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Absurdly, stupidly basic cooking questions (Part 1)


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#1 jhlurie

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Posted 26 April 2004 - 04:32 PM

In theory eGullet caters to people of all levels--as long as you eat you might be reading or posting here. But I think that no matter what, there's always a level of intimidation in posting really simple cooking questions.

Sometimes it's just a case of having a little hole--a knowledge gap--in something really basic. You might be a real ace as a cook but have some single simple embarrassing gap that you've never managed to fill. Or sometimes it's the case that a user may be something of a "professional" restaurant patron and a total amateur at creating anything themselves.

I see this thread as an opportunity for people in this position to band together rather than hiding in the shadows. Sure, you may be putting yourself out there, but you will be in good company!

I'm talking about the REALLY simple things--the things that can likely be answered with a yes or no, or maybe a few sentences. Stuff you might have easily learned from Mom, if you'd listened, or Google, if you are a really really good searcher, or Home Ec. class if you hadn't taken Shop class instead. But probably too damn simple for most cookbooks.

Okay, I suppose I'll have to take a stab at it, and then after someone answers another person can ask their "stupid" question in turn and wait for their answer (I'm putting "stupid" in quotes, because hey... you know that they say... there are no stupid questions, only... oh, never mind).


When you boil pasta you sometimes get a nice sticky glutenous coating all over it--even if the pasta still seems al dente otherwise. Does this mean that you did something wrong? Overcooked it? Didn't stir enough? Had it boiling too furiously? Bought bad pasta? Should you be washing that coating off afterwards or just leaving it be?
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#2 Oreganought

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Posted 26 April 2004 - 04:50 PM

I expect to see dissertations.......the number of correct answers to your question
are many. :laugh:

#3 bloviatrix

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Posted 26 April 2004 - 05:10 PM

Jon, I'm thrilled to see you started this thread because I have a stupid question of my own (which also explains why I prefer measurements given as weight as opposed to volume).

When a recipe calls for something like 1 1/2 tablespoons does it mean 1 tablespoon and 1/2 a teaspoon or 1 tablespoon and 1 1/2 teaspoons. My gut always tells me it's the later, but I would love some verification.


Edited: to make things clearer.

Edited by bloviatrix, 26 April 2004 - 05:12 PM.

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#4 Jinmyo

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Posted 26 April 2004 - 05:31 PM

So, why is it called "corned" beef? Where's the corn? Seriously.

Someone explained it here once before but, um... I forget.

Thanks.
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#5 chefboy2160

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Posted 26 April 2004 - 05:58 PM

Awnser to question #1,use more water and stir the pasta(of course have your boiling water with oil and salt in it). Rinse and shock ? If necessary and used for cold salads for sure. Also if retaining for later use I like to coat mine with salad oil.
Now , as a young cook the chef asked me if I could make fried rice? As I was standing by the deep fryer I picked up a handfull of steamed rice and threw it in .
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#6 jhlurie

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Posted 26 April 2004 - 06:10 PM

So, why is it called "corned" beef? Where's the corn? Seriously.

Someone explained it here once before but, um... I forget.

Thanks.

Glad we can play tag--I actually know this. Before refrigeration curing, of course, was the main method of preservation. It was apparently called "corning" because the salt pellets used were about the size of corn kernels. These days brining is done instead of dry curing, but the name remains.
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#7 snowangel

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Posted 26 April 2004 - 06:59 PM

So, why do recipes always say to add whatever "after the butter stops foaming?" What's wrong with when it is foaming?
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#8 Malawry

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Posted 26 April 2004 - 07:06 PM

The foam is caused by the water in the butter evaporating. The butter stops foaming when all the water has evaporated out of the butter, meaning the fat temperature can then rise above the boiling point and therefore cook food more effectively. There's nothing "wrong" with butter while it is foaming. You can add your food to it during the foaming process, but it will take longer to cook if you do so (you'll be trying to raise the temperature of the food at the same time as you're trying to drive the water out of the butter).

