Archive for the 'Food Chemistry' Category

Naturally Colored Icing

Tuesday, July 24th, 2012

One of the things that consistently annoys me about foods marketed toward children are the ridiculous amounts of artificial coloring in them.  This is especially offensive in light of research pointing to ways in which artificial colors exacerbate hyperactivity in children and can even be a contributing factor in the severity of symptoms in autistic children.  Artificial colors are coal tar byproducts (as is saccharine, by the way), and really have no resemblance to actual foods.  So what then to do about providing children with fun and interesting colors to eat?  Why not take advantage of the wide range of fruits and vegetables that have natural colorants to produce colorful foods that are also more flavorful as a result of drawing their colors from real foods?

The cake pictured above has no artificial colors in its icing.  It is iced with blueberry-flavored purple icing; black-currant flavored pink icing; and cocoa-flavored brown icing.

The easiest way to make naturally colored icing is to build the color into your butter.  Follow my instructions for the black currant beurre blanc and let the resulting butter cool to room temperature, then use it to start the icing.  The general formula for icing will be 4 cups of confectioners sugar per 1/2 lb of butter.  1/2 lb of butter is enough to ice a 10 x 15 layer cake.  Make smaller quantities of icing for accent colors.

Here is a partial list of fruit-based colors that could be made this way:

Purple—blueberries and red wine

Pink—black currants and white wine; or strawberries and white wine, mixed with some plain butter

Red—strawberries and white wine

Green—kiwis and white wine

Yellow—saffron-infused white wine or turmeric whipped into the butter

Orange—combine red and yellow butters; or for a paler shade, use peaches.

Blue— This is not a natural color in food.  It can, however, be achieved through chemistry: cook beets down with a base (such as baking soda).  They (and the water they are cooked in) will turn blue.  Reduce this water to almost nothing, refresh it with a half cup of white wine, then reduce again.  Whip the butter into it per the beurre blanc instructions.  It will not be a royal blue, but the hue can be adjusted by combining the resulting colored butter with other butter when making the icing.

The best part about using naturally-colored icing is the flavor that goes along with it.  The purple icing was not just a visual component of this cake, but added a vibrant blueberry flavor that really was a fantastic addition to the final result.

Building a Better Waffle through Science

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

I made some of the best peach waffles I’ve ever had the other evening.

Ok, so that boast isn’t that tough to back up (peach waffles rarely show up on menus), but these waffles were good, and in large part I credit that to putting science to work for me.  I followed my basic waffle recipe for the most part, but with these alterations:

  1. I added the zest of 1 lime to the egg whites when they were frothy.  Acid helps egg whites to hold their peaks (that’s why many meringue recipes call for cream of tartar).  The lime flavor was also a nice touch.
  2. Instead of adding the spices into the flour mixture, I melted them with the butter.  The fat-soluble flavanoids infused the butter, resulting in better flavor.
  3. I drizzled the butter into the egg yolks while whisking constantly.  The yolks emulsified the fat, so that it did not rise to the top when the milk was added.
  4. I diced a peach and added it into the batter.  I recommend getting lots of peaches as they enter peak season, slicing them, freezing them, and using them all year round so that your family can experience the taste sensation that is these waffles even in the dead of winter.

Make my waffles.  They’re f-bombingly delicious.


Thursday, May 10th, 2012

I don’t know how many years I’ve used baking powder without noticing the notice to “shake well before opening.” I guess that makes sense, though, that perhaps the leavener and the acid and the anti-caking agent might settle into different strata while the jar sits on your cupboard between uses. Shaking it up would get them all evenly mixed again. Amazing how often you can use something without really looking at it.

Caramel Coloring is What?!

Wednesday, March 16th, 2011

I’ve always read the ingredient label on soda and assumed that caramel coloring was just burnt sugar, straight forward–end of story.  I was wrong.  Read this explanation from Eating Well.

Apple Varieties

Friday, November 12th, 2010

So, tell me…are these different types of apples sprung from different tree species or is there something else causing the variation?


The different varieties of apple are no more different species than you or I are.  They’re just different individuals within the species.

Apples reproduce through bee-assisted cross-pollination: pollen from two trees is required to fertilize the stamen.  Therefore, each seed produced is a cross between the traits of two different trees, and each seed has the potential to grow a unique individual.  Plant the seed, wait for it to grow; three years later, you could find yourself as the sole progenitor of an exciting new apple variety.

Or, more likely, you’ll find that you’ve got a crab apple tree.  There’s no way to tell what you’ll get until the fruits appear.

