January 10, 2013
In 2007, the Naga Bhut Joloki or “Ghost chile” was named the hottest pepper on earth. Then in 2010 the Naga Viper stole the title. And in 2012 the Trinidad Scorpion Moruga Blend moved into the lead. And for good reason.
The Scorpion ranks at round 2 million heat units on the Scoville scale. (For comparison, tabasco sauce has 2,500–5,000 Scoville heat units or SHU.) What exactly does that mean? When the scale was invented in 1912 by pharmacist Wilbur Scoville in search of a heat-producing ointment, it was based on human taste buds. The idea was to dilute an alcohol-based extract made with the given pepper until it no longer tasted hot to a group of taste testers. The degree of dilution translates to the SHU. In other words, according to the Scoville scale, you would need as many as 5,000 cups of water to dilute 1 cup of tobacco sauce enough to no longer taste the heat.
And while the Scoville scale is still widely used, says Dr. Paul Bosland, professor of horticulture at New Mexico State University and author or several books on chile peppers, it no longer relies on the fallible human taste bud.
“It’s easy to get what’s called taster’s fatigue,” says Bosland. “Pretty soon your receptors are worn out or overused, and you can’t taste anymore. So over the years, we’ve devised a system where we used what’s called high performance liquid chromatography.”
That’s a fancy way of saying that scientists are now able to determine how many parts per million of heat-causing alkaloids are present in a given chile pepper. The same scientists have also figured out that if they multiply that number by 16, they’ll arrive at the pepper’s Scoville rating (or “close enough for the industry,” says Bosland).
And, let’s face it, who would want to be the one to taste test a pepper named after a viper or a scorpion? Or maybe the better question is what sane person would? The BBC recently reported on the first man to finish an entire portion of a curry made with ghost chiles, called “The Widower,” and he suffered actual hallucinations due to the heat. Bosland told the AP in 2007 he thought the ghost chile had been given it’s name “because the chili is so hot, you give up the ghost when you eat it.” How’s that for inviting?
Indeed, the capsaicin, the spicy chemical compound found in chiles demands the diner’s attention much like actual heat heat does. And it turns out there’s science behind that similarity. “The same receptor that says ‘hot coffee’ to your brain is telling you ‘hot chile peppers,’” says Bosland.
And what about the rumor that very hot peppers have the potential to damage our taste buds? Not true. Bosland says we should think of chile heat like we do the taste of salt; easy to overdo in the moment, but not damaging to your mouth over the long term. Even the hottest habanero (100,000–350,000 on the Scoville scale), which can stay on your palate for hours — if not days – won’t wear out your tender buds.
Bosland and his colleagues have broken the heat profile of chile peppers into five distinctly different characteristics. 1) how hot it is, 2) how fast the heat comes on, 3) whether it linger or dissipates quickly, 4) where you sense the heat – on the tip of tongue, at the back of throat, etc., and 5) whether the heat registers as “flat” or “sharp.”
This last characteristic is fascinating for what it says about cultural chile pepper preferences (say that five times fast). Apparently those raised in Asian cultures — where chile heat has been considered one of the six core tastes for thousands of years — prefer sharp heat that feels like pinpricks but dissipates quickly. Most Americans, on the other hand, like a flat, sustained heat that feels almost like it’s been painted on with a brush.
The Chile Pepper Institute, which is affiliated with New Mexico State University, sells a nifty chile tasting wheel, which describes the heat and flavor profiles of many different chiles and offers advise on how to cook them.
Eating chiles is a little like tasting wine, says Bosland. “When you first drink wine, all you notice is the alcohol. Then you can tell red from white, and soon you can taste the difference between the varietals. Eventually you can tell what region the wine comes from. That’s how it is with chile peppers too. At first all you taste is heat, but soon you’re be able to tell which heat sensations you like best.”
November 30, 2012
It’s not peanut butter jelly time. In fact, put down the peanut butter and walk away slowly. If the spread you are putting on your morning toast is from a jar of Organic Trader Joe’s Creamy Salted Valencia peanut butter, you may just want to stick with jelly. The reason? The Food and Drug Administration issued a summons to shut down the country’s largest organic peanut butter processor earlier this week, per the Associated Press.
Salmonella in peanut butter is no new discovery—in 2007, contaminated Peter Pan products resulted in 329 reported cases in 41 states—and this past September, Trader Joe’s voluntarily recalled its Creamy Salted Valencia Peanut Butter due to contamination with salmonella thought to be from Sunland, Inc., located in Portales, New Mexico. The outbreak of salmonella poisoning—41 people infected in 20 states—has since been traced to the New Mexico plant, which distributes to major food retailers including Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and Target. FDA inspections found samples of salmonella in 28 places in the plant—unclean equipment and uncovered trailers of peanuts outside of the factory, too. Not to worry, though, Sunland Inc. hasn’t manufactured peanut butter since the initial voluntary recall in September.
