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Ask a cook

Editor’s note: Lou and Lucy’s Leftovers will be back next week swapping tips, quips and recipes. In the meantime, here’s a cooking Q&A with Kathleen Purvis, the food editor at the Charlotte Observer.

Q: I saw a recipe for bread that didn’t include sugar. Without sugar, what’s feeding the yeast?

A: While yeast do eat sugar, we forget that flour contains starch, which is made from sugar molecules. Actually, the yeast doesn’t eat the sugar. It breaks down glucose molecules and releases carbon dioxide gas. The crusty, artisan-style breads that many bakers prefer these days usually don’t have sugar.

Q: All of my cookie recipes call for sticks of margarine (aka oleo). Can I use oil instead?

A: Oil, margarine and butter aren’t interchangeable in baking. Butter gives cookies crispness and unbeatable butter flavor. Butter substitutes, such as margarine and shortening, usually make softer cookies. Make sure you use margarine that’s labeled for use in baking. Tub butter substitutes may have water beaten in. Although you can substitute oil for a solid fat in baking, the results aren’t all that great. Oil may make the cookies heavy and greasy. If you need to replace dairy in a recipe, use a butter substitute made for baking or try the solid coconut oil.

Q: Now that the winter squash season is here, what’s the trick to peeling butternut and spaghetti squashes?

A: After hiding all that flavor and nutrients inside them, nature certainly didn’t make hard-shell squashes easy to open. An easy way to tackle hard, but smooth-skinned winter squashes is to start with the microwave. Use a metal skewer, a strong fork or the tip of a small paring knife to poke several holes through the skin. Then put the squash in the microwave for about 3 minutes. That will soften the skin a little, so it will be easier to cut it in half for roasting or to use a vegetable peeler to remove the skin and dice the squash. A spaghetti squash can be poked and microwaved the same way. Instead of peeling it, though, cut it in half, scrape out the seeds and either bake or steam the halves until it is soft enough to use a fork to release the long strands.

Q: I’ve heard that you can make wine vinegar from leftover wine. Do you just let the wine sit?

A: Making wine vinegar is as easy as letting wine ferment — and as difficult as letting wine ferment. To make wine into good vinegar, you have to add a bacterial culture. You can try to get what’s called a Mother of Vinegar — a cloudy clump of cells that develops in vinegar — or you can get a live culture, called acetobacter, from a store that sells wine-making supplies. You also can use unpasteurized vinegar. Next, save up enough wine to start a good batch. Combine 1 part vinegar culture to 3 parts wine to 1 part distilled water in a clean glass container (a crock with a spigot is handy). Cover the top with cloth or a loose lid to let air in while keeping bugs out. Then let it sit in a quiet spot for a month or two. It should develop a mother, a big, floating cloud. When the mother drops to the bottom, that’s a sign the vinegar is ready. Pour off the vinegar and bottle it. Save the mother to start the next batch. Clean the crock well, gather more wine and start another batch, returning the mother to the crock.

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