- BAKING POWDER
- BAY LEAF
- BLACK PEPPERCORN
- COCOA POWDER
- COFFEE LIQUEUR
- FENNEL SEED
- MARSALA DOC
- VIN SANTO
Aceto – See vinegar
Aglio – See Garlic
Alloro – See Bay leaf
Ascolana – See Olives
Baking powder (Lievito chimico / Lievito minerale / Lievito in polvere)
Substitute: To make your own baking powder mix 1 part bicarbonate of soda / baking soda with 2 parts cream of tartar in a 1:2 ratio.
Baking powder is used in baking to help a batter to rise. It is composed of an alkaline ingredient, bicarbonate of soda, an acidic ingredient, cream of tartar, and a starch as a filler to absorb moisture. These ingredients, when mixed with liquid, produce carbon dioxide gas that forms bubbles which leavens dough.
Buy: Baking powder is normally sold in small pots or in envelopes, sometimes mixed with vanilla.
Store: It should be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark, dry place. Do not use baking powder past the expiration date as it may have lost its rising effect.
Prepare: When using baking powder, mix it into or sift together with the flour to help ensure its even distribution. Because baking powder starts to work when liquid is added, do not let batters and doughs containing baking powder to sit once added.
Eat: It is used in baking cakes or biscuits to help them rise. It can also be used in fried breads.
Balsamic vinegar – See Vinegar
Belle di Spagna – See Olives
Bella di Puglia – See Olives
Basil (Basilico) (Ocimum basilicum)
Basil is a leafy herb, and is one of the signature flavours of Italian cooking. It pairs very well with tomatoes. Basil has a distinct flavour and is second to none. The Genovese variety is the most popular. Basil is in season from May to September. Italians believe basil stimulates digestion and diminishes stomach cramps.
Buy: There are many varieties of basil, some with very varying flavours, such as Asian basil which is distinctly different from Italian sweet basil. Dried basil is no substitute for fresh basil. Buying a pot of fresh basil is even better. The leaves should be bright green, not wilted, and without holes or brown spots. Basil plants are easily grown in a pot on the windowsill (also said to keep flies away).
Store: Basil is fragile and should be used quickly after being cut. It can be stored in the refrigerator with the cut ends in a small vase of water and the tops covered with a plastic bag for 2 days.
If you can only occasionally find fresh Italian basil, you can preserve it by freezing the leaves. Otherwise you can wash the basil in cold water, patting it dry with a dishcloth, and storing it submerged in olive oil (you may need to weigh them down). The oil can also be used in sauces. Alternatively you can preserve them by washing, drying, and layering them in a jar between layers of salt. Either way, store the preserved basil in a cool, dry place.
Prepare: Basil leaves should be torn (not cut) just before using. The most flavourful leaves are those nearest the tip of the plant, near the flower.
Eat: Basil can be eaten raw or cooked and is used in salads, with pasta (pasta alla norma), in sauces (pesto genovese), and on pizza. Basil pairs well with tomatoes, courgettes, aubergine, green beans, rice, and pumpkin.
Basilico – See Basil
Bay leaf (Alloro) (Laurus nobilis)
Bay leaf is the leaf of a laurel tree or bush and it is used as a herb. It has been used since antiquity.
Buy: Bay leaves can be purchased fresh or dry. Fresh are preferable as they have a stronger flavour but both are fine.
Store: Store in a dry, cool, dark place. Dry bay leaves should be used within a year. To dry fresh bay leaves, lay in a single layer, not touching each other, on a paper lined tray in a dark, dry place.
Prepare: Rinse the leaves in cold water, dry and use. They are normally removed from a dish once cooked, prior to serving.
Eat: Bay leaves are used as an aromatic for broth, fatty fish, and spit-roasted, grilled, and roasted meats. Bay leaves are also used in perfume, liqueurs, and with dried figs.
Biga – See Yeast
Black peppercorn (Pepe nero) (Piper nigrum)
Black pepper is a spice. It is the sun-dried berry of the pepper vine that comes in whole corns. The black peppercorn is round, hard, and wrinkly with a spicy, pronounced flavour. When stripped of the outer shell, dried, and ground, this pepper then becomes the white pepper known more commonly in China. Black pepper is more pronounced in flavour and is spicier than white peppercorn. Pepper has preservative properties which is why it is often used in making salumi.
Buy: Buy in small quantities and use the whole peppercorn, rather than the pre-ground pepper. Invest in a pepper grinder to freshly grind the pepper as the flavour of the pepper diminishes rapidly once ground. Black peppercorns should be uniform in colour, aromatic, hard, and free from dust. The best black pepper is grown in Mangalore and Malabar, India and Sumatra, Indonesia. The best varieties are Tellicherry and Lampung.
Store: Store in a cool, dark, dry place in an airtight container.
Prepare: Use as per the recipe, but typically you can just grind directly from the pepper grinder. Otherwise you can use a mortar and pestle, a coffee grinder, or chop and crush finely with a large knife.
Eat: A spice regularly used in Italian cooking, particularly in making soups, with meat, beans (fagioli al fiasco) and pastas (alla carbonara and cacio pepe). It is often used to top salads and pastas which do not have cheese as a topping (such as pastas that contain fish or shellfish). Black pepper can be used as a preservative so is used in cured meats such as ham, pancetta, etc.
Caper (Càppero) (Capparis spinosa)
Capers are the flowering buds of a plant that grows wild on the coast in Italy. It is one of the most ancient of flavourings in the Mediterranean.
Buy: The best capers are the small ones as they have the most intense flavour. Capers are sold in vinegar, salted, or brined. The best are said to come from the island of Pantelleria in Sicilia. Buy capers which have been salted over those in vinegar (as they are more like a pickle) and brined.
Store: Store in a cool, dry cupboard.
Prepare: If you are using capers soaked in vinegar or brine, then rinse them in cold water, dry, and then use. If you are using salted capers then soak them in cold water for a few minutes, rinse with cold water, dry, and use. Capers are used as a flavouring. Unless the capers are freshly salted (still appear plump and not desiccated), they should be added to dishes at the end of cooking so they don’t lose their flavour and develop a bitter taste.
Càppero – See Caper
Capisco – See Chilli
Cerignola – See Olive
Chilli (Peperoncino / Capsico) (Capsicum annumum and Capsicum frutescens, peperoncino)
Chillies can be round or an elongated conical shape. Italians in general, outside of Basilicata, Calabria and Abruzzo, do not eat much chilli or spicy food. Chillies range in size from 30cm to 5 mm and in spiciness. Chillies are in season from July until September.
Buy: Chillies can be purchased fresh, dry, infused in oil (olio santo or olio al pepperoncino), crushed into flakes, or ground into a powder. They come in a variety of colours such as green, red, yellow, purple, and brown. The green chillies can be either sweet or spicy while the red are always spicy. The round chillies are medium spicy while the small conical chillies 1-2cm in length are spicy. Select fresh chillies which are brightly coloured, firm, shiny, and blemish free. They should have a firm stem and be unwrinkled. For dried or powdered chillies (pepperoncino in polvere), check to ensure they have a strong smell, are red (not brown), and appear to be pest free.
Diavolicchi (spicy chillies from Calabria and Abruzzo)
Friarelli (sweet chillies from Abruzzo, Puglia and Calabria)
Store: Wrap the chillies in paper towels and keep in the drawer of the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks.
Prepare: When working with fresh chillies, you must be careful not to burn yourself as the oil in the chillies can burn your skin and your eyes. For this reason it is best to wear gloves and ensure not to touch your eyes, mouth, or nose. Always rinse chillies in cold, not hot water. Be sure to wash your hands immediately afterwards. To cut a chilli, cut the stem off, slit the chilli lengthwise, and scrape out the white ribs and seeds before chopping. To make the chilli less spicy, remove the ribs and the seeds, and rinse it in cold water after it has been prepared for chopping. To make it more spicy, add the seeds. When cooking with dried chilli or chilli flakes, adding the chilli when frying in oil will make the dish spicier, adding it later on in the cooking to the liquid will make it less spicy.
Eat: Chillies are used in stews, pastas (pasta all’arrabiata and spaghetti con le vongole), sauces, fish, seafood, sausages, and in salami. Dishes with the name “all’arrabiata” imply that there is chilli in the dish. Many recipes from Abruzzo or Calabria use chilli. Chilli is also used, albeit less frequently, in Basilicata, Campania, and Puglia.
Substitute: 30 grams dark chocolate = 3 tablespoons cocoa powder + 3 tablespoons sugar + 15 grams butter
Chocolate is a combination of cocoa (minimum 35%) and sugar mixed together with any of the following: cocoa butter, milk, honey, and flavourings. Chocolate came from Central and South America where it was enjoyed as a drink. Turin chocolatiers obtained their first license to sell chocolate as early as 1678 and the Swiss learned the art of making chocolate from the Torinese when Turin was the European centre for the art of chocolate making.
Buy: The production method of the chocolate can vary widely and typically corresponds with the price as there are true artisans making a rare product. Milk chocolate is more popular while true chocolate aficionados prefer dark chocolate. Never buy anything labelled “chocolate flavour” as it is not real chocolate.
