What is cream of tartar and do I really need it?

THE WASHINGTON POST – The Washington Post Food staff recently answered questions about all things edible. Here are edited excerpts from that chat.

Q: I am so confused. I read that cream of tartar is a leavening agent but that it can be substituted with lemon juice or white vinegar, which are not leavening agents. My question is do I need to buy this stuff? I am not making meringue and never will.

A: It’s useful to have but not necessary. It’s actually an ingredient in baking powder. I cannot think of a recipe besides meringue that uses it, but there’s got to be some out there. If you’re not a big baker, you can skip it, but I always like having some around. – Olga Massov

A: It stabilises egg whites when you’re whipping them up for meringues and the like, indeed. It’s not a leavener per se, but as an acid helps activate the leavening action of baking soda, which is why, as Olga mentions, it’s in baking powder. – Joe Yonan

Q: Yeast bread recipes always seem to say that the resting/rising phases should be done in a warm room temperature place, like 70 degrees Fahrenheit. How important is that? We tend to keep our house on the cool (Okay, chilly) side during the winter, nowhere near 70 degrees – am I dooming myself to bread-baking failure? If ambient temperature really does matter, does anyone have suggestions? (Unfortunately, the light in my oven doesn’t work, so leaving the dough to rise in the oven with the light on – an idea I read somewhere – isn’t an option.)

Mocha Chip Meringues . PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

A: It’s pretty important! You can still turn your oven into a proving drawer, as the Brits might say. Pour some boiling water into a cake pan in the bottom of the turned-off oven and let the dough rise there. Will be nice and warm and cozy. I’ve also done this in the microwave, by heating some water first and then putting the dough in there. – Becky Krystal

Q: A number of years ago I tried making hummus using canned chickpeas. The texture was not at all smooth because of the skins. There were instructions in the recipe for removing the skins, but it seemed so time consuming that I gave up. I cannot recall how long the hummus was processed in the food processor. Does three minutes really make the difference?

A: Yes, blending longer really does help. But I think the easiest way to get super-smooth hummus is to use a Vita-Mix or other high-powered blender. Those skins don’t stand a chance! – JY.

Q: Can hand mixers really be used to mix dough? I couldn’t find the dough hook for my stand mixer, was going through manuals, drawers, etc. I’ve kept these two metal, twisty things for years, thinking they must go to something and discovered they are dough hooks for my hand mixer. So – for real – wouldn’t using it to mix dough burn out that little motor in a minute? Oh and I did find the dough hook for the stand mixer.

A: I am a little sceptical, to be honest. I don’t know that the hand mixer motor/gears can handle bread dough, at least for a while. And I think it might be hard to get even coverage and sufficient gluten development. I would stick to your stand mixer or your trusty hands! – BK

Q: I want to give a cookbook to someone who is new to plant-based eating (not a diehard and need quick-ish recipes). Recommendations? I saw your review of Amy Chaplin’s book. I’d wait for your book about beans, but they don’t like beans – it’s a “texture thing.” Yeah, unbelievable, but maybe your book will eventually win them over.

A: I love Amy’s Whole Food Cooking Every Day! It’s built around base recipes that you can then take lots of different ways with variations. You might also look at Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s new book I Can Cook Vegan. I have made a couple things in there I like. – JY

Q: My husband is convinced that when I freeze Christmas cookies and then thaw, they taste “10-times less good” versus when they aren’t frozen – but I don’t know how else to make sugar cookies and molasses cookies last for weeks without going stale?! Any advice for improving my preservation methods that don’t involve freezing or a way to freeze cookies that will bamboozle the husband?

A: Keep them well insulated. So wrap in plastic and then put in a bag or airtight container. Best eaten within a few months, otherwise, you do risk freezer burn flavours. – BK

Q: I apologise if this has already been covered, but can you share rules for when baking ingredients should be cold and when they should be room temperature, if a recipe doesn’t specify? So, for example, I know to bring butter to room temperature if I’m planning to cream it – and I think it’s good for the eggs to be room temperature, too? I know that fat for pastry crust should be cold, as should some cookie doughs prior to shaping. Do you have any other tips for maximising baking outcomes?

A: Room temperature eggs generally when creaming, yes. Otherwise cold eggs can kind of shock the batter into curdling weirdly. Generally bread likes to rise in a warm place. Chilling surfaces when rolling pie dough or sugar cookies can help. Make sure your oven is at temperature before baking. – BK

Q: I have been trying to be better about not letting food get old in the fridge and yet, there is some elderly celery sitting there that needs to be used, pronto. It is losing its crisp and is more than a little tired. Any suggestions?

A: I freeze my sad, forgotten celery and add it to stocks and stews. Works like a charm. – OM