Archives for History & Science of Food

Why you sauté some rice and pasta, but not all

A college roommate of mine regularly sautéed dry angel hair pasta in butter for a few minutes before tossing the pasta into boiling water. At the time, I remember thinking my roommate was weird.

A little more than a decade later, as I was sautéing dry arborio rice to make risotto, it dawned on me that I was doing essentially the same thing as my former roommate, but with rice. So then, I decided the person who wrote the risotto recipe was also weird.

Then yesterday, out of the blue, I got a ridiculous craving for Rice-A-Roni when I spotted a box of it at the grocery store. I wasn’t raised in a Rice-A-Roni home, so I’m not even sure how I knew what it tasted like. But, I decided to give into my spontaneous craving, and buy a box. When I brought it home, I noticed that the first step in making Rice-A-Roni is to sauté the dry rice and vermicelli pasta in butter. It was at this point where I started to think my roommate, the risotto recipe creator, and Golden Grains manufacturing might not be the weird ones and that instead I might be for not sautéing rice and pasta before eating it.

After perusing a handful of food science textbooks, I’ve realized my final assumption was correct — I’m the weird one, at least as far as narrow gauge pastas (like vermicelli and angel hair) and medium grain rices are concerned. It turns out, sautéing dried grains before immersing them in boiling water has two important benefits:

  1. The grains absorb flavors from the fat used for the sauté (like a nutty flavor from butter or a fruity flavor from olive oil), and
  2. When you’re sautéing, you’re also toasting the grain. You give the grain a crust-like exterior. This crust-like exterior keeps the rice from becoming too mushy (mush works great for rice pudding, but isn’t very good for a paella or risotto), makes it harder to overcook (something that is very easy to do with medium-grain rice), and keeps the grain separated, but still a little sticky (you want to feel like you’re eating rice, but don’t want individual grains to fall off your fork). It gives medium-grain rice and narrow gauge pastas some tooth.

Now that I understand the why, I’m realizing I can improve a number of pilaf recipes I’ve been flubbing lately. Sautéing a nice golden color on the rice first will eliminate the mushy results I’ve been getting.

Paying attention to what you’re eating at mealtime may help curb snack cravings

Last week, New York Magazine reported in “Lunch Amnesia” on an upcoming report about snacking being published in the food science journal Appetite. The research reported in the journal found the more a person pays attention to what she eats during a meal, the more her brain remembers eating, and the less likely she is to desire snacks.

From New York Magazine:

The Appetite study was conducted at the University of Birmingham in England. Twenty-nine women were fed identical lunches: a ham sandwich, chips, and water, about 500 calories in total. Some of the students ate their lunch with only their random thoughts as company. Others ate while reading a newspaper story about changes in the size of chocolate bars and fizzy drinks in England. The rest ate while listening to a three-minute audio clip encouraging them to focus on the look, smell, flavors, and textures of their food. An hour later, the professors brought the students back and put before them plates of cookies, among them chocolate chip and chocolate fingers (apparently a British thing; we will trust that they are appealing). The students who focused on their lunch ate roughly 50 percent fewer chocolate-chip cookies and 60 percent fewer chocolate fingers than their newspaper-reading and mindless-eating counterparts. Or as the researchers put it: “Rated vividness of lunch memory was negatively correlated with snack intake.”

I often crave a snack in the middle of the afternoon and am now wondering if paying more attention to what I eat at lunch will help curb these cravings? I certainly know what I’ll be thinking about during my next meal.

Thanks to my friend Gretchen for tipping me off to this interesting report.

Guide to frozen liquid desserts

Have you ever wondered what differentiates ice cream from gelato? Sorbet from sherbet? With this handy guide, you’ll wonder no longer.

Ice cream: By FDA regulation, ice cream sold in stores has to contain at least 10 percent milk fat and has to contain less than 1.4 percent eggs by weight of the finished product. (If it contains more, it is required to be called “frozen custard” or “french ice cream” or “french custard ice cream”.) Typically it is milk fat (cream, whole milk, condensed milk, etc.) and sugar, churned with a dasher to incorporate air into the mixture and frozen at a relatively quick speed to promote small crystal production. (This is why ice cream frozen with liquid nitrogen is so velvety, because the crystals are so small.) If you buy ice cream in the supermarket, it has to weigh at least 4.5 pounds per gallon because ice cream manufacturers used to inject so much air into their product that it should have been called ice air instead of ice cream.

The difference between soft serve and hard ice cream is that soft serve is served immediately after churning (never being stored in a freezer) and has a significant amount of air pumped into it (sometimes up to 50 or 60 percent of its total weight).

Frozen yogurt: As far as the FDA is concerned, “frozen yogurt” is ice cream (since yogurt is a milk fat). Yogurt is typically the primary type of milk fat used in frozen yogurt, but other milk fats can be legally included, and usually are. Because yogurt has a high level of lactic acid from its fermentation process, it tends to lend a more tart taste to the end product. This flavor difference is likely why “frozen yogurt” appears on the product label instead of “ice cream made with yogurt.”

