16 July 2011

Keen Kitchen Q & A

I've recently asked my friends and family, and of course my followers/readers, to submit questions regarding cooking, baking, ingredients, etc. so here they are!

Q. When baking proteins (chicken, fish, etc.) in the oven how do you prevent them from becoming mushy by cooking in their own juices?

A. One of my favorite tricks, something I'm doing more and more these days, is to start cooking chicken, chops, steak, etc. on the stove top and finish in the oven, as they often do in the restaurant world.  What this does is give you a ton of flavor from grilling or searing, and allow you to finish cooking to perfect desired temp and texture, plus it keeps you food incredibly juicy and flavorful. The trick is, once your meat is seared, grilled or pan fried and you want to finish cooking it through, you will often times have already done enough to prevent juices being lost in the oven by that first stove-top step, but to be extra sure your best ever chicken isn't sitting in liquid getting too soft and ruining your beautiful sear, or losing the lovely sauce you just brushed on, break out the cookie cooling rack! Yes, the cooling racks you use for your cakes, cookies, pies, etc. (that are almost always oven safe, but research to be sure) can be placed on top of a rimmed sheet pan and used just like a rack you'd place a roast or a turkey on, to keep the meat away from the liquid! No cooling racks safe for oven use? Another great way to prevent mushy meats is to bake on top of a bed of veggies that will not only keep your meal from a hot bath, but will also add additional flavor and aroma to your finished product! Rough-chop carrots, onions, celery and potatoes (or just some taters and celery for a little less flavor infusion) and place your protein on top! NOTE: If you plan to skip the stove-top step altogether, i;d go with the veggie bed method here, and if you plan to add a sauce to you meat, bake without the sauce (just season with a little S&P) until you've only got about 15 minutes to go, then baste your sauce on every 5 minutes or so for maximum adhesion to your meat.
EXAMPLE: (What I did for dinner last night!) Preheat your oven to 375ยบ 
Heat up a grill pan on your stove top, brush with olive oil, and once it's nice and hot (getting a touch of smoke is okay, just ventilate your kitchen well!) put on some beautiful bone-in pork chops that are seasoned with sea-salt and pepper. Sear on each side for 3-4 minutes. Brush on desired sauce (teriyaki, barbecue, honey-balsamic glaze, whatever you like) and sear with sauce on 2-3 minutes on each side. You will have the juices nice and sealed in now, and lovely grill marks that are always appealing to the eye. get your sheet pan ready with your oven safe cooling rack placed on top, lay the chops in one layer not too close together, and pop in the oven after brushing one more coat of sauce on all sides. To finish cooking to juicy perfection takes just about 20 minutes, but you can just feel to be sure the chops are firm, but not hard, and you'll know they are ready. As with any meat proteins, you'll want to give them a few minutes to ret to make sure all the juice, that you worked so hard to seal in there, doesn't escape! 

Q. What is the proper method for cedar (or other wood) plank grilling?

A. When you want to infuse your grilled meats and seafoods with some incredibly woodsy, smoky flavor, plank-grilling a great, simple way to go. The most commonly used planks are cedar, and often used for salmon, especially here in the Pacific NorthWest. There are a few steps you must take, however, to ensure you are getting the best result from your planks. First step anytime you are using wood on your grill, be it in the form of chips, bamboo skewers or planks, soaking to avoid scorching the wood before its time. You'll often see instructions for soaking a minimum of 2 hours to overnight. I recommend soaking as long as possible to better ensure the wood working for you and with you, not against you and your delicious food. Secondly, you want to be sure your grill is at a nice low and slow cooking temp. No matter how long you soak, if your grill is flaming, even just a little, or at too high a temp, the wood will burn usually rendering your food a little too smokey to be enjoyable. I don't use a propane grill at home, but have in the past and while you might start your grill on a nice high heat to get the racks nice and hot, in order to make proper use of planks, and avoid burning anything you might be grilling, your flames should be turned down to a low temp before planks are added. If you are a charcoal griller as I am, you can get your coals to smoldering, nice and white then spread them out to a nice even low layer in the center of the grill. Place the planks (with meat/seafood on top) on the outer edges so a lot of the heat they are getting is residual versus direct. By doing this, you're creating a wood-smoker effect to infuse your meats, seafoods, or even veggies with super, wonderful flavors. Lastly, remember that planks are good for just one use! SUMMARY: Soak planks overnight, or as long as possible (minimum of 2 hours). Use very low heat. Only use planks once.

Q. Can any recipe be doubled (or multiplied more) and provide the same result as a single batch?

A. No. And unfortunately I can't explain why for any case, but I can say for some.  For the most part, when you're cooking a recipe can easily be doubled or even tripled, but baking is, as always, a different story. Because baking is really kitchen chemistry it's not always possible to multiply a recipe and get the same result you would have with a single recipe. Very often when baking anything with a bread/starch texture (muffins, cookies, quick breads, pastry dough, etc.) there's a very fine line between incorporating ingredients and over-mixing. As a result of the fine line, anytime you double a batch of a flour-based recipe, you run the risk of over-mixing and creating a product too dense, too firm and devoid of all pleasing texture and mouth feel. Really, the only way to know if something can be doubled is to try it, keeping in mind incorporation of dry ingredients into wet should take very little stirring/folding, and is complete as soon as you can no long see big streaks of the dry ingredients. While just doubling is usually safe and won't mess with your end result, especially for things like cookies and cakes, I would never attempt to triple a recipe for baking if it wasn't something I'd experimented with at least a couple of times. There are a lot of factors to consider because the ingredients change composition once they are mixed with other ingredients and that will affect everything from baking times to consistency to flavor. Sugars go from dry to wet once they're whipped with egg and dissolved, when you mix liquids with flours the glutens develop and create chewy-ness and tough textures when overdeveloped, etc.
I'm not an expert in this department, but can recommend just really doing your homework, and with every recipe you want to multiply you should test at least once or twice to make adjustments. You may end up throwing away a good amount of ingredients, if you don't do your research first. Look into what leaveners you'll need and how they will affect the recipe when doubled, remember not to over-mix, and most importantly if you are baking for an event or a certain specific occasion,  even if you have tested your multiple-batch recipes, have a back up plan!

