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Butter is the solution to an oatmeal cookie predicament and other food questions answered

Food writers Cathy Barrow and Alex Van Buren recently joined The Washington Post Food staff to discuss all things edible. Here are edited excerpts from that chat.

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Q: I made oatmeal cookies, and they turned out hard and didn't spread. it has been a while since I've made them, but they didn't turn out wide, flat, soft and chewy like I like. I subbed chocolate chips for the raisins. The recipe called for 1/2 and 1/2 of shortening and butter. I used a palm oil shortening as a sub for shortening due to soy issues. I suspect the shortening substitution was the reason. If so, is there a different soy free, nut free, Crisco-style substitute that I can use in baked goods? I usually use all butter in recipes other than pie crust that call for a solid fat, butter or lard for pie crust, and canola or olive oil for recipes calling for a liquid fat. But I've seen so many comments that I shouldn't use all butter for cookies.

A: I think your suspicions are right! Palm oil, and palm oil shortening in particular, are high in saturated fats. That means they are solid at room temperature and have a higher melting point. So, yeah, seems like that could explain why your cookies may have been hard. I see no problem in using all butter in cookies! So many recipes do that. As to a sub, you could look into coconut oil.

- Becky Krystal

Q: I picked up a big package of Thai birds-eye chilis for my partner, who loves spicy food. There's no way we can use all of them at once, so how should I store them? Is it okay to freeze them in a zip-close bag? Also, do you have any suggestions for recipes to use them in?

A: I freeze Thai bird chilis in a zip-close bag and use what I need straight from the bag. It's a perfect solution! As to your second question, I recommend making hot sauce from some of the peppers so your partner can up the Scoville!

- Cathy Barrow

Q: What should you never cook in an Instant Pot?

A: Well, I'm a fan of experimentation and learning about your gadget as you go along. Generally speaking, though, experts agree that you shouldn't try to pressure-cook something that a.) needs to be crisp or crunchy, or b.) requires lots of finesse, especially along the way. Once it's locked in, it's locked in, and there's no futzing with it unless you unlock it, release the pressure, etc. All of that takes time.

- Alex Van Buren

Q: I have a bag of green lentils that are about a year past their expiration date. Is it possible to use them?

A: Yep, they'll just potentially take longer to cook. Dried lentils and beans don't go bad, they just dry out further. But lentils are comparatively quick-cooking anyway, so fear not and cook 'em up.

- Joe Yonan

Q: I understand that they may have a different "grind" but can i more or less use them interchangeably?

A: There are a few differences that are obvious, but I'll admit to using them interchangeably when in a pinch. Grits are usually made from white corn/hominy. So they are a pale, pleasing cream color. Polenta is ground from yellow corn and is sunny and golden. Most polenta is coarsely ground and most corn meal is finely ground, but that is not an absolute. I have seen a more finely ground polenta and very coarsely ground corn meal.

- C.B.

Q: I've been in and out of the country for the past five months and my sourdough starter is just lying in a corner of the fridge. Do I need to start all over? Is there is a way to know if its alive?

A: Try to feed it in the normal fashion. It may take three or four rounds of feeding to reinvigorate it. If, after two feedings, it's still entirely dormant, you may wish to have a memorial service.

- C.B.

Q: What is the best way to make lentils for salad so that its not soft but flavorful?

A: Don't overcook, and add lots of good seasonings!

- J.Y.

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