New Orleans, Crawfish, and Crawfish Gumbo

Friday, May 31, 2013

For the 3-day Memorial Day weekend, we went to New Orleans. The city is full of music, food, and celebrations. Above is one of the many wedding parties which we encountered in the French Quarter. Below is Eudora Evans singing at BMC on Frenchman Street.

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At Kitchen Witch, which is a cookbook store located in the French Quarter, Philipe (the owner) recommended "Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen" for Cajun and Creole cooking. I was even able to buy a signed copy from the shop. I love this cookbook! The dishes that I have made so far (shown below) have come out great. My favorite parts are the detailed instructions because they really help me to understand the techniques used in this type of cooking and the spice blends.

Even though the spice blends are made of very common kitchen spices (black pepper, white pepper, cayenne pepper, oregano, dried basil, and garlic powder), somehow the blend that Paul Prudhomme suggests gives dishes that familiar but hard to describe Cajun type of spiciness. He usually combines all three types of peppers (black, white, and cayenne) because each type affects a different part of your tongue. He says that "one way I make food 'round' is to use red, white and black peppers in the same recipe, which you'll see I do frequently (as a matter of fact, not just frequently, but in nearly every recipe except desserts!). Different peppers excite taste buds in different parts of the mouth, and this makes you feel that you want another bite--that you just have to have another bite. The peppers also cleanse the palate and keep the food interesting by making it change with each bite. This keeps your taste buds happy!" It makes a different type spiciness than other cuisines get from these very same ingredients, since other cuisines usually don't use all of them together or use other ingredients such as whole chili peppers, which usually aren't used in Cajun cooking.

I also bought "American Cooking: Creole and Acadian" by Peter S. Feibleman from the Time-Life series "Foods of the World", which explains southern Louisiana cooking and lifestyles in the late 1960s (it was published in 1971). It is fun to image the grand Mardi Gras balls and formal dinners that occurred back then and also the lifestyles in the creole city and Cajun country and how those lifestyles shaped the dishes. I also love the pictures in the book; I thought the picture below was funny, since I own a very similar plate:

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We stayed at one of the apartments located in the French Quarter owned by Inn the Quarter. It was a wonderful location to be in; it was so convenient. We enjoyed our stay and especially liked the nice garden courtyard of the "St Philip Suites".

At the end of the trip, we bought 21 pounds of cooked crawfish boil for 7 people. I suspect that if we had an entire day to hang around eating crawfish then we could have eaten a substantial amount. However, due to some poor planning, waking up late, and generally being slow in the morning, we had only 45 minutes to eat them before we had to go to the airport. So we brought back 15 pounds of cooked crawfish as carry on luggage back to San Francisco.

We ate 5 pounds as a cold crawfish boil back in San Francisco and then William and I shelled the remaining 10 pounds. It takes a while, but it goes faster if you do it assembly line style rather than fully cleaning each crawfish, one at a time. i.e. First pull off the heads from all the crawfish, then pick out the orange fat from the heads and then from the top of the tails, then discard all of the insides and lungs, then peel the tails, and then remove the intestines. Using a crab pick to break the tail shells (rather than using your fingers) is helpful to prevent your fingers from getting scratched.

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I made crawfish stock from the shells. I also made Crawfish Etouffée, and then on the following night I made Crawfish Gumbo. We loved both dishes. Etouffée was my favorite since I love how the gravy stays piping hot since it retains heat and I loved the smokiness that the roux adds. William loved the gumbo since he liked the combination of crawfish and Andouille Smoked Sausage.

I served both dishes over "Basic Cooked Rice" made with converted rice. I don't normally like converted rice, but it goes so well with Cajun dishes that I like it here. I have tried to use basmati rice with gumbos before(e.g. in this Shrimp Gumbo). It tastes okay but it doesn't quite go with the dish--it makes the dish taste like it wasn't made by a local. I think it is important to use the variety rice that is used in the region the dish is from if you are trying to achieve an authentic taste. Converted rice is the right variety rice to use for these sorts of dishes.

