Better Than Buttermilk?
Buttermilk is great for adding tangy flavor and a lighter crumb to baked goods, but few people keep it on hand, particularly since it tends to be sold in quantities far larger than needed for most recipes. So Christa Walker of Raleigh, North Carolina, wondered whether kefir makes a good substitute.
Kefir is a fermented milk drink originally from the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia. It has a thick, slightly effervescent consistency and mildly sour flavor. Buttermilk, which has a similar taste, consistency and fat content, traditionally was the acidic liquid left behind when churning cream into butter. Today, most buttermilk is made similar to kefir—low-fat milk is fermented with lactic acid bacteria. We suspected a one-for-one substitution would work, but to be sure we did side-by-side tests with biscuits, pancakes, yellow cake and cornbread. We also tested a common substitute for buttermilk—stirring 1 tablespoon white vinegar into 1 cup 2 percent milk and letting it sit for 5 minutes. Not only did kefir work, we found the flavor and texture of those versions as good as or better than buttermilk in each case except for the cake, which was slightly denser but still had good flavor. The milk-vinegar mixture was worst in every case except the yellow cake; its one-note acidity failed to provide the rounder flavor of the cultured products. As a bonus, extra kefir is good on its own and works well in smoothies.
Molasses in Name Only
Pomegranate molasses— a dark, viscous syrup with a sharp, fruity flavor—is used across the Middle East and North Africa to add tang to meats, produce and sweets. That had Nina Strauss of Barcelona, Spain, wondering whether she could substitute it in baking for regular molasses or honey.
Though both conventional molasses and pomegranate molasses are produced by reducing a sugary juice until thick, they are very different ingredients and are not easily swapped. Pomegranate molasses is made from the sweet-tart juice of its namesake fruit and has a pronounced acidity. It is used in small amounts to add bright, sharp sweetness, but not as a sweetener itself and thus will not work as a molasses substitute. We think of pomegranate molasses as a way to add fruity acidity to savory dishes, such as in an olive oil vinaigrette for a leafy green or grain salad. Or drizzle it over sautéed kale or spinach. We also love it over roasted chicken or lamb, slathered on roasted winter squash or sweet potatoes, and stirred into braised lentils or bulgur pilaf garnished with walnuts. It’s also good swirled into iced tea or lemonade, or drizzled over a morning bowl of hot cereal or yogurt (paired with walnuts) and scoops of vanilla ice cream. After testing several brands, we found that Mymouné offered the best balance of sweetness, tartness and bitterness without being too astringent. Alwadi Red Label was a close second choice. If you can’t find those, look for brands that list only pomegranates or their juice as the single ingredient; cheaper ones with added sugar often taste too sweet or burnt.
Tossed Your Pasta Water? There's a Fix.
Starchy pasta cooking water is a key ingredient for thick and silky sauces that cling to noodles. But Josh Silba of Stoughton, Massachusetts, noticed that whole-wheat and gluten-free pastas don’t reliably produce sufficiently starchy water and wondered about a workaround.
Since starch content varies by pasta type—and sometimes we forget we need the cooking water and accidentally toss it—we wanted an easy replacement that uses pantry items. Generally, we cook pasta in 4 quarts water with 2 tablespoons Diamond Crystal kosher salt. This ratio creates starchy water suitable for most sauces. But some cream- or cheese-based sauces require particularly starchy water to prevent them from breaking. In those cases, we cook in just 2 quarts water and 1 tablespoon salt to concentrate the starches. To recreate both versions, we stuck with a substitute most people are likely to have—cornstarch. We found that adding just ¼ teaspoon each cornstarch and kosher salt to 1 cup water (the amount of cooking water most recipes suggest reserving) gave us the right consistency of standard pasta cooking water. For a more concentrated batch, we increased the cornstarch to ½ teaspoon. In both cases, we first needed to bring the mixture to a boil, which gelatinizes starch in water for the thickening properties we wanted. Microwaving it for 2 minutes, stirring, then heating for another 2 minutes worked great. And when we tested pasta recipes using both traditional cooking water and our cornstarch fix, we found them almost indistinguishable.