Dark chocolate/Bittersweet chocolate (cioccolato fondente): Dark chocolate comes in varying percentages of cocoa content with the higher the percentage the more bitter and less sweet the chocolate. This type of chocolate with at least 43% cocoa but preferably 60 to 70% (cioccolato extrafondente) is best for cooking. It has about 26-28% cocoa butter and not more than 57% sugar.
Chocolate (cioccolato): Chocolate has at least 35% cocoa, 18% cocoa butter, and sugar.
Milk chocolate/Plain chocolate (cioccolato al latte): Milk chocolate is typically creamy and sweet with a mild flavour. Milk chocolate is better for icing as the higher fat content means it melts better and dries with a sheen. This type of chocolate has at least 25% cocoa, 14% milk, vanilla and no more than 55% sugar.
White chocolate (cioccolato bianco): Strictly speaking, white chocolate is not chocolate as it is made from cocoa butter and not cocoa. White chocolate is best for eating and not for cooking. White chocolate has at least 30% cocoa butter, milk, vanilla, and no more than 55% sugar.
Chocolate fondant (Gianduia): This is chocolate mixed with other ingredients like vanilla, milk powder, nuts, fruit, etc. Gianduia is a chocolate fondant mixed with toasted hazelnuts and vanilla invented in Turin in 1852.
Covering chocolate (cioccolato della copertura): This is chocolate with additional cocoa butter added to make it more fluid and easier to use to make as a coating for chocolates and desserts.
Store: Chocolate should be stored in a cool (ideally 18 to 20˚C), dry place that is well ventilated. If it is too warm, the chocolate will melt while if it is too cold (for example, in the refrigerator) it will bloom and appear whitish on the outside which is the cocoa butter separating and recrystallising on the surface. Rapid temperature changes and too much humidity (ideal is 55%) will cause the sugar or fat in the chocolate to separate. When there is bloom, the chocolate is still edible but will not look nice. It can be stored for up to 6 months.
Prepare: If the chocolate is to be melted, it is best melted in a bain-marie so that it does not scorch. Be sure that no steam or condensation gets into the chocolate or the chocolate will seize up. When baking cakes, biscuits, and pastries containing chocolate, it is best to reduce the oven’s temperature to ensure they don’t scorch. For grating chocolate, it is best to refrigerate it beforehand so that it doesn’t melt while grating.
Eat: Chocolate is typically used in desserts such as gelato, creams, custards, puddings (zuppa inglese), cakes (torta al cioccolato and torta al cioccolato con nocciole), pastries (profiteroles and eclairs), semifreddo, etc. Grated dark chocolate is also used in savoury dishes such as caponata, salmiì coda alla vaccinara, and cinghiale in agrodolce.
Cioccolato – See Chocolate
Cocoa powder (Cacao) (Theobroma cacao)
Cocoa powder is made from fermenting, drying, toasting, and grinding cocoa beans and then removing the cocoa butter. The amount of cocoa butter still contained in the cocoa powder varies by producer.
Buy: Cocoa powder is sold as bitter cocoa (cacao amaro) or sweet cocoa (cacao dolce). The best quality cocoa comes from Venezuela, Ecuador (l’Arriba and Macao varieties), Mexico, Guatemala, Togo, Ivory Coast, and Nigeria. Some cocoa labelled “Dutch” undergoes a process to reduce the acid in the cocoa which makes it darker in colour and more mild in flavour.
Store: Store cocoa powder in a well-sealed container in a cool, dry place. It can be stored this way for years.
Prepare: If you need to add cocoa powder to a liquid, as it contains some starch, then it needs to be mixed to a paste with a bit of milk or water before the rest of the liquid is added to avoid lumps. When used in baking, cocoa typically substitutes up to 15% of the flour.
Eat: Cocoa powder can be mixed with milk and sugar to become drinking hot chocolate. It is also used as a flavouring in cakes, biscuits, puddings, and pastries.
Coffee / Espresso (Caffè / Espresso) (Caffea Arabica, Coffea canephora, Coffea iberica)
Coffee was introduced to Italy in the 16th century from the Arab world and it became very fashionable to drink it. Coffee has since become part of the Italian national identity and an essential daily ritual. Not until 1933 when the Moka (see Equipment section) was invented could average Italians easily make coffee at home without an expensive espresso machine. Coffee substitutes have also been invented using barley, chicory, oats, spelt, and rye. Coffee contains caffeine which is a stimulant which affects the central nervous system and brain. Espresso, while it tastes stronger than filtered coffee, actually has less caffeine. Coffee is grown in Brazil, Colombia, Jamaica, India, Venezuela, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Mexico, Indonesia, Ethiopia, and Kenya.
Buy: To make espresso, buy “fine ground” or “drip ground” espresso beans which are well sealed. The best are labelled “Pure Arabica” or “100% Arabica”. Classic Italian brands of coffee include Lavazza, Melitta, and Illy.
Coffee is sold as whole beans or ground, but whole beans, ground just before brewing have the best flavour. However they are more hassle and more difficult to get to the proper grind if making espresso. There is also instant coffee which comes in granules but it is vastly inferior. Coffee should be sealed in order to retain its flavour, particularly if already ground. Coffee loses its flavour easily so should be purchased within 60 days of production.
Another difference between coffee and espresso is that espresso is made by using steam and pressure to filter finely ground coffee beans which have been roasted longer. Coffee is made by using water to filter through a more coarse grind of more lightly roasted coffee beans. The more the coffee beans are roasted, the lower the acidity and the less variation of aroma. So coffee can be more bitter or more acid than espresso.
There are flavour variations within espresso beans as well. The preference in Italy is geographic where northerners prefer more acidic and clear coffee while southerners prefer more bitter dark coffee. There is also decaffeinated coffee where steam is used before toasting the coffee beans to remove the caffeine.
Arabica coffee: this is the most prized coffee. Look for labels which read, “100% Arabica” or “Pure Arabica”. It is more expensive and has a lower caffeine level. Arabica tend to grow at high altitudes.
Robusta coffee: this is less aromatic, has a woody flavour, and has 2 to 3 times the level of caffeine to that of Arabica. Robusta tend to be grown in lower altitudes and it is easier to grow so it is more plentiful and cheaper.
Very fine grind: This is one of the finest grinds for coffee and is suitable for filtering with a paper filter.
Drip grind/Fine grind: This is suitable for making espresso.
Medium fine grind: This is suitable for using with a caffettièra which strains the coffee grinds from the water.
Regular grind/Medium grind: This grind is suitable for use with a percolator.
Store: Once it has been opened, seal the coffee and use within a week. Coffee loses its flavour easily and if left unsealed will be flavourless within 2 weeks. It is best completely sealed from air and ideally kept in the freezer.
Prepare: The ideal espresso is made with beans which have been ground just before using. The espresso should have foam (crema) on top which is brownish in colour, have a thick consistency, and a strong flavour. Poorly made espresso will have a weak flavour, have a white or dark crema, or have large bubbles on top.
Eat: Coffee is used in dessert preparations such as gelato (gelato al caffè), semifreddo (semifreddo al caffè), cakes (torta al caffè), pastries, creams, candies, granita (granita al caffè), and tiramisu. There are also coffee drinks such as caffè alla valdostana, ponce alla livornese, and moretta marchigiana.
Coffee liqueur (Liquore di caffè)
Coffee liqueur was first created in the 19th century.
Buy: The most well-known brands are Caffè Sport Borghetti from Italy, Kahlua from Mexico, and Tia Maria from Japan.
Store: By definition, liqueurs have high alcohol content which help preserve them so they can be kept for years in the cupboard.
Prepare: There is no special preparation required.
Eat: Drink coffee liqueur as a digestive, with a bit of cream, or in a cocktail or pour it over cream, hazelnut, or chocolate gelato to eat.
Cognac is a French brandy made from distilling wine. It has an alcohol content from 48% to 70% with a golden colour.
Buy: In order for brandy to be labelled Cognac it must come from Charente or Charente-Maritime in France and be produced following particular rules.
There are six geographic areas where Cognac can come from:
Grande Champagne (the most prestigious of the Cognacs)
Petite Champagne (second to Grande Champagne)
Borderies (elegant, floral style)
Fins Bois (mild but can’t be kept as long)
Bons Bois / Bois Ordinaires (mild but ages quickly)
Cognacs are further classified based on the age of the youngest spirit used in the blend.
VS (minimum two years in the cask)
VSOP / Réserve (minimum four years in the cask)
XO / Napoléon / Hors d’Age (minimum six years in the cask)
Store: By definition, hard alcohol has a high alcohol content which preserves the cognac so it can be kept for years in the cupboard. Cognac does not improve with time once bottled, it only improves with age if kept in the cask. Once it is bottled, it will evaporate slowly over time.
Prepare: There is no special preparation required.
Eat: Cognac is used in many desserts and pairs well with custards, cream, butter, apricots cherries, oranges, and peaches.
Compresso – See Yeast
Crema Gianduia – See Nutella
Crema Gianduja – See Nutella
Crescente – See Yeast
Criscenti – See Yeast
Criscolo – See Yeast
Espresso – See Coffee
Fennel seed (Semo di Finocchio) (Foeniculum vulgare)
Fennel seeds are a spice said to aid digestion and sweeten the breath.
Buy: Fennel seeds should be fresh and smell of fennel. They should taste of sweet aniseed.
