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15 Cooking Mysteries Solved!

How do you prevent lumpy gravy? What's the difference between broth and stock? We have the answers to these and other cooking questions that may have stumped you in the kitchen. Check them out, and cook and bake with confidence this year!

Good cooks know that the secret to success in the kitchen is to follow certain rules. And yet true kitchen wisdom comes from asking questions, practicing techniques, following recipes, and being able to separate facts from assumptions. Here’s a list of popular cooking questions that will help you get to know your way around the kitchen like a professional chef!

1. Why is it sometimes difficult to remove shells from hardboiled eggs?

Hard Boiled egg - Egg
The fresher the egg, the harder it is to peel.

The fresher the egg, the harder it is to peel. This is because the membrane just under the shell of a fresh egg sticks more effectively to the fresh white of the egg when cooked. In eggs that have been in the refrigerator for several days, the normally low pH of the egg white protein, albumen, increases, and a bit of water begins to separate from the protein. Also, over time, a tiny air space begins to expand from the air sac (the “bubble” at the large end of the egg) between the inner membrane and the white, so when the white cooks, the membrane bonds more strongly to the shell. When the shell is cracked, the water which the albumen gave off, lubricates the area between membrane and white, making the egg easier to peel.

Always crack an egg first at the large end, and work your way to the narrow end. Shocking the egg after cooking in cold water can sometimes help create space between the membrane and the white. And peel eggs while still warm. You’ll need this tip when making deviled eggs!

2. What’s the difference between white eggs and brown eggs? 

Chicken - Egg
Shell color does not determine the flavor or nutritional value of eggs.

Actually, chickens lay a variety of colors of eggs — some lighter brown, some quite dark, some light blue, even speckled. But shell color does not determine flavor or nutritional value. The biggest factors with the quality, flavor, and nutritional value of eggs are their freshness, the health of the chicken, and the quality of its feed.

3. Why does the first pancake always come out bad?

Making of home made pancakes. Close up view.
Even heat is the secret of great pancakes.

It seems inevitable, when we make pancakes, the first one in the pan always looks worse than any of the subsequent flapjacks. This happens for a variety of reasons. Primarily it’s because the pan or griddle needs two things before it becomes a stellar cooking surface that produces golden brown pancakes. First, it needs to heat up properly across its entire surface. Even heat is the secret of great pancakes.

Second, any fat on the surface needs to be heated and distributed into a thin, even layer. This is called “seasoning” the pan. Too much fat pooling up on the surface simply fries the batter, (which can add the crispness that some pancake aficionados prefer), but evenly browned pancakes are a result of maximum contact between the hot cooking surface and the batter, where the batter almost toasts to golden brown, with only enough seasoning to prevent the pancakes from sticking. Properly heating and seasoning the surface before you add the batter makes all the difference. The first pancake is in effect the trial run, working out the kinks before all the variables of even heat and pan seasoning come together. While that first pancake cooks the pan comes to temperature, and it absorbs just enough of the fat on the cooking surface so that second one will cook more evenly.

4. Why do foods stick?

Macro shot of a burnt fried eggs and a hand trying to remove it.

Foods stick, especially to metal pans that are exposed to heat without any fat or oil, because the proteins and sugars in the food bond like glue to microscopic irregularities on the surface of the metal. A layer of oil can fill in in these irregularities which, when heated, creates a cushion of steam that raises the food off of the pan, creating a smoother surface that is less likely to cause food to stick.

5. Why do chefs call for day-old bread in some recipes?

White Bread - Whole grain
Many cooks prefer day-old bread in certain recipes.

Besides the economic advantage of using leftover ingredients, chefs prefer day-old bread in some recipes because drier bread and/or crumbs can absorb flavorful liquids while still retaining some lightness and texture. Adding liquids to fresh soft bread crumbs, for example, could cause them to lose texture and become a sodden paste. Crumbs from drier bread will make things like meatloaf and meatballs lighter and less dense.

6. What’s the difference between chicken broth and chicken stock (and is it OK to use them interchangeably?)

Saucepan with bouillon with a ladle on the table. Bone broth.

The only difference between broth and stock is that stock is created using bones in addition to other ingredients, so it tends to be cloudy. A broth is any liquid in which ingredients (such as meat, fish, vegetables, etc.) have been cooked. Most of the time the two can be used interchangeably. Broths can generally be created in less time, while a stock requires hours of simmering. Many chefs prefer stock because bones release more gelatin, resulting in a silkier feel in the mouth.

