Category Archives: harold mcgee

Hello, Fall! Smoky Black Bean Soup

am i just confused about what a "hock" is? i thought it was a foot. there is no way this is a foot, unless the big is the size of an elephant.. Nearly 3 pounds of smoked ham hock!

Soup Swap, Hunter’s Widow Edition

I went to another gathering of the Michigan Lady Food Bloggers last weekend. Mother’s Kitchen had a half-empty house because her menfolk were off hunting, so she invited us over for a third annual MLFB soup swap, which is just like a cookie swap: everyone brings a pot of soup and some containers and takes a little bit of each kind home. Perfect timing—my freezer is now full of diverse, delicious meals ready to be reheated on a moment’s notice, which will definitely come in handy on busy, chilly nights this Fall when there’s too much going on to cook. Including a flavorful, creamy Roasted Tomato Soup from Fruitcake or Nuts and nourishing, zesty White Chicken Chili from Mother’s Kitchen.

that's 2.81 lbs.My contribution was a smoky black bean soup, inspired by the gigantic ham hocks I got from Ernst  Farms. I bought two of them sight-unseen through Lunasa, a bimonthly Market Day-style order & pickup system for Ann Arbor-area farms, expecting them to be roughly the size of my fist like the ones I typically see at the grocery store. Instead, they’re the size of my head. And then, remembering that TeacherPatti doesn’t eat pork, I picked up some smoked turkey necks to make a pig-free version (and she didn’t even show up! The nerve!). The pork and turkey versions turned out remarkably similar. I imagine any smoked meat product would work. You could probably even do a passable vegan version with pimenton and/or liquid smoke.

Bean Basics I: Taming the Magical Fruit

Some people claim that the foam that rises to the top of a pot of simmering beans is connected to the gas many people get after eating them, and that skimming it off will prevent or reduce that effect. Not true. The reason beans make people fart is because of the indigestible carbohydrates—mostly oligosaccharides—that pass through most of the human GI system intact and then get devoured by bacteria in our lower intestine, causing a sudden spike in gas production. The foam in the pot, on the other hand, is produced by water-soluble proteins that trap air bubbles as they rise to the surface of the water. You can skim it if it bothers you, but it won’t affect how flatulent the soup is, or how it tastes or looks.

that foam, it is non-flatulent.

Hock shoved mostly beneath the surface, this batch got one turkey neck too.

So how do you make beans less flatulent? There are basically two options: 1) soak them overnight and throw out the soaking liquid (along with lots of nutrients and flavor) or 2) cook them a long time, which breaks the oligosaccharides down into easier-to-digest sugars and starches. Various folk traditions also claim that adding a slice of ginger, a bay leaf, a piece of kombu seaweed, epazote, cumin, and/or fennel seeds to a pot of beans helps reduce gassiness too. I’ve also seen a few recipes that claim adding baking soda helps, but according to Harold McGee, all that does is decrease the cooking time, which works against flatulence-reduction (McGee 2004 [1984] : 486-9). Since it’s basic, it can also make the soup taste alkalai or soapy.

Bean Basics II: Keeping It Together

If you’re okay with your beans basically dissolving into mush, a long cooking time is no problem. But if you like your beans to retain a little structural integrity, you should add a little acid, sugar, and/or calcium. Again, McGee: 

Acids make the cell-wall hemicelluloses more stable and less dissolvable; sugar helps reinforce cell-wall structure and slows the swelling of the starch granules; and calcium cross-links and reinforces cell-wall pectins. So such ingredients as molasses—somewhat acid and rich in both sugar and and calcium—and acidic tomatoes can preserve bean structure during long cooking or reheating, as for example in baked beans (ibid., 488).

What you definitely shouldn’t add, at least before the beans are done cooking, is salt. Salt increases the cooking speed by reducing how much the starch in the beans swells as it cooks, which not only works against the slow-cooking flatulence-reduction strategy, it can also make the beans mealy instead of creamy. For most bean dishes, water, alcohol, or unsalted homemade stock make better cooking liquids than canned broth or bouillon. If you really want to use bouillon in a bean recipe, stir it in at the end.

Choose Your Own Adventure

Like most soups, this is less a recipe anyone should follow exactly than a set of general guidelines you can adapt based on what you have on hand. In general, for every pound of dried beans, you’ll probably want about one large onion, a half dozen cloves of garlic, a can or two of tomatoes (or the equivalent in fresh), a carrot or two, a bunch of hearty greens, a pound of smoked meat, and about 5 cups of cooking liquid.

not-quite mirepoix. how many great soups start off this way?