Some general notes about cooking from "Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen":
  • Cajun Trinity: The onion, celery, and green bell pepper (aromatics sometimes referred to as the Cajun trinity) should be minced into very small pieces. The celery should be cut lengthwise into several thin strips before mincing it, so it is about the same size as the green pepper and onion.
  • Spice Blends:
    • Spiciness: If you want to decrease the spiciness of this dish, I think it is better to make the spice mix in the proportion specified and use less, than it is to decrease the spicy components because the mix of spices is perfectly balanced and decreasing just one element of the spice mix will throw that off (I agree with this reviewer on Amazon). The spiciness can be decreased, but the dishes need to be a little bit spicy, otherwise they will be lacking in taste. If you are serving them with rice, the starch will decrease the spiciness so you should spice the sauce or gumbo a bit spicier to account for this.
      • Since William has a low spice tolerance, I decrease the spiciness for him. Since my cayenne pepper is very spicy, I tended to only add 1/2 tsp of the spice blends if it has lots of cayenne pepper and 1 tsp if it doesn't. Towards the end of cooking when the liquid had reduces to nearly its final consistency I'd taste and sometimes add just a tiny pinch more.
    • Dried Herbs: Dried herbs incorporate better into the spice blend if you grind them with a mortar and pestle (so that they are similarly sized to the finely ground spices) before mixing them into the blend.
    • Salt: The only ingredient that I omitted from the spice blends was salt, so that I could manage this myself. Generally I added 1/2 tsp Diamond Crystal kosher salt whenever the spice blend was added, and then I'd adjust the salt at near the end of cooking when the liquids were nearly reduced to their final volume.
  • Roux: I preferred making roux the night before or ahead of time so that I wasn't rushed. See here for notes on how to make roux. Rather than adding the vegetables to the full amount of roux specified in the recipe, I preferred starting out with a much smaller amount (about 3 Tbsp of cooked roux). Once the stock was added, I added a bit more roux and let it boil to thicken (and make the raw flour taste disappear) until the mixture was the thickness I wanted. I liked this method of adding roux because it allowed me to adjust the thickness perfectly. You can either slowly the roux in small spoonfuls, stirring after each addition, to the stock or you can add the stock in spoonfuls to the roux, stirring after each addition.

Recipe: "Cajun Seafood Gumbo with Andouille Smoked Sausage" from "Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen" by Paul Prudhomme
Rating: Great!
Status: Made twice.

There are three basic types of gumbo: ones that are thickened using roux (as this one is), ones that are thickened using okra, and ones that are thickened using filé. Normally filé and okra are never combined in the same gumbo, however this gumbo from Commander's Place breaks that rule. For the recipe see

Some notes I have from making this recipe are:
  • The recipe says to use 1 lbs of andouille sausage; this is about 4 sausages. Since the andouille sausage is smoked, you don't need to cook it before cutting it into pieces--it will hold its shape. The sausages should be small enough for this dish to be eaten with a spoon. I cut my sausages into fourths lengthwise, and then cut slices on the diagonal.
  • The first time I made this, I used crawfish instead of the shrimp, oysters, and crab. I didn't add its fat because I thought it was starting to have a fishy taste (crawfish fat goes bad and starts to have a fishy taste before the tails do). Since we ate the gumbo over several dinners, I didn't add the crawfish when I cooked the dish. Instead, when I was about to serve it, I warmed up however much gumbo I needed in a separate pot, brought it to a boil, added in some crawfish, and let it heat for just for a minute or so more (until the tails are warmed). It keeps the crawfish as minimally cooked as possible, which is good since the crawfish was already cooked from the seafood boil. Paul Prudhomme suggests this technique in the header comments in his recipe for "Seafood Filé Gumbo". The second time I made this, I used shrimp and oysters (plus oyster liquid).
  • Since this is a roux-based gumbo and the etouffée is a gravy thickened by roux, they have similar flavors. So if you want to serve a gumbo with the etouffée, I would recommend choosing one of the other types of gumbo.
  • The first time I made this, I started with 3 Tbsp of roux when I cooked the vegetables, and ended up adding only about 1 Tbsp more. Since 8 Tbsp of flour and 8 Tbsp oil makes about 11 Tbsp of roux, the second time I made this I substituted 3/4 cup flour and 3/4 cup oil in the recipe for approximately 3/4 cup of roux to the vegetables. Using approximately the same amount of roux or even a little more as the flour seems to be a good rule of thumb. I didn't have to add any additional roux to the gumbo.
  • The second time I made this, I made only one change to the spice mix--I used 1/8 tsp cayenne since William is sensitive to heat. everything else was the same as in the recipe. I included the 2 tsp of salt (I used Diamond Crystal brand) in the spice mix, instead of salting separately--this turned out to be exactly the right amount of salt. The spicing was perfect.

