, by creating complex flavors. So there is still a good reason to do it, if time allows. If time does not allow, it’s a step that can usually be skipped.

Q: If a recipe calls for dark brown sugar, can I substitute light brown sugar? Is there any real difference?

A: Absolutely you can substitute; the only difference is the amount of molasses they each contain. The flavor of dark brown sugar is somewhat more complex (and bitter, in the way that molasses is bitter), but not noticeably in most recipes. Remember that usually either is but one of many ingredients in a given preparation.

Q: Is there any advantage to using a cast-iron skillet rather than a regular or nonstick skillet?

A: Cast iron is inexpensive and lasts forever; it’s virtually indestructible. It has a couple of disadvantages, however: One, it is heavy, and, especially when loaded with food, requires strength to handle. Two, it is not nonstick until it develops the patina that comes with use. (You can encourage this nonstick surface to develop by washing cast-iron pans with little or no soap and wiping them dry; wiping them with a tiny bit of oil every now and then also helps.) But all in all it remains an excellent material for skillets and sauté pans.

Q: What exactly is ‘deglazing,’ and how does one do it?

A: If you’ve made gravy after roasting a turkey, you’ve ‘deglazed.’

When you cook meat, fish, or vegetables in fat—oil or butter, usually—some of the flavor (and, if you’re not using a nonstick pan, some of the meat, fish, or vegetable) stays behind in the pan. This flavor can be recaptured and turned into a sauce by adding a bit of liquid—typically wine or stock, but really any liquid, like juice, coffee, or even water—to the pan and stirring over high heat until the liquid reduces in volume a bit. (Another term for deglazing is ‘making a reduction.’) The resulting sauce can be enriched by stirring in a little butter or olive oil, but it isn’t necessary. Here’s a recipe, with plenty of options (from The Minimalist Cooks at Home):

Basic Reduction Sauce

Total time: 20 minutes

Makes about 2 cups

2 tablespoons minced shallot, onion, or scallion

3 cups stock or water

2 tablespoons softened butter or olive oil (optional)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1. Remove whatever meat, fish, or poultry you’ve cooked from the roasting pan or skillet and pour off all but 1 or 2 tablespoons of the cooking fat (if there are non-fatty juices in the skillet or roasting pan leave them in there). Place the pan over high heat (use two burners if the pan is large). Add the shallot and cook, stirring, until it softens, about 1 minute.

2. Add the liquid and cook, stirring and scraping to loosen the brown bits at the bottom of the pan. Allow the liquid to boil for about 5 minutes, or until about a third of it evaporates. (This is a good time to carve the meat, if that’s necessary, as the boiling liquid need not be stirred except very occasionally.)

3. Turn the heat to medium-low and add the butter or oil, a little at a time, stirring well after each addition to incorporate it. Taste and season if necessary with salt and pepper, then serve with the meat.

There are several ways to add weight to a reduction:

Reduce 1/2 to 1 cup of wine, fortified wine, or fruit or vegetable juice to just a couple of tablespoons before adding the stock or water.

Make the flavor even stronger by stirring in a teaspoon or more of prepared mustard, horseradish, soy sauce, or other condiments.

Add minced fresh or dried herbs to the mixture along with the shallots: a few tablespoons of parsley or small amounts of sage, tarragon, or thyme are all good. You can also add capers, anchovies, chopped bell pepper, or minced garlic.

Q: What kind of consistency can I expect for gravy if I use flour and butter? Cornstarch?

Cornstarch is the easiest: A tablespoon or two of cornstarch, mixed with a tablespoon or two of cold water, and stirred into a cup of simmering liquid, will thicken it instantly (the more cornstarch you use, the thicker it will get) and without any lumps. Butter and flour is more difficult, because flour does lump. There are ways around that, but they’re much more complicated than using cornstarch. Or skip the thickening entirely, as it is essentially cosmetic; if it’s flavor you’re after, just stir in a little bit of butter.

Q: What are some tips for buying fish?

A: It can be simple: Good fish looks and smells good. If it smells bad, it can’t taste good. Some fishmongers at supermarket seafood counters may not allow you to smell fish before buying it. If this is the case but the fish passes the appearance test, you might consider buying it, opening the package on the spot, and—if the smell is at all off—handing it right back.

Steaks and fillets are best cut to order from whole fish. Whole fish keep better than precut steaks and fillets. In addition, cutting to order allows you to dictate the size and thickness of the steak, as well as to request fillets from the best-looking fish. Quality is probably a top priority for a store that provides this service.

