Saturday, May 29, 2010

Healthy Vinegrette Recipe (adapted from America's Test Kitchen)

6 tablespoons water
1/4 cup good-tasting olive oil (extra virgin is best)
3 tablespoons wine vinegar (red or white will both work)
2 teaspoons minced shallot
2 teaspoons Dijon-style mustard
1 garlic clove, minced or put through a garlic press
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper

Shake all ingredients together in a jar with a tight lid. This will keep about a week in the fridge. Bring to room temp before serving (it will go cloudy when cold, this is normal). Shake before serving.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Four Pieces of Cookware Every Cooking Enthusiast Should Own

Good equipment is as important to good cooking as good recipes and good technique. Here are four pieces of cookware every enthusiastic cook should own, with information about how to choose.

Essential Cookware Item # 1: 12 Inch Standard Skillet

A standard skillet is a plain metal skillet (meaning it does not have a nonstick coating). Standard pans brown food better than nonstick pans do. Standard pans are also more versatile. Unlike nonstick pans, standard pans can be used over high heat on the stove-top, can be used in a hot oven, and can usually be placed under a broiler.

How to Choose:

Look for a clad pan, which is pan made of copper covered with a heavy-gage steel or anodized aluminum (anodized aluminum has been treated so it won't react with acidic foods). The handle should be plain metal (no plastic, silicone or wood) and be attached with study rivets. Clad pans tend to be expensive, and if you can't find a clad pan in your price range, go with a disk-bottom pan (a pan that has a steel or aluminum-coated copper disk welded to its underside). If you get one of these pans, make sure the disk covers the entire bottom of the pan. Any gap between the bottom and sides will create a “hot zone” where food will burn.

Essential Cookware Item # 2: Cast Iron Skillet

A cast iron skillet is the absolute best choice for searing a steak, blackening vegetables, or cooking in the great outdoors. It's also the best choice for the budget-conscious. For less than $30, you get a large, durable pan that can take insane amounts of heat and that will (with proper care) last a lifetime.

How to Chose:

Look for a pan made entirely out of iron (no wood handles). This allows the pan to be used over coals or under the broiler. Some pans come pre-seasoned. These should be shiny black and feel slick. Give a new pan a quick wash before using for the first time, to remove a protective coat of wax that manufacturers apply to prevent rust (make sure to follow the manufacturer instructions on how to wash the pan the first time).

Essential Cookware Item # 3: Heavy Duty Half Sheet Pan

Heavy heavy-duty half sheet pans (also known as jellyroll pans or lipped cookie sheets) are kitchen workhorses. These can be used to make oven fries, bake cinnamon rolls or (when equipped with a plain-metal cooling rack) even roast a chicken.

How to Choose:

Look for a heavy-duty pan designed for restaurant use. It should be made of heavy-gage steel. Avoid insulated pans, pans with nonstick finishes, or pans with fancy coatings, as these tend to under-bake or burn food (if you are worried about sticking, line the pan with baker's parchment, which also aids clean-up). When you hold the pan at the short ends and twist, you should not be able to bend it. Since these types of pans are not usually available in cookware stores, shop in a restaurant supply store or buy online.

Essential Cookware Item # 4: Plain Metal Cooling Rack

Plain metal cooling racks are useful for far more than just giving cookies a place to chill after exiting the oven. A sturdy cooling rack can be used in the oven to broil steaks, roast chickens, or keep breaded foods from becoming soggy. A large one, placed over a sink, can even provide extra space. Bowls of prepped ingredients can be placed there, or you can use the extra space to dry dishes when the drainer is full.

How to Choose:

Look for a study rack made of plain metal (no plastic or silicone coating). Good racks have sturdy feet and won't bend under pressure. Also, when you go shopping, make sure to bring whatever cookware you intend to use with the rack, so that you can make sure it will fit.

Want Specific Recommendations?

Check out the product reviews at Cook's Illustrated is a magazine for cooking enthusiasts that does not accept advertising and receives no compensation for recommending specific products.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

3 Healthy Breakfasts You Can Make in Under 10 Minutes

It's important to eat breakfast. A good breakfast increases metabolism, reduces morning grogginess, and helps prevent lunchtime overeating. For those short on time, a drive-through doesn't have to the be only option. Many healthy breakfast foods are quick to prepare. Here are three great options if you're watching your waist as well as the clock.

