smart science: butter edition

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Okay. If I’ve ever said a science post is my favorite.. take it back, take it all back now. Butter is my favorite, this post is my favorite, and let’s all go to France and eat some butter.

Now, onto the science.

  1. Butter is a pretty cool substance, and has been around for a long time! A recipe for butter dating more than 4,000 years ago involves an animal skin, a small hole, and a contraption to swing the bag around a wooden pole until butter is formed! But – in order to get the cream to make butter, you’d have to let the milk sit out and still to let it separate, since the first mechanical butter separator wasn’t invented until around 1900. Why does milk have the potential to do this? It’s a liquid called a ‘colloid’, which means that there are tiny particles suspended in another liquid. For milk, this is a bunch of tiny fat globules. Once you let fresh milk sit undisturbed, you’re allowing all these molecules to float to the top, creating cream. Additionally, these fat globules are responsible for the creamy taste and mouthfeel of cream – they’re too tiny for us to detect as particles, but they bring the texture nonetheless.
  2.  Now, almost all butter is definitely made in factories, but you can still shake some cream up in a jar to see how it works for yourself. The agitation of the cream globules causes them to bundle up together, and eventually they clump up enough to make butter! This takes a lot of agitation though, and can be done in a variety of ways! Easy as pie, delicious as pie, essential ingredient in pie… we’ve got this.
  3. But – while butter may have had a place in human diets for a while, it’s recently gotten a lot of flack. If you walk by a dairy cooler, any frozen food aisle, or really any aisle at all in any grocery store, you’ll be flooded with low-fat and non-fat options. But, in 2014, an article was released saying that saturated fat (the ‘problem’ with butter) doesn’t actually correlate with heart disease the way that everyone was up in a tizzy about. And to put some buttercream icing on this cake, the study even suggested that in our craze to substitute fat in our diets, with sugars and and empty carbs – which are even worse for us.

Let’s make butter with heavy cream, and eat it all in one fell swoop. Stir some dill in and pile it embarassingly high on country bread if you want to be like me, but, no pressure. Check out this links to get butter-blissed out:

smart science: yeast edition

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We’re gonna chat about yeast – mostly because I’m still obsessed with bread (see here), but also because yeast is an important part of a lot of home kitchens. I’ve been working on getting a starter for sourdough going – so yeast thoughts are front and center in my mind. Let’s break this down.

To start, there is a difference between yeast and bacteria molecules. Yeast is a fungus. Bacteria are… bacteria. They have fundamentally different properties, extending from the presence of a nucleus, the organization of DNA and how parts of the cell are displayed. While bacteria can ferment, and produce some flavor molecules while they do, the fermentation of yeast is essential for leavening – or raising – bread. So very many factors can affect the fermentation of yeast – and therefore your final bread product.

  1. Fast or slow? Fast fermentation is desirable in terms of speed – you’ll get to your final product faster. However, for more complex flavors, a longer fermentation is definitely better. Different things can make a dough ferment at different speeds – and all of those factors are primarily what affects fermentation! It’s all about speed.
  2. The temperature of dough leads to a simple speed equation: the warmer the dough, the faster the fermentation… to an extent. If you put yeast in a hot enough environment (think, 140°F), they’ll just die, and no one wants that. Optimum fermentation temperature is 78°F-82°F. Below that temperature, our bacterial buddies are more favored for fermentation. If you put dough in a fridge to slow down the fermentation process, you can get strong sour flavors – because of the level of bacterial fermentation.
  3. The amount of salt can also affect the fermentation of yeast! See, we knew salt was important…. didn’t we. Salt slows down (retards) the ability of yeast to ferment. Salt also plays into bread importantly if you choose to do a pre-ferment, which is essentially pre-fermenting a chunk of ingredients before mixing your final dough. The timing of the pre-ferment can be manipulated through salt percentage. Additionally – the amount of sugar can affect how the dough ferments. Some sugars ferment quickly (think sucrose, glucose and fructose… all very common sugars), and some sugars ferment slowly, like maltose. Some barely ferment, like lactose! Different combinations of sugar types can affect how fast dough ferments. Some strains of yeast can grow very well in high-sugar environments compared to other yeasts – though for the home baker it’s usually just normal yeast doing its own thing. The challah bread pictured is a sweet and buttery dough, and my very normal yeast survived just fine in it.
  4. While it may seem obvious, the amount of yeast can affect the fermentation rate. Generally, the more yeast, the faster the fermentation. But, you have to toe the line with how much yeast you add, since too much can definitely add a rough flavor – think eating spoonful of yeast (gross). If you add too much yeast, your dough might also ‘exhaust’ itself: aka the yeast eats all the food in the dough and has nothing to do! Most recipes call for a smaller amount of yeast and a slightly longer fermentation time in order to offset this problem.

