Don’t ignore water when baking and cooking

There’s no doubt water has universal importance. But, just as water is a precious ingredient to our landscape and bodies, it’s also a very precious ingredient in our kitchen. Some form of water is always used in the cooking or baking process.

Therefore, we must recognize the integral role it plays in our recipes and how it can directly affect the outcome of our home-cooked meals.

Admittedly, I’ve boiled pasta in water to the point where it sticks together in one big clump. I’ve watched numerous pots boil over onto my stovetop. I’ve also managed to kill my baker’s yeast by adding water that was too hot, so my bread never rose properly. These kitchen blunders forced me to value water. Water quality should command the same amount of attention in your recipes as flour does for your cakes and eggs for your omelets.

To the naked eye, plain water looks just like, well, plain water. Is it the lack of vibrant color, lack of texture, or lack of flavor that causes us to downplay its role in recipes? Just because it’s not purple, or it doesn’t come shredded, or isn’t sticky, doesn’t mean we should disregard water’s importance in the kitchen.

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Before doing anything, it’s helpful to have a general working knowledge about the water you’re using in your kitchen. Not all water is created equal. There could be chemical and mineral factors in your water that can alter your dish’s outcome. For instance, I grew up on well water. Because the water came in constant contact with rocks and soil, it was deemed “hard.” Hard water basically means that it contains increased levels of calcium and magnesium. Conversely, soft water contains decreased amounts of these minerals. While neither is good or bad, each can alter your food. Using hard water in homemade bread actually benefits the bread’s yeast fermentation, making the dough stronger. I noticed this difference first-hand when I made Amish White Bread with hard water in the suburbs and then replicated the same recipe in the city with soft(er) water. My family opted for the suburban version, claiming the city version was too doughy and tasted “raw” in the center.

If you receive your water from a ground well, or if you live in a city, chances are your water contains increased levels of chlorine. (Don’t fret —Federal law requires all cities in the U.S. to treat drinking water with chlorine to kill bacteria and microbes.) Your tap water may even have an odor. Or it may not even taste right. These increased chemical levels will certainly alter your dish’s outcome. If you’re suspicious about your tap water and its chlorine levels, you do have some easy alternatives before you cook with it. You can use bottled water in your recipes, though it can contain contaminates from plastic. Or you can keep your tap water in an open-air container for at least 24 hours, allowing the chlorine to escape. Or, you can simply use filtered water to save precious time and alleviate any of the guesswork.

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Because filtering water removes impurities, including lead and other contaminants from aging pipes and faucets, many argue that it’s better. Consequently, if you’re making a recipe where water is a key ingredient — especially soups, stews and drinks — use filtered water in lieu of tap. Better quality water begets better quality food. It goes for your kitchen prep work too. When washing your ingredients, use the purest possible water.

As an ingredient in our kitchen, water is often taken for granted, but it plays so many significant roles in the baking and cooking process that it’s necessary to have a general understanding of its properties and functions. Once water gets the attention it deserves, the quality of your dishes will undoubtedly improve.