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Frequently Asked Questions about Dessert

Every day, we receive lots of emails from people asking for answers to general questions. For a glimpse of this dynamic exchange of ideas and tips, and for answers to questions about food that you may have had yourself, please have a look at this FAQ! You can also browse other answers at other FAQs pages or look for answers in articles in the services page.

If you still have questions, post it in the recipe forum where other visitors may respond to your request.

Q. Can I substitute butter or margarine for shortening or vice versa?

A.  In baked goods, you can substitute butter for margarine for vegetable shortening cup for cup. However, shortening should not be used in place of butter in fudge or other candy recipes. Read more about shortening and butter in our glossary.

Q. What is citrus zest?

A.  Zest is the colored, outermost layer of the peel of citrus fruit. It is very pungent and can be used in small quantities to flavor all kinds of things.

Q. What is the difference between half-and-half, heavy cream, whipping cream and double cream?

A.  Varieties of cream are defined by how much milk fat they contain: the higher the ratio of milk fat, the heavier, thicker and creamier the cream! Heavy cream, double cream and heavy whipping cream are different names for essentially the same thing: cream that is 40% or more milk fat, and which doubles in volume when whipped. Light whipping cream is between 30 and 35 percent milk fat, and can also be whipped. Light cream, table cream, coffee cream or single cream are names for cream that is around 18% milk fat. Half-and-half is a mixture of cream and milk, and contains about 12% milk fat. Neither half-and-half nor light cream can be whipped.

Q. When a recipe on your site calls for "white sugar," what kind of sugar are you referring to?

A.  When we use "white sugar" as an ingredient in our recipes, we are referring to the white granulated sugar that is most commonly used in cooking and at the table in the U.S. Castor sugar or superfine sugar is finer version of white sugar, but its super-fine characteristic means it is better for meringues or for dissolving in cold liquids. White sugar and superfine sugar can be substituted cup for cup. Confectioners' sugar, also known as powdered sugar or icing sugar, is the very fine powdery sugar used in frostings and many candies or to dust the top of your favorite cake. You can substitute 1 3/4 cups confectioners' sugar for 1 cup white sugar.

For additional information also read our article "All About Sugar".

Q. Why didn't my candy set up right?

A. There could be a couple of problems when candy doesn't set up properly. If the air is too humid, candy can turn out too soft or have that gooey sheen on its surface. Candy needs to be made on a dry day. You also need to be sure your pans, bowls and utensils are clean and dry before you begin. Moisture in bowls can affect whether candy gets firm, and flecks of sugar or other particles can affect the way it crystallizes. The other problem arises when candy isn't cooked to the proper temperature. Use a candy thermometer for best results, and be sure to cook your candy to the proper stage.

Q.  Why is my candy so grainy?

A.  Grainy candy is the result of interfering with the ideal crystallization process - creating big, uneven crystals, where you want tiny, uniform ones. The first step to keeping any candy from crystallizing is to start with clean, dry bowls, pans and utensils. A speck of sugar that falls into the pan after the sugar has begun cooking provides something for crystals to cling to and grow on and can ruin your caramel or toffee. Another way to prevent crystals from interrupting your candy's cooking process is to oil the sides of your pan before you begin, or brush the sides of your pan with a heatproof pastry brush dipped in water during cooking, to get rid of any sugar crystals that may have splattered on the sides of the pan. And you must never stir your candy while it's cooking - this will incite the formation of big crystals that will make your candy grainy when it cools.

Q.  What's the best way to melt chocolate?

A.  The best way to melt chocolate is in a double boiler or in short intervals in the microwave. Chocolate melted directly in a saucepan or microwaved for more than 30 seconds at a time without stirring can easily scorch. If you're melting your chocolate to use for dipping, coating or decorating, you also need to temper it.

Q.  What is tempering?

A.   Tempering chocolate is a process of heating, cooling slightly, and reheating that aligns the cocoa butter crystals so that when the chocolate cools a final time, it will be glossy and free of streaks or blooms. It sounds complicated, but it's really just a matter of using dry bowls and utensils and a candy thermometer.

Q.  How do I thin melted chocolate?

A.  To thin chocolate for dipping or coating, melt 1 tablespoon solid vegetable shortening with 1 cup of shaved chocolate.

Q.  I often find myself adjusting recipes in order to make enough for my family, but it doesn't quite work for some recipes. Do you have any advice for me?

A.  Changing recipes in order to make more or less servings is called "recipe scaling." Whenever you alter the amounts of ingredients for a given recipe, you may also need to adjust the cooking temperature, cooking time, pan size and seasonings. But for food chemistry reasons, recipe scaling simply does not work well for some dishes: delicate foods such as soufflés, baked items requiring yeast such as breads, and recipes for a single large item that is meant to be later divided into smaller portions such as cakes, pies, breads and whole turkey.

Our Recipe Scaling Page will give you a reliable framework for successful recipe scaling: It offers detailed guidelines for recipe scaling.



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