I might have added celery, too, if I’d had any.

As McGee notes, molasses is good for flavor and bean texture—at least a tablespoon per pound of beans. I’ll almost always throw in a few bay leaves. I don’t even know what kind of flavor they add, I just reflexively add them to long-simmering soups. Additionally, this time, I added oregano, allspice, cumin, and red pepper flakes. Plus a splash of dry sherry and a squish of lemon. Fresh cilantro at the very end, salt and pepper to taste.

I bet orange juice, ginger, and allspice would be a pretty tasty combination. Sweet potatoes or winter squash would work instead of (or in addition to) the carrots. A beer in place of some of the broth would have been good in place of the sherry. Fresh or frozen corn and/or bell peppers might be nice if you wanted more veggies. Some hot peppers if you like things really spicy. Leave out the meat if that’s not your thing (in which case, a little MSG or nutritional yeast and additional oil would make up for some of the umami flavor you get from the bones & fat & cartilage).

Serve it with sour cream or shredded/crumbled cheese, green onions, more cilantro or parsley, lemon or lime wedges, corn bread, tortilla chips, a hunk of crusty sourdough, or just by itself. 

This is what I ate while I watched SDSU completely fail to capitalize on Michigan's 3rd quarter meltdown Also a good nacho topping.

Recipe: Smoky Black Bean Soup (adapted kinda sorta from allrecipes and simplyrecipes)

Makes 6-8 servings, doubles or triples well

Ingredients:

  • 2-3 Tablespoons neutral cooking oil or rendered bacon fat
  • 1 large onion
  • 4-6 cloves garlic
  • 3-4 carrots
  • 1 15-oz can diced tomatoes or 2-3 large raw tomatoes, diced
  • about one bunch of hearty cooking greens or 1/2 lb frozen spinach
  • 1 lb black beans, soaked for at least 6 hours
  • 5 cups of the soaking water, beer, wine, and/or low-salt stock
  • 1-2 lbs smoked bones with some meat on them—ham hocks, turkey neck, etc. OR 1 Tablespoon pimenton or liquid smoke to taste
  • 2 Tablespoons molasses
  • a hearty glug of dry sherry (2-3 Tablespoons?)
  • juice of one lemon (or lime, or a little vinegar, or a lot of orange juice)
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • a handful of chopped cilantro, chopped
  • salt, pepper, and more lemon juice or vinegar to taste
  • optional garnishes: cheese, sour cream, chives, cilantro, hot sauce, lemon or lime wedges

Method:

1.  Heat the oil or bacon fat in a large pot while you dice the onion, mince the garlic, and slice the carrots, adding each one to the pot as you finish cutting.

2. Cook until the onions begin to take on some color, and then add everything except the cilantro, salt, pepper, and garnishes.

3. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat until the soup is just simmering and cook for 2-3 hours, or until the beans are cooked through and the meat is falling off the bones.

4. Remove the bones from the pot and let them cool for about 30 minutes (let the soup keep simmering). Remove the meat and chop it into bite-sized pieces or shred it between your fingers. Discard the skin and bone.

5. Add the cilantro, salt, pepper, and more lemon juice to taste.

meat removed, cooling; the other turkey necks from the kosher batch were on a separate cutting board--i take food avoidances seriously!That’s the hock on the right, totally falling apart after about 3 hours of simmering.

shredded turkey neck meat added back to the pot The meat from the turkey neck, shredded back into the pot

cilantro--obviously optional if you're a soap person The turkey neck version after seasoning to taste and adding the cilantro: ready to serve!

Roasted Garlic & Mustard Sourdough Soft Pretzels

thinner ropes = bigger holes, higher ratio of crust: interior, better for noshing with beer & sausage; thinner rope = no holes, better for slicing and making pretzel roll sandwiches

When Improvisation Fails, I Turn to Alton Brown

A few months ago, I tried making pretzel bites to go along with some cheese sauce I took to a Superbowl party, and they were a complete disaster. I thought I could just throw together a batch of no-knead dough, shape it into ropes, cut those into bite-sized pieces, boil them in a baking soda bath & bake them until they were brown. Voila: pretzel bites…right? Uh, no. Turns out, that’s a recipe for ugly lumps of soapy-tasting bread.

