Search Results for: science

On The Physiology of Taste & Other Amusements, etc.

Reader Allen wants to know if Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste was more a book about science and physiology or more about philosophy and other intangibles/ineffables. The answer is yes. You really have to read the book to get a feel for it, Allen, or at least a few parts of it. To me it’s really about fun.

When you set out to tackle Physiology it’s important to remember that it is very much a product of its time: the mid-Enlightenment. This was a period when most learned people took a keen interest in science and the physical world, but practiced science rather informally. Yes the scientific method was around, but techniques for conducting experiments were still evolving, so more than a few of the “science” books written around the time were simple collections of observations, anecdotes and speculations. …

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Flatbread Science

Many experienced chapati makers have observed that I’m fiddling with tradition here. It’s true. Indeed I am varying the flours and the liquids in order to get to a softer, more toothsome homemade product. Don’t infer from that statement that I don’t think traditional recipes give good results, but ingredients and…ehem…the manipulators of those ingredients, vary highly from place to place. I should be using atta, traditional Indian chapati flour, but I can get any. As a result the all-whole wheat flour and all-water recipes weren’t delivering bread anywhere near as good as I remember from the real Indian meals I’ve had. …

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(Un)Melted Chocolate

Reader Amanda writes:

I received a gift of some good quality, too-dark-for-me-to-want-to-eat chocolate and I decided to turn it into hot chocolate instead of eating it straight. I followed some recipes from the internet and the advice was to heat up a bit of milk, melt chocolate into it and then add more milk and heat the whole thing up. The taste was actually great but there were lots of tiny flecks of chocolate that wouldn’t melt into the milk with the rest of the chocolate and I was wondering what was up with that. I was hoping you might, as the only guy who answers questions about the science of ingredients that I’m familiar with, be able to answer my question.



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Yellow Fever

Yellow No. 5 has also seen it’s share of controversy, not so much because it’s ever done anything much to anyone (most countries outside of Norway consider it safe, and “sensitivity” complaints against it are about on par with other coal tar dyes) but because it became the most widely used food coloring after Red No. 2 was de-listed due to public pressure. Once that happened, Yellow No. 5 was simply the next color on the target list. However no serious complaints — only urban legends — have ever sprung up around it….

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On High Ratio Cakes

Reader Jack writes:

Joe (actual name?),

I live in Chicago and want to reproduce the Jewel grocery store plain old yellow cake. They sell it by the piece and I want to reproduce the texture and taste. It has a very fine crumb, it is very firm, almost sponge like. It has tiny uniform holes, and would be perfect for a few baking “projects” I have in mind. I have tried a dozen yellow cake recipes from the net and they taste fine, but the crumb is soft, and does not have the sponge-like pores of the Jewel cake. I read your article regarding creaming, but that alone does not convert the existing recipes I have into what I am looking for. I tried separating the eggs, beating the whites, folding in…nope. I deconstructed the Jewel recipe using their ingredients list, but that list flies in the face of all cake science (no yolks, no butter). I am getting fat with all the experimentation!!! Do you have a recipe/technique that will help me achieve the desired results?



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Where does Yorkshire pudding come from?

If you guessed Yorkshire, you’re partly right. This sort of open-pan pudding made with meat drippings has been popular in Britain since at least 1737 when the first recipe was published by “a Lady” in her seminal book, The whole duty of a woman, or, An infallible guide to the fair sex: containing rules, directions, and observations, for their conduct and behavior through all ages and circumstances of life, as virgins, wives, or widows : with rules and receipts in every kind of cookery . I need to get a copy of that for the missus for Christmas. Think?…

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Popover Recipe

Popover recipes tend to be very consistent in their proportions since the science that underlies them is constant. Herbs and other flavorings are an exception to that rule, and are popular with American cooks (traditional Yorkshire pudding has no herbs). Popover recipes can, however, differ in technique. I’m stymied by recipes that tell the cook to whisk the batter gently or until “just combined.” That’s a rule for pancake or crêpe batter — which popover batter closely resembles — or for quick breads or cakes, where you don’t want much gluten development.

It’s the opposite with popovers. In this case you want lots of developed gluten to give the rising bread the elasticity it needs to stretch and hold steam. For that reason I recommend a blender or a food processor. If you have neither of those and rely on a whisk, use plenty of elbow grease, and consider using bread flour (or a mix of half bread and half all-purpose) to amp up the gluten content. By no means use pastry flour, cake flour or a fine Southern flour, which won’t do the job here. Either go Yankee or make dinner rolls instead. The ingredients are:

1/2 ounce (1 tablespoon) melted, unsalted butter
5 ounces (1 cup) all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 eggs, room temperature
8 ounces (1 cup) milk, room temperature


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Filed under:  Pastry, Popovers | 11 Comments

On the Advantage of Syrups

I took this post down for the evening because I accidentally created some internecine warfare between a couple of my food science sources and I needed a little time to get my facts straight. Reader Bronwyn (quite helpfully I might add) challenged my early contention that hot syrup doesn’t cook egg whites in any meaningful way. Having had a little past experience taking meringue temperatures, I was sure that there was no real cooking going on. This set off a little debate on what exactly was meant by the term “cooking”, and things got confusing quickly. But anyway, here’s Michael’s original question:

I understand that when you add sugar syrup to egg whites to make Italian Merengue it cooks the whites a bit making it more stable than adding plain sugar. I’m curious if the purpose is the same when adding sugar syrup instead of plain sugar to yolks. I made a recipe for a “chocolate roll” which is to add a “light” sugar syrup to yolks and beat until light and fluffy. Then add in melted chocolate with a bit of coffee. Finally fold in stiffly beaten egg whites. Then bake and then fill the roll with whipped cream. Why would the recipe call for sugar syrup to [be beaten into] the yolks instead of plain sugar ?



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What’s up with this icing?

Cool isn’t it? A pre-made caramel combined with milk, butter and baking soda, then boiled to the soft ball stage. What the…?

The baking soda is the real curve ball here. What possible use is baking soda in a pot of boiling milk? Those who have ever made dulce de leche know the answer: it causes the milk to brown at a relatively low temperature. It’s an aesthetic thing in the context of this icing. It simply gives the mixture a nice tan color, which is important for the presentation of something called a “caramel” icing. …

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Will we ever go back to fat?

Reader Samantha asks:

Why is shortening used over lard as a solid fat in commercially made products? Is it the cost?

Goodness gracious, Samantha, is that ever a great question. If only I had some of my former clients from McDonald’s corporate headquarters here to help me answer it. For as you may know, up until 1990 McDonald’s fried its legendary French fries in beef tallow (fat). That was the year when they finally succumbed to public pressure, whipped up by groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest, to change over to vegetable shortening, which was supposed to be better for us. …

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