If you do happen to hit the lottery and grow a varietal worth reproduction, it’ll take some old-school cloning to make it happen.  Grafting is the process by which, in the spring, when growth is happening at an exponential rate, a branch from one fruit tree is cored from its trunk and transferred to a correspondingly shaped hole in the trunk/ rootstock of a tree from the same species.  When the grafted branch takes successfully to its new home, it will continue to grow apples of its own variety.  Thus, it is entirely possible (and used to be common) to have a single apple tree yield 2 or more varieties of apple, depending on how many types have been grafted onto its trunk.

For more great information on the biology of apple reproduction, and the history of apples grown from seed (including information about how John Chapman [aka Johnny Appleseed], who got his seeds from the cider mills of Pittsburgh, was in the business of providing settlers with the means to make booze for the long frontier winter), check out Michael Pollan’s pop-ag classic The Botany of Desire.

Corn Sugar Confusion

Friday, September 17th, 2010

Perhaps you’ve already seen in the news, on Tuesday, the Corn Refiners Association applied to the FDA for permission to refer to High Fructose Corn Syrup as “Corn Sugar” on product ingredient labels.  Thing is, the Oscar Mayer beef franks I bought on Monday have “cultured corn sugar” already listed on their ingredient label.  What gives?!

I placed a call to the Oscar Mayer information hotline to find out.  I spoke with Joe, who answers the phone for Oscar Mayer at a call center “somewhere in the northeastern United States.”  Where exactly, Joe couldn’t tell me “for security purposes.”

I asked Joe about the cultured corn sugar and whether it is the same thing as High Fructose Corn Syrup (henceforth to be referred to as HFCS).  He put me on hold briefly to check, then came back on the line to tell me, yes, it’s the same thing as HFCS, and is added to the meat in liquid form to help keep the product moist, yadda yadda yadda.

“Wait!” I stopped him.  “I want to know why Oscar Mayer is referring to it on their labeling as corn sugar if the Corn Refiners Association just applied for permission to use that terminology on labels on Tuesday, and the FDA is expected to perhaps take up to two years to decide on the matter.”  Joe couldn’t help me with that question.  He offered to escalate the matter, but said that he couldn’t guarantee a response from the company because the company usually only responds to escalated questions when it’s a matter of food allergy concerns.

So, I decided to do a little more digging on the topic myself.  Joe (and apparently Oscar Mayer, a division of Kraft Foods) are misinformed as to what the ingredients on the back of the label actually indicate.  As it turns out, per the FDA’s Office of Food Additive Safety, the cultured corn sugar included in Oscar Mayer hot dogs is “corn… sugar cultured with Lactobacillus paracasei subsp. paracasei, Bacillus coagulans LA-1, or Propionibacterium freudenreichii subsp. Shermanii, or mixtures of these microorganisms,” and “For cultured corn sugar, FSIS [Food Safety Inspection Service] believes that an appropriate ingredient name that is consistent with 21 CFR 184.1857 is ‘cultured corn sugar’ or ‘cultured dextrose.’”  Furthermore, “Any further questions regarding use in meat and poultry products should be directed to Dr. John Hicks, Jr., Director, Risk Management Division, Office of Policy and Program Development,1400 Independence Ave., S.W., Room 3549, South Agriculture Building, Washington, DC 20250-3700. The telephone number for that office is (202) 205-0210 and the telefax is (202) 720-0582.”

Moreover, in a different posting, the FDA defines corn syrup as dextrose, and has done so since 1976–thereby indicating that the Corn Refiners Association application ought to be easily denied and refuted as misinformation and propaganda.

As far as I can tell, no public comment period has yet started regarding the Corn Refiners’ Association application for a name change to HFCS, but I find it somewhat confusing and perplexing that a different product is already being referred to as corn sugar on product labels.  As the nomenclature is confusing to the product manufacturer already, I believe that the Corn Refiners Association is setting the public up for perplexion.  I’m not quite sure what I can do about it… apart from contacting Dr. Hicks, Jr. and asking him as to whether the office of Policy and Program Development might weigh in on the potential consumer confusion that could result should the corn refiners get their way.

Food Fact

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

Popcorn is a whole grain.

I know—it’s totally intuitive once you think about it: the whole kernel is popped, so what else could it be but a whole grain?

That having been said, the fact one is getting recommended nutritional value with it will never justify according to any even semi-logical nutritional analysis the singlehanded consumption of half a stick of butter.

Making Blackberry Jelly

Monday, August 17th, 2009

Guest Post by Clara Lee Sharrard; Photos by Jim Sharrard

Blackberries are ripe!  Thanks to a very wet spring and summer, we have a bumper crop of blackberries this year.  Thus far we’ve had them with ice cream and made into sorbet.  I have been picking about 2 quarts per day from my “bramble” that is growing between our driveway and our neighbor’s fence.  Picking them is a lot of work since the thorns are plentiful and very sharp.  The berries do a great job of hiding under leaves.  Every time I think I have picked all of the ripe berries in one spot, I move slightly or disturb a leaf and discover another bunch ripe for the picking.

