Storing oils

Most sources recommend against storing olive oil in the fridge, preferring the classic “dark, cool place.” If you do refrigerate it, they advise giving it 5 minutes or so to come to room temperature before use.

Other oils are apparently more forgiving of refrigeration, or maybe just beneath the notice of those who care about such things.

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Some little tricks you may already know

Dental floss
Cut soft cheese such as Brie, Camembert, or chevre by placing unflavored dental floss under it, crossing the ends over the top, and pulling.

Cake can be split horizontally into layers in a similar manner. Use a ruler to place toothpicks evenly around the cake to guide the floss, wrap, and pull.

Dental floss is also a good choice for stringing food-coloring-dyed or painted pasta “beads” (or any kind of beads) when kids need something “crafty” to do. Please note that dental floss is particularly strong and probably won’t break if the kids try to strangle each other with it or their new necklaces, so this should be discouraged.

Potato flakes
Thicken soup, especially the “cream” kind, by adding instant mashed potatoes. Add it little by little and give it time to absorb liquid and dissolve before adding more if you particularly want to stay soup-ward of mashed potatoes with stuff in. I find this especially useful for commercially-made soups, because the potatoes also cover up some of the saltiness.

Chop bacon with kitchen shears instead of a knife and cutting board.

Cut pizza — especially the thin crust kind — with kitchen shears.

Spread jam, jelly, and nut butter with the back of a spoon — it’s easier than trying to dig the stuff out of the jar with a knife and then keep it balanced until you get it to the bread.

Wine bottles
Pit cherries by placing them stem-end up on the opening of a wine bottle and pushing the pit out with the handle end of a chopstick. If you wash the bottle out first, you can then use the pits to make flavored water or vodka. Add sparkling water to the pits, give them a good swirl, and strain the water into flasses to serve, or collect a good pile of pits, add vodka and a few whole cherries, and infuse for at least a week.

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Slow cooker tricks

To convert a traditional recipe for a slow cooker, adjust the cooking time as follows:
Recipe time Slow cooker (on low)
15 minutes 1.5-2 hours
20 min. 2-3 hrs.
30 min. 3-4 hrs.
45 min. 5-6 hrs.
1 hr. 6-8 hrs.
1.5 hrs. 8-9 hrs.
2 hrs. 9-10 hrs.
You’ll probably need less liquid, as well.

Doubling a slow cooker recipe is a little more complicated than with a normal recipe. Only add half again as much liquid as in the original recipe (for instance, 1 cup of broth in the original slow cooker recipe should only become 1.5 cups when “doubled”). You’ll also need to cook it about an hour longer; check it carefully for doneness and cook longer if needed.

On those cold winter days when your hair sticks to your face and the cat’s ears give you little static shocks, an unlidded slow cooker full of water (and any dried herb you care to add, optional) makes a passable humidifier. (If the cat will let you touch his paw with one hand, making skin-to-skin contact, you can pet him with the other hand without snapping either of you. Try slipping your hand under the paw rather than holding it, most cats object to having a paw trapped.)

Much of this information came from: Slow cooking for two : basics techniques recipes / Cynthia Graubart. Gibbs Smith, c2013. ISBN: 9781423633839.

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Baking powder and baking soda

Chemically speaking, baking soda is a base — alkaline — and produces a gas when mixed with an acid. This is the source of both its leavening action and the more explosive effect that makes it a popular drain-cleaner and component of baking-soda-and-vinegar volcanos. Lemon juice, buttermilk, honey, molasses, and chocolate are all acidic enough to trigger leavening. Do not let baking-soda-leavened batter sit too long before baking it or the chemical reaction will run its course and the batter will start to deflate.

Baking powder pre-combines baking soda with a dry acid or two to produce the same effect. The most common kind, double-acting baking powder, contains two acids, one that starts leavening as soon as it gets wet and another that doesn’t start working until it’s heated. Some recipes will advise you to let baking-powder-leavened batter sit briefly before baking it, in order to, as it were, get the maximum lift from the first stage before heat sets off the second stage.

