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Highlights from the General Topics and Cookware boards. Food trends, food products, and burning questions.

The Power of Schmaltz

Schmaltz, or rendered chicken fat, is a rare delicacy in our age of vegetable oil dominance. It adds a unique savory flavor that's different from cooking with oil, some hounds say. acgold7, for example, says that deep-fried potatoes made with rendered animal fat—whether chicken, turkey, duck, goose, bacon, or a mixture of several—is a winning preparation. "Best. Potatoes. Ever," acgold7 says.

Though the payoff is huge, the process of rendering animal fats takes time. "If you want to make pure schmaltz, you need to slowly render chicken fat and allow its water content to evaporate," JungMann says. "It is a slow and not altogether sweet-smelling process."

benbenberi likes to render animal fat with onions. "Very tasty, and you end up with extra-yummy gribenes too as a bonus," benbenberi says. (Gribenes are the crispy bits of poultry crackling that result from the rendering process.)

Patiently rendered, animal fats like schmaltz will keep for a long time in the refrigerator without molding. "I've kept various animal fats in the fridge for years at a time and never seen mold," acgold7 says. But the luscious drippings from a roasted chicken are not pure fat, JungMann warns. "Chicken contains a higher water:fat ratio than other meats, bacon especially, so your drippings contain myoglobin, blood, water, fluids that will contribute to spoilage," JungMann says. So in the end, schmaltz is probably best used right away, or at most within a couple of days, benbenberi says.

sedimental offers this solution: Freeze the chicken fat, even if it's not completely rendered, and then just break off a piece as needed.

Discuss: How do you keep your schmaltz?

Return of the Breadbox

meatn3 has a household of one, and finds it difficult to use a whole loaf of bread while it's still fresh. The freezer is one solution, but sometimes there's just not enough room. Plus, freezing can affect the properties of the bread.

But meatn3 may have stumbled upon a solution. "I purchased an artisan loaf (olive and rosemary, no preservatives) recently and had a portion with my soup," meatn3 explains. "I was in a hurry to clean up the kitchen and stuck the rest of the loaf in a [lidded] Romertopf casserole [dish]... Out of sight, out of mind...several days later I remembered the bread. Once I opened the clay pot I found the bread was still fresh as can be!"

meatn3's handy discovery—that a covered clay pot keeps bread fresh for days—might be a reimagination of a gadget that few of us have in our kitchens anymore, but that would have been a staple for many of our grandparents: the breadbox!

"The principle is the same," GH1618 says. "A breadbox is an enclosed space, but is not airtight. It keeps the bread from drying out too quickly, while not accelerating the development of mold. It is a matter of moderating the humidity. A breadbox is generally lined with wood, not merely a metal box. The terracotta might have a similar effect."

Not all breadboxes were lined with wood, though, and many served other practical purposes, such as keeping the bugs out, especially in warmer climates. "Same principle as a pie safe," meatn3 observes.

Contemporary breadboxes can take many forms. "A shoebox lined with wax paper works for me," ipsedixit says. And donovt keeps bread in the modern equivalent of a breadbox: the microwave.

Discuss: Stumbled upon a great way to keep bread fresh!

The Deep, Rich Flavor of Birch Syrup

Chowhounds have often lamented that birch juice, a Russian drink made of birch sap freshly extracted from trees, is impossible to find in the United States. But ipsedixit recently tried Alaska's Kahiltna Gold birch syrup, and found it to be a wonderful surprise; she loved the "deep, rich flavor that's sort of a blend between molasses, cola, and spearmint" over ice cream.

And birch soda, or birch beer, is a drink that nofunlatte grew up drinking in Pennsylvania Dutch Country. Could a dash of birch syrup in seltzer water re-create this drink? Seems like some experimentation is in order, but ipsedixit says that the Kahiltna Gold stuff is "so good, I'm tempted to just pour it in a shot glass and enjoy it 'neat.'"