Picking berries is much different in the city that it was in the country where I grew up.  The thorns are the same, but at least I don’t have to worry about my sandal-clad toes sharing space with a snake hiding under the bushes!

I have decided to use a large portion of this year’s berries for jelly.  Homemade jelly takes a while to make but it is well worth the final effort.  You need a ratio of about three-fourths well ripened to one-fourth slightly under ripe berries.  The reason for this is that the less ripened fruit contains more pectin, which is essential for the jelly to be firm.

It takes about 4-5 quarts of berries to yield 4 cups of juice, which will make about 4 jars of jelly (6 ounces each).  If you happen to find a mother lode of berries and are wondering what to do with them, I definitely recommend trying the jelly.  We have so many berries that many of the folks on my gift list will probably be receiving blackberry jelly this Christmas.  I just hope they will appreciate the amount of work that went into producing such a heavenly product.


Watch out For Blight!

Friday, August 14th, 2009

I got a very sad email the other day from Don Kretschmann, the farmer who runs the CSA I belong to:

“Late blight is here and is devestating the tomatoes just as we are making the first major picking of our largest field.  the slightly smaller second field is now also showing signs of phytophthora infestans.  We’ve experienced late blight before, but never this early in the season.  It’s very discouraging to look forward toa  nearly tomato-less season.  But we are not alone.  the wet 2009 season has provided nearly perfect conditions for the fungus….”

What exactly is this fungus?  If  I’d been paying closer attention to the Post-Gazette on July 11, I would have seen this column by Sandy Feather and I would already have known that “the fungus Phytopthora infestans, late blight[,] is highly contagious and can wipe out tomato and potato crops in short order. It is the disease responsible for the potato famine in Ireland in the mid-1800s.”

Scary stuff, especially since “During moist weather, the spores can survive and be transported up to 50 miles on air currents to infect other plantings of tomatoes and potatoes. During favorable weather conditions, unprotected foliage can be infected in three to six hours; symptoms can appear within a week. Those symptoms can expand rapidly during cool, wet weather and cause entire plantings to die within two weeks of infection.”

Unfortunately, the only foolproof way to fight it, according to Ms. Feather, is fungicide application, a procedure that I will not institute in my garden. I suppose I should take Ms. Feather’s advice and both trim and bury any infected portions I discover on my plants; though I wonder how burying the leaves will necessarily be any safer than sending them to the landfill: I’m just as likely to dig up that spot in my yard at some point in the future to garden there.

I suppose it’s too late to hope for hot and dry weather this year.  I guess I’ll just play defense and hope to get a few more tomatoes from my yard, even if I won’t be making any huge batches of soup.

I have an email in to Ms. Feather and anotehr in to Don Kretschmann asking if either can suggest some more sustainable measures than fungicide applications to control the disease; in the meantime, if anyone else has some tips to help us get the most out of our gardens, please let us know!

If it’s Legal, Is it Still Moonshine?

Sunday, July 6th, 2008

There’s a certain mystique (at least in my mind) about the production of spirits. When it comes to homemade, I haven’t yet even dabbled in wine or beer. In this venue, I appreciate the efforts of others. I have no deign of trying to replicate the results. I’ve visited several wineries and nodded appreciatively at aging tanks; at breweries I have gazed at networks of tanks connected by pipes and valves, following their path through the assistance of diagrams. I haven’t really felt like I’ve left those places with an understanding of how they have worked, yet I’ve wanted to someday try my hand at making my own, perhaps.

Whiskey, on the other hand, is something that I’ve never pondered making on my own. The act of distillation adds a level of complexity that I don’t want to try on my own. Somehow, though, seeing a working small-time still (even if not at work when I saw it) condenses in my mind how spirits are made in a way I hadn’t grasped before. Then again, the tour guide probably has at least as much of a role in that understanding as anything else.

Last week, I visited Belmont Farm Distillery in Culpepper, Virginia, and received a whirlwind of a tour from its very hands-on, quick speaking proprietor, Chuck Miller, who provides many such walk-throughs at his “living museum.”

His operations should by no means be assumed to be the only working still in the hills of central Virginia. His work draws heavily on the history of moonshining in the area, and Miller even touts his product as “legal moonshine,” operating with “the blessing of the Commonwealth of Virginia because we pay them taxes.”

Truth be told, the still also has to comply to other regulations in order to maintain that blessing: the product reaches fruition at a natural strength of 150 proof, but Miller must dilute it to 100 proof in order to comply with the law. Even so, despite having produced spirits for sale since 1988, it’s only since 2006 that Mr. Miller has been able to make sales of his product on his farm—the first time since George Washington that anyone’s been legally able to do so in Virginia, as Mr. Miller points out more than once.