Sourdough-risen No-knead Pizza Dough

with a spicy tomato sauce, bacon, cherry tomatoes, sauteed onions, and fontina cheese

Homemade Bread When There’s No Time to Make Bread

One of the perks of being in graduate school is that I basically work from home most days, so if I want to take a break in the middle of the afternoon to knead bagel dough until there’s enough gluten to make a baker’s windowpane, I usually can. But I know that’s a luxury not everyone has, and sometimes even I can’t seem to fit all that kneading in. As much as I might like to live by some sort of mantra like, “If I’m too busy to knead bread for 15 minutes, I’m too busy,” sometimes, like it or not, busy just happens.  

Ezekiel, just after being refreshed with 1 c. bread flour and 1 c. water, already bubblingHowever, I also have this yeast creature named Ezekiel, and if I don’t bake with him at least once every  two weeks (and preferably every week—keeps him more active), he will eventually suffocate in his own excrement. That may be one of the biggest deterrents for people who might otherwise be interested in creating and maintaining their own starters—even if you’re an avid baker, a sourdough starter represents a kind of commitment. Whether or not you’re type to get emotionally invested in your fermenting flour paste, the whole endeavor is likely to seem like a waste of time and food if you’re just going to end up killing the stupid thing in a month or two anyhow.

However, thanks to the no-knead method popularized by Jim Lahey of Sullivan Bakery and Mark Bittman of the NYTimes, the inevitability of weeks when you will be too busy to knead a loaf of bread shouldn’t stop anyone from having a starter. Honestly, no-knead bread is probably the only reason Ezekiel is still alive. There are some culinary justifications for the no-knead method too—if you don’t have to knead a dough, it can be stickier and that increased moisture content is one way of producing a crackling “artisan bread” crust. Also, the long, slow rise produces the big pockets of air and uneven crumb people have come to expect and desire from “rustic” breads like ciabatta. But the best part by far is being able to make homemade bread with about as much time and effort as it takes to boil an egg.*

I’ll post my sourdough-risen adaptation of the classic crusty Dutch Oven-baked boule everyone loves eventually. But I think the best testament to the versatility and ease of the no-knead method is no-knead pizza.

The Four Keys to Great Pizza Crust

1) Gluten 

Pizza is even more reliant on gluten than most yeast breads. Without a lot of gluten, the crust will tear before you can stretch it thin enough to be a crust instead of something more like focaccia. can be rolled thinner for a true thin crust, but then it won't get those big fat bubbles, which I loveLots of gluten is also what makes pizza crusts chewier than normal bread—usually, you want something closer in texture to a bagel than sandwich bread. Normally, you produce gluten by kneading the dough for a long time, but the no-knead method uses a very long rise instead, which facilitates gluten production without any effort on your part. Time basically does the kneading for you.

However, you do need to use a high-protein flour to give time the raw material to work with. If you substitute all-purpose flour, the crust will probably tear when you try to shape it. If you don’t want to buy bread flour because you’re afraid you’ll never 5 lbs of it, but you do have access to a “natural foods” store, you can use vital wheat gluten to increase the protein content of regular or low-gluten flour—whisk 1 T. vital wheat gluten per cup of all-purpose flour or 2 T. per cup of whole wheat or cake flour into the dry ingredients before combining them with the wet ingredients.

2) Olive Oil

The traditional no-knead dough recipe contains no fat at all, like a baguette dough, but pizza dough usually contains at least a little fat both for suppleness and for flavor. So instead of using Jim Lahey’s recipe for no-knead pizza dough, I use the “Olive Oil Dough Master Version” from the book Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, adapted to work with my 100% hydration sourdough starter (a 1:1 combination of flour and water by volume). Any kind of oil will work, but I think my favorite thing about this dough is that you can smell and taste the olive oil in the final product. 

3) Refrigeration

can be used just like the refrigerated dough you can buy at the storeMost pizzerias refrigerate their crusts for a minimum of 24 hours. The cold slows the yeast activity  down and enables even more gluten development and a lot of flavor development, which is largely due to the yeast byproducts. You can bake the crust without refrigerating it, and it will turn out okay; however, it will be way better after at least one and up to ten days in the refrigerator. While that might be a bummer for instant gratification-seekers, it actually makes this a super convenient meal. You can throw the dough together one day and then after the long rise, divide it into individual pizza-sized amounts and store them in separate ziptop bags in the refrigerator for use basically anytime in the next two weeks.

Then, whenever you want pizza, all you have to do is roll it out, top it, and bake it. Even if you grate the cheese by hand and the toppings you want to use take some prep work—like cooking bacon and sautéing some sliced onion in the rendered fat or chopping up a pear or bell pepper—you can do that in the time it takes the oven to preheat. Baking only takes 15 minutes, and if you’re of the mind that pizza alone isn’t a complete and balanced meal, you can use that to throw together a salad or cut up and steam a head of broccoli. If you use already-prepped toppings like shredded cheese, canned artichokes, and pre-sliced olives or chopped up leftovers, the whole process takes less than 20 minutes of active time. Either way, your pizza will be done in less time than it takes to get delivery.

4) Hot Oven & Stone

While the exact temperature may vary by oven, which you’ll only figure out by experimenting, you can narrow your search to 400F+. A super-hot oven is what makes the yeast go crazy, producing those great big bubbles and crisping the top of the crust. For a crisp bottom crust, you need a preheated surface—ideally a baking tile or pizza stone, but a preheated baking sheet is better than nothing.

For my oven, 15 minutes at 500F is perfect—I get a soggy crust at both 450 or 550. You’d think it would just get crisper as the oven gets hotter (or at least I did), but when I tried it at 550F, after 12 or so minutes the top was starting to burn and the bottom wasn’t totally crisp, and got softer and limper as it cooled. At 450, the bottom would begin to burn by the time the cheese on top melted and despite that, never got totally crisp.

As I’ve mentioned before, you don’t have to drop $40 on something specifically marketed as a baking tile or pizza stone at Williams-Sonoma, you can use any unglazed quarry tile that will fit in your oven, which should be available at most home improvement stores for a couple of dollars (Alton Brown claims they cost $0.99 in the 2007 Good Eats episode “Flat is Beautiful” and katie k at the Fresh Loaf recommends asking for “saltillo tiles” which ran about $1.50 in Southern California in 2006).

1 pizza serves 2-3; we usually eat 2/3 for dinner and leave the last two pieces out for a snack later that night. on rare occasions, they survive and become breakfast the bubbles inevitably collapse a little once you cut the pie

Recipe: Sourdough-risen No-Knead Pizza Dough (makes 2 12”-14” pizzas)

(adapted from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day; for the instant yeast version, see Steamy Kitchen)

  • 2 c. refreshed starter
  • 2 t. kosher salt
  • 2 t. sugar
  • 2 T. olive oil
  • 2 1/4 cups bread flour (may substitute some or all whole wheat flour, but add 2 T. vital wheat gluten per cup)
  • parchment paper or cornmeal and additional flour for dusting baking sheet

1. Whisk the olive oil into the refreshed starter, and then add the rest of the ingredients (aside from the parchment paper and cornmeal) and stir just until combined—about 1 min.

