Category Archives: Pastry

Food Scientist Top 10 List?

Reader Dan writes:

Hi Joe. You say that George Washington Carver is “one of” your favorite food scientists. Who are some of your other favorites if I may ask? Can you give me your top ten?

I’m not sure if Dan is on the level here or if he’s having me on. But it just so happens I do have several food science heroes, whose dreamy portraits adorn my walls. There’s Nicholas Appert, the inventor of canning, he’s really the grandfather of modern food science. Alfred Bird, inventor of stable baking powder and instant pudding (custard). There’s Otto Rohwedder, the sliced bread guy, chocolate chemist Coenraad Van Houten, good ol’ Louis Pasteur, you can’t forget him. To tell you the truth “food science” encompasses so many different disciplines it’s hard to know where to leave off. Carver was a botanist/agronomist…in that vein I’m a big fan of agronomist Thomas Jefferson who I’m told also had a hand in writing the Declaration of something-or-other. Also Luther Burbank, and my all-time food hero, Norman Borlaug. Don’t know if you were serious or not, Dan, but thanks for the question!

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Should I store bread in the refrigerator?

Lots of questions about bread today! Reader Trey, you definitely should not store bread in the refrigerator. Low temperatures speed up — dramatically speed up — the rate at which starch crystallizes. Unless the bread gets below the freezing point of water, at which point is slows down dramatically, most likely because the water between the starch molecules hardens, keeping them from stacking up and forming crystals. So: at room temperature or frozen, nowhere in between. The exception to this rule is a really moist bread like a pumpernickel, which stays supple as a result of all the pentosan (seed coat) gums it contains, and the fridge will keep it from getting moldy.

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How Bakers Fight Staling

Reader Evan asks:

How do additives (either traditional like fats or modern) slow staling?

That’s a great question, Evan. The answer is that the way in which additives inhibit staling isn’t always well understood, which shouldn’t be surprising because the chemistry of bread isn’t all that well understood either. Still there are some pretty good theories out there.

We’ve talked before about crystallization, which happens when similar molecules start stacking up on each other like LEGO’s. Crystallization is the phenomenon primarily responsible for the hardening of bread starch (i.e. staling). Thus it stands to reason that if you could somehow stop wheat starch crystals from forming, or at least slow that crystallization down, then you’d keep bread fresher for longer.

One of the ways you do that is by introducing other types of molecules that physically insert themselves between the starches, keeping them from locking together. Emulsifiers like lecithin do that. Emulsifiers tend to be rather small as molecules go, and do a pretty good job of gunking up the works.

Another way to go is to mess up the starch molecules themselves to one degree or another so they don’t fit together as well. Enzymes like alpha amylase do that, breaking pieces off of long starches to that they don’t fit together as easily. The pieces they break off also do a nice job of getting in the way of starches as they seek to lock together.

Other anti-staling agents don’t physically inhibit the molecules but rather make them less (literally) attractive to one another. Acids do this, as do fats, or so it’s thought (lipids are, after all, “fatty acids”).

Still other strategies all but ignore the crystallization process and simply seek to add moisture to the bread so it at least has the impression of freshness. Added fats, for instance, make bread feel tender in the mouth even if the starches they surround are a little on the firm side. Seed coat gums like pentosan gum do a similar job. If you’ve ever wondered why rye breads or whole wheat breads stay fresher longer than simple white breads it’s because of those gums. Black bread can stay fresh at room temperature for a week or more. However lots of moisture is a double-edged sword, as it promotes the growth of mold.

Huh…seems like we need some more additives here…

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A Little More GWC

A few requests for a bit more info on George Washington Carver and his times. I am only too happy to oblige, as he’s one of my very favorite food scientists. As I mentioned, Carver was born into slavery at very the close of the Civil War. He grew up during Reconstruction, a tumultuous and painful time in America during which the South was forced to completely reinvent itself — its society, its culture, its economy…the lot. Agriculturally, the Confederate states had been relying heavily cotton as a cash crop, so much so that little else was actually grown in the South.

