Free Range on Food: Salt to taste, smoked salt, gratins and more

Feb 05, 2014

Every Wednesday at noon, Food section staff members and guests answer your burning culinary questions.
Past Free Range on Food chats

Greetings, all, and welcome to today's chat! Hope you enjoyed Bonnie's salty manifesto. What are you thoughts about the idea of "salt to taste." Do you do it? Do you even know what it means, or how to approach it? Do you prefer to go pinch by pinch, or are you of the "make it rain!" crowd?

In that vein, we also have Jim "Smoke Signals" Shahin's take on his own favorite salt -- smoked, of course. (I'm a fan, too; the stuff is hard to resist.)

And Emily Horton waxes poetic about gratins, those bubbly, hot-from-the-oven dishes perfect for this time of year.

All of the above are in the house to help us handle your questions, along with us staffers, plus a special return engagement by former Post columnist Robert "Food 101" Wolke, who can handle your science-y queries; our wine guru Dave McIntyre (who wrote about Jon Bonne's book, "The New California Wine" and is here for a very special appearance!); and of course our newest star, Carrie "Spirits" Allan (who wrote a very flip-pant column today).

No more wasting time -- lots of ground to cover. So let's do it!

Follow-up question to Robert Wolke's advice: When baking cakes and non-savory pastries, do you need to adjust the quantity when using kosher salt or sea salt instead of regular table salt (Mortons)?

It depends on the brand of kosher salt, because they settle down into the measuring spoons differently. For Morton's kosher, use 1 1/4 times the recipe's amount of regular table salt. For Diamond Crystal kosher, use two times the amount of table salt. Sea salts vary so widely in their crystal sizes that there's no way to predict. But the amount will always be larger than the specified amount of table salt.

I made a garlic soup from the 101 Cookbooks blog, the recipe used an egg binder to thicken it. The soup tasted flat to me so I added a splash of sherry vinegar and of course that made the egg curdle. How can I make this soup better without acid?

I'd be tempted to try:

  • Roasting the garlic instead of (or before) simmering it.
  • Adding more Parm.
  • Making sure you're using really primo extra-virgin olive oil: something fresh and maybe fruity, like the Arbequina from California Olive Ranch.
  • If you're not vegetarian, a splash of really good fish sauce, such as the Red Boat brand.

My subject line is emphatic, but I don't 100 percent agree with it. I enjoy California wines. However, several years ago I decided to retrain my palate and get away from California fruit bombs and big wines. The experiment has been a success. When I now have a bottle from California, it's usually from one of the big bottlers; my budget aims for low-priced value wines. But my disappointment in those has choices grown to the point where I actively try to avoid California wines when I head to the wine shop and restock my wine rack. However, I am not so committed to seeking out the best of California that I'll resort to direct sales. Maybe that means I lack passion, but I have to believe that local wine stores carry some better California wines that don't fit the oaky paradigm. Or maybe it's best simply to focus on other regions when purchasing my wine. California's a big state, but the world offers so many other wine options.

I feel your pain! When I first developed my love of wine, there were several CA wines that were affordable (but back then, $25 for Silver Oak seemed exorbitant). As Jon Bonné discusses in his book, CA needs to make decent "table wine" that is affordable and made with care rather than on an industrial scale. I suggest you cultivate your retailer, preferably one in a smaller store that takes care in its selections, and tell him/her your concerns. And look for some traditional labels that have not been swallowed up by Big Wine - the Marietta Old Vines Red is fantastic, and a bargain even at $15. And yes, keep looking at the France and Spain aisles for bargain wines that overdeliver in quality.

Hi Free Rangers. Has anyone molded goat cheese? I have a silicone tray with heart shapes and a log of goat cheese. And a Valentine party on the calendar. I looked around online, thought for sure I could find a blog with tips, but when you put mold with goat cheese you get hits on moldy goat cheese. Any tips? I was thinking to mix it with something to make it pink, and then refrigerate before turning out of the mold.

You are on the road to making Coeur a la Creme. The fabulous Cathy "Mrs. Wheelbarrow" Barrow (or should that be Cathy "Mrs. Wheel-" Barrow?) wrote about her favorite take on this lovely traditional French dessert, which of course is perfect for Valentine's. She uses mascarpone, but I've seen recipes that use goat cheese. The key, though, is to fold in whipped cream, and then to line the mold with cheesecloth and let the cheese/cream mixture weep and drain and solidify. Cathy's recipe pairs it with this lovely blood orange curd, which I highly recommend after tasting. It has an orange color, despite the red in the juice -- but you could turn it redder with a few drops of beet juice, or you could make, say, a pomegranate curd instead. I think it's better to leave the cheese mixture white, so you get this beautiful clean, sweet, creamy taste, but to pair it with something beautifully flavored/colored.

