"There is no love sincerer than the love of food." Tanner, in Man and Superman by George Bernard Shaw
My philosophy about food is simple. First of all it must taste great. I try to create recipes that are easy to make and that take advantage of fresh seasonal products with a minimum of processed ingredients. I try to avoid really hard to find ingredients.
Here is a partial list of some of the ingredients I use and what you need to know about them. Sometimes I recommend specific brands. I chose them because of flavor, availability, and price. To duplicate my recipes, you must use them too. But that doesn't mean that other brands won't work as well or better.
Recipe conventions. With common ingredients I don't specify the type or size. If a recipe calls for sugar, I am referring to white table sugar. Salt is table salt unless otherwise specified. Flour is all-purpose flour, milk is whole milk, eggs are large, and butter is unsalted.
Baking soda is the popular name for crystalline sodium bicarbonate. When it reacts with acid, such as the sour cream in this recipe, it releases carbon dioxide and helps batter rise.
Baking powder is also used to increase the volume and lighten the texture of baked goods. When wet, it makes carbon dioxide gas quickly, much quicker than yeast, so breads made with baking powder are called quick breads.
Double acting baking powder gives another burst of carbon dioxide upon heating.
The Zen of beef labels. Here are the different grades of beef and some important terms that you need to know.
The Zen of beef cuts. Three charts that will answer your questions.
The Zen of beef ribs. There are two important cuts, one is better than the other, and three methods of cooking.
Not all beans are created equal, and if the recipe calls for dried beans and you only have cans, what do you do? Click here for the Zen of beans.
Brown sugar is not, as many people think, a raw form or unrefined sugar. It is, in fact, just plain old white granulated sucrose sugar grains with molasses added. Dark brown sugar has about 6.5% molasses added, and light brown sugar has about 3.5% molasses. The molasses gives it a deeper, richer, nuttier flavor than plain sugar.
Rule of thumb:
Dark brown sugar
= 1 cup white granulated sugar + 2 tablespoons molasses
= 1 cup of light brown sugar + 1 tablespoon molasses
There are many types of butter, but I use only 3 on this site: Regular salted butter (Land O' Lakes is my favorite nationally distributed brands), unsalted butter, and clarified butter. For spreading on toast, salted butter tastes best to me, but for most recipes I specify unsalted. It is the same stuff as salted without the salt. Nothing can wreck a recipe faster than salt. You can always add it, but you can't take it away, so I usually cook with unsalted.
Then there is clarified butter. It has had the milk solids removed so it doesn't burn at frying temperatures. Read my article on how to make clarified butter.
Table sugar is made from cane syrup, and cane syrup is a fine sweetener. Click her for more about cane syrup.
Chile Peppers, Chili Powders, and Hot Sauces
There are scores of different peppers and pepper sauces on the market and they have a wide range of flavors and heat levels. Click here for everything you need to know about chile peppers, chili powders, and hot sauces, and some tips on using them.
Not all chocolate is the same. Not by a long shot. As in wine, the source of the fruit and how it is handled makes a massive difference in taste and price. Chemically it is amazing stuff, and working with it can be tricky. It's important to know how it is made. Here is a whole article on The Zen of Chocolate with everything you need to know.
There are scores of varieties of these delectable varieties and they can be bought live, shucked, frozen, and canned. Here's what you need to know about buying clams.
I use inexpensive olive oil for most cooking, for everything from frying to keeping things from sticking to grill grates. It usually does not have much of a taste. For really high temp frying I switch to peanut oil. For salads, dipping, or drizzling, I pop for a high quality extra virgin olive oil (EVOO).
Corn is the most important agricultural product in the US. By far the vast majority is used as feed for cattle, and much of it is used, in a chemically altered state, as an ingredient in practically everything on the shelves in the middle of the grocery from barbecue sauce to breakfast cereal. But I'm most interested in sweet corn on the cob.
Corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) are sweeteners and they are very different. Many people think HFCS is dangerous. Click here to read more about the different corn syrups.
Five Spice Powder
One of the specialty spices in many Asian dishes is Chinese five spice powder. It is a blend of cinnamon, cloves, star anise, fennel, and Szechwan peppercorns. Here's how to make your own and some good places to buy it.
Fresh garlic (Allium sativum) is the most aromatic member of the onion family and it adds a lot of flavor to many dishes. When raw it can be powerfully pungent, but when cooked it can be savory, mellow, nutty, and even sweet. Read what every cook needs to know about garlic in my article, The Zen of Garlic.
Hard Boiled Eggs
You thought you knew howto boil an egg? No you don't. I always thought that all I had to do to hard cook eggs was toss them in boiling water, but according to the American Egg Board, this is wrong! Here's how they say we should hard cook eggs. The Zen of Hard Boiled Eggs.
There's fresh ham, dry-cured ham, wet-cured ham, country ham, city ham, spiral cut ham, Prosciutto di Parma, Black Forest Ham, Westphalian Ham, Serrano Ham, Ibérico Ham, Bayonne Ham, Smithfield Ham, canned ham, ham steak, picnic ham, and, heaven help me, turkey ham. I can explain all this (except why USDA allows something called turkey ham) in The Zen of Ham.