Fat-free frozen yogurt and fat-free ice cream are usually made with corn syrup, which can mimic the presence of milk fat. Also, these fat-free products usually contain twice the amount of sugar to help with freezing (letting the product freeze at a higher temperature) and flavor (without the yumminess of fat, the desserts taste bland so manufacturers pump up the sugar content).

Frozen custard: As mentioned above, frozen custard is like ice cream but with more than 1.4 percent eggs by weight. When making custard at home, be sure to cook the egg mixture first before churning it or use pasteurized eggs. You don’t want to give you, your family, and friends salmonella poisoning.

Gelato: Similar to ice cream, but with less milk fat (usually between 5 and 10 percent by weight). Think of it like ice milk. It’s on the frozen dairy scale between sherbet and ice cream.

Sherbet: A product containing milk fat and churned like ice cream, but with 1 to 2 percent milk fat. It also is usually fruit- or alcohol-infused. Sherbet feels and looks creamy, though, because it either has eggs (like custard) or gelatin added to it.

Sorbet/Italian ice/Water ice: As far as I can tell, sorbet, Italian ice, and water ice are the same products in the U.S. They’re made with a simple sugar syrup and fruit juice, fruit puree, or alcohol (no milk). Think of them like a snow cone, but churned like ice cream instead of shaved.

Granita/Glaces/Shave ice/Snow cone/Slush: A frozen mixture of simple sugar syrup and fruit juice, fruit puree, alcohol, or other popular drinks (like coffee or soda) that is shaved before serving. Granitas typically don’t contain milk fat.

A couple other favorite frozen liquid desserts:

Wendy’s frosty: It is similar to a milk shake, but containing corn syrup as a main ingredient, and many other things not typically in a milk shake you might make at home. From Wendy’s website: “Milk, Sugar, Corn Syrup, Cream, Whey, Nonfat Dry Milk, Cocoa (processed with alkali), Guar Gum, Mono and Diglycerides, Cellulose Gum, Carrageenan, Calcium Sulfate, Disodium Phosphate, Artificial and Natural Flavoring, Vitamin A Palmitate.”

Tasti D-Lite: This popular New York chain’s product is similar to a soft-serve gelato, but containing water as its main ingredient with corn syrup as its fourth. Also contains a lot of ingredients we don’t typically use when making homemade gelato … like guar gum and locust bean gum. The ingredients for its vanilla product, from Tasti D-Lite’s website: “water, nonfat milk, sugar, corn syrup, cream, guar gum, locust bean gum, carrageenan, vanilla, lactase.”

Using science to go beyond simple cookie dough

Ah, the science of baking.

While Alton Brown does a great job incorporating science into all of his shows, my favorite chemical explanations happen on Good Eats: Chips for Sister Marsha. This is the episode where he alters the classic Nestle Toll House cookie recipe in three ways to create impressively different variations. I was won over with this episode, especially because he explains everything so thoroughly (with help from Cookie Monster’s brother). If you haven’t seen it, you can find the episode on YouTube: part one and part two.

At some point while watching the episode, it occurred to me that I could take these three recipes, order them by their ingredients, and highlight the scientific baking explanations within each grouping. Having the recipes in one place would also make it easy to try them all and contrast their differences. As a result, I made a chart to put in my recipe binder to help me in all my future cookie baking endeavors and I thought you might benefit from it, too:

If you’re interested in printing a copy of the cookie chart, you can download the PDF.

Questions for cooks: Tips for reducing salt

Reader Rose submitted the following to Questions for cooks:

My doctor told me to cut back on my salt. This inspired me to start cooking more, and now I have a couple questions.

I see a lot of recipes call for salt. Initially I thought I would just leave the salt out and add in a dash at the end if I think it needs the flavor. But, I see it so often in recipes and in such quantities that I’m wondering if it does something more than just add flavor. And does it really matter if I add it at the end of a recipe or at the beginning?

Are there situations where I should not leave out the salt? (One recipe I’m specially concerned about is home-made bread.)

The easiest way to cut a large amount of salt out of your diet at home is to stop eating foods with complex ingredient lists on their packaging. Aim to eat foods that don’t come in packaging (fresh fruits and vegetables) or foods with only one or two ingredients (milk, salt-free frozen vegetables). Consider switching to kosher or dry-processed chicken and turkey that haven’t had salt water pumped into their skin at the meat processing plant.

Also, stay away from bitter foods that require a lot of salt to taste better — foods like brussels sprouts and mustard greens. Salt chemically reacts with the molecules in bitter foods to make them more palatable. Actually, salt makes almost all foods taste better, which is why humans use it.

