The age of Trans Fat

If you have read anything about trans fats lately, you’ve probably read enough to know their not good for you. Truthfully, this really shouldn’t come as a shock, though. It makes me laugh, however, as there are so many things that scientists have once tauted as good for you, then later, oops! This, being one of them. So, what exactly is trans fat? In layman’s terms, it’s a fat that can remain in its solid form, even at room temperature. Wow, doesn’t that just sound yummy?

But, as always, we want to know the rules before we play the game. So, did you know that the FDA (er, USDA?) allows up to .5 g of trans fat, per serving, in any given product and they can still say “zero trans fat per serving“? Interesting. So, here one thinks they’re avoiding the trans fat, when in reality, the company lowered their “per serving” size so they could still sneak the trans fat into their foods. After all, they just want the money. Not that I blame them—the only reason we work is for the money to provide for our families. But, in reality, we eat to nourish our bodies, and trans fat shouldn’t be part of our daily intake. :)

So, now that you know the rules, how do you play the game? Read the labels! Always, always, always read the label. As far as I understand, the USDA does not require that labels [yet] disclose if they have “zero trans fat” or not—that’s more of a marketing thing. So, for instance, grab your Skippy Peanut Butter. See where it says, “hydrogenated vegetable shortening”? Yah, that’s a fancy word for trans fat. :) They add it in there to keep the peanut butter stable, so you don’t have the peanut butter separating. Basically, it’s a convenience factor.

Are there alternatives? Well, in baking, yes. Use butter–real butter!  Some old recipes will contain Crisco or other vegetable shortening for pie crusts, etc. Using butter is tastiest, but makes for a difficult crust to roll-out; so, if you want to use lard—use, good ‘ol fashioned lard–that’s the best thing. Scary, isn’t it? To ingest lard? The irony is that it is better for you than trans-fat – at least it’s all natural!

You get what you pay for, right?

Who hasn’t heard this before?? To me, it’s always been relative to larger purchases, such as cars, electronics, etc. So, where does food fall into this category? Is the vanilla sold at Williams-Sonoma for $12 better than the vanilla sold at Target for $4? So many brands and varieties of tomatoes when you’re at the grocery store! Really, how do you choose?

Honestly, in most cases (I have to leave that opportunity to correct myself later – ), price really has nothing to do with it. At least, flavor. Just because the vanilla costs more doesn’t mean it tastes better. It may mean it’s fresher, pays their employees more, etc, etc. All which can contribute to a great product! But, in the end, you’re buying food for flavor, so ignore the label vs. cost factor. For instance, when you’re purchasing vanilla, stick to the basics : REAL vanilla. Walk by the imitation junk and get the real stuff, regardless of the brand. That’s one thing we have the U.S. Government to thank, they do regulate the amount of of vanilla beans in real vanilla, so the brands won’t vary too much in flavor. In freshness, yes–so, do pay attention to expiration dates.

When thinking about tomatoes, I don’t worry about cost, either. I worry what they’re packaged in! I’d much prefer tomatoes to be packaged in ripe tomato juice, with no junkie spices added. To me, when their are spices spiced added, it usually means they were trying to get rid of some less-than-prime tomatoes. Don’t get the ones packed in puree, either. The puree will carry a metallic flavor and add a heaviness to the tomatoes that will contradict the dish.

Most importantly, and this is my own personal soap box, try your darndest to avoid anything with corn syrup, or at the very least, high fructose corn syrup. If you are an over-the-counter pasta sauce purchaser, keep a close eye on this. Many OTC purchases have corn syrup in them, which is a company’s cheap way of using sugar. Ironically, some of the more expensive brands may be using it. So, KitchenNut advice – read the label! :) If it sounds yummy, then your product has a higher chance of tasting good.

Oven-made Pancakes

A cake by any other name would taste just as sweet, right?? Of course! After all, cake is cake, right?? Recently I discovered that I can make one giant pancake, which for those of you who find yourselves hovering over the stove flipping pancakes for a seeming eternity, this is a handy tip!

Preheat your oven to 450º with your oven rack on the upper-middle shelf, and don’t forget to ignore the beep! While the oven is pre-heating, whip up your favorite batch of pancakes, but don’t forget to not over mix your batter–stir gently–you want the lumps. Trust me. Then you let the batter rest for ten minutes. While it’s resting , grease a 9 x 13 glass pan and gently pour your batter into the pan. If you place the pancake in the oven just as so, it will become a little dry on top—so, I prefer to add some moisture. I think a nice blend of frozen blueberries with sugar ought to do the trick! Feel free to substitute your favorite topping. Bake for 25 minutes, and voila! The whole family gets to eat together!! Oh, but please, use real maple (grade A dark or grade B) for the syrup!

Do I need to thaw meat before cooking?