2. Cover and let rise 8-20 hours or until the dough is more than doubled in size and there are fat bubbles on the surface.

ingredients just combined into a dough--it will be sticky about 12 hours later. also an illustration of why if i cooked more during the day, my photos would be so much nicer

3. Divide the dough into two balls. Stretch the surface of each one and pinch the edges together and then roll it around on a smooth surface to form round balls with taut surfaces. Pour some olive oil into two zip-top bags (I usually use the 1 qt. size) and spread it around a little or spray a little cooking spray into them and tuck one ball into each bag. You could also just store the whole thing in one gallon-sized bag and pull off a grapefruit-sized hunk when you want to bake, but I find the one ball, one bag method to be a little more convenient.

how dirty does "smooth, taut balls" sound? oiled bags

4. Refrigerate for at least 24 hours or up to 10 days. Alternatively, shape and bake now.

5. Remove dough from cold storage 30 min-1 hr before rolling it out to let it warm up a little. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 500F with a baking tile placed on a middle rack or a baking sheet on the lowest rack possible—or even on the floor of the oven. you can also stretch it with your hands and toss it in the air. I am not that cool.

6. Roll the dough to approximately 1/4” thickness for a chewy, bubbly crust. For a true thin crust, roll it as thin as you can make it—until you can almost begin to see light through it. The best way to create a mostly even circle is to flatten the dough into a round and then roll from the center to the top edge and then turn the circle 90 degrees and repeat—roll, turn, roll, turn, roll turn, etc. always rolling in the same direction, straight from the middle of the circle towards 12 o’clock. 

7. Cover loosely with plastic wrap or a lightly floured towel (I usually cut open the ziptop bag and use that as the oil will keep it from sticking). Let rise for 20-30 minutes while the oven finishes preheating and you finish prepping any ingredients.

8. Top as desired. Alton Brown insists that less is more. I think it’s your damn pizza and you should do whatever you want with it. Some combinations I especially like:

With no sauce, just brushed with olive oil:

  • sautéed shallots and shitake mushrooms with fontina
  • firm pears and blue cheese (with or without bacon and/or arugula)
  • lots of fresh herbs, garlic and a hard cheese like asiago

With tomato sauce:

  • eggs (either scrambled or just broken, whole, onto the pizza so they cook over easy in the oven) with peas and ham or bacon (fake bacon works just about as well) with pressed mozarella or monterey jack
  • artichoke hearts, sliced olives, and asiago
  • salad shrimp, diced green onions, blanched asparagus tips, and a hard, sharp cheese like parmeggiano-regiano grated coarsely or peeled in strips with a vegetable peeler
  • fresh tomato and garlic with slices of fresh mozzarella (basil optional)
  • leftover meatloaf with onion and sharp cheddar

With an herb or arugula pesto:

  • sautéed bell peppers and onions with pepperjack cheese
  • fresh tomato and mozzarella (a repeat, but it’s a classic)

and bacon, sauteed onions, cherry tomatoes, and fontina wasn't half bad either 

9. Bake for 10-15 min. or until cheese is melted and crust is golden-brown.

*Why this is the standard metric of simplicity, I don’t know. I mean, I had to look up how to boil an egg not that long ago. And anytime you have to drain something and then shock it in ice water, that’s probably at a level of complexity belied by the way “boiling an egg” is invoked. I mean, have you seen The Worst Cooks in America? How many of them would know how to boil an egg? I mean, I’m sure they could put an egg in boiling water—but how many of them would know when to pull it out and how to prevent that unappetizing grey outer layer of yolk from developing? Clearly a cliché from another era.

HFCS Follow-up: What the Rats at Princeton Can and Can’t Tell Us

Ed called my attention to last week’s press release about the study at Princeton currently getting some mass media attention. The press release claims:

Rats with access to high-fructose corn syrup gained significantly more weight than those with access to table sugar, even when their overall caloric intake was the same. 

i know it's a squirrel, not a rat. apparently no one's gotten a rat to do this and then circulated it with the right keywords to match my google search. this image likely not original to:’s pretty surprising, given that other studies have suggested that there is no difference between HFCS and sucrose. The Princeton study doesn’t offer a definitive explanation for the difference they found, but they suggest that it may have something to do with the slightly greater proportion of fructose in the HFCS.

As I noted in the first post on high-fructose corn syrup, HFCS-55, which is the kind used in soft drinks and the Princeton study, has roughly the same proportions of fructose and glucose as table sugar. Table sugar, or sucrose, is composed of fructose bonded to glucose so it’s a perfect 50-50 split. HFCS-55 contains 55% fructose, 42% glucose, and 3% larger sugar molecules. There’s a lot of evidence that fructose is metabolized differently than glucose, and may promote the accumulation of fat, especially in the liver and abdomen. Indeed, that’s why I believe that agave nectar is probably nutritionally worse than table sugar. Still, I’d be pretty shocked if a 5% increase in fructose could produce a statistically significant difference in weight gain, unless the rats were eating nothing but sugar-water. And they weren’t—in both of the experiments reported in the original study, the rats had access to unlimited “standard rat chow,”

Experiment 1: Rats Who Binge?

In the first experiment, 40 male rats were divided into four groups of ten. All of them had 24-hour access to rat chow and water. Group 1 was the control, so they just had chow and water. Group 2 had 24-access to an 8% solution of HFCS (.24 kcal/mL), which the press release claims is “half as concentrated as most sodas”. Group 3 had 12-hr access to the same HFCS solution. And Group 4 had 12-hr access to a 10% solution of sugar dissolved in water (.4 kcal/mL), which the press release claims is “the same as is found in some commercial soft drinks.” The two things of note so far are that none of the rats had 24-hr access to sucrose-sweetened water, and that the concentration of the sucrose was nearly 2x that of the HFCS syrup.*

Why the 24 hr vs 12 hr groups? According to the study:

We selected these schedules to allow comparison of intermittent and continuous access, as our previous publications show limited (12 h) access to sucrose precipitates binge-eating behavior (Avena et al., 2006).

In other words, they fed the sucrose group on a schedule that they already knew would cause binging. And they didn’t include a 24-hr sucrose group to control for that.

That helps to explain the results: the rats that had 24-hr access to HFCS-water gained less weight than either the rats who had 12-hr access to sucrose-water or the rats that had 12-hr access to HFCS-water. So according to the experiment, it’s better to consume some HFCS than it is to binge on sugar (not, obviously, how they chose to frame it in either the formal write-up or the press release).

Princeton rats

The only difference between the four groups in the first experiment that was statistically significant at a p<0.05 was between the rats who got chow only and the rats who got 12-hr HFCS. There was no statistically significant difference between the rats who had 12-hr access to sucrose-water and the rats who had 12-hr access to HFCS-water. There wasn’t even a significant difference between the rats who had 24-hr access to HFCS-water and the chow-only rats. So the only basis for the claim in the press release that HFCS is worse than sucrose is the fact that the rats with 12-hr HFCS got a “significant” amount fatter while the 12-hr sucrose rats didn’t. Even though the 24-hr HFCS rats didn’t either.