Something with "1 1/2 tablespoons" is calling for a tablespoon, a teaspoon, and a half a teaspoon total. (A tablespoon is three teaspoons, so if you lack a half-tablespoon measure in your spoon set you just measure a teaspoon and a half-teaspoon to make up the "1/2 tablespoon.") If that makes sense. :wacko:

#9 morda

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Posted 26 April 2004 - 08:56 PM

Something with "1 1/2 tablespoons" is calling for a tablespoon, a teaspoon, and a half a teaspoon total. (A tablespoon is three teaspoons, so if you lack a half-tablespoon measure in your spoon set you just measure a teaspoon and a half-teaspoon to make up the "1/2 tablespoon.") If that makes sense. :wacko:

Ah...I was wondering why one of the options wasn't:

1 1/2 Tablespoons = 1 Tablespoon + 1/2 Tablespoon

Since I have a 1/2 Tablespoon measure.

Here's one: Why skim the foam off the top of stock? What is the foam, anyway? And does anyone have a good way of doing this, since it always is hard to do with onions, celery tops, and parsley floating around the top.

Edited by morda, 26 April 2004 - 08:56 PM.


#10 snowangel

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Posted 26 April 2004 - 09:02 PM

The foam is caused by the water in the butter evaporating. The butter stops foaming when all the water has evaporated out of the butter, meaning the fat temperature can then rise above the boiling point and therefore cook food more effectively. There's nothing "wrong" with butter while it is foaming. You can add your food to it during the foaming process, but it will take longer to cook if you do so (you'll be trying to raise the temperature of the food at the same time as you're trying to drive the water out of the butter).

Something with "1 1/2 tablespoons" is calling for a tablespoon, a teaspoon, and a half a teaspoon total. (A tablespoon is three teaspoons, so if you lack a half-tablespoon measure in your spoon set you just measure a teaspoon and a half-teaspoon to make up the "1/2 tablespoon.") If that makes sense. :wacko:

Ah. Thanks for the explanation.

What is interesting and not surprising that when I use Hope Butter it foams far less than when I use supermarket butter. Better butter, less foam? Is this typical?
Susan Fahning aka "snowangel"

#11 Suzanne F

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Posted 26 April 2004 - 09:35 PM

Here's one: Why skim the foam off the top of stock? What is the foam, anyway? And does anyone have a good way of doing this, since it always is hard to do with onions, celery tops, and parsley floating around the top.

The foam is coagulated gunky bits of protein. If you don't skim it, your are likely to have cloudy stock as the clumps of foam break up into tiny particles dispersed throughout the liquid. I have a tiny (about 2-inch diameter), flat strainer on a long handle that is great for skimming -- I can gently push the solid stuff out of the way and scoop out the crud. (It looks like a miniature version of a strainer for cleaning out a deep-fryer.) Before I got that, I used a very fine small strainer; the only problem with it was having to keep my hand directly over the steaming liquid to dip it in.

#12 Betts

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Posted 26 April 2004 - 09:44 PM

Why is salt always added as a dry ingredient when it would disperse much more evenly if added to the wet stuff. I know in bread making that salt needs to come in late because of it's effect on gluten and yeast but muffins, cakes, cookies etc why not dissolve the salt?

#13 Malawry

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Posted 27 April 2004 - 04:16 AM

Snowangel, high-quality and European-style butters usually have a higher butterfat content than generic American butters. American supermarket butters have 80% butterfat, while Plugra has 82% for example. The remaining 20% (or less) is composed of water and milk solids. So choosing a high-butterfat butter means less foaming, indeed.

Re: stock...I use a ladle to skim my stocks. Yes, I usually lose some of the veg in my stock when I skim, but I figure there's enough total veggies in there that losing a little is not such a big deal to me. Best method: Stick bowl of ladle in center of simmering pot. Move it in small circles. Expand the circles until you get close to the edge. This pushes the foam to the edges. Then it's fairly easy to pinch off using the ladle from the edges of the pot.

Confession: I don't even clean the vegetables I put in stocks at work. (I do take this extra step at home, where I make stocks in less quantity.) I figure I'll get most of the dirt from skimming the foam, and the rest of it from straining the finished stock through a chinois. I've never seen or tasted dirt in my stock.

#14 aidensnd

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Posted 27 April 2004 - 05:32 AM

There are special skimmers you can buy for skimming the foam off stocks etc.. They look like a spatula with a super fine mesh in the middle, you just run it through the stock and Bob's your uncle...

In Australia and I believe in some other countries, 1 Tablespoon equals 20 ml or 4 teaspoons, compared to 15 ml in the US with a teaspoon being 5 ml...

If you have good quality pasta you shouldn't need to add oil to the water, just plenty of salt...