The coolest thing about all of this is once you get comfortable (and if you do, please tell me how, I’m still not 100% there), you can mess around with some of these variables (as well as pre-ferment times, fermentation times in general, and ingredients) to create your very own bread! We all should have the luxury of our own bread. Here’s some links to keep you reading:

  • Basic differences between bacteria and yeast…just a good fun fact to throw out at parties.
  • Breadmaking 101 on Serious Eats… talking all about proofing and yeast and fermentation and also mostly just about bread. We like that.
  • Wild yeast inspires thoughts of sourdough, and still follows the fermentation rules. Here’s a bunch of sourdough inspiration: a list of links within a list of links for all the bread pictures you want to drool at as well as helpful tutorials, troubleshooting, and recipes. Let’s all make bread!

smart science: gluten edition

Since gluten is a commonly used buzzword in our food world today, this week we’re going to dive into gluten – what is it, where does it come from, and what’s the deal with gluten and health.

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To start – what is gluten? Gluten is the combination of two proteins that are found in flours. When water is added to the flour, the two proteins, glutenin and gliadin, hop together to form a gluten molecule. As gluten develops (as the two proteins join together), dough or batter becomes less lumpy and becomes more smooth, elastic and bouncy. A common trick you might see in cooking shows tests if enough gluten has developed in dough in order to move onto the next stage: the windowpane test. Take a small piece of dough, stretch it between your fingers. If it can form a thin sheet that you can see light through without ripping (a ‘windowpane’), you’re good to go. Your dough has peaked in terms of a balance between stretch and strength.

When that dough is baked, most of the water evaporates, and all you’re left with in terms of gluten is a structure that holds its shape – giving essential shape and structure to bread. Different types of bread-making can result in different types of gluten development and therefore a different final structure in the baked loaf! We’ve got this down – onto the fun stuff.

Clearly, one of the biggest diet crazes right now is going gluten-free. People swear by it for both weight loss as well as increased energy, clearer skin, and any and all things to happen to a human body. To start off, reputable sources like the Mayo Clinic say that a gluten-free diet is not necessary unless you have a disease like celiac or a demonstrated wheat allergy that requires you stay away from gluten. They even go as far as to say that the weight loss often associated with a gluten-free diet is likely just the cause of a pretty restrictive diet – not simply because you’re not eating gluten anymore. I think it is essential to differentiate between good bread and bad bread – since it might just be the cause of all these ‘gluten stomachaches’ we keep hearing about.

  1. Bread, traditionally, is naturally fermented, like sourdough. In the endless fermentation that produces a loaf of sourdough, in addition to nutrients and vitamins becoming easier for our body to absorb, gluten becomes easier as well. Little microbes that are busy fermenting start to chew stuff up for you, which makes your body handle it a lot easier. And before you get freaked out about microbes in your bread – microbes are everywhere, helping us live and thrive. Check out the links at the bottom for more information and various cool facts.
  2. So, now that we know sourdough might be easier to digest, why does that make normal supermarket bread different? There is usually no fermentation in supermarket bread – so you are eating completely undigested gluten! That doesn’t feel good on bellies (think about eating a handful of raw flour), and people often associate that with gluten as a whole – but they shouldn’t. Gluten is healthy, and bread often brings about a host of other nutrients as well. Understanding the process by which your bread came to be helps break it down. Even people who have been demonstrated to be sensitive to gluten can often eat naturally fermented sourdough without ill effects. Important.