Store: Fennel seeds should be stored in a cool, dark, dry place in an airtight container
Prepare: I often toast and fennel seed before using. Some recipes call for it to be ground to a powder in a mortar or spice grinder, particularly when it is to be sprinkled over fish before grilling.
Eat: Not many spices are used in Italian cooking but fennel combines so well with fish (triglie alla genovese) and pork, particularly in salami (finocchiona/sbriciolona), innards (ciarimbolo), and sausages (‘ndoc ‘ndoc). Fennel seeds are also used in nougat (mandorlotto). They can be ground and rubbed on meat (arista) or fish or added to stocks or court-bouillon. Fennel seeds are also used to flavour chestnuts, black olives, dried figs, grappa, breads, crisp-breads (taralli), and oils.
Gaeta – See Olive
Garlic (Aglio) (Allium sativum)
Garlic is a widely used flavouring in Italian cuisine, although used more mildly in northern Italy. Garlic grows as an underground bulb comprised of 6-14 cloves. It is harvested from May to August and hung to dry. Italian varieties have a pink to purple hue to their skins and a milder flavour. Garlic can be white as well and more strongly flavoured. There is also a very large variety, elephant garlic, which is very mild in flavour. The most important of the white varieties are Bianco piacentino and Grosso d’America. The most important pink varieties are Rosso di Sulmona and Rosso napoletano. Garlic has antioxidant properties that benefit cardiovascular health, suppresses tumour growth, and is rich in vitamins A, B, and C and minerals.
Buy: Fresh green garlic when it is in season in the late spring and summer, is sweeter in flavour than dried garlic. Dried garlic bulbs should be firm with no nicks, soft spots, green shoots, or dark powdery patches under the skin, an indication of moulding. Whole garlic cloves are sometimes preserved in oil but this has an increased risk of botulism.
Store: Fresh green garlic needs to be refrigerated and keeps for a few days. Dried garlic heads can be stored at room temperature in an open container in a cool, dry place or in a clay jar which allows the air to circulate and the garlic to remain dry. Garlic can be stored for several months like this and the pink varieties for up to a year. Do not freeze garlic. Chopped garlic can be covered with olive oil to prevent it from oxidising and keep it fresh and stored in the refrigerator for a few days. Do not keep garlic in oil for long as there is a risk of botulism.
Prepare: Whole garlic is milder in flavour and odour because when the garlic is cut it releases an enzyme called “allinaise” which chemically changes the garlic.
Remove the outer skin a head of garlic to remove the cloves one by one. Cut the hard bit at the base with a knife. You can either slide the knife between the skin and the garlic to remove it, or place the side of a knife blade on top of the garlic and push down to squash it and easily remove the papery outer coating. There is also a tool called a “garlic roller” which is a rubber tube you place the garlic inside and rub between your hands to release the skin. The skin is more likely to stick if the garlic is very fresh.
If the garlic is old, you may need to use more as the garlic becomes milder with age. If there are any green sprouts inside the cloves or brown spots, they should be removed and discarded before using the garlic. It can then be chopped, sliced, pounded, or used whole. Some people use a garlic press but I feel this produces a much stronger flavour.
To remove the smell of garlic from your hands, either wash your hands and rub them on a chrome sink or wash your hands, rub them with salt, and wash again.
Garlic, particularly in northern Italy, is bruised and used whole and discarded after flavouring the dish. In Piedmont, garlic is sometimes infused in milk for a few hours to mellow the flavour further. Be careful not to burn the garlic as it imparts a bitter flavour to the food.
Eat: Very few Italian recipes except for bagna caôda, aggiada, agghia pistata, and agliata, use garlic as the main ingredient. Garlic is normally used as one of the aromatics in a dish or in salads by rubbing a cut clove of garlic on the salad or soup bowl. It is used in soups and inserted into meat before roasting. Garlic sweetens with long cooking and when cooked whole.
Gelatin / Isinglass (Gelatina, Colla di pesce)
Equivalents: weight in sheet gelatin = weight in powdered gelatin
1 platinum sheet = 1.7 grams; 1 gold sheet = 2 grams; 1 silver sheet = 2.5 grams; 1 bronze sheet = 3.3 grams; 1 metric teaspoon powdered gelatin = 3.3 grams
Bloom strength: platinum=250, gold=200, silver=160, and bronze=125. Knox powdered gelatin=225.
To convert gelatin strength: ((X-Y)/X)*grams in recipe = additional grams needed
X= bloom strength required by the recipe (ie if Gold, then 200)
Y = bloom strength that you have (ie if Silver, use 160)
Example: Need 24 grams gold gelatin and have silver
((200-160)/200)x 24 = 4.8 additional grams required
Firm jelly: 8-9 grams platinum gelatin per litre of liquid; 10-12 grams gold gelatin per litre of liquid; 12-14 grams silver gelatin per litre of liquid; 14-16 grams bronze gelatin per litre of liquid
Reduce liquid by 20% for a very firm jelly
Substitutions: agar (4 grams flakes or 8 grams powdered per litre of liquid)
Gelatin is an odourless, colourless thickening agent, which can be of vegetable (apple and citrus fruit peel) or animal (animal bones, hooves, tendons, skin, cartilage, and connective tissue) origin. It becomes sticky when heated and then solid when cool so is used to thicken broths, gravies, and desserts and to clarify wine.
Buy: It can come in sheets made from dried fish swim bladders (colla di pesce), or powdered. Sheet gelatin is preferable as it is less likely to go lumpy. Sheet gelatin comes in different levels of quality with the highest being platinum, then gold, silver, and finally bronze. The higher quality of gelatin the more pure it is and the less you need to use. The leaf gelatin normally found at the grocery store does not state the quality of the gelatin so it needs to be weighed to determine which quality it is (see above for weights). As many scales are not that accurate it is best to weigh 10 sheets together to calculate the weight of each sheet. Since the different qualities of gelatin have different weights, if the recipe calls for the number of sheets then they are interchangeable. If the recipe calls for grams of gelatin then you need to figure out the quality of gelatin you have and convert if necessary.
Store: It has an indefinite shelf life if stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry place in a sealed container to prevent it absorbing odours.
Prepare: Soak sheet gelatin in cold water (20˚C) until soft (up to 30 minutes), wring out, and dissolve in warm or hot liquid (do not boil gelatin). For powdered gelatin, mix with a little cold water for 5 minutes before adding to the hot liquid. Place the hot liquid into a container and cover the top with cling film, pressing down onto the top of the liquid so that it does not form a skin and refrigerate until serving. Do not add figs, papaya, guava, ginger, and uncooked kiwi and pineapple to gelatin as their enzymes break down the gelatin. Do not freeze gelatin. The more sugar you add the softer the gelatin will be. The ratio of liquid to gelatin will determine how firm or soft the gelatin will be (see equivalents above). Gelatin and the liquid can be reheated a few times in a bain-marie and reset successfully giving the option of adjusting the liquid or sugar ratio. It takes twice as long to dissolve gelatin in milk or cream than in water. To suspend solids (such as well-drained fruit, meat, or vegetables) in the gelatin, chill the gelatin to allow it to become viscous but not firm before mixing the solids in. It will take 2 to 4 hours to set a gelatin depending on the size of the mould and if there are solids mixed in. To remove gelatin from the mould, rinse a plate with cold water, dip the mould in hot water up to the depth of the gelatin for 10 seconds, loosen the edges with a knife, unmould upside down onto the rinsed plate, and adjust the positioning of the gelatin on the plate. Refrigerate for 20 minutes to reset the gelatin.
Eat: It is used to thicken broth, gravy, jellies (gelatina d’arance, gelatine di albicocche, gelantina al limone, gelatina di pesche, gelatina di ribes), and desserts (panna cotta).
Gelatina – See Gelatin
Gianduia – See Nutella
Gianduja – See Nutella
Greek oregano – See Oregano
Hazelnut chocolate spread – See Nutella
Substitutions: sugar, although honey is much sweeter, has flavour, and you need to reduce the amount of liquid or fat in the recipe by 20% of the weight of the honey (i.e. if you use 100 grams of honey, remove 20 grams of milk or butter)
Honey has been a sweetener since ancient times and is prized for its medicinal qualities. Honey’s composition is similar to inverted sugars as it has about 40% fructose, 35% glucose, maltose, and other carbohydrates.
Buy: Honey ranges in colour from almost clear to dark brown. It can be firm or runny. It should have a clean flavour without any hint of bitterness or acidity. The flowers that the bees visit will determine the colour, composition, density, scent, and the flavour of the honey (see Types below). Fine honey often is labelled with the year of production, the botanic origin or type, and the region it originated. Honey can be treated with heat to keep it from crystallising and remain clear and runny. It can also be granulated or creamed to make it smooth and fine-grained. Honey can also be sold in its honeycomb with the honey still sealed in the wax cells.
Acacia (Acacia) honey is amber in colour with a delicate flavour. It does not crystallise. It is good for making drinks, cooking with, or eating as is. The best is from Veneto.
Almond (Mandorle) honey is clear and has an intense flavour.
Arbutus (Corbezzolo) is a light green colour with a bitter flavour. It is common in Sicilia and Sardegna.
Blended (Millefiori) honey is not as fine but is more consistent in flavour. It is the most common type of honey sold. It is amber in colour and the flavour and aroma are intense.