Dan

#15 ellencho

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Posted 27 April 2004 - 05:39 AM

Why is salt always added as a dry ingredient when it would disperse much more evenly if added to the wet stuff. I know in bread making that salt needs to come in late because of it's effect on gluten and yeast but muffins, cakes, cookies etc why not dissolve the salt?

I noticed that when I add salt to raw eggs, the egg seems to break down a little bit easier, and become more uniform in texture (meaning there's less stringiness to the egg). Perhaps the salt plays a role in denaturing proteins in the yolk and white making them easier to break apart?

So when I'm baking quickbreads, cakes, cookies, I mix the salt into my egg and beat it up. I haven't seen any harm to my baked goods, and my egg/salt mixture has a better, less gloopy consistency.
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#16 Callipygos

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Posted 27 April 2004 - 07:45 AM

Okay, this just came up over on THE RESTAURANT thread:

I've been leaving my pasta water unsalted my entire life, and apparently that's the wrong thing to do. So.

Salt in pasta cooking water. Why?

#17 Raynickben

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Posted 27 April 2004 - 08:00 AM

Okay, this just came up over on THE RESTAURANT thread:

I've been leaving my pasta water unsalted my entire life, and apparently that's the wrong thing to do. So.

Salt in pasta cooking water. Why?

FLAVOR!

#18 phaelon56

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Posted 27 April 2004 - 08:02 AM

I've been leaving my pasta water unsalted my entire life, and apparently that's the wrong thing to do.  So.

Salt in pasta cooking water.  Why?

The easy answer might be that small amounts of salt bring out flavor in other foods or help to meld multiple flavors that otherwise are not detected or as satisfying. This really occurs in many cases despite the fact that one does not taste any "saltiness". Did you know that Starbucks uses a small amount of salt in the frozen frappuccino recipe? Sounds weird but trust me - it works. A rather dry but still fascinating tome worth reading is

"Salt: A World History" by Mark Kurlansky

Back to salt. I've seen it posited that, historically, pasta was cooked in seawater. The notion is that adding enough salt to replicate the saltiness of the Mediterranean yields a better result. Damned if I know whether it's just historical fluff or not but my pasta tastes better with some sea salt in the water.

I'm still on the fence about adding or not adding oil to the water.

#19 Mulcahy

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Posted 27 April 2004 - 08:05 AM

I have two:

1) How do I season the two nice cast iron pans someone gave me as a wedding gift and am irrationally afraid of? (Maybe I should ask this on the cast iron -- smoke thread).

2) How do I effectively thicken stew gravy. I make a really flavorful boeuf bourgognone but the sauce is always runny and I can never thicken it (I have tried lots of stuff).

Thanks.

#20 JPW

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Posted 27 April 2004 - 08:12 AM

1) How do I season the two nice cast iron pans someone gave me as a wedding gift and am irrationally afraid of?  (Maybe I should ask this on the cast iron -- smoke thread).


Following the Lodge instructions (somewhat), I coat it with a bit of canola oil (high smoke point and relatively flavorless) and pop it the oven at about 400 for 30 minutes. Take out, LET COOL, wipe out.

I'm sure that there will be several different responses.

2) How do I effectively thicken stew gravy.  I make a really flavorful boeuf bourgognone but the sauce is always runny and I can never thicken it (I have tried lots of stuff).


The corn starch in tepid water slurry seems to work the best for me.

Edited by JPW, 27 April 2004 - 08:12 AM.

If someone writes a book about restaurants and nobody reads it, will it produce a 10 page thread?

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#21 Sandra Levine

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Posted 27 April 2004 - 08:21 AM

If you have a lot of runny sauce, you can scoop out the solids, reduce the liquid until it is to your liking and return the solids to the now-thickened sauce. This method has the advantage of concentrating the flavors, but you have to have been careful from the outset not have oversalted.

#22 nessa

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Posted 27 April 2004 - 08:26 AM

To thicken stew gravy, I first brown coat the meat chunks in seasoned flour, then brown in hot fat. After it is almost done cooking, if the broth isn't thick enough I will remove some and let it cool, then mix in some cornstarch.
If its really thin, I'll make a roux with butter and flour, remove the gravy and mix with the roux, then add back to the rest of the stew to simmer.
Mmm. Gravy. Stew. Is it lunch time yet?

