Your Cooking Questions Answered

When you have another "not again!" moment at the stove, don't you wish there was a genius standing right next to you to tell you how to fix it? Well, invite over the Every Day test kitchen cooks! Here, they draw upon 70 years' worth of chopping, shopping and tasting experience to solve the cooking problems you ask us about most often.
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Q: My market's hit or miss with fresh herbs . What's a good rule of thumb for using dried instead of fresh?

A: In general, use one-third the amount of dried herbs to replace chopped fresh. So if a recipe calls for 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme, use 1 teaspoon dried. To release the most flavor, add dried herbs toward the beginning of cooking. One caveat: Cilantro, basil and parsley are so tender and delicate, they lose their flavor when dried. If you don't have these fresh leaves on hand, just omit them and add more salt and pepper for flavor. -- Diana Sturgis, test kitchen director

Q: Do I really need to let meat rest before slicing and serving it?

A: You should. When meat is hot, its proteins are tight, and all the juices get pushed to the middle. Letting the meat rest for a few minutes allows the proteins to relax (which makes it more tender) and evenly distributes the juices. Resting time depends on meat size: A whole turkey might need 20 minutes, while a steak that serves two will only need 8 to 10 minutes. If you're worried about it getting cold during that time, keep it warm by loosely tenting it with foil. -- Diana

Q: I usually cook boneless chicken breasts, but I've heard that bone-in chicken breasts taste better. Is that true?

A: It's true! Any meat that's cooked on the bone is going to be juicier and more flavorful. But there's a catch: Bone-in cuts of meat can take twice as long as boneless to cook. So if you're crunched for time during the busy week, boneless chicken and chops are the smart choices. -- Tracey Seaman, test kitchen director

Q: Rachael's recipes often say you should reserve some pasta cooking water to use in the sauce. Can't I just use regular water?

A: Not really. The cooking water has starch in it from the pasta. When you add it to sauce, the sauce thickens and clings better to the pasta. To reserve some, use a ladle or dunk a glass measuring cup in the pot before you strain the pasta. Mix it into your sauce a few tablespoons at a time until you're happy with the consistency. -- Katie Barreira, senior test kitchen associate

Q: I can't always find parmigiano-reggiano cheese at my grocery store. What other cheeses can I use instead?

A: You can use another hard, aged cheese that's good for grating. In the test kitchen, we love grana padano, which is cheaper, milder and melts a bit easier than parmigiano-reggiano; asiago, which is sharp yet buttery; and pecorino-romano, which has a more pungent flavor. And last, a shopping tip from Rach: If you see parmesan cheese in your grocery store, make sure the word "reggiano" is on the label -- this means it's an authentic Italian cheese (otherwise, it's imitation, and nowhere near as delicious!). -- Katie

Q: I've heard that most home cooks only need a few knives? What should I buy?

A: The single most important one is a chef's knife (between 8 and 12 inches long). It will be your workhorse: You'll use it to chop onions, smash garlic, halve melons…you name it. Next up is a serrated knife, which uses a sawing motion to cut through delicate foods like tomatoes and bread without smashing them. Last, buy a paring knife for all those handheld tasks, like hulling strawberries and taking eyes out of potatoes. -- Katie

Q: Does it matter what type of milk I use when the recipe doesn't specify? I only keep skim milk at home.

A: Although I drink lots of skim milk, I don't recommend cooking with it. It's missing a key ingredient -- fat! -- that affects the flavor and texture of a dish. If the recipe doesn't otherwise specify, use whole milk: It will make baked goods moist and sauces silky. -- Tracey

Q: Any advice on how to keep dishes warm and get everything on the table at the same time when you're cooking for a big group?

A: If I'm expecting a crowd, I take the stress off myself by serving some room-temperature or cold dishes, like roasted veggies or salads. Any hot dishes that won't dry out (mashed potatoes or a pasta bake, for example) go in a warm oven or in a double boiler on the stovetop (a good option if you don't have a lot of oven space); this lets me focus on items that need to be served piping hot, like gravy. Also, put empty plates (if they're oven-safe) in the oven for a few minutes before dinner. Food stays hot longer on a warm plate! -- Tracey

Q: Saffron is pricey, but Rachael uses it in many of her recipes. Any suggestions for a substitution?

A: It's worth the splurge -- nothing else resembles the lightly mineral flavor of saffron. Plus, a little goes a long way, and it will keep for months. In a pinch, you can use turmeric (which has a harsher taste) to give your dish a yellow hue. -- Diana

Q: My mother always had a jar of pre-minced garlic in the fridge, so I've never cooked with fresh garlic. Does it really taste that different?

