Stumped in the Kitchen? Sara Moulton Answers Your Baking and Cooking Questions

Sara Moulton Answers Your Cooking QuestionsABC News/Getty Images
Sara Moulton Answers Your Cooking Questions

Celebrated author and TV chef Sara Moulton is food editor of "Good Morning America."

You've written to her with questions about your goals in the kitchen -- and she responded.

Sara Moulton Answers Your Questions

Laura Torres from Lake Elsinore, Calif.: Every time I make a lemon meringue pie it weeps. I cool it completely before I refrigerate it. What am I doing wrong ?

Sara's Answer: For the answer to this question I had to reach out to my mentor and friend Jean Anderson, who is a culinary walking encyclopedia as well as the author of dozens and dozens of books, the most recent being "A Love Affair With Southern Cooking," Harper Collins 2007. Here is what she advised: The main problem is that people OVERBEAT the egg whites. They should NOT be beaten to stand-up peaks but to soft peaks that lop over when the beater is withdrawn. I like to use confectioners' sugar for meringues because the starch it contains helps stabilize the whites. Sometimes I'll use a 50/50 mix of granulated (or superfine) and confectioners'. Either way, I sift the sugar in fairly gradually at moderate mixer speed lest I overbeat. Once all the sugar's in, I continue beating just until the meringue is soft and billowing and forms VERY SOFT PEAKS.

Another trick (something I learned at Cornell): The lemon filling should be good and hot when you "frost" with meringue -- the heat "cooks" and seals the bottom of the meringue, which minimizes the chance of "weeping." Also key: Make sure that the meringue touches the crust all round. This keeps it from shrinking (this, too, causes the meringue to weep because as it shrinks, liquid is squeezed out).

The pie should be room temp before it's refrigerated. If you follow these directions, your pie should NOT weep.

P.S. If you want a meringue that peaks stiffly, I'd suggest using powdered egg whites or, if you must, meringue powder (I hate its artificial vanilla flavor, but many people love it).

Laura, one last thought from me, Sara, make sure you add about 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar to the egg whites when you beat them. That should help as well.

M. Wolske from Lafayette, La.: I was making a tomato cream sauce for a chicken recipe. It called for diced tomatoes, chives, parsley, seasonings, butter and pan drippings to be mixed and simmered until tomatoes were softened and liquid absorbed. Then you were to add 1 cup sour cream and 1/2 cup cream. The creams did not mix with the rest of the ingredients. My sauce came out looking like red curddled milk. What did I do wrong? Some ideas that I had were that (1) maybe there was too much liquid (not simmered long enough), (2) maybe the temperature of the sauce was wrong when I added the creams, (3) maybe I used the wrong kind of cream, (4) maybe I had too much fat (butter, pan drippings, etc)?? Those were my only possible thoughts on my failed attempt to make this a cream sauce. Have a clue what I did wrong??

Sara's Answer: I think there were two problems here -- acid (like the acid from tomatoes) can curdle dairy and the second problem is that sour cream does not have enough butterfat to be boiled without curdling. What I would do the next time you make this sauce is to introduce a little starch like flour into the mix. Maybe sprinkle some flour on the cooked tomatoes and cook it for a few minutes, I think a tablespoon might work. Stir that around for a few minutes and then whisk in the cream and sour cream.

Shirley from Asheville, N.C.: Is there a difference between ordinary corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup? How do we avoid the latter?

Sara's Answer: Shirley, I went to the Internet for the answer to this and found on Wikipedia: Corn syrup is a food syrup, which is made from the starch of corn or "maize" (U.K.) and which is composed mainly of glucose. Corn syrup is used in foods to soften texture, add volume, prevent crystallization of sugar and enhance flavor. Corn syrup is distinct from high-fructose corn syrup, created when corn syrup undergoes enzymatic processing that produces a sweeter compound containing higher levels of fructose.[1] I don't always trust Wikipedia but this corroborates what the high fructose folks say on their Web site.

Sharon Schwartz from Apple Valley, Minn.: The biggest cooking frustration I have is keeping my hot food hot when going from the oven/stove to the dinner table. I don't like eating lukewarm or cold food, and this happens to me all of the time, especially with vegetables; however, I have had the problem with chili and stew, too. I have tried warming serving dishes briefly in the oven, but my food always seems to cool off quickly. Help! How do you keep your food hot when it gets to the table for serving?

