Kitchen substitutions

A lifetime ago, N and I worked and lived on boats. We worked on fancy boats and not-so-fancy boats and were often at sea for days or even weeks at a time, traveling from southern Florida to the Caribbean, or across the Atlantic to make quick landfall in the Azores before an intense Mediterranean charter season. Being at sea meant no quick runs to the store, no online grocery delivery, and so I grew adept at using the ingredients I had on hand and figuring out what substitutions I could make.

It turns out that this skill comes in handy in our new world, too. Americans are cooking and baking more than ever – which is fantastic! – and more often than not, we’re doing so with a limited selection of ingredients, thanks to supply-chain bottlenecks and unnecessary hoarding and other factors. So it might be useful to learn some simple kitchen substitutions, which will make you a better cook and a better baker both during quarantine and once things return to “normal,” whatever that might mean.

Continue reading

The FAQ Series: Eggs

One of the things we’ve missed most since we started traveling just over a year ago is our own flock of backyard chickens. When we decided to set off on our big trip, we sent our six ladies up to live on a farm in Weld County (thanks, Tammy and Chris!), and we still get eggs from that farm occasionally. We’re really looking forward to keeping laying hens again once we find Quiet Farm.

Egg Sign 01 sml

I consider eggs to be one of the world’s most perfect complete foods. They were vilified for so long – remember when we all only ate egg-white omelettes and entire boxes of Snackwell’s fat-free cookies? – but more and more evidence demonstrates that quality eggs are an essential component of a healthy diet. They’re loaded with good fat, protein, vitamins and minerals, and the whole “eggs cause high cholesterol” myth has thankfully been debunked. (Our bodies produce the vast majority of our own cholesterol; what we eat has little impact on our cholesterol levels, though what we eat has a massive impact on every other aspect of our health.) The key, as with every other animal product, is to purchase the best eggs you can. And this is of course so much more difficult than it seems, because what are the best eggs?

Egg box 01 sml

Just a tiny corner of the egg section at our grocery store.

We no longer purchase supermarket eggs; we buy them from local feed stores, where backyard chicken keepers sell their excess, or we get them from farms we volunteer on, or from friends with flocks. (In the winter, natural egg production slows down dramatically; eggs are a symbol of spring and rebirth because poultry start laying again when the days get longer.) Recently I found myself staring at the egg case at our grocery store, and I understood completely why people find food shopping so overwhelming – especially if you care about animal welfare, the environment and/or your own health. How in the world are you supposed to know which is best?

Eggs Bowl 01 sml

The answer in this case is none of the above, but we’ll get to that in a minute. First, let’s revisit and debunk a few egg myths, shall we?

  • There is no difference in nutrition or flavor between white and brown-shelled eggs. Shell color is determined by the breed of chicken and nothing else. Egg producers and grocery stores figured out that customers think brown eggs are better, so they charge more. And we pay it. Many small farmers keep Araucanas or other “Easter Eggers,” because they lay turquoise, pale blue or seafoam green eggs, and they charge a premium for these eggs. Gorgeous, to be sure, but no nutritional benefit.
  • Very few words on egg labels are regulated. Natural, free-range, pastured, cage-free, farm-fresh? These mean nothing, and egg producers can use them on any carton. The only labels that are regulated are organic and non-GMO, and even those are sketchy (you get to hire your own inspector!). And if there is any sort of pastoral farm scene with a red barn and a white picket fence, you know for certain those hens lived in a crowded, artificially-lit warehouse.

chickens3

The mouse may have been vegetarian, but the chicken certainly isn’t.

  • Chickens are NOT vegetarians. If you see “vegetarian-fed” on an egg label, you know for an absolute fact that those hens never had outdoor access. Chickens are omnivores, like humans, and they’ll gladly eat bugs, worms and mice. They’re foragers, which is one reason gardeners love them – they keep the pest population under control. “Vegetarian-fed” simply means “these chickens never foraged because they lived inside for their entire miserable lives.”

Egg boxes 02 sml

Unrefrigerated eggs in a German supermarket.

  • American eggs are kept refrigerated, while those in most of the rest of the world aren’t. When eggs are laid, they’re coated with a natural protective bacteria. The USDA requires commercial egg production facilities to wash and sanitize (i.e. bleach) all eggs, which removes this protective coating and hastens their deterioration – hence the need for refrigeration. This is because the factory farming system in this country produces decidedly filthy eggs, and the USDA has decided that washing the eggs is better than potential foodborne illness. If you buy eggs from a neighbor or local farm, store them unwashed in the refrigerator. This will extend their shelf life; wash the eggs just before you crack them.

Stone Barns 027.jpg

  • Eating eggs does not increase cholesterol levels. 
  • Eating eggs does not increase cholesterol levels.
  • Eating eggs does not increase cholesterol levels.

(I will keep repeating this until everyone in the world knows it to be true.)

  • Eggs from true free-range flocks are nutritionally superior. They’ve been repeatedly shown to have higher levels of omega-3s, plus more vitamins A, D and E. Plus, they’re actually lower in saturated fat and cholesterol, even though we all know that eating eggs does not increase cholesterol levels, right?

