Wednesday, June 29, 2011

First off... "gourmet ingredients"

Gourmet Ingredients and You

Okay, let me start out by saying that the sad, sad truth is that "gourmet ingredients" or fancy ingredients, or the expensive stuff, are hit and miss.

Some really DO make a difference... sometimes. Sometimes they don't. I often think of them as "wastes of money." While quality of ingredients make a difference, it's often how you use/treat those ingredients.

Let me start out with one of my amusing favorites... Sea salt.

I used to buy sea salt a lot in the U.S. It does taste a tad different, and it can make a slight difference. However, the bigger difference seems to be the size of the salt crystals, not necessarily where it comes from.

Why do I say this?

I mentioned in previous posts, I'm from the Midwest, and that I'm currently in Japan. Virtually ALL of the salt that was around when I was a kid was mined. Virtually ALL of the salt that is at my local supermarket now is sea salt. Japan has traditionally used a lot of salt because... well... have you ever actually TASTED sea water? They're not kidding when they say "salt water". It tastes like liquid salt. There's plenty of salt around.

So what makes me chuckle is when the local store sells French sea salt. Why? It tastes the same. I used to buy French sea salt in the U.S. Sea salt is sea salt.

Anyway, as I was saying, the main thing here is... sea salt may taste a tad different -- because, in fact, it is less pure salt than most mined salt... and the impurities are different -- but the size of the crystals makes a bigger differences. Smaller crystals (typical "powdered" salt) diffuse more into whatever you're cooking. Bigger crystals don't and give "pockets" of flavor... they may also cause you to misjudge how much salt you're adding. I've overdone powdered salt and underdone big crystal salt.

The real trick to stuff like this is figuring out what qualities are different between different products. Salt depends on its impurities for extra flavor and crystal size for how well you taste that extra flavor.

Other ingredients are hit and miss.

Recently I read about how dark brown sugar and light brown sugar are very different. They are. Dark brown sugar has a stronger overall flavor, but can be a bigger pain to cook with because it's wetter. I'm SOL on this stuff in Japan -- they typically sell dark brown sugar as sugar candy blocks (no joke!) and light brown sugar is the preferred stuff for coffee. So I buy the latter for making my chocolate chip cookies. ACCORDINGLY, I up the amount of light brown sugar and lower the amount of white sugar when I make cookies... this makes the flavor better, and the light brown sugar isn't terribly wet, so it doesn't make your cookie dough too wet or sticky to switch out. (THAT is something you really have to watch for in baking!)

On the other hand, the big local crazy with "Okinawan brown sugar" is... um... yeah, it's tasty, it's brown sugar. I like the candy. It's Japanese brown sugar, so it's a big deal here. (It's not import, of course.) It's cane sugar, which by the way isn't common in Japan. (Most sugar is beet sugar.) For most purposes, as far as I can tell... it doesn't matter for white sugar, but brown sugar is better when it's cane sugar... but, well, oh well.

Japanese are also big into "local" products -- it'd thrill the foodies here. Most of the ingredients I buy are from the region I'm from, because it's a big growing region (and, added bonus, not irradiated). Flour, sugar, eggs, veggies, meats... well, okay, the latter is from the U.S. or Australia, because local beef and pork are VERY expensive and in high demand for export. (Ironic, eh?) I CAN tell you that Japanese beef is really good, but I grew up with good quality beef, and the biggest difference is Japanese beef is less tough and lower in the unhealthy fats. (It's less tough even though it's more marbled. Very interesting.)

Anyway, I'm rambling. I'll post more later.

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