Healthy Breakfast Idea #1: Scrambled Eggs

Eggs are rich in protein and vitamins. Using two egg whites per every whole egg retains the pretty yellow color while reducing fat. To make scrambled eggs, spray a nonstick skillet with no-stick spray and place it over medium-low heat. Separate two eggs into a bowl, retaining the whites and discarding the yolks (if you find separating eggs difficult, you can use packaged egg whites, which are available at most supermarkets). Crack a third egg into the whites and beat with a fork. Add salt, then poor into heated pan and stir gently with a heat-proof spatula until just set. Serve with toast or a piece of fruit.

Time-Saving Tip: You can prepare the eggs the night before. After you beat them, put them in a container with a tight-fitting lid. In the morning, all you'll have to do is pour them into the pan.

Healthy Breakfast Idea # 2: Apple-Cinnamon Oatmeal

Oatmeal is one of the best healthy breakfast foods, as it contains lots of fiber, few calories, and can even help lower bad cholesterol. Many stores now carry cannisters of quick-cooking oats. To make apple-cinnamon oatmeal, prepare plain oatmeal according to the package directions. Then, stir in 2-3 tablespoons of unsweetened applesauce for every person you are serving (many stores carry single-serving applesauce containers, which prevents a large jar from sitting in the fridge and growing fur). Sprinkle on a half teaspoon of cinnamon per person and add sweetener to taste.

Time-Saving Tip: You can use the microwave. Most quick-cooking oats come with microwave-prep instructions, so you won't even have to wait for water to boil on the stove-top.

Healthy Breakfast Idea # 3: Berry Smoothie

Berries are one of the best sources of cancer-fighting antioxidants. To make a healthy breakfast smoothie you can pour into a glass and head out the door with, start by pouring a half cup of low-fat milk into a blender. Add a half-cup of plain low-fat yogurt and a cup of frozen berries (blueberries are one of the best choices), plus any sweetener you'd like. Puree on high until combined. Those who cannot consume milk products can make this smoothie by eliminating the yogurt and using a cup of soy milk and half a ripe banana cut into bite-size pieces.

Time-Saving Tip: You can measure the ingredients the night before. Mix the milk, yogurt and sweetener and put them in a sealed container in the fridge. Measure the berries and put them in a sealed container in the freezer. Then the next morning all you have to do is dump everything in the blender and push a button.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Baking Great Bread at High Altitude

With the price of a single loaf of bread higher than the price of bag of flour at most supermarkets, it's no wonder that so many people are trying to learn how to bake their own bread.  However, for millions of Americans who live at or above 3000ft (1/3rd of the US population according to the USDA), baking homemade bread can be a source of considerable frustration.  When I first stated baking in my home an hour away from the Mile High City of Denver, Colorado, it seemed like no matter what I did, I turned out loaf after loaf of parched cardboard.  It wasn't until I got some cooking tips on how to compensate for the many nefarious effects of high altitude that I learned to make bread my husband will actually eat.  Here's what I learned.


Because there is less air pushing down on dough, yeast works more quickly.  That means, at worst, a loaf that will rise so fast it later collapses in the oven, and at best, a loaf with very little flavor.  If your recipe calls for active dry yeast, instant yeast, or bread machine yeast, reduce the total amount by 1/3rd.  For example, one tablespoon yeast should be reduced to two teaspoons.  One packet of yeast usually measures about 1 tablespoon, but reducing the amount will be a lot easier if you use the yeast that comes in a jar.  Don't use rapid-rise yeast.  That kind of yeast has had enzymes added to make it work faster, and it works too fast to make good bread, even at sea level. 

How Much Flour to Use

Most bread recipes call for “up to” a certain number of cups of flour.  Since high altitude environments are usually dry and cold, flour will dry out and soak up more moisture when used in baking.  Most bread doughs have enough flour when they pull away from the side of the mixing bowl and look shaggy.  If your dough does this before you've added all the flour the recipe calls for, do not try to add more flour, or your finished bread will be too dry and gritty. 

About Rising

Use the full rising time called for in your recipe.  Yeast rises best in warm, moist environments (though some recipes use a slower counter-top or refrigerator rise to develop more flavor).  If your recipe says to place the dough in a “warm spot”, you can create the ideal environment by filling a cup with boiling water and putting it in the corner of your microwave.  Then place the bowl in the microwave and close the door (do not turn the microwave on).  Otherwise, use the rising location called for in your recipe. Dough is risen properly when it has just doubled in volume.  To be absolutely sure, poke it.  Make an indentation about 1/4 inch (1 cm) deep.  If the dent doesn't fill in, the dough is risen properly. 