Sara's Answer: Sharon, you have stumped me on this one. Heating the plates and the platters helps and making sure that the food is piping hot when you plate it is a good idea. But, basically there is no way around this problem except to tell you guests to eat quickly and that would not be good for them. Darn, if I come up with something better I will let you know.

Caryl Noelken from Houston: I bought a 5 lb. bag of Yukon potatoes and unable to use them within the next 2 weeks. My favorite recipe is to roast them with herbs. Can I do this now and freeze them for use later?

Sara's Answer: Caryl, I never tried that but I don't see why it wouldn't work. You will have to re-crisp them in the oven before serving.

Merry from Orient, N.Y.: Sara, I bought two leg of lambs for Easter and had them deboned and butterflied for grilling. When I picked them up they gave me the meaty bones. What can I do with them?

Sara's Answer: Merry, so sorry I did not get back to you in time. I hope you haven't thrown out the bones yet! You could make a stock by browning the bones in a 400 oven with some onions and carrots and then transferring them to a stock pot. Deglaze the pan you roasted them in with a little wine, red or white. Add that to the stockpot, along with some coarsely chopped celery, bay leaf, thyme, and a parsley sprig. add cold water to cover, bring to a boil and simmer for 3 hours. Strain, discarding the solids. remove any fat from the top of the stock, return it to the saucepan and simmer until it is reduced by at least half (or tastes like something, add a pinch of salt when you taste it). Then freeze it and use it later for sauces or soups.

Donna from Thornton, N.H.: I love scallops, but when I try to cook them in a skillet, even when the skillet gets screaming hot, a lot of liquid seems to form in the pan and they don't get browned. I've tried evoo and butter but the same thing happens. Please help me make a great scallop dinner for my husband and I.

Sara's Answer: Donna, you are doing nothing wrong, it is the scallops. Next time you go buy scallops ask the fishmonger for "day boat" or "dry" scallops. They may be more expensive but they will be so much easier to cook and much tastier. the problem is that for many years, fisherman harvested scallops far out at sea, shucked them right away and put them into a wet solution that contained additives. The solution kept the scallops from spoiling while the the fisherman spent many more days at sea. But the solution also permeated the scallops making them so wet they can't be sauteed without steaming.

Terri Murphy from Lakeland, Fla.: Can you make extra pie crusts, roll in wax paper and then freeze them or just keep them refrigerated?

Sara's Answer: That is a brilliant idea, to roll out extra dough and then to freeze it flat. That way you will always have a pie crust at the ready. I recommend freezing them well wrapped rather than storing them in the fridge. Pastry dough gets an off color and taste after several days in the fridge.

June Choiniere from Dunnellon, Fla., and Oxford, Mass.,: Since we are not wine drinkers , I never know what kind of wine to get when a recipe calls for wine. Ex: a dry white wine etc.?

Sara's Answer: I am sorry that the recipes don't tell you what kind. Mostly you should be using a dry wine, such as a pinot grigio or sauvignon blanc for a white or a pinot noir, cabernet, rioja, or malbec for a red. You don't want to spend a ton of money on the wine but you don't want to get cooking wine either (which has salt added). I am sure if you asked the clerk at the liquor store they might be able to advise you.

Jackie from Poulsbo, Wash.,: I have seen on TV chefs cooking duck breast med. rare. Why is that? I always thought they would be considered poultry and should be treated and cooked like chicken and turkey ???

Sara's Answer: Good question -- it does seem odd doesn't it? In a nutshell, duck does not have the same issues with salmonella and campylobacter as chickens and turkey and also, it is slaughtered differently, in a manner less conducive to bacteria. So it is not as dangerous to cook it rare. However, the government would recommend that you cook it more well done, as they do for almost all protein.

Terri Levin from Bradenton, Fla.,: How other than tenderizing with the meat stabber can I tenderize a strip steak? I like this cut but sometimes it is hit or miss on the grill pan. Thanks , I love watching you on TV.

Sara's Answer: Cook it rare to medium rare, let it rest for 10 minutes after grilling and slice it thin to serve it.