7. Why do some recipes call for the eggs to be at room temperature?

Eggs in a dish on the counter.
Recipe calling for room temperature eggs?

The reason for this is twofold. First, in recipes where melted fat is used and a smooth emulsified batter is required, such as that for popovers, cold ingredients like eggs can cause fat to harden and congeal, creating lumps and harming the texture of the finished product. Secondly, in any recipe where air needs to be incorporated into the mix, such as a soufflé, room temperature egg whites tend to whip higher than cold ones.

8. Is there a reason you cream the butter and sugar together first when baking? Why can’t you throw all the ingredients together at once?

whisking butter, in a bowl full of butter and egg yolks.
Incorporating the fat and sugar together begins to dissolve the sugar crystals and the fat begins to emulsify around them.

Any baker will tell you that creaming butter and sugar together first, before adding eggs, is one of the keys to lighter cakes and better cookies. Incorporating the fat and sugar together begins to dissolve the sugar crystals and the fat begins to emulsify around them. This creates tiny spaces between the molecules, which expand when heated, resulting in a finer, lighter texture in baked goods.

9. Why do chefs add the oil after the pan heats up?

Close-up of male hand pouring oil into pan in the kitchen.
Chefs heat up the pan and then add the oil for more even non-stick cooking.

This is related to the question about foods sticking (see above). If you look at the surface of a metal pan under a microscope, it’s a porous landscape of craggy peaks and valleys. A layer of fat fills in the valleys and makes a smoother, more nonstick surface. Chefs heat pans before adding oil or butter because heat tends to open up the pores in the metal more effectively, and hot oil is less viscous and seeps into all the microscopic valleys faster and more evenly.

10. Why should you start potatoes off in cold water?

Boil water graphic. When to boil the water.

Starting potatoes in cold water creates more even cooking. Throwing cold potatoes into boiling water gelatinizes the starches at the surface of the potato too fast, which will leave you with a mushy exterior that falls apart and dissolves into the cooking water before the center cooks through. By starting in cold water, the temperature in the potato rises more gently.

In fact, all root crops, or vegetables that grow below ground, should be started off in cold water to gradually soften their cell walls to make them more palatable and easier to digest. Because most green vegetables (aboveground crops) are small and/or thin, this doesn’t take long and should be added to boiling water.

11. How do you prevent lumpy gravy?

Chef whisking up a rich spicy gravy for dinner in a close up on a full sauce boat surrounded by ingredients as he whisks the mixture in a pot behind.
To make smooth gravy, use a whisk!

Lumpy gravy is a disappointment. These annoying bits of thickeners are typically the product of mixing too much at one time or not mixing them well enough with a whisk. To create a classic gravy, start with a roux. Use an equal amount of fat (butter) and flour. Heat the fat in a pan; then gradually whisk in the flour, creating a paste. Once you have this, you can add the drippings from your turkey or roast, as well as stock, to reach the desired thickness, all while whisking on medium-low heat.

Another option for a quick way to make a gravy without needing a roux is to create a corn starch slurry by thoroughly mixing equal amounts of corn starch and a stock of your preference. Once this is completely mixed, you can pour it into your drippings, keeping it on medium heat, and whisk until it begins to thicken. You might have to adjust the amount of stock you use to thin it out or make a smaller amount of slurry with the corn starch, later adding more to thicken it. Whatever method you use, be sure to taste it along the way and adjust seasonings accordingly. If you still have some lumps, you can always press the gravy through a strainer. But, by using either of these methods and employing a whisk instead of a spoon, you should not need to.

Baking and ingredient substitutions you need to know!

12. What’s the secret to a perfect pie crust?

Tart - Pie
It’s easy to bake the perfect pie crust.

For the best flavor, butter is recommended. Lard and shortening have higher melting temperatures, which creates that flaky crust. Or use half lard or shortening and half butter for the best of both worlds.

A perfect pie crust is a thing of beauty—flaky with a rich, buttery flavor. Obtaining this reward takes practice and a few hints from the experts. There are proponents of lard, butter, or shortening, with sound arguments for each.

