Our very clever, very clothed Never Cook Naked columnists, Mark Scarbrough and Bruce Weinstein, are at your disposal, able to troubleshoot everything from questionable table etiquette to tricky cooking techniques (as well as, natch, proper cooking attire). Curious to read more solutions to culinary conundrums? You may wish to peruse previously asked questions, starting with the last column’s answers pertaining to heating hot cocoa, lemon life expectancy, and oven rack positioning.
Dear Never Cook Naked Guys: I’d appreciate a scientific explanation as to why the toast always lands on the floor butter-side down.—Tired of the Morning Sadness
Dear Morning Sadness: It falls butter-side down because the buttered side is heavier.
That answer doesn’t pan out experimentally. (And yes, people have done experiments on this sort of thing. Gotten grants, too. Sheesh.) If things always landed heavy-side down, we’d land on our well-filled foodie stomachs every time. Instead, we fall down and hit our shoulders, our elbows, our knees, what have you.
When all factors are even, toast has about a 50/50 chance of landing buttered-side down. We think it just seems like the buttered side lands face down more often because we’re more likely to remember the mess, and just as likely to forget those times when we blew on the dry side to continue eating, like it was no big deal.
That said, all factors are not even. Most counters are about waist-high, give or take an inch. Chances are the toast starts out on your plate buttered-side up, comes off the edge of the counter, starts its swan dive, and makes about a half-rotation before it hits the floor. Thus, buttered-side down. Clearly the solution is to build higher counters. And while you’re at it, stop eating off the floor.
Dear Never Cook Naked Guys: What’s the deal with using red versus white wines in cooking, especially when braising? I always use a dry red, thinking it’s tastier and prettier, but many recipes call for a white.—Sloshed in the Pot
Dear Sloshed: Most foodies know the cardinal rule about cooking with wine: Skip the cheap swill and use a bottle you’d happily drink. But consider this an extension of said rule: Only use a bottle of wine you’d happily drink with the dish you’re cooking. If you’d consider drinking a Riesling with brisket, try braising said brisket in said wine. It’s not to our taste, but it might be to yours.
That said, if you’re using a tested recipe from a trusted website (ahem), author, or cookbook, go with the wine recommendation in the ingredient list. Otherwise, why are you using a recipe from said website, author, or cookbook? You’ve invested in expertise. Use it.
But don’t be hamstrung by it. You can play around a little. Adding wine is essentially about adding sweetness. As a general rule, whites add more sweet stuff, which can perfectly balance sour and spicy components but tends to play less successfully with bitter and umami notes.
So while you can’t go substituting red wine for white wine willy-nilly, you can play around with basic flavors. Yes, white wines are seemingly made for fish, but there are terrific recipes for salmon poached in red wine with rosemary, sliced oranges, and onions. And true, red wines usually go well with robust meats, but we’ve written recipes for, say, goat shanks braised in white wine. And we can assure you, whatever didn’t go into the pot made it to the table.
Dear Never Cook Naked Guys: Here’s a question that always pops into my mind. Recipes say that dried herbs should be used more sparingly than fresh. But my first inclination is to think, Hmm, wouldn’t you expect something dried to lose its flavor?—Skeptically Inclined
Dear Inclined: Don’t think dry, as in the Sahara. Think concentrated, as in a good sauce reduction.
See, herbs are stocked with essential oils that carry the plant’s volatile compounds. But as you know, herbs, like most living things, contain even more water than oil—leafy green plants can consist of up to 95 percent water.
As herbs are dried, that water evaporates, leaving the heavier oils (and their aromatic compounds) behind. The leaves shrink, the essential oils turn more concentrated in terms of overall volume and mass, and the taste becomes more pronounced. In other word, the herbs are less watery.
However, over time, a dried herb can come to taste nothing like its living kin. Dried herbs have a surprisingly short shelf life—9 to 12 months, on average. Any longer and they take on a dusty, tea-like tang. Witness the bottles from the year of your birth still sitting on your mom’s spice rack.
There’s a general rule among culinary pros about using half the amount of a dried herb as a substitute for a fresh one. If you’ve got exceptionally fresh dried herbs—herbs you’ve dried yourself, or those from a reputable stand at a farmers’ market—you should use a third as much as the recipe calls for.
How does that work out in real life? Remember that 1 tablespoon = 3 teaspoons. If the recipe calls for “1 tablespoon fresh rosemary,” and all we’ve got on hand in the dead of a New England winter is dried, we’ll use 1/2 tablespoon (or 1 1/2 teaspoons) dried rosemary as a substitute. However, if the recipe also calls for “1 tablespoon fresh thyme,” we’ll use 2 teaspoons dried thyme as a sub.
Got more questions? Good. We do, too. That is, more questions AND answers. In case you missed the mention above, for more cooking etiquette and enigmas explained, you can take a peek at previous columns from our Never Cook Naked Guys. Anything pertaining to food or drink goes. Well, anything within reason. But first, those previously tended-to questions we promised….
Illustration © 2012 Eric Hanson. All rights reserved.