Recipe: "Crawfish stock" via trial and error and suggestions from Philipe LaMancusa from Kitchen Witch cookbook store in New Orleans.
Rating: Good, though make sure to remove the insides from the crawfish and clean them well.
Status: Made three times.

It took us three rounds to peel 10 pounds of crawfish (I don't use the shells when people eat them as part of a crawfish boil, since people tend to suck on the shells to get the juices out), so I had lots of shells to practice with. We reserved the tail meat and orange crawfish fat for the dishes above.

  • The first time I made stock, I used the shells, claws, legs, and all of the remaining insides (except for the intestines which I discarded). All of my cookbooks from New Orleans mentioned simmering stocks for hours regardless of whether they were meat based or seafood based (e.g. here is what Paul Prudhomme's book said). So I simmered mine for 4 hours, even though I normally cook seafood stock for only 15 minutes to one hour. Leaving the insides was a big mistake. When I strained the stock, it came out black with angry red oily spots, and it smelled funky. I had to throw it out. I've never had this problem from the stock I make from shrimp heads and shells; apparently crawfish eat stuff from the bottom of the bayous and so they are much dirtier than shrimp. Possibly the long simmering time made the problem worse.
  • The next time I made stock, I carefully discarded all the insides, especially anything that was black colored, and the lungs. All that was left was the tail shell, the head shell, and claws, which I simmered for 30 minutes. However, since I didn't rinse the shells before making the stock, it had lots of flavor but it was slight cloudy and very spicy. The shells should always be rinsed when hot spices have been added to the crawfish boil, otherwise you may make your dishes too spicy.
  • The third time, I cleaned the shells the same way, rinsed them, and simmered for 30 minutes. The stock was much clearer, but less flavorful so I reduced it for an hour after I strained out the stock ingredients.
To make stock from leftover crawfish after a boil*, make sure that you remove their insides, especially the lungs and anything black colored. Only their shells should be used for stock. The shells should be lightly rinsed to remove any remaining bits of their insides and to remove the spices used to boil the crawfish. The water used to boil the crawfish can also be used for stock as long as the water is left to settle and the bottom sediment is discarded, especially if it was plain water (if spices were used, evaluate how spicy the broth is). Philipe suggested that the shells can also be roasted beforehand to make a richer taste; I didn't try it this time.

Cover the shells with cold water and optionally add aromatics or leftover vegetable peelings**. Don't salt the stock, because the water will reduce and make the stock too salty. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and keep at a bare simmer for 30 minutes. Strain and discard solids. Let the stock sit on the counter top for at least 20 minutes or until the particles settle. Use a large soup spoon to spoon off the clear stock into a container, and discard the last little bit of stock full of sediment. If you like, you can concentrate the flavor by simmering the strained stock for an hour or more, until it reduces in volume. I generally leave my stock unsalted, and then salt my dishes to taste; since commercial stocks are usually salted, you may need slightly more salt than indicated in your recipes.

* You can also make lobster stock in the same way.
** Generally theses types of aromatics or vegetables are used for stocks: bay leaf, garlic, celery, carrots, and onion. Only use a few carrots, since too many of them will make the stock sweet. Celery has a strong flavor, so only a few stalks of celery should be used.

Cajun-Style Roux

Recipe: Notes are compiled from a few sources including "Roux" from "Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen" by Paul Prudhomme, "Brown Roux" from "Recipes: American cooking: Creole and Acadian" from the Time-Life "Foods of the world" series, Philipe LaMancusa from Kitchen Witch cookbook store in New Orleans,, and Wikipedia.
Rating: Great.
Status: Made several times.

Roux is a mixture of fat and flour which is used to thicken gravy, sauces, and stews. The flour is mixed into hot fat and toasted until the raw flour taste disappears and the mixture is the desired color. There are several colors of roux that can be made: white, light brown (the color of honey), medium brown (a tan-brown leather color), dark red-brown (a mahogany color), and black. Many cuisines such as French, Italian, and Eastern European make roux but Cajun roux is unique because it is typically toasted until it is at least a deep brown color, which gives it a rich nutty flavor. Several colors of roux are used in Cajun cooking, such as medium brown, dark red-brown, and black*. Roux has less thickening power the more it is toasted; according to Wikipedia, a chocolate-colored roux has about one-fourth the thickening power by weight of a white-colored roux.