Chestnut (Castagno) honey is dark in colour with a strong, bitter flavour with woody notes. It is less sweet than other honeys and pairs well with cheese. It is produced all over Italy and is one of the most common honeys.
Clover (Trifoglio) honey is white with a delicate taste and perfume. It is not very prized due to its high water content. It is the best for a general eating and cooking honey.
Cornflower (Fiordaliso) honey is dark green in colour with a particular, spicy flavour.
Dandelion (Tarassaco) honey is a clear golden colour with a distinctive flavour. It is spread on biscuits or bread. It is common in northeastern Italy.
Eucalyptus (Eucalipto) honey is amber in colour with a particular flavour. It is good for drinks and in cooking. It is produced in south-central Italy.
French honeysuckle (Sulla) honey is white in colour, without any scent, and is produced in south-central Italy in the spring.
Heather (Erica) honey is amber in colour with orange-red tones. It has a delicate flavour, which suits tea infusions.
Lavender (Lavanda) honey is amber in colour, highly aromatic, and has a delicate flavour of lavender. It crystallises easily. It is considered one of the best honeys. The best quality is produced in Liguria.
Lemon flower (Zagara di limone) honey is clear in colour and has a delicate flavour with a lemon scent. The most highly prized honey comes from Sicilia.
Lime flower (Tiglio) honey is a light yellow colour with an intense perfume and distinct flavour. It is used to sweeten tea infusions. It is common in northeastern Italy and Toscana.
Oregano (Origano) honey is amber in colour with an intense aroma. It is rather rare as it is produced exclusively in the mountains of Piemonte.
Orange blossom (Zagara d’arancia) honey is clear in colour and has an intense flavour of orange blossom. The most highly prized honey comes from Calabria and Sicilia.
Pittosporum (Pitosforo) honey is red-brown in colour and has an intense flavour and aroma.
Rapeflower (Colza) honey is white in colour, has a particular flavour, and is quite rare. It is produced in north-central Italy. Many people do not like it.
Rhododendron (Rododendro) honey is white and intensely perfumed. It is one of the most prized honeys. It is produced in the Alps.
Rosemary (Rosmarino) honey is white in colour and delicately perfumed. It is common in southern Italy.
Spruce (Abete) honey is dark green in colour with a pleasant pine taste.
Sunflower (Girasole) honey is clear and has a delicate flavour.
Thyme (Timo) honey is clear with an intense perfume and distinct flavour. It is common in southern Italy. Thyme honey from Trapani is highly prized.
“Miele centrifugato” has been heated at a low temperature and filtered to ensure its quality and shelf life.
“Miele colato” the honey is obtained by draining the honeycomb without heating or a minimal amount of heating.
“Miele torchiato” the honey is obtained by applying pressure to the honeycomb and does not use heat or a minimal amount of heat.
“Vergine integrale” means the honey is pure and has not undergone any form of treatment.
Store: Honey can be kept indefinitely but loses flavour over time. Honey can be kept in an air-tight container in a dark, dry place at room temperature (22˚C) for 12-18 months without loss of flavour. It can be kept in the refrigerator for years.
Prepare: If the honey has crystallised, place the open jar in 70˚C water up to the level of the honey until the crystals melt. Honey should not be heated above 180˚C or it will become very dark.
Eat: Honey is used in confectionary, biscuits (biscotti integrali, biscotti alle spezie, cavallucci, cuddureddi, and piparelli), desserts (dolce al miele, dolcetti al cioccolato, semifreddo al miele, panforte, spongata, struffoli, and nucatoli), gelato, drinks, and as medicine. In Sicilia some sweets are made with honey instead of sugar and are used to top fritters (sfinci ammilati and crispelle di riso). Honey is used in making gelato as it reduces the temperature at which gelato solidifies so the texture of the gelato is softer. It is eaten as is on bread, biscuits, or with cheese. It is also used in savoury dishes, particularly sweet and sour recipes (cipolline in agrodolce al miele), to glaze meat (cosciotto di maiale glassato al miele), and sauces (salsa di avije).
Isinglass – See Gelatin
Jerez – See Sherry
Lievito chimico – See Baking powder
Lievito di birra – See Yeast
Lievito di panificazione – See Yeast
Lievito in polvere – See Baking powder
Lievito madre– See Yeast
Lievito minerale – See Baking powder
Lievito naturale – See Yeast
Lievito per pane – See Yeast
Maggiorana – See Marjoram
Maiatica – See Olive
Maraschino is a golden transparent cherry liqueur made from infusing sour cherries (marasca, ciliegia) and crushed cherry pits in alcohol, fermenting it with cherry leaves and grape wine and ageing it in oak barrels. The liquid is finally distilled with sugar water syrup. It originated in Dalmatia, Croatia.
Buy: Maraschino should be a straw coloured liquid that is sweet and has between 35-38% alcohol content.
Store: Store in a cool, dry place at room temperature. An upened bottle should be sealed and kept at room temperature for up to a year. Watch for discolouration or sugar crystallization and taste to ensure it is still good.
Prepare: It can be used in cake batters and to macerate fruit.
Eat: Maraschino is served as a drink and is used in desserts and to flavour fruit salads.
Marjoram (Maggiorana / Persa / Persia / Persica) (Origanum majorana, Origanum onites, Origanum heracleoticum)
Marjoram is closely associated with the Ligurian cuisine although it is also used in central Italy.
Buy: Marjoram is a herb which is sold fresh or dried, although the dried version has less flavour. It should smell sweet and have small branches with many small, rounded green leaves. The leaves should not be brown, withered, or falling off the branches. Marjoram grown in hotter climates will have a stronger flavour and aroma than those grown in more temperate climates. It has the strongest flavour in the summer. The “origanum onites” is a pot growing variety which can be grown on a windowsill.
Store: Fresh marjoram can be stored in the drawer of the refrigerator for 4 to 5 days. Excess marjoram can be successfully dried, frozen (although its texture is ruined), or preserved in oil and stored in the refrigerator.
Prepare: Pick the leaves from the stem. Discard the stem. Rinse the leaves under cold water and dry with a thin kitchen towel.
Eat: Marjoram is used as an aromatic in savoury pies (torta pasqualina), stuffings (cima alla genovese), filled pastas (pansoti), sauces, vegetables, and soups (persata).
Marsala is a fortified wine from Sicilia which was discovered in 1773 by wine merchant John Woodhouse, who was looking to ship wine from Sicilia to England without it spoiling. Marsala is made using wine made primarily from catarratto and grillo grapes with up to 15% inzolia grapes added. Added to this are mistella (grape must with brandy to stop the fermentation process – this is the best and most expensive method), mosto cotto / vin cotto (cooked grape must) and / or sifone (concentrated grape must). Marsala is made using blends of different vintages under the solera system.
Buy: Marsala is golden yellow in colour with orange highlights. It should be highly aromatic with caramel notes (except the Vergine). It can be sweet (dolce), semi-sweet (semi-secco), or dry (secco). The colour ranges from gold (oro), to amber (ambra), to ruby (rubino). The alcohol ranges from 15-21% or higher. It is classified according to typology and aging. The best Marsalas are categorised as Vergine or Superiore.
Fine is aged for a minimum of 1 year and has a minimum of 17% alcohol. It is good for cooking.
Superiore is aged for a minimum of 2 years and has a minimum of 18% alcohol.
Superiore Riserva is aged for four years and has a minimum of 18% alcohol.
Vergine has been aged for 5 years and has a minimum of 18% alcohol. Vergine uses mistella (must with alcohol added to prevent fermentation).
Solera Stravecchio/Solera riserva has been aged for at least 10 years and has a minimum of 18% alcohol.
Speciale implies other ingredients such as eggs, spices, and cream have been added.
Store: Marsala can be kept in a cool place at room temperature unopened for years. The flavour does not improve once it has been bottled and conversely, once opened, begins to lose flavour. Once the bottle is open, you can seal it from the air and store at room temperature for or, even better, in the refrigerator for 3-4 months.
Prepare: Dry Marsala can be served chilled 12-14˚C as a drink before a meal or with food. Sweet Marsala can be served slightly chilled at 18˚C after a meal as it is or to accompany dessert.
Eat: It is used in pastries, custards, creams (zabaglione), puddings (budino di Panettone), gelato (gelato di crema), or cakes (buccellato). Dry Marsala is used to flavour meat dishes (becacce alla lucana, faraona ripiena, finanziera, scalloppine di vitello).
Miele – See Honey
Nocellaria del Belice DOP – See Olive
Nutella / Hazelnut chocolate spread / Chocolate fondant (Crema Gianduia / Crema Gianduja)
Chocolate fondant is chocolate mixed with other ingredients like vanilla, milk powder, nuts, fruit, etc. Gianduia is a chocolate fondant mixed with toasted hazelnuts and vanilla invented in Torino in 1852.
Hazelnut chocolate spread was first made in Piemonte in the 18th century. The name “gianduia” is a contraction of the name of a carnival mask, “Gioan d’la duja”, meaning “John of the Flagon”.
Buy: Nutella is a spread made from cocoa, skim milk, and hazelnuts industrially produced by Ferrero. As it is industrially produced, the nutritive properties and flavour are inferior to products which are artisanally produced (called Gianduia/Gianduja), particularly as they use palm oil. This spread can also be made at home with superior results.