I am not the only one who’s picked up on this—both Marion Nestle (a vocal critic of the food industry) and Karen Kaplan (not, as far as I can tell, a shill for the Corn Refiners Association) also dispute the claim that this research demonstrates anything conclusive about HFCS vs. sucrose. The lead researcher replied to Nestle’s post, and rather than addressing the discrepancy between the 12-hr and 24-hr HFCS groups, he merely corrects her assumption that the 24-hr rats should be fatter:

There have been several studies showing that when rats are offered a palatable food on a limited basis, they consume as much or more of it than rats offered the same diet ad libitum, and in some cases this can produce an increase in body weight. So, it is incorrect to expect that just because the rats have a food available ad libitum, they should gain more weight than rats with food available on a limited basis. –Bart Hoebel

Which just makes it all the more baffling why they didn’t include a 24-hr sucrose group. Additionally, according to their results, binging or “consuming more” doesn’t explain the results, because:

There was no overall difference in total caloric intake (sugar plus chow) among the sucrose group and two HFCS groups. Further, no difference was found in HFCS intake and total overall caloric intake in the groups given 12-h access versus 24-h access. Both groups consumed the same amount of HFCS on average (21.3±2.0 kcal HFCS in 12-h versus 20.1±1.6 kcal HFCS in 24 h), even though only the 12-h group showed a significant difference in body weight when compared with the control groups.

The only explanation they offer for these results is the slight difference in the amount of fructose the rats in the HFCS and sucrose groups consumed. But even that relies on the idea that the HFCS rats did not feel as satisfied by their sugar water and compensated by eating more:

…fructose intake might not result in the degree of satiety that would normally ensue with a meal of glucose or sucrose, and this could contribute to increased body weight.

Unless satisfaction itself makes rats thinner.

Experiment 2 (Males): Wait, Where’s the Sucrose?

In the first part of the second experiment, 24 male rats were divided into three groups of eight. Again, all three had unlimited chow and water. Group 1 had 24-hr access to the HFCS-solution, Group 2 had 12-hr access to the HFCS-solution, and Group 3 was the chow-only control. Sucrose, you’ll note, drops out entirely. According to the study:

Since we did not see effects of sucrose on body weight in Experiment 1 with males, we did not include sucrose groups in this long-term analysis in males.

But there were no effects of HFCS on body weight on the 24-hr schedule! The omission of sucrose from this experiment makes as much sense as the omission of a 24-hr sucrose group in the first one. The lead researcher’s reply to Marion Nestle’s criticisms offered no further clarification about this choice. 

We explain in the article that we purposefully did not compare HFCS to sucrose in Experiment 2 in males, because we did not see an effect of sucrose on body weight in males in Experiment 1.

This study went on for 6 months instead of 2 months and, as the table above shows, the groups with both 24-hr and 12-hr access to HFCS-water gained a significantly greater amount of weight than the chow-only rats. This time, the 24-hr HFCS rats gained more weight than the 12-hr HFCS rats.

Experiment 2 (Females): Sucrose is back (still only 12-hr)! But chow is limited.

In order to “determine if the findings applied to both sexes,” they also ran a slightly different version of the second experiment on some female rats (n unknown). The control group, as usual, got unlimited chow and food. Group 1 got 24-hr access to HFCS-water. The remaining two groups got 12-hr access to chow (“to determine if limited access to chow, in the presence of HFCS or sucrose, could affect body weight”) and either 12-hr access to HFCS-water or 12-hr access to sucrose-water. Yeesh. How about testing one thing at a time, guys?**

So this time, only the rats with 24-hr access to HFCS gained a significantly greater amount of weight than the chow-only rats, which flies in the face of the claim that rats with limited access to a palatable food eat more. And the 12-hr sucrose rats actually gained slightly more weight (though not a statistically significant amount) than the 12-hr HFCS rats.

In other words, the findings in the three studies were completely inconsistent. For male rats in the short term, 12-hr access to HFCS induces significant weight gain but 24-hr access to HFCS does not. For male rats in the long term, both 12-hr or 24-hr access to HFCS induces significant weight gain, but they didn’t test sucrose. For female rats in the long term, only 24-hr access to HFCS with unlimited chow induces significant weight gain and limited chow, HFCS, and sucrose do not. And yet, based on this, they claim:

In Experiment 2 (long-term study, 6–7 months), HFCS caused an increase in body weight greater than that of sucrose in both male and female rats. This increase in body weight was accompanied by an increase in fat accrual and circulating levels of TG, shows that this increase in body weight is reflective of obesity.

Despite the fact that Experiment 2 didn’t even test the long-term effects of sucrose consumption on male rats, and 12-hr HFCS (albeit with limited chow) didn’t cause significant weight gain in female rats.

As Usual: Needs More Research

Based on the results of all three experiments, they conclude:

Rats maintained on a diet rich in HFCS for 6 or 7 months show abnormal weight gain, increased circulating TG and augmented fat deposition. All of these factors indicate obesity. Thus, over-consumption of HFCS could very well be a major factor in the
“obesity epidemic,” which correlates with the upsurge in the use of HFCS.

Despite the fact that obesity has also increased in many countries where HFCS is virtually never used, like Australia. According to a 2008 USDA paper:

Australia and the United States have a high and rising prevalence of obesity. They have opposite sugar policies: virtually no distortions affect Australia’s use of sugar, whereas sugar policy in the United States taxes sugar use. Sugar consumption per capita in Australia has been flat from 1980 to 2001, after which it increased by 10%-15%. Sugar is the major sweetener consumed in Australia.

The fact that the experiment doesn’t seem to show that HFCS is necessarily worse than sucrose doesn’t mean the findings aren’t intriguing. I really do want to know, for example, why rats with 12-hr access to HFCS gain more weight in the short term than rats with 24-hr access to HFCS, but the 24-hr HFCS rats gain more in the long term. And if, as they claim, the rats in all the groups consumed the same number of calories—which Nestle doubts because, "measuring the caloric intake of lab rats is notoriously difficult to do (they are messy)”—why were there any differences at all at the end of the trials? If none of the rats are eating more (and indeed, it seems that in some cases the HFCS rats were eating slightly less), what is the mechanism causing them to gain more weight, at least on some feeding schedules?

Does the concentration of the sugar have anything to do with it? In his reply to Nestle, Hoebel says:

Eating sucrose does not necessarily increase body weight in rats, although it has been shown to do so in some studies, usually employing high concentrations of sucrose, such as 32%. Our previously published work, has found no effect of 10% sucrose on mean body weight. At this concentration, rats seem to compensate for the sucrose calories by eating less chow.

I want to know if that’s true for HFCS as well. And did the difference in the concentrations of the HFCS and sucrose drinks have anything to do with the difference in the rats’ weight in this study?

Or does it maybe have something to do with sucrase, the enzyme that splits the fructose and glucose in table sugar? From what I’ve read, sucrase is present in the human digestive tract in sufficient amounts that it doesn’t rate-limit the absorption of those sugars in sucrose compared to the consumption of free fructose and glucose. But is it somehow involved in metabolism or appetite-regulation?

So rather than answering any questions about HFCS vs. table sugar, this really just raises a lot of new ones.

*It’s also not clear why they gave them different concentrations of sweetener. You’d think they would make them both soda-strength, or at least calorically equivalent.

