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Taming Tough Beans

Green beans cooked in acidic, tomato-based sauces are notorious for never quite tenderizing. That had us curious whether the same was true for dried beans cooked in tomato-rich sauces, as with a chili.

Indeed, the acid in the tomato sauce affects the skin on the surface of all beans, making it more difficult for them to soften. This is because pectin (a starch found in the cell walls of fruits, vegetables and beans) remains stable when in contact with acid. Canned tomato products particularly trigger this reaction. Not only are tomatoes naturally acidic, during canning citric acid often is added as a preservative. To test how pronounced this effect is, we cooked several batches of great northern beans, using either 2 tablespoons of tomato paste or a 28-ounce can of tomato puree, and adding them either at the beginning of cooking or halfway through. The worst results came from the beans cooked in tomato from the start, particularly the canned tomato puree, the higher volume of which produced beans with tough, chewy skins that failed to soften even with an additional hour of cooking. The batches with tomato added halfway through cooking were better, but the beans still failed to fully soften. So for dishes that call for beans in tomato-based sauces, we recommend first cooking the beans separately, then combining them with tomatoes at the end. A brief simmer should be fine to combine the flavors.

Lemon Aid

Some home bakers have complained to us that lemon extract can taste harsh or bitter. We wondered what the alternatives were and how easy they are to substitute.

Lemon extract typically is made by soaking lemon peels in alcohol, which draws out the essential oils. Alternatives include “lemon flavor,” which is made with lemon oil, the citrus oils pressed from the lemon skin and combined with a neutral carrier oil. There also is lemon paste, a product similar to vanilla paste that is made from lemon extract that has been thickened. Another option is lemon peel powder, made from pulverized freeze-dried lemon rinds. And, of course, there’s fresh lemon zest, grated directly from the peel. To test how these products compare, we made a batch of lemon cupcakes with each, as well as one with lemon juice, for good measure. Turns out, lemon extract did not come out on top. Neither did freshly squeezed juice or zest. Best overall were the cupcakes made with “lemon flavor,” just edging out lemon extract for vibrant lemony brightness. Meanwhile, zest yielded a slight tinge of bitterness and a strangely artificial flavor. And lackluster lemon paste was not just fainter in flavor, but also almost metallic-­tasting. Worst of all were the cupcakes made with lemon juice and the pulverized powder: both featured a bitter aftertaste, especially the powder (which may contain a certain amount of astringent-tasting pith). In addition to affecting flavor, the lemon juice produced cupcakes that rose poorly, the additional liquid and acid affecting the leavening.

Putting Frozen Turnovers to the Test

A question about baking with frozen puff pastry—a shortcut ingredient that simplifies complicated baking—had us wondering: Could we make things even easier by thawing and prepping pastries, then refreezing the treats until ready to bake?

Curious to see how purchased frozen puff pastry would perform when thawed, filled and refrozen, we made two types of turnovers—frangipane and apple. We used both a standard supermarket brand of pastry (typically made with vegetable oil) and a high-quality brand (typically made with butter), the sort used by many bakeries. We baked these filled pastries in three batches: one that was baked immediately after assembling; one that was frozen, then baked directly from the freezer; and a third that was frozen, then thawed before baking. Unsurprisingly, the unfrozen turnovers delivered the best results. Of the frozen pastries, those made with the butter-based dough that were thawed again before baking did best. That’s because, unlike butter, vegetable oil tends to be absorbed into the pastry, which creates a less flaky pastry when baked. And in all cases, the drier filling (the frangipane rather than the wetter apple) yielded richer, flakier, crunchier turnovers. Ultimately, baking puff pastry creations immediately after assembly is best for the ideal flavor and texture. But if you’re working with premade frozen pastries, opt for drier, more stable fillings like frangipane, nuts or dried fruits. Then, before baking, thaw them overnight in the refrigerator or at room temperature for 30 minutes to 1 hour until they are pliable but still cold. And when choosing your pastry, read the label—using all-butter frozen puff sheets is best.

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