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At a time of year when most people are fixated on berries and peaches, corn and tomatoes, it’s also the season to get excited about onions — not just any old allium but a heritage sweet onion harvested by hand in Walla Walla, Washington.
Walla Walla Sweets are the unheralded heirloom stars of summertime. Juicy, mild and sweet, they are at their best in all of the great (and easy) meals of the season: grilled with sausages, caramelized for burgers, sliced raw for salads and more.
Fresh and delicate in terms of both flavor and handling, Walla Walla Sweets are in season right now — and with a very limited supply from a handful of family growers, they won’t last long.
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Older than Vidalias
Long before Walla Walla became renowned as an American Viticultural Area, this valley in southeastern Washington was the agricultural hub for a surprisingly sweet onion brought to the region from Corsica by a French soldier named Pete Pieri. According to all accounts, Pieri immigrated to Walla Walla with the seed in the late 19th century and began cultivating it commercially in 1900.
Grower Michael Locati’s great-grandfather, Joe, worked for Pieri for four years before going out on his own in 1909. He joined other Italian immigrant families, mainly from Milan and Calabria, who settled in this valley to become small-scale produce farmers, cultivating a seasonal onion now known as the Walla Walla Sweet.
Four generations later, Michael — along with his father and uncle — grows these heirlooms on 60 acres of Locati Farms and co-owns a packing and shipping arm called Walla Walla River Packing Co. Despite these modernizations, this is the same specialty onion, hand-selected by the family for over a century.
That’s a fair bit longer than that other famous sweet onion, Vidalia, a hybrid cultivated in Georgia since the 1930s. The Walla Walla “still has that heirloom genome,” said Locati.
It’s natural to think that sugar content is what makes Walla Walla Sweets exceptional. Not so. Their mildness has to do with the fact that they contain about half the amount of pyruvic acid that gives yellow storage onions their bite and makes you cry.
“This geographical area is very low in natural sulfur,” Locati said. The sulfur content in the soil is a catalyst to the production of pyruvic acid, he explained. “So these naturally low sulfur soils allow for these onions to be really sweet.”
Walla Walla Sweets are planted in early fall. They overwinter in snow-covered fields, then sprout and additional onion starts are transplanted in the spring. By mid-June, harvest has begun and continues through late August.
“Onions are ready when the leaves start laying down,” said Dan McClure, who began growing organic Walla Walla Sweets in 2007 with his wife Sarah. The couple currently raises over 800 tons on 27 acres at Walla Walla Organics and plans to scale up production, although the labor is even more arduous than many other crops.
“No mechanical process yet exists that won’t damage them,” McClure said. Nearly as large as softballs and weighing up to two pounds, these globular onions are delicate, with thin skins and a high water content that make them prone to bruising.
So workers harvest them entirely by hand. Carefully packed into boxes, the onions are then cured just until the necks dry out and the outer layer of turns amber. Still, they have a short shelf life — a couple of weeks at most, according to McClure.
For a community once famous for this varietal, it’s a big blow that acreage has dropped within the past five or so years from 1,000 acres to about 500, according to Kathryn Fry-Trommald, executive director of the Walla Walla Sweet Onion Marketing Committee.
Compared to Vidalia’s 15,000 acres, this onion market is small potatoes. Urban sprawl (“there’s a Wal-mart now where there were onion fields,” said Fry-Trommald), consolidation in agriculture and labor pressures are all factors, as is the fact that many of those “old Italian families” are no longer in farming.
Another major threat is the competition from hybrid sweet onions — some mechanically harvested and higher in pyruvic acid — grown from Arizona to Texas. These are available year-round at much lower prices than Walla Walla Sweets.
In 1995, after discovering that other Washington-grown onions were being sold as counterfeit Walla Walla Sweets, the growers obtained a federal marketing order to protect this specialty onion, in the same way that heritage foods from Italy must be certified as locally grown and packaged.
For farmers like Locati and McClure, it’s hard to earn a living with a seasonal, fresh market onion. But they say the process of hand selection and hand harvesting is worth it for the allium’s singular qualities. There’s no sharp bite, and it has a complex flavor all its own marked by a startling sweetness.
