Cooking Ingredients

Thursday, 18 November 2010 | Tags:

As part of our research for our series Anna & Kristina's Grocery Bag, we often research the ingredients we need for various recipes. Here are some of the quick shopping tips we've learned along the way...

See also our Baking Ingredients article, which covers ingredients for things like cakes, cookies, pastries, etc., and the Related Links section below for other ingredients.

Dry Ingredients


  • The most common use of cornstarch in cooking is as a binder and thickener in various dishes.

  • A smooth powder made from the endosperm or center of dried corn kernels, cornstarch has about twice the thickening ability of flour.

  • Unlike flour, however, cornstarch becomes clear when cooked.

  • To avoid lumps when using cornstarch, mix it with a cold liquid until smooth before cooking or adding it to a hot liquid.

  • Also, be sure not to cook it too long as sauces made with cornstarch will become thin if overcooked.

Gelatin Powder

  • Gelatin is a translucent, nearly tasteless thickening agent derived from the collagen inside an animal’s skin and bones.

  • It is commonly found in some candies like gummy bears and jelly beans, and in baking products such as marshmallows.

  • Household gelatin is typically found in the form of sheets, granules, or powder.

  • Instant gelatin, you can be added directly to your food. Non-instant gelatin must be soaked in water before using.

  • One envelope of gelatin firmly sets 2 cups of liquid.

  • To set it faster, chill the mold or container first. The cold helps it thicken more quickly.

  • Another trick is to stir the mixture constantly in a metal bowl placed in another bowl filled with ice until it begins to thicken, then pour it into your mold or container to set completely.

Dry Mustard

  • Usually made by crushing brown and white mustard seeds together, dry mustard lacks the yellow color of prepared mustard, which results from the addition of turmeric.

  • Dry mustard has very little or no aroma when dry and needs to be moistened with water for about 10 minutes to develop its characteristic sharp, hot, tangy flavour.

  • If you need to substitute prepared mustard for dry, follow this general rule: for every one TEAspoon of dry mustard, use one TABLEspoon of prepared, as dry mustard is much more pungent.


  • Tortillas in Mexico almost always mean corn tortillas, though flour tortillas are more popular in North America.

  • When shopping for tortillas as the market, look for the whitest ones. This indicates that less lime was used in processing the corn, producing a more delicate flavor.

  • Buy tortillas fresh, just as you would bread, from a source that sells a lot of them. They should be very soft and flexible in their plastic bags.

  • Check the best before dates on the bag.

  • Tortillas can be frozen, but they’re best eaten fresh.

Wasabi Powder

  • Real wasabi is one of the rarest vegetables on earth and is known as hon-wasabi or ‘true’ wasabi.

  • Many wasabi powders available are actually imitation, or seiyo’o wasabi, and are made from different quantities of European horseradish, mustard powder, food coloring, and preservatives.

  • Always buy wasabi in a powder form instead of paste to ensure that no additives have been mixed in.

    • When you buy it in paste form, extra chemicals and preservatives have been added to keep it moist and fresh

  • Whether you use real or imitation wasabi, it should be used as soon as it is made into a paste.

    • The longer wasabi paste sits out in contact with air, the quicker the flavor will disappear.

  • A common sushi bar trick is to mix wasabi powder with water in a tea cup and turn it upside down, thus protecting it from the air to ensure it stays fresh.

Dried Hominy

  • Also called Pozole or Mote, hominy is made from dried kernels of corn that have been removed from the hull and soaked in a limestone or wood ash solution to expand them. The expanded kernels are then boiled, creating a soft puffy food product referred to as Hominy. The kernels can also be dried.

  • Similar to chickpeas in texture and size, hominy can be served both whole or ground. It is boiled until cooked and served as either a cereal or as a vegetable, or served up as grits in the South, which is popular in Mexican cooking.

  • Try adding it to your favorite chili recipe in place of the beans or as a casserole filling.

  • You can buy hominy in dried form (alongside the dried beans at many supermarkets, health food, or specialty stores) or fully cooked in cans.

  • Dried hominy can take hours to cook, so look for canned as a quicker, easier way to add this grain to your cooking.

Wet Ingredients


  • The French word confit means “to preserve”. Historically, it was a term used to describe a process whereby a game bird or goose was cooked and then stored in its own fat as a method of conserving without refrigeration.

  • In addition to meats, confit can refer to other foods, including garlic or lemon which are cooked and preserved in oil or lard in a similar method.

  • A specialty of Gascony, France, the cooked meat used for confit is packed into a pot or dish and covered with the cooking fat. The fat seals and preserves the meat and is discarded before serving.

  • Once preserved, confit is good for six months if kept sealed and stored in a refrigerator.


  • Found in Asian food markets, mirin is an essential condiment in Japanese cuisine, and consists of 40-50% sugar.

  • A kind of rice wine similar to sake, mirin has a lower alcohol content (14% instead of 20%).

