This is the season for cooking, baking and shopping, and I have received questions about all of those. I love to hear from you, so if you have a question, feel free to give me a call or send me an e-mail. Today I will devote my column to answering an assortment of questions.
Q. Can you tell me how to tell if vanilla is too old to use? I have had some for at least two years and am wondering if it is still good to use.
A. Pure vanilla extract, which has a high percentage of alcohol, has an indefinite shelf-life and actually improves with age. Vanilla beans, on the other hand, become brittle with age and should be used within six months. Instead of purchasing vanilla beans, I recently have begun using vanilla bean paste. It comes in a jar and may be used in place of vanilla beans. It is more convenient, has a long shelf life and is more economical to use.
Q. Last week you wrote about the stove-top smoker. I had never heard of it. Is it something I could use inside my roaster or crock pot?
A. No, the stove-top smoker is about the size of a 9x13-inch pan and is used on top of the range or on the grill outside. It consists of the pan, the tray with a rack to hold the meat and a lid and needs a direct heat source to create the smoke.
Q. Does the stove-top smoker fill the house with smoke?
A. Not at all. The lid fits tightly. All you notice is the aroma of good food cooking.
Q. My challenge is to find excellent cookware for my wife for Christmas. I have looked at a few sets but am confused. I can’t tell much difference by looking at them. So many choices but also a big variation in the price. What do you recommend?
A. I prefer stainless steel and use it almost exclusively because it looks good and is easy to clean. But you need to look for quality. Some stainless steel cookware is lightweight and will not cook well.
Stainless steel by itself is not a good conductor of heat. You need to look for stainless cookware that is “clad” or has layers of metal, with one of them being copper — an excellent conductor of heat. Those pans will be a joy to use in the kitchen.
My favorite is a line of professional cookware designed by the Culinary Institute of America. Other good brands are available as well.
Regardless of what brand you select, look for cookware that conducts heat well. Pick the pans up and see how they feel in your hand—you will be using them frequently and want a comfortable pan.