Reta H. asks: [My daughter-in-law] had a call the other Sunday morn as she was about to fix that Sunday dinner. She wanted to cook a ham but it was frozen? Did it need to be thawed before she cooked it? also, the same thing about chicken while we are asking.

Chef says: ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS thaw meats out in the refrigerator. In some ways, the invention of the microwave was an additional downfall to the culinary world. When you try and defrost in the microwave, you’re actually par-cooking the meat, which only leaves with uneven, tough, yucky meat. And, yes, always thaw before cooking. In fact, your ham should be left at room temperature for at least an hour or two (depending on size) BEFORE going in the oven. Taking something from 38º (the proper temperature of your refrigerator) and putting it in a 300º makes it that much harder, and longer time required, to bake off. So, if you start at room temp (around 68º), it will cook much more evenly and be much more tender.

So, next time you have short notice of a meal – either make a meat-free dish or run to the store for some fresh meat! :)

Substitute egg sizes

With so many chefs and the “freedom of speech” thing going on in the U.S., there’s no hard-fast rule of what size eggs must be called for in a recipe. So, if your recipe doesn’t specify, go for “large.” But, if it calls for medium or extra-large, here’s a little chart to get you through:

  • 1 Large egg = 1 Jumbo egg = 1 Extra-Large egg = 1 Medium egg
  • 2 Large eggs = 1 1/2 Jumbo eggs = 2 Extra-Large eggs = 2 Medium eggs
  • 3 Large eggs = 2 1/2 Jumbo eggs = 2 1/2 Extra-Large eggs = 3 1/2 Medium eggs
  • 4 Large eggs = 3 1/2 Jumbo eggs = 3 1/2 Extra-Large eggs = 4 1/2 Medium eggs
  • 5 Large eggs = 4 Jumbo eggs = 4 Extra-Large eggs = 6 Medium eggs
  • 6 Large eggs = 5 Jumbo eggs = 5 Extra-Large eggs = 7 Medium eggs

Now comes the tricky part – how do you measure a 1/2-egg? Simply crack open the egg, beat it with a whisk, then measure out half of that mixture. You’ll need to use the remaining mixture within a day or two, though, as it will go bad soon. Egg whites freeze well, but egg yolks don’t like to be frozen. Basic rule of thumb? Just keep large eggs in the house. Oh, and make sure they’re egg-stra fresh. Okay, I realize how bad that was, but really, who could resist??

Heavy Cream Substitutes

Many recipes call for milk, but aren’t so good about specifying which type. And, uh, while we’re at it, what’s with all the “half-n-half,” “heavy cream,” “whipping cream,” etc. Boy, there are just too many milks to choose from! Well, when it comes to baking, fattier is better! I mean, really, if you’re on a diet, you’re not reaching for a piece of chocolate cake, anyway, so you may as well make it taste good, right? :) So, when a recipe calls for “milk” (with no other specifications), always make sure it is whole milk–and room temperature!

Well, though I am no dieter, I do only drink Skim milk. For me, it’s the only way to justify reaching for that chocolate cake! But, as I soon discovered, it is expensive to keep whole milk, skim milk, heavy cream, etc, etc in my fridge at all times. So, substitute! In a good way, of course (as we all know I hate substitutions). In this case, below is a nice list of how to get that consistency you’ve been looking for when you’re stuck with only skim milk in the fridge (gasp!)

One cup whole milk=

  • 5/8 cup skim milk + 3/8 cup half-and-half
  • 2/3 cup 1% milk + 1/3 cup half-and-half
  • 1 Tablespoon heavy cream + remainder of 1% milk
  • 3/4 cup 2% milk + 1/4 cup half-and-half
  • 7/8 cup skim milk + 1/8 cup half-and-half
  • 1 1/2 Tablespoons heavy cream + remainder of skim milk

One cup half-and-half=

  • 3/4 cup whole milk + 1/4 cup heavy cream
  • 2/3 cup skim milk + 1/3 cup heavy cream

One cup heavy whipping cream=

  • one cup evaporated milk (evaporated milk will not whip; only use as replacement in cooking)

And, while we’re at it, if you are really desperate and have ZERO milk in the fridge, but simply must have some cake, grab a can of evaporated milk and use half evaporated milk + half water = whole milk. It’s an approximation, but it will get some good cake in your belly. After all, isn’t that the whole point?

Stuck on you

The invention of paper muffin cups came as such a joy to the modern domestic person in the early 1900s. However, I think over time we have forgotten exactly why they were invented – it was in the days of cast iron pans and cast iron muffin molds. To clean these pans is a beast, so the simple muffin cup saved hours of scrubbing baked-on cake batter! However, over the years technology has improved, and consequently oven ware. Introduce: non-stick muffin pans. Yet, we still find ourselves using the muffin cup? Of course, I’m all for it! I don’t like to clean a pan any more than the next person! But, I do like my food!

