… and what I have learned
When sharing recipes, there are some basic tenets of the cooking and baking processes … as well as clarity of ingredient information …that need to be stated to ensure that others will enjoy the intended finale of a culinary adventure.
Basic Tenets of Successful Cooking:
- Cooking is an art, so we can often get away with imprecise measurements and we can be creative …‘go crazy’, if you will. That’s part of the fun. Explore, experiment, and take risks in the kitchen.
- Read the recipe in its entirety prior to heating your sauté pan.
- Mise en Place! … I can still hear the bellow of the top chef of my culinary training: “Mise en Place!! Mise en Place!!“ Translated, he is using a French phrase which means “putting in place” …. organizing and arranging all of the ingredients, prepping all vegetables, par-cooking some items, measuring out spices PRIOR to turning on any heat.
- Clean as you go – there is nothing worse than savouring the last few bites of an amazing meal while staring down a countertop laden with food-crusted pots and solidified spills. Take the time to tidy and wash dishes at regular intervals.
Basic Tenets of Successful Baking:
- Baking is a science, so precision and accuracy are important. Follow the recipe, but have some fun, too. There are some ingredients that you can change (flavourings, and some other add-ins like nuts) that will not alter the overall texture. But when it comes to ingredients like flour, sugar, chocolate, or butter, any variation can produce a different result. Weighing ingredients produces the most reliable results, so the investment of a digital kitchen scale is invaluable. Most of my recipes have a few conversion choices for you – the first measurement is what I use and what was used in the recipe development and testing process, so it will be the most accurate. Check out the Measurement and Conversions page.
- Quality of ingredients will be evident in the final product.
- Read the recipe in its entirety prior to pre-heating your oven.
- Unless specifically stated to be ice-cold, ingredients should be at room temperature – this means butter, eggs, milk/cream.
- Ovens are different. These recipes have been tested using a convection oven. Use the offered ‘baking time’ as a suggestion and set a timer for less than the suggested time – and pay attention.
- Test your measuring tools – don’t assume that your measuring cups/spoons are accurate. A kitchen scale can be used to verify that your 1-cup measure is indeed one cup if the scale reads 8 ounces (236.5 grams) when weighing one cup of water.
And the product is only as good as the ingredients – so make them the best possible quality. A well-stocked kitchen is essential. There is a list of essential items that should always be in the fridge or in the pantry…. I refer to it as my Top Ten List.
Top Ten for Cooking:
1. Oil: Good-quality extra virgin olive oil is essential for exquisite salads; less expensive olive oil is used in cooking. Because olive oil does not handle high temperatures very well, vegetable oil is used when doing high-temperature cooking. For recipes with an Asian flare, roasted sesame oil provides a nutty flavour.
2. Vinegar: A selection of vinegars is always within arm’s reach, with a favourite being balsamic. Traditional authentic balsamic vinegar is produced from the juice of Trebbiano grapes and is perfected through a lengthy aging process (twenty years) …and it is very expensive. I typically use a commercial-grade balsamic that has not been aged for quite as long, and is more moderately priced. The very inexpensive balsamic is not real balsamic and does not add any value to a dish (should be avoided). Check labels. White balsamic (also made from the Trebbiano grape) is cooked differently and not aged as long as regular balsamic so it presents with a different colour and offers a different flavour to dishes. Other vinegars that are useful are red wine or white wine vinegars, as well as sherry or champagne vinegar. I also keep a few fruit-infused vinegars on hand for salads.
3. Citrus: Fresh lemons, limes, and oranges are mainstays in the kitchen…no bottled substitutes.
4. Garlic: Fresh garlic is another essential ingredient …and it cannot be replaced by powders.
5. Seasonings: Kosher salt, which has a clean mild taste, is used in cooking. Kosher salt is not as ‘salty’ as regular table salt, so the amount specified may seem like a larger quantity. Freshly ground black peppercorns produce the best flavour. Fresh herbs are always better than dried; however, it is good to have a basic selection of the dried variety in the pantry when you are not able to use fresh. To substitute dry for fresh, the general rule is to use about 1/3 less of the quantity. Hot and spicy seasonings are also essential to have on hand. Fresh jalapenos are great, but I also have a jar of pickled peppers in the refrigerator. Chipotle peppers (smoked jalapenos) are useful, too. These come in small cans prepared in adobo sauce and, because you do not need to use too much in any one recipe, you can mash/puree them and freeze them in a plastic bag (easy to break off just a little bit for your next recipe). Chipotle powder, ancho chile powder, cumin powder, Sambal Oelek chili paste, and smoked paprika are all well-used in my kitchen.
6. Tomatoes: In a perfect-flavour world, fresh would always be best. However, in Canada, in the winter, ‘fresh’ often means pulpy, dry, and tasteless. So, this is where an excellent quality canned tomato product is essential. San Marzano tomatoes (from Italy) enhance any dish that calls for ‘canned tomatoes’. They are sometimes difficult to find in a mainstream grocery store; and they can cost a few extra dollars (worthwhile). Tomato paste, which provides a concentrated tomato flavour, is also an essential pantry item.
7. Mustard: The kitchen must always have a big jar of Dijon mustard, as well as some coarse-grained mustard. Mustard is the ultimate flavour-provider in many dishes, and it is the salad dressing emulsifier.
8. Butter: Unsalted butter is preferred so that you are getting just the pure butter taste.
9. Mirepoix or Soffritto vegetables: Whether you are French or Italian, these sacred three aromatic vegetables form the flavour-base in so many dishes: Onions, Carrots, and Celery.
