Tips and Tricks

Helpful hints for recipe creation and cooking in general.

Chocolate:

  • Basic Ganache Recipe – Somewhere between 1:1 (1 oz chocolate to 1 oz cream) and 2:1 (2 oz chocolate to 1 oz cream) depending on the desired thickness. Pour hot cream over the chocolate and stir to melt. That’s it.
  • Tempering  – Tempering is essential if you want your chocolate to be smooth, shiny, and have a nice snap when you bite into it. Tempering just means controlling the heating and cooling of the chocolate so that we coax the crystals of the chocolate to align in an order that produces that beautiful effect (for more detail on the physics of tempering, read this great Smithsonian Magazine article). Using a “seed” chunk of already tempered chocolate helps coax the melted chocolate into the right crystal formation. Most chocolate you buy in the store is already tempered, but you may have experienced opening up a candy bar and finding the chocolate to have white streaks and look chalky. This isn’t mold or dangerous in any way – it just means the chocolate has lost its temper and the cocoa butter has separated, probably because the chocolate melted a bit and then cooled improperly. To avoid this unpleasant look, temper any chocolate that is going to be unadulterated (just pure chocolate), such as in the shells of these truffles. The great thing about chocolate is that if you mess up and it loses it’s temper, you can just remelt the chocolate and temper it again! Below are basic instructions for tempering chocolate using the seeding method:
    1. Set up a double boiler over medium heat with about an inch of water in the bottom pan
    2. Add finely chopped chocolate and melt while stirring until it reaches 105-115°F (I used my instant read thermometer). This temperature should be reached shortly after all the chocolate is melted.
    3. Transfer the melted chocolate to a bowl and cool to 100°F while stirring
    4. Add a couple of reserved tempered chocolate chunks (the seed) and stir to cool until it reaches 86°F
    5. Remove the unmelted chocolate seeds to a piece of wax paper for hardening and later use
    6. The chocolate is now ready to use, although it may require additional heating or cooling to reach your desired consistency. As long as the chocolate remains between 85-90°F, it won’t lose its temper. Anything outside this range and you’ll want to start the process over!

Charring Corn Tortillas:

  • I like flour tortillas, but I don’t think they add to a taco in the same way that a corn tortilla does. A few years ago I had a gas stove and started quickly charring the corn tortillas directly over the flame while warming them. This was game-changing – the char gives them a smoky campfire flavor and really brings out the sweet corn taste. My tacos were completely elevated. Now I’m back to an electric stove. I tried charring them on the electric burner this time, but it tasted weird. Until I get a gas stove again, I’ll have to soften them in the microwave.

Cocktails:

  • “Classic cocktail ratio” is 2 parts alcohol:1 part sour:1 part sweet. Sodas probably contribute a bit to this, but I mostly consider them volumizers and bubbles.
    • This belies the difficulty of figuring out whether citrus juice should be considered full sour, or part sour and part sweet, not to mention the many pretty sweet alcohols in existence, such as fortified wines. I’m going to start my experimentation assuming most fruit juice is 1 part sweet and 1 part sour (so if it’s 2 oz it would count as 1 oz sweet and 1 oz sour). And I’ll try to take into account the sweetness of the alcohol and go from there. A perusal of my favorite cocktail recipes came up with the following ratios:
      [2:1:0.75],[2:1:1.5],[2.5:1.5:2],[2:1.5:2],[2:0.25:0.75],[2:0.5:1.25]
      The “sweet” was never more than ~0.5 parts simple syrup, so I’ll start with keeping alcohol the highest proportion, adding up to the same amount of sour or juice depending on how sour it is, then adding simple syrups to taste. We’ll see how it goes!
  • I’ve also read that it’s not a cocktail unless there’s 2 types of alcohol. Make of that what you will.
  • What is a dash? – I used to think that a dash was just one shake of the bottle, i.e. one drop. Like… dash was the noise it made. A while ago I used a recipe that said a dash was actually 6 drops, so I started using that measurement. More recently, I looked it up online and it turns out there’s no hard definition of a dash. The kitchn says one dash is a little less than 1/4 tsp, which is actually quite a lot. Since it varies so much, I’m going to post tsp measurements of my dashes for clarity and reproducibility.

