March 29, 2013
Nothing screams Easter like the arrival of brightly colored marshmallow Peeps snuggled inside crinkly packaging at the grocery store. For many people, the sweet is meant to be hidden: some stuff them into plastic eggs hidden in the backyard for their kids to find, while others tuck them away in desk drawers at the office to satisfy late afternoon hunger pangs. But for one distinct group, marshmallow chicks and bunnies are stuffed (and baked and blended and broiled) into otherwise Peep-less recipes in the kitchen. Thanks to the massive proliferation of food blogs in recent years, we can witness the surprising culinary places a few of the 2 billion Peeps produced each year end up. Here are five ways to cook with these sugar-laden holiday staples, which Bethlehem, Pennsylvania-based company Just Born has manufactured for 60 years.
Bake them. Because Peeps are essentially colorful marshmallows, they won’t seem out of place in dessert recipes. Exposed to high heat, Peeps melt back into their native state, a pool of sugary liquid fluff. They’re worthy substitutes for plain marshmallows in brownies, cookies, pies—even bread. For hearty Peep-stuffed brownies, start with a regular boxed mix of the bake-sale classic, following the package directions to create the gooey batter. Spread a portion of it out onto a pan, pressing Peeps of the color of your choosing into the mixture. Layering the remaining brownie mix on top to hide the chicks, and dust some Peep powder on top for decoration once you’re done baking.
Try squishing a Peep between two globs of cookie dough, sculpting the batter into round, slightly raised shapes, and bake according to your usual cookie recipe (this one recommends folding a pretzel into the dough along with the Peep for added crunch). Or use chick or bunny Peeps as pie filling. Melt the candies in hot milk and let them cool before folding in heavy whipping cream and chopped or bite-size chocolate candies (semisweet chocolate chips, Reese’s Pieces or tiny chunks of toffee). Pour the thoroughly mixed batter into a store-bought or homemade pie crust and leave in the refrigerator overnight.
The Peep flavor can also be infused into breakfast desserts, like the sticky and gooey monkey bread. Dip buttermilk biscuits into a smoothly whisked mixture of microwave-melted Peeps, butter and vanilla extract. Roll the biscuits in sugar dyed with food coloring to match the color of the Peeps, and stack and mold them into a bundt cake shape after they’re baked and golden brown.
And bake them some more. Not all casserole recipes are a match for Peeps (think tuna or cheesy macaroni), but less savory kinds, like those made with sweet potatoes, welcome a hint of marshmallow. Bake chick-shaped Peeps atop a batter of boiled and mashed sweet potatoes, milk, brown sugar, cardamom and cinnamon, letting some of the toasted marshmallow flavor seep into the casserole. Or swap standard marshmallow topping for slightly browned Peeps in this recipe for candied yam soufflé.
Toss them. We don’t recommend pairing Peeps with arugula, baby spinach and crumbled feta—tossing them with sweet and citrusy fruits produces better results. This recipe takes a spin on the Waldorf salad, a blend of apples, celery, walnuts and mayonnaise popularized in the early 1900s at a New York City hotel of the same name. Use pink or yellow Peeps for this one—flashes of electric blue in the middle of a salad might be alarming. Pair them with diced bananas, chopped oranges, halved maraschino cherries and work in shredded coconut and your choice of nuts. Drizzle fresh lemon juice and orange-flavor liqueur on top, mixing the entire batch well before serving.
Peeps can replace regular miniature marshmallows in ambrosia salad, another well-known fruit concoction. Chop pastel-colored chicks or bunnies into the size of the average miniature marshmallow. Add them to a bowl of pineapple chunks, diced mandarin oranges and shredded coconut, and then stir in a generous helping of Cool Whip.
Blend them. Peeps’ soft texture makes them prime candidates for electric mixers. Combine chocolate mousse-flavored Peeps with milk, sour cream and vanilla ice cream in a blender for a chocolatey shake. For a hint of toasted flavor, broil the chicks for one or two minutes until lightly charred before tossing them into the blender. Make Peep-flavored frosting by heating your choice of Peeps with egg whites, sugar and water in a saucepan. Beat the batter with a hand mixer until it gains some thickness, then spread it over cupcakes. Feeling fancy? Transform Peeps into unusually colorful mousse. Melt Peeps with heavy whipping cream in a saucepan, then zest off some sugar from still-intact chicks onto the sugary mix once it’s cooled.