10. Wine: It is useful to have a bottle or two of good white and/or red wine in the kitchen … whether for drinking, or for cooking, a wine that is good enough to drink is the one that you should use in cooking …sherry, port, or marsala are also great to have on hand.
Top Ten for Baking:
1. Digital kitchen scale: A high-quality digital kitchen scale with an easy-to-read LCD display that will provide readings in metric (kg/g) or imperial measures (lb/oz) is essential. And because they are no longer very expensive, there is really no reason for not having one. Well, no other reason than because we, in North America seem to be quite attached to measuring by volume. Most recipes list ingredients like flour, sugar, butter, and chocolate by volume when these are more accurately measured by weight. In addition to precision, a digital scale also makes measuring quicker and easier. After placing a bowl on the scale, set the automatic ‘zero’, and then place the correct weight of food to be measured in the bowl. You can even add other ingredients to this bowl by just ‘zeroing’ the scale. Very easy…
2. Eggs: Fresh, large-sized eggs produce the most consistent results.
3. Flour: All-purpose unsifted flour is generally what is used for most recipes. For delicate pastries, sometimes cake/pastry flour is called for; for yeast breads, bread flour is best. Regardless of the flour, ensure precision when measuring…success is reliant on precision. Measuring by weight is the most accurate and reliable, so a digital kitchen scale is an invaluable investment. Baking recipes have been created and tested using flour weight; however, I have also included the approximate volume equivalent (see the Measurements and Conversions page). If you don’t have a kitchen scale, measure by spooning flour into measuring cup, and then leveling off with a knife – don’t pack it; don’t shake it; don’t tap it – the weight of a cup of flour can easily and dramatically change just by the way you place it into the measuring cup. In many baking recipes, the ratio of flour to liquid is critical, so precision is important. And because flours can have different weights, be careful when you are substituting flours – you may need to make some adjustments (see the Measurements and Conversions page). Regarding sifting, today’s flours are quite lump-free, therefore, I do not sift. Please note that there is approximately a 2-tablespoon difference in the volume measurement of a sifted vs. an unsifted cup of flour …another reason to always measure by weighing. …150 grams of flour is always 150 grams of flour.
3. Sugars and other Sweeteners: There are a number of forms of sugar in baking.
- Granulated white – basic white sugar.
- Brown – there are a few ‘browns’ out there. There is the basic golden yellow that some refer to as ‘brown’; and there is a darker brown sugar referred to as ‘demerera’. This is my brown sugar of choice and is used in the baking recipes. Quantities are measured by weight, or by hard-packing the sugar into the measuring cup.
- Confectioners’ – also known as ‘icing sugar’ or ‘powdered sugar’. It is often necessary to sift confectioners’ sugar prior to using.
Other sweetening agents include:
- Molasses: This is a very flavourful and aromatic sweetener. Recipes will call for either fancy (light) or blackstrap or treacle (cooking). Each type will be specified in recipes because they have a distinctly different impact on the final product.
- Honey: Good quality liquid honey adds a distinctly different taste to some recipes
- Syrups: Cane, corn, and maple are the most common syrups in baking. Maple, with its luscious bouquet, is in a league all of its own. Corn syrup is often specified in recipes, however, my preference has always been cane syrup as it provides more flavour than corn. However, if you are making candies, corn syrup is essential as it has the ability to resist crystallization.
4. Chocolate: Use top quality baking chocolate for all recipes. And treat chocolate with respect as it will easily ‘seize’ if it comes in contact with water, or if it has been exposed to really high heat. Melt it slowly and carefully. Cocoa powder, which is basically unsweetened chocolate without the cocoa butter, is available in natural or Dutch-process (less acidic and darker in colour) and should be sifted prior to using.
5. Vanilla: Vanilla is the quintessential essence for aromatic home baking. It is imperative that it is pure vanilla extract – worth the extra cost and not worth substituting. Other sources of exquisite vanilla flavour come directly from vanilla beans, or from vanilla paste. Vanilla paste is a great staple to have on hand – it is a relatively new product that saves you the time of scraping the seeds from the vanilla pod, but still provides the same flavour (1 tablespoon = 1 vanilla bean) as well as the pleasing appearance of the speckles of seeds in your finale.
6. Baking Soda/Baking powder: These are essential leavening agents in most baked goods. Ensure freshness by checking expiry dates – buy in smallest quantities because they need to be replaced after 6 months or so.
7. Oatmeal: A favourite of mine …so it is in many recipes. I always use regular, or large-flake oats – not ‘instant’ or ‘quick’.
8. Nuts: Nuts provide unique texture and flavour to baked goods. And you can easily change-up a recipe by just switching the nut (or nut oil) that you use. Nut flavour is enhanced by toasting. For convenience you can toast a large pan of nuts (350 degrees F for 5-10 minutes — watch carefully!); let them cool and freeze them (sturdy freezer bag). When required for baking, remove the needed amount and chop. It is best to toast whole nuts, rather than ones already chopped.
9. Salt: Salt is essential in baking as it accentuates the flavour of baked goods. Table salt is generally the preferred salt for baking because it is more easily dissolved than Kosher salt. However, if you use a very fine-grind Kosher salt, this may not be an issue. The other important fact about Kosher salt is that it is not as ‘salty’ as table salt, and therefore, you will need to adjust the amount. I specify when I have used Kosher salt (basically in cooking recipes); otherwise the recipe will just indicate ‘salt’, meaning that regular table salt was used. Being able to control the amount of salt in a recipe is one of the reasons that unsalted butter is specified in baking recipes.
10. Apple cider vinegar: In many baked items, apple cider vinegar acts both as a flavour-enhancer and as a preservative.