Q. My spaghetti sauce (containing either ground meat or meatballs) tastes just great. But it doesn't look nearly as good as it tastes because, when ladled stop the spagetti, it leaches water out onto the plate. My husband claims I don't drain the pasta sufficiently, but I'm convincd that's not the prolem. I have tried adding parmesan to the sauce, but that doesn't fix it. Please help.
A. The problem you're having with the sauce is called syneresis. The food industry encounters it with such products as tomato ketchup and applesauce. It has to do with the water-finding capacity of solids -- in this case tomato solids, which are small pieces of tissue composed mainly of cell walls and cell membranes.
Tomato solids are mainly fiber -- cellulose, hemicelluloses and pectins. These compounds have the ability to bind water provided they are treated right. There are three conditions under which syneresis may occur in a tomato sauce:
If you use tomato paste that contains solids that have been cooked excessively during the canning process.
If you use fresh tomatoes that are overripe and have lost their pectins to an enzymatic breakdown.
If you don't evaporate away sufficient water while the sauce cooks.
If you make your tomato sauce mainly from tomato paste, I would recommend switching to tomato pure'e or at least substituting some tomato pure'e for paste. It hasn't been concentrated nearly as much and rarely undergoes syneresis.
The most likely cause of syneresis is the third possibility -- excessive water in the sauce. A well made tomato sauce has been simmered until thick.
Q. What makes fruit breads crumble excessively? I find it almost impossible to spread my banana, pumpkin or cranberry breads with butter after slicing them (if, indeed, they slice).
A. There are a number of possible causes of the crumbliness in fruit-flavored quick breads: defboInadequate gluten formation, which is caused primarily by poor choice of flour. You should use a flour that contains adequate protein. Cake and pastry flours are therefore the wrong flours for quick breads. Instead, use all-purpose or a mixture of half-bread, half-cake flours.
Freezing and thawing, which makes quick breads that are slightly crumbly when baked almost impossible to slice or eat in one piece.
Low oven temperature during the baking, which may cause excessive evaporation. This can also cause crumbliness or dryness.
Overmixing of the batter (either mixing for too long or using butter that has melted) which may cause the fat to be incorporated too finely and inhibit gluten formation. Some Reader Input
The Feb. 26 column regarding the thinning of stews after freezing and thawing stimulated some reader suggestions:
Freeze the stews unthickened. Then, as you reheat the stew prior to serving, add cornstarch mixed with a little cold water and bring to a boil. This, by the way, is called the whitewash-thickening method. First, you estimate how much water is in your stew. It's a safe guess that most stews are at least half water that need thickening (as opposed to water within the meat and vegetable pieces, which wouldn't need thickening). Second, you roughly measure out 1 tablespoon of starch per cup of that water. A 2-cup batch of stew would therefore need about 1 tablespoon of starch. Third, you must suspend the starch in a cold liquid such as the stew liquid or in a little extra water (or even wine). And fourth, you stir the starch-cold liquid slurry into the boiling stew. Within two minutes, the stew will thicken and, after 2 or 3 minutes of additional simmering to get rid of the starch taste, it is ready to serve.
Add cracker crumbs to the stew as it reheats. This is a very old-fashioned thing to do and may seem quite foreign to our current tastes. But the fact is, stews were thickened with breadcrumbs, cracker crumbs and pieces of bread for hundreds of years before starch was available or roux (flour cooked in butter or oil) had been invented.
I should also add that the high-meat, starch-thickened stew is really quite contemporary. Stews of the past relied on legumes and vegetables for thickness. Cassoulet, a bean stew, is one example. Vegetables and legumes contain sufficient starch and fiber to do an excellent job of thickening. And their thickeners won't retrograde as does roux or cornstarch when the stew is thawed.