But how does salmonella get into peanut butter in the first place? Dr. Mike Doyle, who has assisted in helping Sunland getting their plants back up and running again and serves as director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, explains that peanuts grow in the ground and can be contaminated from a variety of sources: manure, water, wild animals—even the soil. Studies have shown that once present, salmonella can survive for many months—even years—in peanut butter, according to Scientific American. Before treatment, in fact, about two percent of all peanuts are contaminated with salmonella.
“When harvested, we assume there can be some salmonella present and we have to use a treatment to kill it,” Doyle says. A roaster with air temperatures set to about 300 degrees Fahrenheit destroys salmonella in peanuts. For this reason, this moment in the process is often referred to as the “kill step” by manufacturers. The biggest challenge, then, is to prevent contamination in processing plant after the roasting.
“Water is one of the biggest problems in dry food processing for salmonella proliferation,” Doyle says. “If water is available to salmonella, it will grow.”
Dry food manufacturers like a peanut plants or breakfast cereal producers, for example, must minimize the use of water in the plant. Everything from leaks in the roof to the water used to clean up a mess needs to be controlled.
So what can be done to prevent future contamination? There are a variety of things that can be done to upgrade systems and facilities, Doyle says. But all food processors are different in how they control harmful microbes in their plants. As for the Sunland plant, Doyle says they’ve traced the root cause of the contamination to the roaster room.
“The company is in the process of making changes to prevent future contamination,” he says. “They’re gutting the room—new walls, new floors—and fixing other things that need to be addressed.”
November 5, 2012
In 1983, Christopher Kimball, founder of Cook’s Magazine, received a letter from an irate grandmother unhappy with his presentation of recipes and cooking. “You don’t cook from your heart,” she wrote. Kimball responded in the affirmative. “Yes,” he said, “I cook from my head.”
That approach helped Kimball, a slim man never without his bow tie and glasses, build an empire of inquisitive, science-based cooking with his magazine now named Cook’s Illustrated and PBS shows America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Country. Based out of a 2,500-square-foot kitchen outside of Boston, the magazine and television programs offer a tirelessly scrupulous approach to solving the kitchen’s persistent problems: Why does food taste better hot (science)? Does marinating really tenderize meat (no)? How do you get extra fluffy rice (rinse in water)? Kimball says, “The objective is to figure out why bad things happen to good recipes.” Accompanied by his even more fastidious science advisor, Guy Crosby–”working with Guy is like working with a Talmudic scholar”– Kimball tests dozens of different methods for each recipe, all so you don’t have to.
Which is fortunate, because as it turns out, “The science of cooking is actually much more complicated than particle physics or anything else that I’ve discovered,” according to Kimball.
In a world of stylized cooking shows with frequent exclamations of “Yum-o!” Kimball, 61, would appear out of synch. To him, cooking with your heart is as useless an expression as cooking with your pancreas. His delights are in trial and error, mastering the how and why. Stubbornly rigorous, Kimball is still far from a perfectionist. He says, “You never see Martha Stewart start a show saying, ‘This cakes looks terrible!’” But Kimball regularly includes failed recipes on his shows to show how common it is and how easy to overcome.
In the recently released book, The Science of Good Cooking, Kimball and company (he works with a staff of more than three dozen) guide the reader through 50 concepts of cooking and more than 400 tested recipes. Perhaps a little more ambitious than physicist Richard Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces, the 50 concepts touch on everything from temperature to tools as a way to enhance not just the recipes in the book, but any dish you attempt in the kitchen.
Some of the tips offered and mysteries explained:
Don’t marinate meat, brine it: Counterintuitive but scientifically proven; salt makes meat juicy. According to the pros, “Salting poultry allows us to reap the benefits of brining as it breaks down proteins and helps to retain moisture within the meat.” The process even makes the skin crispier. Win-win. This is because, when the salt is first applied, through the process of osmosis, water is drawn out of the meat to the surface. But over time as the salt migrates inward, the expelled moisture returns as well, drawing water from the skin to plump the meat and dry the skin. Mouth watering yet? The same actually goes for dried beans, which should be brined instead of soaked. The pros recommend kosher salt but not all kosher salt is the same. “Because of its more open crystal structure, a teaspoon of Diamond Crystal actually contains less salt then a teaspoon of Morton kosher salt.” The book offers this handy conversion: 3 teaspoons of Diamond Crystal=2 1/4 teaspoons Morton.
Serve warm dishes at 98.5 degrees: Scientists, concerned with culinary satisfaction as they are, discovered tiny proteins in our taste buds that allow our sense of taste to be heightened with increased temperature (obviously to a degree, burning your tongue does not enhance flavor). The seemingly optimal temperature is somewhere around 98.5 degrees, depending on the food. Plus, “Much of our perception of flavor comes from aroma,” and, as the book points out, heated molecules are in an excited state more likely to reach our waiting noses. As a caveat, since some dishes are meant to be served cold (revenge not mentioned), the writers say you should flavor cold dishes more aggressively with seasoning.
