Archive | September 2012

The Chemistry of Eggs

I had planned to write about the amazing things that happen when you had eggs to recipes, and why these things happened. I read several sources, investigated the possibilities, and checked the facts. What I came up with was a lot of technical jargon about proteins and foams.

Translated into everyday useable information it boils down to this: generally speaking, egg yolks act as a binder and add a creaminess to the recipe. Egg whites add fluff. This is the reason some recipes call for the eggs to be “separated” and other recipes call for whole eggs. The part(s) of the egg you want to use depends on what you are trying to achieve when cooking. For example, when making meringue only egg whites are used because all you want is fluff. For a custard, use the egg yolks for a creamy thick dish. When making cornbread, you want both, to bind the ingredients together and also add height to the bread.

The color of the eggshell makes no difference to the recipe, and the size of the individual egg may or may not be a consideration. If a recipe calls for a specific size of egg, it really means the egg volume. Organic and free-range refers to how the chicken was fed and treated, not the chemical properties of the egg, except that there may be a difference in the nutritional component.

So there is my brilliant advice on eggs. You know what they taste like, you know what they do. Now go cook!

So here’s what happened…

Yesterday I talked about the basic ingredients that bread needs, and how if you take the basics and experiment, you will be able to easily make your own bread. And I promised to let you know how that works in practice.

I’ve made bread from recipes before, so I already knew what it should look and feel like. Taking out a large glass bowl, I dumped in 3 cups of all-purpose flour, 1 cup of warm water, and about 1 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast. I mixed these together well, and turned the dough onto a floured board to knead. The dough felt, looked, and smelled wonderful… soft and warm. I kneaded the dough for about 10 minutes, popped it into a greased bowl, covered with a damp cloth, and left it to rise in a warm spot. In my case, I had turned the oven on while mixing the dough and then turned it off when I put the bowl in to let the dough rise.

After it looked like the dough was about double in volume, I punched my fist in to it to let the air out, and put it into a greased loaf pan to rise again. When it was double again, I turned the oven on (375 F) and baked it until the top was a light golden brown.

The results: I ended up with a tasty bread which tasted delicious, with a crispy crust. I wasn’t too happy with the texture, it was a little tough and chewy for my tastes, but adding some shortening to the dough should change that next time.  My son declared it “Delicious!”

So yes, knowing the basic chemistry of cooking allows a cook to make bread.Some breads are made without the yeast, and are referred to as “quick breads” because there is no need to allow the yeast to work and make the dough expand. Some use butter or shortening to create a lighter texture. Some breads use a brusing of butter or beaten eggs to change the outside crust.

Once you find a basic formula that works for you, adding flavors makes your bread versatile. Nuts, dried fruit, herbs and spices can dress the breads up to compliment your meals. Using whole grain flours will add nutritional value as well as unique, hearty flavors. Just remember, whole grains and dried fruit will also require using a little more liquid in your recipe. Adding fats will soften your dough and make a lighter textured loaf. Adding flavorings to the top of the bread as it bakes will add flavor and flare, without changing the loaf inside.

So grab a bowl and some ingredients, play around with different ideas, and let us know what happens. But most of all, HAVE FUN and know that you are capap

On a side note…

I’ve promised to tell you about my successes AND failures, so here’s one of the failures. I wanted to try cooking my own fava beans, and like most Americans, am a lazy cook. So I spied a package of beans at the grocery, which promised great results in 45 minutes!

According to the package, all I need to do wash wash the beans, bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 40-45 minutes. The package also warned about overcooking, as the beans would “fall apart”.

So… beans in pot, added appropriate measure of water, water boiling, covered, reduced heat, and 45 minutes later we have — hard beans floating in water! So logically, I extended the cooking time, by 5 minute increments until I had…. tiny little hard bean parts floating in less water. FAILURE.

So this, my friends, is why we want to learn to cook THE RIGHT WAY.

Why can’t we live by bread alone?

Bread is one of the most common foods worldwide. Each culture, and indeed each family, has their own favorite types and recipes. But what makes a basic bread recipe work? This is where we start getting into the fun stuff I promised!

First, all breads contain flour. I know that many people today are talking about “gluten-free” breads, but that’s a little more than we will get into today. What I am talking about is basic bread, containing flour (usually wheat) and how it works.

