This page will probably be a work in progress, full of general, all-purpose tips and handy ideas for doing stuff in the kitchen. 

Putting Things in Jars

Sterilizing jam jars isn’t as complicated as it sounds and reusing store-bought jars (from jams, pickles, etc) is a great way to reduce waste and recycle!  My favorite jars are the Bonne Maman jam jars – they seal well, they’re a good width and they seem to hold just the right capacity.  I recommend using jars that have what I call a belly button – they raised circle in the middle of the lid that pops when you open it.  If a lid has a central area that you can press in, it’s perfect for jams, jellies and chutneys because you’ll know if it isn’t sealed well.

Anyway, first things first – run the jars and lids through the dishwasher to make sure they get good and clean.  When removing them from the dishwasher, DO NOT TOUCH THE INSIDE – this will contaminate it.  Now, that really is enough for your jars to be considered sterile, but I tend to be a “belt and braces” girl, so I go one more step:  when my jams or chutneys are about half-way cooked, I heat the oven to about 300 F and put the jars and lids on a parchment-lined sheet, heating them for a good 20-30 minutes just to make absolutely sure everything is good and clean.

Et voila!  Sterilized jars!

The Washington Post also had a great article on canning for folks who like to use Mason jars and who are interested in canning vegetables and pickles.

How to Peel a Tomato

You need:  1 bowl full of ice water, 1 pot of boiling water and your tomatoes.

With a sharp knife, lightly slash your tomatoes – just enough to break the skin, then drop into the boiling water, one at a time.  Let the tomato boil for about 20 seconds – 30 if the tomato is underripe.  Use a slotted spoon to remove and immediately plunge into ice water.  Let the tomato cool for about 10 seconds or so, then remove.  The skin should peel right off.

How to Knead Bread (and why)

Kneading is that little bit of effort that turns flour, water and salt (plus a little yeast) from kindergarten paste into lovely, chewy bread.  And, no, it isn’t as complicated or intimidating as you might think because, while you can underwork your dough, it is next to impossible to overwork it!

Before we talk about how we do it, let’s talk about why it’s important.  When you initially mix flour with the other ingredients for your bread, you have, essentially, a big wad of gluten – there is no structure.  When you look at a slice of bread and you see those teeny-tiny air bubbles in the bread, those are formed because the gluten in the flour has been worked and stretched so that they form long layers that trap the air, forming those bubbles.  It’s what makes bread chewy and gives bread its body.

Although I have a deep and abiding love for my KitchenAid mixer, I prefer to make bread by hand because I can get a better feel for the texture of the dough – is it too tacky?  does it need a little more kneading?  is it smooth and springy?  This comes from practice – if you want, start with pizza dough or focaccia, they’re easy doughs and a little faster to bake.  Don’t be afraid to practice – it’s just flour and water, so the ingredients are cheap!  One thing to keep in mind:  bread is a living thing – it’s affected by temperature and humidity just like you are.  A loaf that takes 1 hour to double in May may need an extra 15 minutes in November.  A loaf that is perfect with the given recipe on a dry day may need a little more flour on a humid day.  If you think you need to add flour, just work in small increments and you’ll be fine.

So.  You’ve mixed your dry and wet ingredients and have a shaggy dough coming together plus some loose flour still in the bowl.  Tip the whole thing on the counter and start working.  I don’t like to flour my counter at the very start because the last thing you want to do is add too much and have a dry dough (there won’t be enough water for the yeast to do its thing, so it won’t rise as much and it’ll be too dense and heavy).  So, start working with what you have – if it remains sticky, add 1 tablespoon of flour and work it in before you add any more.

If you’re right handed – use the fingertips of your left hand to brace the dough and hold it while you use the heel of your right hand to push it away from you.  Fold it back on itself and repeat, turning and rotating every couple of kneads.  Slowly but surely, the dough will start to feel smoother and less sticky.  Keep working it, pushing it away with one hand, rolling it back on itself, pushing away again.  Turn.  Most breads take about 10-15 minutes of kneading – it will go faster than you think.

So, is you’re bread dough ready to rise?  Do what’s called a “windowpane test” – pinch off a small amount of dough and flatten it, gently stretching it to about 1 1/2″ – you should be able to stretch it thin without it tearing.  If it tears, keep kneading.  If you pass the windowpane test, form your dough into a ball by smoothing the top and turning it around, smoothing and turning, until it’s nice and compact.  Put it into an oiled bowl and roll it around to cover.  Bread dough likes a warm, humid environment, so cover your bowl tightly with plastic wrap.

And that’s it!  It’s a little work, but it’s actually kind of zen when you get used to it.  Be the bread!