Freeze them. Peeps don’t always have to be melted down beyond recognition in the kitchen. The marshmallow candies can also make for tasty frozen desserts, which this recipe dubs “peepsicles.” Press wooden craft sticks into bunny-shaped Peeps and submerge them into a bowl of melted chocolate. Coat the peepsicles with shredded coconut, slivered nuts or sprinkles and store them in the freezer. Move beyond the obvious with this recipe for ceviche, a marinated seafood dish usually served raw and cold. Soak frozen bits of Peep in lime juice, dried chili peppers, fresh strawberries and dark chocolate, and dig in before they thaw and all the juices break them down. Peeps get very crunchy in less than zero temperatures, and really frozen ones (well, those submerged in a bucket of liquid nitrogen) easily shatter.
When cooking with Peeps, remember that, just like fruits and vegetables, they’re seasonal, available only around Valentine’s Day, Easter, Halloween and Christmas. However, the marshmallows have an astonishing shelf life of two years, so finding a forgotten pack of five in the pantry can be a sweet (albeit slightly stale) surprise.
March 27, 2013
In Newfoundland, having a “scoff” (the local word for “big meal”) includes some pretty interesting food items unique to the region: scrunchions (fried pork fat), cod tongues and fishcakes, for example. But perhaps the least appetizing dish, which is traditionally made during the Lenten season—specifically on Good Friday and Easter—is seal flipper pie.
The meal, which originated in the Canadian provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador, tastes as strange as it sounds. The meat is dark, tough, gamey and apparently has a flavor similar to that of hare (appropriate for America’s favorite Easter mascot, no?). Most recipes suggest that the seal meat is coated in flour, pan-fried and then roasted with onions, pork fat and root vegetables like carrots, turnips, potatoes and parsnips. Once the dish has a nice, flaky crust, it is often served with a side of Worcestershire sauce.
While it might be difficult to imagine eating a meal made from something as cute and cuddly as a seal, the dish has a history based in survival. Seals were especially important to Inuit living on the northern shores of Labrador and Newfoundland dating back to the early 18th century when seal meat, which is high in fat protein and vitamin A, was a staple in the early Arctic-dweller’s diet and often prevented explorers from starving or getting scurvy during their hunting travels. (Some Antarctic expeditions like Ernest Shackleton’s Ross Sea party suffered from scurvy for lack of vitamins found in seal meat). Seal hunters used all parts of the seal from their pelts to their fat to light lamps (at one time, London’s street lights were fueled with seal oil), but they couldn’t profit off of the flippers. To save money and to use as much of the animal as possible, they made flipper pie. As the hunting industry grew, seal meat became a major resource for oil, leather and food for locals after the long, harsh winter in these regions.
Because the seal hunt takes place in the spring when the mammals are found near the edge of the ice floes—lasting from mid-March through April—the meat of the animal is most often eaten during the Easter season. But why does seal meat count as “fish” during Lent? According to The Northern Isles: Orkney And Shetland by Alexander Fenton, the meat was deemed Lent-friendly by the Catholic Church as early as the mid 16th century by Olaus Magnus (1490-1557), a Swedish patriot and influential Catholic ecclesiastic:
The people of Burrafirth in Unst sold the skins of seals they caught, and salted the meat for eating at Lent. Olaus Magnus noted in Sweden in 1555 that seal-flesh was regarded by the church in Sweden, though eventually the eating of seal-meat on fast days was forbidden in Norway. Later in time, the eating of seal-flesh went down in the world, and was confined to poorer people, the flesh being salted and hung in the chimneys to be smoked.
By the 1840s—at the apex of the sealing industry in Newfoundland—546,000 seals were killed annually and seal oil represented 84 percent of the value of seal products sold. Since then, a commercial seal hunt has taken place annually off Canada’s East Coast and in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Today, the seal hunting season provides more than 6,000 jobs to fishermen and vastly supplements the region’s economy.
And that’s not to say that the annual seal hunt hasn’t generated some controversy. The practice has been criticized by plenty of animal rights activist groups over the years including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Though, the organization has received its fair share of flack from Newfoundland locals (in 2010, a protester dressed as a seal was “pied” in the face by a man wearing a dog suit).
