Kitchen Tips for Common Misconceptions

Andrea DiMauro

Andrea DiMauro › Andrea is the Creative Director for Food Truth, an online resource that empowers eaters to walk ...

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Cooking is a fascinating amalgam of art and science.

A purely improvisational approach makes for some magical discoveries, along with some big disappointments. But a rigid, law-abiding cook may be paralyzed by the smallest roadblock.

Who hasn’t started a recipe only to find that it calls for fresh thyme or wondered if sour cream can stand in for crème fraîche? Many ingredients are interchangeable but the subtle differences between things that appear to be the same can have a profound effect on the texture and flavor of your finished dish.

Here are a few kitchen tips to keep you artful and accurate.

Herbs: Fresh vs. Dried

Interchangeable? Yes, but with a caveat.

Think: you in jeans and a sweater vs. you at a black tie event. Same you, but different. Fresh herbs will be brighter and sharper in flavor. Dried herbs are generally more intense, so use half the amount: if a recipe calls for 2 tbsp fresh rosemary, use 1 tbsp dried. That said, some herbs lose their flavor completely when dehydrated, so you may want to chop them up fresh and freeze them with a little water in ice cube trays to add to soups and sauces when fresh herbs are not available. Cilantro is notoriously vibrant when fresh, but rarely retains its flavor when dried. The grassy, slightly bitter flavor of fresh parsley becomes mildly sweet when dried.

Meat Thermometer vs. Candy Thermometer

Interchangeable? Sometimes.

100° is 100°, right? Yes, but… a candy thermometer is designed to measure much higher temperatures, up to 400°, whereas a meat thermometer is designed to measure “doneness” up to 200°.

There are three considerations for a thermometer: temperature range, accuracy and speed of the reading. If you want one gadget to do it all, break the bank and get a ThermoWorks digital display probe thermometer that measures between -40F° and 1372F° within a half degree accuracy. Given the hefty price tag, it should also stir the caramel and slice the roast.

Stock & Broth

Interchangeable? Usually.

A hundred years ago when the world was civilized and we sat in chairs at tables and used more than one utensil to eat our dinner, there was a difference between stock and broth. There were even subsets of stock: white stocks, brown stocks, and clarified stocks called consommés, fumets, broths and bouillons.

All of the above are flavorful liquids made by simmering meaty bones, vegetables and aromatic herbs in water. The fundamental difference between classic “stock” and “broth” is that stock is considered the base for another recipe: usually a soup, stew or sauce and broth is understood to be seasoned (salted) and ready to eat alone or with the addition of a few prepared accompaniments. For both stock and broth the meaty bones and vegetables (usually onions, celery and carrots) are added to a large pot of water and simmered at length, then drained and defatted. For a clearer stock with a more neutral flavor, bones may be blanched first, the foam skimmed away and then simmered with the vegetables. Alternately, bones can be roasted first to yield a more intensely flavored stock or broth.

Nowadays, if a person buys a box (or can) of what is commonly labeled as both broth and stock, he appears to be an accomplished cook, as neither is considered more than an ingredient for another recipe, though both are usually salted, often heavily. Low-sodium varieties frequently feature the neurotoxin MSG instead.

Sorry, am I sounding like a snob? I am feeling very Downton Abbey right now as I think about how sophisticated and thrifty we once were in the kitchen, using every bit of animal and vegetable available. It is incredibly easy to make your own stock. It’s nutritionally superior to anything you buy in the supermarket and you can freeze it for use as you need.

Yogurt, Sour Cream and Crème Fraîche

Interchangeable? Sometimes.

All three are fermented milk products, but the difference lies in the ratio of butterfat in each. Typically, natural yogurt has the least butterfat, sour cream has a bit more at around 20%, and crème fraîche has up to 40%. This is the variable that will affect the texture of the dish. More fat means richer texture. If you are adding a dollop to a bowl of puréed butternut squash soup, you may choose any one of them. However, if you want to make the whole soup rich and creamy, it would be best to opt for the higher butterfat sour cream or (even better) the crème fraîche, as they will not curdle or “break” in the heat. The same is true if you are enriching a sauce that has an acid like lemon juice in it.

Bear in mind that the emulsifying agents and additives in commercial milk products may permit them to remain more stable than natural products — this is just another reason why simpler is better, and making your own from raw milk would be best.

Cooking is still the craft you learn by doing, but knowing a few helpful kitchen tips in advance can make the process easier and the results more predictable.

What are some other kitchen tips you need help with?

Photo Credit: Klesick Family Farm