Cooking needn't be hit or miss Motherisms: Things your mama could have told you, if you'd only thought to ask.

January 03, 1996|By Jane Snow | Jane Snow,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

No wonder your cookies are doughy, your fudge is a rock and your whipped cream icing slides to the floor.

Your mama didn't teach you any better.

Before microwaves were invented and Mama got a job, you would have stood on tiptoe at her elbow while she measured flour, smoothing off the excess with the flat side of a butter knife.

You would have watched her beat butter and sugar until it fell in thick, lazy ribbons when she dropped it from a spoon.

Instead, you learned how to toast a Pop Tart.

But it's never too late to learn the answers to the pressing cooking questions of the day, chiefly, "What the heck is lemon zest?"

That's the most-asked question from readers, followed by questions on everything from killer potatoes to how to tell if yeast is alive.

We have all of the answers, in easy-to-swallow bites. We even have answers to questions you haven't asked. We just might teach your mama a thing or two.

* Lemon zest is the colored part of a lemon rind, minus any of the bitter white pith that clings to it. You can buy gadgets called lemon zesters for removing the zest, but I think they're hard to use. Instead, use a very sharp paring knife or the finest holes of a grater.

In recipes calling for pieces of lemon zest, pare thin strips of the lemon rind. Turn the strips over and scrape off any remaining white stuff.

In recipes calling for grated lemon rind, grate off the rind, turning the lemon often. To avoid the white pith, take about two swipes against the grater, then turn the lemon, two swipes and turn.

* True story: A guy called to complain, "I've been stirring this fudge mixture for a half hour, but it still doesn't look like a soft ball."

When a recipe calls for cooking something to the soft-ball stage, it means to cook it for a few minutes, then drop about a quarter-teaspoon in a cup of cold water. With your fingers, try to form the mixture into a soft ball. If you can't, keep cooking. If you can, it's done.

Or you can use a candy thermometer. The soft-ball stage is 234 to 240 degrees. Don't rest the bulb of the thermometer on the pan bottom, though. It should be suspended in the middle of the mixture.

* Fresh bread crumbs are not bread crumbs fresh off the grocer's shelf. Fresh bread crumbs are crumbs you make yourself by tearing up fresh bread and pulverizing it in a food processor or blender. The soft crumbs make a tender meatloaf and a delicate coating for deep-fried oysters.

The crumbs you buy in shaker cans in the grocery store are dry bread crumbs. Confusing the two in a recipe could be disastrous.

* A clove of garlic is one segment of a bulb. A bulb is the whole shebang, and if you mistake the two, everyone will know it.

* Many recipes assume you know to heat the oven before baking or roasting. If the recipe calls for an oven temperature of 400 degrees or higher, allow plenty of heating time -- up to a half hour.

* It also is assumed that you will use large eggs in recipes -- not jumbo, not extra-large, not medium.

* Use measuring teaspoons and cups, not soup spoons and teacups. For dry ingredients, use a dry-measure cup -- one that measures one cup flush to the rim. Liquid ingredients should be measured in a see-through liquid- measure cup. Place the cup on a level surface, and stoop to eye level to judge fullness.

* Dry measurements are level, not heaped. Level off a cup or spoon by running the flat side of a knife across the rim.

* There are three teaspoons in a tablespoon, not two. Don't laugh; this will come as a surprise to many people.

* Bring egg whites to room temperature before beating for the most volume. But for the most volume in cream, beat it when it is very cold (in fact, pop the bowl and beaters in the freezer for a few minutes).

* Egg whites won't beat well if even a speck of yolk or grease gets into them. Separate each white into a custard cup before adding it to other whites, in case the yolk breaks. That way, you won't have to discard the whole batch.

Make sure your hands and bowl are very clean and grease-free before they touch the whites. It's better to use a glass or pottery bowl than a plastic bowl, because grease can cling to plastic even after washing.

* Ultra-pasteurized whipping cream does not thicken as nicely in cooking, or produce as much volume when beaten, as regular whipping cream.

* Use cane or beet sugar in baking and candy-making, not a dextrose blend. Blended sugar (check the fine print on the bag) makes cookies spread and candy sticky.

* Do not use reduced-fat or "light" margarines in cooking or baking. The results will be disappointing.

* Sour cream curdles when it is boiled. Add it to a dish at the last minute, and gently heat through.

* Never refrigerate tomatoes. Cold kills the flavor.

* A green tinge on a potato indicates the presence of solanine, and it can make you sick if you eat enough of it. Peel the potato, removing all of the green tinge.

* Don't store potatoes in the refrigerator; the starch converts to sugar, changing the flavor.

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