Hi rangers! I made these bars for the superbowl but the chocolate seized as I melted it! I used good quality chocolate chips instead of a baking bar. I used very low heat. I find that I often have this problem with other desserts I make. What did I do wrong?

How were you melting the chocolate? Over a double boiler, right? Seizing is mostly commonly caused by water coming into contact with the chocolate -- even if it's just the steam. So just be incredibly careful about that.

I'll second Becky's answer. Just  a couple of drops of water can make it seize. Watch that steam doesn't condense on the melting pan and drip down into the chocolate.

One more thing to check: I haven't found any white choc chips that don't contain some kind of emulsifier, and those chips usually don't have as much fat (say 32 percent and up) as the really good bars of white chocolate. 

Yet another tip: Once the chocolate has seized, you can usually get it back by adding a little neutral oil and gently heating. (Make sure that bowl is DRY.)

We have fish at least once a week and are trying for more. Based on what your recent article said about frozen fish, we gave it a whirl. Mixed results. Cod that thawed then sauteed was good. Tilapia tasted a little dirty (I've had this happen before... can't figure it out). Cod that I did not thaw and tried to braise in a little wine was TOUGH/chewy. Advice?

Thoroughly defrost any thick pieces of fish, and pat them dry before cooking. Expand on "dirty tasting"? 

I don't know that I'd call it "dirty," but foods that have suffered  freezer burn do have an unpleasant taste. Maybe your tilapia wasn't tightly wrapped for the freezer, and was there for a long time. Tight wrapping is essential for freezing.

Hello, I would like to know what temperature my freezer should be set at. I have noticed that some of my frozen foods are not frozen completely. Also what is the correct temp for a refrigerator?Thanks for any help.

Set your freezer at zero, and your fridge at 37.

I never seem to be free at noon on Wednesdays so I'm posting early, in response to a question several chats ago about odor from cooking fish. There is no odor whatsoever when fish are cooked to an internal temperature of between 145 to 165 degrees, measured with a meat thermometer. If completely odorless cooking is necessary, butter can be used instead of oil. I have lived in places where I was not permitted to cook anything with an odor but enjoyed fish regularly. I first read about this method in Let's Cook It Right by Adele Davis. Her explanation was that proteins break down at 165 degrees, thereby releasing volatile oils.

Thanks for the tips!

I'd like to make a bourguignon, but am cooking for someone who HATES mushrooms. I'd like to sub with another veggie and was thinking I'd just add more carrots, but wondered if you all might have some better or more creative ideas? Thanks! :)

Eh, double up on the small onions and leave the mushrooms out. You might end up with more of a daube. But we won't tell. (Does the person hate their texture or flavor? If it's not the latter, toss in a little mushroom powder?

If you haven't read "Salt: A World History" by Mark Kurlansky, I highly recommend it. Very interesting read about one of my favorite flavor profiles (I almost always choose a salty snack over a sweet one).

Yes! I agree. 

Me, too. It's a fascinating book, well researched and written.

(Apologies if this submitted more than once!) Hi Rangers! First off, thank you for the gratin inspiration - it spurred me to make a kale and potato gratin last night that was a perfect antidote to the crappy weather. Now to my issue: I have lots of carrots and celery, and I don't really like either in its raw form. Since I can easily get my hands on onions, that leaves a mirepoix as the obvious solution. Do you guys (or the chatters) have any suggestions for non-soup recipes that involve a mirepoix? I'm completely drawing a blank. Thank you!

I feel like practically everything I make starts with a mirepoix of sorts -- usually just garlic and onion, but sometimes celery if I have it. Pasta sauces, stir-fries, stews and, yes, soups. I guess not really salads or big vegetable roasts, but practically everything else.

I found an old recipe for the gingerbread-like "parkin" which calls for a pound of oatmeal, etc. I wanted to cut the recipe in quarters to try it out, but it calls for one egg. What's a good substitute for a quarter of an egg?

Well, you can try whisking it really well and then scooping out a quarter of it, but that can be a little tricky. I think a better bet would be to only cut the recipe in half and use a yolk instead of the whole egg.

I don't know if I'm just hungrier than usual, but Emily's gratin article was mouthwatering, and I've never really explored gratins. Would you be able to share the pumkin gratin recipe you mentioned? I have some pumpkin cans leftover from the holidays, and I dare say this sounds like a delicious and easy use!