I have "Well done" down pat. My stupid question is how to cook rare.
I hardly ever cook steaks so I'm afraid of bungling a good cut of meat.

I've heard of folks being able to press on the steak and know its doneness. What's the trick?

I tend to cook roasts until they are falling off the bone of falling apart tender. I want to be able to cook medium rare roasts too, so what are the tricks and times?
I'm assuming also that you need a better cut of meat if you want it tender AND still pink? What about pork roasts, those you gotta cook well done, right?
Seems like I need to find a How to cook Meat for Dummies 101....


#23 Toliver

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Posted 27 April 2004 - 08:29 AM

So, why is it called "corned" beef? Where's the corn? Seriously.

Someone explained it here once before but, um... I forget.

Thanks.

I believe the "corn" in Corned Beef is derived from the use of pickling spices, which include peppercorns, in the creation of this dish.
Perhaps it should actually be called 'Corned Beef.
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#24 Anna N

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Posted 27 April 2004 - 09:08 AM

...

Back to salt. I've seen it posited that, historically, pasta was cooked in seawater. The notion is that adding enough salt to replicate the saltiness of the Mediterranean yields a better result. Damned if I know whether it's just historical fluff or not but my pasta tastes better with some sea salt in the water....

I have been seriously salting my pasta water and also following Mario's "trick" of using a little of the pasta water to add to whatever sauce is being used. This has resulted in a dish that is way too salty! So, I am now re-thinking the amount of salt in the pasta water if I plan on using any of it in the sauce.
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#25 foodie52

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Posted 27 April 2004 - 09:19 AM

This is a great thread. What many people don't realize is that cooking involves lots of chemistry.

A great book that will answer lots of your questions is Cookwise by Shirley Corriher. Get it as a reference. Keep it bedside for nighttime reading. I love that book.

#26 John Braise

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Posted 27 April 2004 - 09:20 AM

I believe the "corn" in Corned Beef is derived from the use of pickling spices, which include peppercorns, in the creation of this dish.
Perhaps it should actually be called 'Corned Beef.
Lisa...where are you when we need a good food historian? :raz:

I don't know why or where I heard this, but I thought "corn" more or less referred to a small, hard chunk of something. So mustard seeds, coriander, pepper, etc were called corns. Even things like gravel, rock salt, etc could have been referred to as corns (as well as the "corns" on your feet).

So anyways, in that sense, corned beef makes more sense. It's made with whole, hard spices. Corns.
...

#27 reverendtmac

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Posted 27 April 2004 - 09:24 AM

I've heard of folks being able to press on the steak and know its doneness.  What's the trick?

First, take a glass of cold water out to the grill to dip your finger in before you poke the meat. I do this because I am a wuss.

Best way I ever heard this described was the 'face' method. Dip your finger into the water, then poke the steak. If it feels like the middle of your cheek, it's rare. If it feels like your chin (soft but with some bounce-back), it's medium. If it feels like the tip of your nose, it's well-done.
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#28 Squeat Mungry

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Posted 27 April 2004 - 09:34 AM

The "corn" is the salt used in the brine. We still talk of "grains" of salt. Apparently when this practice became standard, the general term was "corn". Both come from the same Indo-European root, as do "kernel" and "granita", among others.

Cheers,

Squeat

#29 ellencho

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Posted 27 April 2004 - 10:03 AM

2) How do I effectively thicken stew gravy. I make a really flavorful boeuf bourgognone but the sauce is always runny and I can never thicken it (I have tried lots of stuff).

Same way you'd thicken gravy itself. Use a roux. Mix equal parts flour and butter (oil or crisco if you prefer) and brown in a little pan. Lighter colored rouxs give you thicker gravies and sauces.
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#30 KHT20

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Posted 27 April 2004 - 10:09 AM

I've heard of folks being able to press on the steak and know its doneness.  What's the trick?

First, take a glass of cold water out to the grill to dip your finger in before you poke the meat. I do this because I am a wuss.

Best way I ever heard this described was the 'face' method. Dip your finger into the water, then poke the steak. If it feels like the middle of your cheek, it's rare. If it feels like your chin (soft but with some bounce-back), it's medium. If it feels like the tip of your nose, it's well-done.

I've heard the same thing about using your face for reference, but I've always used my earlobe to judge a rare steak - I find it works better since my cheek feels different every time I poke at it.