For basic bread, you need flour, water, yeast, some type of fat, and something to sweeten it. Sounds easy when you put it that way, right? So why are bread recipes so hard to master for some people? Let’s look at each component.

Flour will provide the bulk of the bread. This is where the gluten precursors are. Adding water to the flour is what makes the gluten and provides the strucure for the bread. Think of gluten as the building blocks for the loaf. Water also reacts with the yeast, so that carbon dioxide forms and lightens the texture of the bread. Adding a little salt to the mix slows down the yeast so that the carbon dioxide doesn’t escape too quickly and the bread “rises” faster. Without salt, the bread will still rise, but it will take longer.

Adding some type of sugar or honey to the mix “feeds” the yeast causing the bread to rise quicker also. So both salt and sweetening are optional in a recipe, depending on the results you are looking for.

Adding some type of fat to the mix keeps the gluten strands from forming into large sheets. Larger sheets of gluten will make the bread more “breadlike” while shorter strands make the texture “cakelike”.

Some recipes call for brushing the tops of loaves with butter to keep the crust from getting too hard. Adding a pan of water to the oven when baking will create a thicker, crisper crust and speed up the baking time. Again, both of these things are optional depending on what you want your end result to be.

So now that you know the basics, I recommend finding your favorite easy bread recipe. Follow the directions and pay attention to what happens at each stage, how the dough feels and looks. And what the end results are. Then start experimenting. Flour, water, yeast… and whatever else you think your bread needs. You will have the knowledge you need to adjust recipes to your own desires, as well as create recipes of your own.

I’m starting my experiments tonight — I’ll let you know how this turns out!

If you are serious about cooking…

…you have to learn the rules!

I know I’ve been too quiet the last few days, but I promise I’ve been making great use of my time. The secret to being a successful cook is learning what works and what doesn’t. I just found the most amazing book to help me with this: Culinary Reactions (The Everyday Chemistry of Cooking), by Simon Quellen Field.

Once a cook knows WHY oil and water don’t mix, how eggs react in a batter, and the million other “simple” rules, cooking becomes a joyful adventure. Experiments are much more likely to work, failures are fewer, and the cook becomes CONFIDENT.

In the next few days/weeks I PROMISE to share what i learn with my readers. If you can find the book, please do. If not, hopefully my posts will be helpful.

(and I KNOW this sounds like a commercial, but I am just SO excited about this book!!)

Bring on the vampires!

Garlic- not just for warding off vampires (does that even work?). Garlic is a plant of the onion family whose bulb is used to flavor dishes around the world. Not only is the flavor enjoyed by many, there are health benefits associated with it. The strong flavor creates a warming sensation, it acts as a stimulant and increases matabolism, purifies the digestive system, helps the body eliminate toxins.

I’ve always been taught that the proper way to peel the papery skin from garlic is to lay it on a hard surface such as a cutting board and using the flat side of a knife, press firmly to crush. Effective, but still messy. I’ve found another way that works better for me. Using a paring knife, nip each end off the clove and then using the knife tip, flick off the skin. Less messy and easier for me. But as with everything, use whatever works best for you.

Garlic can be used in different ways, depending on the recipe. I never recommend using dried or powdered garlic, as it contains preservatives and isn’t nearly as tasty. Garlic cloves can be roasted whole for a sweet, nutty flavor. It can be chopped, diced, mashed, pounded, or slice. The smaller the pieces you chop it into, the stronger the flavor. Garlic flavor is enhanced when it mixes with oxygen, so the more oxygen the surface is exposed to, the stronger the flavor.

Garlic can be grown at home by seperating the cloves and planting in pots or the ground. One clove will grow into one bulb later. When buying garlic, look for plump, firm bulbs. Store at home in a cool, dry place.

Using fresh garlic in recipes is ideal, but can be timing consuming and smelly. My personal hint: When you have a little extra time, peel a quantity of garlic and chop it up. A mini-chopper or food processor is great for this. Then put your chopped garlic in a small jar (think baby food jar), covering it in a light salad oil, and store it in the refridgerator for use later. Yes, I know you can buy jars of already chopped garlic. But those contain preservatives, and may have been sitting on the grocery shelves for months.

