Cocoa vs. Cacao Powder
It was hard enough knowing which cocoa powder to use when we had two choices: Dutch-process and natural. Rachel Rotterman of Boston points out there’s a third option—cacao powder. She wondered if it could be used in place of the others.
all three are made by processing the dried, fermented beans of cacao pods; the differences arise in how they are processed. Natural cocoa powder is extracted from beans that have been roasted at high temperatures to remove much of the bitterness. Dutch-process cocoa powder is made much the same, but the beans are treated with alkali, neutralizing their natural astringency and giving them and the resulting powder a darker hue. For this reason, many recipes that specify natural cocoa powder also include baking soda, which has alkaline qualities that balance the cocoa’s acidity. Beans for cacao powder are cold-pressed, which exposes them to much less heat, allowing their bitterness—and depth—to come through clearly. To see how all three compared, we used them to make brownies and chocolate cake. Tasters much preferred the balanced sweetness and intense chocolate flavor of cacao powder in the brownies. With the cake, the results were less straightforward, with smooth Dutch-process cocoa as the favorite, and cacao and natural cocoa tying for second place. In general, cacao powder can be substituted for natural cocoa when a more robust chocolate flavor is desired. But poor substitute in recipes that call for Dutch-process cocoa.
Cooking with Cold Oil
Many recipes begin by heating oil in a pan, then adding other ingredients. But there are plenty of exceptions that call for starting with cold oil. Jessica Keahey of Fayetteville, Arkansas, recently asked why it matters and when each approach is best.
The answer requires an understanding of the different roles oil can play. In many cases, hot oil—generally the result of adding oil to a pan, then heating it until shimmering or barely smoking—can be nothing more than a visual cue that the pan is sufficiently hot. This is because a hot pan is crucial for properly searing and sautéing, and must be at temperature before the food is added. But hot oil can also serve a role in preventing sticking; it can instantly cook the surface of an ingredient—steaks or eggs, for example—before it makes contact with the pan. There are times, however, when a slower, gentler approach is best. A cold pan and cold oil are the way to go when cooking items that easily burn, such as fresh herbs and spices (see the spiced butter popcorn). Cold oil is also best for drawing out fuller flavor, as when sweating aromatics. This is especially true for all members of the garlic and onion family, which release flavorful enzymes when chopped or sliced. Those enzymes are deactivated by heat, which means adding them to hot oil will quickly dull their flavor. So as a general rule, heat your oil when you need a quick sear or worry that ingredients might stick, but start cold when working with delicate foods or creating more nuanced flavor.
Choosing Chili Sauces
We frequently call for chili-garlic sauce in Asian-inspired recipes. But Bill Kennedy of Victoria, British Columbia, noted that supermarkets offer many varieties of similar chili sauces. He asked for guidance on which to use.
The choices can be can be confusing. To make sense of them, we looked at four broad categories of chili sauce: Sriracha, chili-garlic sauce, sambal oelek and sweet chili sauce. (We skipped Heinz Chili Sauce and similar products, which are more tomato than chili.) Sriracha—typically sold in plastic squeeze bottles—is a smooth, bright-red hot sauce made from chilies, sugar, salt, garlic and vinegar. Its sweet-hot balance makes it an ideal condiment. Savory-sweet chili- garlic sauce—typically sold in jars—is made from chilies, salt, garlic and vinegar. Unlike Sriracha, it has a coarse, slightly thick texture that works well in marinades, glazes and homemade sauces, but we also use it as a condiment. Sambal oelek—also jarred—is an Indonesian sauce made with just chilies, salt and a bit of vinegar; it has a clear, bright flavor that’s intensely spicy. Because of its potency, we use it sparingly in marinades, sauces and noodle or rice dishes. Finally, sweet chili sauce, sold in glass bottles in many Asian markets, is a tangy-sweet, slightly syrupy Thai condiment. It’s most often used for dipping spring rolls or fried foods. We like the flavor and body of Maesri’s sweet chili sauce. For Sriracha, chili-garlic sauce and sambal oelek, our preferred brand is Huy Fong Foods—often identified by its rooster logo and bright green cap.