A: Yes! Please give fresh garlic a try -- it's one of Rach's favorite ingredients, and with good reason. Garlic starts to lose flavor and texture once it's chopped; fresh whole garlic, meanwhile, is protected by its outer skin, so it's more delicious (and nutritious). Rach has lots of time-saving tips for prepping garlic: If you lightly smash a clove with the flat part of a knife, the skin will come right off. Then toss it in your olive oil while you sauté, run it around the inside of a salad bowl before adding greens, or rub it on toast (yum!). If a recipe calls for finely chopped, scrape the clove along a fine-mesh grater (just watch your fingers). -- Katie

Q: I can't find arugula at my local grocery store. Do you have any other recommendations for salads and sides?

A: Arugula has small, tender leaves and a peppery flavor; I'd say that watercress comes closest. Dandelion greens would also work, but I'm guessing they'll be harder to find than arugula! You can mix it up -- most any dark, leafy green will do. -- Diana

Q: What dishes should go in the middle of the oven and what should I put on the lower rack?

A: Roasted veggies, casseroles and other dishes that you want to be golden-brown on top should go on the highest oven rack, while items that you want to brown on the bottom, such as pizza, should be placed on the lowest rack. Cookies, bread and other baked goods do best in the middle of the oven to get the most even heat. (Tip: Rotate the pans to avoid overbrowning if your oven has hot spots.) -- Tracey

Q: Meat always sticks to the pan when I try to sear it. What am I doing wrong?

A: Chances are you're not letting your pan get hot enough, so your meat isn't caramelizing -- which means it's sticking to the pan because it's not getting a golden-brown crust. Heat a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat for at least five minutes. (Don't use a nonstick pan for this purpose; because it has a special coating, it shouldn't be preheated when empty.) Then pour in some oil; as soon as it starts to shimmer, add your meat in batches (to avoid overcrowding the pan). It'll be tempting to move the meat around or lift it to see how it's doing, but the secret to a nice sear is to leave it undisturbed for at least two minutes per side. -- Diana

Q: I hate onions! Can I just leave them out when cooking, or is there something else I can use that will give me the same texture?

A: If onion is the main ingredient in a dish -- an onion tart, for example -- I wouldn't bother making the recipe, because there isn't another ingredient that comes close to the exact taste and texture of an onion. But if you're cooking something like chili, where onion is used as an aromatic -- the backbone or base flavoring of a dish -- you can sauté other aromatics instead, such as celery, fennel, carrots or garlic. -- Katie

Q: Can I leave wine out of a recipe?

A: Yes, you can just use the same amount of whatever other liquid the recipe calls for. If you're making risotto, for example, add more chicken broth or water. If there aren't other liquids in the dish, replace the alcohol with a splash of something acidic, like lemon juice or cider vinegar. (If there's cream in the recipe, however, it will curdle, so in those cases just omit the liquid altogether.) -- Tracey

Q: If a recipe calls for coarse salt, can I just use table salt?

A: No. Table salt grains are a lot smaller than coarse salt grains -- so a teaspoon of table salt is a lot more potent than a teaspoon of coarse salt. You don't have to invest in fancy sea salt; kosher salt is an affordable coarse type that works well in most recipes. If you only have table salt handy and the recipe calls for coarse, start by putting in half as much table salt, and taste the dish from there. -- Tracey

Q: I would like to do more deepfrying but hate throwing out all that oil. Can I reuse it?

A: If you fried something with a strong flavor, like fish, toss it. Otherwise, you can generally use deep-frying oil up to three times. Let it cool in the pan, then pour it into a container. If there's sediment in the oil (like bits of fried food), pour it through a finemesh strainer. Each time you fry with the oil, it will darken. Once it's two or three shades darker or starts to develop a rancid, "off" smell, discard it. (But don't pour it down the sink, because it can clog your pipes!) -- Katie

Q: Can I reuse my parchment paper?

A: Yes, you can usually reuse it at least once. Eventually it will dry out -- when it starts to darken, toss it. -- Diana

Q: When a recipe calls for just butter, should I use salted or unsalted?

A: When baking, you generally want to use unsalted butter. I usually prefer cooking with unsalted butter, too -- it gives me more control over how salty the final dish tastes, since I'm adding all the salt myself. That said, I love having salted butter at the table to spread on fresh bread! -- Tracey

Q: When I make hot soup in the blender, it splatters everywhere. Help!

A: To keep splattering to a minimum, put the solid ingredients in first and add just a bit of liquid. Blend everything together, then pour the rest of the liquid through the lid opening in a slow stream while the blender runs on low speed. Make sure you don't overfill the blender. The best thing to do is work in batches. The same goes for your food processor, which does a nice job of pureeing. -- Katie

Q: What cooking staples can be kept in the freezer?

A: Freeze chicken stock and pesto in ice cube trays -- then just pop them out to use in soups and sauces. Nuts stay fresh longer in the freezer and defrost quickly. And I always have a loaf of bread for breadcrumbs. -- Tracey

Q: Nutmeg looks like a nut -- do I have to remove its shell?

A: No, just rub it on a grater to get the fragrant spice. Rach uses it in everything from waffles to pasta! -- Katie