However, most fillets and even steaks are cut from fish before they reach the fish counter. So here are a few general rules:

*Start with your eyes: The surface of the fish should glisten; it should be bright, clear, reflective, and almost translucent. Generally, you don’t want any fish whose surface appears brown, dull, opaque, or muddy. Remember, fillets and steaks should be on—not in—ice, and there should be no puddles of water.

*Use your fingers: Most fishmongers won’t let you touch fish—it’s usually against local health standards, and reasonably so. But you can ask the counterperson to press his or her finger into the fish’s flesh; it should appear firm and elastic. If it looks mushy, or if the finger leaves a lasting impression, move on.

*Finish with your nose: As stated above, if fish doesn’t smell sweet, if it doesn’t smell like the sea, turn your nose up.

Q: What is the best way to cook pasta?

A: The most important thing is to start with good pasta, made from 100 percent durum wheat; the country of origin is less important, but you’re most likely to find good pasta at a good price from Italy.

Cook the pasta in a gallon or even five quarts of well-salted water per pound. Boil the water, and keep it boiling as the pasta cooks; stir the pasta so it does not stick (you do not need oil). Don’t overcook the pasta, but don’t undercook it either. Drain it quickly, but leave some water on it; sauce it well, but don’t kill it with sauce; and put it in a hot bowl so it stays hot.

Q: What’s the best way to cook a turkey?

A: The best way to cook a turkey is FAST, as in this recipe:

Roast Turkey (from The Minimalist Cooks at Home, by Mark Bittman)

Time: 2 hours 30 minutes

Makes at least 12 servings, with leftovers

12-pound turkey

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees F. Rinse the turkey and remove the giblets; save the liver for any stuffing you choose to make. Loosely pack the turkey cavity with stuffing if you’d like, then tie the legs together to enclose the vent.

Place the turkey on a rack in a large roasting pan. Add 1/2 cup water to the bottom of the pan, along with the turkey neck, gizzard, and any other trimmings. Place in the oven, legs first.

Roast 20 to 30 minutes, or until the top begins to brown, then turn the heat down to 350 degrees. Continue to roast, checking every 30 minutes or so; if the top threatens to brown too much, lay a piece of aluminum foil directly onto it. If the bottom dries out, add water, about 1/2 cup at a time. The turkey is done when an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh measures 165 degrees. If, when the turkey is nearly done, the top has not browned enough, turn the heat back up to 425 degrees for the last 20 to 30 minutes of cooking.

Remove the turkey from the oven. Take off the rack and make pan gravy or other sauce while the bird rests (let it sit for about 20 minutes before carving).

Q: In good cooking is it more important to be creative or to be precise?

A: You must differentiate between cooking and baking. In cooking, anyone with a modicum of skills and experience—and I would think cooking 50 meals over a six-month period would get you into this category—would gain enough experience to begin improvising, with the help of recipes. After five years of steady cooking, few people rely on cookbooks in the same way they do when they are beginning.

Baking is another story: It’s chemistry. It takes a great deal of skill and experience to be able to bake, especially desserts, without following a recipe.

Q: How do you cook an artichoke?

A: You can start by cutting the pointed tips from artichoke leaves before cooking, but you don’t have to. It’s best to use a paring knife to peel around the base and cut off the bottom one-quarter inch, then break off the roughest and darkest layers of exterior leaves.

Artichokes contain an enzyme that makes them discolor as soon as they’re cut and cooked; this doesn’t affect the flavor. If you want to preserve their color, drop them into a mixture of 1 tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar per cup of water as you prepare them, and add a splash of vinegar or lemon juice to the cooking water. It’s also best to use nonaluminum knives and cooking utensils when working with artichokes.

Steaming is the easiest way to cook an artichoke—just make sure the pot doesn’t boil dry. Here’s a recipe:

Basic Steamed Artichokes

Time: 45 minutes

Makes 4 servings

4 large or 12 very small artichokes

Several sprigs fresh tarragon or thyme (optional)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

With scissors or a large knife, trim the top 1/2 inch or so from the artichokes. Using a paring knife, peel around the base and cut off the bottom 1/4 inch. Break off the roughest of the exterior leaves.

Place artichokes bottom up in a steamer. Cover and cook 20 to 40 minutes. Sample an outer leaf; when it pulls away easily and its meat is tender, the artichokes are done.

Drain the artichokes upside down for a minute or two longer before serving hot; store upside down if you plan to serve them later. Serve hot with melted butter, at room temperature with vinaigrette, or cold with mayonnaise. Or serve at any temperature with lemon or salt.

Q: When I make scones, they often crumble—but I’m hesitant to keep adding more fatty butter into the mix. Can you recommend a low-fat scone recipe?