**The failure to control for multiple variables does, in fact, complicate their ability to make any conclusions about gender difference:

In the present study, male rats maintained on 12-h access to HFCS also gained significantly more weight than chow-fed controls, while female rats maintained on 12-h access did not. It is possible that this can be accounted for by the fact that these males had ad libitum chow, while the females had 12-h access to chow. It is possible that the lack of chow for 12 h daily suppressed weight gain and TG levels
that might have otherwise been elevated in the female 12-h HFCS access group. This would indicate an effect of diet rather than a gender difference.

Jonathan Franzen and Joël Robuchon-inspired Rutabaga Purée

the coloring can be so gorgeous, almost like some sort of alien sunrise

“I love rutabaga,” said Gary inconceivably.

The Corrections,  Jonathan Franzen

The Root Vegetable of Revenge

Rutabaga isn’t especially well known in the U.S. I had never encountered it before my first Thanksgiving with Brian’s family, who eat it mashed with a little butter and salt, just like potato. The flesh is pale orange and especially when it’s cooked, you wouldn’t be wrong to describe the color as “golden.” The flavor is mostly potato-ish but slightly sweet and a little sharp—about what you’d expect from a cross between a cabbage and a turnip. Like most root vegetables, they’re large and inexpensive and nutrient-dense and can be stored for months at cool temperatures. Also, if you happen to be in Ithaca on the last day of the farmer’s market in the fall, you can you can use them as stones for curling:

So I really didn’t understand why they weren’t more popular until I read The Corrections.

the picture on the cover isn't actually a representation of the Dinner of Revenge, but it evokes it anyhow with the older, smiling good son and sullen younger son and the same sickly coloring of everything in the Gallery of Regrettable FoodThe novel centers around a middle-class, middle-America, suburban family with an inflexible, distant father named Albert and gratingly chirpy, long-suffering mother named Enid. At one point, Albert leaves for an eleven-day business trip without kissing Enid goodbye, and when he returns, he greets her by asking, “What did I ask you to do before I left? What is the one thing I asked you to do while I was gone?” Then, without even waiting for an answer, he disappears into his lab in the basement and smashes the jelly glasses he had asked her to move away from the top of the basement stairs. Enid channels her rage into the Dinner of Revenge. The menu, clearly meant to be a culinary manifestation of spite and passive-aggressive domestic squabbling, is liver and onions, boiled beet greens and mashed rutabaga. It’s designed specifically to be nutritionally and economically beyond reproach but gastronomically torturous.

Liver is clearly the prime offender:

Cauterized liver had the odor of fingers that had handled dirty coins…. Enid knew that Alfred hated liver, but the meat was full of health-bringing iron, and whatever Alfred’s shortcomings as a husband, no one could say he didn’t play by the rules.

But the rutabaga is definitely accessory to the crime: 

Thukkety thukkety thukkety went Enid’s masher round the pot of sweet, bitter, watery rutabaga….

A dollop of mashed rutabaga at rest on a plate expressed a clear yellowish liquid similar to plasma or the matter in a blister.

It has precisely the intended effect on Albert, who chews and swallows bite after bite mechanically, telling himself he’s lived through worse. And their older son Gary either genuinely likes rutabaga or at least puts on a good show of it because he’s fiercely protective of his mother. But poor Chip improvidently eats the scant bits of bacon and onion accompanying the liver and then he’s left with plate full of bitter, soggy, gag-inducing horror. Dutifully filling the role of family disciplinarian, Albert demands that he eat his dinner, and it’s actually the rutabaga that’s singled out as the source of special revulsion: 

He [Chip] actually picked up his fork and made a pass at the craggy wad of rutabaga, tangling a morsel of it in his tines and bringing it near his mouth. But the rutabaga smelled carious and was already cold—it had the texture and temperature of wet dog on a cool morning—and his guts convulsed in a spine-bending gage reflex.

Finally, Albert eats most of the rutabaga for him, which is portrayed as an act of great paternal love:

Alfred leaned over Chipper’s plate and in a single action of fork removed all but one bite of the rutabaga. He loved this boy, and he put the cold, poisonous mash into his own mouth and jerked it down his throat with a shudder. “Eat that last bite,” he said, “take one bite of the other, and you can have dessert.” He stood up. “I will buy the dessert if necessary.”

But Chip still can’t manage to eat the last bite, and not only does he go without dessert, he’s not allowed to leave the table. Albert disappears back to his lab and Enid and Gary do the dishes and play ping pong and eventually go to bed, with Enid carefully avoiding the dining room and rationalizing her way out of taking any responsibility for the situation because, as she tells Gary, it’s “between Dad and Chipper.” But Dad forgets about Chip entirely until late that evening, when he finally emerges from the basement to find the boy asleep at the table with his face on his placemat, the victim of revenge in the form of rutabaga.

Potatoes of Revelation

also, he looks uncannily like a younger version of emperor palpatine. an evil master of the forces of dairy fat. On the complete opposite end of mashed-root-vegetable-as-symbol continuum (this is honestly the sort of thing I spend my days thinking about: spatial/temporal metaphors for the range of representations of mashed root vegetables I have encountered), are the rapturous descriptions of Joël Robuchon’s mashed potatoes or “purée de pommes de terre.” Robuchon is widely recognized as one of the architects of the “nouvelle cuisine” that rose to prominence in both France and the U.S. the 1970s, which is largely responsible for the reigning cult of “fresh, local, seasonal” and the idea that great cooking is distinguished by making ingredients taste like as much like themselves as possible instead of altering them beyond recognition.

The mashed potatoes he served at the first restaurant he opened in Paris have achieved a sort of cult status. Here’s how sociologist Barry Glassner describes them in The Gospel of Food (which is ostensibly about excessive food worship and not, as the title might lead you to believe, a guide to practicing the religion of food…but actually does a little bit of both):

Made from the finest butter (and a great deal of it, eight ounces for every pound of potato) and la ratte, an heirloom potato with a hazelnut flavor, Robuchon’s mashed potatoes changed lives. In conversations with food enthusiasts in the nearly twenty years since I tasted that dish at Jarmin, I have discovered that I am far from the only person who credits that potato puree with a lifelong interest in great cooking.

In other words, Robuchon’s mashed potatoes are to Barry Glassner what sole meunière was to Julia Child, what oysters were to M.F.K. Fisher—something transformative, the kind of food that inspires awe and changes lives and elevates the acts of cooking and eating to something above and beyond the mere sustenance of life or a debased bodily pleasure.

And that may seem a little excessive or silly. I mean, how impressive can it possibly be to make potatoes mashed with that much butter and milk or cream taste delicious? But that’s a bit like the “my kid could paint that” response that abstract art sometimes elicits, which is almost always untrue and moreover, irrelevant. Your kid didn’t paint it, and if he or she had, that wouldn’t necessarily prevent it from being an equally brilliant use of the medium. Sure, it might not take a genius to figure out that heirloom potatoes turned into a silken puree that’s almost 1/8 butter will taste divine, even if you might not expect it to be so good it makes people who eat it contemplate food and pleasure and the nature of the potato and see all of those things in a new and different light. But then, you didn’t come up with it, did you?

