Before You Cook

If you don't know what some of the terms I use mean, check out my cooking dictionary:
Al Dente: generally refers to cooking pasta; it should be cooked but have some resistance when bitten into
Blind Bake: when you cover a raw pie crust with foil and fill it with pie weights/dry beans/dry peas before baking to prevent it from rising, bubbling, and browning prematurely
Chop: to cut roughly into similar-size pieces
Cream: when creaming butter and sugar, the mixture should be smooth and not very granular
Dice: to cut into small cubes
Dredge: to dip something in a powder; often meats in flour
Fold: to gently incorporate ingredients or mixtures without deflating
Julienne: to cut into thin, spaghetti-like strips
Mince: to chop very finely into almost a paste
Pulse: when using a food processor, pulsing is pressing the on/off button rapidly to incorporate ingredients
Puree: to make into a smooth (often liquid) state using a food processor, blender, or knife
Sear: to brown quickly without necessarily cooking all the way through
Simmer: to cook a liquid (or something in a liquid) just below a boil
T: tablespoon; this is equivalent to three teaspoons; there are 16 tablespoons in a cup
tsp: teaspoon; three teaspoons are in one tablespoon
Zest: the top layer of peel on citrus fruits; the fruits can be zested using the finest side of a cheese grater or a special tool for zesting

Using the right ingredients leads to an even better final product, so make sure you know which ones to use. If you need some guidance, read all about them:
Allspice: a common spice used in baking that gets is name from the fact that it tastes like nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves
Apples: not all apples are great for baking, but try Fuji, Gala, Golden Delicious, or Granny Smith,
Apricots: warm apricot jam makes a great glaze due to its relatively clear color and mild taste; dried apricots are wonderful in biscotti and cookies
Baking Powder: a leavening agent containing baking soda, cream of tartar, and starch; it is neither acidic nor basic; generally use double-acting, which activates by moisture and heat
Baking Soda: a leavening agent called sodium bicarbonate; it is quite basic, so it should be used in recipes with an acid such as buttermilk, sour cream, yogurt, or even chocolate; it acts immediately, use the batter or dough fairly soon after it is added
Bananas: I like to call the best baking bananas "leopard bananas" because of their ubiquitous brown spots; basically, you want to use the softest bananas possible
Bran: wheat bran is a great way to make something healthier; it has a bad reputation, but it is extremely healthy
Brown Sugar: brown sugar is plain white sugar with molasses added to it; light brown sugar has less molasses than dark brown sugar, so try and use what the recipe specifies, but, if you don't have the right kind, it's not a big deal
Butter: always use unsalted butter because it allows you to manage the salt content of whatever you are making, and make sure it is at the right temperature, whether it is room temperature or chilled
Chocolate Chips: though they are available in a plethora of varieties, I generally use semisweet chips because of their slightly bitter flavor and average size; mini chocolate chips are great for smaller desserts so that they don't overpower the dessert; chunks work well for very chocolaty dishes; milk chocolate chips are sweeter and more mild than semisweet, so they are fantastic for more kid-friendly desserts; white chocolate chips are sweet, mild, and relatively colorless, so they are best for presentation and dishes with a variety of flavors
Cocoa Nibs: the elusive treat known as the cocoa nib is rare and expensive, but it adds crunch and bitterness to anything that pairs well with chocolate; it is essentially the roasted bean of the cocoa pod
Cocoa Powder: I suppose I should pay more attention to the difference between Dutch and Natural cocoa, but I never buy either specifically and use them interchangeably; Dutch is less acidic, so it affects the leavening, but I haven't noticed much of a difference
Coffee: I love using coffee in desserts, but I always use instant to ensure dissolving
Confectioners' Sugar: also known as powdered sugar, this is a very fine sugar with some starch added to prevent caking
Cornstarch: the starch obtained from corn is useful in changing flour to cake flour in addition to thickening various things
Corn Syrup: this notorious sweetener is derived from cornstarch, and I always use light corn syrup, which is milder than dark corn syrup
Cream of Tartar: this byproduct of winemaking is useful in stabilizing egg whites, preventing sugar syrups from crystallizing, and creating baking powder out of baking soda
Eggs: I always use large eggs, which are about 1/4 cup each
Flour: similar to chocolate, there are numerous varieties of flour; all-purpose is the standard with an average gluten (protein) content, so if I do not specify, use all-purpose; cake flour has a low gluten content and is best in delicate recipes like cake; bread flour has more gluten and, as the name indicates, is generally used in breads; whole wheat flour is coarser, healthier, and more flavorful than all-purpose flour, so I recommend substituting only a fraction if at all; self-rising contains leavening, so only use it if the recipe specifies
Gelatin: this collagen from the bones of animals (yes, I know that is unpleasant) is crucial in gels, gummy candies, and marshmallows
Ginger: the spicy Asian root known as Ginger is available in root form, crystallized, or as a powder; all are useful, but make sure you use what the recipe specifies
Graham Crackers: though often considered a snack or a vital component of s'mores, graham crackers make delicious pie crusts; they often sneak into recipes in surprising ways as well
Kiwis: kiwis add a fresh, delicate flavor to anything, but they lose their flavor when cooked; I prefer to use them after I finish baking the dessert, such as topping a cream pie with them
Lemons: lemon juice and lemon zest add brightness and acidity to whatever they are in, and the juice prevents many fruits from browning
Limes: as with lemons, limes are tangy and sharp, but there is a difference between standard Persian limes and Key limes, so don't use them interchangeably!
Milk: use whole milk if you have it, but I have found that low fat works just as well; generally do not use skim milk because you do want some fat in whatever you make
Oats: always use rolled oats because they don't turn to oatmeal as soon as they touch liquid
Oil: never use olive oil when baking unless the recipe specifies because it is too expensive and you want a neutral flavor
Oreos: as much as I hate using pre-made products, Oreos add crunch and flavor to recipes in addition to making a great pie crust
Peanuts: use unsalted peanuts unless the recipe specifies to control the salt content
Peanut Butter: generally use creamy peanut butter unless you want extra texture
Raisins: I usually use plain, dark raisins simply because they are cheaper, more widely available, and my family snacks on them if I don't use them up; however, golden raisins often look prettier
Salt: table salt, kosher salt, and sea salt all have different volumes, so always use table salt unless specified
Shortening: I use plain vegetable shortening instead of butter flavored because it doesn't taste like chemicals (it doesn't have much flavor at all)
Sweetened Condensed Milk: this is a very unique ingredient that should be used when asked for and not used as a substitution for anything (at least that i can think of); it is a very thick, sweet, (supposedly) dairy product
Unsweetened Chocolate: as with sweetened condensed milk, do not swap this ingredient for anything because it is extremely bitter and does not compare to any other baking chocolate; it has no sugar (as the name implies) and is generally melted to avoid getting a mouthful of intense bitterness
Vanilla: never ever ever buy artificial vanilla; the real vanilla extract is worth every penny, but if you are willing to splurge, buy whole vanilla beans because they are sweet and full of flavor (I've found some for under $2 each, so do some research and never pay more than $5 per bean)
Yeast: I use active dry yeast, but the recipe usually specifies what type to use
Yogurt: attempt to use the blandest full-fast yogurt possible; if you can't find one without a flavor, try to find one that matches what you are making; vanilla is fairly neutral

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