A: Scones are rich muffins, or ultra-rich biscuits: You can’t make them without eggs, and they’re best with cream or butter. You can substitute oil for the butter (although that doesn’t reduce the fat, just the cholesterol) and skim milk for the cream, but if you take things any further than that it isn’t a scone any more!

Here is a recipe for Cream Scones I particularly like (from How To Cook Everything; Hungry Minds Publishing, 1998):

2 cups (about 9 ounces) all-purpose or cake flour, plus more as needed

1 scant teaspoon salt

4 teaspoons baking powder

2 tablespoons sugar

5 tablespoons cold butter

3 eggs

3/4 cup heavy cream

1/3 cup dried currants or raisins

1 tablespoon water

1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

2. Mix the dry ingredients together in a bowl or food processor, reserving 1 tablespoon of the sugar. Cut the butter into bits and either pulse it in the food processor (this is the easiest method) or pick up a bit of the dry ingredients, rub them with the butter between your fingers, and drop them again. All the butter should be thoroughly blended before you move to the next step.

3. Beat 2 of the eggs with the cream; with a few swift strokes, combine them with the dry ingredients. Use only a few strokes more to stir in the currants.

4. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead it ten times, but no more. If it is very sticky, add a little flour, but very little; don’t worry if the dough sticks to your hands a bit.

5. Press the dough into a 3/4-inch-thick rectangle and cut into 2-inch rounds with a biscuit cutter or a glass. Place the rounds on an ungreased baking sheet. Gently reshape the leftover dough and cut again.

6. Beat the remaining egg with 1 tablespoon of water, and brush this mixture on the top of each scone. Sprinkle each with a little of the remaining sugar.

7. Bake 7 to 9 minutes, or until the scones are a beautiful golden brown. These scones keep better than biscuits, but they should still be eaten the same day you make them.

Makes 10 to 14 scones

Time: 20 minutes

Q: Do you have a recipe for a good macaroni and cheese?

A: I think so:

Baked Macaroni and Cheese (from How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman, 1998).

This is macaroni and cheese for grown-ups; not that kids won’t like it, but it’s far from sweet and gooey. Rather, it is fragrant and almost sharp, thanks to the bay leaves and Parmesan.

Time: about 45 minutes

Makes 4 to 6 servings

2 1/2 cups milk (low-fat is fine)

2 bay leaves

1 pound elbow, shell, ziti, or other cut pasta

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter

3 tablespoons flour

1 1/2 cups grated cheese, such as sharp cheddar or Emmenthal

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/2 cup or more plain bread crumbs, preferably fresh

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Bring a large pot of water to a boil.

Cook the milk with the bay leaves in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. When small bubbles appear along the sides, about 5 minutes later, turn off the heat and let stand. Salt the boiling water and cook the pasta to the point where it is almost done but still needs another minute or two to become tender. Drain it, rinse it quickly to stop cooking, and place it in a large bowl.

In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, melt 3 tablespoons of the butter; when it is foamy, add the flour and cook, stirring, until the mixture browns (about 5 minutes). Remove the bay leaves from the milk and add about 1/4 cup of the milk to the hot flour mixture, stirring all the while with a wire whisk. As soon as the mixture becomes smooth, add a little more milk, and continue to do so until all the milk is used up and the mixture is thick and smooth. Add the cheddar or Emmenthal and stir.

Pour the sauce over the pasta, toss in the Parmesan, and season with salt and pepper. Use the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter to grease a 9-by-13-inch size baking pan and turn the noodle mixture into it. Top liberally with bread crumbs and bake until the crumbs turn brown (about 15 minutes). Serve piping hot.

Q: What is the difference between mixing and folding ingredients?

A: When a recipe says to mix, you can attack the ingredients and combine them however you like, even using a blender. Folding is a technique that allows ingredients containing large amounts of air—most often beaten cream or egg whites—to retain their volume when mixed with thicker substances, such as batter. To fold, scoop the bottom of the batter over the top of the beaten substance using a rubber spatula, a wooden spoon, or—the best tool—your cupped hand. Generally, the mixture should be combined only enough to integrate, not until it is perfectly smooth.

Q: Is it worth the higher price to use organic foods for cooking?

A: This is a personal choice more than anything else. Organic foods have become popular enough that they are no longer much more expensive than ‘regular’ foods. Do organic foods taste better? In general, they don’t taste any better than high-quality nonorganic foods. Are they healthier? I think so. Personally, I buy organic meats, vegetables, grains, and legumes when I can, but I am not a fanatic about it.

Q: I have a young daughter, and I’m nervous about her consuming raw eggs because of the health risks. Is there any substitute for raw egg whites in recipes for food like cake frosting?