Herbs and Spices
Meats and veggies often taste great unadorned. But chefs make their living by amping foods up with herbs and spices. Read The Zen of Herbs & Spices to learn what you need to know about these important flavor enhancers and a list of what well armed cooks will have in their tool kits.
Called Chinese barbecue sauce or Chinese ketchup, hoisin sauce bears no resemblance to either, other than Chinese cooks use it a lot. If you don't think you've tasted it, chances are you have. It is the sweet glossy brown glop that you swab on the thin pancakes when you eat Peking Duck or Mu Shu pork. I use it in my recipes Hoisinful Nine Dragon Ribs and Chinatown Char Siu Ribs. This most excellent condiment is made from soybeans, vinegar, rice, salt, flour, garlic, and chili peppers. Lee Kum Kee brand is probably the most popular and the brand I use. If you have trouble finding it in your grocery store, try AsianFoodGrocer.com
Ketchup or Catsup
Most barbecue sauces contain ketchup, and really, when you think about it, most tomato based barbecue sauces are just a form of pumped up ketchup. Click here to read more about ketchup and my faves.
As a rule of thumb, a medium lemon or lime will give you about 2 tablespoons of juice or about 1 ounce. A medium orange will give you doble that, and a medium grapefruit double the orange. Fresh juice is better than bottled, but bottled will do if you don't have fresh. You can freeze fresh citrus juice in ice cube trays, and then put them in zipper bags for storage. And it's still better than the bottled stuff.
Many commercial barbecue sauces contain liquid smoke, which is smoke from burning hardwood that has been captured in a still and dissolved in water or alcohol. When added to sauces it contributes another layer of flavor, simulating, but not quite duplicating, the flavor produced by burning hardwood in your cooker. Barbecue snobs hate it, but if you have no way to cook outdoors, it can really help create an outdoorsy flavor.
Mayonnaise is a simple miracle. It's oil and a watery acid with egg yolk holding it together. Oil and water, as we all know, don't usually mix. That's why salad dressings separate. But some compounds can glue them together in a colloidal suspension called an emulsion. Egg yolks and mustard are good emulsifiers, glues that make the opposites hang together. It's amazing chemistry that we overlook as we spread the creamy stuff on our sandwiches.
You can make your own mayo with a wide range of oils, everything from olive oil to grapeseed oil, and a variety of acids, including lemon juice and white wine. Just dump a pasteurized egg yolk in a bowl, and then drizzle in some oil while whisking non-stop. Tiny droplets of the oil disperse into the egg yolk and are held in suspension.
But pasteurized eggs are hard to find, and you should use pasteurized eggs because raw eggs are often contaminated with salmonella nowadays. Then you have the leftover whites to deal with (you can freeze them for use in other dishes), and the results will keep in the fridge for only about a week. So I buy the stuff in a jar. Hellmann's Real Mayonnaise is the popular standard, with good reason. Yes, it has a pinch of sugar and preservative, but it's pretty good quality, winning taste-offs against all comers except home made.
Rather than make mayo from scratch, I like to doctor it. Nothing picks up a turkey sandwich better than a little mayo mixed with a few drops (that's all you need) of sesame oil. Another great mix-in is a hint of chipotle in adobo sauce. Click here for my recipe for Mayo Mojo, a spice mix that amps mayo up to 11 and is perfect for as a sandwich spread, on potato salad, tuna, and egg salad.
Molasses and Other Syrups
In addition to molasses there are other cane syrups and maple syrup. Click here to learn what you need to know about syrups.
Ac'cent is an additive you can find in most spice sections of the grocery. It is made of MSG a form of glutamic acid, is a natural flavor enhancer as well as a natural byproduct of some aging and fermentation processes. It is a popular additive in Chinese cooking and it is in many other foods such as the rub at the world's most popular rib restaurant, the Rendezvous in Memphis. Some people believe that MSG can cause headaches, but scientists have had no luck proving the connection in controlled tests. I have not yet seen a definitive peer reviewed scientific study on the subject, and that is the gold standard. A lot of people say it causes them headaches, but when they are brought into a lab and fed meals with MSG or a placebo, there is no connection. The eminent food writer Jeffrey Steingarten considers "Chinese restaurant syndrome" to be an urban legend and debunked it in a famous essay "Why Doesn't Everyone in China Have a Headache?" The barbecue lover might also ask, "Why doesn't everyone who eats at the Rendezvous have a headache?"
There's yellow ballpark mustard, brown Dijon mustard, powdered mustard, and more. Click here to learn what a cook needs to know about mustard.
Originally an ancient method of preserving foods, pickles live on as condiments and snacks. There are a remarkable number of picle types. Here's a guide to The Zen of Pickles. Click here for my recipes for Kosher Dill Pickles and Pickled Tomatoes. Click here for my recipe for Sweet & Sour Pickled Onions. Click here for my recipe for Sweet & Sour Sandwich Pickle Slices.