Rest dough to cut down kneading time: “Kneading is the most enjoyable part of the breadmaking process,” the writers admit. But, they warn, over-kneading is a common sin that leaves the bread with less flavor and poor texture. You’ll know you’ve arrived at this sad place when your dough goes from a “wheaty tan” to a “grayish white.” The text explains that the point of kneading is to break down existing bonds and form stronger, straighter gluten sheets. But overknead, especially with electric mixers and you introduce both heat and air into your dough. The trick: autolyse, a technique first developed in the 1970s. Essentially all you have to do is rest your dough before kneading. The rest process actually takes care of some of the kneading work for you as enzymes go to work breaking down the mess of coiled protein to prepare for those nice gluten sheets later to come. According to the book, “Doughs that were given the 20-minute respite took an average of about five minutes less kneading.”
Fry foods between 325 and 375 using a mix of old and new oil: Nothing is worse than soggy fried chicken. Likewise, nothing is better than perfectly crisp fried chicken. The difference may be a matter of degrees. Most food is fried somewhere between 325 and 375 degrees (French fries, for example, are perfectly crisped at 325 degrees). It’s important to maintain this temperature (one of the reasons you fry in small amounts because dumping a large quantity of food into the pan lowers the overall temperature, warn the writers). Dropping a piece of battered shrimp into hot oil causes the surface moisture to escape in a burst of steam. That allows oil to move in. Too hot and too much moisture is lost meaning too much oil moves in, making the food greasy. But just right and the oil crisps the surface while allowing the meat to cook as well. And as a super secret way to make your food even crisper and more golden, the book recommends saving a cup of used oil to mix with fresh oil. Turns out, oil goes through five different stages while frying (beginning with “break-in” and “fresh” and ending with “degrading” and “runaway”) and right in the middle is the “optimum” oil. Mixing helps you avoid the first batch flop many of us have experienced.
Add milk to scrambled eggs, frozen butter to omelets: If you want scrambled eggs, most of us know to throw in a bit of milk or butter while scrambling. That’s because the lipids in the dairy coat the proteins in the egg (11 percent in the whites and 16 percent in the yolks) and slow down the process of coagulation, a.k.a. when the proteins are denatured and unfurl, releasing much of the water in the mixture. Adding fat helps keep some moisture in and fluff up the final product. But the same does not go for omelets. “While scrambled eggs should be fluffy, an omelet is more compact,” the authors write. While milk works for scrambled eggs, it can add to much moisture to an omelet. The chefs recommend frozen bits of butter instead, which melt more slowly and disperse more evenly. And it turns out you can go ahead and salt the eggs before you even cook them up. Because salt affects the electrical charge on the proteins, it weakens the bonds between them, preventing overcoagulation. Bring that up at your next brunch.
This is just a glimpse into the world of America’s Test Kitchen, where they don’t just find the right fry temperature, they find the individual smoke points of every oil (from coconut to peanut to canola). Precise and tested advice mixed with irresistible-sounding recipes for creamy parmesan polenta, crunchy baked pork chops and Boston cream cupcakes makes for a guide both the experienced home cook and the nervous beginner will enjoy.
“We’re not about gourmet food,” says Kimball. “We just want people to cook at home.”
Even Kimball admits, though, that are some kitchen conundrums he can’t solve. When asked if he’d found a way to really engage his own four kids with the science of cooking he said, “The only thing I’ve proved is they only want to cook with marshmallows and chocolate.”
August 13, 2012
New York City tap water is consistently rated the best in the country, and New Yorkers believe that only their water can create the best tasting foods. “Whether it’s actually true that New York water makes better bagels is irrelevant,” writes Jessica Sidman in the cover story of the latest issue of the Washington City Paper. “The difference is that New Yorkers want to believe it.”
Sidman’s reporting looks at how the municipal water treatment agency, DC Water, wants restaurants and breweries to tout local water as a deciding ingredient in their recipes. DC Brau Brewery take pride in the fact that they use local water, albeit filtered, and the Pretzel Bakery‘s Sean Haney says that D.C. water is a key ingredient to his perfectly-textured goods. Some complain that the amount of chlorine in D.C. water negatively affects the taste of baked goods, while others claim to see no difference in tap versus filtered water. But the big change most recently hasn’t been in the filtration process, but in the marketing. DC Water has spent $160,000 to change its public persona (especially needed after an image-damaging lead incident), and one of those major initiatives is restoring faith not only in the cleanliness of tap water, but in the magic of it as well.