While you don’t have to try Michael Locati’s method of tasting them raw in the field, this is a true “slicer” for using raw in salads and salsas or on burgers and sandwiches. You can grill, roast, sauté, or caramelize Walla Walla Sweets, too — just don’t wait.
Ways to cook and use sweet onions
Grill: Use a grill basket to cook large sliced or chopped onions on a hot grill until nicely charred. Toss and continue grilling until softened and translucent. Alternatively, grill thick onion slices on a well-scraped grill grate until grill marks appear; flip and cook the other side until soft and translucent. Toss onions with sliced and grilled zucchini, portabello mushrooms and red peppers seasoned with salt and pepper, a splash of olive oil and balsamic vinegar for a side dish with grilled steaks, chicken, pork chops or fish.
Roast: Place trimmed and peeled whole onions into a greased roasting pan. Rub well with olive oil and season with salt, pepper and fresh thyme. Roast at 425 F until brown and fork tender, about 1 hour, and serve with roast pork or beef.
Sauté: Slice peeled onions thinly. Heat a sauté pan over high heat with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Add the onions and season with a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring, until they soften and begin to brown. Add 1 bunch fresh, washed spinach or chard, another pinch of salt and ground pepper. Cover and let steam until the greens are wilted. Remove the cover, stir well and serve as a side dish with grilled meats or fish.
Caramelize: Slice peeled onions thinly. Heat a sauté pan over medium-high heat with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Add the onions and cook, stirring, until they soften. Add a large pinch of salt, reduce the heat to low and continue cooking, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan every 15 minutes until the onions turn very soft, like jam, and the color of brown sugar, about 1 hour. Serve on hamburgers, grilled cheese sandwiches or pizza.
Main photo: Caramelized onions make any burger better. Credit: Copyright 2016 Lynne Curry
It’s hot, you’re busy and company’s coming for dinner. Nothing’s easier than tossing some chicken on the grill. Am I right?
Not at all! Think about it: When was the last time you had a properly cooked piece of chicken from somebody’s backyard grill?
“Never” is my guess — even from your own. Don’t take it personally. The fact is that hardly anybody knows how to grill chicken that isn’t coal-blackened or outright charred in some places or practically raw in others.
The trouble is the chicken. While it’s a favorite choice for grilling, especially in summer, the how-tos are not obvious. Chicken is nothing like burgers or hot dogs, pork chops or rib steaks; it’s tricky to deal with the fat under the skin that drips onto the fire and causes flare-ups. What makes matters worse is marinade, which causes the grill to smoke heavily, turning your chicken gray instead of enticingly browned.
On top of that, it’s tough to determine when chicken is done all the way through; it always seems to take longer than it should. So you pull it off too soon and end up with (gulp) pink, undercooked chicken.
So who am I to give advice? Well, I wrote a cookbook all about cooking every cut of grass-fed beef, and now I’m tackling poultry. Listen, I’ve had my own share of chicken troubles in the past. The worst was when I served underdone chicken to a Muslim exchange student who told me that it was against his religion to eat it. That low point kicked off a self-improvement project: learning the techniques for grilling chicken right.
Top 5 grilling tips
1. Use bone-in, skin-on chicken pieces. Grilling experts highly recommend thighs, and I agree that they are the moistest, but legs, breasts and wings also benefit when the bones and skin are left intact, as they help to insulate the meat from overcooking — and they make it taste much better. (However, if you’re committed to boneless, skinless chicken breasts, the techniques you practice with the remaining tips will help you master those, too, with practice.) Pasture-raised chickens, especially those from heritage breeds, are not only tastier but also more sustainable than factory-farmed birds, so seek them out in your area at the farmers market or local grocer.
2. Season the chicken well with salt and save the marinades for after cooking. Most people make their first mistake before they even fire up the grill: They don’t season the chicken enough. With your best-quality kosher or sea salt, sprinkle all sides of the chicken pieces as if you’re dusting them finely with confectioner’s sugar. Everyone loves marinated chicken, but submerging your chicken in any sauce — even barbecue sauce — will bring you more cooking complications, not more flavor.