In 2006, in a live interview with Larry King on CNN, Sir Paul McCartney had a few things to say to Danny Williams, the ninth premier of Newfoundland and Labrador about the seal hunt: “It isn’t hunky dory, it’s disgraceful.” Williams maintained that seal hunting is a sustainable resource for Newfoundland.
The seals hunted in Newfoundland and Labrador are not officially endangered according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. (Though the IUCN considers other species of seal including the Hawaiian Monk Seal and the Mediterranean Monk Seal to be “critically endangered.”) According to the region’s Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, the harp seal population has tripled since 1970 and the total currently stands at 5.6 million animals.
The hunt is closely regulated by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) with quotas and specific rules regarding the method of killing the mammals. Last season, The Telegram, a Canadian newspaper, published an article about a fundraiser for a local sealer organization that commemorates those Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who lost their lives in the 1914 sealing disasters. Seal meat was the featured item on the menu—something many locals argue is the most sustainable protein in the region. (You can watch one of the staff reporters try flipper pie for the first time here).
Despite arguments against the commercial selling of seal products, a certain nostalgia remains baked into the flaky crust of seal flipper pie. According to Annie Proulx’s best-selling 1993 novel The Shipping News, which takes place in the fishing town of Killick-Claw, Newfoundland, the dish is quite tasty, but mostly evokes fond memories for the Newfoundlander characters:
“It’s good. From the shoulder joint, you know. Not really the flippers…The pie was heavy with rich, dark meat in savory gravy.”
The book was later made into a movie of the same title in 2001 starring Kevin Spacey, which references the dish in the soundtrack with a song aptly called “seal flipper pie.” No news on whether the flipper pie Spacey bit into on set was the real deal, but if you’ve got a hankering for the breaded pie, it’s still served in St. John’s, the largest city in Newfoundland and Labrador, at eateries like Chucky’s, which offers a different take on the classic dish. If you want to make it at home without the hassle, the meal is also available frozen and canned at local food stores like Bidgood’s.
One tip if you’re brave enough to try the breaded pie this Easter: When you’re done, remember to say in true Newfoundland fashion: “I’m as full as an egg.” Or maybe that was “Easter egg?”
March 25, 2013
Updated on March 25, 2013 for the latest in Kosher for Passover news
The Torah couldn’t make things any clearer. From Exodus 12:14 and 15: “This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations, as statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall remove leaven out of your houses, for if anyone eats what is leavened, from the first day until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel.”
But in the centuries since, food has gotten a lot more complicated, and the Jews who fled Egypt were fruitful and multiplied, melding their own traditions with regional customs. Today the rules governing keeping kosher for Passover aren’t as clear as they were in ancient Judea. Erik’s explainer on the Lenten fast taught me much about the Catholic tradition, so I’ll repay the favor with this guide for my Gentile friends on how American Jews keep kosher for Passover. I should preface this section by saying that even among the most observant Jews, there are disagreements over what is and what is not kosher for Passover. There are many foods, like jellies or butter, that should be considered allowable given their ingredients, but the equipment used to produce them is not cleaned and inspected by rabbinic observers. This is why you may see specially wrapped or branded products of everyday goods for those Jews who look for that extra degree of precaution. Consider this a brief slice of a very complicated discussion.
The Obvious No-Nos:
Wheat, spelt, barley, oats and rye. Known collectively as chometz, these grains are universally left out of diets during Passover week. This means no Apple Jacks, bagels, biscuits, cakes, cookies, danishes, empanadas, ficelles, gyros, hoagies, Italian bread, jelly donuts, knishes, lefse, muffins, naan, oatmeal, pasta, pizza, quiches, rugelach, strombolis, tacos, upside-down cake, Viennese wafers, waffles, yeast or zwieback.
Unfortunately, these rules also mean that all beer and most liquor is forbidden. The only alcohol allowed is wine, of which there are kosher-for-Passover varieties.
It is customary to clean all the chometz out of one’s house. Some totally cleanse the house, others board up closets, others sell the grains to their non-Jewish neighbors (you can help next year!) and buy it back at the end of the holiday, others sell their chometz on the Internet to a stranger and buy it back even though the food never moves.