To make: Toast hazelnuts and grind to a paste with sugar. Melt dark chocolate and mix with milk. Mix the chocolate mixture and the hazelnut mixture together.
Store: It should be kept in a dark, dry place at room temperature with the top firmly closed. Do not place Nutella in the refrigerator or it hardens. If it becomes too hot the oil may separate and the freshness of the product lost.
Prepare: No preparation is necessary.
Eat: It is eaten on toasted bread, biscuits, in or on cakes (torta gianduia), and made into ice cream (gelato di Nutella).
Nutmeg (Noce moscata) (Myristica fragrans)
Equivalents: 1 medium whole nutmeg = 10 grams = 2-3 teaspoons ground nutmeg
Nutmeg is a spice which comes from the fruit of a tropical plant which grows in the West Indies, Indonesia, and the Philippines. The bright outer coating of the fruit is dried and called “mace” (macis) and the interior round ball is dried and called “nutmeg”.
Buy: Nutmeg is a light brown coloured oblong ball, 2 to 3 cm in diameter. Do not buy powdered nutmeg as its aromatic oils are volatile and dissipate quickly after being ground. Nutmeg is relatively expensive in contrast to other spices but typically only a little is used at a time so buy in small quantities.
Store: Store sealed, in a cool, dark, dry place. It can be kept for several months to a few years. If once grated, the nutmeg has no flavour or scent, it needs to be replaced.
Prepare: Nutmeg can be grated on a nutmeg grater, rasp grater, or with a fine microplane. Only a little is needed at a time as the flavour is quite pronounced.
Eat: It is used in cured meats and sausages (cotecchino, zampone Modena). It is used to flavour cakes, biscuits, sauces (besciamella), flans (sformato), stewed meats (stufato), fish soups, pastas (tortellini, anolini, passatelli, ravioli), stuffings, and poached fruit. Nutmeg pairs well with spinach, potatoes, cinnamon, cloves, mushrooms, apples, and pears.
Oliva – See Olive oil
Olive (Oliva / Uliva) (Olea europaea sativa)
Olives are the fruit of the olive tree whose firm flesh is rich in oil. Green olives are harvested at the end of summer and black olives (which may actually be purple or brown) are harvested in the winter when they are fully ripe. Once harvested, olives are processed in a variety of ways to make them palatable: soaking in water, fermenting, salting, preserving in oil, pickling, treatment with lime and caustic soda, dry curing, and flavouring with aromatics such as garlic, chillies, herbs, onion, lemon, or orange. There are 50 varieties of olives in Italy both for making olive oil and olives.
Buy: Olives can also come stuffed with many different fillings such as pepper or anchovy.
Most notable varieties:
Ascolana from the Marche.
Bella di Spagna is a Spanish variety grown in Puglia.
Cerignola / Bella di Puglia is a large green olive from Puglia.
Nocellaria del Belice DOP from Sicilia is harvested from September by hand. It also makes nice olive oil.
Sant’Agostino from Puglia.
Gaeta is a small, black olive from Campania.
Maiatica is from Basilicata and is also made into oil.
Ponentine is from Liguria and is small in size.
Taggiasca is from Liguria and is considered one of the finest olives.
Black olives can also be dried so appear shrivelled.
Store: Olives can be stored unopened at room temperature for one to two years. Once opened, store the olives in their liquid in a non-metal container for several weeks. If you want to keep them for longer, store them in olive oil in the refrigerator for up to two years.
Prepare: Olives should be removed from the liquid they are stored in before using. If the recipe requires them to be pitted, place them on a cutting board and press down with the palm of the hand and use your fingers to remove the pit.
Eat: Olives are served on their own as a starter (alivi cunzati, alivi ‘a puddastredda, olive conservate), stuffed (olive all’ascolana), or used in focaccia, bread (pan de molche, pane del pescatore), to top pizzas, in pasta sauces (alla puttanesca), in fish dishes, in rabbit dishes, and in chicken dishes.
Oregano / Greek oregano (Origano) (Origanum vulgare, Origanum heracleoticum)
Regional names: cornabusa, erba acciuga, rigano
Oregano is a herb which grows all over Italy, but its flavour is particularly characteristic of southern Italian cooking. In the spring and summer, it has little pink flowers. In the summer, the young leaves are harvested for cooking.
Buy: Oregano can be fresh or dry and is one of the few herbs whose flavour is preserved when dried. Fresh oregano from southern Italy is said to be the best quality. There is also Mexican oregano which has a more aggressive flavour than the European varieties.
Oregano (Origanum vulgare) is grown in central and northern Italy but it is less fragrant so less prized.
Greek Oregano (Origanum heracleoticum) is grown in southern Italy and sold in dried bunches in markets. It is prized but difficult to find fresh.
Store: Store dried oregano in a dry, dark place.
Prepare: Dried oregano can be toasted gently in a frying pan to bring out its flavour. Fresh oregano can be rinsed under cold water, dried, leaves removed, and used in cooking.
Eat: Oregano is used on pizza (pizza napoletana, rianata, sardinaira), to dress salads (caprese), to flavour cured pork products (U suppessato, budello origanato) and with pickles. It is also used in liqueurs. Oregano pairs well with lemon, fish, particularly anchovies and swordfish, and most vegetables but particularly tomato and aubergine.
Origano – See Oregano
Parsley (Prezzemolo) (Petroselinum crispium / Petroselinum hortense / Petroselinum sativum)
Regional names: apio, petroselino, petrosello
Parsley is a green leafy herb with three leaves at the top of a stem that originates from the Mediterranean. It is sold all year-round. In Italian, someone who never misses a party or event is called “come il prezzemolo” which translates as “like parsley”, since this herb is ubiquitous. Do not confuse parsley with coriander / cilantro which is sometimes called Chinese parsley (prezzemolo cinese / coriandolo) which has a completely different and more pronounced flavour.
Buy: Italians only use flat-leaf parsley, not the curly leaf variety, as it has a superior flavour. Choose parsley which has dry, crisp, bright green leaves and is free from any signs of rotting, dampness, yellowing, or wilted leaves. Dried parsley is also sold but it has a grass-like flavour so is not worth buying.
Curly parsley (Prezzemolo riccio) (Petroselinum crispium / Petroselinum sativum) is used for decorative purposes as it is inferior to flat-leaf parsley in terms of flavour and aroma.
Flat leaf parsley / Continental parsley (Prezzemolo comune) (Petroselinum crispium, var. Neapolitanum / Petroselinum hortense) is the most frequently used parsley in Italy with a fine flavour.
Broad-leaf parsley (Prezzemolo Gigante d’Italia) (Petroselinum crispium, var. Neapolitanum / Petroselinum hortense) has very large leaves and is used in battuta (see below).
Store: Store parsley unwashed in a plastic bag in the drawer of the refrigerator for up to five days. Chopped parsley can be held overnight under a damp towel in the refrigerator, although it is preferable to use it the same day it is chopped.
Prepare: Soak the parsley in a bowl of cold water, swishing the water around. Rinse under cold water and dry well. Remove and discard any yellow leaves. Pluck the leaves from the stems (which can be reserved for making stock) and chop the leaves.
Eat: Parsley is used daily as a flavouring in sauces (salsa verde, bagnet piemontese, gremolata), stocks (mazzetto aromatico), stuffings, pastas (spaghetti alle vongole, spaghetti aglio olio), in court-bouillion for cooking fish, meat, soups and stews. It is chopped together with pancetta, onion, carrot, and celery to make a base (battuto) for many dishes. Parsley is often combined with olive oil and garlic to flavour baked fish, pan-fried meat, mushrooms, seafood sauces for pasta, seafood salads (insalata di mare), or breadcrumbs.
Pepe nero – See Black peppercorn
Peperoncino – See Chilli
Persa – See Marjoram
Persia – See Marjoram
Persica – See Marjoram
Ponentine – See Olive
Prezzemolo – See Parsley
Ramerino – See Rosemary
Rhum – See Rum
Rosemarino – See Rosemary
Rosemary (Rosemarino / Ramerino) (Rosmarinus officinalis – prostrates, aureus, roseus)
Rosemary is an evergreen whose leaves are more similar to pine needs. It can be cultivated or wild and is a staple in Italian cooking. It is always green and available all year-round. Rosemary is the symbol of fidelity and friendship. Rosemary is said to help the memory.
Buy: Look for fresh looking leaves which are green. They should not be dried out, brittle, or brown. Rosemary can be purchased fresh or dry. Dried rosemary is not an acceptable substitute as it quickly loses its essential oils. As dried rosemary is dried, loose needles, it lends an unpleasant texture to food.
Store: Store the rosemary in plastic in the refrigerator for 3 to 5 days.
Prepare: Wash the rosemary well and dry thoroughly with a thin cloth. If loose needles are called for, pluck the leaves by holding the branch by the tip and squeezing the top between your pointer finger and thumb and running it along the branch towards the cut end, dislodging the leaves as you go. Finely chop or grind in a mortar and pestle.
