Thursday, April 12, 2012

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9 Southern-Cooking Secrets

Dinner, courtesy of my mama.
Some of my fondest childhood memories are in the kitchen. While my mom cooked, I would stand on a wooden chair watching, eagerly absorbing my first lessons in Southern cooking. This is how Southern women have learned to cook for generations—simply by observing their mothers or grandmothers at work, hoping for the occasional nugget of unsolicited wisdom: Always pack your brown sugar. Never buy store-brand flour. Don't grease the cookie pan. 

      Unfortunately, most of these stove-top secrets are never written down. And because Southern women tend to cook by feel, rather than by rules, their recipes are often imprecisea fistful of flour, $2 worth of apples. Church cookbooks can be even worse. More often than not, at least one ingredient has been forgotten entirely. The church ladies that write them probably stopped using recipes decades ago, so when they type out instructions, the flour or baking powder simply slips their mind. 

      I don't want to risk losing the foods that defined my childhoodcornbread, fried okra, banana nut breadso I set out to learn the techniques to perfect them. On a recent trip home to Tennessee, I sat down with my mom at our old Formica kitchen table, where she shared her secrets, some passed down from my grandmother and great-grandmother.

Season your skillet.

       New skillets are a gray, dull hue. Seasoned skillets, on the other hand, are shiny and black. This greasy coating keeps food from sticking to the pan, so it browns more evenly. To season your skillet, rub it liberally with Crisco, and place it in a 250°F oven for an hour. Use only a small amount of soap and water when washing your skillet, never allowing it to soakthis will wash away your Crisco coating, and may even cause your cookware to rust. Re-season as needed, usually once or twice a year. 
Befriend bacon grease.

       When my mom was a kid, my grandma kept a jar of bacon grease on the stove top. Now, my mom keeps a Mason jar of the fat in her refrigerator, and uses it for everything from greasing skillets to flavoring beans. After frying a batch of bacon, simply pour the leftover grease into a tightly sealed glass jar. A word of caution: If you're using it to grease a baking pansay, for cornbreadsprinkle cornmeal over top of the bacon grease; otherwise, your food will stick to the pan. 

Don't toss the ham bone.
        The truly Southern way to prepare beans: Add pork to the pot. To make perfect pintos, rinse off dry beans, pour them into a large saucepan, and cover completely with water. Bring the beans to a boil, then add either a ham bone (with a little meat intact), a 2" by 4" rectangle of fatback, or a little bacon grease. Allow the beans to cook down 'til tender, about 3 to 4 hours, season with salt and pepper, and serve with cornbread and chow chow.

Pick your potatoes.

       Buying the wrong spuds is the fastest route to lumpy mashed potatoes. Russet potatoes, which are usually the cheapest, have an unfortunate tendency to cook unevenly when boiled. And the uncooked areas are what create lumps. Stick with Idaho, Yukon Gold, or red potatoes—you'll have to shell out a little more for these guys, but it's worth it for the smoother texture. 

Flour before you bread. 

       People mock Southerners for frying everything. What they don't realize is that it takes talent to do so. Cooking with scalding oil and coming out unscathed is tough! Foods that have high water contenttomatoes, squash, zucchinirequire an extra step before being breaded and dunked in hot oil. Before dipping 'em in the egg/milk mixture and cornmeal, coat water-rich veggies in flour to absorb some of the moisture, which is what causes hot oil to pop (and burn you). 

Properly heat your oil. 

       Allow your frying oil to heat up too long, and you'll "cook the hound dog out of your okra," my mother warns. But if you don't let it heat up long enough, the batter will either become mushy or just fall off altogether. Neither is your goal. So perform a test run: Drop a spoonful of batter into the hot oil. Does it crisp and rise to the surface? If so, you're ready to start frying. If it burns, you need to turn the heat down, or if it just sinks, you need to heat the oil a little longer. Once you start frying, only immerse a spatula-full of battered veggies at a time. If the pan is too crowded, your food won't be sufficiently crisped.

Paper your pans.

       Even the most delicious cake recipe is a failure if it sticks to the pan. Avoid leaving half your cake behind: First, coat the bottom and sides of a round cake pan with Crisco. Then, place a large piece of wax paper over the pan, and position a second cake pan of the same size on top. Press it down to create a pan-and-paper sandwich. Trim the edges of the wax paper, then remove the top pan. Coat the wax paper with Crisco and flour before pouring your batter into the prepared pan. While the pan is still warm after cooking, flip it upside down, peel the wax paper off of the cake, and place the finished product on a cooling rack.

Select bananas with care.

Perfect for banana nut bread.
       Two Southern classics require the yellow fruit: banana nut bread and banana pudding. But the two dishes may as well use a different fruit entirely. The ideal peel for banana nut bread is dark, almost black, whereas the bananas in your pudding should have green skin. Since you mash the bananas in bread, they need to be extremely ripesoft and slightly squishy. (Hint: Make sure to remove the fibrous strings before mashing.) But you want banana pudding to last as long as possible, so the bananas should still be slightly green. If the fruit is already ripe, your dessert will stay fresh for only a day or two. 
Coat raisins in flour.

       If a bread, cake, or muffin recipe calls for dried fruit, toss the shriveled guys in flour before stirring them into the batter. The flour coating helps suspend the fruit in the batter, so all of your raisins don't end up in the bottom of the pan.


  1. I've always said your mom is the best cook I've ever known! This proves it! :) Aaaaand now I'm craving fried green tomatoes (her receipe only)....