Multiplatform editor

Happy sunny Wednesday. At least it’s sunny here in Washington, after quite a string of bleak days. Gives one hope that spring is on the way.

Maybe it’s too early to be thinking about spring. But it’s never too early to be thinking about barbecue. Today in Food, Smoke Signals columnist Jim Shahin writes about the increase in big-city BBQ joints that use wood — and only wood — to cook their ’cue. (They said it couldn’t be done, but as usual, They were wrong.)

Also, Tim Carman explores the burgeoning world of supermarket hot bars: takeout extravaganzas that can have dozens of steaming bins full of main courses, side dishes, even desserts. We visited some and compared them.

Finally, in Smarter Food, Jane Black tags along on a supermarket tour called Cooking Matters at the Store, a class that teaches low-income shoppers how to look for more-nutritious offerings on a budget. And Bonnie S. Benwick has rounded up five budget-conscious recipes that deliver big taste for just a little money.

Have any favorite low-cost dishes you like to prepare? Tell us about them — or about anything else that’s on your culinary mind — during this week’s Free Range chat, today at noon. Meanwhile, here’s a leftover question from last week’s chat:

I bought more wheat germ than I needed to try out a homemade granola recipe. I was intrigued by the suggestion on the packaging that I could substitute wheat germ for flour in baking recipes. Do you have any tips or suggestions, particularly for adding this to baked treats?

Funny how wheat germ packages always mention that you can add it to baked goods, but they rarely tell you how.

Well, maybe not so funny, because there aren’t any hard-and-fast rules.

Wheat germ is essentially the embryo of a new seedling that would sprout if you let it. When flour is made, the germ (and other stuff) is removed before the wheat is ground. It contains fat, which is why the packaging always tells you to refrigerate it after opening; the fat will get rancid quickly at room temperature.

In substituting wheat germ for flour, you don’t want to go overboard, because wheat germ has a stronger flavor that might fight with the flavor of your baked goods. recommends toasting wheat germ on a baking sheet at 325 degrees for 15 or 20 minutes, stirring it occasionally, then cooling it and adding it to flour in an amount that doesn’t exceed 1/3 of the volume of flour. (Some wheat germ is already toasted, in which case you can skip that step.) In other words, in a recipe calling for 1 cup of flour, you could swap out the flour for up to 1/3 cup of wheat germ.

The Kretschmer company Web site (a wheat germ producer) suggests that for muffin, pancake and waffle batters, you can replace up to half of the flour with wheat germ. It also offers information about other uses for wheat germ in cooking and baking, such as to replace bread crumbs.

Naturally, you wouldn’t want to substitute wheat germ in, say, a delicate white cake, or cream puffs, or a flaky pie crust. At least I wouldn’t. Also, I’d be tempted to limit the amount to replace no more than 1/4 of the flour at first, given the germ’s more assertive flavor and rougher texture. See how you like it, then add more if you want.

Without looking to replace the flour, you can also just add a tablespoon or so of wheat germ to batter/dough for pancakes, waffles, quick breads, regular breads, muffins, heartier kinds of cookies such as oatmeal or even chocolate chip, etc. Since wheat germ is absorptive, you might notice that your batter or dough seems dryer than it should, in which case you can add a couple tablespoons of water or whatever liquid your recipe calls for.

Meanwhile, to help you use up your wheat germ in a timely fashion (always give it the sniff test to make sure the fat hasn’t gone off), check out these ideas from our Recipe Finder: Blueberry and White Chocolate Chunk Ginger Cookies, big drop cookies that won a reader recipe contest in Living Well magazine; Blueberry Power-Snack Turnovers, a snack that kids can make with a little adult help; Coconut-Almond Granola, to eat yourself or give away as a gift; and Holly’s Honey Wheat Berry Bread, a chewy, dense loaf studded with raisins, sunflower seeds and walnuts. Happy germing!