Eat: The woody branches are great for skewering meat to be barbequed and the leaves are excellent to flavour lamb, chicken, beef, rabbit, pork, veal, goose, large fish, octopus, potatoes, and beans. The leaves are also used for flavouring soups, breads (focaccia), crepes (farinata), oils, vinegars, sauces, roasted or grilled meats, and fish. The leaves are crushed in battuto or bouquets garnis (mazzetto odoroso) and used to flavour many dishes. Rosemary can also be used in sweet dishes such as castagnaccio or schiacciata d’uva from Toscana. Rosemary is always eaten cooked and never raw as it has quite a pungent flavour. However, rosemary’s tiny purple flowers can be eaten raw, added to salads and risottos or they can be candied and added to desserts. Rosemary pairs well with garlic, thyme, savoury, and sage.
Rum is a spirit of Caribbean origin made from distilled sugar cane juice or molasses with a minimum alcohol content of 40%.
Buy: Rum is now produced in many countries and there are many high quality rums in the market, some aged for 20 years or more in oak (ron Viejo / ron añejo). The best rums come from Haiti and Guyana. Rum can be clear (light rum), golden (gold rum), or dark brown (dark rum) in colour. Aging will colour the rum.
Añejo / Cuban rum (produced in the Spanish speaking countries of the Caribbean such as Cuba, Mexico, Guatemala, Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Puerto Rico) have a smooth taste. There are versions which are flavoured with Sherry, raisins, or caramel (spiced rum). The carta blanca is the most typical type available.
Carta blanca is dry and clear
Carta di oro is milder and brown, aged for a few years.
Jamaican rum (produced in the English speaking countries of the Caribbean such as Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada, Barbados, St. Lucia, Belize, Bermuda, Saint Kitts, and Guyana) has a long fermentation process. It is strongly flavoured with a fuller underlying molasses flavour. It is often mixed with lighter rums after aging.
Rhum agricole / Caribbean rum (produced in the French speaking countries of the Caribbean such as Haiti, Barbados, and Martinique) are more lightly coloured and flavoured with a lower alcohol content than Jamaican rum but are stronger than Cuban rum. It is made from sugar cane juice and is more expensive than the Cuban or Jamaican rums. The best of these rums are selected for “riserva” and are aged for 5 or more years.
Arak / Asian rum (produced in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India) are made with cane sugar, rice, coconut, and dates.
Store: Store sealed in a cool place at room temperature.
Prepare: No special preparation is necessary.
Eat: In Italy rum is enjoyed as a beverage or used as a flavouring in cakes, puddings, pastry (babà al rhum), syrups, fruit salad (macedonia), and gelato.
Saffron (Zafferano) (Crocus sativus)
Saffron is a spice. It is the stigma of the crocus flower and is very highly prized for its unique flavour and golden orange hue it lends to dishes. It can be wild or cultivated (it is grown in Abruzzo, Sardegna, Sicilia, Toscana, and Umbria). It has historically been a status symbol due to its expense and rarity. It is the most expensive spice by weight because each stigma needs to be picked by hand and each flower only has three stigmas. It takes 500,000 stigmas to make one kilo of saffron. Fortunately only a tiny amount is needed to permeate the entire dish with its signature flavour.
Buy: Saffron comes in strands or in a powder (packaged in envelopes or vials). The powder is fine for dishes where you mainly want the colour but if you can afford the strands, they will be better as it is easier to see the quality you are purchasing. The saffron should be strongly scented and should not be uniform in colour with the higher quality saffron being more red in colour. Because of its expense there have been unscrupulous sellers since the Middle Ages who adulterate saffron strands to imitate saffron of higher quality. Buy from a reputable seller or brand of saffron or ask to test the saffron. The best saffron should be red with no yellow or white parts, the strand should be dry and brittle, some of the stigmas should be connected together, and it should have a strong aroma which is not musty. The yellow or white part is the “style” of the crocus plant and has no culinary value so is dead weight you are paying for. You can tell if the saffron has been dyed if you place it in warm water or milk and it immediately colours the water or milk. It should take real saffron a few minutes before the colour develops. In North Africa and the Middle East, they sometimes sell safflower (cartamo / zafferanone / zafferano bastardo) as saffron as it has a similar colour but no flavour so always test the saffron first.
Store: Store saffron in a cool, dark place in an airtight container for up to 6 months. Saffron will slowly lose its flavour over time so it best to purchase it in small quantities and use it quickly.
Prepare: To use powdered saffron, add it directly to the cooking liquid. To use saffron strands, they can first be toasted and crushed with a mortar and pestle or directly infused into a bit of tepid broth or water to release the flavour. Many people advocate waiting towards the end of cooking to add the saffron to preserve its delicate oils.
Eat: It is particularly good with rice (arancini) and risotto (risotto alla Milanese), couscous, pasta dishes (malloreddus), especially those with cheese or fish (pasta con le sarde), and fish soups and stews. It is also used to flavour pasta itself. Saffron is also used in syrups, liqueurs, and desserts (pardulas, zippulas). It pairs well with fennel, fish, garlic, mussels and white wine.
Sage (Salvia) (Salvia officinalis)
Regional names: erba sacra, erba savia
Sage is a Mediterranean herb, which can be cultivated or wild. The oval shaped leaves of the sage plant are a bit fuzzy and are more intensely flavoured when grown in hot climates and during hot seasons. There are many varieties of sage, all of which are aromatic and are used for cooking or ornamental use in the garden. The most commonly cultivated variety is Latifolia. Other varieties grown include Lavanulifolia, with elongated, straight leaves, and Crispa, with curly leaves. The name in Italian comes from the Latin “salus” which means health indicating its virtues have been known since ancient times.
Buy: Look for fresh looking, young leaves and stalks which are green, dry, and unwilted. They should not be wet, have signs of rot, or be yellow or brown. Smaller leaves tend to be more aromatic but the larger leaves are easier to attach to meat. Dry sage can be a suitable substitute for fresh sage (although fresh is always preferable) when used as an aromatic. Sage is intensely flavoured so only a few leaves are needed to flavour a dish.
Store: Store dry in plastic in the refrigerator for 3 to 5 days.
Prepare: Wash the sage well, dry thoroughly with a thin cloth, pluck the leaves and finely chop the leaves. Also the leaves have a fuzzy texture so are often finely chopped or the whole leaf is used to flavour a dish and then discarded.
Eat: Sage always makes me think of cold weather as many of the dishes it stars in are autumn and winter dishes. It is classicly used to infuse flavour in butter to dress pasta (particularly ravioli and homemade pasta) and meat dishes. It pairs well with liver (fegato alla veneziana, spiedini di fegatelli), chicken, game (spiedini di uccellini), pork (maiale arrosto), goose, veal (saltimbocca, scaloppine) and fish. Sage is excellent battered and deep-fried in fritto misto, in soups, or used to flavour fish, pumpkin, and beans (fagioli all’uccelleto) and custard (salviata). It is also used to perfume oil, vinegar, wine and tea.
Sale – See Salt
Salt (Sale) (Sodium chloride)
Equivalents: 1 tablespoon coarse salt = 22 grams; 1 tablespoon salt = 15 grams
There are a variety of different kinds of salt to choose between. These include coarse grain (sale grosso), fine grain (sale fine), and the generally preferred variety is sea salt (sale marino), which is the most used type of salt in Italy. Salt has been used in Italy since prehistoric times for preserving foods such as anchovies, capers, and prosciutto as well as enhancing flavours. Such is the historical importance of salt that its name was given to ancient Italy’s most important trade route – the Via Salaria.
Buy: Buy coarse grain sea salt if it is to be used in dishes which will be cooked for a long period of time, to season pasta water, to seal in fish or chicken (al sale), to help grind aromatics in a mortar and pestle or to sprinkle over particular dishes (bollito di manzo). Otherwise fine grain sea salt is the most versatile and can be used in cooking or at the table. There are different coloured salts depending on their origin and mineral content, although I don’t find they are worth their premium pricing. One possible exception to this is marino grezzo / sale grigio which is a grey coloured sea salt which has not been refined and has retained more of the minerals. Salts flavoured with rosemary, sage, garlic, etc. can be found. One can also find iodinised salts (essentially table salt mixed with small amounts of iodine, said to prevent against iodine deficiency). Kosher salt is a popular salt in America that is larger in grain than fine salt, but finer in grain than coarse salt. It is not frequently used in Italy.
Store: Store salt in a sealed container in a cool, dry, dark place.
Prepare: There is no specific preparation for salt but do not use too liberally. Taste throughout cooking to ensure the salt level is appropriate.
Eat: Salt is used in everything although some breads don’t have salt in them, particularly in Toscana. It is essential that pasta is cooked in water which has sufficient salt in it or this will affect the flavour of the pasta even if the sauce is correctly seasoned. Fish and chicken are baked in a crust of coarse-grain salt (branzino al sale) which seals the juices in while it bakes.
