With so many types of foods available for purchase today, it can be hard to determine what foods to buy when. How do I know when to use broth instead of stock? What’s the difference between green onions and scallions? Can I use light brown sugar and dark brown sugar interchangeably?
I know, adulting is hard. But I’ve set out to try to clear up at least SOME of these questions that plague us every time we gear up for a shopping trip or embark on trying a new recipe. In most instances, the changes in these common foods is pretty minimal, but in other cases swapping one for the other may change your end result completely.
So get ready to take back your pantry…here are 15 Common Food Questions ANSWERED.
Baking Powder vs. Baking Soda
Both baking powder and baking soda make a big difference for baked goods, but powder and soda are much different, and are used differently. Baking soda only has one ingredient: sodium bicarbonate. Sodium bicarbonate is a base that reacts when it comes into contact with an acid, like buttermilk or vinegar. This reaction produces carbon dioxide in the form of bubbles, helping batter or dough to rise. But when baking soda comes into contact with acid, it reacts immediately, which sucks for baking. For many recipes, you want an extended reaction so the rising doesn’t take place all at one time. Baking powder to the rescue! Baking powder has two different ingredients that create carbon dioxide gas at two different stages of the baking process. In addition to sodium bicarbonate, baking powder also contains two acids, one of which reacts when mixed with wet ingredients, the other reacting when it gets hot. Cakes and muffins that use baking powder in the recipe often result in fluffier and lighter sponge because the batter is rising for a longer period of time and there’s an additional rising reaction after your batter is placed in the oven (this especially helps for bigger batches when you have batter sitting on the counter for an hour or so as you bake sheet after sheet). Since they both contain sodium bicarbonate, substituting one for the other is possible, but it may or may not affect the taste of your recipe, as you will then also have to alter the amount of acid.
Whole Milk vs. Heavy Cream
Both whole milk and heavy cream are made from cow’s milk, but the major difference is the amount of fat. Heavy cream, or heavy whipping cream, contains about 38% fat, so this is great for achieving stable results, such as making whipped cream or butter. It will also resist curdling, so it’s great for soups. As for whole milk, when milk is processed, the cream is taken out of it, then put back in manually, resulting in such labels as skim, 1%, 2%, etc. For skim milk, there is no additional cream added once it’s been removed. Milk labeled 1% or 2% has all the cream taken out, then added back in until it’s 1% or 2% of the total volume. Whole milk is actually only about 3% fat, so really not that much different. The “whole milk” label has less to do with the fat content and more to do with the fact that it’s pretty much unadulterated in terms of preparation. In a sense, whole milk is the way it comes from the cow before processing. So basically whole milk and heavy cream start off coming from the cow, but heavy cream has about 35% more fat added to it to help it stabilize.
Jam vs. Jelly
Let’s be honest…jam, jelly and preserves are pretty much all the same thing. They’re all made from a combination of fruit, sugar and pectin. The difference in what they’re called comes in the form the fruit takes. For jelly, the fruit comes in the form of fruit juice…so jelly is often smooth when spread, making it great for picky eaters and for layering in desserts, like cakes and cookies. Jam uses fruit pulp or crushed fruit, so you can often see pieces of fruit when you use jam. It’s less stiff than jelly, so it’s great for using to flavor or mix in with other items, like icing or butter. In preserves, the fruit comes in the form of chunks in a syrup or jam, so preserves can be pretty sweet.
Broth vs. Stock
While they both can be made with the same ingredients, stock is often thinner and less flavorful than broth. Stock tends to be made from bony parts of the animal and various veggies, whereas broth is made using more meat and full bone pieces. Stock has a fuller mouth feel and richer flavor, due to the gelatin released by long-simmering bones. Broth is best used for the busy home cook. It is great for chicken soup and for using in place of water for any recipe where you want to add a little chicken or beef flavor. Stock is better for richer soups and stews, as it has more flavor and is great for recipes where you want to highlight the meat or fish flavor of a dish.
White Rice vs. Brown Rice
There are literally so many types of rice varieties in the world! For us simpletons, the choice is usually simple: white or brown. It’s been ingrained in our heads that brown is better than white, but why? The answer is fiber. Brown rice is the whole grain with just the first outer layer (the husk) removed through milling…so it retains its fiber and germ, which contains vital nutrients. White rice is brown rice that has been milled to remove the bran and much of the germ, reducing the fiber and nutrients. Since white rice has been stripped of most of its nutritional value, it actually has a much longer shelf life than brown rice. The essential oils still remaining on the brown rice start to go rancid after about 6 to 8 months, while white rice can easily last up to 10 years. So, if you love white rice, you’re in luck! If you prefer brown rice, buy it in small quantities.
Banana vs. Plantain
Not surprisingly, plantains are members of the banana family, but both taste very different. Bananas are sweet and soft, while plantains are harder and only soften after they’ve been cooked down. This difference comes in the amount of starch and sugar in both fruits. While there are several types of bananas out there, the type we all know and love is the Cavendish banana, easy to peel and sweet to eat. Plantains, on the other hand, contain a much higher percentage of starch and less sugar. Because of this, they’re quite unpleasant if eaten raw. To get the most out of a plantain, they have to be cooked. They caramelize nicely and have a heavy potato-like character to them, making them great for both sweet and savory dishes.