The Generally Assumed No-Nos:
Rice and beans. The realm of kitniyot (legumes) is among the grayest of areas. Joan Nathan is the Barefoot Contessa of Jewish cooking and she says it best in her book Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France:
In the Middle Ages, rice, lentils, chickpeas, and fava beans were all ground into flour, which in that state could be confused with the true grains. The list continued to grow after corn and beans came to the Old World from the New. In France, where mustard seeds grow, mustard was added to the list, because the seeds could be intertwined and confused with other plants.
The confusion principle is largely the reason why many American Jews abstain from eating any corn or rice products on Passover. According to Nathan, a biblical ruling was made in the 12th and 13th centuries that “any grain that can be cooked and baked like matzo [could be] confused with the biblical grains.” Therefore, not kosher for Passover. But this is a tradition that is mainly continued by Ashkenazic Jews, or those whose ancestors come from eastern Europe. Pre-Inquisition Jews from Spain never followed these rules, and thus Sephardim, who by definition are Jews descended from those who escaped Spain but also include those who are from South America, Asia, the Middle East and Africa, do not either. The vast majority of American Jews, 95 percent or more, are Ashkenazic.
Even now in an era of detailed FDA-mandated labeling, where such a confusion is nigh impossible, the tradition remains. This is why you see the fabled “Mexican Coke” make an appearance each spring. Made with cane sugar and not high-fructose corn syrup, the imported soda is good to go. UPDATE: Do you live in California? Tough luck, you can’t have kosher-for-Passover coke as a new California law forced Coca-Cola to change its manufacturing process lest the beverage be labeled as having a carcinogenic agent. The company has yet to find a way to manufacture kosher-for-Passover versions on the same machinery. Relatedly, what tastes better? Regular Coke or Kosher for Passover Coke? The New Republic did a taste test.
Matzo. For reasons that are unknown to most Jews, some people willingly eat matzo at other times of the year. These matzo boxes are labeled “not kosher for Passover” and should not be eaten as a part of observing the holiday. The difference? Rabbinic supervision to ensure that any matzo made for Passover is untainted by any leavening agents. There is also a debate over whether egg matzo is allowed. While clearly being verboten for the Passover seder (another Torah passage states that only the flour and water version may be used during the ritual), eating egg matzo during the rest of the week is left up to the observant.
Quinoa. The New York Times had a good wrap-up of the quinoa loophole, which is rather ingenious. Since the grain is a relative newcomer to Western diets, the grain wholly bypassed not only the Talmudic scholars but the “confusion principle” as explained above. Ashkenazic rabbis never had the chance to exclude it from the holiday, and so by default it became kosher for Passover. Now concerns are being raised over whether the manufacturing process is clean of any of the banned grains.
Most everything else. All in all, keeping kosher for Passover isn’t all that difficult, especially if you have experience with the Atkins Diet. I find myself eating more healthy meals this week than usual, as I am forced to cook at home and use copious fruits and vegetables to fill out my diet. If I’m cooking meat, I make my own marinades or sauces, and if I’m eating a salad, my own dressings. Don’t put shrimp salad or a bacon cheeseburger on your matzo—the normal kosher laws still pertain: no shellfish, pork products or mixing of meat and cheese is allowed.
Cigarettes: According to the Associated Press, a rabbinic group in Israel has, for the first time, declared certain cigarettes as Kosher for Passover.
One last note:
If you re-read the passage from Exodus, you’ll notice that it declares that the holiday should be observed for seven days, as is done in modern day Israel, and not the eight customarily observed by American Jews. In the era before standardized calendars, Jews in the Diaspora (any area outside of Israel) added an extra day to ensure that their holiday overlapped with the official celebration. This is also why American Jews have two nights of seders, where in Israel they only have one.
March 15, 2013
It’s hard to think of St. Patrick’s Day without glittered shamrocks, green beer, leprechauns, and of course, corned beef and cabbage. Yet, if you went to Ireland on St. Paddy’s Day, you would not find any of these things except maybe the glittered shamrocks. To begin with, leprechauns are not jolly, friendly cereal box characters, but mischievous nasty little fellows. And, just as much as the Irish would not pollute their beer with green dye, they would not eat corned beef, especially on St. Patrick’s Day. So why around the world, especially in the US, is corned beef and cabbage synonymous with St. Paddy’s Day?