3. Preheat your grill to medium-high heat and control those flames. Unlike other foods that respond well to intense heat, chicken calls for moderate or medium-high heat (between 350 F and 400 F). Whether using a charcoal or gas grill, test the heat patterns by placing your open palm about 5 inches above the grate. If you can hold it there for 5 seconds, you’re in range. Also note where the heat is less intense. In the event of a flare-up, immediately move the chicken to these cooler parts of the grill to prevent charring.
4. Brown chicken pieces skin side down for longer than you think you should. Always cook the chicken skin side down first and plan to leave it there until it is nearly all the way cooked. Why? You’ll end up with crispy and beautifully browned skin (remember, it insulates the meat), plus the chicken will be cooked evenly to the bone. In general, it takes at least 30 minutes to cook bone-in chicken at this temperature, so aim for cooking it skin side down for three-quarters of the total cooking time — 20 to 25 minutes — before flipping and finishing it on the second side.
5. Use your grill like an oven. After laying the chicken pieces on the grate, put on the lid. Now your grill will radiate the heat above as well as below, which is exactly what chicken needs to get cooked all the way through. The lid also controls air flow and keeps the flames on a charcoal grill from getting out of hand. Dripping fat will likely incite flare-ups, so monitor the cooking and move the chicken away from flames to those cooler areas of the grill whenever necessary. If you’re at all uncertain that the chicken is done, insert the tip of an instant-read thermometer close to the bone or just cut into the center for a visual check.
Foolproof finishing strategies
Once your chicken is seasoned and fully cooked to an enticing golden brown, let it rest near the heat for 15 minutes or so. Grilled chicken doesn’t need much embellishment, although cilantro pesto, peach chutney or avocado salsa — or any other fresh and tangy sauce — will liven it up.
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But what about those pesky marinades? Think wings, which are first deep-fried and then tossed with sauce. The same principle applies to grilled chicken: Cook it well first, then brush or toss it with any homemade or bottled marinade or sauce. Let it warm-marinate until ready to serve or put it back on the grill for a few minutes to marry the sauce to the chicken as it reheats.
Now you’re the expert.
Main photo: Grilling the perfect bird. Credit: Copyright 2016 Lynne Curry
I eased my shopping cart along the meat counter in a national chain grocery store to buy a whole chicken. Roast poultry for dinner seemed like a simple enough proposition. But like so many of us making food-purchasing decisions these days, I was stopped in my tracks by the range of choices.
Should I buy free-range or pasture-raised? Is organic better? Or is the best choice a brand like Foster Farms’ Simply Raised (whatever that means, exactly)?
Confused by all of the labels and marketing claims, I gave up. My family ate a meatless stir-fry for dinner that night.
Later, I learned about a new online resource called Buyingpoultry.com designed to help consumers navigate the supermarket. Could the site guide conscious consumers like me to more sustainable chicken?
Chicken production in a nutshell
Anyone hoping to buy a chicken that truly free-ranged on pastoral farmlands at a grocery store is generally out of luck.
The fact is that 99 percent of all chickens raised for meat (called broilers) in the U.S. come from factory farms. Through consolidation and high-tech breeding practices, the poultry industry has made chicken the most efficient and cheapest animal protein available.
Since 2010, broiler production has increased by more than 10 percent, according to statistics from the USDA. This graph looks surprisingly like the steep climb section on a Stairmaster program. Chicken production, which reached almost 9 billion birds in 2015, is still on the rise. Meanwhile, nationwide demand for barbecued-chicken pizza, chicken Caesar salad and General Tso’s chicken keeps in step.
Trouble is, while making chicken America’s favorite meat, the industrialized production system has incurred an untold debt to human health, the environment and the conditions of its own workers, not to forget the chickens themselves.
Consumers demand healthier chicken
Amid a stream of salmonella-superbug outbreaks and public-health concerns over the routine use of human antibiotics, the USDA announced its plan for stricter regulations and testing in 2015. Two of the largest chicken producers, Tyson and Purdue, pledged to stop using human antibiotics to prevent disease in hatcheries and as growth promoters during maturation. Major food corporations, including McDonald’s, Walmart and Subway, then vowed to shift toward purchasing chicken produced without human antibiotics.