Discuss: Kahiltna Gold Birch Syrup

Overheard on the General Topics Board

"Years ago I went to school for flavor evaluation and analysis as part of my profession. What we learned was that we may consciously lose our memory of a particular taste or aroma, but subconsciously we never do. All that is needed is perhaps an odor, say, of a musty cellar from your grandparents cellar, combined with the smell of a pot roast on the stove. Or the smell of my Italian grandmother's restaurant kitchen with the rosemary chicken and potatoes in the oven while floors were being mopped with Spic & Span. Sounds crazy but..... This will bring it rushing back to you. Our olfactory senses play a large role in our taste memories. I have tried for years to recapture those classic flavors, and aromas (not so much the must or cleaning fluids)." – teflontom

"In my kitchen I won't touch a steak before [it's] 10 minutes off-the-grill - longer if it's extra-thick. I don't really order steak when I go out to eat, so I'm probably naive to think that the kitchen would factor this in when firing the food for a particular table. Frankly, I'm a little horrified that you would take a steak off the grill and put it onto a serving plate with the sides before it's rested." – SpareRib on "resting" steaks after cooking

"I love fresh parsley. I wash it, air dry it and store it in paper towels in a plastic bag in the frig. I use some of it and either out of laziness or forgetfulness, it languishes in there, and I have to throw the rest out. This week I decided to try something new. I washed it, dried on paper towels and stored it like flowers in a pitcher of water on the counter. I had thoughts of setting it on the shelf of the frig, but thought it might get knocked over. I change the water every day and it's been there for four days now and looks as fresh as the first day. I've used it every day for cooking or garnish and it looks like it's going to last long enough for me to use it up. It looks pretty on the counter, reminds me that it's there, and it's easy to cut a sprig or bunch." – noodlepoodle

Why You Shouldn’t Cook with Good Olive Oil

shezmu wants to know: Why do people buy an expensive, fancy extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) for drizzling, and a less expensive olive oil for cooking? Why not just use great olive oil for cooking?

The answer: High temperatures destroy the flavor of olive oil, cowboyardee says. "Personally, I use EVOO for low temp cooking and no-heat applications, and other oils for cooking at higher temperatures," cowboyardee says. "Cooking doesn't necessarily cause EVOO to lose its flavor, but cooking it at higher temperatures does."

Olive oil retains all of its flavor at sous vide temperatures (under 185 degrees Farenheit), cowboyardee says. "But even an especially gentle saute seems not to cause EVOO to lose its character the same way that higher temp cooking does," he says. "You can gently sweat onions in it on the stovetop and still retain some of that EV taste."

Steve agrees that cooking changes the special flavor of great olive oil in a bad way. "I have some rather precious olive oil I brought back from Spain," he says. "I can really appreciate it drizzled over red peppers or tomatoes, but I won't detect how special it is by sauteing with it. Too much begins to happen to it."

Discuss: Why don't people just use good olive oil?

Leftover Anchovies Provide Instant Umami

Though anchovies have their detractors, mbfant observes that the fish are a useful and ubiquitous ingredient in some cuisines. "In Italy everybody always has jars of anchovy fillets handy for use in any number of recipes or just to eat straight on a slice of bread or toast," mbfant says.

But anchovies are often sold in big tins—way too many for a single use—so why not keep the leftovers in the fridge (covered in olive oil) to use as needed? "I refrigerate them in a small jar, using the oil to cover," tcamp advises. "I use them up quickly, in salads, pizzas, sauces but they have lingered for weeks with no ill effects."

Claudette likes to make a concentrated bagna cauda with leftover anchovies, simmering them with a little olive oil and butter. Then she freezes small dollops of the tasty stuff on a pan, and bags the frozen dollops. "It's a quick way to add flavor to my veggies and stews, and guests always love them," she says.

hill food likes to freeze the anchovies, which breaks down the bones for a smoother finished product. jeanmarieok freezes her anchovies as well. "I wrap them in plastic, then put them into a Chinese food container, with other little things (chilies in adobo is another) so I can find them easily," she says. "So I have one quart size Chinese food container with a bunch of little wrapped up leftover things. So much easier to find this way."

Discuss: How do I save leftover anchovy fillets?

Can Frozen Fish Be Fantastic?

gordeaux is a huge fan of fresh fish—the fresher, the better. "The fresher the fish, the less you have to give a damn about 'prep,'" gordeaux says. "The best thing you can do for fresh fish is to simply not overcook it." gordeaux loves fresh salmon or lake trout marinated in blackberry herbal tea, then grilled and seasoned with salt and pepper.

Frozen fish, however, is another matter. "Really, unless it is meticulously packaged, once fish is frozen for over a month, it's not ever going to taste as good as fresh," gordeaux says.

