Here are edited excerpts from a recent online chat:
Q: I have been a vegetarian for several years but enjoy cooking meat for dinner parties and such. However, I have limited experience and came across instructions to cut meat “against the grain.” What exactly does that mean, and how do I know which way the grain runs?
A: To cut “against the grain” means to cut perpendicular to the direction of the muscle fibers in the meat. It’s easier to see on some meats than others. Think about brisket: When you have a properly sliced piece, you can pull it apart with your fingers because each one of the slices has cut across the muscle fibers.
– Joe Yonan
Q: When a recipe calls for butter, does it matter whether you use salted or unsalted? What is commonly assumed when just the word “butter” is used?
A: This calls for low-grade sleuthing on your part. Is the recipe more than 30 years old? If so, salted butter might have been a given. A container that says “sweet” butter, by the way, probably means the butter is salted, as in “sweet cream butter.” If the recipe is more recent, it might have come from a cookbook that might have explained up front that all uses of the word “butter” mean “unsalted butter.” (I think that’s sometimes done to save words/space in recipes.) We tend to use unsalted butter in all Washington Post recipes to be as exacting as we can about sodium in the nutritional analysis.
– Bonnie S. Benwick
Q: Speaking of butter, I’ve read that the European butter brands sold in the United States still aren’t as good as the stuff you get in Europe. Is it still worthwhile to buy them?
A: Many moons ago, the Washington Post Food section did a big butter tasting. We found that the type of butter used mattered more in dishes where the taste of butter was very strong – for example, buttered asparagus spears – but less where it was only one component, such as in a chocolate cake or in gingerbread cookies.
– Stephanie Witt Sedgwick
Q: I made an extremely decadent Brussels-sprouts-in-cream recipe found all over the Internet (saute in butter, add cream, cook 25 to 30 minutes, add salt and lemon to taste). The results were delicious, but the sauce of the sprouts left in the pan was broken by the end of our dinner. Can I prevent this from happening in the serving bowl at the table? Just wait until the last minute to add the lemon juice and hope for the best?
A: I’ve made something like those before, and you’re right: decadent and delicious. I think you’re onto the culprit and the solution. Stir the lemon juice in right before serving. (I would think that even just taking the sprouts off the heat and letting them cool a bit before adding the lemon juice would work, too.)
Q: My parents and in-laws have all asked what I want for Christmas this year. I want to really step up my cooking and baking skills next year, and I thought I could ask for some cookbooks. Are there any that really helped you over the years (that aren’t a $200 boxed set)?
A: Personally, I think one of the best ways to understand cooking is to learn a little of the science behind it. That way, you’ll learn not just how to make a good pie, but the principles behind what makes a good pie and why some steps are necessary. With that in mind, I’d suggest a book like “The Science of Good Cooking,” by the folks at Cook’s Illustrated.
– Tim Carman