Still, such improvements in the poultry market do not guarantee better animal welfare. According to whistleblower reports about the chicken industry and data from the ASPCA, cage-free chickens are still crammed into windowless barns for their short, dung-filled lives. These Cornish Cross birds, the main hybrid strain for the industry, grow three times as big in two-thirds the time as heritage breeds. Such fast fattening causes bone disorders, cardiovascular issues and other health issues over their roughly 45 days of life.
A sustainable buying guide
After returning from my shopping fail, I Googled Buyingpoultry.com. Created by the Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit Farm Forward, it is the country’s largest online database of poultry brands, products and retailers (including eggs and turkeys).
In the search field I typed in “Open Nature” and then “Foster Farms,” two of the brands I’d considered. “Avoid,” read the bold red graphic on my screen, and below that, “Birds likely suffer from the lowest levels of animal welfare.” The fine print detailed how both brands received an F grade because they did not have any regulated animal-welfare claims or third-party certifications.
“Buyingpoultry.com lets you go to the store with experts,” said Andrew deCoriolis, the website’s architect, when I reached him by phone.
Helpfully, the search results page offered links to the highest-welfare poultry products available as well as to a glossary of labels that clearly illustrates just how obfuscating and, in some cases, downright misleading the claims “free-range,” “pasture-raised” and “humanely raised” actually are.
“Like Seafood Watch, Buyingpoultry.com can be a standard of sustainability and create more transparency,” deCoriolis said.
Buying better poultry
One of the most upsetting experiences for the site’s 5,000 to 10,000 monthly users, according to deCoriolis, is discovering how USDA-certified organic products rank. Browsing Buyingpoultry.com, they’re shocked to see organic products with a D grade. DeCoriolis explained, “Organic is better but not necessarily for the animals.” For one thing, the USDA’s definition of “outdoor access” is ill-defined and does not stipulate indoor enrichments, including perches, or space for natural behaviors such as dust bathing.
At a different grocery store on another day, I opened Buyingpoultry.com on my phone’s browser to check on a regional brand, Draper Valley, for sale. All products in this brand rated “Better Choices,” and the organic line earned a C+. Since this was the best I could get in my area without visiting a small-scale farm, I nabbed this passing-grade chicken for our supper.
So what does it take to rate as a “Best Choices” chicken? According to Buyingpoultry.com’s criteria, these are heritage-breed chickens raised by producers abiding by the highest standards of animal welfare, with their claims certified by third-party groups such as Animal Welfare Approved.
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There’s only a limited supply from retailers in certain markets, including Natural Grocers in Denver, Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco and some Whole Foods stores — but none at all at Trader Joe’s or other national chains.
Persistent consumer advocacy is putting pressure on the poultry industry, however. “The big companies are paying attention,” said deCoriolis. In March 2016, Whole Foods committed to stop selling fast-growing breeds by 2024. Starbucks and Nestlé soon followed, joining the animal-welfare initiative toward slower-growing chicken breeds raised in conditions where they can behave and interact like, well, actual all-natural chickens.
Main photo: Buying chicken can be more complicated than roasting it. Credit: Copyright 2016 iStock
Yogurt is not for just breakfast or smoothies anymore. While the dairy cases in supermarkets across the nation populate with more brands, tubs and tubes of yogurt — including novel flavors like sriricha-mango and carrot — a parallel trend is making it a star ingredient in cooking. Beyond its compatibility with granola or fruit blends, yogurt is becoming a foundational ingredient in dips, soups and sauces for roasted vegetables and meats in American restaurants and home kitchens.
The recent adoration for cooking with yogurt is not the result of some new flavor or formulation. This is plain (old) yogurt, an ancient staple food in many cultures of the world. Yogurt’s natural creaminess and acidity, coupled with its versatility, are feeding 21st-century culinary inspiration.
Why, over 70 years since yogurt’s introduction to the United States, has its moment arrived now?