Cheryl from Lilburn, Ga.:

When you want to half a recipe for example that is for 12 to 6 servings. Can you half all the ingredients including the spices or herbs? Will it still have the full flavor intended if you half the herbs or spices? Thanks!

Sara's Answer: The real danger in multiplying or reducing a recipe is in a pastry recipe. Pastry and baking recipes are precise and rely on science. Most savory recipes work fine if multiplied or divided. However, the best way to insure a delicious end result is to taste as you go. So taste every step of the way and you should be fine.

Patricia Schupp from Columbia, S.C.:

I would love to include quiches in my weekly meal plans but I struggle always with pie crusts. What does it mean when dough is referred to as "short"? How do you know if the problem is too little/too much shortening, or too little/too much liquid? If it's out of proportion, can it be "fixed" without creating an inedible cardboard thing?

Sara's Answer: This is a long answer but I will try to make it short. Pastry dough comes out tender if 1. it is not mixed too much 2. the fat never gets too warm in the mixing process (so work with all cold ingredients and work quickly) 3. not too much water is added. The gluten in flour forms strands when it is combined with a liquid and worked (kneaded or mixed) alot. When the gluten is mixed alot it becomes elastic and sort of tough -- a good thing for bread dough, a bad thing for pastry. So, in summary, make sure your fat and liquids are cold, add only just enough liquid to make the dough come together (if you add more the tendency is to overwork the dough) and, don't overwork the dough.

Linda Jo from Raleigh, N.C.:

I have a new recipe that calls for layering chicken pieces and onions, etc in a slow cooker. I don't cook with "real onions" just those dried out of a bottle, however I think this recipe calls for more. What is the best kind of onion to buy that is not really strong?

Sara's Answer: No onion cooked in a slow cooker for hours will taste strong. I would just use a yellow onion, which are very available and affordable at the supermarket. All onions become sweet and mellow when cooked for a long time.

Mary Wigton from Encinitas, Calif.:

This is more an equipment issue. When you have two pots the same size that get nested together in your cabinet, these got really stuck together. How do you get them apart? Sometimes this happens with glasses too. Invariably the glasses break, but the pots?

Sara's Answer: Why don't you try running really hot water over them? I have had great success getting a metal lid off of a jar that way.

Michele Jones from Orlando, Fla.:

If the recipe calls to use butter but does not indicate unsalted or salted, does it matter which one I use?

Sara's Answer: Generally I use unsalted butter in a recipe so I can control the salt and also, because it is easier to tell if butter is fresh if it is unsalted. Salt masks rancidity. But having said that, if the recipe does not specify and all you have is lightly salted, go ahead and use it.

Dorothy Smith from Dallas:

How can I make salad greens crisp in my salad?

Sara's Answer: Well, it helps to start with greens that are naturally crisp like romaine or iceberg. Butter lettuce, Boston lettuce, arugula and most baby greens are not naturally crisp. But washing your greens properly and drying them well will help too. You should wash them by floating them in large bowl of cold water. Any sand will sink to the bottom and the greens will float to the top. Lift the leaves out gently and transfer them to a salad spinner in batches to dry. People have a tendency to overload a salad spinner which means that the water cannot properly spin off. Then after you have spun the greens dry, use them in your salad, or, if you are not going to use them right away, wrap them in a paper towel and put them in a plastic bag and store them in the fridge.

Doris Baker from Hackettstown, N.J.:

How do you do a roast loin of pork to keep it moist and not dry?

Sara's Answer: Don't overcook it and let it rest for 10 to 15 minutes before carving. I think the government still recommends cooking it to 160 F but most chefs cook it less than that, to 150 or slightly less. Trichinosis is killed at about a little under 140 F.

Patricia Patchoski from DuPont, Pa.:

No matter how hard I try I cannot make a good piece of beef. I have bought the highest price and the lowest, I have bought all different cuts, from T-bone to Chuck Roast. My beef always comes out so tough that my dogs can't even eat it. I have tried many recipes to no avail. PLEASE Help in this economy I cannot afford to ruin food.

Sara's Answer: If you are buying the more expensive cuts, such as strip steak, fillet, etc. I think you must be overcooking them -- they get dry and tough when they are cooked to medium well and more. If you are cooking tough cuts, like from the shoulder (chuck) or a brisket or shank, etc. you are probably not cooking them enough. they need to be cooked slow and low and covered. If you could give me specific information about what cut of meat you want to cook, I can give you some good advice.