I'm a beginner at making roux. A few things about the process surprised me, so below are some first time observations and pointers.

Ingredients: Roux uses a 1 to 1 ratio of flour to fat. For example, 8 Tbsp of flour and 8 Tbsp oil (which will make about 11 Tbsp of roux). French and Italian cooking often use butter, but Cajun dark roux usually uses vegetable oils or other fats (such as animal fats, lard, bacon fat, or duck fat) with a higher smoking point than butter. I have used grapeseed so far, but peanut oil or lard is supposed to contribute good flavor (though peanut oil can be an allergen for people with peanut allergies).

Equipment: Use a clean heavy pan made out of cast iron or enameled cast iron, which preferably has flared sides to make stirring easier. Use a large enough skillet that the fat does not fill it by more than 1/4.** Don't use a non-stick pan since non-stick pans shouldn't be highly heated. Don't use a thin metal pan since they encourage the roux to burn because they transmit the heat too well and they also cool faster (which is why they are good for sautéing, but not for roux). Use a spatula or long handled cooking spoon to stir the roux since that will keep your hand far away from the roux.

Safety: Roux becomes extremely hot when it is cooking. Be very careful to not splatter it. If it splatters on you, the hot mixture will stick to your skin and burn. Don't ever taste the roux while it is cooking because it will burn your tongue.

Many sources suggest cooking roux at a low heat for a long time, however Paul Prudhomme's method uses very high heat to quickly cook the roux. Since I was worried about burning the roux, I used a fairly hot heat but not extremely hot***. So it took me longer (30 minutes) to make than Paul Prudhomme specified (3 to 5 minutes).

Heat up the pan. Add the oil. Wait 3 to 5 minutes for the oil to become hot; the oil should start to ripple and a light haze should form over it. Slowly sprinkle in the flour bit by bit and stir it in; don't add all the flour at once. When you add the flour it may sizzle and steam since the flour has some water in it.

Keep stirring and scrape any flour that sticks to the bottom of the pan; do not stop stirring while you are making the roux because the roux will burn. Adjust the heat to control the browning process. If it is browning faster than you want it to, adjust the heat lower or move the pan away from the heat. It will take a long time to brown if the heat is too low--if so, you can turn up the heat a little. Keep stirring and scraping the bottom and sides of the pan. It will have a faintly nutty aroma when cooking. If black dots appear in the roux than it has burned and it should be discarded by transferring it to a heat proof container (e.g. Pyrex) to cool, and then thrown away. It took about 30 minutes for me to make a roux the color of melted dark chocolate as shown above (the milk chocolate color seems to happen fairly quickly).

You can either use the roux immediately in a recipe or store it for later. I prefer making the night before so I'm not rushed.
  • To use immediately: When the roux is the color that you want, add your chopped vegetables and turn off the heat. Keep stirring for 5 minutes while roux cools down. The vegetables will stop the roux from cooking and the heat will saute the vegetables.
  • To store the roux: The roux will continue to cook until it has cooled down, so when it is nearly color you want, turn off the heat. Keep stirring for about 5 minutes until it cools down a little (this is just so that you are less likely to burn yourself when you remove it from the pan). Do not let the roux sit unstirred in the hot pan because you will burn it. Transfer to a heat proof container (e.g. Pyrex) and let cool. It keeps for several weeks in a covered container in the refrigerator. To use, stir briefly to recombine and loosen (make sure you do this--otherwise the roux will clump in the sauce), spoon out the amount you want into a preheated skillet; let the roux warm for a minute and then continue with your recipe. You can also use it when it is at room temperature, but heating it is preferable.
Always mix hot liquid into the roux; cold liquid may cause the mixture to separate. There are two ways roux can be added to dishes: 1) You can gradually add ladlefuls of hot stock into hot or warm roux (with or without vegetables sautéed in roux); stir well after each addition of stock. 2) Or you can gradually add small spoonfuls of roux into stock, stirring until the roux is well dissolved after each addition--make sure that you add the roux in small amounts and stir really well, otherwise the roux will clump.

