Questions and Answers
Recipes vary from detailed lists of instructions to general guidelines. It’s usually quite important to closely follow a recipe when you’re preparing desserts such as cakes or cookies because baking involves precise chemical reactions. For savory dishes, consider your level of confidence and experience: if you’re new to cooking, then closely following a recipe should yield good results. If you have plenty of experience and expertise, then you can use the recipe as a general blueprint. As you grow more experienced, you’ll also grow more confident about trying your own riffs on your favorite recipes.
The amount of time you can leave food on the table without refrigeration depends on the particular food, the temperature of the room, and whether you will be reusing the food in the future. Some items, such as mayonnaise, meat, and dairy products should not be left out any longer than necessary, especially in warm weather. In general, most foods will stay safe at room temperature for about four hours, assuming you won’t be reusing them afterwards. However, it’s always best to play it safe and refrigerate food when you can. If you’re preparing for a large party and working on multiple dishes, it’s especially easy to lose track of how long foods have been out of the refrigerator, so pay close attention and don’t leave anything out for too long. Also, preparing food in large batches—either cooked or uncooked--can be tricky, so pay close attention and keep ingredients in the refrigerator whenever you can.
Cook beef such as steak to at least 145 degrees Fahrenheit. This is the minimum temperature for rare meat; to prepare meat well done, cook it to 170 degrees Fahrenheit. Cook ground beef to at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit, and use this temperature for pork and chicken as well. Invest in a metal-stem thermometer to make sure you cook your meat to safe temperatures. The FDA website is a great source of specific guidelines and recommendations, and the agency updates its information regularly. Follow these recommendations, even if you think your meat tastes better when it’s cooked to a lower temperature. It’s not worth risking food borne illness for the sake of flavor.
It is a false belief that food dropped on the floor will not pick up bacteria if it stays on the ground for less than five seconds. Nothing could be further from the truth! Food that touches anything unclean be that the floor, counters, utensils, or dirty hands becomes contaminated instantly and needs to be cleaned or even reheated to a safe temperature. There are permutations of this myth ranging from three to seven seconds but the only correct rule to follow should be the zero-second rule!
Bring your water to a strong boil before adding the pasta. You can use salted or unsalted water. Salting the water will give your pasta extra flavor, but it’s not absolutely necessary and it does increase the sodium content. Pasta is most likely to stick together and to the bottom of the pan during the first minute after you add it to the pot, so stir frequently early on and stir intermittently after the first minute or two. Most pasta takes 8 to 10 minutes to cook thoroughly, although the exact time will depend on the variety of pasta as well as your personal taste. When in doubt, simply follow the directions on the package.
Soak dried beans for a few hours or overnight and then change the water before you start cooking them. This process speeds up the cooking process and also extracts some of the substances that can make beans hard to digest. Large beans take longer to cook than smaller ones, and the longer they’ve been sitting in the store on on your kitchen shelf, the longer they’ll take as well. Cook beans on medium-low heat, stirring approximately every twenty minutes. Add more water if necessary.
Cook rice in two parts water to one part rice. You can use salted or unsalted water; salting the water will give the rice extra flavor but it will increase the sodium content. Bring the water to a boil, and then add the rice, lower the heat, and cover the pan. Cook on low heat until all of the water has evaporated. Don’t stir the rice while it’s cooking. To see if all of the water is evaporated, you can simply tilt the pan.
Olive oil is a wonderful, flavorful cooking oil, but you should only use it for cooking processes that use relatively low temperatures, such as sautéing. Don’t ever deep fry foods in olive oil. If you heat olive oil—or any other oil—to the point where it starts smoking, discard it and start all over again with fresh oil. Save your best olive oil for salads, where you can really taste it, and cook with a good quality inexpensive olive oil.
Start your collection of cooking tools with a medium-size saucepan, a can opener, a small paring knife, a larger all-purpose knife, and a cutting board. It’s also great to have a couple of large serving spoons, a pair of tongs, a vegetable peeler, and a colander. Other useful cooking tools might include a grater, a skillet, a steamer, and a garlic press. Many stores sell affordable cookware sets that contain a useful variety of pots and pans, and they usually include a stockpot, which is quite useful for preparing soup, rice, and pasta.
Cooking in quantity helps to lower your food budget because many ingredients—especially vegetables such as cabbage and cauliflower—come in relatively large serving sizes. Choose recipes such as stews, which use meat as one ingredient among many, rather than making meat the focus of your meals. Use plenty of beans and whole grains, which are inexpensive as well as nutritious.
Whenever possible, base your meals on whole grains, fresh vegetables, and legumes such as lentils and chickpeas. Use meat and dairy products sparingly. Aim for variety, and create meals that incorporate fresh produce in addition to animal and plant-based proteins.
Store dried beans and grains at room temperature in glass jars. This will keep them free of grain moths. Wrap refrigerated cheeses tightly, and if you’re freezing an item, seal it in an airtight container. Label all food items with the date you purchased and stored them, and use the oldest items first.
The skin of a potato is more nutritionally dense than its flesh. It contains potassium and Vitamin C, as well as half of the dietary fiber in the entire potato. It can also add texture to dishes. However, if you want to achieve a smooth texture for your potato dish, pieces of potato peel will certainly detract from its smoothness. The choice of whether or not to peel a potato generally comes down to tradition and individual preference, and you can certainly peel potatoes for some dishes and leave them unpeeled for others.
Salt makes food taste good and can be an important preservative, but it can also contribute to elevated blood pressure levels so it’s best to use no more than necessary. If you’re using packaged products such as canned beans, keep in mind that they’re usually pre-salted, and adjust the amount of salt you use accordingly. Experiment with adding salt earlier or later in the cooking process to see which approach yields the most flavor relative to the amount of salt you’re using.
