Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Joys of Eating Unseasonally

Eating seasonal food locally grown is great, but eating wonderfully ripe (and reasonably priced) berries in the middle of winter is better. Breakfast this morning: 100% whole wheat pancakes lightened by mixing in egg whites beaten to fairly stiff peaks (a Mark Bittman recipe from How To Cook Everything Vegetarian) with fresh blueberries (from Chile) and strawberries (California maybe?). The pancakes really are light and fluffy, ethereal even, but they become bone-dry and unpleasant tasting if overcooked.

Slow Cooking Beans

Reading through David Tanis' "A Platter of Figs", one statement grabbed my attention and made me scratch my head a bit: "A bean soup needs gentle cooking and cannot be rushed." No explanation, just a terse pronouncement that assumes you'll take it on faith that the great Tanis would not lead you astray on this or any other point. Tanis' unadorned prose is certainly one of the great things about "A Platter of Figs," and it matches well the book's simple food that pays homage to fine ingredients rather than complex technique. Usually the text offers just enough information, but once in a while, as with the bean soup, it falls short.

"Do beans really need slow cooking?" I asked myself upon reading Tanis' unequivocal statement. I tried to recall what I knew about beans. Not much. What about slow simmering? You have to simmer meat at relatively low temperatures to keep it moist and tender, but that's because meat cells lose liquid at high temperatures. Meat stocks are also simmered slowly, to avoid emulsifying fat into the liquid end product. But surely bean cells are different than meat cells, and for bean soup the fat is probably a non-issue for various reasons. I've never ended up with tough and dry beans; I've always boiled them and gotten satisfactory results.

I probably should have turned to Harold McGee for resolution, but instead I googled and turned up this article by Chef Kelly Myers.

Salient points:
  • Slow cooking "breaks down gas-causing carbohydrates into digestible sugars."
  • "Boiling will eventually blow apart your black-eyed peas, flageolets, and cranberry beans."
  • Boiling might lead to unevenly cooked beans.
  • Simmering leads to "creamy and luxurious beans," though why is seemingly left to the reader to wonder at.
I pulled a few more interesting ideas from Myers' article:
  • use the 'stock' left over from simmering beans to add body to vegetable soups.
  • add fat (for flavor) to the beans after skimming the foam (which is a protein that comes in with the beans). This might mean sweating/sauteing your aromatics/herbs/spices/meat/whatnot in another pan, then dumping it all into the beans post-skim.
And finally, one fascinating point from McGee himself:
  • Acid, sugar, and calcium allow beans to cook for hours and reheat without disintegrating. So ingredients like molasses ( somewhat acidic, contains sugar and calcium) and tomatoes (acidic) preserve structure in slow cooking. Viz. baked beans.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Bread Baker's Fawning Disciple

Complicated, poorly understood topics generally sufficiently intimidate me that I can't sustain real interest in them. Programming was one example for a long time, until I found good teachers that made it easy. Beer brewing was another. There is, however, one such topic that draws me back to itself time and time again: bread baking. Making bread is an almost unbelievably complex process. I don't mean that it is hard to make good bread; in fact, I've found that very simple ever since my sister made me watch Mark Bittman and Jim Lahey's no-knead bread video recipe. Rather, it is understanding why the bread you bake is good or bad that may be an insurmountable challenge. Baking bread is a many-staged process and the way each step of a recipe is performed changes how every subsequent stage will play out. As do minute environmental factors. As do equipment factors. At this level of complexity, the production of even a relatively simple loaf becomes a web of interdependent factors and tasks. Figuring out if you're on the right track in the middle of a recipe can be difficult without experience, and figuring which factors went right and which wrong when looking at a baked loaf is often even harder. Despite these challenges, I find myself retaining deep interest in baking bread, even when my experiments (which I always hope to eat) are relative failures. Perhaps achieving good results with no-knead bread has given me hope of mastery, or the relatively pain-free nature of experimentation (I like kneading, recipes take only hours or a day or two, even mediocre results can be delicious) keeps me from being discouraged, or maybe baking and eating bread is just satisfying and comforting on a basic level. In any case, I forge on.

Lately I've been reading through Peter Reinhardt's Whole Grain Breads (at a bookstore; sadly, I don't own any of his books yet). In his bread books, Reinhardt somehow manages to convey adequately detailed technical information in a way that doesn't seem at all divorced from his obvious enthusiasm for bread, which makes even discussions of yeast strains and enzyme activity compelling. Reading in Whole Grain Breads about his new delayed-fermentation and soaker method has made me reexamine how little I know about my my no-knead doughs work so well. In the interest of organizing my thoughts and being able to refer to this information later, I'm going to note here my hazy understanding of the concepts involved. Don't go imagining any of the following is necessarily accurate.

Apparently, when you mix flour, water, and yeast together, there are at least two main activities taking place. The third, which I won't talk about because I know nothing about it except that it creates acidity for sourdough breads, is bacterial. The first, and the one that everyone talks about, is yeast leavening. Yeast, a type of fungus, break down sugar and sugar chains (starch) in the flour and produce alcohol, a small amount of acid, and carbon dioxide gas, which is what "rises" the dough. So yeast contributes some flavor (its own and some acid) and gas to the final loaf. The last activity, the one nobody talks about, is enzyme activity. Flour contains enzymes needed to break down its own starches because the grain it is milled from were originally intended for growth into a new plant, and that new seedling needs shorter sugars for food. In fact, everyone, including ourselves and yeast, like those broken-down sugars. Hydrating flour somehow activates or releases its enzyme amylase, which breaks down starch, and also protease, which breaks down protein. I have often heard that a long, slow fermentation makes no-knead dough more flavorful. It seems that that long period of time and probably also the high hydration level promote the amylase activity which is responsible for much of that flavor. In addition, protease weakens gluten strands, which makes the dough more extensible and easier to tear, allowing larger gas bubbles to form in the crumb during baking.

Reinhardt's method, which I don't yet understand very well, involves preparing two pieces of "pre-dough" the day before baking: the soaker and the starter. The starter is a pre-fermented, yeast-rich piece of dough. It seems that, as opposed to what I would have thought, the yeast in the starter is not meant to drive fermentation, though of course it does some of that. The starter is so much smaller than the complete dough, and the yeast concentration so low, that it would probably take a long fermentation period for the starter yeast to rise the whole loaf. I guess the idea instead is to give the yeast an opportunity to produce its characteristic flavors. The soaker, which makes up almost all of the eventual dough mass, is much simpler: it's just hydrated flour. The hydration activates the above-mentioned enzymes in the flour, and they do their thing without yeast getting in the way (which apparently is dangerous, because the enzymes can go too far and dissolve too much sugar, making the dough collapse into gumminess) or imposing a time constraint based on full rising. The soaker idea makes a lot of sense: a dough that is hydrated and seeded with yeast at the same time has two (three) processes happening at the same time that are all important, but in a way end up racing each other. If the enzyme activity goes too fast and runs away, you end up with gummy bread. If the yeast win and the dough is baked before the enzymes can do their job, you lose flavor. In the soaker, the enzymes are free to do their thing before salt (which slows enzyme activity) and yeast are added, so if the timing is right (and apparently this is a ballpark thing, like rising the no-knead bread), you know you've developed about as much flavor as you can. When the starter and soaker are combined, salt and quite a bit of commercial yeast is added. The large amount of yeast makes for a quick rise. Since the enzymes have already broken down a lot of sugars in the dough, you don't need a long rise to get good flavor!