There’s no doubt that Americans have claimed the world’s favorite cultured dairy product as our own. In fact, it’s one of the fastest-growing food groups of all time. Although nearly all of the yogurt sold in the United States is sweetened, the natural tang no longer puts people off as it did when the Dannon company introduced its brand in 1942.
The sea change came with Greek yogurt. Since 2005, domestic sales have doubled each year, and today over half of all yogurt sold here is Greek-style. With more liquid whey strained, this thicker, creamier product won consumers over, despite costing nearly twice as much. Yogurt’s alluring halo as a low-fat, high-protein, calcium-rich health product with the benefit of probiotics has made it the go-to breakfast choice and snack alternative.
At the same time, the DIY culture has inspired a renaissance in age-old cooking traditions, including food preservation and fermentation. Since yogurt is the product of fermenting milk with bacteria cultures that preserve and thicken, it has helped inspire the pickle-, sauerkraut- and jam-making crowd and has kicked off an online wave of homemade yogurt machines, how-to recipes and Pinterest posts.
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Long before yogurt became the one of hottest-selling foods ever, I encountered the concept of cooking with yogurt in two landmark vegetarian cookbooks, “The Moosewood Cookbook” and Deborah Madison’s “Greens.” Drawing on world cuisines, both featured soups with yogurt, yogurt sauce and raita, the Indian side dish often made with cucumber or other vegetables.
“Yogurt isn’t new. Not even a little,” writes Cheryl Sternman Rule in her 2015 cookbook “Yogurt Culture.” In many cultures throughout the world, yogurt is more than a healthful substitute for mayonnaise and sour cream but “is enjoyed globally in countless incarnations and preparations, both savory and sweet, across every meal.”
While it is common in Turkey to eat cucumbers and tomatoes with yogurt, for example, it’s only recently that such savory notions have enjoyed broad appeal here. It took a slow shift toward vegetarianism (even among meat eaters); world cuisines, especially those of India and the Middle East; and wholesome cooking to win this ancient staple newfound status. It is also due, in no small part, to the singular influence of an Israeli-born, London-based chef named Yotam Ottolenghi.
The Ottolenghi effect
With five cookbooks published in the past four years, Ottolenghi is wildly popular among professional and home cooks alike. His influence on American cooking is so widespread it is impossible not to encounter his mark in food magazines and popular blogs. Several of his recipes, including roasted butternut squash drizzled with yogurt, have become iconic.
Pairing yogurt with meats and fish, grains and legumes, herbs and spices, vegetables from eggplant to zucchini and even eggs, Ottolenghi has helped to transform our basic conception of the ingredient. In “NOPI: The Cookbook,” his most recent release based on his London restaurant, Ottolenghi again translates the idiom with another dozen yogurt-centric recipes using beets, chickpeas, lamb meatballs and more.
In falling so hard for its nutritional values, we’ve finally come to recognize yogurt’s vast culinary assets.
“Yogurt Culture” is one of two cookbooks devoted to the subject of cooking with yogurt released last year. Amid recipes for smoothies and fro-yo, the bulk of the book explores yogurt’s savory side. Poring over appetizer, lunch and dinner recipes, I discovered yogurt in marinara sauce for pasta, tangy mashed potatoes and a more stable whipped cream. Under the book’s spell, I served Rule’s yogurt dip of blood orange, Kalamata olive and red onion with pita breads when a friend came over for a glass of wine. A first.
“Yogurt: Sweet and Savory Recipes for Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner,” by Janet Fletcher (Ten Speed Press) is akin, presenting a globally inspired collection of yogurt-centered recipes. Salted yogurt creates a bed for a farro and vegetable salad; it is a marinade for chicken and a topping on pizza. No fan of fusion, Fletcher nonetheless blends boundaries via an irresistible cumin-spiced raita with red onion to accompany grilled steak or lamb burgers. That’s a new one for cookout season.
Together, these cookbooks expand our understanding of plain yogurt in all its current forms, from organic and grass-fed to Australian (whole milk, unstrained) and Icelandic (even thicker than Greek) to homemade. Grounded in its history, they inspire some serious and fun exploration through cooking.