Alternative Method:
The traditional method is the best, but there is also an alternative method which doesn't require constant stirring that Philipe told me about. He said that "To insure a well darkened roux, if you're not going to stand over it and stir constantly, the best way is to put the pan (a heavy bottom pan like cast iron) in the oven at 375 and stir it every once in a while." I haven't tried it yet, but it sounds useful in certain situations.

* When I tried to make black colored roux, it came out burnt since it made particles that wouldn't dissolve in warm liquid, so this is something I need to learn. Black roux is a lot harder to make than any of the brown colored roux.

** 8 Tbsp of flour and 8 Tbsp oil fit comfortably in my 10 inch cast iron skillet. It's a good idea for a beginner to only make a small amount, so that it is less likely to splattering when stirring; 12 Tbsp of flour and 12 Tbsp of oil was the maximum I would do in this skillet for this reason. It is possible to make large amounts of roux at once if you use a large enough pot and carefully control the heat. I was able to make roux from 750 ml of oil using a cast iron dutch oven that was large enough for the oil to only fill it 1/4 of the way.

*** I used medium, but my stove runs hot so this is probably closer to medium-high on most other stoves

Cajun Basic Rice

Recipe: Heavily modified from "Basic Cooked Rice" from "Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen" by Paul Prudhomme
Rating: Great!
Status: Made many times.
Yield: Serves 6 (6 cups cooked rice).

This recipe is the first time I've ever liked converted rice. I liked how this recipe bakes the rice; it frees up your stove to make other things, and you don't need to watch it closely.


  • 2 cups uncooked rice, preferably converted
  • 2-1/2 cups water
  • 2 Tbsp unsalted butter, unmelted
  • 1/2 tsp Diamond Crystal kosher salt
  • 1/8 tsp garlic powder
  • pinch each of white pepper, cayenne pepper, and black pepper

Preheat oven at 350 F.

Converted rice doesn't need to be washed; wash the rice if using any other type of rice.

Choose a pan which is not too wide (if the pan is very wide, then the rice layer will be very thin (0.75 inches or less) and the rice will become too crispy and dry). A 5x9x2-1/2 inch loaf pan is ideal but I've had success with a 12x8x2-1/2 inch pyrex glass baking pan pan and a 3-1/2 quart enameled dutch oven with a lid.

Add all ingredients to the pan. Cover with a tight fitting lid or cover tightly with aluminum foil.

Bake for 1 hour and 10 minutes, or until rice is tender. Add some water and bake for a little longer if the rice is too firm. The edges may get brown and crispy; this is fine. Stir rice to fluff it up and separate the grains.

 If kept covered, the rice will stay hot for about 45 minutes , and warm for up to 2 hours.

Variation: Use stock instead of water. Preferably use a stock which complements the dish you will be serving it with (chicken stock for a chicken dish, seafood stock for a seafood dish, etc). Stock will make a more flavorful rice; water makes a neutral flavored rice which is appropriate for flavorful sauces and gumbos.

Variation: Add 1-1/2 Tbsp of very finely chopped onions, 1-1/2 Tbsp of very finely chopped celery, and 1-1/2 Tbsp of very finely chopped green bell peppers (or a sub-combination of these vegetables) to the rice before cooking. Paul Prudhomme suggests omitting the green bell pepper if you are making the rice ahead of time, since it sours quickly.

Leftovers should be stir fried in some butter (you can add a few Tbsp of water too if it seems dry) or oil; you should do this even if you are topping it with gumbo, since the rice gets dry after being in the refrigerator.

You can also re-bake leftovers (add some water if it seems dry) or if the rice grains are too firm.

You can also make a Cajun take on fried rice with the leftovers for breakfast. Stir fry some leftover rice with butter, a tiny pinch of extra spice mix from the other dishes above, a bit extra salt, and even a few crawfish tails if you have them. Place the rice on a plate once it is hot. Melt a bit more butter in the pan and fry an egg. Optionally also serve with hot sauce.