The unpopularity of corned beef in Ireland comes from its relationship with beef in general. From early on, cattle in Ireland were not used for their meat but for their strength in the fields, for their milk and for the dairy products produced. In Gaelic Ireland, cows were a symbol of wealth and a sacred animal. Because of their sacred association, they were only killed for their meat if the cows were too old to work or produce milk. So, beef was not even a part of the diet for the majority of the population. Only the wealthy few were able to eat the meat on a celebration or festival. During these early times, the beef was “salted” to be preserved. The first salted beef in Ireland was actually not made with salt but with sea ash, the product of burning seaweed. The 12th century poem Aislinge Meic Con Glinne shows that salted beef was eaten by the kings. This poem is one of the greatest parodies in the Irish language and pokes fun at the diet of King Cathal mac Finguine, an early Irish King who has a demon of gluttony stuck in his throat.
Wheatlet, son of Milklet,
Son of juicy Bacon,
Is mine own name.
Is the man’s
That bears my bag.
Haunch of Mutton
Is my dog’s name,
Of lovely leaps.
Lard my wife,
Across the kale-top
Cheese-curds, my daughter,
Goes around the spit,
Fair is her fame.
Corned Beef, my son,
Whose mantle shines
Over a big tail.
As the poem mentions, juicy bacon or pork was also eaten. Pigs were the most prevalent animal bred only to be eaten; fom ancient times to today, it earned the reputation as the most eaten meat in Ireland.
The Irish diet and way of life stayed pretty much the same for centuries until England conquered most of the country. The British were the ones who changed the sacred cow into a commodity, fueled beef production, and introduced the potato. The British had been a beef eating culture since the invasion of the Roman armies. England had to outsource to Ireland, Scotland and eventually North America to satisfy the growing palate of their people. As Jeremy Rifkin writes in his book, Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of the Cattle Culture, “so beef-driven was England that it became the first nation in the world to identify with a beef symbol. From the outset of the colonial era, the “roast beef” became synonymous with the well-fed British aristocracy and middle class.”
Herds of cattle were exported by the tens of thousands each year from Ireland to England. But, the Cattle Acts of 1663 and 1667 were what fueled the Irish corned beef industry. These acts prohibited the export of live cattle to England, which drastically flooded the Irish market and lowered the cost of meat available for salted beef production. The British invented the term “corned beef” in the 17th century to describe the size of the salt crystals used to cure the meat, the size of corn kernels. After the Cattle Acts, salt was the main reason Ireland became the hub for corned beef. Ireland’s salt tax was almost 1/10 that of England’s and could import the highest quality at an inexpensive price. With the large quantities of cattle and high quality of salt, Irish corned beef was the best on the market. It didn’t take long for Ireland to be supplying Europe and the Americas with its wares. But, this corned beef was much different than what we call corned beef today. With the meat being cured with salt the size of corn kernels, the taste was much more salt than beef.
Irish corned beef had a stranglehold on the transtlantic trade routes, supplying the French and British navies and the American and French colonies. It was at such a demand that even at war with France, England allowed French ships to stop in Ireland to purchase the corned beef. From a report published by the Dublin Institute of Technology’s School of Culinary Arts and Food Technology:
Anglo-Irish landlords saw exports to France, despite the fact that England and France were at war, as a means of profiting from the Cattle Acts…During the 18th century, wars played a significant role in the growth of exports of Irish beef. These wars were mainly fought at sea and navies had a high demand for Irish salted beef for two reasons, firstly its longevity at sea and secondly its competitive price.
Ironically, the ones producing the corned beef, the Irish people, could not afford beef or corned beef for themselves. When England conquered Ireland, oppressive laws against the native Irish Catholic population began. Their land was confiscated and feudal like plantations were set up. If the Irish could afford any meat at all, salted pork or bacon was consumed. But, what the Irish really relied on was the potato.
By the end of the 18th century, the demand for Irish corned beef began to decline as the North American colonies began producing their own. Over the next 5o years, the glory days of Irish corned beef were over. By 1845, a potato blight broke out in Ireland completely destroying the food source for most of the Irish population, and The Great Famine began. Without help from the British government, the Irish people were forced to work to death, starve or immigrate. About a million people died and another million immigrated on “coffin ships” to the US. To this day, the Irish population is still less than it was before The Great Famine.
In America, the Irish were once again faced with the challenges of prejudice. To make it easier, they settled together in mainly urban areas with the largest numbers in New York City. However, they were making more money then they had in Ireland under British rule. Which brings us back to corned beef. With more money for food, the Irish could afford meat for the first time. But instead of their beloved bacon, the Irish began eating beef. And, the beef they could afford just happened to be corned beef, the thing their great grandparents were famous for.
