Brian Geiger, Charlottesville, VA, US
I try to find out how food works, not just how to work food. This means I will delve into the science and traditions of food, so that I can not only make a dish, but I can know why the dish is made.
The Kitchen Mysteries column is always looking for more mysteries. My favorite way of receiving a mystery is through twitter (twitter.com/thefoodgeek), but you can always email me instead.
For more food geekery, read the pages of Fine Cooking Magazine or visit my web site, The Food Geek.
Different types of doughs require different techniques, and sometime familiarity with one dough's method takes you down the wrong path with another type of dough.
What is Culinary Cream, and is there a good substitute for adding to hot or acidic liquids?
Adding an egg to a cake mixture will tend to cause the cake to rise more. What is it about eggs that provide lift, even without making a foam?
We salt our pasta water because our pasta is unsalted, but why is our pasta unsalted?
The techniques of blanching and parboiling seem awfully similar. Are they the same?
Lumps in a sauce are the sign of a cook who isn't your grandmother, and is therefore an inferior cook. Learn to avoid the lumps, and be ready for a better comparison at holiday meals.
Recipes sometimes specify using a wooden spoon. What's wrong with plastic?
Too often the results of a night of slow cooking are a grey, gooey mess. If you're making oatmeal, that's not so bad, but for most things, it's icky. Here are some tricks to slow cooking success.
A reader runs across a new method for making panna cotta, but it seems vaguely familiar in a different context.
What's the difference between ginger ale and ginger beer, and is there really such a thing as a "ginger beer plant"?
Potatoes processed with a ricer have a different texture than those processed with a mixer. Why?
Though it's not the best for the environment, there are reasons to wrap cucumbers in plastic.
Sometimes what should be a nice, puffed-up cookie falls flat. Literally.
Sometimes you get a bounty of tasty food that you want to preserve, but you don't want to take up all that freezer space and you've canned about as much as you're going to can. Do you buy a specialty machine to do that, or are there other options?
There are no storks, but baby carrots often have to go a ways to get to your home
Some foods are a little spicy, and some are really, really spicy. What causes the spiciness and why?
If beef is beef, why is it safe to have a rare steak, but not a rare hamburger?
What is the difference between a chef and a cook? Should you feel bad if you are one and not the other?
Pressure cookers speed up cooking by increasing pressure inside the pot, thus raising the temperature of the food inside. So why are they also affected by high-altitudes?
A surprising find in a freezer and why it's safe from dehydration
There are things masquerading as cheese in grocery stores all across America. Are these things cheese, especially the cheese that is named for our country?
What's the difference between a muffin and a cupcake?
Sprinkling cinnamon sugar onto a latte's foam seems to pop the bubbles more than it should. Let's explore why.
The refrigerator is supposed to keep our food fresh for longer, but some claim that putting bread in the refrigerator makes it go stale faster. Read on to learn what's going on, how to prevent it, and how to fix it (sometimes).
A promising angel food cake collapsed in the oven shortly before it was done. What could have caused this tragedy?
Why does heating to a full boil make it hard to simmer afterwards? Why does stirring a simmering pot cause it to stop simmering? And, most importantly, why does a watched pot never boil?
When making a cheesecake, is the water bath, also known as the bain-marie, the best way to go? Why do we even need to bathe a cheesecake?
There are times when it's really useful to have know how much of one ingredient to use versus another. Bakers use formulas called Baker's Percentages to help them. Here's how they work.
Precise measurements can make you feel like a small mistake will cost you too much in your recipes, but it's really not so bad.
Many cookie recipes call for creaming sugar into soft butter, but one blogger found melted butter worked better.
When microwaving oatmeal, why does it boil over so easily and are there any tricks that'll keep it in the bowl?
Using a technique I'd never heard of before, you can make your automatic drip coffee taste much better. But at what cost?
Soup is often recommended for sick people. Why?
When canning food, such as fruit butters, for long-term storage, safety is critical. Is sugar a factor in that safety?
How does wheat go from being a plant to being an ingredient, and how do the changes affect it? Are all of the changes good?
