Common Kitchen Questions & Their Answers

Here’s a list of random questions and their answers pertaining to the kitchen (cooking, baking, ingredients, etc.).

A few already have full articles of tips on the subject here on Tipnut but it’s a nice way to review these little gems.

  1. Is it possible to make my own superfine sugar at home instead of buying it? You can pulse granulated sugar in a food processor or blender until it’s finely ground like a powder.
  2. What’s half and half cream? It’s 50/50 whole milk and cream, this doesn’t whip but you can use it as a substitute in baking for heavy cream (to reduce fat).
  3. What’s the difference between a soft boiled egg and a hard boiled one? Soft boiled is prepared the same way as hard boiled but it’s not cooked as long–the yolk is runny rather than firm. Medium boiled eggs have a slightly firm yolk.
  4. I like to make big batches of mashed potatoes so there are leftovers to freeze, any way to keep them from turning color once frozen? Add a tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice to the mashed potatoes before freezing, this will help prevent the discoloration from happening.
  5. Is there a way to freeze eggs for future consumption? Yes you can freeze eggs but because you won’t be able to separate them after thawing, you must either separate the whites and yolks before freezing or stir the yolk into the egg before freezing. See this page for details.
  6. Is it ok for olive oil to replace vegetable oil in baking recipes? You can bake with olive oil but since it has a stronger flavor than regular vegetable oil, it will affect the flavor of the final product. If you must bake with the olive variety, choose one that has a lighter taste to it.
  7. Is there a way to bring eggs to room temperature quickly? You bet! Simply cover eggs in a small bowl with warm (not hot) water. They should be good to go in about 5 minutes.
  8. How to tell if a packet of yeast is still good? If there’s no expiry date to be found, you can test it by adding 1 teaspoon sugar to 1/4 cup warm water then stir in the packet of yeast. Let it stand for 10 minutes and if the yeast foams up to the 1/2 cup mark, it is active and can be used in recipes.
  9. I find when I make homemade cookies they spread too much, any ideas why? You might be greasing your cookie sheets too heavily. Another idea is to test the oven temperature, if the heat is too low it may cause cookies to spread.
  10. Is it safe to use an old bottle of spice I found in the back of a cupboard? I can’t tell what the expiry date is. Spices don’t spoil but they do lose their flavor over time. If the color looks good take a little taste to see if there’s still some flavor to be found. You can also check expiry dates online if you have the original packaging, see Herbs & Spices: Storage Tips Guide for more info.
  11. If a part of a block of hard cheese (such as cheddar cheese) grows mold or gets hard and discolored, can the block of cheese be saved or should it be thrown out? If you cut deep around the mold or old part and remove it, the rest of the block of cheese is fine to eat.
  12. How long is it ok for gravy to be frozen? For best results consume the gravy within the month.
  13. I have a couple boxes of cake mixes that expired a short time ago–are they still ok to bake with? I’d throw them out, the ingredients could be rancid or have lost their flavor plus they’ll likely not rise well either.
  14. What size eggs should I use if a recipe doesn’t stipulate the size? Large eggs are the standard unless otherwise noted.
  15. What’s the difference between evaporated milk and sweetened condensed milk? Both have a large percentage of water removed from the product (60%) so it’s condensed, but evaporated varieties doesn’t have sugar added to it like condensed varieties do (condensed has about a 40% sugar content). They are not interchangeable in recipes but you can add quite a bit of sugar to evaporated milk to substitute it for sweetened condensed (about 1.25 cups of sugar per 1 cup evaporated milk–stir together then heat to dissolve sugar then refrigerate).
  16. Is there a substitute for vanilla extract that will work in baking? Here are a few suggestions: try almond extract, brandy extract, maple syrup, vanilla powder or rum extract–aside from the powder, they won’t have the rich vanilla flavor but they are a suitable substitute you can try. If you have a vanilla bean, you can use that to replace the extract (1/4 vanilla bean per 1/2 tsp of extract or 1 full bean is equivalent to 2 teaspoons of extract). If you want to substitute vanilla extract for a bean that’s called for in a recipe, use 2 teaspoons of extract to replace 1 bean.
  17. What’s the difference between artificial and pure extract? Pure vanilla is made by steeping vanilla beans in water and ethyl alcohol, with the exact proportions of each mandated by the government. Imitation varieties, on the other hand, is a byproduct of paper production or a derivative of coal tar, chemically manufactured through fairly simple and inexpensive processes. Source: Cook’s Illustrated.
  18. How do you keep apple slices from browning after peeling them? Dipping them in lemon juice or 7-up helps prevent the apples from browning. If you’re peeling and slicing apples for baking, try to do this right before you add them to the batter rather than prepare them ahead of time. If you’re preparing a bunch for a later snack, keep them in water with a bit of lemon juice or vinegar added, drain well before serving.
  19. How do you tell if garlic is fresh? The paper skin should be tight and the cloves nice and firm when you squeeze the bulb of garlic. If you squeeze the bulb and the paper is loose like there are air pockets underneath the skin, the cloves are drying out and shrinking.