  • Shaken or stirred? – James Bond, anyone? Pretty much every cocktail is chilled with ice before serving, but the method of chilling has a huge impact on the drink. This melts a lot of the ice, and the water produced is a key component of the resulting drink. It also makes the final drink cloudy, because of aeration, but it also might be because of the Ouzo effect. This happens because the alcohol, especially the liqueur, has oils (aka flavor) dissolved in it that are less soluble in water (see my Basic Vinaigrette post for a discussion of polarity). As the water from the ice is added the drink is diluted, extracting the oils from the alcohol and forming an emulsion. In contrast, stirring the drink with ice before straining is gentler and will result in less ice melt, leaving the flavor more concentrated and the drink more clear.

Equipment:

As you know, I have very little space to store kitchen appliances. Here are some of the things I find worth their real estate (or don’t!):

  • Pizza stones – Pizza stones are cheap and totally worth it to get that extra crispy crust. I leave mine in the bottom of my oven all the time so I don’t have to remember to put it in before preheating – it also helps even out the temperature of my oven! If you don’t have a pizza peel, a flipped over sheet pan will get the job done.
  • Ice cream makers – I received an ice cream maker for my birthday a few years ago, and while it takes up some storage space, it really brings me joy (take that Marie Kondo!). It’s a basic frozen bucket electric spin model. I keep the bucket in my freezer all the time, just in case I have a sudden urge to make ice cream. It’s allowed me to experiment with unusual flavors, I can be sure the ice cream I’m making doesn’t have any preservatives or weird ingredients, and I get to impress my friends!20190210_165220
  • Save your empty jelly and pasta sauce jars for homemade vinaigrette storage!
  • Thermometers – In cooking and baking, there are some conditions where thermometers are unnecessary, and some where they are crucial. When cooking meat, thermometers help you determine the perfect point of doneness (not undercooked and a health hazard, not overcooked and tough) without having to cut into the meat. When making candy, thermometers are essential to ensuring that the physical changes that occur in the ingredients – caramelization of sugars, crystallization of cooling chocolate are controlled to produce the desired product. I have both an ethanol-based candy thermometer and an instant read digital thermometer. I only really use the candy thermometer when the material I’m measuring is quite liquid, so I can be sure that the heat in one area is representative of the whole batch. As you can see below, tempering chocolate requires constant monitoring of the temperature. While experts probably get a feel for what temperature the chocolate has reached without measuring, why take that risk? Speaking of… I highly recommend that everyone get an oven thermometer. Temperature is crucial for accurate baking, and just because you program your oven for a particular temperature, doesn’t mean it will achieve that temperature. The only way to know for sure is to measure it. And oven temperatures are so cheap, there’s really no excuse!
  • Double boilers – A double boiler is simply a stack of two containers. The one on the bottom touches the heat source and contains water that will boil. The container on the top is held by the bottom container but does not touch the heat source or the water – it only touches the steam produced during the boiling. My MacGyvered double boiler is two saucepans that are exactly the same size, but you could also use a metal or glass bowl over a smaller saucepan. The purpose of a double boiler is to precisely control the temperature of the top container in a way that a stovetop cannot. This works because water boils when it reaches 212°F. At that point, the water is converted to steam, which means that any remaining water in the pan is still only 212°F. It also means that the steam that is released from this boiling is also 212°F. Since this steam is the only source of heat for the top container, it is maintained at a constant (and relatively cool) 212°F for gentle and even heating. Using the physics of boiling water in this way is similar to using water baths when baking a cheesecake or making creme brulee.

  • Food scales – Just a quick note, for some recipes I will include weights in grams as well as the usual volume measurements. The rest of the world weighs dry goods while cooking, and for good reason – volume is highly variable depending on grind size, humidity, and compression, but weight never changes. That means that recipes with weights will replicate more exactly than those with volumes. I have a small kitchen scale that I store in a drawer for this purpose, and it’s totally worth the space.

  • Dental Floss – This is kind of weird, but I really like using dental floss for clean cuts of foods with a dough-like consistency – cookies, ice cream, butter, etc. I find it a lot easier than using a knife. In the case of this cake, I wrapped the floss around the circumference, making sure that it was in the perfect location on all sides. Then I just crossed the ends of the floss and pulled in opposite directions to close the loop. As I pulled, the loop got smaller and smaller, and the only direction it could travel was through the ice cream. Simple!