Often, spaghetti that is reheated tastes even better than it did the first time around. Why is this?
Some recipes give flour by weight, and some by volume. Why the difference, and what is better?
What's the hardest part of altering recipes? In some cases, it's coming up with ideas, but in others, it's being methodical.
A gluten-free wedding cake isn't getting quite enough lift. What can be done?
When making a stew, how important is it to brown the meat?
Butter is such a flavorful fat, and everything made with butter is better. So why use shortening?
For most of my life, I hated tomatoes but really quite enjoyed tomato-based products. I was not alone, either. That's changed, and here's why.
What's the difference between the corn syrup that you get for baking and high fructose corn syrup? And what's the big deal about that stuff, anyways?
What is the proper way to store olive oil, and does it differ somehow from other oils?
We've discussed gluten quite a bit, but how can we make use of that knowledge to make some artisan bread?
Waaaay long ago, we discussed why it is okay to dry your own egg pasta. A comment from a reader encourages us to revisit the topic.
Contradictory advice abounds on seasoning cast iron, so we look at what goes on when you season to figure out the best way to do it.
My discussions of gluten, including those in the Kitchen Mysteries, have some handwaving and vagueness when discussing the process, which leads to not knowing why some basic things happen. Let's clear up some of that vagueness to learn why, for example, dough needs to rest.
Choosing cookware is tricky, and knowing the differences between materials can help you figure out what is best for you. There may even be some tips related to cleaning hidden inside.
We're told, when cooking chicken, to cook it thoroughly to make it safe. Why do we do that, and is it always necessary?
It's time to buy all new bakeware. Hooray! But what kind of bakeware to get? Hmmm.
In an effort to make ice cream that's not as bad for you, how far can you go before things go wrong?
Making a stock or broth often has consequences in the form of a scum that forms at the top of the stock. Let's take a look at what that is and how to deal with it.
How to keep your gnocchi light and fluffy rather than gummy and heavy.
Some drinks are better drunk through a straw. Sure, that's partially because straws are fun. There are good reasons why, though it is all in your head, it's not all imaginary.
Have you ever frozen a hard-boiled egg? No, that's too easy. A hard-boiled quail egg? The white of the egg turns transparent. Do you want to know why? Of course you do. Who wouldn't?
A few of the why's and how's of roasting a chicken and having it come out properly.
We vaguely know that copper pots are lined with tin because copper can be bad for us, but some pots tend to be all copper. Is this bad for us, and why?
A lot of people make a fuss about using kosher salt instead of table salt. Here is the why of it, and an in-depth look at crystals.
In food and cooking, many artisans are making a comeback, but when was the last time you saw someone who travels around the area sharpening your knives?
Sometimes we want a particular texture, but we have a difficult path to work in the flavor properly. Learn about some tasty pastries, and help The Food Geek solve a mystery.
There must be some changes to a baking recipe using maple syrup instead of sugar, right? Indeed there are.
The race to an ideal homemade pancake mix leads to some interesting troubles with one of the ingredients.
Kneading is important to bread dough, but it's not vital, and sometimes can do some damage.
There's some conflicting advice on searing, and some weird ideas floating around about it as well. A little knowledge about the difference between plastic and meat will set things straight.
Herbs have finally arrived at our CSA, so how do we keep from wasting them?
There is nothing better than ripping into a loaf of bread fresh from the oven. Or is there?
Can you cook popcorn with a cell phone?
The Red Flour Beetle, or the Confused Flour Beetle, are commonly called Flour Weevils. How do they get in, why, and what do we do about it?
Easter is coming, so we have a doubly-eggy set of questions: how to hollow out an egg, and the timeliness of balancing an egg.
Eggs don't have to be so mysterious. From the right way to boil and crack eggs to how to make perfect scrambled eggs, The Food Geek gathers his best advice on cooking with eggs and shares it in time for Easter.
Celery is a veritable chemical weapon house, but really, what isn't? Some people get a numb tongue from eating raw celery, and we explore possible reasons why as well as some of the limits of our knowledge of food.
