General Topics rss

Highlights from the General Topics and Cookware boards. Food trends, food products, and burning questions.

Nixtamalization, the Process That Makes Corn Good for You

When corn becomes a staple food—like corn tortillas in Mexican cuisine—it must undergo a process called nixtamalization to make the nutrients available for digestion. e_bone says it's a method developed in Mesoamerica thousands of years ago. But when corn was introduced to Europe, they didn't use nixtamalization, and vitamin deficiencies spread.

The process consists of boiling and steeping corn in an alkaline bath, often made with slaked lime (cal) or ashes, says lapositivista. Niacin in the corn then becomes available for human bodies, and the grains absorb nutrients from the cal itself. "Eventually, the outer coating of the corn becomes gelatinous, the cal/water mixture is drained and the corn is rinsed, removing the outer coating," lapositivista says. The corn can then be used whole in pozole or ground for other uses.

Does that mean that fresh corn on the cob, which obviously hasn't undergone nixtamalization, isn't nutritious? Not quite, jumpingmonk says. Corn on the cob is a once-in-a-while food that's eaten as a vegetable side dish, rather than as a staple food. The fiber and nutrients in fresh corn are still valuable, as long as you're getting niacin and other nutrients from different foods.

Discuss: Corn on the Cob vs. Nixtamalization

Authentic Leavening for Empanada Dough

Are authentic empanadas always made with yeast-risen dough? That's a tough question, wyogal says, since empanada styles vary from Spain to Portugal to Latin America. JungMann loves the flaky, unyeasted turnovers made in Spain, the Philippines, and Argentina, where the pastry is like barely flaky pie crust. "I prefer them greatly over the thin, pliant crust one might find in other South American varieties like Chilean empanadas de pino," JungMann says. But paulj loves one particular Spanish recipe for dough that includes yeast but isn't allowed to rise much, reminiscent of what paulj calls "oily pizza dough." Though it dates to only the 19th century, baking powder is perfectly authentic—it's common in empanadas from Bolivia and Ecuador, paulj says, same as versions without yeast or baking powder.

Discuss: Traditional authentic empanadas, should the dough contain yeast?

Photograph of chicken empanadas by Chris Rochelle /

Cube Steak, the Heart of Chicken-Fried Steak

Cube steak, the standard choice for chicken-fried steak, isn't a particular cut. Rather, todao says, it's meat that's been put through a tenderizer, "which makes countless little indentations in its surface." Uncle Bob points out that a single cube steak might even consist of multiple smaller trimmings run through the tenderizer, folded, and run through again.

For chicken-fried steak, todao recommends a nice piece of top or bottom round measuring a half-inch thick. Ask the butcher to remove the sinew (if present), and then to take the steak down to about a quarter-inch thickness in the meat tenderizer. Finally, let it rest for 15 minutes after dredging in flour, egg, and flour again. Fry it golden brown in a hot pan.

Discuss: Cube steak

Photograph of chicken fried steak by Vaya Con Carne

The Number 1 Tip for No-Cry Onions

Does slicing onions make you cry? Some Chowhounds go to great lengths to avoid getting weepy, including wearing goggles! But you don't need any special gadgets to keep onions from making you cry, greygarious says: Just chill your onion thoroughly in the fridge or in ice water before taking your knife to it. "NEVER any tears from an onion that is chilled to the core," greygarious says.

See also: How to Cut an Onion Without Crying
How to Chop an Onion Without Crying

Discuss: Onions and Tears

Onion image from Shutterstock

Should Lamb Have a Strong Taste?

ns1 finds it confusing when people praise lamb dishes as "cooked perfectly, without a single hint of gaminess." Isn't the pronounced flavor the appeal of lamb in the first place?

While lamb does have a characteristic flavor, that flavor is not "gamy," sunshine842 says, though not everyone thinks gaminess is a bad thing. caseyjo, for one, loves the strong, gamy flavor of full-grown mutton, as long as it's tempered with appropriate seasonings.

Lamb should taste like lamb, a flavor Isolda describes as "grassy and fresh," qualities common in New Zealand lamb. Harters calls the flavor lovely, mild, and sweet—much less strongly flavored than older sheep, and milder and sweeter than beef or pork.

Diet, age, and preparation all affect flavor. A diet of grass rather than grain imparts a stronger flavor, JMF says. judybird loves the strong taste of two-year-old New Zealand sheep (known locally as "two-twos") more than the bland flavor of most American lamb.