Recipe: "How to Cook Uncle Bens Converted Rice" from (You don't have to use Uncle Ben's brand for this recipe; any brand of converted rice is fine.)
Rating: Acceptable
Status: Made several times
Yield: Serves 4 people

I prefer the baked rice because the grains stay firm and distinct and don't get mushy. If you want a quicker way to make rice or don't want to use an oven, boiling and then steaming rice, as in this recipe, makes acceptable rice. Since converted rice cooks much faster than regular rice, and since all the water is absorbed by the rice, this recipe is also great for camping and makes little waste.

Leftover rice can be heated up in a hot pan with a little oil.

1 cup converted rice
2-1/4 cups water, cold or room temperature

Mix water with rice in a medium saucepan which has enough room for the rice to expand to three times the volume. Quickly bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer covered for 20 minutes. Don't stir (it will make the rice mushy). Leave the cover on and don't remove to check the rice, otherwise you will let out the steam.

Turn off the stove, and let the rice sit for 5 minutes. If serving right away, then remove cover and check the rice. If the rice has not absorbed all the water than recover and let stand another 3 minutes and check again. If not serving right away, then don't check the rice after 5 minutes and just leave it covered to help keep it warm until you serve it.

If the rice isn't fully cooked through you can add a small amount of additional water, and heat it up covered, and then let it stand for a few more minutes.

San Francisco Botanical Garden

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Lots of wild flowers were in bloom at the San Francisco Botanical Garden in May 2013!

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In October 2013, there was a butterfly garden at the Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco.

Spicy Yuba Ribbons

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Recipe: "Spicy Yuba Ribbons" from "Asian Tofu" by Andrea Nguyen
Rating: Great! I love Asian tofu
Status: Made twice.
Yield: 5 oz of yuba noodles makes enough to serve two as a side dish.

Tofu skin (which is known in Japanese as "yuba"*) is made from the film that forms on top of liquid soy milk when it is boiled (wiki). Yuba is noodles cut from sheets of fresh tofu skin.

This recipe quickly stir fries yuba noodles in a light soy sauce mixture. The noodles have the chewy and bouncy texture that makes noodles so enjoyable, only this chewiness comes from tofu rather than wheat.

* Since yuba is the Japanese word for tofu skin, it is used in Japanese recipes written in the English language. Chinese recipes written in the English language usually use the term "tofu skin".

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Additional Notes:

The most time consuming part of this recipe is separating the yuba strands; you don't need to separate them perfectly though. It is okay and even desirable to give textual variation by having some pieces double thickness and having different lengths of noodles; however you do want the majority of the noodles to be single thickness since this gives a more delicate noodle. The recipe is very quick to cook.

The first time I made this, I accidentally used 5 oz of yuba noodles instead of the 8 oz called for with the exact same quantity of sauce and everything else listed in the recipe (because I didn't notice that I had bought a smaller amount than specified). I recommend searing the yuba noodles in the beginning of the recipe in two steps as suggested, since it helps to get more surface area get browned crispy areas. I was happy with the results, although I wanted to the soy sauce to be a touch more subtle.

The second time I made this, I used 5 oz yuba noodles with half the quantity of sauce. The balance was great, except it wasn't quite salty enough so I added a tiny bit extra light soy sauce (maybe about 1/2 tsp) after the cooking was done and a touch of salt.

Weighing in on Salt

Monday, May 06, 2013

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Salt crystals come in many different shapes such as cubes, thin flakes, or pyramid-shaped flakes and its grain size can range from fine to coarse. When used as a finishing salt to sprinkle over a dish just before serving, different salts may have a different texture or feel--some may be crunchy whereas others may dissolve quickly on the tongue. But during the cooking process the texture of the solid crystal is not very important because the salt dissolves (though small grains may be easier to cook with since they dissolve more easily); however the crystal size and shape has one very important effect during cooking--it determines how much volume each grain of salt occupies. The volume is important because your fingers measure by volume and many recipes specify small quantities of salt in volume measurements such as teaspoons and tablespoons since it is convenient. The different sizes and shapes of salt crystals means that the saltiness of one teaspoon of different salts varies. Thus for cooking, the most important difference for cooking isn't taste, where it is from, or if it is fleur du sel. It is the saltiness by volume. Since your fingers measure salt by volume, the amount of salt per volume determines how salty a pinch of salt will make the dish.