Marilyn Ehrlich from Holbrook-Long Island, N.Y.:

When a recipe calls for mint, is it peppermint or spearmint?

Sara's Answer:You know you bring up a big problem -- not all mint is the same. Peppermint is hot and spicy and spearmint is mild and sweet. Recipes never specify do they? I would say in general that it is safe to go with spearmint, which is more neutral and more prevalent in supermarkets, but if you like the spice of peppermint by all means, add that.

Jeannie Shields from Florence, Ore.: When a recipe calls for brown sugar, can you substitute light for dark and vice versa? How are the taste and cooking affected?

Sara's Answer:Brown sugar is white sugar with the addition of molasses -- the more molasses, the browner and more robust the flavor. You can substitute light for dark sugar and visa versa, it just depends what flavor profile you are looking for.

Beth Sudduth from Oxford, Ala.: I've been making a list of questions, and am so excited to finally have a cooking expert help me out!

1) What is the best white and red wine to use for cooking? I don't drink wine routinely, and don't want to invest a lot of $$ on expensive brands. I've usually resorted to the cooking wine in grocery stores, but I know the flavor could be so much better.

2) How do you prevent a banana bread from imploding when you bake it? (the inside collapses once you take it out and the dough is still gooey), yet the outer crust is getting very brown?

3) What's the best apple for apple pie? I made one with the peels still on, and it was very runny. Did leaving the peels on make a difference. I was trying to get more fiber in our diet.

4)How long can you keep the egg yolk or white in the fridge once it's cracked? Can I freeze either to use for dishes later?

5)When should you use salted vs unsalted butter in recipes, ie banana breads, etc?

Sara's Answer:

1) You want a dry wine unless otherwise specified. I would go with an affordable pinto grigio for white and an affordable dry red. Look to countries that are making good values such as Chile, Argentina and Spain in the red department. The general rule is to cook with a wine that you would be happy to drink. The problem is that "cooking wines" found in supermarkets have salt added to them. I am not a fan.

2) My friend Jean Anderson could better answer this question than me. She has a wonderful Web site and if you put this question to her she will be able to tell you all the things you need to avoid:

3) The peels were not the problem, it was the apple. Certain apples, like those in the Macintosh family, turn to mush when you cook them. They are great for applesauce but not so good for pie. I like to use a mixture of apples when I make a pie so that I can have a mixture of textures and flavors. I recommend that you do the same -- so mix up applesauce apples, like Macintosh with firm apples like golden delicious and tart apples like granny smith. if you shop at a farmer's market, the farmers can tell you how their apples behave when they are cooked.

4) I would go to the American Egg Board Web site to get the answer to this question. If I bring home eggs from the supermarket and one is already cracked in the carton, I throw it out. But if you are the one to crack it and refrigerate it, I think you should ask that question of the egg board.

5) Salt is added to butter for two reasons: for flavor and to preserve it. Most chefs prefer to work with unsalted butter so that they can 1. control the salt in a recipe, but also so that 2. they can taste it better without the salt to know that it is fresh. Salt not only seasons a butter but it also tends to hide rancidity.

Jim Giam from Dallas, Amherst, N.Y.:

How do you make a chocolate chip cookie so that it comes out "chewy," rather than crisp or soft?

Sara's Answer: Shortening will give you a chewier cookies and butter will give you a crispier cookie.

Martha Ann Meyer from Dallas, Texas had a question about Beef Bourguignon:

Beef Bourguignon -- could I get a pronunciation please? I say beef bour-gi-non and my fiancé says beef bour-ga-non-e or beef bour-goinya. What is the correct pronunciation? We made it over the weekend and it was very good.

Sara's Answer: Ok, I am going to attempt to do this phonetically: boor-ghee-nyon (the final n is silent)

Mireille Hillhouse from Yukon, Okla. Had a question about onions:

Sara, I have trouble keeping onions fresh. They always get kind of mushy and soft in the refrigerator. What can I do to keep them nice and firm? Thank you for your help.

Sara's Answer: This is an easy solution. Don't keep them in the fridge. There's too much moisture in the fridge which is why they get soggy. They like to be in a well-ventilated cool place, away from sunlight. So put them in a basket and keep them somewhere in your kitchen away from sun.