Raw ugly lumps of soapy-tasting bread! Baked ugly lumps of soapy tasting bread!

Ugly Lumps of Soapy-Tasting Bread
(not likely to be a family favorite)

Thank god there was cheese sauce to dip them in, which just barely made them edible.*

I think my primary mistake was using too wet a dough. The no-knead dough depends on moisture to enable gluten formation. Making pretzels that don’t look like turds depends on dough at least stiff enough to hold the shape of a rope. Also, the wetter dough nearly threatened to dissolve in the alkali bath (which gives it the deep brown exterior, more on that below the jump) and absorbed way too much of the baking soda taste. Also also, they were overdone inside before the outside was brown. So by the afternoon of the day I baked them, they were beginning to get stale. Ugly lumps of soapy-tasting stale bread.

I decided to try again, this time using Alton Brown’s recipe for pretzels, which I adapted to use with my sourdough starter. Instead of bites, I made more traditionally-shaped pretzels because they were not designed for dipping, but for nibbling while wandering around at the 2011 World Expo of Beer in Frankenmuth. And since I was afraid plain pretzels without anything to dip them in might be a little boring, I decided to add a head of roasted garlic, some garlic powder, mustard powder, and msg to the dough. I was basically going for something like Gardetto’s mustard pretzels in soft pretzel form.

Peeling roasted garlic is kind of a pain. I kind of wish you could just buy it in a tube, like tomato or anchovy paste. Maybe you can? I would be so on board with outsourcing this step to the food industry.        Mashed the garlic up with melted butter. This shows the before & after becasue I made two separate batches to see if I could tell the difference between mustard powder and prepared Dijon. I could not.

Simple roasted garlic: wrap head of garlic in foil, place in 400-500F oven for ~45 minutes

This attempt was far more successful. The dough was stiff enough to hold the desired shape, they took on just enough of the baking soda flavor to taste like pretzels instead of bagels, and had a glossy, chewy crust and soft interior. And the garlic and mustard and msg gave them a slightly tangy, savory flavor.

they split a little while baking, but I think that makes them rustic & attractive.

If you’re the kind of food purist who refuses to eat garlic powder or msg, you can certainly omit those things and they should still be tasty. Or you can add whatever other herbs or spices or cheeses you want in your pretzels. Or leave them plain. The one thing you should NOT do is store them in a plastic bag. They were lovely the night before the Expo when I made them, but after a night in plastic, the crust got soggy and lost its glossy, chewy appeal. By the World Expo, they had transformed into dense and slightly clammy garlic & sourdough-flavored, pretzel-shaped hockey pucks. I should have known better. Alas.

*In case I never get around to posting recipes for the rest of the things I made for my defense: that cheese sauce is now my default for mac & cheese, too; I use the sharpest creamy cheddar I can find (cheddar so sharp it’s crumbly will make the sauce grainy) and two batches of sauce per pound of pasta (e.g. 1 lb pasta = 16 oz cheese and 24 oz. evaporated milk). You can just coat the pasta in the sauce and serve as is if you like your mac & cheese saucy or bake it for 30-40 minutes at 350 F if you prefer it casserole-style. Breadcrumbs optional.

On Browning and Lye

some other time, i'll do a baking soda/ baked baking soda/ lye comparison. Egg wash only, Baking soda bath only, Baking soda bath + Egg wash

Alton Brown’s recipe calls for boiling the pretzels in a baking soda bath and then brushing them with an egg wash. As both of those promote browning, I decided to try a tiny experiment to see how much each step was contributing to the crust. The egg wash-only pretzel was a great illustration of the importance of the alkali bath—it barely browned. The boiled-only pretzel browned nicely, but—although it’s hard to tell from the picture—it had a much more matte finish. So the egg wash is what provides the gloss.

Traditional Bavarian pretzels are dipped in diluted lye before baking (a mixture called Natronlauge which produces a Laugenbretzel). Supposedly, this technique was discovered by accident in 1839 at the Munich Royal Cafe when a baker by the name of Anton Nepomuk Pfanenbrenner was preparing pretzels while the kitchen was being cleaned. He meant to brush them with a sugar water solution, but accidentally used the sodium hydroxide cleaning solution instead. They came out of the oven with a glorious deep brown patina and distinctive, delicious taste.