Since using volume measurements for salt is common for small quantities of salt, you will need to develop some sense of how salty your salt is in order to adjust a dish or convert a recipe from an author using a more or less voluminous salt than you are. This also means that it is important to learn how to season foods by taste. To salt to taste, start with less salt and add more as needed, or conservatively use a conversion formula to convert between common varieties of salt. In order to be precise, recipes should specify the type of salt that they are using when they are given in volume measurements. This allows you to make an approximate conversion from the amount of salt specified in the recipe to the type of salt that you use.

Whenever you are using more than a tablespoon or two of salt or in cases when you don't salt to taste, such as when brining, baking bread, or are measuring large quantities of salt, you should measure by weight so that the saltiness is the same no matter what type of salt you use. Using weight for large measurements of salt is a more reliable measurement than volume for salt because salts are equivalent in saltiness by weight but not by volume.

Various sources (e.g. source 1source 2source 3) have measured the volume of the same weight of various salts and determined some conversions:
  • 1 Tbsp of fine sea salt = 1 Tbsp table salt = 1 3/4 Tbsp to 2 1/4 Tbsp of Diamond Crystal brand kosher salt = 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 Tbsp Morton's kosher salt
Thus, there is about 1.5 Diamond Crystal to 1 part Morton's by volume or you can even nearly double the quantity of Morton's kosher salt listed in a recipe when you replace it with Diamond Crystal. As shown by this example, even different brands of the sample type of salt may have different weights; this is why recipe that are precise should specify that a measurement for kosher salt is for a particular brand. As Michael Ruhlman explains in "Twenty", "Diamond Crystal is flakier than Morton's. Morton's is denser, so that the same volume is saltier than Diamond Crystal; a tablespoon of Morton's weighs more."

In "Twenty", Michael Ruhlman has a suggestion for an easy and convenient way to learn how salty your salt it--buy the same brand and variety of salt; it will be more difficult to learn how salty your pinch of salt is if you often switch brands and varieties of salt. Although you can use any type of salt for cooking, it isn't necessary to use a type of salt that costs extra because of its extraordinary texture because the salt dissolves during cooking, though using type with small crystals can be useful since it will dissolve more easily. Flaky sea salt and fleur du sel are all finishing salts which are meant to be sprinkled on top of finishes dishes because they have an especially delicate texture or taste and they tend to cost more since they are rare or difficult to harvest. Kosher salt is one variety of salt which is good for cooking, dissolving in liquids, and you can even finish dishes with it if you aren't looking for a specialized texture. That's why I use kosher salt in most of my cooking. It is affordable (a 3 lbs box should be $4 or less), which is important since there are a few cooking tasks which use a lot of salt. For example, properly salted your blanching liquids should be a 5% salt solution and pasta water should be a 1% salt solution (this means that you should be using approximately a fistful or two of salt in a large pot for pasta and several times more for blanching vegetables). I like kosher salt because the grains disappear into dishes, even when you sprinkle it on top so it becomes a background flavor which highlights the dish, rather than being at the forefront like larger sea salt crystals are. The flaky sea salt / fleur de sel trend seems to have passed and nowadays it seems to be common for recipes to be written for kosher salt so using a kosher salt requires less conversions (though some are still necessary since different brands of kosher salts do not have the same weight by volume).

I prefer using Diamond Crystal kosher salt brand because it is harder to over salt your food because it is more voluminous--if you use a recipe that was developed using Morton's, than their amounts will be a touch too small, and it is also harder to accidentally over salt your food when salting to taste because it takes a larger amount of Diamond Crystal salt to make food salty, so salting isn't extremely sensitive to small additions. If you are used to using Diamond Crystal and you start using Morton's, salt cautiously at first since it is nearly twice as salty. I also like Diamond Crystal kosher salt brand because it has no anti-caking agents like Morton's does; Diamond Crystal is 100% salt. An additional advantage for me is that Diamond Crystal sea salt is local, since it is from the San Francisco Bay (

All of my recipes that specify quantities of salt are for Diamond Crystal brand kosher salt, unless otherwise specified. It isn't actually necessary to buy the same brand of kosher salt as me if you prefer a different kind of salt and make the conversions.

Another nice explanation of why salt should be weighed and why kosher salt is often used in cooking is here.