While I’m sure la ratte is an exceptionally delicious potato, they key to the recipe is pretty clearly the ratio of butter: potato, which is so legendary that it’s acquired a kind of fish story tendency towards exaggeration. Before writing this entry, I was actually under the mistaken impression that Robuchon’s purée contained more butter, by weight, than potato. But the largest ratio I found in any of the recipes purporting to reproduce them (usually with pedestrian Russets instead of la ratte) is 1 part butter for 4 parts potato (one cup, or 1/2 lb of butter for two pounds of potato). And usually the suggested ratio is the one Glassner describes: one stick of butter for two pounds of potato or 1:8. Plus a cup of hot milk.

In retrospect, looking at that recipe, it’s painfully obvious that Robuchon’s potatoes are actually more like a butter-based sauce that happens to use potato as a thickening agent than a vegetable side dish. Ah, hindsight.

Butter-baga, or Just Because You Can Doesn’t Always Mean You Should

Even though I really liked the rutabaga I had at Thanksgiving, when I tried to recreate that at home, I sort of began to understand why so many people hate it. It must vary based on the rutabaga—or perhaps the climate or how long they’re stored—but some of them are definitely sweeter than others, sometimes in a way that’s not entirely pleasant, and some of them seem to have a more pronounced bitterness. They’re also harder than potatoes, more fibrous and more watery, which is why they tend to extrude liquid when mashed.

And yet they’re enough like potatoes that I began to wonder whether Robuchon’s formula for transcendent potatoes could produce something equally divine using rutabaga as a base—whether if, by pureeing it until exceptionally fine and adding an amount of butter bordering on the obscene, I could produce something so rich and silky that it would be to Revenge Rutabaga what Robuchon’s puree is to normal mashed potatoes.

I don’t have a ricer or a tamis, which is apparently what Robuchon uses to produce his incredibly fine puree without the potato getting gummy. But rutabaga is slightly less starchy than the potato and harder to mash, even when you cook it a long time, so I used a food processor instead. That worked just fine—even after running it for 5-8 minutes, the mash wasn’t gummy at all. Actually, it was gorgeously silky and ethereal—I had planned on pressing it through a sieve, but that didn’t seem necessary. I didn’t add as much milk because, as noted, rutabaga already has slightly higher moisture content and I held back on the butter a little bit, which seems like a ridiculous thing to say when you add an entire stick of butter to something but there was somewhere between 3-4 lbs of rutabaga , so the ratio of butter:rutabaga was somewhere in the 1:12-1:16 range.

Yes, the amount of butter is obscene. That's the point. no craggy wads here

It was still almost unbelievably rich. It actually didn’t taste a whole lot like rutabaga, either (for better or worse). It mostly just tasted like butter. And butter is delicious and all, but it’s kind of hard to eat very much of it. So one of the drawbacks of this recipe is that rutabaga is a sort f difficult ingredient to scale down. They are often, like the one pictured above, rather large. I essentially made a massive amount of incredibly rich rutabaga-based butter sauce, which is something I might want to eat a few tablespoons of once in a great while.

Recipe: Rutabaga Purée

  • One large rutabaga
  • 1/2 cup (1/4 lb) butter
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • salt and pepper to taste

1. Set a large pot of water to boil, and peel the rutabaga and dice into 1/2”-1” cubes.

some people advocate using a sharp knife instead of a peeler, but I'm not confident enough in my ability not to cut myself while peeling something as large and round as a rutabaga it is more difficult to cut than a potato; for the first cut, I wedge the knife deep enough that I can pick the rutabaga up and then slam it into the cutting board

2. Boil the rutabaga until it’s fork-tender—about an hour.

3. Puree with the butter and milk until completely smooth and season to taste with salt and pepper.

a bit of irony: when I told Brian how much butter I'd used, he refused to eat it and instead, ate a bunch of raw carrots Very Loudly and we both sulked about it until we realized how ridiculous the whole thing was. beware the power of the rutabaga.

Hipsters On Food-Stamps Part I: The New Generation of Welfare Queens

Is it wrong to believe there should be a local,

free-range chicken in every Le Creuset pot?

-Jennifer Bleyer, “Hipsters on Food Stamps”

Last Monday, Salon published an article titled "Hipsters on Food Stamps" that claims:

Faced with lingering unemployment, 20- and 30-somethings with college degrees and foodie standards are shaking off old taboos about who should get government assistance and discovering that government benefits can indeed be used for just about anything edible, including wild-caught fish, organic asparagus and triple-crème cheese.

these and other "funemployment" buttons available at author, Jennifer Bleyer, withholds explicit moral judgment. She doesn’t personally endorse the “special strain of ire” of the sort directed at a "self-described "30-something, unemployed, ex-fashionista, EBT armed, post-hipster,* downtown mom" from New York who advertised her now-password-protected blog about “trying to maintain the trappings of a materialistic, cosmopolitan life while using an Electronic Benefit Transfer card — food stamps — to feed her family” on  However, Bleyer also doesn’t make any effort to distinguish between that supremely unflattering characterization (an unemployed mom on food stamps engaging in materialistic posturing) and any of the other “young people in their 20s purchasing organic food with food stamp cards” described in her article. She doesn’t even correct—actually, as the quote above demonstrates, she does much to reinforce—the common misconception that you have to be unemployed to get food stamps.

In fact, until an emergency extension went into effect last year as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) were only eligible for 3 months of food stamps per 36 month period if they weren’t employed. Federal employment requirements have been waived until September 2010, but many states still require ABAWDs to work a minimum of 20 hours per week or enroll in qualified work-training programs to qualify for food stamps. Even food stamp recipients with dependents, like the poster, are more likely to be working than unemployed. Of course, you’d never know that from the article, especially in light of quotes like this one from Tufts University food economist Parke Wilde:

There are many 20-somethings from educated families who go through a period of unemployment and live very frugally, maybe even technically in poverty, who now qualify.

“Educated” here is almost certainly code for “wealthy” (who refers to families as educated?) and the “technically” suggests that their poverty is equivocal at best, and likely to be temporary. So the article implies that although they may not be making any money right now, these 20-somethings are clearly not the deserving downtrodden who ought to be the recipients of public assistance.In the 40s-50s, the term may have actually meant someone "cool," and Jazz-savvy, but when applied to young, mostly-white, privileged urban kids who wear ironic t-shirts, it was a slur from the start

By framing this supposed trend as something belonging to “hipsters,” a demographic that has been subject to derision since it was first invented/identified (much like the equally-fuzzy "foodie” and “yuppie”), reinforcing popular stereotypes about them (their parents are rich, they live in trendy neighborhoods, they studied useless things like art in college, they’re into ethnic food, their friends are all fellow starving artists), and failing to offer any specifics about their employment situations, the cost of their average meals, or their total monthly expenditures on food, Bleyer invites exactly the same kind of sneering contempt that was elicited by the ex-fashionista mommy blogger. The entire thrust of the article is that this new group of food stamp recipients is made up of privileged, spoiled layabouts who think they’re too good for “government cheese” but will happily take government handouts they don’t really need to support a decadent, elitist lifestyle.