Finally, lamb naturally has a fat covering called the fell, as well as glands at the back of the leg, which, if left on, impart a strong flavor to the meat, harryharry explains. Some hounds prefer the strong flavor of lamb with its fell and glands; others, including enhF94, prefer the clean, springtime flavor of de-felled lamb.

Discuss: Lamb - should it be gamey or not?

Photograph of slow-roasted rack of lamb by JoanN

The Holy Grail of Authentic Sichuan Cooking

Juan Cheng brand pixian doubanjiang broad-bean and chile paste is the "holy grail of authentic Sichuan cooking," eatahorse says. The place where you can find it: Boston's Posharp Store, which sells online. chilibeanpaste agrees that Juan Cheng is essential, and recommends chopping the paste very fine before using it, "which seems to release more flavor."

Discuss: Authentic Sichuan Chinese Ingredients

Can You Tell If Corn Is Going to Taste Sweet?

Is there any way to tell by looking if the ears of corn you're buying are going to taste sweet? Are white varieties automatically going to taste sweeter than yellow ones?

According to raytamsgv, the color of fresh corn doesn't tell you very much about its sweetness. Instead, it's the plant's genotype that determines how it tastes. Different varieties of corn start out with different amounts of sugar, raytamsgv explains. Varieties designated "su" (such as the popular Silver Queen) are traditional varieties with a moderate amount of sugar; they must be picked at just the right time and eaten right away or they'll lose their sweetness (as soon as corn is picked, its sugar begins converting into starch). Sugar-enhanced "se" varieties, such as Bodacious and Kandy Korn, start out with more sugar, and are more forgiving regarding the timing of picking and eating. "sh-2" varieties are the sweetest, with massive sugar and a long shelf life. "I don't really like them," says raytamsgv. And just to be extra confusing? Each variety (su, se, and sh-2) has yellow, white, and bicolor variations.

Check out CHOW's Recipes for Fresh Summer Corn for ideas of what to do with this seasonal treat.

Discuss: White or Yellow?

Photograph of CHOW's Tomato, Tomatillo, and Corn Salad recipe by Chris Rochelle /

Is a Shaken Martini an Abomination?

Is a shaken martini with lots of tiny ice slivers an abomination? JMF thinks so. While shaking is great for drinks containing juice or other cloudy ingredients, it doesn't jibe with JMF's aesthetic preference for clear cocktails. Plus when a martini is stirred, it has a sexy, silky, oily texture; shaking introduces excessive aeration, and the resulting ice slivers cause too much dilution.

But e_bone loves a shaken martini precisely for the ice slivers, which a friend calls "sleet." Sneakeater likes the icy bits too, but also gets that cocktail purists sees the slivers as a flaw.

Maybe it's all a matter of agreeing to disagree. "People should do, and drink, as they like," davis_sq_pro says, "as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else!"

Discuss: Icy, Icy, Icy Martini Tool?

Why Do We Need Tomato Paste Anyway?

Considering that we all have canned crushed tomatoes and tomato sauce in our pantries, achilles007 wonders: What's the purpose of tomato paste? Well, Dirtywextraolives explains, tomato paste is a concentrated version of those other products, a source of flavor, body, unctuousness, and umami without extra liquid. It can even act as a binder for sauces. LauraGrace buys tomato paste in the squeeze tube for maximum convenience, or buys it in the can and freezes what she doesn't use in individual portions.

Discuss: Tomato Paste: What Is It Good For?

Tomato paste image from Shutterstock

Does Bottle Color Affect Nocino’s Taste?

Every year, quasistoic makes a batch of nocino, a liqueur made from green walnuts mellowed in red wine for at least a year. "Last year's batch has mellowed into deliciousness, and we're one week into infusion of this year's batch," quasistoic reports. But quasistoic's mismatched collection of bottles used for aging has raised a question: Why did the batch aged in dark-colored bottles result in reddish nocino, while the liqueur aged in clear bottles ended up a drab, muddy brown with lots of suspended sediment?

A further mystery: The muddy-looking nocino aged in clear class tasted indisputably superior, with greater body and depth of flavor, while the pretty nocino aged in dark glass tasted almost sour. Maybe other factors were at work here, quasistoic notes, but the color of the glass "definitely deserves more investigation."

Discuss: Nocino - green walnut liqueur

Nocino image from Shutterstock