Readers’ questions have poured in, so today we are going to address them. I am always delighted to hear from you. If you have a question, chances are others are wondering the same thing – so feel free to e-mail those questions to me.
Q: Some recipes specify extra-virgin olive oil and others do not. What is the difference in olive oils?
A. The primary difference is the processing methods, which affect the flavor of the oils. Extra-virgin olive oil is cold-pressed and made from the first pressing of the olives. It is considered the finest and fruitiest of the olives’ oil and, therefore, is the most expensive.
After the cold-pressing, the olives go through several processes to extract all the oil, and eventually heat is used in the last pressings.
I use extra-virgin olive oil primarily for salad dressings or drizzling on foods when the added flavor is desired. Regular olive oil is recommended for sauteing, as heat breaks down the flavor of the extra-virgin olive oil, making the added expense a waste. Olive oil has a low smoke point, so saute over moderate heat. Olive oil will break down when it reaches a high temperature and is not recommended for frying over high heat.
Q. Can you use salted butter in a recipe that calls for unsalted butter?
A. I get asked this question more than any other. The pat answer for using unsalted butter is that it allows the cook to control the amount of salt in a recipe. However, when working with Master Chef Jacques Pepin, he explained that unsalted butter is fresher and he always uses the freshest ingredients possible. Since salt is a preservative, salted butter is likely to be not as fresh as it has a longer shelf life than unsalted butter. Fresh butter is pale yellow and has a sweet flavor, while old butter will be very yellow and have an off-flavor.
I have interchanged salted butter for unsalted in recipes with little detectable difference. I tend to agree with Jacques Pepin – just be sure the butter is fresh.
Q. I think I must have used the wrong kind of potatoes in potato salad. It tasted pretty good but ended up like mashed potato salad. I used regular white baking potatoes. Can you tell me the difference between the different kinds of potatoes and when to use each kind?
A. You used a type of potato referred to as a “mealy” potato. They are wonderful baked and make delicious mashed potatoes. But for potato salad and some other applications, you would have better results if you used a waxy type of potato.
The kind of potatoes you purchase depends upon how you plan to use them. Potatoes are usually classified as mealy (or starchy) or waxy. Here is a general summary:
Red potatoes: Red potatoes have a thin skin and a crisp, white waxy flesh and are best suited for boiling, steaming, sauteing or roasting. They are excellent roasted along with meat or chicken, in potato salads and in soups and stews.
Russet potatoes: Russets, commonly referred to as Idaho potatoes, are the standard baking potato. They are medium to quite large, oblong with rough skin and a mealy flesh. They are excellent baked, fried or mashed. This is the favored potato for french fries as their low sugar content allows them to be deep fried long enough to fully cook the interior without burning the exterior. Mealy potatoes tend to fall apart when fully cooked, making them a good choice for mashing or pureeing.