DIY Hot Stuff

In search of new ideas to spice up his cooking, Daniel Payne, of Richmond, Virginia, wants to make his own crushed red pepper flakes at home using dried chilies and asks for guidance on the best way.
Conventional red pepper flakes typically are made from whole cayenne peppers, including the seeds and ribs, where the heat is concentrated. Chili flakes, meanwhile, are made from red peppers that have been seeded before crushing, which means their spice level is milder than that of red pepper flakes. Either is a handy way to add a burst of heat and chili flavor to a dish. In our testing, we tried three varieties of chilies: árbol, guajillo and New Mexico chilies. When using dried chilies, it’s customary to first toast them in a skillet to heighten their flavor. However, we found that skillet-toasting didn’t always sufficiently dry out the chilies, preventing them from breaking down when we attempted to pulverize them into flakes. A more reliable method (especially for softer, suppler dried chilies) was to stem them, tear them into pieces, then toast them in a 200°F oven for 1 hour. From there, you can either pulverize them with a mortar and pestle, or pulse them in a food processor until finely chopped but not reduced to a powder. We liked how this method offered more control over freshness, flavor and heat levels (depending on whether the chilies are seeded). Árbol chilies had the brightest, most upfront spice. Guajillo chilies produced a fruitier heat we found richer and deeper than árbol chilies’. And the New Mexico chilies yielded smoky notes, reminiscent of Mexican mole negro. For all varieties, we found that 1 ounce of whole dried chilies yielded about ⅓ cup of flakes.

Miso 101

Intrigued by the possibilities of miso, Linda Cunning, of Scarborough, Maine, asks about the differences between miso varieties, as well as advice for using them in cooking.
A Japanese pantry staple, miso is a paste made by fermenting soybeans, a process that produces deep, complex flavors similar to soy sauce, sake and mirin. It’s also one of our favorite powerhouse ingredients, transforming countless recipes with its savory-sweet depth. Countless regional varieties of miso are found throughout Japan, with many styles specific to a certain prefecture. In American grocery stores, you’re most likely to find two varieties: white (shiro) miso and red (aka) miso. Requiring a shorter fermentation time than red miso, white miso is sweet, buttery and intensely savory. Widely used to add umami oomph to soups, noodles, vegetable dishes and meats, white miso—thanks to its sweet side—also works wonders in desserts, imparting rich depth to cookies, caramels and more. Longer-fermented red miso, meanwhile, is characterized by deeper, darker notes that pair especially well with red meats. Try it in glazes, pan sauces and stews. As a general rule, when adding miso to soups or stews, try to whisk it in toward the end of cooking to preserve its complex flavor. Once opened, a container of miso should be stored in the refrigerator, where—thanks to its high salt content—the miso should stay good for up to one year.

Beyond Basic Marinara

Many of our listeners regularly make their own tomato sauce from scratch. Looking to experiment, they’ve asked Milk Street for easy, creative ideas to boost the flavor of a simple marinara sauce.
When it comes to tweaking tomato sauce, the possibilities are endless, with sources of inspiration to be found all over the world. For example, in Greece, cinnamon often is used to impart a warm note that pairs well with savory flavors. Or do as the Italians do, and add mellow garlic flavor—without overpowering the sauce—by infusing cloves in olive oil (just be sure to discard the cloves before combining the oil with other ingredients). For a Middle Eastern note, a pinch of Aleppo pepper contributes bright, fruity heat. Fennel and rosemary are a classic flavor enhancement for Mediterranean roasted meats—and they work wonders for tomato sauce, too. For extra umami, try a glug of soy sauce or fish sauce. Or channel the briny complexity of puttanesca with olives or capers. Our favorite way to boost flavor in a tomato sauce, though, is to use tomato paste. But don’t just throw it in. Take the time to really brown the paste to caramelize the sugars and make the flavor deeper and more layered, then build your sauce around that. And we sometimes add a splash of olive oil at the end of cooking. This gives the sauce a plusher mouthfeel, and by not cooking the olive oil, you preserve complex volatile flavor compounds that would otherwise break down with heat.