Dot Brannon from Mattituck, New York, had a question about Dutch ovens:

I love to cook (and bake). I have an electric stove with a ceramic top. I have a Le Creuset Dutch oven. Can I use that on the stove without hurting the stove top? What is the rule of thumb for cook wear on that type of stove top?

Sara's Answer: I went on the Le Creuset web site and found out that the cookware should work on any stovetop just fine. The thing is to not drag or bang the pan on top of a glass or ceramic stovetop which would damage it. Please check out this link for more:

Anthony Jones from Los Angeles, Calif. had a question about tomatoes:

Fresh and/or canned and whole and/or diced tomatoes sometimes have too much acid/acidity. If a recipe calls for any of the above, could using tomato sauce and/or tomato paste yield the same results and how would to conversion play out (i.e. two ripe tomatoes vs. how many cans of tomato paste/sauce?

Sara's Answer: I cannot tell you the exact substitution amounts for your question. But here is what I would recommend: When you're using fresh tomatoes that you find too acidic, just add a pinch or two of sugar, and/or add a tablespoon or two of tomato paste. I would not substitute all of the fresh tomatoes for tomato sauce, because you would lose that texture in the fresh tomatoes. It would be better to substitute all of the tomatoes with canned chopped tomatoes.

Janet Wilson from Great Falls, Virginia had a question about cooking for guests.

I find it difficult to cook for guests. What is your favorite all time meal/recipe (main course) for dinner guests who are finicky eaters?

Sara's Answer: I've never struck out with Italian food, especially pasta. If they're carnivores, go with good old fashioned lasagna, if not, make some baked cheese pasta dish. People love Italian food.

Kathy Newman, from New Lenox, Ill. had a question about olive oil.

I am confused about which type of olive oil to use in the kitchen for cooking and which to use at the table for dipping. What should I look for when buying olive oil and how do you store it? Can you recommend what kind of olive oil to buy?

Sara's Answer: The general rule is save the good stuff for finishing, meaning for salad dressings or to drizzle over something. Use the cheaper stuff for cooking.

Cornmeal Question

Megan Speard of Hillsboro, Ohio, writes: I use self-rising cornmeal and it already has cornmeal and flour in it, so do I still need to add flour in a recipe that calls for cornmeal and flour? I only need to make half the recipe for the cornbread, so can I split the ingredients and still use one whole egg?

Sara responds: Baking is a pretty precise science (as opposed to cooking), so I wouldn't just start substituting ingredients in a cornbread recipe. I have to be honest, I have never come across a self-rising cornmeal, so I am a little out of my league. Self-rising flour has leavening agents in it, so I assume self-rising cornmeal does too. You have no way of knowing what proportion of flour and leavening agents this cornmeal has. I would only use this cornmeal for recipes that call for self rising cornmeal. So sorry!

Fallen Cream

Patty Urban of San Jose, Calif., writes: When I cook for my 86-year-old uncle, I make large recipes and freeze portions for future use. When I make a recipe using whipping cream or cream in the sauce, when it's reheated the cream sauce turns to grease sauce. Why and what can I do?

Sara responds: I think what happens in the freezer is the thickening agent, the item that kept the sauce together, breaks down. I would recommend reheating the sauce until it just comes to a boil and then whisking in a mixture of flour and water -- about 1 tablespoon flour and 2 tablespoons water to every cup of sauce.

Gel-like Turkey Stock

Pamela Allison of Charleston, S.C., writes: Dear Sara, I have tried making stock using a turkey carcass and vegetables. I cooked it a very long time then picked the meat off and used it for another dish. After a few hours, I strained the broth and put it in the refrigerator. It set like extra-thick Jello. Definitely turkey sludge and not turkey broth. Where did I go wrong? Please help.

Sara responds: Actually, you made a beautiful turkey stock. That gelatin-like texture is due to the gelatin from the turkey bones. All you need to do is thicken the stock to make an actual gravy. Here is what you do: for a medium gravy, cook 1 1/2 tablespoons butter and 1 1/2 tablespoons flour (for each cup of stock) in a saucepan for several minutes. While whisking, add the stock in a stream. Bring it to a boil and let it simmer for 5 minutes. So, if you want to thicken 4 cups of stock, you will need 6 tablespoons butter and 6 tablespoons flour, etc.