Hi there, and glad you enjoyed the story! Alas, I'm afraid I don't have a precise recipe for that dish. Clotilde Dusoulier, whose mother makes the dish, described it as cooked, pureed pumpkin, spread in the bottom of a baking dish, and topped with cheese and breadcrumbs. I think it's something you could probably improvise fairly well. Only possible caveat is that the original dish uses fresh pumpkin, cooked and pureed, which would probably result in something with a little more texture (and a brighter flavor) than canned pumpkin. I've seen recipes online for pumpkin gratins calling for canned pumpkin, though, so I'd say it's worth a try.

My favorite middle eastern place has the best hummus. When I try to make it at home I can't get the same flavor. The takeout hummus has an almost smokey bacon taste to it, even though I know there is no bacon. Any idea what the flavor is, and how to recreate it at home?

I wonder if they add smoked paprika to it? That's one of my favorite additions to hummus.

They key is a good hummus is the Tahini you use. I find that it is what changes my flavor the most. Also, making your chickpeas from scratch (dried beans instead of canned) helps a ton. Finally, I always put smoked paprika on top.

Yes, yes, yes to both tips.

I made these this week, and they were good. But when are you supposed to add the seeds? I stirred them in with the oil.

Very sorry about that! You could stir them in, but they're supposed to be sprinkled on top just before baking. The online recipe's been fixed. 

Sounds like a medical emergency, not a culinary mishap!

Ha. When it happens, you'll feel about ready to have a medical emergency.

Last night I made a shrimp curry. The recipe (which I've used several times previously) calls for a minced jalapeno. When I've made this in the past, the pepper provided a nice amount of background heat that enhanced the curry flavor. Last night's jalapeno resulted in a really really hot curry. I dont mind heat but this just totally overwhelmed every other flavor in the dish. So, is there any way to assess the heat of a pepper before using it? I know some peppers can vary quite a bit as to heat, but I've never had this problem to this degree with a jalapeno. Also, any ideas on how to tone down the heat once the dish is made without diluting the other flavors? I know I can add more sour cream or serve it with more rice, but then I lose the curry and shrimp flavors.

I've noticed more variability in the heat of chile peppers, even jalapenos, over the last few years. Weather and other growing conditions can affect their heat level. One thing I do is always scrape out the seeds and ribs (the latter is where most heat resides, actually), and reserve them. Then I taste the pepper without the seeds/ribs and use that to assess how much to add to the dish. THEN, once the flavors are melding in the cooking, I taste again, and if I want more heat I add in some of those seeds and ribs, or even more pepper if I want.

To go in the other direction is harder, yes. The only reliable thing I have found is to increase the proportion of the other main ingredients in the recipe. So more liquid, more shrimp, more curry. You can also think about whether there are other bulking-up ingredients that can help, such as potatoes. But you're going to definitely need to increase the liquid, which will indeed dilute, so you'll want to add back more of the non-spicy flavors if you want.

With Valentine's Day coming up, I want to make an old, favorite chocolate dessert. However, the recipe calls for baking chocolate, which I no longer keep on hand. I do have a can of good-quality cocoa powder, but the only conversion formula for cocoa powder to baking chocolate that I know of involves shortening, which I no longer use. Do you have another equivalency formula? Thanks.

You should be able to use a tablespoon of butter instead.

No question, just a huge thank you for the salt tips. I like the soup idea presented by Joe and will be sure to try that. As for gratins, I use a wild rice and caramelized onion recipe from Smitten Kitchen cookbook, but I add white beans to it and serve with a citrus salad. Nice balance of warm and cheesy with bright and crisp. I usually prepare it on Sunday and then can reheat for dinner on Monday or Tuesday -- nice winter comfort food.


I never really understood what that meant and just ignored it. Then one day a light bulb went off: "oh, they mean salt to suit MY taste." I still didn't really know how to translate that into action, but it made me feel a little better. Nowadays, I just shake approx. the same amount of kosher salt into my hand, more or less depending on what else is going into the dish salt- and spice-wise.

Good for you for paying attention! We all have individual tastes, but I feel kinda sorry for the people who say they never use salt when they cook.  They are undercutting their kitchen efforts! Another thing I played around with was the claim that adding extra herbs or lemon juice makes up for the difference when you don't use salt. Didn't work for me. Sometimes as little as 1/8 teaspoon of kosher salt had a positive impact. Skip the Cheetos snack; work with a tad more salt at home. 

In This Chat
Joe Yonan
Joe Yonan is editor of the Food section; joining us today are deputy editor Bonnie Benwick, staff writer Tim Carman, Spirits columnist Carrie Allan, Smoke Signals columnist Jim Shahin, wine columnist Dave McIntyre and editorial aide Becky Krystal. Guest: Bob Wolke, professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh and former Post columnist; food writer Emily Horton.
Emily Horton
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