There's a family of vegetables that I love which polarizes many people: the alliums. Onions, garlic, shallots, and the like.
The first time experiencing a side of gyro meat can be a daunting and confusing experience. Fortunately, gyro meat is nothing but tastiness and a clever technique or two.
Sometimes a standard recipe isn't quite what you need. Usually we make changes to recipes for flavor, but what do you do if you want a white sauce to be thicker than it normally is?
Normally you mix baking soda in with dry goods when making a cake, but some Red Velvet Cake recipes call for mixing the baking soda with vinegar ahead of time. This seems odd.
Pretzels are very similar to bagels in terms of cooking technique and ingredients. So why do pretzels have baking soda on the outside?
A standard step with the creaming method of cake preparation is to add the eggs one at a time and fully incorporate before adding the next egg. But… why?
There's quite a bit of mystery around eggs. Because of the effort to simplify when things go bad, there's some mystery about that, too. Let's see if we can't clarify things a bit.
Another bit of popular cooking wisdom is that you need to rest your meat before cutting, so it will "re-absorb its juices." What does that really mean?
It's traditional to soak basmati rice, and proponents swear by the results.
Salt is one of the most important ingredients in all of cooking. When it is applied is often more important than how much is applied. Here is a grand tour of salt and its applications.
Sweet potato fries are tasty, but they take a lot of work to cut with a knife. There must be a faster way.
There's some cracking good advice that's going around about eggs, but is it really as good as it sounds?
When baking bread, you're often asked to allow bread to rise, then punch it down and let it rise again. Why go through all that trouble? What does this "second rise" do for the bread?
There are some ingredients we just don't use much any more. This week, we examine beef kidney fat.
The whys of sifting, and a better way to accomplish sifting without using a sifter.
A discussion of how different, basic flavors interact.
There are always pitfalls when working in an unfamiliar kitchen, but how much worse to have a completely new cooking method?
An uneven surface at the top of the cake is not uncommon. Here we take a look at ways to mitigate, prevent, and/or fix the problem.
How many teaspoons are in a tablespoon? Will this be a one-word answer?
How these two leaveners get a rise out of baked goods.
Iron is good for a diet, but will a cast-iron pan add iron to the diet?
Pâte à choux is useful in many culinary circumstances, and it's relatively easy to make. Still, sometimes things go wrong for no apparent reason. Let's see some of the pitfalls of this dish and how to fix them.
Why does what should be a tasty tomato sauce turn into something closer to soup?
Sometimes it's not enough to make great food. Sometimes you have to judge food formally. And sometimes you have to make up the rules by which things are judged. A look inside the process of making competition rules.
How temperature, ingredients, and technique interact in distinguishing a hollandaise from a mess of scrambled eggs, butter, and lemon.
Getting a box of assorted kitchen implements will give you a mixed bag of tools at the best of times. But what if the set is from a company that is not only exclusively kitchen-related, but is also based out of a foreign country?
Exploring the division of the indivisible: a single egg.
Think it doesn’t matter if your butter and eggs are room temperature or right out of the fridge? Think again.
When someone at home makes some fresh pasta, it's generally made with egg. Why is this okay to dry and store?
Why does a cooked hamburger taste different from a raw hamburger?
It's shaped like a cake, and it's called a cake, but cheesecake might be something even more delicious.
A rhetorical question from the web leads to thinking about the good and the bad of food science.
How can we merge the world of farmer's markets and precision recipes to ensure that we use the proper amount of farm-fresh, un-graded eggs in our baked goods?
Wok: Just a big frying pan, or something more?
It is often said that the true test of a chef is how well they cook eggs. The Food Geek is not a chef, but he does have some advice on scrambling eggs.
Why does the label on the pectin box warn against making a double-batch of jam, and is there anything that can be done to remedy the situation?
Basil is the King of Herbs, and it's the right time to use it in foods. This week, we explore what it goes well with, and how to maximize its flavor.
The science of cell structure helps explain why good lettuce goes bad.
