Chef Sara Moulton Answers Your Cooking Questions

PHOTO: Sara Moulton recommends that home cooks use a 10-inch chefs knife.Foodcollection/Getty Images
Sara Moulton recommends that home cooks use a 10-inch chef's knife.

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

You've written to her with questions about what you'd like to learn in the kitchen, and she has responded.

Sara Moulton Answers Your Questions

Sarah Banales: What types of foods are best cooked in which type of cookware? For example, what should stews be cooked in, what should fish be fried in? Cast iron skillets, stainless steel, etc.

Sara's Answer:


What a good question! This is a big topic. Let's start with your specific questions -

What should stews be cooked in?

Stew, pot roasts and chilis need to be cooked for a long time over low heat. You want to use a pot that has very even heat, is large enough to hold the meat and liquid, and has a tight fitting lid. Usually a pot called a "Dutch Oven" is recommended. Cast iron is a good even conductor of heat but it reacts with acidic foods so if you are making stews with tomatoes, wine, citrus, vinegar, etc, a coated cast iron is the best candidate for this task. Several companies, such as Staub and Le Creuset, make cast iron dutch ovens coated with enamel. Of course, if you have the real estate in your kitchen, get a slow cooker. Tough foods made in a slow cooker come out really, really tender.

What should fish be fried in?

If you are deep frying, you can use any deep heavy pan. If you are sautéing the fish, whether it is floured, breaded, battered or naked, you will need a pan that doesn't stick. My grandmother, a very fine New England cook, used her cast iron pan over and over again, treated it well and kept it seasoned. If you do the same with your cast iron pan, eventually it will become stick resistant and you can use it to cook fish, pancakes, crepes, anything that would stick in a regular pan. Lodge makes cast iron. Another choice for fish and pancakes is nonstick. I am not a fan of nonstick because if overheated, it can give off toxic fumes, and also nonstick pans do not have a long shelf life. When I was on book tour in 2010 I worked with a company, Chantal Copper Fusion, that made pans out of a sandwich of three metals – copper, black steel and enamel. They are naturally stick resistant without being toxic (the inside coating is enamel, aka glass). They perform very well with fish, pancakes, crepes and eggs.

The best conductor of heat is copper. The second best conductor is aluminum. Both of those metals will react with certain foods and give them an off taste and color so they are usually coated with other materials to keep the food from touching the metal directly. (Actually unlined copper should only be used to cook caramel and jams). You often find these two metals lined with stainless steel which does not react with food. All Clad makes pans out of these combined metals. However, stainless steel on its own is not a good conductor of heat. I would not recommend it.

Anodized aluminum has been manufactured in such a way that it does not react with food so if you are a fan of aluminum this might be the pan for you.

I would steer clear of thin lightweight pans; they tend to have hot spots and can make ingredients burn at the bottom of the pan.

Helen Jahss: In a tomato soup recipe it calls for adding heavy cream. I will not use cream. What would you substitute? I sometimes find that an immersion blender will thicken the soup.

Sara's Answer:


If you want a smooth soup and don't care about the creamy taste, I agree, leave out the cream and puree the soup. Maybe add a little bit of potato to the soup in the cooking process or rice or pasta which will help give the soup a creamy texture. I rarely add cream to my soups. I prefer to bulk them up with vegetables and then puree them.

Judy Sims: How do you get beef or pork to turn out moist? Slower cooking? Lower heat?

Sara's Answer:


It depends on what cut of meat you are working with. For tender cuts of pork and beef, which generally come from the middle part of the animal, you just need to make sure you don't overcook the meat. For tougher cuts, those from the shoulder and leg, you need to cook the meat low and slow, usually with some sort of liquid. There is a very good new meat book out, published last year, by Bruce Aidells, called "The Great Meat Cookbook," Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I highly recommend it.

Linda Studt: For over 36+ years, my cakes and cupcakes have remained moist and delicious. I have a friend who is positive mayonnaise, buttermilk, cream, etc. make a cake more moist and for a longer time. i do not agree. Can you give me your opinion?

Sara's Answer:


Actually, she is right but so are you. Dairy products such as milk, buttermilk and cream are tenderizing, moisturizing elements. Mayonnaise became popular during World War II when common baking ingredients, such as eggs, butter, oil and sugar were rationed and families needed to be more resourceful. The egg yolks and oil in mayonnaise provided fat for a moist cake.

However, If you are making baked goods that you find moist and delicious, why change the formula?

Linda Harrington: I wanted to make Coq Au Vin but read one of the main ingredients for the sauce is lardon. We do not eat pork or use pork products. Is there a good substitution or should I forget trying to make this recipe?

Sara's Answer:


No, just leave it out. The lardons, aka bacon pieces, add pork flavor but also a slight smoky taste. You can find smoked tomato powder at some spice stores, that might be a nice substitute. Just add a tablespoon or so to the recipe. But, whatever you do, don't take out the wine!

Linda Chen: What size/brand knife is best for general use? Where do I buy it?

Sara's Answer:


I always recommend a 10-inch chef's knife for the home cook, regardless of whether you are 5 feet tall (like me) or 6 foot 8 inches. A classic chef's knife is heavy, heaviest at the point at which the handle meets the blade. When you are chopping, slicing, etc the weight of the knife will make it do the work. Gravity will pull the knife down to the cutting board, slicing through the item on the counter with almost no effort on your part (unless of course, the knife is dull). A 10-inch knife is heavier than an 8-inch.

Also, the "sweet spot" on a knife, the part of the knife where you do the bulk of the work when you are chopping is 4 -inches long on an 8-inch knife and 6-inches long on a 10-inch. You can chop more food at once with a 10-inch. It is more efficient.

Regarding materials, here is a good summary from the Professional Chef, the textbook of the Culinary Institute of America.

Currently the most frequently used material used for blades is high carbon stainless steel. Other materials such as stainless steel and carbon steel, are also available.

Although carbon steel blades take a better edge than either regular or high carbon stainless steel, they tend to lose their sharpness quickly. Also carbon steel blades will discolor when they come into contact with acidic foods. The metal is brittle and can break easily under stress.

Stainless steel is much stronger than carbon steel and will not discolor or rust. It is difficult to get a good edge on a stainless steel blade, although once an edge is established, it tends to last longer than the edge on a carbon steel blade.

High carbon stainless steel is a relatively recent development that combines the advantages of carbon steel and stainless steel. The higher percentage of carbon allows the blade to take and keep a keener edge. The most desirable type of blade for general use is taper ground, meaning that the blade has been forged out a single sheet of metal and has been ground so that it tapers smoothly from the spine to the cutting edge, with no apparent beveling.

Full tang, meaning the continuation of the blade from the tip of the knife all the way down to the end of the handle, is preferable to partial tang. In some knives there is a collar or shank, known as a bolster, at the point where the blade meets the handle. The bolster helps balance the knife and protect the hand from accidental slips. It is the sign of a well made knife.

Sara Moulton is the "Good Morning America" food editor and host of the PBS show, "Sara's Weeknight Meals." For more great recipes from Sara check out her website or follow her on Twitter: @saramoulton