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Best Bets for Basil

Keeping fresh basil perky is a challenge. All too often, it wilts before it can be used. So what’s the best way to store it for lasting freshness?

Cut basil is particularly delicate. Not enough moisture, and it quickly wilts. But excess moisture on the surface of the leaves makes it spoil. Refrigerator storage can exacerbate the problem, as the cool temperatures promote condensation. We tested storing basil at room temperature and refrigerated. In both cases, we placed some sprigs in zip-close plastic bags with a paper towel, and others in jars of water either uncovered or tightly sealed with zip-close plastic bags. Both refrigerated and at room temperature, the uncovered basil stored in water had the worst longevity, wilting in just a couple days. The basil kept in the paper towel-­lined bag at room temperature fared quite well, as the paper towels wicked away excess moisture. But the best method by far was storing basil with their stems in a jar of water at room temperature and covered by a bag. It stayed fresh for 11 days, with only minor discoloration. Along the way, we learned two tips that gave our basil even better odds. First, just as with cut flowers, trimming the basil stems before storing prolonged their freshness. Second, it helped to periodically remove the bags and wipe out any moisture from condensation before re-covering the jars.

Marinara Mishaps

Canned tomatoes are an easy shortcut for whipping up a quick marinara, but their flavor can be tinny and overly acidic. Katie Plotkin, of Salida, Colorado, wonders: Is there a way to adjust the acidity without using sugar?

In fact, sweeteners only mask acidity (and often not that effectively) without actually adjusting the pH level of the sauce. We prepared identical batches of basic marinara with onion, garlic, olive oil and canned tomatoes. Some batches we altered by adding ingredients frequently suggested for de-acidifying tomato sauce—including sugar, honey, butter and baking soda. In one case, we grated the onion instead of chopping it (a trick we often use to promote the onion’s natural sweetness). We also tried an unusual technique we came across in our research: simmering the marinara with a peeled and halved waxy potato. We then used a pH meter to measure the finished sauces’ acidity. As expected, we found that adding sweeteners did little to mellow the tomatoes’ bite. In fact, honey (itself slightly acidic) only intensified the problem. The best bet was adding baking soda, an alkali often used to neutralize acids. To our surprise, the potato also was a winner. That’s because potatoes contain alkaloids, which are weakly alkaline. More surprisingly yet, both techniques also produced better-tasting sauces. Just a pinch or two of baking soda yielded a richer, silkier sauce, while the potato produced a rounder, more balanced marinara.

Dough Lingo

Having recently taken up sourdough baking, Josh Mandel, of Albany, New York, found some of the terminology confusing. He wondered about the differences between a sourdough starter, a levain, a biga, a poolish and a preferment.

We’ll start with the most basic: a preferment. This is a mixture of flour, water and yeast that creates ideal conditions for the yeast and lactic acid bacteria to feast on the flour’s carbohydrates. This bubbly mixture can be used to leaven dough and impart tangy, complex flavors. There are several kinds of preferments, often described by their ratio of flour to liquid. That hydration level determines the final texture of a given baked good. “Stiff” preferments have a low moisture content that gives them a dough-­like consistency. “Liquid” preferments have far more moisture, making them as runny as pancake batter. And that’s where sourdough starters, levains, bigas and poolishes come in. Preferments made with commercial yeasts include the biga (which is stiff) and the poolish (a liquid preferment). Biga typically is used in ciabatta, focaccia and other Italian breads. Poolish often is used in heavy, rustic doughs, such as rye bread. Both bigas and poolishes are not meant to be long-lasting; each fresh batch is used up entirely. Then there are wild yeast preferments, which rely on naturally occurring yeasts. These include sourdough starters, which can be maintained for years and must be continually “fed” by adding new flour to keep the yeasts alive and maintain acidity levels (the “sour” in sourdough). This method also requires discarding a portion of the old starter. On its own, a sourdough starter does not have enough leavening power for baking. But when some of that starter is mixed with additional flour and water and allowed to ferment for several hours, it becomes a levain (from the French “to rise”). Once fed, the levain—which can be either liquid or stiff—then is ready to be used in a recipe as a starter.

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