Yet, the corned beef the Irish immigrants ate was much different than that produced in Ireland 200 years prior. The Irish immigrants almost solely bought their meat from kosher butchers. And what we think of today as Irish corned beef is actually Jewish corned beef thrown into a pot with cabbage and potatoes. The Jewish population in New York City at the time were relatively new immigrants from Eastern and Central Europe. The corned beef they made was from brisket, a kosher cut of meat from the front of the cow. Since brisket is a tougher cut, the salting and cooking processes transformed the meat into the extremely tender, flavorful corned beef we know of today.
The Irish may have been drawn to settling near Jewish neighborhoods and shopping at Jewish butchers because their cultures had many parallels. Both groups were scattered across the globe to escape oppression, had a sacred lost homeland, discriminated against in the US, and had a love for the arts. There was an understanding between the two groups, which was a comfort to the newly arriving immigrants. This relationship can be seen in Irish, Irish-American and Jewish-American folklore. It is not a coincidence that James Joyce made the main character of his masterpiece Ulysses, Leopold Bloom, a man born to Jewish and Irish parents. And, as the two Tin Pan Alley songwriters, William Jerome and Jean Schwartz write in their 1912 song, If It Wasn’t for the Irish and the Jews,
On St. Patrick’s Day, Rosinsky pins a shamrock on his coat
There’s a sympathetic feeling between the Blooms and MacAdoos.
The Irish Americans transformed St.Patrick’s Day from a religious feast day to a celebration of their heritage and homeland. With the celebration, came a celebratory meal. In honor of their culture, the immigrants splurged on their neighbor’s flavorful corned beef, which was accompanied by their beloved potato and the most affordable vegetable, cabbage. It didn’t take long for corned beef and cabbage to become associated with St. Patrick’s Day. Maybe it was on Lincoln’s mind when he chose the menu for his first Inaugural Luncheon March 4, 1861, which was corned beef, cabbage and potatoes.
The popularity of corned beef and cabbage never crossed the Atlantic to the homeland. Instead of corned beef and cabbage, the traditional St. Patrick’s Day meal eaten in Ireland is lamb or bacon. In fact, many of what we consider St. Patrick’s Day celebrations didn’t make it there until recently. St. Patrick’s Day parades and festivals began in the US. And, until 1970, pubs were closed by law in Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day. It was originally a day about religion and family. Today in Ireland, thanks to Irish tourism and Guinness, you will find many of the Irish American traditions.
Lastly, if you are looking for a connection to the home country this holiday, there are many other ways to be authentic. Start by calling it St. Patrick’s Day or St. Paddy’s Day. Patty is a girl’s name in Ireland and Paddy is the proper nickname for Patrick. You don’t want to be the Patty in the pub.
March 13, 2013
Guinness sells about 10 million pints a day across 100 countries. On St. Patrick’s Day, that number hops to 13 million. When Arthur Guinness set up shop in Dublin back in 1759, he never would’ve guessed that his stout would become the unofficial beer of the Irish and the go-to beverage to shout to the bartender come March 17 (besides Jameson). Even Obama honored his Irish lineage with a highly-publicized Guinness at a pub in Ireland last year. But the classic brew isn’t for everyone. For the hardline vegetarians and vegans out celebrating this St. Paddy’s Day: there could be traces of fish bladder in your Guinness.
Isinglass, a gelatine-like substance made from the air-bladders or sounds of fish like the sturgeon is added to cask beers like Guinness to help any remaining yeast and solid particles settle out of the final product. As the finings pass through the beer, they attract themselves to particles in the fermented beer that create an unwanted “haziness” in the final product and form into a jelly-like mass that settles to the bottom of the cask. While beer left untouched will clear on its own, isinglass speeds up the process and doesn’t affect the final flavor of the beer once removed.
The word isinglass most likely comes from the corruption of the Dutch word huisenblas which translates directly to “sturgeon’s bladder,” but its history goes back a little further. Its archaic, Latin root, ichthyocolla, comes from the Greek words ikhthus (fish) and kolla (glue)—defining the mucous-like substance as “fish glue.”
