Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Cornstarch vs. Flour

When I was researching different gravy recipes for Thanksgiving a lot of recipes called for cornstarch, and I realized that I have always used a flour roux to thicken sauces and gravy and have never really used cornstarch – I actually don’t even have a box in my cupboard.   So, I decided to do some research to find out the differences between the two.  

Here is what I found….

All About Cornstarch
Although flour is the traditional thickening agent in most cooking, cornstarch (also known as corn-flour) is a fine, powdery flour ground from the endosperm, or white heart, of the corn kernel.  As for the difference between cornstarch and flour: both are starches, but cornstarch is pure starch, while flour contains gluten.  The gluten reduces the thickening power of flour, therefore cornstarch has twice the thickening power of flour. Sauces thickened with cornstarch will be clear, rather than opaque.

How to Cook with Cornstarch
Since cornstarch has twice the thickening power of flour, you only need to use half as much.  For example, if recipe calls for 4 tablespoons of flour, use just 2 tablespoons cornstarch.  Cornstarch thickens with a satiny smoothness and glossy appearance.  It adds no taste of its own to mask the flavor of foods.

Recipes thickened with cornstarch have a brighter, more translucent appearance than those thickened with flour. Cornstarch also blends more easily with liquids than flour because it doesn't absorb liquid until it's cooked.  Cooking with cornstarch is easy when you follow a few simple guidelines: 1) gradually stir cold liquids into cornstarch until completely smooth, 2) cook over medium-low heat as cooking over high heat or boiling can cause lumping and thinning, 3) avoid stirring too vigorously because it may break down and thin out, and 4) stir gently during while it thickens, the starch granules will swell to their full capacity in about one minute.

Using Cornstarch as a Thickener
Always mix a slurry of cornstarch and a small amount of cold liquid (water, stock, wine, etc.) until smooth, then add this mixture to the sauce that you want thickened.  Do not mix with liquids that are acidic, such as citrus juice, or its thickening power will be cut in half.  

As a rule, use 1 tablespoon of cornstarch to thicken every 2 cups of liquid to a medium consistency.  Cornstarch mixed a little cold liquid, is stirred into the hot food during the final stage of cooking, and it must be cooked to 203°F (95°C) before thickening begins.

Common Problems when using Cornstarch
Cornstarch mixtures that don't thicken at all, or thicken and then thin out during cooling are disappointing. One or more of the following may have caused the problem.
Too Little Liquid: If there is not enough liquid (water, milk, juice) in the mixture, the cornstarch granules will not fully swell and remain thickened when the mixture cools. Adding a little more liquid is likely to solve the problem.
Too Much Sugar: A higher proportion of sugar than liquid (water, milk, juice) in a mixture can interfere with the swelling of the cornstarch granules and prevent thickening during cooking and/or cause thinning during cooling.  Adding more liquid will often solve the problem.
Too Much Fat: An excessively high proportion of fat or egg yolks in a mixture can interfere with the swelling of the cornstarch granules and prevent thickening during cooking and/or cause thinning during cooling. Adding more liquid will usually solve the problem.
Too Much Acid: Acid ingredients such as lemon juice or vinegar will reduce the thickening ability of the starch or prevent the mixture from thickening. Increase the starch level slightly or stir acid ingredients in after cooking.
Too Much Stirring: Excessive or rough stirring with a wire whisk or spoon may break the starch cells and cause the mixture to thin out.
Excessive Cooking: Simmering or boiling a cornstarch thickened mixture for an extended period of time may cause the starch cells to rupture and the mixture to thin.
Freezing: Freezing corn-starch thickened mixtures will rupture the starch cells and cause the mixture to thin out.

Uses for Cornstarch
Cornstarch is often used in Asian recipes because it results in a lighter, clearer sauce with a glossy sheen.  Besides thickening, cornstarch helps to prevent eggs from curdling; which is helpful in making custard, flan, cheesecake, quiche, and other egg dishes.  It also causes heat to be transmitted more evenly throughout the dish, and can be used to make a glaze.  Cornstarch can be used to "flour" pieces of meat for added crispiness when browning.  It is the best choice for thickening dairy-based sauces.

So there you have it.   

I’m very curious if you use flour or cornstarch when you make gravy?   Talk to me…..

Speaking of gravy, click here to check out my Champagne Gravy recipe:

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

My Favorite Thanksgiving Dessert

I've never really been a pumpkin pie fan.  Actually, I've never been a pie fan, at least not pies with a regular pie crust.  Now graham cracker crust, on the other hand, is a different story.   My Mom made this pie one year and I ended up loving it.  It is the only pumpkin pie I will eat.   It is easy and full of creamy goodness.   A definite crowd pleaser.  