  • Don’t use straight rice wine to substitute. Instead, use dry sherry or white wine with a little sugar dissolved in it – about ¼ tsp of sugar to ¼ cup wine.

  • There are three general types:

    • Hon mirin or true mirin,

    • Shio mirin, which contains alcohol as well as 1.5% salt, and

    • Shin mirin or new mirin which contains less than 1% alcohol yet retains the same flavour.

  • Overall, mirin has a strong flavour and can be used to eliminate fishy smells from food.


  • This fine, white fat has a neutral flavour and, at room temperature, is solid but still very soft.
  • It’s made by slowly melting down pork fat in a process called rendering.

  • Leaf lard, the fat around the kidneys, is considered the best.

  • Long considered an artery-clogging, cholesterol-raising, culinary bad guy, lard contains less saturated (bad) fat and more monounsaturated (good) fat than butter. Still, be sure to read the label since some supermarket brands contain bad-for-you trans-fats.

  • If you are substituting lard for butter in a baking recipe, reduce the amount called for by about 20-25%.

  • Commercially-produced lard is generally “shelf stable” and can be stored at room temperature for a long time. It generally contains citric acid and/or a preservative to prevent rancidity, and part of it is hydrogenated.


  • Pectin is a natural substance derived from certain fruits like apples and peaches.

  • Liquid and powdered pectin serve different purposes and should not be interchanged within recipes or your item will not thicken properly.

  • Liquid pectin is used in most cooked marmalades, jams, and jellies. Unlike powdered pectin, it is added AFTER the mixture has been brought to a boil.

  • Powdered pectin is generally added to no-cook and frozen jam recipes, and in cooked recipes BEFORE boiling.

  • Do not use powdered pectin that you purchased last season as it tends to deteriorate over time. Best to buy fresh each year for top results.

Tahini Paste

  • Tahini, also known as sesame paste, is made when whole sesame seeds are crushed into a spread-like consistency. It has a smooth, nutty flavour.

  • When buying tahini, look for the unhulled variety. Because it contains the entire seed, unhulled tahini has more nutritional properties, but is more bitter than hulled tahini.

  • While tahini is a great source of calcium, protein, and B vitamins, it is also high in calories so should be consumed in moderation.

  • While common in Middle Eastern dishes, tahini is also used in a lot of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean dishes.

Umeboshi Plum Paste

  • Umeboshi is a pickled Japanese fruit often called a plum, but is actually closer in biology to the apricot.

  • When pickled, they are extremely sour and salty and are usually served as a side dish.

  • If you don’t have an Asian grocery or supply store in your area, jars of Umeboshi plum paste are available for purchase online.

  • Because Umeboshi plum paste is a lively and versatile seasoning, it can be added to salad dressings, cooked vegetables, and sauces to add depth of flavour.

  • Due to their high salt content and pickled nature, Umeboshi plums have an indefinite shelf life. They also do not need to be stored in the refrigerator as long as they are stored in a cool, dry, dark area.

  • Like tomato paste, Umeboshi plum paste can be frozen in smaller portions.

White Miso

  • Miso is a traditional Japanese seasoning produced by the fermenting of rice, barley and/or soybeans, combined with salt and a specific Japanese fungus. The most popular miso is made by fermenting soy.

  • Miso is typically salty, but its flavor and aroma depends largely on its ingredients and how it was fermented.

  • Miso is a staple in Japanese-style meals. It most commonly appears as the main ingredient of miso soup, which is eaten daily by much of the Japanese population.

  • White miso is also called Shiromiso and is considered “white” due to the type of ingredients that go into it (mostly soy), brewed or fermented for a very short time. The result is a taste that is sweeter than dark miso varieties.

  • Miso typically comes as a paste in a sealed container, and is available at larger grocery stores or in Asian supermarkets. Remember to refrigerate it after opening.

Worcestershire Sauce

  • This classic condiment includes anchovies layered in brine, tamarinds in molasses, garlic in vinegar, chilies, cloves, shallots, and sugar. After sitting for two years with periodic stirrings, the mixture is sifted of the solids and bottled.

  • Now a generic term, Worcestershire sauce is manufactured by many different commercial retailers, as well as by the original Lea and Perrins.

  • HP Sauce is another type of brown sauce, so named because the sauce was reputedly spotted in the Houses of Parliament.

  • The ingredient that sets Worcestershire sauce apart from most sauces is tamarind. The pods, somewhat resembling a brown pea pod, contain thick, sticky pulp which has a consistency of dates and a spicy date-apricot flavor. Although often referred to as tamarind seed in recipes, it is only the pulp surrounding the seed that is used in Worcestershire sauce.

  • Worcestershire sauce comes in three varieties: Original, Thick Classic, and Reduced Sodium.

  • Shopping note: To save money coupons can be printed right off the website of companies like Lea & Perrins.

  • Worcestershire can be properly pronounced a few ways: “WUST-ter-shire, “WOOS-ter-sheer”, or “WOOS-ter-sher” sauce.

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