  • Piping Bags – I do a decent amount of piping when making desserts. It gives you precise control and allows you to make intricate designs for beautiful desserts. But buying and washing expensive piping bags is not my idea of fun. Instead, I use large or small ziplock bags with the tip cut off. Besides being cheap and readily available, this allows you to choose exactly the size of opening you want. I recommend starting by cutting a smaller hole than you think you’ll need. You can always cut it larger, but you can’t go back
  • Immersion Blenders – I use an immersion blender to make the “magic” sauce directly in the storage container, because it’s the only blender I own. If you’ve never seen one, immersion blenders are basically a blade on a stick that you submerge into the pot/bowl/pan that you’ve prepared your ingredients in, rather than transferring the ingredients to the carafe of a blender. It’s easy to clean, reduces the number of dishes and transfer of hot liquids, and takes up less space than a regular blender. It’s not as powerful as something like a Vitamix and couldn’t crush ice. If you already have a standard blender, feel free to use that

Ginger:

  • Fresh ginger can be a pain to peel and grate. Here are two tricks: For peeling, use a metal spoon to scrape off the peel. It will come off very easily, way better than trying to cut it off with a knife or use a peeler. For grating, I store my leftover ginger in the freeze, which not only makes it last longer, but also hardens it up so that it grates on a microplane like a breeze. Just remember to grate extra, because the volume will decrease by about half as it thaws.

Glaze/icing:

  • Powdered sugar + liquid (milk, juice, alcohol, etc) until desired consistency is reached. The end.

Ice Cream:

  • Tempering Eggs – The most important thing to discuss here is how to temper eggs. When making a custard, there is a step where you combine hot liquid with cold eggs. Adding the eggs to the heat all at once would result in scrambled eggs, rather than the velvety custard texture you’re looking for. To solve this problem, you slowly combine the eggs and the hot liquid while whisking constantly. This brings the temperature of the eggs up and cooks them by degrees, while the whisking controls the environment so that they form tiny smooth lumps, rather than big scrambles. The way I usually do it is put the eggs in a large bowl, start whisking and stream in ~2 Tbsp of liquid. Once that’s combined I add another 2 Tbsp. As the eggs get warmer you can add more and more liquid each time. By the time I’ve added about half the liquid I usually just add the rest of the liquid in one go. The final step is returning the whole mixture to the pan you warmed the liquid in to finish cooking the custard to the desired consistency. Which brings me to…
  • Checking Custard Consistency – I’m always amazed by the physical properties of custard. You will cook it for a while and it will seem very loose and liquidy. You’ll wonder to yourself whether it will ever turn into custard, and then all of a sudden, poof! It’s thickened! Just in case you’re still unsure, the easiest way to check custard consistency is to stir it up with your spoon or spatula, pull out your spoon, and draw a line in the custard on the back of the spoon with your finger. If you’re able to create a defined line and the rest of the custard doesn’t immediately fill in the empty space, you’re good!

Leftovers:

  • How to store leftover pasta for microwaving: I’m super excited that I just learned this! I don’t know about you, but I always was very disappointed because the next day my mixed pasta and sauce would be very dried out and grainy, not luscious like the day I made it. Unpleasant to eat. Here is the solution:
    • Save pasta cooking water
    • Wait for pasta and sauce to completely cool. This is the stage where it gets grainy because the pasta continues to absorb the liquid in the sauce.
    • Once the pasta is completely cool, stir in reserved pasta water until sauce is back to it’s smooth, saucy self.
    • Now, when you pack it up to put in the fridge, the pasta is not going to absorb any more water overnight, and the sauce will remain perfect the next day.
  • Juice: If you ever use fresh lemon juice for a recipe, you know you can be left with more than you need for the recipe. It would be a shame to throw that perfectly good juice down the drain! Instead, I pour it into an ice cube tray and freeze it, then store the cubes in plastic bags in the freezer. Even better, I bought an ice cube tray where each cube is 1 Tbsp, so I know how many cubes to get out of the freezer for future recipes. I especially like using this frozen juice for cocktails. I’ve taken this trick as far as buying citrus in bulk bags, and squeezing all the citrus at once for long term freezer storage.