Chick

  • Laying hens have the worst lives of any factory-farmed animals. They spend their entire lives in a space less than the size of a standard sheet of paper, and they cannot perform any of their natural activities, including preening and dust-bathing. They cannot even flap their wings. Thankfully, their lives are mercifully short, about eighteen months (compared to a natural life expectancy of eight to twelve years).

Back to our original question: which of these eggs are best? Friends, we like to deliver truth here at Finding Quiet Farm. And the truth is, if a certain egg production facility is big enough to appear on the shelves of your grocery store, they’re almost certainly a battery operation. Major supermarket corporations need a guaranteed quantity of eggs delivered on a reliable schedule, and anyone who has kept chickens knows that true free-range poultry cannot be counted on to do anything reliably, except escape from their fenced area. So these operations that sell eggs to your store are large enough that their hens can’t be free-range, but because those labels aren’t regulated, you can’t do anything about it.

And please remember: just because those eggs are “organic,” it doesn’t mean the birds had a good life. Battery hens can be fed certified organic feed so that their eggs are worth more to the customer, but the hens still lived a horrific existence. Organic means nothing when it comes to an animal’s quality of life. It simply means that no pesticides were used in their feed.

What’s the answer? If you’re going to spend money on good food, upgrade your eggs first. Find someone with backyard chickens, or buy from a local farm. Lots of small, local farms keep poultry flocks, or they know someone who does. Or get your own backyard flock! Remember, you vote every time you spend money, and cheap eggs aren’t good for chickens, the environment, or your health. All of these are worth the extra pennies.

The FAQ Series: Oils + Fats

We kicked off our new FAQ Series with a post on salt; for our second installment, we’ll discuss cooking oils and fats. One of the most common questions I hear in my classes is “What sort of oil (or fat) should I cook with?” The short answer: it depends.

Olive Oil 02.jpg

As per usual, raiding my pantry yielded a surprising number of oils.

The most important things to know about any specific cooking oil or fat, beyond its potential health benefits, are its flavor profile and its smoke point. Certain oils, like sesame and unrefined coconut, will have a pronounced flavor and may not be applicable in all situations. A fat’s smoke point is the temperature at which it starts to break down; this can be a bit vague as it happens over a range of degrees rather than at a precise moment. When the fat starts to break down, it indicates a loss of flavor and nutrients, and possibly an imminent fire.

Olive Oil Splash.jpg

Taste your olive oil straight…but maybe not out of a martini glass.

Oils are crushed, pressed or centrifuged out of nuts, seeds and fruits. Refined oils may have been subjected to additional filtration, bleaching, heat, chemicals and other treatments; they’re typically usable at higher temperatures than unrefined. They also generally have a neutral flavor and a longer shelf life. With true unrefined, or raw, oils, there is very little or no heat used to produce the oil. This is where the term cold-press comes in; the highest-quality olive oils are made without any heat which might compromise the delicate flavor nuances of the oil.

Flambe

Please don’t try this at home.

All oils can catch fire when heat is applied, so it’s important to know what temperatures you’ll be cooking at. An oil’s flash point refers to the temperature at which it could conceivably catch fire. Don’t ever leave cooking oils or fats unattended while heating; if for any reason oil does catch fire, turn the heat source off immediately and cover the pan with a metal lid to remove the oxygen source. Don’t ever use water on a grease fire, and don’t try to move the pot, as you could burn yourself or others. Baking soda or flour can also be used to douse the flames, but you’ll need a lot. In other words, prevention is a much better and safer option.

Olive Oil 01.jpg

Definitely the most-used oil in my kitchen.

Thanks to the Mediterranean diet, olive oil has gotten a lot of attention recently. It’s certainly versatile, and without question the oil I use most in my kitchen. But like so many other food items, it can be confusing; most of our olive oil comes from other countries, and the FDA doesn’t regulate imported olive oils. As with honey, there have been many, many instances of adulterated olive oils sold in the U.S.; a 2010 study indicated that close to 70% of imported olive oil was incorrectly labeled. Some states, like California, have passed stringent labeling laws, but be aware that it’s pretty easy to slap just about anything on a bottle of oil and not get called out for it.

Coconut Oil.jpg

So trendy that even Crisco got in on it.

Never cook with fancy, expensive olive oils; these oils are best for drizzling over salads or vegetables, or dipping with bread. There is no point in spending $30 a bottle (or more) for an oil that you’re going to subject to high heat; you’re just wasting your money. Always smell your oils; like any fat, oils can turn rancid. Keep them in a cool, dark, dry place, out of direct sunlight, and buy in small amounts. Expensive, delicate oils, like nut oils, are often sold in opaque containers rather than glass so they aren’t subject to as much degradation. Still, many consumers actually prefer rancid olive oil; this is probably attributable to the low-quality olive oil we grew up on – we think it’s supposed to taste like that.

Sunflower.jpg

Both pretty and useful!