Salvia – See Sage
Sant’Agostino – See Olive
Santa Catarina – See Olive
Semi di finocchio – See Fennel seeds
Sherry is a fortified Spanish wine made within three subzones (Jerez de la Frontera, Puerto de Santa Maria, and Sanlucar de Barrameda). It is made with the Palomino and Pedro Ximenez (PX) grape varieties. Once the grapes are harvested, they are left to sit in the sun for a short period of time. The wine is made and alcohol is added (the amount of alcohol determines if the sherry becomes a Fino (less alcohol) or Oloroso (more alcohol). The wine is put into oak casks and permitted to come into contact with the air inside the cask. The Fino has lower alcohol so yeast (flor) will form on the surface of the wine, limiting the degree of oxidisation. In Oloroso sherry, the higher alcohol level inhibits the formation of the flor so the sherry oxidizes and becomes darker in colour and richer in flavour. The sherry is then processed according to the Solera system, in which the younger sherry is mixed with older vintages and a percentage is drained off. The removed amount is then added to older casks, so that the younger and mature sherry is routinely blended. Sherry is typically a mixture of wines made in different years of production and does not use wines from a single year of production (a vintage).
Buy: They type of sherry one buys ought to depend on what purpose it is intended to fill, as there are a number of varieties to choose between. These include dry varieties (Fino, Manzanilla, Amontillado, Oloroso, and Palo cortado), sweet (Sweet sherry, Cream sherry, and Pedro Ximenez), and from lightly flavoured (Fino and Manzanilla) to richly flavoured (Oloroso).
Fino is hay coloured, extra-dry, light-bodied, and has a pungent but delicate aroma with an alcohol content of 15 to 17%;
Manzanilla is an amber coloured Fino, is dry, and has an aroma of almonds. It can only be made in San Lucar and has a distinctive flavour.
Amontillado is a style of sherry in between Fino and Oloroso, in terms of colour and body. The flor used in the Fino dies off part way through the process, so it partially oxidizes.
Oloroso is subdivided into Oloroso, which is dry, very aromatic, richly flavoured with notes of walnuts, full-bodied, and has an alcohol content of 18%; and Raya which is less-prized.
Palo cortado is a dry sherry similar to an Oloroso in terms of its full flavour.
Sweet sherry is a dry sherry which has been sweetened with grape juice from Pedro Ximenez grapes which were partially dried first. It is reddish brown in colour and has notes of fig and molasses.
Cream sherry is made from Amontillado or Oloroso sherry and sweetened with grape juice. It is creamy in texture, reddish brown in colour, and sweet.
Pedro Ximenez is a syrupy sweet sherry made from dried grapes. It has notes of dates, figs, molasses, and toffee.
Store: Store sherry upright in a cool dark place. Unopened Fino, Manzanilla and Amontillado sherries can be stored for up to one year. Once opened, they need to be stored in the refrigerator, sealed, for up to one week. The rest of the sherries can be stored for up to three years unopened. Once opened, stored them sealed at room temperature or in the refrigerator.
Prepare: Fino, Manzanilla, and Amontillado sherries should be served chilled (7-10˚C). Oloroso, Palo cortado, Sweet sherry, cream sherry, and Pedro Ximenez can be served room temperature.
Drink: Fino and Amontillado are served chilled (6˚C) as aperitifs. Oloroso and Raya are served at room temperature as digestifs after a meal.
Sugar (Zucchero) (Saccarum officinarum)
Equivalents: 1 cup icing sugar = 125 grams
1 cup sugar = 170 grams
Sugar is derived from sugar cane or sugar beet.
Buy: The finer the sugar, the faster it dissolves. There are also flavoured sugars with vanilla, spices, or coconut flavours.
Granulated sugar (Zucchero commune / Zucchero granulato) the largest granules of the sugars. It is highly refined. It is used in coffee tea, cooking fruit, toffee, fondants, etc.
Caster sugar (Zucchero semolato) is finer than granulated sugar but not as fine as icing sugar. It is sold in two sizes: fine (fino) and extra fine (extrafino). It dissolves easily so is perfect for meringues, custards, cakes, tarts, creams, sauces, syrups, fruit salad, confectionery gelatines, jams, souffles, mousses or any other preparation where the sugar should dissolve before being heated. It is also sprinkled over crepes and fritters.
Icing sugar / Confectioner’s sugar / Powdered sugar (Zucchero a velo) has the finest texture of the sugars and is very white in colour. It often contains 3% cornflour to keep it dry. It tastes sweeter than granulated or caster sugar. It is sprinkled over desserts and can be used in sorbets, icing, marzipan, macaroons (amaretti) and biscuit and wafer stuffings. Icing sugar sprinkled over fresh fruit will protect it from oxidising.
Cane sugar (Zucchero di canna) is dark-coloured, moist, and with a strong flavour similar to liquorice. It can be used in rustic desserts where its intense flavour will not overpower more delicate ingredients, and its colour doesn’t mar the dish.
Coarse sugar / Pearl sugar / Decorator’s sugar (Zucchero in granella) is very large grain, white sugar used to decorate cakes (panettone), biscuits, and pastry. It comes in large grain, medium grain, and fine grain.
Fructose is derived from fruit. Since the grains are uniform in size, it is resistant to crystallization, and is very soluble, fructose is often used in packaged mixes where it is important that the ingredients do not separate.
Glucose (Glucosio) is derived from corn and does not crystallize. As such it is used in jams, candying fruit and in gelato.
Store: It can be stored for a long time in a dry place. If it is in a box or in a paper sack, it is best to transfer it to an airtight container. Icing sugar in particular needs to be kept dry or it clumps.
Prepare: Sugar tastes sweeter when hot than when cold, so cold preparations will need more sugar than hot preparations. Sugar can be added in its purchased form to dishes or can be made into syrup or caramel. To do this, simply heat sugar in a clean, heavy bottomed, stainless steel concave sauce pan (saucier) and use a candy thermometer to determine the appropriate stage:
Syrup (Velatura) the sugar melts
Thread (Filo sottile) 105˚C –used for gelatines, jams, and confectionary.
Thread (Filo forte) 107˚C
Soft ball (Piuma forte) 112.5˚C
Soft ball (Piccola palla / Piccola bolla) 117.5˚C – used to make fondant, nougat, and praline
Firm ball (Grande palla / Grande bolla) 121˚C – used to make brittle (croccanti), caramels, meringues, and nougats (mandorlati)
Soft crack (Piccolo cassé) 132˚C – used to make nougat (mandorlati) and brittles (croccanti).
Hard crack (Gran casse / Caramella) 145˚C – used to make candy, caramelized fruit, brittle (croccanti) and spun sugar
Light caramel / Butterscotch (Caramello) 145˚C used in puddings, creams, and rice desserts.
Dark caramel (Caramello forte) 180˚C – used to colour syrups, liqueurs and creams.
Eat: Sugar is used to sweeten coffee, tea, and cocktails. It is essential in making desserts, gelato, jams, pastry, and syrups. It can also be used to balance out other flavours such as hot and sour flavours. It can be caramelized to create colour and a more intense flavour. Sugar has many chemical effects in cooking, including preserving foods; incorporating air and tenderizing baked goods; inhibiting gluten development to produce a finer crumb; delaying starch gelatinization; accelerating yeast growth; preserving colour, texture and shape of fruit and vegetables when tinning and freezing; stabilising egg foam; delaying coagulation of egg proteins in custards; facilitating the gelling process in fruit jams; helping to brown foods; creating the crinkled texture on top of baked goods and enhancing the smooth texture of gelato.
Taggiasca – See Olive
Uliva – See Olive
Vaniglia – See Vanilla
Vanilla (Vaniglia) (Vanilla planifolia)
Equivalents: 1 tablespoon vanilla paste = 1 tablespoon vanilla extract = 1 tablespoon vanilla powder = 1 vanilla bean
Vanilla is the brown, wrinkled, elastic bean of a climbing orchid from Central America. The pod is about 1 to 2 cm wide and up to 25 cm in length. Inside the bean are many tiny seeds. The vanilla pod is harvested, fermented and dried to allow the seeds to develop their intense flavour and aroma. Vanilla has an excellent flavour, and is one of the most-used flavourings in desserts.
Buy: Vanilla is sold as a liquid, paste, whole bean, and powder. The best is the whole bean. The bean should be elastic, strongly perfumed and may have some crystallization which is fine. Do not buy dried-out, brittle vanilla beans. It should smell like vanilla not rot. Be careful as there is an inferior synthetic version of vanilla called “vanillin” (vaniglina / vanillina) made from various substances, available in liquid form.
Store: Store beans in a sealed but not airtight container in a cool, dark, dry place at room temperature for up to 6 months. If the beans dry out, they can be soaked before use. If mould develops on the bean, the bean is still edible, just wipe the bean with a kitchen towel soaked in a strong, flavourless alcohol like vodka and let sit in the sunlight for a day. Vanilla extract and powder can be kept sealed in a cool, dark, dry place at room temperature until the expiration date on the packaging. Vanilla paste, once opened, should be kept in the refrigerator until the expiration date on the packaging.
Prepare: To use the liquid (vanilla extract / vanilla essence), paste or powder, no preparation is needed. To use the whole bean, use the back of the knife to flatten the bean and starting at the stem end, slice down parallel to the flat bean lengthwise down the bean. Use the blade to scrape out the seeds and add to the dish. Vanilla is typically infused in milk or cream, added to sugar, or pounded with other ingredients. Vanilla is strongly flavoured so use in small amounts. The empty bean can be kept in sugar to perfume the sugar or wrapped in the cupboard to perfume another dish. The bean can be reused many times, washing and drying in between use.
Eat: Vanilla is the main flavour in cakes, biscuits, tarts, soufflé, charlottes, semifreddo, pannacotta, gelato, creams (bavarese, la Chantilly), custards (crema pasticciera), sauces (salsa alla vaniglia), and liqueurs. It is also used to flavour cured meat (cotechino alla vaniglia).
