What is Alum?

Reader Amy writes to say that some of her old family recipes call for alum, but what is it and is it really necessary? Great questions. Anyone who’s every watched a Warner Brothers cartoon has probably wondered the something similar. You know those scenes: Tweety Bird somehow manages to pour a box of powdered alum down Sylvester’s the Cat’s throat and his head shrinks up to the size of a golf ball. But what the heck is that stuff and what did people use it for?

Alum is short for aluminum potassium sulfate. It was once a common household item here in the U.S., especially during the war years when people did a lot of home pickling. A pinch of it in a jar of kosher dills or watermelon rinds kept the pickles firm and crispy. Too much and the result was a serious pucker, since alum is both an acid and an astringent (which is to say, a compound that causes shrinking or constricting of blood vessels and/or mucous membranes)….

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On Corn Meal and Masa

Reader Simone wants to know if there’s a nutritional difference between corn meal and corn masa (the alkaline-treated dough used for making tortillas). Indeed there is!

Though no one knows exactly how, ancient Mesoamericans long ago discovered that when you soak corn kernels in a mixture of water and wood ashes, the tough outer hulls (pericarps) can be slipped off, leaving just the starchy endosperm and oily germ. The process is called nixtamalization. Without it the Central America of old would have been a very different place….

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Are popovers and choux the same thing?

VERY good question, reader Ashley. There are certain similarities but in the end they are quite different things. Popovers are made with a batter that resembles something you’d use for crêpes. Choux batter is a more complex combination of pre-cooked (gelatinized) starch lubricated by fat (egg yolks). What you get in that case an ultra-elastic paste that can increase in volume by up to 600%. By contrast you’re lucky if your popover batter increases threefold. It’s a darn impressive feat still and all….

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What is “hemendex”?

Reader Sue says her Czech mother-in-law-to-be uses the word all the time in the kitchen and she wonders what sort of dish it is. Sue, I only know this because I dated a Czech girl in high school and her mother used that word. “Ham and eggs” is what she’s talking about, and good stuff it is too. In the Czech version it’s usually all fried up in the same pan with herbs on top. Now you know!

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Why do you use shortening in pie crust?

Isn’t it bad for you? So asks reader Victoria. Victoria, the main reason pie makers use shortening (or lard) in their pie crusts is to keep the moisture content as low as possible. Butter can be up to 18% water, and that can be a very bad thing for the texture of a crust.

We talk about gluten a lot on the site and for good reason. North American gluten can be a real pain to work with, as it’s elastic in nature and tends to make pastry tough and prone to shrinkage in the oven. Gluten is always present in flour, but it takes the addition of water to “activate” it, i.e., cause the individual gluten molecules to bond to one another in a springy network. So we try our best to minimize the amount of water in the crust, especially at the start of the recipe where we’re working the dough a lot, because agitation also helps activate gluten.


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Chug, Chug, Chug

I’m still answering the more than 400 questions I got during my absence. I shall continue to put some of the answers up as posts, because a lot of them are darn good questions. Hope everyone had a great Memorial Day weekend by the way!

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How did rum ever come to be associated with sailing?

So asks reader Bernard, and I love it. Bernard, it all has to do with the fact that in the Colonial era rum was liquid currency. It was more valuable by weight than any other commodity save gold. It kept indefinitely and like the American Express card was recognized at over 15 million locations worldwide. For a short time the English government even recognized rum as money, which no doubt made banking a whole lot more fun.

As highly valued and heavily transported as it was, rum made an excellent target for privateers. What were privateers? Think of them as early military contractors: government-paid out-of-uniform toughs who sailed the high seas settling scores, exacting retribution and collecting debts on behalf of their masters. Unofficially, of course. …

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Why doesn’t corn meal thicken?

Reader Kati wonders why cornstarch (corn flour) is so effective as a thickener when corn meal makes such a poor thickener. She alludes to some recent kitchen disaster that resulted from an attempt substitute one for the other. Reader Kari, I feel your pain. The answer lies in the way the two flours are processed.

Corn kernels are the seeds of the maize plant. As such, each has a tough outer covering known as a pericarp, which is similar to a bran layer on a wheat berry. Each also has a fatty germ which when pressed yields corn oil. The majority of the kernel is the starchy endosperm. …

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On Buttercream & Cows

Over my extended absence three different readers wrote in to say they were having buttercream consistency problems, specifically with the Swiss and Italian meringue buttercreams. All three reported that their buttercream was working well for spreading and cake building, but piping was a problem. Their piped decorations were dropping and/or losing their sharp edges. Can IMBC and SMBC be firmed in any way?

I can think of two ways to achieve a firmer buttercream texture. One is to scale back the butter a bit, but just by a little, maybe 12%. That raises the ratio of meringue and gives the buttercream a bit more body. The other thing you might try is to buy higher quality butter, which tends to be firmer. Lower quality butters tend to have lower melting points, which makes them softer at room temperature. That tends …

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On the Many Benefits of Milk Powder

Reader Rob writes:

Hi Joe, I have looked through a lot of raised doughnut recipes, and very few ever seem to use milk powder as an ingredient. I assume this is for the proteins, but how come you use it whereas other recipes don’t? Maybe delve into the science behind it?

Hey Rob! Nice question. Milk powder does a few things in a baking application. As you point out it adds protein, and that along with the extra sugars can be handy in terms of getting a darker, more golden finish. It also add flavor, another nice feature especially in fast rising breads like doughnuts and white loaves which tend to be bland because of the extra-quick yeast action. However the big benefit of dry milk is tenderness. The fats and the milk solids undermine gluten formation so the finished product is less rigid than it would otherwise be. That’s especially desirable in a raised doughnut since the crusts can come out of the oil rigid to the point that they shatter when you bite into them. The longer you let the doughnuts rest the softer the crusts get, but since I generally like to hand them around when they’re warm I go the tenderizer route. …

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