The big problem with cotton is that it saps huge amounts of nutrients from the soil. Southern farmers, in their rush to cash in on the cotton boom, either ignored or were unaware of the need to reintroduce nutrients back into the land. The results was that by the war’s end vast tracts of Southern farmland were laid waste.

It was this problem of soil exhaustion that Carver sought to address by championing the peanut. Being a legume, peanut bushes restore precious nitrogen to the soil as they grow. But once you’ve grown peanuts you have to have something do with them, hence Carver’s famous list of 325 peanut-based products, the formulas for which he simply gave away. Of course peanuts aren’t the only crop that can be employed to complete the nitrogen cycle, which is why Carver also invented hundreds of uses for sweet potatoes, soybeans, peas, pecans and others.

Yet for all he did, Carver never became a wealthy man. The way he saw it, his inspirations were gifts from God which meant they to be shared. His epitaph reads: “He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.” Amen!

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How does bread go stale?

Thanks for that excellent question, reader Cindy! In fact the word “stale” is akin to “aged”, but in a good way. “Ripened” is more like what it means. We moderns, addicted as we are to perfectly fresh bread, would scarcely think of applying a world like that to a past-its-prime loaf. But the ancients (and not-so-ancients) did, mostly because they had no alternative.

But what is staling exactly? Most people think of it as the “drying out” of bread, but that’s not the half of it. If it were, fresh bread kept in a tight sheath of plastic wrap would never go stale. I think we’ve all experimented with double and triple layers of Reynold’s Wrap long enough to know what a fool’s paradise that is. So what is it with bread that it starts to harden the moment it’s removed from the oven? It all has to do with the behavior of starch molecules.

Starch is made up of two base components, both of them long-chain sugars, also known as carbohydrates: amylose and amylopectin. Both are made up of many many units of glucose, and that makes them similar. Yet those units of glucose are configured differently, and that causes them to behave differently. Amylose is built like a narrow bundle of reeds, with all of its glucose units (up to 1,000 or so) arranged in straight, parallel chains. Amylopectin, in the other hand, looks more like a shrub, with its glucose units (up to 20,000 of them) going off every which way.

Hundreds or thousands of both make up a typical starch “granule” (or single grain of flour) with the long straight amylose in nice orderly layers (starch crystals) and the amylopectin in big bushy heaps. Add water and heat to that scenario (dough making and baking) and things start to change. The bonds that keep the carbohydrate molecules bunched together weaken, and water molecules start getting in between them. The starch granule swells and even sheds some of its starches (gelates), which is how the “structure” of bread is created.

The process continues until the finished bread is taken out of the oven, at which point the process starts to reverse itself. The carbohydrate molecules start to reorder themselves. It doesn’t happen quickly, but it does happen inexorably. The carbs, especially the amyloses, become re-attracted to one another and begin stacking themselves back up again in neat piles, making hard crystals once again. The water molecules are forced out from between them, and shortly evaporate.

So you see, bread goes stale not just because it’s dryer, but because its structure is also harder. If you own a microwave you’ve no doubt noticed that you can re-gelatinize starch to some extent with a little fast heat. But with much of the water already gone, the effect is fleeting, barely enough time to butter that scone and stuff it into your mouth!

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On a completely unrelated note…

…have a look at this very unusual mushroom that little Joan just pointed out to me in the yard. I thought it was a piece of an old toy someone had left out in the yard, but it’s actually a fungus. I guess it’s something called an “Earth Star”, not edible but certainly lovely, pale pink with a white center. Ain’t nature wonderful.

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Pears in a Cage (Tarte aux Poires en Cage)

I’m not normally this seasonal, but I’ve been wanting to try these little individual tarts for a while and the pears at the local Kroger look darn good. You’ll need a lattice cutter for this, the good news is that they’re cheap!

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You’re actually going to EAT that?