Baking powder loses strength as it ages. If you’re not sure how long that can has been sitting in the cupboard, test it by mixing 1/2 tsp. of it into 1/4 cup of warm water; it will fizz if it’s still good.

A possible substitute for baking powder is to add 2 tsp. cream of tartar, 1 tsp. baking soda, and 1 tsp. salt PER CUP OF FLOUR (not in direct proportion to the recipe’s baking powder). Keep in mind, though, that you’re edging from cooking into chemistry here and this work-around won’t work for every recipe.

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Cut onions with a particularly sharp knife to reduce “crying.” This effect is caused by the sulphur in the onions reacting with eye moisture to produce (very weak) sulphuric acid that the body washes away with tears. The less you tear the membranes of the onion, the less sulphur gets into the air. Wearing glasses, sunglasses, or safety goggles can also help by limiting the sulphur fumes’ access to your eyes. For big projects or extra protection for sensitive eyes, invest in a good pair of swimming goggles, sized for adults. If anyone laughs, invite them to take over the chopping.

To tone down the pungency of an onion, soak it in ice water for half an hour before using it.

To peel pearls onions, drop them into boiling water for about 30 seconds, then into cold water. Trim the root end and squeeze the onion toward the stem and it will pop free.

Many believe leftover onion — not used the same day it’s cut — will attract and collect germs. There’s some scientific evidence to support the idea, so consider chopping up the whole onion and freezing what you don’t use right away — or even chopping and freezing several onions at once. It can be very convenient to have a stash of chopped onion all ready to toss into the soup kettle or frying pan.

I’m told this chop-and-freeze technique works with celery as well, also just for cooking. It’ll lose its crispness but not its flavor.

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Gelatin and friends

Gelatin is made of collagen, mostly from the tendons, connective tissues, and bones of mammals. Powdered gelatin is the most familiar, but leaf gelatin is gaining popularity. Five sheets of leaf gelatin are equivalent to a tablespoon, or one packet, of powdered gelatin. To use it, soften the sheets in cold water for 1-2 min before adding them to whatever liquid you’re cooking them in, then heating that liquid until the gelatin melts.

Agar-agar is the vegan (and pareve) alternative, made from algae. Powered agar is usually designed to replace gelatin one-for-one, but in most cases you’ll need to use more flake or bar agar than gelatin.

There’s also isinglass (not to be confused with muscovite, a kind of mica that’s also called isinglass but isn’t edible). Isinglass is a kind of gelatin made from fish swim bladders and is used primarily in brewing.

More links:
Some health aspects of agar-agar

More about isinglass

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If you’re using saffron primarily for its golden color rather than flavor, you can cut costs by using turmeric or even plain yellow food coloring. If you want the proper taste, though, stick with the real thing and avoid the grocery store. Not only can a specialty shop or website (Buck’s and Penzey’s both have good reputations) save you a lot of money, their saffron will be much fresher.

Although some sources recommend lightly roasting saffron for more flavor, the traditional method is to soak it in some of whatever liquid you’re using in the dish you’re making, ideally warm or hot, for a few minutes before adding both saffron and liquid to the dish.

Saffron grows as a beautiful fall crocus that will actually do quite well in our climate, given a sunny spot and very well-drained soil — and reasonable safety from wildlife (a generous sprinkle of chili powder will keep the squirrels from eating all the bulbs). The harvest is a bit labor-intensive but not particularly difficult once you figure out which little bit of flower you’re looking for.

The WSU Extension has a very nice .pdf about growing saffron, written pretty much with Eastern Washington in mind but still useful for those of us on “The Wet Side.” To download it, find the “Miscellaneous” section at the bottom of their listing for Benton and Franklin Counties and click “Grow your own saffron.”

Hey, vendors! I’d love to see locally-grown saffron at the market, even just briefly and in limited amounts. I wonder if it could be sold as whole flowers to make things easier, kind of like shelling peas…

Paella recipe (but I’d leave out the chorizo, especially since they don’t say which kind, and peel the tomatoes)

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