  20. What’s the best way to store potatoes? Store potatoes in a cool, dark place for best results. Some say storing them in the refrigerator is too cold for the potatoes and it increases the sugar content in them.
  21. What is vanilla essence? This is tricky since it can mean two different things depending on where the recipe source is from. In the UK: This is another term for imitation vanilla, use it in equal measure when substituting for extract in a recipe (or vice versa). In other places it’s a highly concentrated form of pure extract.
  22. What is vanilla powder? This is a powder made from dried vanilla beans and is a good substitute for those who want an alcohol-free flavoring. Use it in equal measure when substituting for extract (1:1).
  23. How much is a knob of butter? Not an exact measurement but about two tablespoons.
  24. What is heavy cream? A heavy whipping cream with 36% to 40% fat content (should be on label). Most recipes should be fine with a regular whipping cream (30% to 36% fat).
  25. What exactly is “ghee”? The clear yellow liquid obtained by melting unsalted butter and discarding the sediment settled on the bottom. You’ll find lots of cookery terms and their meanings here: Cookbook Lingo: 101 Cookery Terms & Definitions.
  26. What is salad oil and is it ok to substitute vegetable oil instead? Salad oil is an umbrella term for any edible vegetable oil. You may use olive, canola, safflower, etc.
  27. What’s the difference between baking soda and baking powder? Both contain sodium bicarbonate which is needed to help goods rise while they are baking. Baking soda is a faster acting agent (when it comes in contact with a liquid acid) and baking powder works on a slower pace as it dissolves with other ingredients.
  28. What is alum powder used for and where is it possible to buy it? Alum powder is a common ingredient in pickling recipes since it helps keep the produce crisp. You should be able to find it in the spice section of your local grocer.
  29. How much salt do I add when substituting unsalted butter in a recipe that calls for salted? Add 1/4 teaspoon of salt per 1/2 cup of butter.
  30. What’s the difference between tomato paste and tomato sauce?: Tomato paste is a thick concentrate made from tomatoes that is used as a base when making sauces or adding tomato flavor to dishes without adding a lot of liquid. Tomato sauce is a thinner consistency and is ready to use (for pastas, etc.).
  31. How to bake a frozen apple pie? For an unbaked pie that’s been frozen, pop it in the oven (don’t thaw it) at 400°F for about 60 minutes then watch. Once the crust is golden brown and the center is hot, the pie is ready. Check on the pie half-way through and if the crust is browning too quickly you can wrap the top (or just the edges) with foil and continue to heat. Remove foil the last 10 minutes or so. For a baked apple pie that was frozen, heat in an oven at 375°F for about 45 minutes.
  32. What are dill heads? Dill heads are the flowering part of the dill plant.
  33. Is it ok to reuse cooking oil after deep frying? Deep frying foods takes a lot of cooking oil and it’s such a waste to throw it out after just one use. You can reuse it but you need to be aware that the smoke-point lowers after each use. Once you’ve cooked with the oil, allow it to cool down then strain it (through cheesecloth) to remove any food bits. Store in an airtight container in a cool dark place (I like to save an empty cooking oil container for this), or store in the refrigerator if you will go weeks before using again. It can also be stored in the freezer. If it smells off it’s likely rancid so don’t reuse it. For best results, don’t mix different types together (i.e.: canola and peanut). Tip: When using the old oil, add some new to the batch when heating–this will help give good results.
  34. What temperature should my refrigerator be set at? Refrigerator temperature should be cool enough to slow bacterial growth on food, but not so low that it freezes food. An optimal temperature is below 40° F. (see USDA Refrigeration & Food Safety). If your refrigerator doesn’t have a digital temperature display, you can buy a thermometer to hang inside.
  35. I don’t think my oven temperature is accurate, is there a way to test this? One year my Thanksgiving turkey didn’t cook properly (ummm, it was raw in places) and that’s when I discovered that my oven temperature must be off. Here’s how you can test it: buy an oven thermometer and place it on the center rack of your oven. Preheat the oven to a high temperature like 425°. Once the oven indicates that the temperature has been reached, open the door and read the thermometer. If the thermometer shows a different reading, you know the oven temperature is off. You can either adjust your oven’s settings (see the owner’s manual on how to do this or bring in a repairman) or account for the difference in temperature each time you use the oven (for example: if you know your oven is 10° lower than what the dial is set at, set it 10° higher when you bake).
  36. How long are boiled eggs good for? Keep them refrigerated and they’ll be good for the week. If they’ve gone bad, the smell will be off. Have you seen this neat tip for cooking a bunch at once.
  37. What’s a good substitute for eggs? Or cake flour? Or buttermilk? You’ll find lots of options for egg substitutes here. For cake flour and buttermilk substitutes (and other ingredients too), see my growing list on this page.