Eating a diet consisting exclusively of pasta is certainly unhealthy, but pasta certainly does have some health benefits. Whole wheat pasta is considerably healthier than pasta made from white flour, so if you can get used to the texture, it’s a good option for some of your meals. A serving made from two ounces of dry whole wheat pasta contains five grams of dietary fiber, and seven grams of protein. Pasta—even white pasta— actually has a lower glycemic index than most types of rice, even brown rice. This means that it takes longer for your body to convert it into sugar, making it a healthier choice from the standpoint of blood sugar.
Cut the vegetables you plan to roast into bite-sized pieces before roasting them. The smaller the pieces, the more quickly they’ll cook. If you’re roasting potatoes along with other vegetables, parboil the potatoes for a minute or two before mixing them with the other vegetables. Toss vegetables with a healthy oil such as olive oil, season them with salt, pepper, and other herbs and spices, and then roast them at about 400 degrees Fahrenheit in a preheated oven for about 20 minutes or until they start to brown. If you don’t have a chance to preheat the oven, just allow for a few minutes extra cooking time.
You can either roast meat slowly on low heat, or quickly on high heat. Tough cuts of meat such as chuck roast are more suitable for slow roasting, and tender cuts such as sirloin are best for quicker, high heat roasting. For higher heat roasting, season your meat simply: sometimes salt and pepper are all you need. For lower heat roasting, put some broth or tasty sauce in the roasting pan with the meat, and cover the pan with foil. Use a metal stem thermometer to make sure your meat has cooked to a temperature of at least 145 degrees Fahrenheit if you’ll be serving it rare or 170 degrees Fahrenheit if you’re serving it well done.
Make a simple vegetable stock by boiling sturdy, flavorful vegetables in plenty of water. Onions, carrots, parsnips, and celery are ideal for vegetable stock. If you have vegetable peels and scraps they will add extra flavor, but only use scraps that are reasonably fresh. Use about a pound of vegetables for each quart of water. Add salt to your stock, as well as fresh herbs such as parsley. Strain the vegetables out of your stock before cooling and storing it.
The longer you marinate or brine your ingredients, the tastier they’ll be, so try to allow at least several hours for these processes. Marinades and brines should always include a salty ingredient such as table salt or soy sauce. Acidic ingredients such as lemon juice or vinegar also help to tenderize meats. Refrigerate the meats while you’re brining or marinating them.
When setting a table, place the fork to the left of the plate and the knife to the right. If a table setting uses multiple forks, place the ones that will be used first in the furthest position from the plate. When holding flatware, handle it delicately rather than clutching it in your fist. Do not set down used flatware directly on a tablecloth.
Some root vegetables such as yams and potatoes will keep at room temperature for a few weeks, although they’ll last longer if you store them in the refrigerator. Keep fresh fruits and vegetables in the vegetable drawer of your fridge, which tends to be more humid than the open shelves. Store tomatoes at room temperature, where they can ripen and achieve their full flavor.
Fruits and vegetables that you buy at a farmers’ market are almost always fresher than produce that you buy at a store. Fresh produce is more nutritionally complete than produce that has been sitting in a refrigerator for weeks. Even if you don’t have a year-round farmers’ market, it still makes sense to eat winter vegetables such as beets and kale during the winter months, because they’re usually grown closer to home than warm weather produce such as cucumbers. In general, don’t buy more of any perishable fruit or vegetable than you plan to use in a week. Avoid brown spots, although for some fruits, such as bananas, brown spots are a sign of ripeness. Choose fruits and vegetables that are firm, but not too firm. Ripe fruit will also be more fragrant than unripe fruit, so also use your nose when selecting fruit.
Although we often hear about selecting lean cuts of meat for their health benefits, not all animal fat is created equal. The healthiest meats come from grass-fed animals raised by producers who feed their animals a healthy diet. Fatty meat from healthier animals is still better for you than lean meat from animals raised on factory farms. Also, don’t assume that a piece of meat is low in fat simply because you don’t see the marbled fat. Some pieces, such as chicken thighs, actually contain substantial amounts of fat that aren’t visually obvious.
Be conscious about cross contamination, and keep ready to eat foods away from surfaces, utensils, and hands that have come into contact with raw meat or raw eggs. Store potentially hazardous foods on the lower shelves of your refrigerator, so they won’t contaminate other foods if they drip. Keep perishable foods either hot enough or cold enough to inhibit bacterial growth. To be on the safe side, toss meat and eggs that have passed their expiration dates.
Yeast is a living organism, so if your yeast dough doesn’t rise, there’s a good chance that it’s old, has run out of nutrients, or the conditions aren’t suitable for it to reproduce and grow. Active dry yeast should be activated in a warm solution of sugar and water, typically between 105 to 115 degrees Fahrenheit. If the water is too hot, it will kill the yeast. Yeast dough rises best at temperatures between 75 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit. If your yeast isn’t old and stale, then you’re mostly likely keeping the dough in a place that is either too cold or too hot for it to rise. In addition, bread dough can fail to rise if you’ve added too much of another ingredient such as sugar, salt, butter, or eggs.
Dill is perhaps the most common herb used in Russian cuisine. Russian recipes make use of both dried and fresh dill. Black pepper is another common spice that is featured in many Russian recipes. Fresh parsley as well is widely used in Russian dishes. Caraway seeds also add a distinctive Russian flavor, especially in breads and desserts. Although not technically considered an herb, green onions or scallions also provide classic flavor in many Russian dishes.