Archive | Cooking basics RSS for this section

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!