Go Nuts: When to Chop

Sandra DeRose of Marietta, Ga., writes: When a recipe calls for a cup of chopped nuts, does that mean that the nuts are measured to a cup before chopping or are they measured after chopping?

Sara responds: In recipe language, the placement of a word like chopped is key. If it comes before the item it means that the nuts are measured after they are chopped (1 cup chopped nuts), if it comes after, it means that you measure the nuts first and then chop them (1 cup nuts, chopped).

Click HERE to read about Sara's favorite kitchen gadgets for under $20.

How to Handle Puff Pastry

Jean-Marie of Lubbock, Texas, writes: In using frozen puff pastry, what is a sheet? Being a Southerner, I make pies, cobblers, crisps, and lots of cakes, cookies, and try new things, however, puff pastry has escaped me. Tried it once and it didn't work out so well, as in oops!

Sara responds: Puff pastry is tricky so I don't blame you for having trouble. A sheet literally refers to a sheet of pastry. They come in rectangular pieces referred to as "sheets". Because of its high percentage of butter (puff pastry is basically half butter, half flour, much higher than any other pastry) it tends to be finicky. I would not just substitute it for other kinds of pastry like pastry dough. Read the instructions on the back of the package for tips and/or refer to a really good book on baking. One of my favorite baking authors is Nick Malgieri.

Should She Use Marshmallows?

Joanne Marinelli of Brighton, Mich., writes: I was watching you cook on TV once and you mentioned that we should put marshmallow in the heavy cream when we whip it to help it hold. Is that canned marshmallows or marshmallows from a bag, and how much do we use?

Sara responds: I hope I didn't say marshmallows. It is gelatin (unflavored, dissolved gelatin) that you can add to whipped cream to stabilize it. But actually, here is what I would recommend instead. If you whip the cream ahead and need to let it sit in the fridge before you use it, it will separate a bit and become runny. Just re-whip it right before you want to use it.

The 'Trick' Measuring Cup

Pat from Waukesha, Wis., writes: When measuring honey or peanut butter, isn't there a trick to do to the measuring cup so that all the honey or peanut butter falls out with nothing left in the measuring cup?

Sara responds: The trick is to spray the measuring spoon or cup with a vegetable spray or to brush it with flavorless oil, then the molasses, honey, etc., slithers right out.

Heavy Cream Won't Rise to the Occasion

Theresa Andrews of Yardley, Pa., writes: I have been using heavy cream for years and only lately have been having trouble getting it to the proper whipped consistency even though I use a cold bowl and beaters. Sometimes I get it to the right consistency and, on a strawberry shortcake, after I make it and put it in the refrigerator it tends to be not stiff enough. Any ideas would be helpful.

Sara responds: A few suggestions: first of all, whenever possible try to buy pasteurized, not ultra-pasteurized cream. Ultra-pasteurized tends to over-beat easily and tastes like slightly cooked cream. Second, whip the cream at the last moment and don't put it on the shortcake or whatever cake until you are ready to serve it. When you whip cream, it gets stiff but then when it sits around it tends to separate out into cream and a watery liquid; it does indeed soften. You can whip it ahead and park it in the fridge and then re-whip it right before you need to use it. It re-whips back to its stiff state.

Where to Find Bacon for the Bourguignon

Paul Claflin of McFarland, Wis., writes: My wife and I are trying to prepare beef bourguignon using Julia Child's recipe. One ingredient has us stumped. That ingredient is slab bacon. None of the butchers' shops in the area seem to know anything about slab bacon. Can you define what slab bacon is and/or what is a good substitute?

Sara responds: Slab bacon is simply regular old bacon as you know it that has not been sliced. The reason it is recommended in dishes like boeuf bourgignon is because you can cut it into nice-sized cubes. If you can't find it, go ahead and use regular old bacon. Just watch the cooking time, because it will cook faster.

Curry Lost Its Flavor?

Lauretta from Winthrop, Maine, writes: Is there a trick to cooking with yellow curry? Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. I can use a whole bottle and never get the flavor from the curry. What's up with that?

Sara responds: I can only wonder if your curry powder might be a little old. Spices lose their flavor when they sit on the shelf for a long time.

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