Weird Science

The cool and crazy thing about pain à l’ancienne is that it delivers almost all of the characteristics bread bakers seek — flavorful crumb, chewy texture, nice big holes and a deep brown crust — all with a minimum of effort and time. You simply mix up a dough of flour, yeast, salt and ice […]



I know I’ve been on a serious history jag these last couple of weeks, most of it in the French revolutionary period. For all of you who are missing the serious science, I promise to put my lab coat back on first thing Monday morning. Until then have a great weekend!


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.


Making Rugelach

I like to make rugelach in the shape of croissants because it’s very likely that rugelach were modeled on croissants. Or the other way around, it’s hard to say. What’s true is that croissants, rugelach and kipfel are all members of the same pastry family, and none of them have anything to do with the Battle of Vienna.

These are cream cheese short pastry rugelach, just one of several possible styles. They’re a bit fussy to make but worth the results. And anyway after the first dozen or so the shaping process will become so automatic you’ll scarcely know you even doing it. This recipe makes either 24 or 32, but can easily be scaled up if you like. Start by combining the butter and cream cheese in the bowl of a mixer fitted with a paddle.


The First American Baking Powder

…was developed in 1856 by a fellow by the name of Eben Norton Horsford. Horsford’s baking powder used calcium phosphate as the acid. That made it not only far less expensive than Alfred Bird’s cream of tartar version, it made it much more dependable. The product was called Horsford’s Cream of Tartar Substitute. Why “substitute”? Because there was something of a “frankenfoods” scare at the time and cream of tartar was thought to be bad for you (nice to know some things never change). Eventually the panic over tartaric acid died down and Horsford renamed the product for an obscure character from American history: one Benjamin Thompson from Woburn, Massachusetts.


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


Dark Crystal

Reader Evelyn wants to know: why does tempered chocolate have a higher melting point than untempered chocolate? When I wake up to a food science question like this I can only say: life is good.

The answer is that it all has to do with crystals. As regular Joe Pastry readers know, crystals abound in the kitchen. Certainly in the salt shaker and the sugar bowl, but in lots of other places besides. There are starch crystals (in bread) and fat crystals (in solid fats like butter). There are even such things as protein crystals, though I honestly don’t know where (or if) they occur in the kitchen. Will a real scientist please stand up?


Caramelization or Maillard Reaction?

I don’t think anyone can say for certain. In a nutshell, caramelized white chocolate is produced by heating white chocolate to around 260 degrees Fahrenheit and leaving it there for roughly 45 minutes, until it turns a pale shade of brown. But that’s easy, you might say, it’s a proven fact that caramelization of sugar doesn’t happen until sugar approaches 300 degrees Fahrenheit. The browning in the white chocolate must be a result of Maillard reactions — protein browning — which can occur below 300.


Why are hydrocolloids “hot”?

Reader Erin, responding to a remark I made about the packaged food industry being hot for hydrocolloids, wonders why exactly that is, particularly when so many food makers are under pressure to take the science-y sounding ingredients off their product labels. Pretty cool question. The answer is that thickeners and texture-enhancers, which are what hydrocolloids are, are eternally in demand among food makers, especially in an age when “special diet” products rule. It is, ironically, the demand for healthier foods that is driving the market in hydrocolloids. Not that I believe hydrocolloids are unhealthy mind you, but they are certainly perceived that way by a lot of people.