 

Follow along on Twitter

As this project is getting off the ground I’m always looking for new ideas and new ways to reach people… Now CulinaryDaze is found on Twitter!

So many pastas, so little time

So I admit it- I didn’t post yesterday because I sat around reading cookbooks. But I consider that research, right? I didn’t actually do any COOKING, but I had a lot of fun coming up with new ideas. And tonight I have a friend coming over for dinner… can we say “guinea pig”? (Hopefully she’s not checking my blog before she comes over!) Since she recently had her wisdom teeth removed, we need something easy on the mouth, so pasta sounds good. Fettuccine to be precise.

I am always amazed at the many varieties of pasta available when I go shopping. And there seem to be more every time I go. Generally speaking, pasta is simply a mixture of flour and water, although many different types of grains can be used, and sometimes eggs are used in place of water for the liquid component. Popular varieties I see include vegetables in the mix as well as whole wheat (for a heavier, nuttier flavor) or rice (used in gluten-free varieties). I’m sure readers can suggest others which they see in their own stores and neighborhoods. The history of pasta can be traced across the world and spans more than 3500 years, and yet it is almost universally associated with Italy. Pastas are grouped by ingredients as well as shape. The fettuccini that we are having tonight is a long, ribbon shape. And let’s not forget the sauces and toppings! From a light coating of oil and herbs, to heavy tomato sauces everyone has their favorities. Fettuccini is best served with lighter seasonings and creamy sauces, otherwise one will end up with a plate of toppings when the pasta is gone. Again, nothing is set in stone. I’m only going on information I found in my research.

Fettuccini should be cooked “al dente” or tender yet firm. Many people add oil to the water when cooking pasta to keep it from sticking, but sources say this is not neeeded and is indeed useless. Other sources say that a couple spoons of olive oil lends a bit of flavor and a nice aroma when cooking. But it is salt (along with occasional stirring) which is said to be the needed component to keep the boiling pasta from becoming a sticky gooey lump in the pot. And always be sure to use plenty of water, so the pasta has room to move around as it cooks. Cooking times will vary depending on what type of pasta and whether it is dried or fresh. Follow the package directions carefully, until you are comfortable with the type of pasta you are making. Practice makes perfect!

If any readers have favorite varieties of pasta, or helpful hints to share, we’d love to hear them!

 

The Salt (and Pepper) of the Earth

Ok, so in deciding where to start on this culinary journey, I’ve decided to try to forget everything I think I know about cooking. This means starting with the basic ingredients which are popular around the world. My first thought was to research what spices and seasonings are most used. Sounds simple enough, right? Well it is — if you want to concentrate on one particular type of food, or region. In some areas, the most popular seasonings are chilis, in others curry, in still others it is cumin. But the one universal #1 is salt. And there isn’t just one type of salt out there. Table salt, sea salt, rock salt, pickling salt, kosher salt, and fleur de sel. Each type has it’s own qualtities and not all are appropriate for cooking.

But wait– what about all the type we hear about salt being BAD for the body? Not strictly true as it turns out. Humans need to consume a certain amount of salt to stay healthy. But as in everything else, moderation is the key. Most of us have heard about the bad effects of too much salt… high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke. But too little salt can result in muscle cramps, dizziness and electrolyte imbalances. Across the globe different countries have varying recommnedations from their governments on what is an appropriate salt intake. But overall, the upper limits recommended were 2300mg of sodium per day. And minimum intakes range from 460mg- 1600mg. So there is no hard and fast rule on salt intake, just don’t overdo it.

The second most popular seasoning globally is pepper. Again, there are many to choose from. Black, white, cayenne, chili… the list goes on. And pepper can also be healthy. Black pepper has been shown to improve digestion and promote intestinel health. White pepper comes from the same plant, but the taste is not as “hot”. Cayenne pepper is much hotter, but has been said to be a natural remedy for many ailments. Some say it aids in preventing colds and flu, as an anti-fungal, preventing allergies and migraines… the list goes on. Although different salts can be mostly interchangeable (each having it’s own special properties) the same cannot be said for pepper.

As we go along and explore recipes, we will talk more about salt and pepper as they come up. But my main point is — neither one are as simple as I thought!