Invest in some wonderful fleur de sel. Fleur de sel is a finishing salt that is only used immediately before eating. It has large crystals that give off a strong “salty” flavor, so you use less of it (barely any at all) and it can reduce or eliminate the need for using salt during the cooking process. If your doctor recommended you consume less than 1/2 a teaspoon or a teaspoon of salt a day, you can measure out the fleur de sel each morning and then limit yourself to only using that specific amount.

According to food scientist Harold McGee, adding salt to boiling water helps vegetables retain their flavors and nutritious substances. As a result, you may want to saute or roast your vegetables instead of boiling them. And, you can completely eliminate the salt when boiling water for grains and pastas. You can replace any lost flavor from these foods with herb-intense sauces and seasonings.

Addressing your question about bread, McGee also answers this question:

Salt contributes to a balanced taste and intensifies aroma in bread, but it also affects structure and texture. Salt makes a dough less sticky, the gluten more stretchy, and the finished loaf lighter. In sourdoughs, salt helps control the growth of acid-producing, gluten-weakening bacteria.

In short, you can probably reduce (but not eliminate) the amount of salt in homemade bread as long as you’re using a high gluten bread flour. Make some test loafs, adjusting the amount of salt in each one, and see where your lower limit lies. My bread recipe only requires 1-1/2 teaspoons for the entire loaf, containing only trace amounts of sodium chloride in each slice.

Substitute canola or olive oil as much as possible for butter, make your own salad dressings and soup stocks, and start using fresh herbs for alternate seasonings. Fresh herbs pack a greater punch than their dried brethren, so the stronger flavors won’t make you miss the salt. Oh, and avoid seasoning mixes unless they specifically say they are salt free (like Mrs. Dash). I’m not fond of fake salts because I think they have a bitter aftertaste.

Good luck on your new reduced salt adventure. Your eating experience doesn’t have to be bland from this point forward as long as you make good decisions about when to use salt. Thank you, Rose, for submitting your question for our Questions for cooks column.

Do you have any unresolved questions about cooking styles, methods, ingredients, gadgets, meal planning, or anything even closely related to resolving stress or confusion in the kitchen? If so, send us your questions and we’ll find you an answer. If we don’t know the answer, we’ll send it out to a specialist who can, and we’ll all learn something! To submit your questions to Questions for Cooks, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Questions for Cooks.” Share as many details as possible — the more information we have about your specific question, the better.

Cast iron, five recipes which use it, and all from an RV

Don’t you just love cast iron? I sure do, and I can’t help but feel a little warmth in my heart when I think about all the wonderful things that have emerged from my ole Le Creuset. As a society, we’ve been using this type of cookware with great success for hundreds of years, both commercially and at home. Cast iron works so darn well every time, and I’ve found it really helps having one for cooking in my RV.

With that thought, I decided to come up with a list of reasons why I love cast iron and why it’s great for RV living. Check it out:

  • Cast iron (or enameled cast iron) can go from the stove to the oven (and even the campfire) without a problem, doing the job of two cooking vessels, which means one less thing to wash after dinner is over. This is an especially good thing given the small amount of sink space found in most RVs.
  • It does its job well. On the stove it can sear using high temperatures because the material is thick and conducts heat like a pro, and in the oven that means even heating for soups or braised dishes. This multi-tasking means I have one less thing cluttering up what little storage space I’ve got.
  • The cast iron is incredibly durable. Being so heavy-duty means one less thing I have to replace if mistreated, like when I foolishly stored mine in an overhead cabinet. My Le Creuset made a speedy six-foot drop one day while in transit, but thankfully no human or cast iron was hurt in the process, and it now resides in a much safer location.
  • You can throw one in the oven at high temp for 45 minutes or so, then when you take it out you’ve got a mega hot griddle for super searing power.
  • In a manner of speaking, it’s a bread baking machine according to some guy named Bittman in NY. Other sources confirm success. Pretty cool if you ask me, especially if you enjoy the goodness of freshly baked bread like I do.
  • It’s so heavy, which makes it useful as a door stop, bludgeoning weapon, a combined weight and heating element to make grilled cheese sandwiches, and it’s the best high volume roasted garlic maker ever.
  • Voted by me as my favorite pot to use for making baked brown rice, which happens to be a staple in many of the things I cook.

And here are four more links to cast iron recipes I like:

Good Eats’ Swiss Steak Recipe from the episode “Cubing Around.” (Not only is this a fantastic dish, but it became the basis for a lot of other ideas I’ve had about cooking meats in cast iron)

Mark Bittman’s No-Knead Bread, which I mentioned earlier.

Amazing and simple French Onion Soup — 1907: Soupe à l’Oignon Gratinée from the New York Times Magazine. Based on the size of your cast iron, you may need to adjust the amount of the ingredients a bit.

Erin also swears by Alton Brown’s Rib-Eye Steak method.

Do you have a favorite cast iron recipe?