Beware of over-risen doughs.  Doughs that rise beyond double volume can collapse or taste boozy.  If your dough has over-risen, gently flatten it (this is called “punching down, though it's actually a much more gentle movement) and allow it to rise again until it has just doubled.  


Set your oven temperature at 25 degrees below what the recipe calls for.  Due to lower air pressure, dough will expand faster in the oven (this is called the “oven spring”), and a lower temperature will ensure the center doesn't over-bake before the crust browns.  You can ensure a good crust by brushing the formed loaf with water, oil, or a beaten egg.  Also, it helps to put an oven-safe baking dish filled with water on the floor of the oven (lower rack if using electric).  This creates   humidity, which keeps the bread soft long enough for it to expand. 

Knowing When It's Done

Some recipes tell you bread will be done when you tap it and it “sounds hollow.”  I don't like that method, because over-baked hockey pucks also sound hollow (trust me on this one).  Temperature is the most reliable method, but here we run into the last important point about high altitude: lower air pressure means lower boiling point.  Bread that is allowed to reach a temperature above the boiling point of water will turn into cardboard. You need to remove your bread from the oven when an instant read thermometer inserted into the deepest part of the loaf reads 5-10 degrees below boiling point.

According to How to Boil Water, an easy way to figure out the boiling point where you live is to take the normal boiling point of water (212 degrees F) and subtract 2 degrees for every 1000ft above sea level.  That means water boils at 202 degrees in Denver, so bread baked there should be pulled at 192-197 degrees F. 

Finally (and I know this is hard), let the bread cool at least 20 minutes before you slice it.  Not only will you avoid painful mouth burns, your bread will set properly and you won't end up with floppy sandwiches.  Happy baking!


May 16, 2008.  High Altitude Cooking and Food Safety.  United States Department of Agriculture.  Retrieved January 9th, 2010 from

How to Boil Water.  Sea Levels vs. High Altitude Water Temperatures.  Retrieved January 9th, 2010 from

How to Use Vinegar to Clean and Restore Rusty Cast Iron Cookware

Cast iron can't be beat when it comes to searing a steak, charring vegetables, or cooking over a campfire.  However, cast iron does have an Achilles heal: it can rust if not properly cared for.  Rusty cast iron can be cleaned by scrubbing with steel wool, and that's a great method if you happen to have arms like Popeye.  However, for us mere mortals who'd like to avoid muscle strain, here's a similar method that uses vinegar to speed the process.

Cleaning Rusty Cast Iron (Step 1): Soak in a Solution of Water and Vinegar

To start, fill your sink (or a food-safe bucket) with water. Add half a cup of white distilled vinegar and place your cast iron pan in the water, making sure the water covers it completely. Allow the pan to soak overnight. As it soaks, the vinegar with react with the rust, changing its chemical structure. Make sure not to leave the pan in the water more than 12 hours, or the vinegar will start to eat the iron itself.

Cleaning Rusty Cast Iron (Step 2): Scrub with a Copper Scrubby

Remove the pan from the vinegar-water and rinse. Then scrub the pan with a copper scrubby or steel-wool (make sure to use the kind without soap), rinsing every few minutes. You should see the rust coming off the pan. If you don't, soak for another hour or so, or until you see bubbles form on the rust spots.

Cleaning Rusty Cast Iron (Step 3): Coat Lightly With Shortening

Immediately after scrubbing, dry the pan with a paper towel (some of the black color will come off and you don't want to ruin your dishcloths). Then, use a paper towel or napkin to apply a light coat of shortening, as if you were greasing a cake pan.  Note: because of exposure to an acidic environment, your pan has actually become more prone to rusting, which is why you need to get a coating of fat on it right away. If you don't, the rust will be back in a matter of hours.

Cleaning Rusty Cast Iron (Step 4): Cure in a Low Oven

Place your pan in a cold oven, then set the oven to 300 degrees. Check after one hour, and pour out any accumulated grease. Then cook for another 1-3 hours, or until a shiny black surface has formed. Once your pan is cured, allow it to cool completely before using it or putting it away. Note: while many people recommend curing in a 500 degree oven, lower heat is actually better. Low heat allows the fat to slowly absorb into the iron, creating a slicker, more water-proof seal.

Step 5: Enjoy cooking with your newly cleaned Cast Iron Cookware.