  38. How do you scald milk? Some recipes require you to scald milk before adding it to the rest of the ingredients (I find this a lot in my older household notes and recipes). To do this, you just need to heat it to the point that the milk starts to steam and bubbles appear around the outer edges, you do not let it reach the boiling point. Take your time heating this, low to medium heat is sufficient. Stir frequently while heating.
  39. What’s the difference between light and dark brown sugar and can they be used interchangeably in recipes? Light version has less molasses in it than the dark version. If a recipe calls for dark brown sugar, it’s fine to use a light version but you may notice a slight difference in flavor.
  40. I like having freshly squeezed orange juice on hand, is it possible to make a few days worth at once and store it in the refrigerator? Fresh orange juice (and other citrus juices) are fine refrigerated for about 3 days. If you have too much left over, freeze the juice in cubes or in freezer bags (with as much of the air removed), thaw as needed.
  41. What’s the difference between white and brown eggs? There are no differences between the two (nutritional value and taste are the same). The breed of hen is what determines the color of the egg shell.
  42. How do I know if my flour is good or bad? Does it go rancid? Yes flour can go bad, you’ll smell an “off” odor if it’s rancid. You can check for bugs by putting a bit of flour in a glass and covering it with warm water. See if any bugs float to the surface. If you’re not sure how old your flour is and it’s possible that it’s at least a year old–I’d throw it out and buy a fresh bag. Keep it in an airtight container for best results. If you’re not a baker and don’t typically use up flour quickly, mark the bag/container with the date on some masking tape.
  43. Can bacon grease be frozen? Yes bacon grease can be frozen for future use (just chisel or scrape off the amount you need and toss it in the pan). But unless you have a steady supply of bacon grease on hand that you can’t use up fast enough, I would just keep it in the refrigerator. Pour off cooled bacon grease into a thick glass jar or mug and refrigerate, topping it up with fresh bacon grease as you have it. Refrigerated bacon grease lasts for months and months with no problem. If bacon grease goes rancid, you’ll smell it–toss the lot.
  44. Should I still grease and flour non-stick baking pans? If the recipe instructs that a pan be greased and floured or “prepared”, then yes, you should at least grease them but the flour is optional (I always do both). You could also spray the pan with non-stick cooking spray and line with parchment paper or make your own pan grease in advance, see Homemade Non-Stick Spray Recipes at the bottom of page.
  45. How long does olive oil last? How do I store it? Olive oil will last for about two years, if it goes rancid there will be a smell to it. Store in a cool, dark place. No need to refrigerate it but if you do, you’ll notice that it will get cloudy and solidify. If this happens, remove the bottle from the fridge and leave at room temperature–it will return to its normal state.
  46. How do I measure baking pans to see what size they are? Measure from inside edge to inside edge.
  47. I have a favorite cake recipe that I would like to try making cupcakes with, is this possible? Sure, most cake recipes make fine cupcakes. Rule of thumb for standard sized cupcakes is to fill the cupcake holders just over half full and then bake at 350° for about 18 to 20 minutes (or until toothpick in center comes out clean).
  48. There are white powdery spots on my baking chocolate, is it still ok to use? The powdery white or gray spots on chocolate is known as “bloom”…this happens when the chocolate was exposed to warm temperatures. No need to worry, it’s still perfectly fine to use.
  49. Can you melt chocolate in the microwave? Yes and it’s pretty easy to do. Reduce power to 50% or medium, and heat for one minute. Stir (the chocolate squares will likely still be hard), heat for another minute (at 50% or medium heat), stir again. If the chocolate pieces are quite a bit smaller by this point, keep stirring until they are completely melted. If the pieces are still pretty big, heat for another minute at the same temperature then stir until completely melted.
  50. What’s the difference between jam and jelly? Fruit jelly is made with the juice of the fruit only (no fruit pieces), while jam uses the whole fruit. Jelly is usually more smooth and gel-like while jam is chunky with real fruit.

*These were published on separate pages and combined here for better organization

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    • Alla

    Use a pastry brush to “grease” cake pans. Then use a tiny bit of the box mix if that’s what you’re doing, OR of the combined dry ingredients from a home-made cake mix, to lightly flour the pan. This way you don’t have an odd “floury” coating or taste to your cakes. Remember also — Leave the top “little-finger width” or about 2cm / half-inch of the pan UNgreased and UNfloured so that your cake or bread will rise properly.

    And Tipnut, dear — I do understand your need to take a break and change things. Good luck to you, and I still and always will love this site!

    • Liz C

    Using margarine in a cookie recipe will make them spread out more, due to low melt point and water content . I find shortening will result in a smaller diameter, higher, softer cookie than butter, and I I usually find it doesn’t seem to affect the taste. (if it does, you can use butter flavored shortening or smidgen a extra of the extract you are using.)

    • Jean Woodall

    My Granddaughter is allergic to milk products. I usually fix my pumpkin pie with evaporated milk which really makes it creamy. Is there a substitute for the evaporated milk I can use?

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