Whichever fat you choose, the real secret to the perfect pie crust is keeping everything cold. This means put your fat of choice in the freezer before you use it and drizzle ice-cold water into the dough as you mix it. And if you really want to be hardcore, chill the bowl full of flour prior to using. This also requires not over-handling the dough because the heat of your hands can melt the fat. Using a food processor to mix the ingredients together eliminates this problem.

Practice makes perfect when it comes to making a pie crust. Keep everything cold and try each of the fats and see which one works the best for you.

13. Should you wash your meat, poultry, & fish before cooking

Fresh chicken with spices on vintage background, selective focus. Healthy food, diet or cooking concept.
Avoid cross-contamination of your cooking surfaces.

It used to be common for cooks to rinse meat prior to cooking, either because they felt it was more sanitary or because they needed to wash off debris, such as bone fragments, from the butcher-ing process. But since much of our meat comes from regulated facilities, this practice is not necessary and is not recommended by the USDA due to the possibility of cross-contamination in the cooking area. Washing will remove bacteria, but these same bacteria are also killed during the cooking process. Many experts suggest that washing meat and poultry may cause the bacteria to spread onto other cooking surfaces and/or your hands and clothes, which then comes into contact with other foods. So, it’s recommended not to wash your meat, poultry, or fish.

14. What is the difference between wax and parchment papers?

Delicious round cookies sprinkled with sugar, cooked at home.
Parchment paper creates the perfect non-stick surface for baking.

Both wax paper and parchment paper are used to keep foods from sticking, but there is a key difference—you cannot use wax paper in the oven!

Wax paper is coated with a thin coating of wax. Parchment paper, on the other hand, has a silicone make-up, which means it’s nonstick, as well as heat resistant up to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. This means you can line baking sheets or cake pans, as well as wrap foods, especially fish, to cook in packets of parchment paper for quick and easy cleanups.

Wax paper is better used as a liner, or a way to keep surfaces clean (works well on countertops and tables before rolling dough or kneading bread). It can also be used to wrap food for cold storage or line a pan or tin when storing cookies or fudge.

15. If your recipe calls for wine, what kind/type should you use? And what can be used as a substitute for wine?

Male hand holding bottle and pouring red wine into pan casserole with frying carrots and onions on modern electric cooker.

Wine adds a complexity of flavor to both sweet and savory dishes. It also provides acidity to tenderize some of the tougher cuts of meats. What type you choose — whether white or red — depends on what you’re cooking.

Reds are typically recommended for savory dishes. Pinot noir, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon are the most popular options used with meats, with the pinot being the lighter option for those looking for a milder flavor.

For sauces, vegetables, fish, and chicken, look for white wine, such as sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio, or unoaked chardonnay.

If you do not wish to use wine, or you don’t have it on hand, opt for chicken, beef, or vegetable stock, juices (such as apple, or pomegranate, depending on the dish), or plain water to replace the amount of wine called for in the recipe.

Note: You can and should use wine you also like to drink, but sometimes, depending on your palette, you may opt for a less expensive bottle than your favorite kind.

16. What is the best way to cook a steak?

seasoned raw sirloin beef steak on cutting board.
Salt your steak generously before cooking.

Whether you are cooking steak outdoors on the grill or indoors in a cast-iron or stainless steel pan, there are a few tricks to help you create a sublime meal. First, take the steak out of the refrigerator at least 30 minutes prior to cooking to allow it to warm. This allows it to cook more evenly. Salt your steak generously with kosher salt at this time, as well. This dries out the exterior of the steak, giving you a better sear.

Whether on the grill or on the stove, start cooking the steak when the grill or stovetop is fairly hot; then bring it down to a lower temperature to finish it to the desired cooking level.

Ask Us!

Have another cooking question you want answered? Ask us in the comments below!

With contributions from freelance writers Ed Higgins and Amy Grisak.

This article was published by the staff at Farmers' Almanac. Interested in becoming a guest author? Contact us to let us know!

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Karen Finstad

After my pies are baked, what is the best way to keep the pies top crust as crisp as it just came out of the oven? If I store it in the refrigerator, it gets soggy. If I store it at room temperature it becomes soft. HELP pls

Susan Higgins

Hi Karen, be sure pies are 100% cool before covering and loosely with aluminium foil. You can keep fruit pies on the counter. If your pie contains custard or cream, it will need to be refrigerated. Once any pie is fully cool, you can refrigerate it, and try to eat it up within a day or two.

