Every week, Test Kitchen director Donna Deane and I receive e-mails from readers about the week's recipes. Many are positive; the recipes may stir a memory or utilize an ingredient in an exciting new way. Often we receive questions about similar recipes or methods, wondering why we add ingredients when we do, or what we mean by a particular step. Some questions don't relate to just-published recipes but are totally out of the blue — what would we suggest doing with a particular ingredient or how might we cook a certain food? Occasionally we hear from a frustrated e-mailer who's wondering why a recipe didn't come out as expected.
That said, we thought we'd start throwing out some weekly general kitchen tips on this blog. Many will probably be familiar, some may be totally new. In any case, we hope they're helpful. If you've got any questions or tips you'd like us to explore, feel free to comment — we'll do our best to cover each one we receive.
The majority of questions we receive involve baking. With baking being the precise science it is, we thought we'd start by giving some tips relating to measuring and ingredients. Here goes:
• Use liquid measuring cups for liquid ingredients, and dry measures for dry. Honestly, we can't stress how important this is; nothing will throw a recipe off more quickly than measuring out your flour in a liquid measuring cup (you'll end up with much more than is called for in the recipe). Measuring spoons can be used for both liquid and dry ingredients.
• Place the measuring cup on a flat, level surface before measuring. This goes for both liquid and dry ingredients.
• Level off your dry ingredients so they're flush with the top of the measuring spoon or cup. Do this gently.
• Gently spoon — don't pack — the flour into the measuring cup. Packing will throw off a recipe by adding more flour than is called for. And don't scoop the flour using the same spoon/cup with which you're planning to measure — this will pack the flour.
• Pack the brown sugar into your measuring spoon or cup. Yes, this is the total opposite of the flour.
• Opened spice and herb jars should be kept no longer than one year. Spices, like anything else, get stale and lose their potency gradually after they're opened. In the Test Kitchen, we try to date the jars once they're opened so we know when each spice should be replaced.
• Baking soda and powder should be replaced each year. Like the spices, they lose their potency. Quick breads and cookies won't rise (or rise as they should) with stale ingredients.
• Eggs should be at room temperature before they're used in a recipe. One function of eggs in baking is to add volume; room-temperature eggs will give you higher cakes and more magnificent meringues than cold eggs.
• When we call for salt in a recipe, we are referring to fine salt (we use fine sea salt in the Test Kitchen). If a recipe calls for a specific salt, such as kosher or coarse, we will list this in the ingredients.
— Noelle Carter
Photo by Noelle Carter