Q. Can I substitute baking powder for baking soda and vice versa?

A. No. While they are both leaveners designed to help baked good rise and puff up, they are not interchangeable. Baking soda (bicarbonate of soda) is to be used in recipes where it will be combined with an acid such as yogurt, molasses, or buttermilk which will cause it to bubble and create the rise. Baking powder is actually a mix of baking soda, cream of tarter (or a similar acid) and cornstarch (or a similar moisture absorber, not 100% necessary). If you were to use baking powder in a recipe with a high acid content it could cause the recipe to dry out too much or become crumbly and too light. You can actually make your own baking powder if you are mid-recipe and find you are out! The recipe is very simple!
Homemade Baking Powder:
Mix :
2 parts Cream of Tarter
1 part baking soda
1 part cornstarch (optional, can take moisture away, doesn't affect taste)
Sift ingredients together 3 times and store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place and be sure to date your mix from the date on the baking soda you use!
NOTES: Always check the expiration dates on your leaveners because they can lose their punch and effectiveness if they are old, out of date or have gotten moisture inside. For best results and longest life, keep in a cool, dry, dark place. Also, when baking with either soda or powder, get your batter/recipe in the oven right away as the leaveners start acting immediately and you want to let them work properly and not lose their oomph!

I hope you've enjoyed this little Q and A session! Please feel free to leave other questions in the comments section here for the next round!

A few other general notes and tips to leave you with...

Don't be afraid to taste your food before serving! Smell, taste and make sure your seasoning are all there and just how you want them. Here's a good tip, which some people swear by, and others say it has no merit...I say try it! If you taste something (a soup or stew, particularly) and you find there is a very heavy salt taste, cut a regular potato into halves or quarters (no need to peel, just wash first) and drop it in to absorb some of the unwanted salt! After about half hour, taste and see if enough salt has been removed. If not, just leave it for another half hour or so and then taste again. I'd say you shouldn't leave any longer than that because it'll break down too much. You may need to replenish your liquids a bit and, if things are still a little too much on the salty side, add a dash of sugar and cinnamon to help get rid of a bit more of the over-salted flavor.  A great way to ensure you are controlling the salt flavor in your soups, stews and sauces is to get low-sodium stocks and broths, and is using things like canned beans, get the low-sodium versions of those as well. Remember it's a lot easier to add more than to take it away later, so go easy to start and add as needed, after tasting!

Want to know more about spices and seasonings but aren't sure where to start? Take advantage of your local grocery store spice aisle, and your library! There are tons of great resources about spice specifics out there that will give you great ideas about how to use spices, what foods they are commonly compatible with, and where they come from, and of course, the online offerings are endless. Also, if you are lucky enough to live near a local farmers market or specialty spice/food store, go in and ask questions! They are (usually) very knowledgable about what is what, tastes, heat level of peppers, extracts, etc. If there's something you want to try, give it a shot! Most spices are inexpensive, especially for a small amount, and will keep if stored in a proper container (airtight glass is best) and in a cool, dark, dry place. I recently spent the day in Seattle with my husband and son and we love going to Pike Place Market to hit Frank's Produce(pictured down left) and Market Spice (above right and below). This trip I picked up a few new things to try, but I could spend hours tasting, smelling and admiring their selection of oils, and extracts and the wall of spices....

The main thing is not being afraid to experiment. If you end up with something you don't like, see if you can pass it on to a friend, and take solace in knowing you tried something new. I picked up a few new things and look forward to posting about my results!

Get to know your local grocery stores!
The better you know what you have at your local shops, the better you can plan meals and parties, find new things to try, and you know where to go if you've forgotten something or need an ingredient in a hurry. If you leave near a WinCo, I highly recommend visiting if you have not been. While they don't usually have much to offer in terms of locally produced product (to wherever you are), and their beverage aisle could use a revamp with the addition of more all-natural bottled and canned pops, juices, etc., their delis, produce and BULK departments are glorious! Another reason to give your store the once over if you haven't before is because you never know what they might have that you don't normally shop for. We tend to purchase the same groceries week after week leaving all the little gems and specialty items behind. You might need brie for a party, or maybe you want to try a new bread to go with your pasta dinner. Take a look at the deli, the cheese section you would normally pass by. Visit the bakery department and get a good look at the offerings. What you find might surprise you! You might still have a limited selection, depending on where you live, and have to go to another store for specialty items but at least you've gotten to know your neighborhood/most frequented store a bit better.

Enjoy the Farmers Market! Nearly every community out there has a local farmers market these days and you should consider visiting yours at least once while it's up and running! Some are seasonal, most in fact, but some are year round and just have less to offer in the winter months. The wonderful thing is that the foods and products are usually local, and you see who has grown/made  them, packed them because it's the person selling them to you! You can try new things, find great sauces, local honey, nuts, and even meat and seafood in addition to crafts and music you might find! It's a great way to sped time outside with your family and encourage children to taste new things and talk to the people who grow their food. They may even want to get a garden going at home when they see all the beautiful produce and taste the freshness.

Well, that is a lot to process! I hope you've enjoyed this post and all the information that might encourage you try some new things, and save you from a few common cooking frustrations!

NEXT TIME: Simple Sauces!