Things to know about syrup: The temperature and how to avoid crystallization
When making baklava or other delectable desserts that require syrup (şerbet in Turkish), you’ll have to mind the rule of one being warm and one being cold. If, for example, both the baklava and the syrup are cold, the dough will not absorb the syrup. If both are hot, the hard-worked layers of baklava won’t get crispy but instead will get soggy, as the hot syrup will cook the baklava even further. The heat of just one will do the trick. Usually, the syrup is made before the dough is even prepared, giving ample time for the syrup to cool off. In the case of dry baklava (baklava that has been made and baked and is usually sold to tourists who want to have fresh baklava at home), you prepare your syrup at home and pour it directly over the baklava.
While there are many different tips to keep the syrup from crystalizing, one of the most popular suggestions is to have the syrup simmer for exactly five minutes, turn the heat off and add a squeeze of lemon juice. Give it one last stir and use it as is. It is important to note when the syrup will be used. If it is going to be added to helva or other desserts where the syrup will continue to cook for a short amount of time, this timing will not matter much. With baklava or other desserts such as kadayıf or şekerpare (a soft syrup doused cookie), however, one will want to avoid crystallization.
Tips for cutting anything
First off, know what kind of knife you’ll be needing for the particular job. There is a reason why the fish knife is called as such. Cutting soft cheese, for example, is done easiest with a serrated knife, while cutting a tomato should be done with one that is more slender and sharp. Always check which kind of knife will do the best job. You’ll both save your time and your fingers!
When using a cutting board, put a kitchen towel or damp paper towel beneath it to prevent the board from moving around. Nothing is more annoying than a surface not standing still when handling a sharp knife!
Never crush your garlic if you intend to infuse your dish with its flavorful oil. The texture and flavor of garlic is best released when you just chop it up with your knife of choice. This will save you from buying one more unnecessary gadget for your kitchen!
Baking in the oven: Timing and temperature
Some recipes call for a preheated oven, but for most recipes a preheated oven is not necessary. If, for example, the oven is not preheated for cookies that need to be baked for 10 minutes, you can just add one or two minutes to the recommended time. Alternatively, a preheated oven is a must for things like yeast doughs that have proofed and will need to be baked quickly in order to get a thin crust, such as pizza.
When a recipe lists a certain time to bake your dish, always check on whatever you are baking before the time us up. If the recipe calls for 30 minutes in the oven, check it at 20. If it calls for 10 minutes, check it at 8. It is essential to know your oven because not all ovens behave the same way. Checking on your dish early is better than being confronted with a burned end result.
Regarding temperature, the “know your oven” rule applies as well. If 200 degrees Celsius is called for, and you know that your oven tends to burn dishes easily, you might want to turn it down to 190. The same can be true the other way around: if your oven takes much longer to bake something at the right temperature, you might want to crank it up a notch.
Don’t forget the salt
This might sound odd, and not every recipe mentions it, but at least a pinch of salt should be added to desserts. Salt can bring the flavor of the sweet to a whole different level. The best way to test this for yourself is to make a batch of cookies. Bake one half of the batch with a good pinch of salt, and leave it out of the other half. You’ll definitely taste the difference.
Speaking of salt, you should always taste as you go when cooking. Some recipes give exact measurements of salt, but that can be deceiving, as different kinds of salts have different degrees of saltiness. It is better to taste twice than end up with a dish that is too salty.
Seasoning can make or break a dish, but usually the former
Like in the case of salt, do not be afraid to add different kinds of seasonings. If a recipe calls for a pinch of mint and you can’t quite taste it, don’t be afraid to add just a tad more. Over time, you’ll get a feeling of what could do with what. Cumin, for example, should be a must with anything that calls for onions, as the spice not only helps relieve the gassy nature of the vegetable but also adds a subtle taste. Bay leaves go great with many soups, adding a certain umami flavor that is not very overly present itself. Adding just a dash of something sour, such as lemon juice of vinegar, to a more mellow dish, can elevate the whole thing.
If you are not sure and you don’t want to risk ruining your whole dish, take a bit of what you are cooking aside and add your spices to that. You’ll be surprised how even a simple soup can achieve new levels of flavor!
Fresh spices whenever you can!
It is of course a convenience to have black pepper as well as the myriad of other spices already ground, but they lose their flavor pretty quickly after they have been ground. Investing in a pepper grinder will change your view of making any dish in an instant. This is the reason why so many Middle Eastern cultures have tiny grinders on the table when serving food.
This might sound a bit archaic, but getting yourself a mortar and pestle to grind your own spices will open a world of flavor that you probably never thought existed. Additionally, unground spices stay fresh for much longer than the ground versions.
While being against any kind of food waste, if, for example, you have ground cinnamon and you notice that it doesn’t smell like anything at all, it is better throw it out because the flavor is gone. You could use it for color or decoration, but that is about it.
If you have tried a recipe but thought, “Hey, this would have worked better with more tomatoes,” or, “It needed more salt,” write this down! As human beings, we tend to forget small details, and we don’t always remember what we say we will. You might remember, but the people using the recipe after you might not. It is better to give yourself a safety net than to learn something over and over again. Many old recipes (some that have been used for decades and sometimes even centuries) provide just the ingredients without listing the quantity or providing directions. This is because at the time they were used everyone would know how to make it. With the passing of time, knowledge gets lost, which is of course a shame. So always take a note of anything that occurs to you while cooking or baking. Your future-self will thank you!