The bane of all pie bakers is soupy pie. So experienced bakers use some sort of a thickener to make it nice and firm. Here's what you need to know about the options. Read The Zen of Pie Thickeners.
Just what are baby backs? spareribs? Rib tips? Riblets? St. Louis cut ribs? Rib chops? Rib roasts? Country ribs? And for heaven's sake, what the heck is a McRib? Read about the different cuts of pork.
Parmigiano-Reggiano (Parmesan) Cheese
Parmigiano-Reggiano, called "The King of Cheeses" in Italy is a magical cheese. Dotted with crunchy crystals and permeated with the mysterious flavor enhancer, umami, it barely resembles the popular imitator labeled parmesan. Learn all about this wonderful cheese in the Zen of parmesan.
They most definitely are not the same! Some are better for mashing, some for baking, and some for frying. Click here for The Zen of Potatoes.
Rice is the primary food for more than half the people in the world. It is versatile enough to be an integral part of an entree or a dessert. My article, The Zen of Rice, describes white rice, brown rice, wild rice, and arborio rice and how to cook them.
Salt is an important flavor enhancer that actually expands taste buds, and even a small amount can really wake up a dish either in cooking or at table. But there are many kinds of salt, and you cannot exchange them freely. Here's an article on The Zen of Salt that describes the difference between, table salt, kosher salt, sea salt, pickling salt, and more.
Sesame seeds are loaded with oil, and there are two types of sesame oil on the market. I use only one of them, the dark brown oil made from toasted sesame seeds by Kadoya of Japan. There is a clear, cold pressed sesame oil on the market, but it is almost flavorless. Toasted sesame oil, the brown stuff, is the most common, thankfully, and possesses an exotic nutty perfume that we immediately associate with Asian food. Use it sparingly because it is very strong. If you have trouble finding it in your grocery store, try AsianFoodGrocer.com.
Sorghum is a thick dark sweet syrup like molasses. Click here for more about sorghum.
Real soy sauce is made by fermenting soy beans and other grains. It is high in natural glutamates, amino acids that amp up the flavor of food with which it is used and it can add flavor and be used as a salt substitute. Click here to read more about soy sauce, shoyu sauce, and tamari sauce.
In the US steak sauce is a moderately thick brown sauce sold in grocery stores. It is sweet, salty, and savory. The contents vary from producer to producer. Click here for more on the subject and a recipe for a steak sauce by cookbook author Brigit Binns that I like a lot better than the bottled stuff.
I'm a vinegar fan. I have waaaay too many.
Balsamic vinegar. A decade ago only professional chefs had heard about balsamic vinegar. Today the most mundane supermarkets stock several brands as well as a growing selection of balsamic vinegar salad dressings. You can buy it in bulk from some olive oil specialty stores, and every Italian restaurant worth it's spaghetti offers an item or three made with balsamic. Chefs and foodies consider balsamic as essential as extra virgin olive oil. I keep cheap balsamic on hand for marinades and sauces, and the expensive stuff for drizzling like a syrup. I also buy cheap balsamic and reduce it to syrup for drizzling. Prices for a bottle ranges from $5 to $500. How can that be? What is the difference? Click here to read The Zen of Balsamic Vinegar.
Distilled vinegar. For pickling, some dressings, and sauces. It has a neutral flavor and is best used to add acidity and brightness to dishes. Strong stuff.
Cider vinegar. Essential for many barbecue sauces, made from apple juice, it is richer and more flavorful than distilled. Usually you should not substitute if the recipe calls for distilled because the flavors may be wrong.
Rice vinegar. Not as strong as other vinegars. Delicate and perfect for slaws.
Wine vinegar. I keep red and white wine vinegars on hand for salad dressings. They have distinct rich flavors.
Raspberry vinegar. Great for a lot of salad dressings. Distinct rappberry flavor.
In the states we say pronounced WOO-stih-sheer, but in Great Britain, in the town of Worcester, they pronounce it WUH-ster. I like that better. As with steak sauce, Worcestershire sauce is a blend that has many variations in the ingredients list, and the taste. Lea & Perrins is the most popular for good reason. It tastes good. Lea & Perrins is a blend of vinegar, molasses, corn syrup, anchovies, onions, salt, garlic, tamarind, cloves, chili pepper, and more. It can really add depth and meatiness to a sauce. According to the Lea & Perrins website, in 1835, a Lord Sandys was returning home from Bengal, where he had tasted an intriguing sauce. He went to John Lea and William Perrins, owners of a chemist shop, and they tried to replicate the sauce. It was awful. They left it gathering dust in their cellars. A few years later, they stumbled across those jars. They tasted the sauce once again, and to their surprise, the mixture had matured into a most palatable sauce. Soon they were bottling and selling it. The rest, as they say, is history.
...more to come (to be notified when new recipes and other articles come online, be sure to subscribe to my free, spam free, email newsletter).
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