Bleyer does offer a theoretical defense:

Food stamp-using foodies might be applauded for demonstrating that one can, indeed, eat healthy and make delicious home-cooked meals on a tight budget.

And while they might be questioned for viewing premium ingredients as a necessity, it could also be argued that they’re eating the best and most conscious way they know how. They are often cooking at home. They are using fresh ingredients. This is, after all, a generation steeped in Michael Pollan books, bountiful farmer’s markets and a fetish for all things sustainable and handcrafted. Is it wrong to believe there should be a local, free-range chicken in every Le Creuset pot?

Satirical book published in 1985, sometimes credited with inventing the term "foodie," also always-already sort of a dig.

This starts off plausibly enough. Indeed, the people who left comments on the article defending “food stamp-using foodies” do applaud them for forgoing the junk food so often associated with the poor, a decision many of them suggest will help prevent them from becoming a drain on the health care system. But Bleyer sets up a bit of a straw man when she says they view “premium ingredients as a necessity.” The hipsters she interviews say they’re unwilling to subsist on ramen and government cheese, but none of them claim to see any of the “premium ingredients” she mentions as necessities. And her next claim, “it could also be argued that they’re eating the best and most conscious way they know how,” is a considerably weaker defense than the first one. That’s basically the same as saying you shouldn’t criticize people who spend their food stamp allowance on hot dogs and Funyuns because that’s just what they like and maybe they don’t know any better.

By the time she asks, “Is it wrong to believe there should be a local, free-range chicken in every Le Creuset pot?” her theoretical defense is in full retreat. Her clever little play on the political slogan promising a minimum standard of prosperity for every American (often mis-attributed to Herbert Hoover) suggests that the “best and most conscious way they know how” is absurdly profligate. Even if you believe that the “local, free-range chicken” is healthier and/or more ethical than the factory-farmed alternative, the Le Creuset is indefensible. The quip implies that these hipsters aren’t really poor—the list price for even a small pot starts around $200—and are exploiting public welfare programs to pay for foods that, healthier or not, are priced out of reach for many, if not most, Americans.

Furthermore, like most of the “premium” foods she mentions in the article, including the wild-caught fish, organic asparagus, and triple-creme cheese that start off the story, local, free-range chicken isn’t something any of the three “hipsters” she interviews claim to have used food stamps to purchase. Most of the article’s damning evidence concerns their mere proximity to foods that sound exotic and/or expensive (separate ideas often unfairly conflated).

In the first paragraph, she describes the two Baltimore hipsters she talked to as they “sauntered through a small ethnic market stocked with Japanese eggplant, mint chutney and fresh turmeric.” Note that they don’t just shop; they saunter. And they saunter in the presence of Japanese eggplant! It turns out that food stamp recipients sauntering in the presence of expensive foods has become a nationwide scourge. According to cashiers in Minneapolis, Portland, and San Francisco, food stamp recipients have been sauntering through specialty and “natural foods” markets in increasing numbers:

In cities that are magnets for 20- and 30-something creatives and young professionals, the kinds of food markets that specialize in delectables like artisanal bread, heirloom tomatoes and grass-fed beef have seen significant upticks in food stamp payments among their typical shoppers.

Not fresh produce! Ugh, how scandalous.

The Baltimore hipsters do provide some limited anecdotal evidence of food stamp recipients actually buying things that at least sound expensive and/or delicious. Sarah Magida, the 30-year-old art school graduate she interviews who used to install museum exhibits until arts funding began to dry up, has used the food stamps she now qualifies for to purchase “fresh produce, raw honey and fresh-squeezed juices from markets near her house in the neighborhood of Hampden, and soy meat alternatives and gourmet ice cream from a Whole Foods a few miles away.” And Gerry Mak, a University of Chicago graduate with a part-time blogging job “fondly remember[s] a recent meal he’d prepared of roasted rabbit with butter, tarragon and sweet potatoes.” At the end of the article, her description of the dinner Magida and Mak prepare seems designed specifically to undermine Magida’s insistence that, “It feels like a necessity right now”:

Savory aromas wafted through the kitchen as a table was set with a heaping plate of Thai yellow curry with coconut milk and lemongrass, Chinese gourd sautéed in hot chile sauce and sweet clementine juice, all of it courtesy of government assistance.

Bleyer admits there are no statistics available to substantiate the increase in food stamp use by this demographic (and still doesn’t clarify who counts) and that according to food policy experts, the vast majority of the 38 million Americans who receive food stamps are the “traditional recipients: the working poor, the elderly, and single parents on welfare.” She also notes the dramatic increase in unemployment for people between the ages of 20-to-34—between 2006 and 2009, the rate increased 100% for the entire age group and 176% for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher—leading her to somewhat grudgingly admit that “young urbanites with a taste for ciabatta may legitimately be among the new poor,” but the article as a whole invites the reader to conclude that no one, least of all any damned “hipsters” should be entitled to satisfy their taste for ciabatta or enjoy “heaping plates” of Thai curry on the taxpayer’s dime.

From Natalie Dee: course, criticism of how the poor eat is nothing new. In Sweetness and Power, historical anthropologist Sidney Mintz quotes the eighteenth-century British writer Arthur Young, who observed disapprovingly that the poor at an almshouse he visited spent any money they had on tea and sugar when “it would be better expended in something else” (p. 172).  At the turn of the 20th Century, the leaders of the emerging home economics movement in the U.S. expressed great concern about the exotic (and, they thought unhealthy) foodways of un-assimilated immigrants. They were especially critical of immigrants’ “excessive” consumption of coffee, alcohol, spicy, pungent and pickled foods, which they claimed would cause indigestion, stunted growth, excessive sexual appetites, impropriety, and disorderly behavior.

I know the pickles thing sounds especially crazy, but it’s for real. For example, Foods of the Foreign Born in Relation to Health, a 1922 book by dietician Bertha Wood of the Boston Dispensary and Food Clinic (where immigrant mothers were taught how to poach eggs and make frugal, nourishing porridges) has this to say about the excess use of pickles by American Jews:

The Jewish children suffer from too many pickles, too few vegetables, and too little milk.

In the Jewish sections of our large cities there are storekeepers whose only goods are pickles. They have cabbages pickled whole, shredded, or chopped and rolled in leaves; peppers pickled; also string beans, cucumbers, sour, half-sour, and salted; beets; and many kinds of meat and fish. This excessive use of pickled foods destroys the taste for milder flavors, causes irritation, and renders assimilation more difficult….

And according to Donna Gabaccia, the socialist writer John Spargo “compared children’s craving for “stimulants” (mainly pickles) to the craving for alcohol in adults who did not eat properly.”

Instead, the home economists advocated “simpler foods,” like creamed cod fish, baked beans, corn chowders, Indian corn pudding, and oatmeal porridge—or what Harvey Levenstein describes as “resolutely New England,” which, at the turn of the century, were increasingly being defined as authentically “American” in contrast to foreigners’ foods. This deliberately bland and frugal cuisine was promoted in public school cooking classes, women’s colleges, instructional kitchens, home visits by charitable organizations, and the growing array of practical texts as a prescription for health, moral restraint, and social welfare.