A: Although I’m not a health expert, my understanding is that the risk of an individual egg containing salmonella is about 1 in 10,000, so I would not be too concerned. The risk is multiplied when large numbers of eggs are mixed together—as happens in commercial kitchens—because a bad egg would contaminate the whole batch.

Nevertheless, the easiest thing to do is to avoid the issue entirely by making a frosting that does not contain any eggs. Sweetened whipped cream is the easiest substitute for eggs. Here’s another alternative:

Vanilla Butter Cream Frosting (from How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman).

Time: 10 minutes

Makes enough frosting and filling for one 9-inch layer cake, or two dozen cupcakes

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened

4 cups confectioners’ sugar

6 tablespoons cream or milk, plus a little more if needed

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1. Use a fork or electric mixer to cream the butter. Gradually work in the sugar, alternating with the cream and beating well after each addition.

2. Stir in the vanilla. If the frosting is too thick to spread, add a little more cream, one teaspoon at a time. If it is too thin (unlikely, but possible, especially after the addition of lemon or orange juice as a variation), refrigerate; it will thicken as the butter hardens.

Q: Can you tell me how to make a simple salad dressing that only uses basic ingredients commonly found at home?

A: It’s a breeze, and you have two options. One is to toss the salad with extra-virgin olive oil and good vinegar (sherry vinegar, balsamic vinegar, or good wine vinegar), just to taste; take it easy on the vinegar. Lemon juice, which is less acidic (strain out the seeds), is another alternative. Or do something like this:

Basic Vinaigrette

Time: 5 minutes

Makes about 3/4 cup

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

3 tablespoons or more good wine vinegar

Salt to taste

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 heaping teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 large shallot (about 1 ounce), peeled and cut into chunks, optional

Combine all ingredients, except the shallot, in a blender. A creamy emulsion will form within 30 seconds. Taste, and add vinegar, a teaspoon or two at a time, until the balance tastes right to you.

Add the shallot and turn the machine on and off a few times until the shallot is minced within the dressing. Taste, adjust seasoning, and serve. (This is best made fresh but will keep in the refrigerator for a few days. Return to room temperature and whisk briefly before using.)

Q: Where can I purchase a handheld sausage-stuffer like my Dad used years ago? It was so simple, but I can’t find it anywhere.

A: You might find one in Cook’s Catalogue, but your best bet is an old-fashioned store or country market in Italy.

Q: I’m looking for a recipe for smoothies. Can you help?

A: The word “smoothie” means different things to different people, but here are two recipes I like very much. The two smoothies, both cold and sweet, are adapted from my book How to Cook Everything.

Banana-Yogurt Shake

When your bananas become overripe, peel them and wrap them in plastic wrap, then freeze them. Use them to make this great smoothie.

Time: 5 minutes

Makes 2 servings

1 frozen banana

1 cup orange juice, preferably freshly squeezed

1 cup plain or vanilla yogurt

Combine all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth.

Banana-Vanilla Shake

Time: 5 minutes

Makes 2 servings

1 ripe banana (frozen is okay)

1 cup milk

1/2 cup crushed ice

Sugar or sugar syrup to taste

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract, plus more if necessary

1. Combine all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth.

2. Taste and adjust seasoning by adding more vanilla or sugar syrup if necessary.

Instead of vanilla, you can also use a grating of nutmeg and a little cinnamon.

Q: Do you have a tasty recipe for spaghetti that is easy for teenagers to make?

A: This is a good recipe that is a little different, and most kids like it. (Excerpted from How to Cook Everything.)

Penne with Ricotta, Parmesan, and Peas

The butter is optional in this recipe, but it lends a nice richness and creaminess. Add a bit of minced sautéed ham or mushrooms to this sauce if you like.

Makes about 4 servings

Time: 30 minutes

1 cup freshly shelled or frozen peas

1 pound penne, ziti, or other cut pasta

About 1 cup fresh ricotta, available in Italian and specialty food markets

1 tablespoon softened butter (optional)

1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil.

2. Cook the peas in boiling salted water to cover, just until tender, about 3 minutes. Drain and rinse in cold water to stop the cooking; drain and set aside.

3. Salt the boiling water and cook the pasta. While it is cooking, mix together the ricotta, butter, cooked peas, and half of the Parmesan in the bottom of a warm bowl. When the pasta is just about done, remove about a cup of the pasta cooking water and use as much of it as you need to smooth the ricotta mixture into a sauce.

4. Toss the pasta with the ricotta mixture, add additional pasta cooking water if necessary, and serve, passing the remaining Parmesan at the table.