“As a cook, I love where yogurt has taken me,” writes Fletcher. I heartily agree. From here on out, yogurt — spiced, herbed, smoked and, yes, even sweetened (lightly, with fresh fruits and preserves) — promises to be anything but plain.
Cheryl Sternman Rule’s Blood Orange, Kalamata and Red Onion Dip
Note: Excerpted from “Yogurt Culture” copyright 2015 by Cheryl Sternman Rule. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
Prep time: Approximately 10 minutes
Cooking time: None
Total time: Approximately 10 minutes
Yield: Serves 2
3/4 cup plain whole-milk Greek yogurt or labneh, homemade or store-bought
1 blood orange (or Valencia, Cara Car, or navel orange if blood oranges are unavailable)
1/4 cup pitted kalamata olives, drained and minced
1 tablespoon minced red onion
2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground pepper
1/8 teaspoon sumac (optional)
Toasted whole-wheat pita triangles, for serving
1. If using yogurt, season it with a good pinch of salt. (Don’t salt the labneh.) Scrape the yogurt into a shallow bowl and smooth it with the back of a spoon to create a wide indentation. Using a sharp knife, cut away the peel and white pith from the orange and dice the flesh.
2. Scatter the orange pieces over the yogurt. Sprinkle the olives and onion on top. Drizzle with the oil in a thin stream. Season lightly with salt and more aggressively with pepper. Dust with the sumac, if using. Serve immediately with the toasted pita triangles.
Grilled Red-Onion Raita for Hanger Steak
Note: Reprinted with permission from “Yogurt,” by Janet Fletcher, copyright 2015, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
Prep time: Approximately 20 minutes
Cooking time: Approximately 25 minutes
Total time: Approximately 45 minutes
Yield: Serves 4
1 large red onion (10-12 ounces)
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt
1 clove garlic, grated or finely minced
1 tablespoon finely minced cilantro or 1 1 ⁄ 2 teaspoons finely minced fresh mint
1 ⁄ 4 teaspoon toasted and ground cumin seeds
1 ⁄ 2 teaspoon mustard seeds
1. Prepare a moderate charcoal fire in the center of your grill, leaving the outer rim devoid of coals so you can grill the red onions over indirect heat. Alternatively, preheat a gas grill to medium, leaving one burner unlit for indirect grilling.
2. Peel the onion and slice neatly into 1/2-inch-thick rounds. Carefully thread a thin bamboo skewer through each slice to hold the rings together. Brush the slices with oil on each side, and season with salt and pepper on each side. Grill over indirect heat — not directly over the coals or gas flame — turning once, until the onions are soft and slightly charred, about 25 minutes. Do not rush them or they will blacken before they are fully cooked. Transfer to a cutting board and pull out the skewers. If the outer ring of the onion slices is dry and papery, discard it. Chop the remainder of the onion coarsely.
3. In a bowl, whisk together the yogurt, garlic, cilantro or mint and cumin. In a small skillet or butter warmer, warm 2 teaspoons vegetable oil over medium heat. Have the skillet lid handy. When the oil is hot, add the mustard seeds. Protecting your face with the lid, cook until the mustard seeds pop and become fragrant, 1 minute or less. Pour the hot oil and mustard seeds over the yogurt and stir in. Fold in the grilled onion. Season the raita with salt.
Main photo: Yotam Ottolenghi’s yogurt-drizzled butternut squash. Reprinted with permission from “NOPI: The Cookbook,” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Ramael Scully, copyright 2015. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Food photography: Copyright 2015 Jonathan Lovekin. Location photography: Copyright 2015 Adam Hinton
Sugar cookies are as essential to the Christmas season as lighted trees, wrapping paper and “Jingle Bells.” While there are as many varieties of holiday cookies as there are Christmas carols — from Linzer cookies to Mexican wedding cookies — I am talking here strictly about decorated sugar cookies.
I grew up with one grandmother in Boston and the other in Buffalo, New York. Their sugar cookies were as different as those two cities. My New England grandmother’s were extra buttery and lightly baked, almost shortbread-like; my New York state grandmother’s version was chewier and baked to a golden brown. Both were washed with egg white and showered with colored sprinkles before baking. I devoured both kinds with equal abandon.