According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica Volume IX, originally published in Edinburgh in 1797, the method of using isinglass as a clarification agent was long a secret in the hands of the Russians who were known for their exceptionally strong isinglass-made glue. The entry, which draws heavily from Humphrey Jackson’s 63rd volume of the Philosophical Transactions, cites the principal research of Pomet on the process of making isinglass:
“As to the manner of making the isinglass, the sinewy parts of the fish are boiled in water till all of them be dissolved that will disolve; then the gluey liqur is strained and set to cool. Being cold, the fat is carefully taken off, and the liquor itself boiled to a just consistency, then cut to pieces and made into a twist, bent in form of a crescent, as commonly fold: then hung upon a firing and carefully dried.”
Pomet’s experiments with the sounds of fish and its chemical properties lead him to discover the fish membrane’s ability to clarify beer. Adding an ounce and a half of “good isinglass” to a gallon of stale beer to steep for a few days, he found that the bad beer “was converted into good fining, of a remarkably thick consistence.” When he tried this with the same quantity of glue, the experiment yielded only “mucilaginous liquor, resembling diluted gum water which instead of clarifying beer, increased both its tenacity and turbidness.”
Combining the insinglass with malt liquor, he found that a “vast number of curdly masses became presently formed”, became attracted to the “feculencies of beer,” and, with the “well known laws of gravitation,” the unwanted particles combined with the isinglass and fell to the bottom of the barrel.
The process is simple: Remove the membranous parts of fresh-caught fish, scrape off the mucosity with a knife, roll, twist and dry in open air. The thicker the sounds are, the better the isinglass. The air-bladders of fresh water fish are preferred because they are more flexible and delicate. Swim bladders from sturgeon—especially that from the Beluga sturgeon which yielded the greatest quantity of sounds—were used to make isinglass until the 1795 invention of a cheap cod substitute by William Murdoch. Summer is the best time to collect, as frost interferes with the fish’s gelatinous principles. After the drying process, “good” isinglass, once held up to a light, exhibits prismatic colors.
Guinness first used isinglass in its Dublin brewery in the mid to late 19th century. A young fermentation scholar by the name of Forbes Watson, the son of an Edinburgh solicitor, was a pioneer in the experimentation and examination of the mineral constituents of Guinness beer. Within six weeks of being hired at the brewery, Watson discovered a way to recover beer at the bottom of the vat saving Guinness 6,000 pounds a year. Very early in his career, he toyed with pasteurization and introduced new methods of breaking down isinglass finings that would increase the lifetime of the stout. In 1909, Watson was killed in an accident with a machine he had helped create at age 37. After he died, little scientific ground was broken for the company until the 1930s.
With the presence of modern gelatin, isinglass is rarely used today with the exception of British “real ale” cask beers. Generally, British beers still use isinglass, gelatin, glycerin or casein. According to a recent statement made by Guinness:
“All Guinness brands are free from animal matter and from contact with animal matter. However, isinglass, which is a by-product of the fishing industry, is used as a fining agent for settling out suspended matter in the vat. The isinglass is retained in the floor of the vat but it is possible that minute quantities might be carried over into the beer.”
For many strict vegetarians and vegans even “minute quantities” of an animal product is enough to abstain from eating a particular food. Much like the honey debate (Does it hurt the bee? Or does it not count as an animal product? What about silkworms and cochineal bugs?) flexitarians and militant vegans may disagree on how to classify the potential traces of isinglass in beer.
For those who are on the anti-isinglass side of the spectrum, carrageenan, a type of red algae, also called Irish Moss, (an appropriate title for St. Paddy’s Day) also works as a fining agent in beer, but doesn’t yield the same results as isinglass. The k-carrageenan interacts with the proteins that create cloudy beer and form the molecular equivalent of marbles in syrup at the bottom of the batch. Vegan brands like Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon use carrageenan while others like Odell Brewing Co. use centrifugation for clarification.
Strict vegetarians and vegans often choose German or Belgium brews which abide by “purity laws” (first enacted in 1516) which require that breweries use only ingredients of water, grain (barley or wheat), hops and yeast. The ruling was officially lifted in 1987 by the European Court, but the tradition of the law remains.
So, before you step out on the town in your green get-up and order an Irish stout this St. Patrick’s Day, remember: Pescetarians, rejoice—Guinness is still “good for you“. Vegans, stick to whiskey.