As with most foods, what matters most is your own palate. Before you spend hundreds on fancy olive oils, buy a few small bottles and taste the oil straight. Even better, go to a store that sells different oils and also offers a tasting bar. Some will taste sharp, or grassy, or bitter, depending on age and harvest and other factors. Don’t be swayed by celebrity chef brand names or pretty labels; price isn’t necessarily your best guide here. Figure out what you like, then buy it.

Butter 01

Thank the sweet Lord we’re allowed to love butter again.

When it comes to butter, quality definitely matters. In America, butter must be at least 80% butterfat to be labeled as butter; in Europe, it’s 82%. We’re starting to see more butterfat quantities on labels here (note Vermont Creamery products in photo above at 86%) and it does provide richer mouthfeel and certainly more flakiness in pastries. I use unsalted butter exclusively in baking and cooking so I can control the final salt content, but for spreading on good bread nothing compares to fresh, cultured, salted butter. Want to make your own? Try this recipe.

Butter 04

This little piggy became lard…

Remember when your grandmother kept the old metal coffee can filled with bacon drippings next to the stove? Like butter, lard, tallow and drippings are back in fashion; we can probably thank Team Paleo for that. It’s real fat, rather than fake fat, and it’s delicious. Use sparingly but with great enjoyment, and just like any animal product, buy from a reputable source. How the animals were raised matters.

Hazelnut Walnut Oil

Nut oils are delicious, expensive and prone to rancidity; use judiciously.

A simple (and by no means definitive) guide to cooking fats and oils:

Butter: literally nothing compares for flavor, plus exemplary flakiness in baked goods, but it has a low smoke point and burns easily. Use when the flavor will shine: in simple eggs, on top of pancakes or waffles, in pie crusts and pastries. Or make brown butter into an elegant sauce for fish or pasta. Try compound butters with herbs, garlic or other add-ins; it’s easy to make your own or buy from these lovely folks.

Canola oil: useful in baking when a neutral oil is desired; also good for sautéing and frying. This oil is a tricky one: it comes from the rapeseed plant and was developed using traditional plant breeding methods before the advent of GMOs. It was renamed for the sensitive U.S. market; the word canola is a hodgepodge of “Canada” and “oil,” since most of our rapeseed comes from Canada. There exists a misconception that all canola is GMO; although that isn’t true, rapeseed is one of the most common GMO crops, so if you’re avoiding GMOs, watch your labels.

Coconut oil: currently very trendy along with everything else coconut. Solid at cool room temperature so it behaves like shortening or butter in baking and is therefore very popular with vegans. Previously a nutritional villain, and now a hero (see also: butter, eggs, coffee, salt, red wine…)

Ghee: butter that has been clarified to remove the milk solids so that its smoke point is higher. Common in Indian cuisine.

Grapeseed oil: a byproduct of the winemaking industry, it’s neutral in flavor and best for baking, sautéing, and salad dressings when you don’t want a pronounced olive flavor.

Lard: rendered hog fat; it is neutral in flavor (unlike bacon drippings, which are smoky and bacon-y) and produces amazing pie crusts, especially when combined with butter. Obviously not suitable for vegetarians. Moderately high smoke point.

Margarine or other “fake butters”: never. Not even ever. Totally lab-created; typically hydrogenated oils often with mysterious additives. Stay away; there is literally nothing of value in these products. No, they absolutely do not reduce your cholesterol. I don’t care what the package says.

Olive oil: the most versatile and a favorite of Mediterranean diet proponents. Use olive oil for moderately high temperature sautéing, tossing with cooked pasta and drizzling over roasted vegetables. Expensive, flavorful olive oils should be reserved for salad dressings and as an accompaniment to good bread and should never be heated.

Nut oil, such as hazelnut or walnut: expensive, flavorful and great for salad dressings, especially when the same toasted nut is used in the dish. Try this simple beauty from the great Ottolenghi!

Peanut oil: high smoke point and good for frying; popular in Asian cuisine. Pronounced flavor and possible allergen issues. Great for deep-frying.

Sesame: see peanut oil, above, except that it’s way too expensive and strongly flavored for deep-frying. Dark sesame oil will have a stronger flavor.

Safflower oil: related to sunflowers, this is a neutral oil fine for frying and baking.

Sunflower oil: high in Vitamin E plus a high smoke point; neutral flavor. Use for baking and frying.

Vegetable shortening: Crisco introduced vegetable shortening in 1911 as a lard alternative. It’s solid at cool room temperature and therefore behaves similarly to butter or lard in baked goods. It’s also partially hydrogenated and not an ideal choice for health, although now the label claims “zero trans fats.” I’ll confess that it works beautifully in pie crusts and it is a vegan option.

Vegetable oil: most products labeled “vegetable oil” are typically soy, yet another primarily GMO crop. Soybean oil is one of the most common ingredients in heavily processed foods and has virtually no benefits whatsoever. If you’re looking for a neutral baking oil, choose non-GMO canola.

What should we discuss next? Let us know!