Angela

15 mystery cooking problems solved

Angela

Excellent article, I will use every recommendation suggested for cooking, and clarifying the differences makes so much sense…Thank you!! :}

Mesiano Catherine

When making soups or stews, if found that if I add the carrots and tomatoes at the same time, the carrots do not soften. I’ve learned to wait till the carrots are almost fork tender then add tomatoes. Can you explain why this happens? Thanks!

Susan Higgins

Hi Mesiano, it turns out, an acidic environment doesn’t allow some foods to soften. Take a look here. Thanks for your comment!

PAULA SCHMIDT

I always buy my eggs in the giant pack of like three or four dozen. they must be mixed age because some will be hard to peel and others wont, even though they are from the same purchase?

Pam

What does a spot of blood in an egg yolk mean? Is it save to eat?

Pat

Blood Spots. Occasionally found on an egg yolk. These tiny spots do not indicate a fertilized egg. Instead, they are caused by the rupture of a blood vessel on the yolk surface during formation of the egg or by a similar accident in the wall of the oviduct.

Susan Higgins

Hi Pam, We learned from our friends at Fresh Eggs Daily that seeing blood spots in your fresh eggs is perfectly harmless. Take a look here: http://www.fresheggsdaily.com/2016/10/why-are-there-blood-spots-in-my-fresh.html

Lettie Perry

Mama put hers in the Fireplace. I built afire in the trash barrel when I burned trash at home and got a metal rod that would go through the opening in the handles and I hang the pans over the fire until they were burned clean. Then I would wash an then preseason.

Mattie Bonnel

My Mom and my Granny used to build a fire outside and throw the cast iron pans in the fire to clean off the outside using salt and water afterward to clean.

Debbie

How do you keep a waffle from splitting? I seem to cook them to long or not long enough.

Jeanie

Thanks for all the great info. I especially like the info for the cast iron pans.

Jan

If you want to start from scratch, you can immerse your pan in a solution of vinegar and water for several days. Then scrub it with steel wool and reseason it. We looked this up online and did it with an antique pan that had hung outdoors for years. It worked very well and we use the pan regularly. The wonders of Google!

Susan Morrison

Does anyone know how to remove several generations (layers) of burnt residue from the outside of a cast iron skillet? I am using one actually made by my grandfather with his initials molded into the bottom & it’s very sentimental so I don’t want to destroy it. Since the residue is on the outside only, I’ve even considered sand blasting! Even so, the skillet still makes great cornbread.

Rose H

Place in the oven upside down next time you run the high heat clean cycle. The crud turns to ash and wipes off. Then you will need to re-season it.

Pat

My dad told me to set the pan on a bed of coals in my fireplace before retiring for the night
I did and it worked

Gina Brown

I clean my cast iron pans with running hot water and a brush (no soap ever). Annually (or as necessary) I fill with cooking oil and “season” the pan in the oven for at least 1 hour at 350 degrees (I do 2 hrs.). Put a oven liner underneath just in case; then let cool and using a funnel put the oil back in the container. NEVER put anything acid in the seasoned pans….that means tomatoes!!!! Protect your pan like a best friend!!

Marjorie

Really interesting and informative. I never use soap on my cast iron fry pans. I clean them with salt and a wet paper towel, dry them, and reseason if necessary. I was given some that were rusting and I removed the rust with salt and a plain scrubber, no soap. Then oil and bake. Since I nest them to store due to space, I put a paper plate in between each.

Elizabeth Stallings

I find it best to clean cast iron pans in hot sink dish water, rinse and dry thouroughly…never dishwasher. Dishwasher will cause rust.
Very,very best for cast iron to put in pile of burning leaves in fall of year as did our elders. Burning off all build up from use. Then, aftet cooling, wash,dry thouroughly.
“Reseason” by wiping interior with oil , (or lard), to pan interior, put in 200’oven about 30 minutes and allow to cool on it’s on.

Mary

althou some I knew it was still interesting, thanks farmers

valenciyah

What is the best way to re-season cast iron pots. I’ve had mine for about 7 years and the food is beginning to stick to the pots in addition to rust building up.

Anne Marie Reddick

I, second and endorse Merlin’s comment.

Merlin Maltsberger

Very interesting reading! I have cooked in our “home” kitchen since I was a child (now 71) and always wondered about the real reason for most of the above. Outstanding!

Thanks

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