But Bada Bing disagrees, and says that even frozen fish can be terrific if it's been handled properly. Bada Bing's method: Thaw flash-frozen fish over ice in the fridge, slowly and patiently, allowing the melting fish juices to drain into the ice. (But keep an eye on it—if your fridge temperature isn't super low, you may need to change the ice a couple of times to avoid losing fish flavor into a bowl of melted ice. "It takes two days even for thin filets, usually," Bada Bing says. "Thawing fish in an enclosed bag and its own juices, on the other hand, seems to make something bad happen in the texture. Try thawing on ice before you knock it!"

kengk agrees that frozen fish can be great—some kinds of fish, at least. "We have frequently caught more fish than could be eaten fresh and have not noticed much difference after being properly frozen and thawed," kengk says. "Oilier fish like mackerel seem to freeze less well."

Discuss: Has anybody done a "fish tasting"

Overheard on the General Topics Board

"[S]hells have a lot of flavor and make excellent stock. You could also put them right into the tomato sauce, but then you'd have the issue of getting them back out of the tomato sauce without taking most of the sauce with them.... I would therefore just simmer them in water for a while until I got a concentrated stock, and then put this into your sauce." – visciole on using shrimp shells in stock

"Biazzo or Sorrento are the two brands I buy and they're both fine, but I've pretty much given up on buying ricotta since it's so incredibly easy to make at home (just milk, salt, vinegar, a little cream and a thermometer). Cheaper than buying it, too, and the flavor is incomparably delicious." – biondanonima

"I had them recently and I liked them. They were huge sardines, almost like herring. They were well smoked, almost to the point of jerky in some ways, and the maple worked well. I served them to some guests and everyone liked them, even folks who don't like sardines." – JMF on sardines packed in maple syrup

The Taste of Terroir

Is it really true that the geographic origin of foods affects the flavor and texture of the finished product, whether wine, cheese, or maple syrup? "For instance, with the same procedure, same species of grass feed for the animal, and etc., would a parmesan cheese made in Canada taste different from parmesan cheese made in Italy?" shezmu asked the board recently.

Terroir, as this phenomenon is known, is absolutely real, says Caroline1, but the effect of geographic origin is greater on some foods than others. She feels terroir is particularly important in wine. "Many many years ago I was cooking at my mother's house (not an easy thing to do), and needed a Riesling wine," Caroline1 says. "My mother said she'd run to the liquor store and brought back a 'Spanish Riesling.' That vineyard had soil so chalky it made the wine taste like dirt. Terrible stuff and spoiled the sauce and I quit trying to cook at my mother's house!"

How much of terroir is tied to the physical attributes of the environment or the food itself, and how much is psychologically imbued by the person eating the food? It's hard to know. "I've always heard it explained as more about the character or experience of a place as reflected in its products than simply the effect of soil, climate, etc. on flavor," missmiscellanea says. "Yes, it's probably a subjective thing, but that doesn't make it less real... only less scientific / quantifiable."

Discuss: Is terroir/taste of place real?

Caviar 101

Unfoodie wants to understand the basics of caviar because "the only thing I know about caviar is that it's fish eggs."

So Unfoodie wants to know: What kinds of caviar are there? How is it eaten? What's so great about it?

True caviar always comes from one of three types of sturgeon, Caroline1 says, and it is usually ranked in quality in this order: beluga, osetra, and then sevruga. But great caviar is becoming almost impossible to find, Caroline1 says. "I think top dollar for a kilo of top beluga today is somewhere close to (or more than?) twenty thousand dollars!" she says. "Best caviars come from wild species of these sturgeon that are native to the Caspian and Black Seas," Caroline1 says, although sturgeon caviars are now available from American waters.

What's the best way to eat this delicacy? With a spoon, Caroline1 says—but not a metal spoon that will react with the caviar and affect the flavor. Instead, use a glass or mother of pearl implement. As for accompaniments, the "best way to eat it is on toast points, buttered with unsalted high grade butter if you like," Caroline1 says. She thinks that the Russian way of serving caviar, on blini with sour cream (smetana), diminishes the flavor of the caviar. "Caviar should NEVER be topped with chopped eggs, chopped onions, or any of the junk that some restaurants serve along with it," she says. "That is just plain wrong ... [but] it will mask an inferior grade of caviar."

The thing to pay attention to when eating caviar is the "snap," Caroline1 says. "While they're worlds apart in price, the snap of a really good natural casing hot dog and the eggs of really good quality caviar have that snapping quality in common," she says.

If you can't afford sturgeon roe, there are other fish roes that are highly prized. "The closest thing in snap and texture (and not too far off in flavor) is fresh-from-the-salmon roe," says Caroline1. "I could eat a kilo of that!"

Discuss: Please school me on caviar.