Mangoes:

  • How to Cut a Mango:
    1. Cut off the fat end to make a stable surface
    2. Stand on its end and use a sharp knife to cut the two “fillets” from each side of the large skinny seed
    3. Cut the fillets longways in halves or thirds to reduce the curvature of the skin
    4. Lay skin side down and skin like a piece of fish – stick your knife blade between the skin and the flesh at one end, then hold the knife parallel to the cutting board while sliding towards the other end of the filet
    5. Cut up mango flesh into whatever size pieces you want

Roux:

  • A roux is just a combination of flour and fat. The flour provides the thickening and the fat helps smooth the flour so it doesn’t create lumps.
  • The ratio of fat to flour in a roux can be varied, but the amount of flour relative to your final sauce volume is very important for the thickness of the sauce. A quick perusal of the internet found that fat: flour can range from 1:0.5 to 1:2 (by volume). This will definitely change the thickness of the roux, but any extra liquid will be incorporated into your final sauce anyway.
  • To figure out the amount of roux to make, a good rule of thumb is 2 Tbsp flour per 2 cups of liquid (milk, cream, stock, etc) will make a medium sauce that resembles boxed macaroni and cheese, while less flour will make a thin sauce that could be drizzled over steak or fish, and more flour will make a thick sauce that might be used in a baked pasta.
  • It’s important to cook the roux for a bit before adding it to sauces so that the flour breaks down and no longer tastes raw. After that point, the length of cooking the roux changes the color and flavor profile from white (3-5 min cooking, most thickening, used for bechamel), to blond (6-7 min cooking, ivory color and nutty aroma, used in cream soups), to brown (15-20 min cooking, least thickening, dark brown, strong nutty flavor, used in Cajun cooking).

Salad Dressing:

  • The basic vinaigrette ratio is 1 part vinegar to 3 parts oil. Start there are you can’t go too far wrong.
  • Oil and vinegar don’t love to mix, but an emulsifier can help bring the whole party together. Mustard (Dijon is my preference) is a great emulsifier. It has both polar and non-polar parts, meaning that it works well with both oil and vinegar. (Dish soap is also an emulsifier, which is why it is so good at cleaning grease off your pans!)

Salt:

  • If you taste a dish and think to yourself, “It’s just ok…”, chances are it needs salt. The best way to learn the effects of salt on a dish is to taste, salt, taste, salt, etc.
  • Make sure to add plenty (~2 Tbsp/pound) of table salt to pasta water to properly season pasta

Shrimp:

  • How to cook shrimp:
    • Step 1: Place shrimp in pan so they have their own surface area. They’ll cook unevenly if they’re piled up on other shrimp. Note that at this stage they are a translucent grey. You can’t fully see through them, but there is some light filtering through.
    • Step 2: Watch for signs of cooking. They will start to curl up. You will start to see opaque pink/white color on the bottom and spreading up the sides.
    • Step 3: BEFORE the opacity reaches halfway up the shrimp, flip them over.
    • Step 4: Monitor cooking on the second side. It will go faster than the first, since the shrimp are already warm. I usually count on carryover cooking (the cooking that happens after you remove food from the heat) and pull my shrimp out of the pan as soon as all visible areas are opaque.

Spices:

  • When possible, toasting whole spices in a dry frying pan for a minute before grinding or using in a dish really helps activate the oils and brings out the flavor.20190210_155612
  • Freshly ground spices have more pungent flavor than jarred spices. Although it’s not always possible for me to grind spices on the spot, when I do I use a dedicated coffee grinder. A mortar and pestle is great if you need a small amount of lightly cracked spices, but for bigger jobs and finer grinds, nothing beats a machine. And if you’re concerned about leftover spices contaminating each other in the grinder, you can grind rice or bread to clean it out.
  • Spices can be difficult to predict in recipe creation because you don’t want to taste a mouth full of spices to see how they blend together. Shrimp and chicken are both fairly neutral flavored and quick cooking, allowing for testing of new spice combinations. Just marinate in the spices and saute!

Tomatoes:

  • Some people complain that canned tomatoes taste metallic, but I think that’s actually a result of not using enough salt in the recipe.
  • You can make a decent substitute in flavor for San Marzano tomatoes by adding a bit of sugar to your tomato sauce.

Whipping Cream

  • My mom taught me this trick. If you put a metal bowl and beaters in the freezer ahead of time, your whipped cream will come together a lot faster.

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