How can there be so much variation in something as simple as a sugar cookie? This question hit me at a holiday party last year, when several friends brought their families’ versions of this holiday classic. As I tasted each one, the cookies were as distinct as snowflakes.
Sugar cookie dough basics
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When it comes to sugar cookie recipes, the ingredients are universal: flour, baking powder or baking soda, butter, sugar, egg and vanilla (and sometimes milk). So, what causes all the variability?
I gathered a collection of five time-tested recipes and analyzed them. The biggest difference? Ratios, in baker’s terms, or the proportions of the three main ingredients: flour, butter and sugar. These ingredients are the “structural” elements of the cookies, and the ratio of each building block is what makes each cookie unique.
The biggest determinant of taste and texture is the ratio of butter to flour. Among the five recipes, the highest butter percentage was more than 50% of the flour and the lowest came in at just more than 30%. The quantity of sugar also varied wildly from recipe to recipe; the most astonishing example was two recipes that each contained three cups of flour, but one of the recipes called for three times as much sugar as the other (1 1/2 cups compared with 1/2 cup). Any of these ratios largely affect whether cookies turn out cakier, chewier or more crumbly. Interestingly, all the other ingredient ratios, from eggs to baking powder, were more consistent across the board. But each minor change can result in such subtle differences as the flavor of salt or vanilla in the baked cookie. You can’t know it until you taste it.
The baker, too, introduces variability in such simple recipes as this, especially through measuring and mixing techniques. For example, there are two methods for measuring flour: scoop and sweep or dip. The scoop-and-sweep method has become a standard for recipe writers because it is more consistent. The “dip” method can often pack down the flour too much. Nowadays, more recipes include weights, encouraging bakers to use digital scales, which are more precise and eliminate the need for measuring cups altogether.
Similarly, during the mixing, many bakers falter in the first step of creaming the butter with the sugar. When mixed long enough — about 3 minutes at medium speed in a stand mixer — the butter aerates while the sugar creates the air pockets that the action of the baking powder or soda enlarge to produce the lightest baked treats.
Butter temperature is a third potential pitfall in sugar cookie production. The ideal is room temperature butter — spreadable but still solid, preserving the emulsion of water with butterfat. When it is too cold or too warm, the butter cannot aerate properly to give the dough good structure. The right temperature is also important for shaping and baking, so chilling the dough both after mixing and after cutting shapes makes the best-looking cookies.
All-around cookie dough
After I tested the five recipes and sampled them side by side with an open mind, I discovered that there is no such thing as a dud sugar cookie. The truth is, the ultimate sugar cookie is the one you like best, whether the recipe is from your grandmother, the local paper or Food52.
What truly makes the sugar cookie a standout — apart from its wonderful simplicity — is the fact that it is the most multitasking cookie of all. With one dough in your repertoire, it’s possible to craft a whole dessert tray worth of distinct Christmas cookies.
Other than using sugar cookie dough for rolled and cut cookies, you can also shape it into sandwich cookies, thumbprints, bars or even slice-and-bake cookies from your freezer. You can flavor the dough with lemon or orange zest, spices like cardamom or nutmeg or almond flavoring — all to your taste. Or, mix in chopped nuts, dark chocolate or crystallized ginger.
When it comes to decorating cut-out sugar cookies, there are two camps: the sprinklers and the frosters. I am firmly in the colored sprinkles camp, both because of my Christmas cookie heritage and because I find most frostings make the whole endeavor too sweet.
No matter the recipe, the true goal is to celebrate the stellar pleasures of the sugar cookie that come but once a year.
Main photo: Cut-out sugar cookies decorated with sprinkles and frosting. Credit: Copyright 2015 Lynne Curry
Six small offset spatulas. A stainless steel falafel maker. A Tiffany bowl weighing as much as a bowling ball. A set of measuring cups with broken handles. This was just a random sampling of the miscellany populating my kitchen countertops on Day One of a decluttering extravaganza.