It’s ironic, but revealing, that at the same time as home economists were using corn to Americanize immigrants, the food rations provided by the federal Indian Bureau specifically did not include corn. As Gabaccia says:

Even the peoples who had first cultivated corn in the Americas found themselves subject to campaigns for culinary Americanization….To prevent starvation, the federal Indian Bureau provided reservation food rations—and these typically did not include corn. Iron Teeth, and elderly Northern Cheyenne Woman, complained in 1916 that “I am given very little food. Each month our Indian policeman brings me one quart of green coffee, one quart of sugar, a few pounds of flour and a small quantity of baking powder.” While domestic scientists saw corn-eating as a way to Americanize new immigrants, they seemed eager to wean Native Americans off cornmeal, and onto white wheat flour and baking powder breads. 

The heart of the problem seems to be the idea that the poor might get any pleasure from their food, which is bad enough when they’re paying for it themselves because clearly they ought to be spending it on longer, sturdier bootstraps with which to lift themselves out of poverty. But when it’s subsidized by the government, tasty food is cause for outrage. One of the people who commented on the article specifically argues that what she objects to is people using food stamps for “fun food”:

…ONLY BASIC foods should be OK for food stamps.
No chips, no cakes, no artisinal breads, nothing fancy.
It’s not fair for those of us who are not on food stamps have to to pay for the largess of those who are.
There are millions of non food stamp people buying beans and rice to save money while food stamp folks can buy fun food?
No, that isn’t right.
If I could wave a magic wand…I would say ONLY basic vegetables, fruits, beans and grains are OK for foods stamps. Not much else. –Soliel

Is it naive of me to wonder whether Soliel would think the Chinese gourd in the curry would count as “fun” or a vegetable? Perhaps, like corn, it would be context-dependent. In heaping bowls of Thai curry, it’s an exotic luxury. For the obese, uneducated, junk food-buying poor, the Chinese gourd is no fun—it’s the kind of nutritious vegetable they ought to be eating.

This is already longer than anticipated, so Part II will discuss some of the other responses to this article and a similar one on “gourmet” meals at soup kitchens and what this newest episode in the long history of criticizing the diets of the poor says about contemporary anxieties about food, pleasure, and social class.

*I’m fascinated by this self-description, because it implies that the “post” in “post-hipster” is different than the “ex-” in “ex-fashionista,” which may suggest that it’s something like the post- in “post-colonial” or “post-modern,” and less a chronological distinction than something that both acknowledges the influence of and marks a departure from the post-ed term. What would that even look like? What does she think she means by it?

Sourdough-Risen Whole Wheat Bagels and the Sweetness of the Old World

Happy day after St. Pat's! Can I offer you some carbohydrates? Perhaps slathered in some fat?  

“Authentic” Bagels: Boil, Bake, and Bluster

There are three things that distinguish bagels from other breads:

The first, perhaps obviously, is the shape. There are at least four different theories about the origin of the word “bagel,” and all of them refer to the shape (etymology notes below the recipe for fellow word geeks). However, you can’t just make a standard bread dough into rings, throw it in a hot oven, and expect it to develop the glossy crust and dense, chewy interior that most people associate with bagels.

The second difference is an issue of method: bagels are traditionally boiled before they’re baked, which causes the surface starch to gelatinize, producing their characteristic smooth, shiny crust. The same is Or maybe the bagel married in, likely to the tacit (if not explicit) alarm of some of the older members of the Christian family.true of pretzels, which originated in the same region and, according to Maria Balinska, who wrote a 2008 book about the history of the bagel, are probably related. She specifically calls them “cousins,” whatever that means in terms of food history. She also notes that the Polish obwarzanek—another boiled, ring-shaped bread often sprinkled with sesame or poppy seeds—is an “older and Christian relative,” so perhaps that’s the spinster aunt who devoted herself to Jesus. Google translates the Polish entry on “Obwarzanek” to “Bagel,” and this travel guide refers to them as “pretzel rings.” I’m sure different people have different ways of distinguishing between the three, but the boil-then-bake method they share probably makes them more alike than different. So, for example, some people might think pretzels have to be shaped like folded arms whereas other people accept rods or rings as “pretzels,” but either way they’re formed from ropes of dough that maximize the surface area exposed to the boiling water, just like their relatives.

The third difference is an ingredient—bagels are the only bread I know of whose recipes frequently call for malt extract. Pretzel recipes occasionally include it, but not nearly as often as bagel recipes, many of which claim that the malt extract is the key to making “authentic” bagels or achieving a truly “bagel-y” flavor.

The idealized referent of bagel authenticity is usually the “New York bagel,” rather than their Polish-Jewish ancestors. However, when I lived in New York City, I ate plenty of bagels—even at delis on the Lower East Side—that were indistinguishable from the ones available at chains like Brugger’s and Einstein’s nationwide. Perhaps that’s just further evidence of the declining standard described here (accompanying a recipe that demands malt powder):

I can’t count how often expatriate New Yorkers would stop me on the street with tears in their eyes, telling me that mine were the best bagels they’d had since they left "The City," and that they were better than most in "The City" these days. The reasons are simple. I didn’t cut corners and used good ingredients. I don’t know why so many bakeries cut corners on making bagels these days, it’s really NOT that hard!

But I think it’s more likely that the idea of the superior New York bagel is primarily the product of nostalgic fantasies and social decline narratives—it’s something that never was and tells you more about contemporary anxieties and desires than anything real in the past. The tears in those expatriates’ eyes say more about contemporary feelings of depthlessness and transience, the desire for connections to the past and a sense of community, and the myriad dissatisfactions that make people want to think everything was better in the “good old days” than what makes a bagel delicious or “authentic” to anything.

Malt Extract: the Ancient Sweetener in your Bud Light

Given how the same bakers describe malted barley extract on their ingredients page, its presence is probably one of the so-infuriatingly-cut corners they’re talking about:

We wouldn’t dream of making bagels or kaiser rolls without barley malt extract, and neither should you! Barley malt extract improves the taste and texture of the breads it is used in. It goes by a number of names. barley malt extract and malt extract among them. If a malt extract doesn’t specify what grain it is made from, chances are pretty good it was made from barley. Barley is a grain used mostly in brewing beer and making Scotch Whisky. IBarley makt [sic] extract adds a nice taste to breads where it is used. For our recipes, you can either liquid or dry, diastatic or non-diastatic malt extract and not worry about changing the recipe, any combination of these will work just fine. The important things to avoid are hopped malt extract which is really only useful for making beer and the malted milk powder sold in many grocery stores as a milk flavor enhancer which has too little malt in it and too much sugar.

From an 1896 Harper's Magazine @ extract is basically just sugar made from grain, usually starting with barley. According to Harold McGee, it’s “among the most ancient and versatile of sweetening agents, and was the predecessor of modern-day high-tech corn syrups.” Just like corn syrup and agave nectar, malt extract is produced by breaking starches into their constituent sugars. Rather than adding enzymes or acids, malting works by simply germinating or sprouting the grain. As a grain germinates, it produces enzymes that digest the grain’s starch to fuel its growth. Those enzymes can be dried and mixed with cooked grains (usually rice, wheat, and barley), which they can also digest, producing a sweet slurry containing lots of glucose, maltose (glucose+glucose), maltotriose (glucose+glucose+glucose), and some longer glucose chains.