To me, there is nothing worse than good food going to waste, which is what seems to happen when you peel a beautiful cupcake out of the paper liner. Argh! That gorgeous brown crust is now stuck-fast to the paper. Now, there may be some of you who enjoy gnawing that stuck-on crust off the paper (hopefully, in the privacy of your own home–only). :) However, if you prefer to be a more delicate eater and find a easier way to pry that out of the muffin cup (short of a crowbar), go back to basics: non-stick spray. Really. Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? For some reason, we have been duped into believing that the muffin cup does it all! It holds our beautiful cakes and breakfast delights, saves us from pan clean-up, and no preparation needed! Well, they taught us wrong. A simple one or two second spritz of your favorite non-stick oil spray into each cup will give you every last yummy bite of that hand-crafted goodie! So, add five seconds to your prep-time countdown and spray a little for the best treats ever!

Greatest thing since sliced bread!

Ever wonder why store-bought bread lasts forever, while homemade bread can only be enjoyed for three to four days? Well, if you want to be disgusted, read the ingredients on the side of your bread bag. My personal thought – any chemicals that can be added to bread to make it last weeks, makes me wonder how long they hibernate in my body! Of course, that goes for all store-bought goods – ahem. I’ll step off my soap box – for a minute. :)

A dear friend called me this morning to question why her bread constantly dried out so quickly? My first thought was to list the ingredients: bread, water, flour, shortening, salt, sugar, yeast. Sounds good enough, right? Well, yes, but did you know even the slightest tweak in bread ingredients can change the life of the loaf? My first prescription was to switch from shortening to butter (back on the soap box – ugh! anything solid at room temperature makes me wonder how long it is parked in my arteries), substitute some of the water for milk, which will add some tenderness, and in place of sugar, use honey. The honey will promote a nicer, softer crumb, also allowing for the bread to last a few extra days, whereas sugar likes to dry out.

Lastly – if you don’t want to take the KitchenNut route and bake fresh bread every few days (I can’t imagine why not!), then freeze the excess bread. If I’m feeling breaded-out, I’ll simply slice the loaf in half (width-wise), wrap twice in platsic wrap, once in foil, and freeze. It thaws out in only a few hours, when I’m ready to dig in! Just don’t forget to accompany it with some good ‘ol raspberry butter. Trust me – with this accessory, your bread going stale before you can eat it will be the very least of your worries! Enjoy!

Want more details on bread? Visit my bread baking post.

Alcohol Substitutions

There are many chefs who don’t consume alcohol and so many recipes which call for it – what’s a chef to do? The common myth (yes, myth) that alcohol burns off during cooking won’t work in this game.

Okay, to clear the myth before I go on – yes, a large portion can burn off–if it’s an open skillet, wide bottom, and lots of time. If you’re cooking with the lid on, exactly where do you think the alcohol is evaporating to? Exactly. Right back into the pot. Even after an hour of open pot cooking (depending on quantity) not all the alcohol is gone. So, if you’re really abstaining from alcohol, this won’t work any more, will it?

Now, back to our regulary-scheduled post – what to do if you abstain (which you might do now, after reading the paragraph above). Well, we go back to basics! What is wine? Well, in crude terms, juice and alcohol. So, if we remove the alcohol, we can just add juice, right? Unfortunately, no – the fermented juice has a high acidity, so if we omit alcohol, we’re omitting the acidity which plays a very vital part in recipes, too. Now, about that juice –

Sometimes subbing juice will be an option, others, not. Really, you have to step back and consider what’s in your recipe. If you’re making a nice chicken soup and your recipe calls for 1/4 cup white wine (to deglaze the pan), how sweet would you want that chicken soup? Enough to add 1/4 cup of white grape juice? Well, that’s a preference thing, so here’s a few options: no matter what, start with a little lemon juice (in this case, 2 teaspoons should do), then the rest of the liquid could be any combination of water, more chicken broth or white grape juice. There are other options, such as dealcoholized white wine and alcohol-free wine. I’ve never given these a try, so I can’t vouch for them. I can say to avoid “cooking wineâ€? (all this is is real wine with 1.5% salt. Yuck! Again, if you’re abstaining from alcohol, not the best choice. And, hey, if your’e not, use the real thing. The extra salt is just the quickest way to ruin a dish.

So, if you’re too tired to read the whole post and skipped to the last paragraph (hey! thanks for coming!), here’s the bottom-line: skip “cooking wineâ€? and go for some freshly-squeezed lemon juice and a nice bottle of Welch’s White Grape juice (or apple, red grape, etc – whatever complements the dish the best), or take the cheap route and use the good ‘ol tap water. Cheers!

Edit to add [March 12, 2007]: By the way, here is my favorite chart for alcohol substitutions.

Baked From Scratch