Home cooks and professional chefs alike often ask Martha for a little help in the kitchen. Here, she answers some frequently asked cooking and baking queries.
Unlike baked goods made with leavening agents such as yeast, popovers get their impressive height from steam. To give the requisite heat some help, make the batter with room-temperature ingredients, and then pour it into a preheated popover pan, which has deep, narrow cups to channel the steam upward. Don't open the oven door while they cook; use the oven light to check progress instead. Popovers deflate while they cool, so serve them straight from the oven. Alternately, slit the top of each one before removing it from the pan to keep it from becoming mushy.
Success in working with royal icing depends on a careful hand. When mixing, use the paddle attachment on low speed, and stop once ingredients are fully incorporated. It's essential not to overbeat: Doing so produces a foamy texture that turns brittle and dull when it dries, and unfortunately there is no good way to salvage it. To achieve icing with the right consistency, check its texture while you're beating. Fine-tune it by adding small amounts of water for thinning or sifted sugar for stiffening. Use color sparingly, because the hue will deepen once the icing dries. If not using the icing immediately, cover the bowl with a damp dish towel and plastic wrap to keep it from drying out.
At higher altitudes, the atmospheric pressure is lower. Starting around 3,000 feet, that difference can affect baking. While there is no universal solution, there are several things to try. Start with minor adjustments, and keep notes on what works and what doesn't. To counteract faster evaporation, try increasing the liquid by one or two tablespoons per cup at 3,000 feet, and up to four tablespoons per cup at 10,000 feet. Evaporation concentrates the sugar, so decrease each cup of sugar by one to four tablespoons. Increasing the baking temperature by 25 degrees may also help. To keep baked goods from rising too much, too quickly, reduce the amount of baking soda or baking powder by 1/8 teaspoon at 3,000 feet and up to 2/3 teaspoon at 10,000 feet.
The key is how the pancakes are arranged while they're kept warm in the oven. Piled high, flapjacks will become soggy, as the stack prevents steam from evaporating. You can solve this problem by warming them in a single layer on baking sheets. To avoid drying out the pancakes, warm them for no more than half an hour. You could also use a two-burner griddle, which will shorten your overall cooking -- and warming -- time.
Spinach can become watery when cooked, turning flaky phyllo dough into mush or creating a puddle on your plate. When using spinach as a filling, let it cool before squeezing out the moisture. Spread out the just-cooked leaves in a colander or sieve over a bowl or the sink. When they stop steaming, roll small batches in a clean, lint-free kitchen towel. Twist the ends to wring out as much water as possible. If serving spinach as a side dish, use a slotted spoon to press the leaves into the pot's side after cooking them.
Scallops have high moisture content, and without proper preparation and cooking, they'll steam before a golden crust can form. Start by patting the scallops dry with paper towels. Place a large skillet over high heat, and add just enough of a neutral-tasting oil, such as safflower, to coat the bottom of the pan evenly. When the oil is shimmering, add the scallops, being careful not to overcrowd the pan. Cook them, undisturbed, until they brown, 45 to 60 seconds. Dusting the tops and bottoms of scallops with instant flour before cooking also encourages browning.
You can cut the preparation time significantly. To reduce the soaking period from as long as a day to about an hour, place beans in a saucepan, cover them with cold water, and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat, and let the beans sit, covered, for an hour. Drain and rinse the beans before cooking. To reduce the cooking time by half -- or even more -- use a pressure cooker. Follow the device's instruction manual.
When cooking oil, or any fat, reaches its smoke point, it begins to break down, releasing smoke in the process. The chemical change can ruin the flavor of the food being cooked. Different fats have different smoke points. If you're cooking with a lot of heat (deep-frying or stir-frying), choose a fat with a high smoke point; try one that's refined or vegetable-based, like peanut and soybean oils. Fats with lower smoke points, like olive oil or butter, do well over low to medium heat; use them for sauteing or finishing pan sauces.