Mountains of Spaghetti, Meatballs, and…Sawdust?!

I have never bought a single can of what I call “shaker cheese” and never intend to. You know the one I’m talking about. Quality ingredients really make a big difference, and nowhere is it more evident than in cheese. Have you ever made something that called for shredded cheese and thought, “Why is this all grainy?” The reason is that when you use pre-shredded cheese, it contains potato starch to prevent caking of the product during storage, and this starch causes some separation and a grainy texture during cooking. The moral: shred your own cheese. Your taste buds will thank you.

Shaker cheese is so, so, so much worse than that. It’s really a Franken-cheese. Plus, you may have seen an item in the ingredient list called “cellulose powder” to prevent caking. To make a long story short, this “cellulose” is, as the title above indicates, sawdust. Yep, every time you shake that Franken-cheese on your pasta and pizza, you’re eating tiny shavings of wood. For the love of all that’s good and right with the world, please just stop! The saying “you get what you pay for” really, really applies here.

Here’s the thing about what what we in the U.S. call “parmesan” cheese. For one thing, Americans pronounce it wrong. The s sounds like z not zh. For another thing, even if you buy it in a wedge in the deli case, you’re not guaranteed to get the genuine article. It actually needs to be labeled Parmigiano Reggiano in order to be the real deal. In addition, the wide end of the wedge (the rind) needs to have the words Parmigiano Reggiano burned into it in dots. There is one store near me where I can be absolutely guaranteed to get real Parmigiano Reggiano, and I’ve never seen it for less than $12 for a 4-ounce wedge. That translates to about 1 cup shredded. If I wanted to get the really primo Parm, I’d have to go all the way to San Francisco to get it, and the stuff I cook isn’t worth a 40-minute train trip to the city to get the really good stuff.

But as I said above, you get what you pay for. When you buy higher-quality ingredients, you will have better results, period (unless you’re just a bad cook, and there’s not much help for that except trying to become a better cook). If you’re on a budget, you might want to save the more expensive ingredients for special occasions. Then again, cheese freezes pretty well, so if you can get it at a good deal, stock up and park extra wedges in their shrink wrap packaging in the freezer up to 3 months. Take a wedge out as needed, thaw it in the fridge a couple of days, and use it. You can also shred all that cheese all at once and portion it into whatever amounts you’re most likely to use it, and freeze those portions. Freeze the rinds, too. You can add those to boiling liquids for added flavor.

The same holds true for other ingredients a recipe may call for. Many recipes call for cooking wine. I think many home cooks don’t really understand what they’re getting into when they buy cooking wine. Cooking wine is actually really poor quality wine, likely the literal bottom of the barrel, or close to it. To hide the fact that it’s actually by definition the dregs, the manufacturers highly season it. This will add unwanted and unneeded salt to your recipe. You should aim to use a wine that is no less than about $10 per bottle when not on sale, and no more than $20.

Adding salt to your recipe is an art that needs to be developed. Salting food does more than just give it flavor. Salt draws moisture out of the foods we cook; while the food is cooking, the moisture seeps out into the pan and evaporates. Along with that moisture, some of the aromatic compounds come out as well. As the moisture evaporates, the aromatic compounds concentrate. As you add more ingredients to the pan, the process happens all over again, and the new aromatic compounds have an opportunity to blend with the others in the mix. This is what chefs and foodies call “depth of flavor”. So long as it’s done properly, salt provides some of that depth of flavor, as well as being the catalyst for it.

So how do we salt our recipes correctly? It’s very simple. If a recipe calls for a total of 1 teaspoon of salt, go ahead and measure it, but don’t just dump it in all at once, even if that’s what the recipe says to do. Instead, put the salt into a small dish and set it next to your pan. Every time you add another ingredient, sprinkle a little bit of that salt in. You should have a bit of salt left in the dish at the end of cooking; this is where you taste the dish (and get someone else to taste it, too) and adjust the seasonings. You may or may not need to add that last bit, especially if you’re going to add cheese, because the addition of cheese contributes to the overall saltiness of a dish.

There are a few instances where you want your food to be a bit salty before you start cooking it. When cooking any kind of grain or pasta, you want your boiling water to be somewhat saltier than you actually prefer, especially if you’re adding a spice mixture such as when making a Mexican-style rice. You actually want to add enough of the seasonings to the water to be salty when you take a small taste. This is because the rice, pasta, etc., will absorb some of the seasonings during cooking. If you haven’t added enough seasonings (including salt), the finished product will be bland. Adding cheese can correct the problem somewhat, but there’s really no substitute for a well-seasoned dish. I recommend practicing the art of seasoning until you know what you’re doing and can do it quite easily. Eventually you’ll be just like those TV chefs and be able to “eyeball” the amounts you need!

It’s extremely important to use the highest quality ingredients you can afford, because that quality is going to be translated into better tasting food. By doing such simple things as choosing higher quality cheeses, wines, etc., and by salting our foods properly during cooking, we can greatly improve our cooking skills and the flavors of the dishes we make. Let me know your thoughts below!

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