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12 Common Cooking Questions Answered

All your cooking questions answered—you know, the ones you’re afraid to ask aloud for fear of sounding as if you’ve been living off pizza delivery and uncooked ramen. No judgment here.

How do you keep pasta from clumping?

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You don’t want your pasta to stick together like mob wives in an FBI investigation, so make sure you’re boiling it in plenty of salted water (4-6 quarts per pound of pasta) in a large enough pot. Don’t overcook. (Follow the cooking time on the package; pasta should be al dente, or still slightly firm). Do not rinse after boiling unless you’re using it in a cold dish. If you’re not otherwise saucing it, toss with a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil (the good stuff).

How do you know if wine has gone bad?

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If wine smells vinegary or mildewy (like wet newspaper), it’s gone bad. If wine (red or white) looks brown, it’s gone bad. If wine tastes funny, it’s gone bad. If wine came out of a box, it was probably not good to begin with.

How do you keep herbs fresh?

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The dried, pale ghosts of herbs you get from a spice rack just aren’t the same as the fresh stuff. To keep leafy herbs fresher longer, treat them like cut flowers. Trim the stems, submerge stems (or roots, if the plant is still living) in an inch or two of water in a glass or jar, cover loosely with a plastic baggie, and store in the refrigerator (exception: basil should be kept at room temperature—meaning out of the fridge but not next to your stove). Change the water every few days.

How do you keep from crying when cutting onions?

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There is a saying in the kitchen world: “The sharper your knife, the less you cry.” Onions sting your eyes because, when you cut them, you rupture cells, leading to a chemical reaction that produces acidic gases that trigger your reflexive tear response. Sharper knives rupture fewer cells, hence less crying. Other strategies include freezing the onion first, cutting it under cold running water, burning a candle nearby, wearing goggles, and my personal favorite, making someone else do it.

How do you know if eggs are fresh?

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A fresh egg will feel heavy and sink to the bottom of a bowl of water, lying on its long side. A less fresh egg will stand on end in the bowl of water. A bad egg will float. When in doubt, use your eyes and your nose; a rotten egg is pretty hard to miss. One side note: older eggs are actually better for soufflés than farm-fresh.

How do you know if cheese has gone bad?

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It seems a little counterintuitive, as mold is essential to cheese, but if you see mold on your cheese (fuzzy, green, lichen-looking stuff—not the blue veins in your Gorgonzola), it’s gone bad. It also should not feel slimy or oily. And while some cheeses start out smelly, if a normally non-smelly cheese, like provolone or mozzarella, starts stinking up the fridge, it’s probably time to let it go.

Which part of the green onion (scallion) do you use?

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You can use both. The white bulb part toward the root has a deeper, more oniony flavor. The dark green part is milder but adds nice color. (Don’t forget you eat you with your eyes first.) With a leek (it looks like a scallion but much larger), you will only use the white part. The green ends are bitter.

Is there an easy way to peel garlic?

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Smash it against a cutting board using the flat side of a large chef’s knife and the heel of your hand. Don’t be shy. Give it a good whack. Then slide or peel the papery skin off and smash again before mincing.

Can you substitute baking soda for baking powder (and vice versa)?

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No, no, no, no, no. And yes. Both substances are leavening agents, meaning they make baked goods rise, and baking powder contains baking soda, but they are two different products. Baking soda can be bitter unless combined with an acidic ingredient; baking powder is neutral, as it contains acidic cream of tartar. In a pinch, baking powder can replace baking soda, though be forewarned it may change the finished product. Baking soda can’t replace baking powder unless you also add cream of tartar (2:1).

What’s the difference between a boil, a rolling boil, and a simmer?

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A chef friend of mine explains it this way: Imagine the pot is a hot tub and the bubbles are (scantily clad, highly attractive) people. A simmer is when the water is warm and the bubbles are just hanging out around the sides of the tub. A boil is when the water is so hot that people are kind of jumping around the tub. A rolling boil is when the people are trying to leap out of the tub for fear of being burned alive.

How do you keep your cookies from spreading too thin?

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The culprit is likely your butter. Softening butter in the microwave is a surefire way to flatten cookies into pancakes. Instead, let the butter sit at room temperature for 30 minutes. To speed the softening process, cut it into tablespoon-size pieces. It should be yielding to a finger but not melted.

What’s the best way to measure dry ingredients?

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Wars have been fought over the best way to measure dry ingredients (and the hardcore get around it by weighing their ingredients rather than measuring by volume). The bakers I know prefer the spooning method (using a separate cup or spoon to shovel flour into the measuring cup) to the pouring method or the scooping method. Do not pack the ingredient down. Level with the flat edge of a knife.

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