Sweet Potato vs. Yam
While a yam is technically a TYPE of sweet potato, they are quite different. Chances are not many people have even had a yam! A true yam is a starchy root that grows in the Caribbean. It’s rough and scaly and very low in beta carotene. Depending on the variety, traditional sweet potatoes are usually orange, but can also be white or purple. The orange variety was introduced to the US several decades ago in order to distinguish it from the white variety. Producers and shippers chose the English form of the African word “nyami” (to eat) and labeled them “yams”. So yes, here in America, sweet potatoes are often labeled both “sweet potatoes” and “yams”, which adds to the confusion, however, yams are actually a different TYPE of sweet potato with a different skin, meat and texture.
Granulated Sugar vs. Confectioners’ Sugar
Granulated sugar is the pre-form of confectioners’ sugar. Confectioners’ sugar, also known as powdered sugar or icing sugar, is actually granulated sugar that has been finely ground and mixed with a small amount of cornstarch to prevent caking. So can you make your own confectioners’ sugar in a pinch? Absolutely! A few rounds in a food processor will help turn granulated sugar into confectioners’ sugar (there are several recipes online for making your own confectioners’ sugar). Since it’s finely ground, confectioners’ sugar is best used in recipes where sugar has to dissolve smoothly and provide sweetness…namely in frosting and icing. So the simple answer is that granulated and confectioners’ sugars are the same thing, one is just finer than the other.
Ice Cream vs. Custard
According to the USDA, the standards for ice cream consist of 20% cream and 10% milk. It can also contain anywhere from 10% to 20% fat, depending on how luxurious you want your ice cream to be! While some may think it’s healthier, soft serve ice cream is actually the same thing. Soft serve is made with the same ingredients as regular ice cream but is served in a machine that keeps it, well…soft. The machine incorporates air and doesn’t allow the ice cream to harden, like a tub of ice cream would in your freezer. Gelato has a higher ratio of milk to cream than ice cream does, and contains about 5% to 7% less fat than ice cream. It’s churned very slowly, making it much denser than its counterpart. Finally, custard contains a magical ingredient that makes it thick and happy and amazing: egg yolk. All the other ingredients are the same as regular ice cream, but the yolk helps add thickness to the final result.
Bourbon vs. Scotch
Not surprisingly, the difference between bourbon and scotch is minimal…basically it all comes down to where it was made. Scotch is whisky made in Scotland. Bourbon is whisky made in the US. Scotch is made mostly from malted barley, while bourbon is distilled from corn.
Green Onions vs. Scallions
THEY’RE THE SAME THING. No difference whatsoever! Ok, moving on…
Onions vs. Shallots
Shallots have a much sweeter flavor than onions do…and are actually an onion/garlic hybrid. In fact, shallots share about as many similarities with garlic as they do with onions, so they’re great for almost any and all savory recipes! Their roots are garlic-flavored and made of cloves and their bulbs, which are the majority of the plant, grow similar to garlic. You’ll often get 2 or sometimes 3 cloves in one shallot.
Light Brown Sugar vs. Dark Brown Sugar
Both varies of brown sugar are a mixture of granulated sugar and molasses, with dark brown sugar containing more molasses than light brown sugar. Light brown sugar has a much more delicate flavor than dark brown sugar. They can be used interchangeably depending on your taste preferences, but I prefer light brown sugar myself. Dark brown sugar is great for adding rich flavor to stews or stronger molasses flavor to baked goods, like gingerbread.
Olive Oil vs. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Let’s start off simple first…olive oil, in all its forms, is oil obtained from the fruit of an olive tree. Plain and simple. The rest of the name is added based on how that oil is processed. Extra-virgin olive oil is unrefined and is the highest quality oil you can buy. It retains more true olive taste and has a lower level of acid than other varieties. It also contains more of the natural vitamins and minerals found in olives. This is olive oil to use with breads, salads and dressings. If you’re going to splurge, do it on a good quality extra-virgin olive oil. By contrast, regular olive oil is typically a blend between a couple varieties of olive oil. It is lower quality than extra-virgin olive oil and contains a higher amount of acid. It’s great for cooking, as it has a high smoke point and doesn’t have much flavor. Can one substitute the other? In short, yes…but keep this in mind: extra-virgin olive oil SHOULD be used for dishes where you’re meant to taste the olive oil and should not be used to cook, as it burns easily. Regular olive oil has little to no flavor and is great for cooking. So yes, you technically CAN substitute, but keep in mind that flavor may change if you use extra-virgin instead of regular.
Tonic Water vs. Seltzer Water
Both carbonated waters are stables on any bar, but they’re not interchangeable. Tonic water will add both sweet and bitter to whatever you’re creating. It pairs particularly well with gin and, unlike many other waters, it contains calories. Seltzer water is just plain water that has been artificially carbonated. Club soda is also much like Seltzer water, but mineral-like ingredients are added to club soda to enhance the flavor. These two (club and Seltzer water) can be used interchangeably.
Every Monday is a “Reci-bee” post, where I share my favorite recipes, recipe collections, and cooking and baking hints and tips.