You can buy food-grade lye online, but it’s a harsh corrosive that must be handled with gloves and lab goggles. If it comes in contact with your skin, it will make you peel and bleed. And I’m not entirely sure it’s safe to boil (lye fumes, anyone?) so the boiling and soaking may become separate steps. But despite the fuss involved (or maybe because of it?) many people swear by lye as the only way to produce “authentic” pretzels. 

When it comes to peeling, bleeding skin, I say screw authenticity. Baking soda will give you results like the ones you see above. If you’re not satisfied with that, you can make a slightly stronger alkali by baking the baking soda. I tried that when I made the pretzel bites, and thought they came out bitter and soapy tasting. Of course, that may have been due to the too-soft dough. I may try that again the next time I make pretzels, but I thought the regular baking soda worked just fine. For more on baked baking soda, see Harold McGee

Recipe: Sourdough Soft Pretzels (adapted from Alton Brown)
for 8 ballpark-sized, 16 medium-sized, or 24 fist-sized soft pretzels

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups refreshed 100% hydration sourdough starter*
  • 3/4 cups warm water (110-114 F)
  • 1/4 cup melted butter
  • 7-8 cups bread flour (or more, as needed)
  • 2 Tablespoons sugar (or honey or malt powder or other sweetener)
  • 1 Tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 package (2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast (optional)
  • herbs, spices, etc. (optional. I used 2 heads of roasted garlic, 2 t. garlic powder, 4 t. mustard powder or 2 T. dijon mustard, and 2 t. msg)
  • oil for coating rising bowl(s) and baking sheets
  • 2/3 cup baking soda for every 10 cups of water used in boiling bath
  • 1 egg for egg wash
  • coarse salt for sprinkling

*if you don’t have a sourdough starter, add another package of active dry yeast and 2 1/4 cups more water and flour (a total of 2 packages or 4 1/2 t. yeast, 3 cups of water, and at least 9 1/4 cups of flour)

Method:

1. If using roasted garlic, mash it into the melted butter to form a smooth paste.

2. Whisk together the starter, water, yeast, and garlic-butter mixture, and then add the flour, sugar, salt, and any other seasonings you want.

3. Knead the dough until it forms a smooth ball, adding more flour if necessary to make a stiff dough that does not stick to you. For the chewiest pretzels, knead for 15 minutes until you get a baker’s windowpane.

4. Coat the mixing bowl lightly with oil, place the ball of dough in the bowl, and turn to coat. Cover and let rise for 3-24 hours, or until doubled in size. The longer you let it rise, the more sourdough flavor will develop. However, if you want to wait more than 24 hrs before baking, you may want to refrigerate it to prevent it from becoming too sour & retarding the oven spring.

5. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 450 F and bring 10 cups of water to boil with 2/3 cup of baking soda.

6. Divide the dough into as many balls as you want—I used 110 g./3.8 oz portions of dough to make twenty-four pretzels (each about 3 1/2 oz after baking). Shape each ball into a rope by rolling it on a clean surface. Make each rope into a large U, and then fold the long pieces down like crossed arms.

if the dough won't stick to itself, you can use a little egg wash to "glue" the strands togetherlots of theories on the origin of the shape--my favorite is that they were shaped like arms in prayer and given as a reward to children to encourage them to learn their catechism  like the "kosher" bagel, the pretzel was traditionally seen as a lenten food because it is traditionally made with no fat or egg in the dough

Or if you want to do the classic twisted shape, see this guide at The Kitchn. Or cut the ropes into 1” pieces for pretzel bites. Or make circles, like bagels. Or letters. Or whatever.

7. One or two at a time, gently place the pretzels in the boiling baking soda bath. Boil for 30 seconds to a minute, turning halfway through. Using a spatula or slotted spoon, remove to a colander to drain for a few seconds and then transfer to a baking sheet coated in oil or lined with parchment paper.

intially, the pretzels sunk to the bottom and occasionally stuck to the pot; just gently nudge them lose and they'll float to the surface the unboiled guy is hanging out up there in the left corner. I used a reddish kosher salt from somewhere in Utah

8. Whisk a raw egg with a tablespoon or two of water or milk, and brush the tops of the pretzels. Sprinkle with coarse salt.

9. Bake for 12-15 minutes, or until the crust is a deep, glossy brown and the interiors are 190-200F.

10. Consume immediately, or store in a paper bag. Plastic/airtight containers will destroy the crust.