Vinegar in Italy is typically made from wine (aceto di vino) whose ethyl alcohol has oxidized into acetic acid (minimum 6%). The best wine vinegar is made using the traditional method of adding vinegar to either both red or white wine (Orléans method). The most famous vinegar from Italy is balsamic vinegar (aceto balsamico) from Modena or Reggio Emilia in Emilia Romagna. Vinegar can also be made from fruit (aceto di frutta), cereal, honey, or malt. Vinegars can be flavoured by infusing them with herbs or chilli.
Buy: Wine vinegar should be transparent. White wine vinegar will have a pinkish yellow colour and red wine vinegar should be pale garnet to dark ruby in colour.
Balsamic vinegar (Aceto balsamico) is made by cooking the must of the Trebbiano white grape and mixing it with wine vinegar, caramel and aging it in wood. The vinegar is aged together with older vintages of vinegar in the Solera system (see Sherry). It is dark brown in colour and slightly sweet.
Aceto balsamico tradizionale is made from Trebbiano di Spagna and Lambrusco grapes. It must have been aged in different woods for a minimum of 12 years to be labelled “affinato” and 25 years to be labelled “extra vecchiato”. It is richly flavoured, aromatic, and dark brown in colour. The best of these vinegars can be enjoyed as a drink or used to dress strawberries or gelato. The best aceto balsamico tradizionale can be very expensive. To read how traditional balsamic vinegar is made, click here.
Affinato means “refined” and is aged for a minimum of 60 days.
Invecchiato means “aged” and is aged for a minimum of 3 years.
Store: Store vinegar sealed in a cool, dark place at room temperature for up to a year. The vinegar may become cloudy during storage but it is still safe to eat.
Prepare: Vinegar can be made at home by adding a “vinegar mother” – a fungus that lives in wine – to leftover wine and storing it in an earthenware container and loosely covering it so it can breathe. When the vinegar is acidic (minimum 6%), filter it into a bottle, seal, and let it age for at least a month. Store purchased vinegar needs no specific preparation.
Eat: Vinegar is used in salad dressings (puntarelle), sweet and sour vegetables and fish (agrodolce, in saor), pickling vegetables, marinating and tenderizing meat or fish, or for adding sharpness to a dish.
Vin Santo / Vinsanto
Vin Santo is a sweet wine which has an intense flavour and 15 to 17% alcohol level. It is made from grapes which are dried before pressing to concentrate the sugars. The resulting juice is aged in oak or chestnut wooden casks for a minimum of three years. It is typically white although there is a red variety (Occhio di Pernice) made with Sangiovese grapes. There is also a fortified version (Vin Santo Liquoroso). Vin santo is made in different areas but the most famous varieties are from Toscana. In Toscana it is made with Trebbiano or Malvasia grapes (some of the best are in the DOCs of Pomino, Carmignano, Bolgheri, Elba, Chianti Classico, Chianti Ruffina and Montepulciano), in Veneto it is made with Garganega grapes (Vin Santo di Gambellara DOC) and in Umbria it is made with Grechetto and Malvasia grapes (Vin Santo Umbro). The name means “holy wine” as it has traditionally been used as a communion wine in church.
Buy: The best Vin Santo will tend to have a higher percentage of Malvasia grapes in it. Vin Santo from Montepulciano is particularly prized as it is more complex in flavour and full-bodied. Better producers will age the Vin Santo for 5 years. Buy from top producers such as Avignonesi, Capezzana, Fontodi, Isole e Olena, Poliziano, San Giusto a Rentennano, and Selvapiana. It is sold in 350, 500 and 750 ml bottles made of clear glass so the colour of the wine is visible. Vin Santo ranges in quality, style, colour (from gold to orange to red), and sweetness (from dry to cloyingly sweet). It is best to try many types first to determine which are preferable. Otherwise check tasting notes of wine professionals on the internet.
Store: Wines should be kept in a dark place which is constant in temperature (10-15˚C) and humidity (70%). It should be moved as little as possible and be kept at an angle on its side so that both the wine and the air bubble inside the bottle are in contact with the cork. Check vintage dates online to see how long the wine can be kept for and when is the ideal time to drink it. Once opened, cork the bottle and store it upright in the refrigerator for up to a week.
Prepare: Serve Vin Santo at its storage temperature (12-15˚C).
Drink: It can be added to desserts or enjoyed on its own or accompanied by desserts. Vin santo’s classic pairing is cantuccini / biscottini alla mandorla (almond biscuits).
Wine must syrup – See Grape
Yeast (Lievito per pane / Lievito di birra / Lievito di panificazione / Compresso, Lievito madre / Crescente / Criscenti / Criscolo / Biga / Pasta acida, Lievito naturale)
Equivalent: 6 grams fresh yeast = 3 grams active dry yeast = 2 grams instant / quick yeast
1 packet dry yeast = 7 grams
Yeast is a microscopic plant that produces enzymes to create a fermentation which changes sugar into carbon dioxide (and alcohol) that leaves bread and rustic cakes. Any alcohol created by the fermentation evaporated during the baking process.
Buy: Baker’s yeast is available fresh or dried. Traditionally fresh yeast was used and remains the preference of traditional professional bakers today. It is not easy to find and is more difficult to store so most home bakers use dried yeast. Starters are made at home and add flavour to breads although they require more maintenance and advanced planning.
Baker’s yeast (Lievito di birra / Lievito di panificazione / Compresso) (Saccromyces cerevisiae)
Fresh yeast / Compressed yeast / Cake yeast is pale beige, of pasty texture and easily crumbles. It should smell clean and fruity.
Dried granular yeast is the most commonly used household yeast. It can be stored sealed in a cold, dry place for several months. It is activated by contact with liquid.
Active dried yeast is more popular than any other type of yeast for home baking.
Instant yeast / Quick yeast / Easy-blend yeast / Fast-acting yeast/Fast-rising yeast has very small grains. It reduces the time it takes the dough to rise by half (unless there is a lot of sugar in the dough). It is not recommended for refrigerated or frozen dough methods.
Starter / Leavened dough (Biga) is leftover dough from the previous day which is used to make country-style breads. It helps the fermentation accelerate and improves flavour. It is made with yeast, flour and water and is either stored in the refrigerator or in a cool place. Cover with a tea towel, and a dash of olive oil to inhibit a skin forming. It has a pH level of between 3.5 to 4.
Sourdough starter (Lievito natural / Lievito madre / Crescente / Criscenti / Criscolo / Pasta acida) is made from water, flour and wild yeast (extracted from vegetables, grapes, fruit, yoghurt or from the air), and then left in a warm place (27 to 30˚C) to ferment for several days. It is often made with a mixture of flour, wholemeal flour and water and may include honey, olive oil, or grape must. This starter makes breads with good flavour and aroma which keeps longer and is more easily digestible (because the lactic acid has broken down the gluten). It has a pH level of 5.
To make the starter, mix 100 grams flour, 50 ml water, 1 teaspoon olive oil, and 1 teaspoon honey and knead until firm and smooth. Place in a terracotta container loosely covered with a plate at 15-20˚C for 48 hours. Take 100 grams of this mixture and add 100 grams of flour and 45 ml of water. Knead until firm and smooth and add back to the container until it doubles in size. It can then be kept in a cool place (15-20˚C) or the refrigerator and refresh as in the second step every 2 days if in a cool place or 5 days if refrigerated.
Store: Yeast is sensitive to air, moisture, or heat so it needs to be stored under the proper conditions.
Dry yeast can be kept unopened at room temperature, refrigerated, or frozen. Once opened, it needs to be kept sealed in the refrigerator (for up to 4 months) or freezer (for up to 6 months). If there is a concern that the yeast may no longer be active, mix 7 grams of dry yeast with 100 mls tepid water (43 to 46˚C) and 1 teaspoon of sugar in a clear measuring cup. Wait for 4 minutes and it should have doubled in volume to reach the 200 ml line if the yeast is active.
Fresh yeast can be kept well-sealed for up to two weeks in the refrigerator (7˚C), or for up to 3 months in the freezer.
Starters can be held for up to 2 days if in a cool place in a cool place (15-20˚C), or up to 5 days if refrigerated. It needs to be fed 100 grams of flour and 45 mls of water to nourish it.
Prepare: Yeast should be brought back to room temperature before using. All yeast can be mixed with water before using, but only active dried yeast requires it. The ideal water temperature is 37˚C although if the room temperature is quite hot, cooler water (20˚C) can be added to slow down the fermentation and allow the bread to rise at a normal rate. If adding yeast directly to the dry ingredients then increase the temperature of the liquids to 54˚C. If yeast or starters are heated above 60˚C they will die or subjected to temperatures lower than 3˚C, they will become inactive. Yeast is also sensitive to salt and too much sugar so when mixing the ingredients, add salt and large quantities of sugar later in the process so it does not directly contact the yeast. If there is more than 100 grams of sugar per 500 grams of flour then add an extra 7 grams of active dry yeast.
Eat: Yeast is an essential ingredient in most breads, pizza, calzone, yeasted cakes and some fritters.
Zafferano – See Saffron
Zucchero – See Sugar