It’s not about the water, it’s all about confidence and pride. Florence Wilpon, the owner of internationally ranked Ess-a-Bagel in Manhattan, is no exception. She believes in bagels. More importantly, she believes in her bagels. I asked her if she thought being in New York makes bagels taste better. “Yes,” she says. “Yes. Absolutely.”
“People think it’s the water, but it’s not the water,” says Wilpon (sorry, Baltimore). “It’s the people and the culture and the time.”
Where did this long-standing belief come from? The claim has always been that because of a superior water supply, bagels are simply not the same anywhere else. The argument goes that the water in Brooklyn, New York, which comes from the Catskills and picks up a wide array of sediment along its way to the pipes, contains the only successful chemicals in the world for making good, chewy bagels. CNN reveals that the Brooklyn Water Company has created an entire franchise based on this belief alone, recreating the exact composition of Brooklyn water from Florida to India. Steven Fassberg, a co-founder of the Brooklyn Water Company and its CEO, says that “there is a science behind it and I believe in it enough to prove that science.”
Slate’s Explainer points out why that’s all wrong. “Water chemistry influences baking, and New York’s somewhat unique water probably plays a minor role in making tender and chewy bagels,” he writes. But he argues that the real difference between bagels in New York and bagels in the rest of the world is just a matter of cutting corners. The dough must be allowed ample time to ferment, and the bagels must be boiled before baking, a process that is both expensive and time consuming.
There are bad bagels in New York, but the places that serve up these spongy, bland products stand little chance in a city that takes so much pride in its bagel industry. And that pride, says Sidman, comes from a citywide confidence in tap water. If DC Water has its way, Washingtonians too will have bragging rights.
August 1, 2012
In today’s global village, it should come as no surprise that Eastern and Western cultures are often wedded, and sometimes in weird and ingenious ways. Enter the Chork. While it may sound like an expletive, or a clever name given to the odd guttural noise produced when an over-zealous chortle leads you to choke, it is neither.
The Chork is an innovative new eating tool that combines chopsticks with a fork. It is the brainchild of Jordan Brown, who saw the need for the Chork at a sushi dinner when he found himself constantly reaching for a fork while eating with chopsticks, to grasp smaller grains of rice. Brown, a partner at the concept development and marketing company Brown Innovation Group Incorporated (B.I.G.) in Salt Lake City, then resolved to make the transition between the fork and chopsticks easier with the Chork.
With chopsticks on one end and a fork on the other, you’re bound to ask why you didn’t come up with this simple yet brilliant innovation yourself. Keeping in mind that most people need to use a fork because they haven’t quite mastered the art of using chopsticks, Brown has designed the Chork such that the adjoining sticks can be pinched together to grasp food without needing to be separated, functioning as trainers. For the initiated, the sticks come apart and click back into place just as easily.
When we wrote before about the origins of the fork and chopsticks, little did we imagine that these implements with such diverse and storied histories could be blended so harmoniously. The fork, the younger of the two, is said to have caused quite a stir when it was first introduced:
In 1004, the Greek niece of the Byzantine emperor used a golden fork at her wedding feast in Venice, where she married the doge’s son. At the time most Europeans still ate with their fingers and knives, so the Greek bride’s newfangled implement was seen as sinfully decadent by local clergy.
Chopsticks, in contrast, had a more humble beginning:
The earliest versions were probably twigs used to retrieve food from cooking pots. When resources became scarce, around 400 BC, crafty chefs figured out how to conserve fuel by cutting food into small pieces so it would cook more quickly.
While it took two years in the making for the prototype of the Chork to undergo several revisions, the final product finally hit the shelves early last year. “People are really interested to see something new and unique, especially in a part of food service that hasn’t really had a lot changes. The utensils that you use to consume your meal have been the same for forever, so I think part of it is just the novelty of having a different tool with which to eat your food, really gets people excited,” says Nick Van Dyken, general manager of the Chork.
Receiving rave reviews from Gizmodo blogger Casey Chan who goes as far as to say that “the chork, instead of pandas, could be used to maintain US/China relations,” and Daily Mail writer Ted Thornhill who writes, “this new kid on the utensil block is certainly proving a hit with diners,” the Chork seems to have made an impression. But it is left to be seen how lasting that will be. For now, this versatile tool has made inroads to dethroning the simple fork. According to Van Dyken, the utensil is available at grocery stores on the East Coast, the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas, and Carnival Cruise Ships. Here in D.C., the PhoWheels food truck distributes them in lieu of more traditional utensils.
The Chork has inspired a spinoff from B.I.G., namely, the creation of a spoon version of it, tailored to accompany the many soup-based Chinese and Vietnamese dishes, which should be available early next year (the Choon, perhaps?).
Cutlery might have been slow to change thus far, but the tide is turning. Another newcomer that seeks to find room on your table is the Trongs. This claw-like device was created to help grip finger foods while avoiding the mess. No longer will finger-lickin’ good wings or ribs require just that.