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ASK THE FOOD NETWORK

The chefs at the kitchens of the Food Network field questions about cooking and food storage. If you've got something to ask the experts, go to foodnetwork.com or write Ask Food Network, c/o Viewer Services Culinary Department, Scripps Networks, P.O. Box 50970, Knoxville, TN 37950.

Food Network Kitchens

Q:I'm not a big fan of salt. Must I use it when I bake?

Salt not only sharpens and brightens the flavor in baked goods and helps prevent staleness, it's also invaluable for gluten structure and even browning. But where it's most important is its interaction with yeast. Salt helps slow the rise of yeasted baked goods, leading to an even, stable texture. Be careful not to add salt directly to yeast when you're hydrating it - it'll make for a less-risen bread.

Q: What are poolish and sponge?

Both poolish and sponge are prefermentation methods. They start the leavening process earlier, ending up with a deeper, nuttier flavor and a better, more even texture.

They're both blends of flour, water and yeast, set aside to ferment in advance - overnight for a poolish, a few hours for a sponge - then mixed in with the remaining ingredients and baked as usual. Use a poolish starter for multigrain bread because the extended fermentation helps break down the flours, making for a more tender loaf.

Q:I'm interested in Latin cooking. What herbs should I keep in the kitchen?

Here are some herbs and spices that fit well in a Latin kitchen:

- Adobo: Dry adobos are spice rubs for meat, fish or poultry that typically include salt, garlic, black pepper, turmeric, onion powder and other spices depending on your preference.

- Cilantro: Also called coriander, this leafy herb is particularly popular in Mexican, Andean and Brazilian cooking.

- Cinnamon: Named for the island where it originated, Mexican cinnamon is also known as Ceylon.

- Cumin (comino): Strongly aromatic, this distinctive spice is featured in the foods of North Africa, Mexico, India and western Asia.

- Recaito: A base for stews, soups and meats, recaito is made with garlic, cilantro, onion, vinegar and spices.

- Sazon: This seasoned salt mixture is used throughout Latin America and often includes cilantro, achiote and garlic.

- Saffron: The small orange stigmas from a crocus plant, saffron boosts a dish's color and flavor. An indispensable ingredient in paella, it's also used in other rice dishes, soups, curries and even some bakery products.

Q: When I bake, does the flour I use make a difference?

Different flours have differing levels of protein, which affects the texture of your finished product. When you bake bread, protein turns into gluten strands, which form a web to hold in the carbon dioxide from the yeast. The more gluten present, the firmer the bread.

- Cake flour is low-protein and gives you a softer texture and a lower-gluten result.

- Bread flour is high-protein and gives you a firmer texture and a higher-gluten result.

- Wheat flours make for denser bread; potatoes or potato flour make for tender bread.

That said, most recipes use all-purpose. You can absolutely make great bread with what's already in your pantry.

Q: We plan to do a lot of grilling this summer, but we're tired of burgers. Any ideas of what else works well on the grill?

Think beyond the standard burgers and sausage when you fire up the grill. Meaty, firm fish like salmon grills up beautifully, as do whole fish and skewered shrimp. Vegetables like ears of corn, sliced summer squash, portobello mushrooms and onions are naturals on the barbecue. You can even grill hearty lettuces like romaine. Just quarter hearts of romaine, brush with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and grill until softened slightly and grill marks form. Same goes for fruit like pineapple rings, peach halves and bananas. Grilling intensifies the flavors in produce and softens it just enough to transform it into a real treat.

Q: I've never smoked food on the grill. Is it difficult?

You don't need a decade of practice to get the hang of smoking. First, there's the heat - you'll want the temperature low over a long period of time. And then there's the smoke - you need to keep it smoking for hours.

Keeping the heat steady and low takes work. If you are working with a standard kettle charcoal grill, you'll want a chimney-starter full of charcoal. Hardwood charcoal burns with an intense, clean heat, but doesn't last long. Briquettes, on the other hand, burn at a medium heat for a longer time. A combination of the two is optimal. Once the mountain of charcoal is covered in gray ash and no longer distributing flames, push it all to one side of the grill. In barbecuing, you do not want to place your meat directly over a mass of hot coals. Instead, you want to use indirect heat - put the meat on the part of the grill that is beside, rather than on top of, the pile of coals.

Keep a supply of charcoal handy. Periodically, while you smoke your pork ribs or turkey legs, you'll want to add fresh coals to keep the heat steady.

As for the smoke, smoked foods demand hardwood, like oak, apple, mesquite, pecan or hickory. But whatever type of wood you select, it's important that you soak it in a bowl of water for at least an hour before it's drained and then added to the flames. Wet wood smolders and smokes for hours, while fresh wood can burn away in 20 minutes. If you're using chips, wrap the sopping wood in tin foil punctured with holes. This keeps the little chips smoking longer.

Although you can smoke meats using gas grills, charcoal works best.

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