Cooking Tips rss

Ideas, advice, and what to make now from the Chowhound community and CHOW editors.

Thou Shalt Salt Thy Pasta Cooking Water Liberally!

Adding salt to the water you cook your pasta in makes a huge difference in the flavor of the finished dish. Salt brings out the flavor of dry pasta, which is generally made from only flour and water. Since pasta absorbs water as it cooks, it absorbs the salt from salted water and is seasoned throughout in a way that can’t be replicated by salting after cooking. Compared side by side, pasta cooked in unsalted water tastes flat. In order to taste a difference, though, you must use plenty of salt; allegedly there’s an Italian saying that your pasta water should be “salty like the sea,” meaning that you can taste the salt in the water.

You can add salt to the water at the beginning or when it comes to a boil. Salted water boils at a higher temperature than unsalted water, but the difference is so small as to be unnoticeable. The only real issue with adding salt before you heat the water is that it may pit some cookware. Adding salt after the water comes to a boil avoids this potential problem, but the water will take longer to return to a rolling boil, since it must rise to a higher temperature.

Board Links: Adding salt to the water you cook spaghetti in: does it really make any difference?

Making Fruit Salad Sing

Chowhounds have many ways of adding extra zing to fruit salad.

Add a splash of liqueur (especially something fruity) or a teaspoon of vanilla or almond extract. Lime juice is a universal favorite.

Toasted coconut, candied ginger, or pomegranate seeds make nice mix-ins. Finely grated lime, lemon, or orange zest makes a world of difference, says missclaudy.

Fresh mint is a natural complement to fruit, but other herbs, like basil, lemon balm, and lemon thyme, are also unexpected and delicious with fruit.

hypertomatoes likes to add a drizzle of honey, a sprinkle of cinnamon, and a splash of lime juice. Brandon Nelson uses a little vinegar and a pinch of sugar, especially if the fruit isn’t quite fabulous on its own.

Many like to add a spicy element to their fruit salads, from the barest sprinkle of chile powder to a very finely chopped jalapeño. taryn adds a bit of cumin, salt, red onion, and cilantro to fruit salads, and says it’s a nice play of flavors against the sweet and bright quality of fruits, and is especially good with pineapple, honeydew, and peaches.

Board Links: Enhancing Fruit Salad

Meaty Polish Comfort Food

Bigos is a hearty, meaty stew replete with beef, pork, sausage, and sauerkraut—Polish comfort food. “Bigos is to Poles what madeleines were to Proust,” explains ballulah. “In fact in Polish literature there is a similarly effusive Proustian passage about bigos in Adam Mickiewicz’s famous 19th Century epic poem Pan Tadeusz.” And bigos isn’t a stable dish, either—it’s one of those “a little of this, a little of that” dishes that morph between each making and between each generation.

It took ages for ballulah to convince her mother to give up her recipe for bigos, but when she finally did, Chowhounds rejoiced. Ballulah cautions that you must use a truly fermented German-style sauerkraut, not one that gets its sourness from vinegar, which will make the dish taste awful. She recommends using German or Austrian wine with a soft good body and soft tannins in the dish, and avoiding very fruit-forward wines with lots of acidity.

Ballulah’s Mother’s Bigos:

1/2 pound veal stew meat

1/2 pound pork shoulder, cubed

1/2 pound beef stew meat

3 onions, coarsely chopped

2 pounds sauerkraut

Good handful dried Polish mushrooms (soaked, reserving the strained soaking liquid)

Small piece Boczek (Polish pork belly, like salt pork or slab bacon), chopped

About 1-foot length of Polish sausage, chopped

Stock cubes (bouillon)


Bay leaf

Caraway seeds

1 cup or so red wine

Brown veal, pork, and beef in batches (do not cook through) in a very large pot over high heat, then set aside. Add onion and sauerkraut to the pot and just barely cover with water. Bring to a simmer, turn the heat way down, and add browned meats, mushrooms and their soaking liquid, boczek, sausage, bouillon, and seasonings. Simmer on very low heat for 1 hour 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add wine and continue to simmer for 2 to 3 hours more. At this point, you can eat the bigos, but it’s much better if you allow it to cool, cover the pot, and refrigerate overnight, then cook at a low simmer for 2 to 3 hours more.

Board Links: My mother’s BIGOS recipe

Soup to Heal What Ails You

In addition to the universal curative brothy chicken soup, Chowhounds offer a few simple go-to soup recipes that set them right when they’re feeling under the weather.

VirgoBlue likes to make lentil soup when she’s sick: Sauté a chopped onion, two chopped carrots, and a chopped green bell pepper until soft. Add 2 1-quart boxes of chicken stock and two cans of diced tomatoes, a bay leaf, 1 teaspoon dried thyme, salt and pepper, and 3/4 cup green lentils. Cook for about an hour.

daily_unadventures makes tomato soup, which has, she notes, plenty of vitamin C: Sauté some diced onions in olive oil until soft; add 3 cloves of minced garlic and cook for another 2 minutes, then add a large can of whole tomatoes, dried oregano and basil, a bay leaf, salt and pepper, and chicken stock, and simmer for 20 minutes. If you want to make it heartier, add spinach and lemon zest at the end of cooking, and some noodles or tortellini, if you like.