Creamy Two-Layer Pumpkin Pie
(a Kraft Foods recipe)

Prep Time: 20 min
Total Time: 4 hr 20 min
Makes: 8-10 servings

4 oz. (1/2 of 8-oz. pkg.) Neufchatel Cheese, softened
1 Tbsp. cold fat-free milk
1 Tbsp. sugar
1-1/2 cups thawed COOL WHIP LITE Whipped Topping
1 ready-to-use reduced-fat graham cracker crumb crust (6 oz.)
1 cup cold fat-free milk
1 can (16 oz.) pumpkin
2 pkg. (4-serving size each) JELL-O Vanilla Flavor Fat Free Sugar Free Instant Pudding
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp. ground ginger

BEAT Neufchatel cheese, 1 Tbsp. milk and sugar in large bowl with wire whisk until well blended. Stir in whipped topping. Spread onto bottom of crust.

POUR 1 cup milk into medium bowl. Add pumpkin, pudding mix and spices. Beat with wire whisk 2 minutes or until well blended. (Mixture will be thick.) Spread over Neufchatel cheese layer.

REFRIGERATE 4 hours or until set. Garnish with additional whipped topping and/or caramel, if desired. Store leftover pie in refrigerator.

TIP - How To Soften Neufchatel Cheese
measured amount of Neufchatel cheese on microwavable plate. Microwave on HIGH 10 seconds or until slightly softened.

My notes:
I use Neufchatel Cheese because it is lower in fat than regular cream cheese, you can use either one. I also use Cool Whip Lite and 1% milk.  After a big Thanksgiving it feels good to have some lighter ingredients in the pie and the flavor doesn't suffer one bit.

To double the recipe, I make my own graham cracker crust and put it in a big rectangular pan and then double the recipe above.

I will be whipping this up on Wednesday night.  I can't wait! 

What is your favorite Thanksgiving dessert?   Talk to me...........

Saturday, November 19, 2011

German-style Pretzels

When I was flipping through my Food & Wine magazine last January, I came across a recipe for German-style pretzels.  I immediately tore it out and put it in my calendar for October.   I love fresh, soft German pretzels and can never find any that taste the same as they do in Germany.   So, when October came I found the recipe and decided to make them the night we carved pumpkins.   Admittidly, I’m not much of a baker but I decided to give the pretzels a try.  

 German-Style Pretzels
Total Time: 4 hours
Active: 45 minutes
Servings: 8

  • 3 3/4 cups bread flour (20 ounces), plus more for dusting
  • 1 1/2 cups warm water
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
  • 10 cups lukewarm water
  • 1/2 cup food-grade lye micro beads (see Note)
  • Coarse salt or pretzel salt, for sprinkling (see Note)
  • In the bowl of a standing electric mixer fitted with the dough hook, combine the 3 3/4 cups of bread flour with the warm water, yeast, kosher salt and butter and knead at medium speed until the flour is evenly moistened, 2 minutes. Increase the speed to high and knead until a smooth, elastic dough forms around the hook, 8 minutes.
  • Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface. Cover loosely with a dry kitchen towel and let rest for 5 minutes. Cut the dough into 8 equal pieces and form each one into a ball. Cover the dough balls with the towel and let rest for another 5 minutes.
  • On an unfloured surface, roll each ball of dough into an 18-inch-long rope, tapering them slightly at both ends. To shape each pretzel, form the rope into a U shape. Cross the ends over each other twice to form the twist, then bring the ends to the bottom of the U and press the tips onto it. Arrange the pretzels on 2 large baking sheets lined with parchment paper and let stand uncovered in a warm place for 45 minutes, or until slightly risen. Refrigerate the pretzels uncovered for at least 2 hours or overnight.
  • Preheat the oven to 400°. While wearing latex gloves, long sleeves and safety goggles, fill a large, deep ceramic, plastic or glass bowl with the lukewarm water. Carefully add the lye (always be sure to add lye to water, never the other way around) and, taking care not to splash, stir the solution occasionally until all the beads have fully dissolved, about 5 minutes. Using a slotted spatula, gently lower a pretzel into the solution for 15 seconds. Carefully turn the pretzel over and soak it for another 15 seconds. With the spatula, remove the pretzel from the lye solution and return it to the baking sheets.
  • Sprinkle the pretzels with coarse salt and bake on the top and middle racks of the oven until shiny-brown and risen, about 17 minutes; shift the pans halfway through baking. Let the pretzels cool slightly on the baking sheets before serving.
Note: Make Ahead Pretzels baked without salt can be frozen for up to 1 month. Spray the frozen pretzels with water and sprinkle with salt before reheating in a 275° oven until warmed through, about 20 minutes. Notes Food-grade lye can be ordered from Coarse salt and pretzel salt can be found at specialty-food stores or online at

Lye Alternative: To make a lye alternative, dissolve 1/2 cup baking soda in 2 quarts of boiling water. Boil the pretzels for 30 seconds, then drain on wire racks before salting and baking.

My Take
I tried hard to find food-grade lye micro beads, but had no luck.   I stumped many food supply places with the request and I didn’t plan ahead to have enough time to order them online.   In hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t have any luck as I had not read ahead in the recipe to see what using food-grade lye micro beads entails (it needs to be used wearing latex gloves, long sleeves, and safety goggles).  I think the baking soda worked just fine.

