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Ask Addie: Buttermilk versus skim milk, and what does 'layering flavors' really mean anyway?

Addie Broyles, Relish Austin

Staff Writer
Austin 360
Seasoning dishes as they cook will give you a more cohesive taste than just dumping spices on when the meal is plated.

You could spend your whole life cooking - or eat out twice a day every day of the week - and still not know everything there is to know about food. And even though you can find a lot of answers on Google, sometimes it's not exactly the answer you were looking for.

To help you navigate your own kitchen and the Central Texas dining scene, today we're debuting "Ask Addie," a monthly feature on Relish Austin where I answer your food-related questions. Have you always wanted to know how to use one of those daily deal coupons at a restaurant without feeling like a cheapskate or why grocery stores sell applesauce and not pearsauce? Send your questions and queries to abroyles@statesman.com, and if I don't have the answer, I'll find someone who does.

I have a question about buttermilk versus milk. I'm making a pound cake. It calls for whole milk. I don't have whole milk, but I have skim milk and I have leftover buttermilk from frying chicken. Could I use buttermilk instead of regular milk? If so, do I need to use a little bit more because it's thicker?

- Sally Estes, Austin

With all the science involved in baking, it can be tricky to make substitutions in a dish like pound cake, but Mark Chapman, former Driskill Hotel pastry chef who is now developing both sweet and savory dishes for the Monument Cafe and the newly opened beer garden next door in Georgetown, says much fat is in the milk doesn't make as much difference as how it tastes and that the contrast in taste between skim and whole milk isn't nearly as distinct as between regular milk and buttermilk.

"Buttermilk is going to leave an acidic taste," he says. "In fact, if I had buttermilk or nothing, I would use water."

Both whole and skim milk are almost all water anyway, but the higher fat content in whole milk will make the cake a little more moist.

What if a recipe calls for buttermilk and you only have regular milk? Add 1 tablespoon of white distilled vinegar, apple cider vinegar or freshly squeezed lemon juice to 1 cup of milk and allow it to sit for five minutes to start to curdle.

Can you explain the phrase "layering flavors"? I have heard this on TV cooking shows but am fuzzy on the meaning or manner of achieving.

- Hal Kaplan, Sunrise Beach

Making a layered cake is easier to visualize than layering flavors, so I asked for an explanation from Shawn Cirkiel, the chef behind Parkside and Backspace who says he's guilty of using that phrase maybe more often than he should.

"When I say layer, I mean creating depth," he says. It's pico de gallo versus mole, Cirkiel says. With pico de gallo, you can taste each of the elements - the onion, cilantro, pepper, tomato and lime - but with a mole, you roast the nuts, brown the tomatoes, char the peppers and then slowly bring together all the ingredients. "In the end, you might not be able to taste an individual pepper, but you get a hint of it. You want something that is seamless and not disjointed."

Imagine pouring red wine over a cold steak, dropping a slab of butter and a bunch of raw vegetables on top and then seasoning the whole thing with salt and throwing it in the oven. You'd taste every single ingredient and it wouldn't have much cohesion, he says.

To create layers of flavor, you'd sear the meat on all sides, remove it from the pan and then brown the vegetables. After the vegetables have started to cook, add the wine. Wait a bit and then add the stock. Put the meat back in the liquid, cook slowly and finish with a little sugar and vinegar. You end up with braised beef whose sum is greater than its parts.

Seasoning your dish as you go is another way to add subtle flavors. "If you only put salt on top of your plate, it's just salty," he says.

Another way to help flavors come together is to not rush the cooking process so you can have time to roast the vegetables before adding them to a slow cooker or brown the onions before making a soup. If possible, cook or assemble certain complex foods like chili or lasagna ahead of time and then reheat the next day. "If you let something like a vinaigrette sit in the fridge overnight, the ingredients meld together and the flavor deepens," Cirkiel says.

abroyles@statesman.com; 912-2504