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Burned Garlic And Other Kitchen Quandaries, Solved!

For some people, the kitchen is a happy place where everything turns out perfect and delicious. But for others, it's an obstacle course full of pots, pans, doubt and vexation.

For the doubters and vexed, NPR's Melissa Block brought back Atlanta food chemist Shirley Corriher to All Things Considered. Corriher, author of Cookwise and Bakewise, agreed to answer a few of listeners' kitchen quandaries.

Burned Garlic

Q. How do I saute onions and garlic without the garlic burning? -- Kayla Werlin, as posted on

A. Garlic burns very easily. The only way I've found to successfully do it is to saute the onions until they're almost done, and then stir in the garlic and continue to saute for a few minutes. If you try to saute the garlic as long as it takes the onions to get soft, you'll burn it every time.

Runaway Batter

Q. I have a problem making onion rings and other fried food. I mix the batter, but it will not stick to the food. When I cook the onion rings, the batter falls off and makes a real mess in the oil. I have the same problem with other batter-dipped foods. -- Ed Vieth, Cincinnati

A. You need flour. Whatever you're dipping in batter needs to be bone dry, and the best way to handle that is to flour it. I like to season the flour, put some salt and pepper in it so that every element will be seasoned. Cold batters adhere better -- and the thicker the batter, the better it adheres. But the main thing is to flour your food.

Bad Beans

Q. I cannot get beans to cook. I soak the dried beans, pinto or white beans overnight in warm water, and then bring them to a boil the next day. For the next many hours I simmer, simmer and simmer, and they never seem to get tender. I don't add salt or seasonings to them at this point. What am I doing wrong?  -- Kristi Muhic, St. Helena, Calif.

A. I'm afraid you're not doing anything wrong. A lot of times you get last year or year-before-last crop of beans. They've been in too-hot storage or too-high humidity. And these things just won't cook. I think your only solution is to try to buy them at another location, maybe pick a supermarket with a high turnover.

There's another possible cause for this, too: minerals in your water. Calcium and sugar prevent softening of fruits and vegetables. If you take canned navy beans and cook them so long, they're mush. They're refried beans. But if you take the same navy beans and add molasses, which has calcium and sugar, and brown sugar, you can cook those babies for days and they hold their shape. They're Boston baked beans. That's because the sugar prevents the cells from falling apart and preserves the shape. So it could be that you have high calcium or high mineral content in your water. Bottled water should take care of it.

What Does Browning Do For Me?

Q. I make a short rib recipe that's become a family favorite. The ribs are braised for about three hours in a mixture of barbecue sauce, beef stock, crushed vegetables and a few other things. But the recipe directs me to brown them first, and I've always wondered, what's the purpose of browning them and how do I know when I've browned them long enough? -- Jeff Rothman, Shaker Heights, Ohio

A. You know how wonderful caramel tastes. Well, when you brown something, you're making dozens and dozens of those same sugars that are in caramel. When you brown anything from ribs to toast, you are creating many of these same flavorful sugars, plus hundreds more. Many meat recipes call for browning as a first step. As for how long to brown, this is determined by color. I like to get it really good and brown, as brown as I can without burning.

Problems With Mayo And Buttercream

Q. I'm an avid cook and love to make things from scratch -- but I have always failed when I try to make mayonnaise. It drives me crazy. I've tried all the tricks and just end up wasting eggs and oil. -- Cara Finn, Capitola, Calif.

Q. I'd love to hear Shirley Corriher talk about making a strong buttercream. This frosting is the one thing that never ever ever ever ever works out for me, and although it tastes great, it makes my cakes look very, um, sad. Thanks for your help on this! -- Reba Sundharadas, San Diego

A. Both of these are emulsion problems.

An emulsion is a mixture of two liquids that don't go together, like oil and water. In mayonnaise, you're mixing oil and lemon juice and egg white and whatever the other liquid is. For a good emulsion, you have to have three things. First, you have to break up one of the liquids into tiny droplets. In the case of mayo, we're going to break up the oil into baby droplets with a whisk or a blender. Second, you have to make the other liquid juicy so that it runs between the droplets. To do this, you have to have the third part: the emulsifier.

Usually the problem in mayonnaise is that a lot of recipes want you to start out with a thick base so that it comes together faster. What you're doing is, you're beating thousands of baby oil droplets into a tiny bit of liquid and that's why it gets thick. These oil drops are packed in there. Unfortunately, a lot of the recipes don't get you to add enough liquid soon enough and even though you've got a nice thick mayonnaise, if there's no liquid to go between the drops, the drops run together and it separates. What you need to be careful of is that you have enough water-type liquid. I would go on and add lemon juice and water early on.

With buttercreams, the problems come from not enough emulsifiers to hold things together. With Swiss and Italian buttercream, they are made of Swiss or Italian meringues (egg whites and sugar -- no emulsifiers at all) folded into sugar. The only thing that holds the buttercream together is the emulsifiers in the dairy part of the butter. If you don't have enough butter in, it will curdle. As you whisk more butter in, it will come together.

French buttercreams made by beating yolks (or whole eggs, my preference for a lighter buttercream) are much more stable -- they have tons of emulsifiers in the egg yolks.

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NPR Staff