Keramel’s sinus-clearing take on chicken soup for a cold is a spicy Mexican tortilla soup: Poach 2 sliced cloves of garlic and 2 chicken breasts in 8 cups chicken stock until chicken is cooked through. Remove chicken to a cutting board to cool, keeping the stock warm. When the chicken is cooled, shred it into small pieces with a fork. Meanwhile, blend a can of chopped tomatoes and their juices with 3 cloves of garlic and a roughly chopped small onion until smooth. Add to the chicken stock, along with cumin, chili powder, coriander, and oregano to taste, and cook for 10 minutes, adding whatever vegetables strike your fancy (chopped carrots/celery, cooked or canned black beans, corn, etc.). Near the end of cooking, add pickled jalapeño peppers and the chicken. Serve over fried tortilla strips or crushed tortilla chips.

Board Links: Best Soup Recipe when you’re sick

Homemade Coke and Other Uses for Tamarind Paste

I don’t know if tamarind is part of Coca-Cola’s top-secret formula, but maria lorraine claims that mixing tamarind paste with lemon and lime juices, vanilla sugar, and sparkling water will give you a homemade version. However it stacks up against the red can, Maria’s version sounds like a winner.

Tamarind paste is a great addition to any recipe where you want a slightly sour or tangy element. It’s perfect in barbecue sauces, or anywhere you might use a bit of vinegar or lemon juice but want a little more nuance (a little goes a long way). It makes a great marinade for pork or chicken, too: Just add a dab to some water with spices of your choosing in a zip-top plastic bag, throw the meat in, and park it in the fridge.

Tamarind paste lasts pretty much indefinitely in the fridge. And should you ever tire of cooking with it, it’s excellent for cleaning and polishing brass, according to ambrose!

Board Links: Tamarind paste–what to do?

One Cake for Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner … Oh, and Dessert, Too!

It’s a sour cream Bundt cake with a megadose of vanilla that’s great on its own, with fruit, or further embellished as your imagination takes you. wyf4lyf says this family recipe is known as Breakfast Cake but, “We eat it for breakfast, dessert, snacks … you name it.” And it smells heavenly while it bakes, she adds.

The recipe:

2 1/2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (8 ounces) butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
3 eggs
1 cup sour cream
5 teaspoons vanilla

Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour a 12-cup Bundt pan. Whisk flour, baking powder and soda, and salt together in a bowl. In a large bowl, cream the butter with the sugar. Beat in eggs one at a time. Beat dry ingredients into batter. Stir in sour cream and vanilla until incorporated (batter will be thick). Spoon batter into Bundt pan and bake about 45 minutes or until cake tester comes out clean.

Board Links: Need Dessert that doubleserves as Breakfast

Great Espresso on the Cheap

The best inexpensive espresso maker you can get is the decidedly low-tech stovetop espresso maker. It costs less than $20, and it makes a fine demitasse—just ask the millions of Italian families who have been using one daily for generations. Most are aluminum, though you can pay more for stainless versions.

You put water in the bottom portion, and coffee in a middle section; as the water heats, it is forced up through the grounds and filters into the top section of the pot. Stovetop espresso pots have many chowhound fans, who say that though they don’t produce the crema that a pricey machine does, they definitely make delicious, rich-tasting espresso. has illustrations and instructions for the use and care of stovetop espresso makers. At Kitchen Emporium you can find aluminum stovetop pots for reasonable prices, but they’re often available very cheaply at discount stores and Ikea’s kitchenwares department. Bialetti is the best-known brand, but there are many others that are just as well made and less expensive.

Board Links: I love espresso, and I’m poor

Homemade Frozen Yogurt

Really tasty frozen yogurt is a lot harder to make at home than it seems like it should be, but hounds highly recommend a couple of recipes:

This lime-vanilla frozen yogurt gets high marks from sugarbuzz.

And dukegirl is really happy with this recipe for chocolate frozen yogurt, with the caveat that she drains her yogurt for a few hours before adding it, and feels the added step makes for a better texture.

Board Links: Frozen Yogurt

Fabulous Buttermilk Pancakes

This recipe’s called The Best Buttermilk Pancakes for a reason, according to ginqueen. They’re the best pancakes she’s ever eaten. They’ve got great flavor, and are light and fluffy, with a pillowy texture that holds up to keeping them warm in the oven as you cook up the the whole batch.

Board Links: FABULOUS buttermilk pancake recipe

Dry Aging Your Own Beef

Dry-aged beef is the ultimate expression of beef flavor. This is the concentrated, pure beef flavor of those high-end steak houses. It can be had for home cooking for a premium price from high-end butchers, who age their beef in special climate-controlled facilities. But can you dry age your own beef and even hope to approximate that flavor? To a point, yes. But it’s complicated.

Be prepared to lose volume from your meat; it shrinks while aging. As Spot explains, “the trick is to lose moisture and let the enzymes get their thing going. Do you lose some? Yup, but what’s left is so much better.” If you want try it, read up at Ask the Meatman

Board Links: Aging Beef at Home?