My favorite tomato story concerns one Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson, a wealthy one-time resident of Salem County, New Jersey. It’s said that after a long journey abroad Johnson became convinced that the tomato would make an excellent cash crop in America, and he was determined to introduce it as such. Unfortunately the locals remained convinced that the tomato was poison. So, on the 26th day of September, 1820, Johnson posted a notice declaring that he would consume an entire basket of tomatoes in front of anyone who’d care to watch. Some 2,000 people turned out to witness the spectacle. On that bright sunny autumn morning Johnson strode out onto the courthouse steps, raised a tomato to his mouth and took a big juicy bite. Men gasped in horror. Women screamed and fainted. Doctors rushed to the scene…yet Johnson did nothing but smile and — occasionally — belch. It was the dawn of a bright new day.

It’s a terrific story even if no one has ever been able to corroborate it. There was, however, a real life figure from American history who was known for similar feats of daring: George Washington Carver. Carver is of course the botanist and educator best known for inventing hundreds of uses for the peanut. Yet his enthusiasms extended well beyond the simple goober.

Born into slavery in Missouri in the early 1860′s, Carver spent his life trying to help Southern farmers eek out a living on lands that had been depleted by cotton. His primary focus was training farmers to rotate their crops with plants that returned nutrients to the soil. Yet Carver was a strong advocate of agricultural diversity in general. The tomato was what you might call an “object of interest” for him. So much so that 1918 he wrote and published a paper entitled How to Grow the Tomato and 115 Ways to Prepare it for the Table. Clearly he was well accustomed to eating the things. His dirt poor and uneducated farmer audiences, on the other hand, weren’t. Which is why when, when he showed up on their land and gobbled a tomatoes down, they just about fell over.

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A Little Tomato History

Happy to oblige, reader Leeza. Xtomatl is the original Aztec word for the tomato. The “x” is pronounced as sort of a guttoral “h”, or so I understand, making the word sound something like heetomatl. Of course I’m no speaker of Nahuatl. Neither were the Spaniards as it happened. They simply called the things “tomat-es”.

By now you’ve no doubt deduced that the tomato is a New World fruit. Like corn, it was identified as a potentially viable cash crop by the Spaniards. But unlike corn, it took considerable time for the Old World to fully adopt it. For tomatoes (along with eggplant and potatoes) are members of the nightshade family, a group of plants that were known to contain a host of toxic (sometimes deadly) alkaloids. The same was true of the eggplant and the potato, which were likewise greeted with, shall we say, reserve, when they arrived in the early 1500′s.

It took almost 100 years for the Spaniards to start eating them rather than merely decorating their gardens with them. Of course they weren’t alone in their suspicions. The French thought the tomato was a poison at first, but eventually decided it was an aphrodisiac, hence the French name pomme d’amour (love apple). The Germans took a somewhat dimmer view. In Germanic culture nightshades were thought to be linked with lycanthropy (werewolf-ism) and so they called the tomato the “wolf peach”.

For all of that, by 1700 or so, most Europeans were eating at least some tomatoes, though it still took another hundred years before they were actually enjoying them. Here in America, Thomas Jefferson was growing and eating tomatoes in 1800, but then he was what you might call “a dandy”. Almost no one dared touch the things until after the Civil War, at which time America’s appreciation for the tomato exploded.

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On the Kentucky Pie Crust Scandal

Reader Linda writes:

What can you tell us about the Great Pie Scandal at the KY state fair? It was one of the news headlines this weekend on the broadcast of Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me but I heard nothing else about it. Something about a store bought crust winning a blue ribbon??

You stole my thunder, Linda! I was waiting for the State Fair verdict before I wrote a post about it. In a nutshell, it turned out that a store bought (Pillsbury) crust was used for this year’s blue ribbon-winning pie. It was a buttermilk pie, and evidently it didn’t occur to the maker of said pie, one Mrs. Linda Horton, that she was breaking any rules by using store bought pastry.

However the rules clearly state that all entered crusts must be made from scratch. There’s currently an “investigation” underway, whatever that means, since the 67-year-old Mrs. Horton has already fessed up to the infraction. In fact she’s the one who outed herself in the first place, so it seems the situation is rather cut and dried, as it were. My guess is she’ll lose her blue ribbon.

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