Now that you’re a gluten expert, go annoy your friends with this. Share the bread love:

  • Mayo Clinic breaks down diet myths here.
  • History of sourdough, including natural fermentation, health benefits, and an Ancient Egyptian bakery.
  • For those of you coming here because of my microbe comment: TED Talk on how bacteria talk, Bonnie Bassler exploded my mind when this came out. Watch and learn.

breakfast challah

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I feel like bacon tends to be more of a buzzword than a flavor these days. We make bacon doughnuts, bacon lollipops and even bacon flavored ritz crackers. While I’m the first one to take a deep appreciative sniff of bacon, I feel like it’s too much, almost.

Then breakfast challah walks in. And boy, does it make an entrance.

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A sweet, eggy loaf laced with bacon and loaded with maple syrup flavor. It’s sweet, salty, maplely fun. Growing up mostly in Vermont, I stand firm in my need for real, thick, maple syrup. Grade A Amber is my favorite, but I don’t really care as long as it actually comes from a tree. You might find that the maple flavor is somewhat hard to coax out in glaze, so I kick it up a notch with some vanilla extract. While I’ve never actually tried maple extract, it seems like that could help boost as well – so do as you wish, seems like you couldn’t possibly go too wrong.

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Feel free to inhale this bread, ten minutes out of the oven, with some salted butter. Or, if your stomach is allowing some semblance of patience, fry up an egg and slap it on a toasted slice of this bread. My dad suggesting french toasting it…. and on that note, I’m off to make more.

breakfast challah
challah recipe adapted from molly on the range
makes two loaves

for the bread:
41/2 teaspoons (about two envelopes) of active dry yeast
1 1/2 cups warm water
1 teaspoon plus 1/4 cup sugar
6 1/2 cups flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt
4 large eggs
2/3 cup flavorless oil (i used sunflower)
1/4 cup brown sugar

maple-bacon mixture: for one loaf. if you’d like two breakfast loaves, double this and the glaze. 
Egg wash: 1 large egg beaten with a pinch of salt
8 strips of bacon, cooked until crisp
3 Tbs maple syrup
1/4 tsp salt

for the glaze:
2 cups powdered sugar
4 Tbs maple syrup
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 Tbs half and half (or cream, or milk, or anything. you know the drill).

how to:

In a medium sized bowl, combine yeast, warm water, and 1 teaspoon of the sugar. Stir it together, and let it sit for about 5 minutes, or until it starts to foam.

While it’s foaming, mix the flour, salt and remaining white sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer, and put the dough hook on. In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs, oil and brown sugar.

Add the yeast mixture to the flour mixture, and immediately add the egg mixture. Knead with the dough hook until the dough is smooth and somewhat sticky. If it is really sticky, add a bit of flour, but try not to add to much, since it will make the dough tough.

Turn the dough out into an oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise until doubled in size, about two hours.

In a small bowl, place 5 chopped strips of bacon and toss with the maple syrup. Chop the other 3 strips and set aside in a small bowl, for topping.

Once the dough is doubled in size, turn it out onto a slightly floured surface, and divide in two. Keep one half covered while you work with the other. Divide the half into three pieces, and pat/roll each piece into a twelve inch log, and pat out about three inches wide. Divide the mapled bacon between the logs, and roll them up like a jelly roll and pinch to close. Pinch the ends together, and braid down, pinching the ends as well.

Place on a baking sheet with parchment, cover with a dishtowel, and let rest for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 375°F.

Brush the loaves with egg wash, and sprinkle with salt. Bake until golden brown, and an internal temperature of 190°F. Check for completion at about 28 minutes.

Let them cool, eat while warm with butter, fried eggs, and more bacon, or glaze when room-temperature with the maple glaze. To make the glaze, combine the cream, maple syrup, vanilla, and powdered sugar and stir until smooth. Add more maple, cream, or powdered sugar as desired. Top with reserved chopped bacon.