I was excited to put my Kitchen Aid mixer to use.  As it was something I had to have and unfortunately it hasn’t been used as much as it should.    Well, not only did I use it, I made it dance.   Kneading the dough with the dough hook on high for 8 minutes made it hop and dance across my counter as it spanked the dough with a loud slapping sound.   I ended up having to hold on to it the whole time.  It was hysterical.   

Due to my inexperience, I couldn’t really tell when “a smooth, elastic dough forms around the hook,” so I kind of guessed.  I’m not sure I guess right and think I should’ve given it more time.    It was hard to roll out the dough – it took forever for it to roll into long pieces.   This is why my pretzels ended up being a little fat.    The pretzels were a lot of work.  I started the process at 5 p.m. and bit into my first pretzel at 10 p.m.   After all the work, I was seriously debating whether I would make them again.   

The pretzels were definitely worth the effort; they were amazing.   A new tradition was born; I’m going to make these every year when we carve pumpkins in October.  I suggest you do the same.  

 PS - What else to chase down a fresh, salty German pretzel than German Beer.   Cheers!


Friday, November 18, 2011

You know you're a foodie if.....

As a self-proclaimed “foodie” I thought I would try to define the term.   

Here is the definition I found in Wikipedia:  

Foodie is an informal term for a particular class of aficionado of food and drink. The word was coined in 1981 by Paul Levy and Ann Barr, who used it in the title of their 1984 book The Official Foodie Handbook.
Distinguished from gourmet: Although the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, foodies differ from gourmets in that gourmets are epicures of refined taste, whereas foodies are amateurs who simply love food for consumption, study, preparation, and news. Gourmets simply want to eat the best food, whereas foodies want to learn everything about food, both the best and the ordinary, and about the science, industry, and personalities surrounding food.
Pursuits: Foodies are a distinct hobbyist group. Typical foodie interests and activities include the food industry, wineries and wine tasting, breweries and beer sampling, food science, following restaurant openings and closings and occasionally reopenings, food distribution, food fads, health and nutrition, cooking classes, culinary tourism, and restaurant management. A foodie might develop a particular interest in a specific item, such as the best egg cream or burrito. Many publications have food columns that cater to foodies. Interest by foodies in the 1980s and 1990s gave rise to the Food Network and other specialized food programming, popular films and television shows about food such as Top Chef and Iron Chef, a renaissance in specialized cookbooks, specialized periodicals such as Gourmet Magazine and Cook's Illustrated, growing popularity of farmers' markets,[3] food-oriented websites like Zagat's and Yelp, publishing and reading food blogs, specialized kitchenware stores like Williams-Sonoma and Sur La Table, and the institution of the celebrity chef. There is also a growing market for culinary tourism.

That kind of sums it up; I am definitely a food hobbyist with a true passion for food.  For fun, I thought I would put together a little check-list.   How many can you check off?
You know you’re a foodie if:

  • You dream about food regularly.
  • You have a drawer in the refrigerator for just cheeses.
  • You can name more than a dozen types of pasta.
  • Penzey’s catalog can occupy you for hours.
  • You can name the 5 mother sauces and know how to make at least 3.
  • You can make homemade pasta; and know how much better it tastes than store-bought pasta.
  • You think about which type of salt you will use on a dish because you have many types.
  • You have saffron in your cupboard.
  • You study the menu before you go to a restaurant.
  • You’ve taken a cooking class from a local chef.
  • You spend lunch thinking about what you’ll have for dinner.
  • You plan your vacation around which restaurants you will eat at each day instead of which sites you will see.
  • You spend more on food than on clothing or gas.
  • You get wildly excited to try new foods.
  • You have withdrawals from your knives, VitaMix blender, and kitchen supplies when away from home.
  • You have more than 3 kinds of vinegar in your home.
  • You prefer to make your own salad dressings.
  • The thought of eating at a chain restaurant sends you into a state of depression.
  • You refuse to use Kraft Parmesan in the green can; you HAVE to have freshly grated cheese.
  • You constantly critique dishes to evaluate what could make them better.  
  • You know the difference between tahini and sesame paste.
  • You have truffle oil in your pantry and use it regularly.
  • You use clarified butter when cooking (and make your own).
  • You make your own stock.
  • Your hands regularly smell like fresh, minced garlic.
  • Your spouse doesn’t like to go out to eat because “you cook so much better than any restaurant.”
  • You know that basmati is not the capital of India.
  • You have at least 6 different types of mustard in the fridge, and that bright yellow stuff you find at the hot dog stand isn’t one of them.
  • You know exactly what a Durian is and more importantly how to eat it.
  • You’d much rather spend $200 on a nice dinner than a new electronic device.
  • You monitor the food holidays and partake as often as possible.
  • You’ve tried to recreate your favorite restaurant meals at home.
  • You have more pictures of food you've made than you do of anything else.
  • You have to workout extra to support your food habit.  
  • You experiment with how wine can make certain meals taste that much better; the perfect food and wine pairing is pure bliss.
  • You will send back a meal at a restaurant that is overcooked or doesn’t taste right without hesitation.
  • You can easily spend hours in a kitchen store or in the cookbook section of a bookstore. 

Let’s keep this list going.   Please add one of your own in the comments. 

You know you’re a foodie if…….