By the time I’d pulled out my every culinary possession from the shelves, cupboards and drawers, I was stunned by the flea market collection I’d amassed in the dozen years since a complete kitchen remodel.
If you recognize this decluttering spree as one inspired by the KonMari method sweeping the nation, you’d be right. The only caveat is that as a professional cook and cookbook author, clothing — the category the best-selling Japanese author Marie Kondo puts at the top of her “start here” list — was not exactly my biggest issue. Instead, I had shelves stuffed with cookbooks from past writing projects, scrappy old cookware and a motley collection of chopsticks in need of retirement, just to start.
As I contemplated the state of my kitchen, I realized that the American “cooking room” represents a culturally unique problem compared wirth the Japanese kitchen. Often the largest room in the house, the kitchen is as much a social gathering space as a functional space — not to mention a convenient storage space for culinary and everyday items alike. In short, our kitchens are a complete mess!
So, here’s how I adapted this international organizing expert’s advice and cleaned up my act.
Five categories for kitchens
One of the premises of Kondo’s book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” is that decluttering room by room is a common pitfall. Her foolproof strategy centers on cleaning according to a list of clutter-prone categories (clothing, books, papers, and so on.) But, as there was no category for my set of Perrier Jouët champagne glasses, warped cutting board or dusty soup tureen, I was forced to take some liberties — a lot of them, in fact.
Taking stock of all the items unique to kitchens, I constructed a top-five list — appliances, pots and pans, dishes and glassware, knives and utensils, and cookbooks — for a decluttering action plan.
Array everything you own with a plug on the counter and count them up. Does the number surprise you? Now, give away every single one that does not inspire you to whip up something in it you haven’t made in a while. (I consider this the culinary equivalent of Kondo’s decision-making question, “Does it bring you joy?”)
Pots and pans
It’s likely you cook most meals in the same two favorite pans. There are your keepers. Toss out the redundant and the worn out, unless it’s cast iron that just needs some TLC. Save your one good pasta/soup pot, preferably with a steamer insert, plus a saucepan. Commit to buying open stock cookware (never sets) of your most beloved brand forever more.
Dishes and glassware
Unless you’re hosting monthly pop-ups at your place you probably have more serving pieces, including plates, bowls, coffee mugs and juice glasses than your family needs. Keep your favorites. Consider, like I did, putting your wedding china to everyday use.
Knives and utensils
Line up your knives and select the one you reach for without thinking, the one that also feels good in your hand. Ideally, this is a chef’s knife or utility knife. Add in the best paring knife you own, then get them both sharpened. (This is all you need unless you practice a bit of home butchery.) Similarly for cooking utensils — spatulas, spoons, whisks — we all own more than we need. Whittle down to the essential.
With Internet recipes at your fingertips, cookbooks now have a different role in our lives. I honed my collection from hundreds down to dozens, holding onto only those I wanted to read or browse in my hands. As for the host of recipe files and clippings, those belong in Kondo’s “sentimental” category, so save those for a rainy day.
By following this list methodically, I quickly eliminated tired, outmoded, unloved and otherwise useless belongings while rediscovering the joy inherent in Le Creuset Dutch ovens, a few good knives and a solid cutting board readily on hand. All that newfound linear feet of shelving breathed with space and light. And so did I.
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Due to the vast quantities of kitchen belongings covering every free counter, chair and floor space within minutes, I used liquor boxes, which are just the right size for gathering cluttered items in the same category and don’t get too heavy. They’re also easily moved, so you can clear space on the dining table to eat a meal. Still, I recommend blitzing through this project. And bank on ordering takeout.
Once I’d conquered these top five categories, I was inspired in subsequent days to winnow the spice cabinets, then the cooking oils and the host of forgotten dry goods. But these areas are for extra credit only.
There is just one obligatory final task before you sit back to enjoy a well-earned glass of wine in your favorite stemware: Throw out all of your oven mitts as well as the dish towels with stains, holes and burns and buy new ones immediately. No questions asked.
Main photo: A best-seller inspires the urge to declutter a kitchen. Credit: Copyright 2015 Joe Whittle Photography