Sometimes while going through some known territory, I run across some new tidbits. What started out as a simple look at boiling revealed hidden dangers to your pots.
Garlic is a wonderful addition to many foods, but it seems like it's a lot easier to find bad garlic than good garlic. Find out what causes garlic to lose its wonderfulness and how to prevent that from happening.
Sometimes recipe authors like to add a little pizzazz to their descriptions, and sometimes what's written means something important. This week, we explore the possibilities of different kinds of boiling, bringing back a metaphor from articles past.
What are the secrets to great coffee, both the ones we know and the ones we have yet to find?
Is a boiled egg hard to peel because I don't know how the proper technique, or is it because I don't make the egg properly in the first place?
If you're gearing up for your first pie competition, what sort of things can you do to prepare, and what do you do when it all goes wrong?
Ovens are notorious liars when it comes to reporting their operating temperatures. Sure, you could buy a thermometer to verify what your oven tells you, but how much do you trust your thermometer?
When thinking of baking pie, people tend not to fear the filling; after all, filling is a relatively simple creature, mostly concerned with flavor and binding up the liquid in some sort of saucy structure. The crust, though; the crust inspires wonder and caution. This inspired me to look into what makes up a good pie crust.
Occasionally vague and/or strange cooking advice lurks around every corner. Can you cook an egg with sugar alone? And not hot, candy-making sugar, but normal, room temperature sugar? Could be.
Soy milk doesn't play well with instant pudding. Try to make soy milk instant pudding, and you'll have a pudding-flavored glass of milk. There is a reason why, and it all has to do with the differences between soy and cow milks.
Seriously, how much leavening does one recipe need? Let's find out if baking powder and baking soda are needed for some recipes, or if we could get by with one or the other.
Follow enough baking recipes, and you'll see the instructions that sugar is to be treated as a wet ingredient. Clearly, if you were dropped into a big pile of sugar, you would not be covered in liquid. Learn why it's considered a wet ingredient.
Why would a perfectly respectable blood orange turn green? There's only one real answer, and it has nothing to do with aliens.
Sometimes the kitchen can be a perilous place. Knives, flames, and making suggestions for how to "improve" the cook's dish. But gelatin? Is that really all that dangerous?
Is there a special touch needed to make sourdough bread rise? Is there perhaps some special music or proper colored light that will convince the yeast to make their magic? Probably not, but there are ways to encourage bread to rise properly.
Conflicting advice can lead you to doubt your favorite recipes, even for something as simple as fresh pasta. Do you listen to your heart, or listen to what others tell you?
Blooming with spices doesn't mean that you're planning on growing them as plants. Instead, it's a way of opening up the flavor and making it more effective in your cooking. This is how, and why, it works, and what it can do for your food.
Clarifying how to make butter a more versatile player in the kitchen.
Is a syrup a syrup for candy-making, or does the origin of the sweet liquid make a difference?
A traditional bit of advice in cookbooks is to avoid putting salt in the cooking water for beans. Will this toughen the beans, or is that advice not entirely correct?
Some of the most basic advice in cooking can be an opportunity to learn about important fundamentals. In examining the basic reduction sauce, we can also learn how temperature control is vital to cooking well. On the way, we can answer the question, "what is temperature?"
As with a party, the success of an egg foam relies on getting all of the guests to mingle properly. In this follow up to last week's article, we explore how to keep water, proteins, and air mixing it up to ensure your foam is stable.
Whipped cream is an ephemeral treat that, sometimes, needs to be a little more treat and a little less ephemeral. What can we do to overcome the time limits on whipped cream, and what makes whipped cream so famous, anyways?
Some cooking methods require merely a knife, a bit of fire, and a little know-how. Sous vide cooking typically asks for some specialized equipment. Is it all necessary?
What, precisely, is buttercream frosting, why is it hard to make, and is there something that can be done to make it more easily?
Just what is the difference between stock and broth, and is it really possible to have a vegetable stock?
What sorts of things can go wrong with toffee making? Will humidity doom a toffee to failure, or could there be something more sinister at work?