Helpful Hints

Here are a few secrets we’ve learned from our years of cookin’ down-home favorites. If you’re looking for information on some of the classic Southern dishes like cornbread and biscuits, visit our Southern Basics section.

Baking Sweet Taters Just Right

If you want a soft skin on your sweet taters: Wash 'em, pierce the potato jacket in several places, rub the skins with oil, and then place on a baking sheet and put them in the oven uncovered at 450° F until soft.

Batter vs. Breading

You can get into hour-long conversations about batters and breading in the South. But the quick 101 download is this: Batters are liquid mixtures of flour, eggs, and milk or water, and breadings are dry ingredients used to coat fish, such as cracker crumbs, bread crumbs, flour, or corn meal. And there’s only one main rule to always keep in mind: Batter first, fry, then bread. Oh, and when it comes to catfish, you can never go wrong with corn meal for your breading.

Buttermilk Substitute

If you don’t have fresh buttermilk on hand, don’t’ fret! Instead, you can use 2-1/2 teaspoons vinegar or lemon juice plus milk to make 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons. Buttermilk gives baked goods a moist texture and tangy flavor. But if you’re lookin’ for a milder flavor, you might want to simply stick with fresh milk or “sweet milk” as we Southerners like to call it instead of buttermilk.

Chocolate Substitutions

Baking is a precise art. And when it comes to chocolate, it’s important to get things just right. Here are some formulas to help you if you’re ever in need of a chocolate substitute.

  • One 1-ounce square unsweetened chocolate = 3 tablespoons cocoa + 1 tablespoon shortening.
  • One cup (6 ounces) semisweet chocolate morsels = 2 1-ounce squares unsweetened chocolate + 1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons sugar + 2 tablespoons shortening.
  • 1 bar (4 ounces) sweet baking chocolate = 4 tablespoons cocoa + 4 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons sugar + 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons shortening.

Corn Meal for Dessert

While cornmeal is traditionally used for savory dishes, the Martha White Kitchen found the secret for how to use corn meal in sweet recipes as well. If you precook corn meal a little or combine it with flour to lighten the texture, you can use it for making desserts from mush custard to buttermilk chess pound cake.

Frying Fish

Next time you fry up some fish, be sure to keep the oil hot enough to seal the outside of the fish and lock in moisture and flavor. Fillets will only take a few minutes to cook depending on the thickness.

Martha's Muffin Method

The Martha Muffin Method is simple. First, mix dry ingredients in a bowl. Then, mix wet ingredients in a separate bowl. Next, add the liquids to the dry ingredients and stir, until just moistened. The secret to tender homemade muffins is to stir the batter until the dry ingredients are just moistened. When it comes to muffins, lumpy batter is happy batter!

Perfect Cream Gravy

Good cream gravy always starts with drippings from pan-frying sausage, bacon, chicken, or pork chops. Your gravy will turn out delicious if you use equal parts drippings and flour. The basic proportions are 1/4 cup drippings to 1/4 cup flour to 2 cups milk.

Polenta or Mush Preparation

Polenta is nothing more than the Italian equivalent of Southern corn meal mush. In Italy, polenta is served as a side dish with meaty stews and sausages. In the South, corn meal mush is traditionally served for breakfast. Whether you call it polenta or mush, the best way to prepare it is to chill it, slice it, and fry it in a skillet. Serve the crisp slices Italian-style as a supper side dish or Southern-style with a hearty country breakfast.

Proper Measuring

The right measurement can make the difference in some recipes. Follow these simple tricks to get things just right.

  • Baking Powder, Salt, and Spices: Use standard measuring spoons. Heap ingredient in spoon. Level off with spatula.
  • Flour: When recipes call for sifted flour, sift before measuring. Spoon flour lightly into correct size measuring cup. Do not tap cup or pack down. Fill to overflowing and level off with a knife.
  • Liquids: Place standard liquid measuring cup on level surface. Pour liquid into cup to correct measurement.
  • Sugar: Do not sift. Spoon lightly into correct size measuring cup. Do not tap cup or pack down. Fill to overflowing and level off with a knife.

Stuffing vs. Dressing

The words "stuffing" and "dressing" mean essentially the same thing, but regional differences often range along the Mason-Dixon line. Most Southerners don't stuff, they dress. To make traditional Southern dressing, use cornbread, bake in a separate pan, and serve alongside roast chicken. See more about making cornbread and some of our favorite recipes.

Plumping Raisins

If you’re gonna use raisins in a recipe, you should plump them first. Here’s how: Cover the amount needed with very hot tap water and soak for 2 to 5 minutes; drain. To add raisins to cake batter, stir 1/4 of amount needed into batter. Pour batter into pan(s) and sprinkle with remaining raisins.