Brine Solutions: Cooking Pasta, Blanching Vegetables, and Brining Meat

If you want your pasta or blanched vegetables to be seasoned, then the brine that they are cooked in must be seasoned properly. The correct amount of salt for blanching vegetables was way more than I used to think was necessary before I read some of Michael Ruhlman's writings--for a normal amount of water to cook pasta, it is a fistful or more. I recommend kosher salt for salty solutions like this, since it is cost effective and it isn't necessary to use fancy textured salt (such as fleur du sel) since it will be dissolved.

Michael Ruhlman recommends (in "Twenty" and "Ratio"):
  • 1% solution for cooking Italian pasta *:
    • By weight use a ratio: 1 part salt to 10 parts water by weight = 10 g salt per 1000 g water (1 litre) = 1 oz salt per 100 oz water (about 12.5 cups)
    • Since the saltiness of different types of salt (even different brands of kosher salt) differ by volume, large amounts of salt should be measured by weight (see here). In order to help you envision how much salt this is, the conversions for volume are approximately: 1/4 cup (4 Tbsp) of Morton's kosher salt for every 8 quarts of water (2 gallon) = 3/8 cup (6 Tbsp) of Diamond Crystal kosher salt for every 8 quarts of water (2 gallon).
  • 5% solution for for blanching vegetables or brining meats:
    • By weight use a ratio: 1 part salt to 20 parts water by weight = 50 g salt per 1000 g water (1 liter) = 5 oz salt per 100 oz water (about 12.5 cups)
    • Since the saltiness of different types of salt (even different brands of kosher salt) differ by volume, large amounts of salt should be measured by weight (see here). In order to help you envision how much salt this is, the conversions for volume are approximately: 1 cup of Morton's kosher salt per 4 quarts of water (1 gallon) = 1.5 cups of Diamond Crystal kosher salt per 4 quarts of water (1 gallon)
If you are brining meats, you should weight your ingredients to make sure that your solution has the correct percentage of saltiness. If you are making pasta or blanching vegetables, you have a bit more leeway so it isn't always necessary to measure exact amounts once you know about how salty the water should be. If you don't want to measure, then Michael Ruhlman suggests checking by tasting the salted water. A common saying for pasta water is that it should taste like the sea. For brines he says it should taste saltier than a soup, but not so salty that it feels acrid on your tongue.

* Note that some Japanese noodles suggest cooking them in unsalted water, since the noodles are salted when they are made.

Kumquat Marmalade

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Recipe: Modified from "Kumquat Ricotta Tartine" from
Rating: Quick and easy.
Status: Made once.

I was served some kumquat marmalade along with a some sort of pastry such as a muffin or scone at brunch restaurant. I loved how the sour citrus contrasted with the sweet baked good, and how refreshing the sourness was. Ever since then, I've been interesting in making or owning some kumquat jam. This recipe makes a full flavored fairly sour marmalade; its perfect contrasted against something sweet, or something mild such as quark, or even as a refreshment to nibble in between bites of a strongly flavored cheese plate (e.g. Stilton cheese). A small spoonful of this is also nice on top of an open faced jambon-brie sandwich (ham and brie, preferably black forest on top of a slice of bread which has been pan fried in butter).

This recipe only makes 1 jam jar of marmalade. You don't need to sterilize the jam jars if you plan on eating in just a few days. If you want to store the jam for longer, then you should follow canning directions to sterilize your jar. I didn't think of it this time, but next time I make this it would be nice to include a tiny pinch of salt (just enough to bring out the flavors but not make it salty).

You don't have to buy exactly 22 kumquats. Just buy a few handfuls, and then adjust the quantities in the recipe below to proportionally how many kumquats you have.

Approximately 22 Kumquats
3 Tbsp honey
3 Tbsp water

Specialized equipment:
(optional) crab pick tool, toothpick, chopstick, or some other small pointy tool for removing seeds

Wash and dry the kumquats. Remove the stems. Thinly slice all of the kumquats (leave the skin on, it is edible and a large part of the taste of kumquats is the skin), removing the seeds as you find them. Discard seeds.

Place kumquat slices and the juices from the cutting board (if there are some--I didn't have any) into a small heavy non-reactive pan. Add honey and water. Bring to a simmer. Simmer constantly stirring for 10 minutes, or until the mixture thickens. Place in a clean heatproof jar with a tight fitting lid. Let cool a bit before eating. Store in the refrigerator.

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