It’s not as sweet as sugar, but before sugar colonialism, it was one of the primary sweeteners available in Europe and Asia (the other two were honey and molasses made from sorghum). According to McGee, it was the primary sweetener in China until around 1000 CE, and is still used in China and Korea for confections and the sweet, caramelized gloss on dishes like Peking Duck. Malt extract is also still frequently used in beer brewing—a friend who does home brewing told me recently that American brewers are especially likely to use it to adjust the alcohol content of their beers midway through the brewing process. Apparently the laws regarding how closely the alcohol percentage matches what’s on the label are fairly strict and as the sugars in malt extract are highly available to yeast, it’s a good way to increase the yeast activity quickly and reliably.

cocktails to anyone who knows the mug's year

Possibly-Heretical Baking Substitutions

I'm not 100% sure what the label means. Is it malted wheat? Malted barley that was fed with cooked wheat? Malted wheat fed with cooked wheat? McGee claims that malt extract is “frequently used in baking to provide maltose and glucose for yeast growth and moisture retention,” and that might be true for commercial bakers, but it’s not available at most grocery stores, where home bakers get their supplies (it can be found anywhere that carries home brewing supplies and many “natural foods” retailers, including some Whole Foods). However, before sugar was readily available and cheap, it seems likely that malt extract was used the way other sugars often are today—to speed up yeast activity, enhancing rise and oven spring—in many kinds of bread, not just bagels. 

Some bagel recipes call for other sugars in place of the malt extract in bagel dough—the first recipe I tried called for maple syrup, perhaps because of it’s phonological similarity to “malt syrup,” the liquid form of malt extract or because they’re both liquids, though malt syrup is much thicker—closer to unfiltered honey. Recipes that call for “malt powder” but also recommend a sugar substitution generally call for brown sugar. And I found at least one that suggests malt powder, malt syrup, honey, and maple syrup are all interchangeable. Of course, they all have slightly different flavors, but most recipes only call for 1520 g for ~8 bagels so any affect the sweetener’s flavor has on the final product is bound to be minimal.

It’s been a while since I made the maple syrup batch, but I honestly didn’t notice any major flavor difference in the batch pictured above, which used malt extract. Perhaps part of the problem was that I used a “wheat” malt, which may not have as malty a flavor as barley malt. But, again according to McGee, even when it starts with malted barley, “malt syrup has a relatively mild malt aroma because the malted barley is a small fraction of the grain mixture.” In short, despite what some recipes say, you shouldn’t let your lack of malt extract stop you from making homemade bagels.

Nonetheless, it’s still a mystery why bagel recipes would be more insistent about using malt extract than any of the other breads descended from European varieties developed before sugar colonialism. Why are people so willing to substitute sugar in everything from soft, buttery brioche to pretzels, bagels’ closest cousins, but fanatics about the importance of using this particular Old World sugar to certify the authenticity of the bagel?

A Fetish for the Old World

My theory is that it has to do with the bagel’s iconicity and association with Jewishness. One story about the origin of the bagel that seems plausible (though Balinska lumps it with the story about stirrups—explained in the etymology note at the end—as speculative at best and possibly fictitious) is that it’s another version of the ubiquitous roll-with-a-hole developed by Jewish bakers in Krakow after a decree limiting baking or trade in flour to the bakers’ guild was lifted. Even in Poland, which from its founding was more tolerant to Jews than most countries in Europe, Christian trade and craft guilds in many cities excluded Jewish merchants and artisans, who sometimes formed their own guilds. The travel guide’s description of Obwarzanek claims that King Jan Sobieski lifted the ban in 1496, but he didn’t rule until the 17th C. Other claims that Jan Sobieski lifted the ban in the late 17th C. are problematic because the Yiddish word “beygel” was already in widespread currency in Krakow by 1610. There was a different King Jan in 1496—Jan I Olbracht or John I Albert—whose reign was also notable primarily for wars against the Turks. Perhaps he lifted the ban, and Jan Sobieski’s greater fame and friendliness to Poland’s Jews sort of absorbed the earlier Jan’s bagel-inspiring or enabling acts? 

Regardless of precisely when or why Jewish bakers in Krakow started making their own version of the obwarzanek, it’s probably the strictness of Jewish dietary laws that made it so popular and caused it to spread to different Jewish communities, whereas the obwarzanek has remained basically a Krakow specialty. It’s leavened, so it’s not kosher for Passover, but it doesn’t contain any dairy so it is parve. Additionally, the thick, solid crust keeps the interior soft and moist better than a split or craggy crust would. So while bagels, like most breads, are tastier when enhanced with fatty spreads or toppings, they’re not bad plain. I suspect that’s also why the Jewish bagel is traditionally shaped into a smooth round whereas obwarzanek look like they’re usually twisted and supposedly do stale quickly:

On leaving the oven the baked goods have a sell-by date of about three hours. As such, finding a hot one is essential. Enjoyed by people of all ages, obwarzanki also feed Kraków’s entire pigeon population when in the evenings the city’s 170-180 obwarzanki carts essentially become bird-food vendors.

Of course, soft pretzels also have a smooth crust that protects the soft interior and makes them tasty with or without added fats, but the pretzel was never associated with Jewishness. The popularity of bagels in America and canonization of the “New York bagel” has everything to do with Jewishness. According to We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans by University of Minnesota historian Donna Gabaccia:

It is true that in the 1890s in the United States only Jews from Eastern Europe ate bagels. In thousands of nondescript bakeries—including the one founded in New Haven around 1926 by Harry Lender from Lublin, Poland—Jewish bakers sold bagels to Jewish consumers. The bagel was not a central culinary icon for Jewish immigrants; even before Polish and Russian Jews left their ethnic enclaves or ghettoes, their memories exalted gefilte fish and chicken soup prepared by their mothers, but not the humble, hard rolls purchased from the immigrant baker. As eaters, Jewish immigrants were initially far more concerned with the purity of their kosher meat, their challah, and their matzos, and with the satisfactions of their sabbath and holiday meals, than with their morning hard roll….

They became firmly identified as “Jewish” only as Jewish bakers began selling them to their multi-ethnic urban neighbors. When bagels emerged from ghetto stores as a Jewish novelty, bagels with cream cheese [which, as she elsewhere notes, was initially developed by English Quakers in the Delaware Valley and Philadelphia in the eighteenth century] quickly became a staple of the multi-ethnic mix that in this century became known as “New York deli,” and was marketed and mass-produced throughout the country under this new regional identity.

As she also notes, in Israel bagels are considered “American” not Jewish. However, their widespread association with Jewishness in the U.S.—both as a marketing tool and as the basis of legit cultural practice and memory—puts greater demands on bagels and bagel bakers to legitimate their authenticity and historicity. Whether it was a continuation of the pre-18th C. practice of using malt extract in many breads to speed up yeast action or a a re-introduction of the ingredient from some centuries-old bagel recipes, using malt extract has become one way for people to differentiate their bagels and lay claim to greater “authenticity.” 

Making Your Own

Authentic or not, this recipe is delicious and fairly easy. Like most yeast breads, it takes time, but not a lot of active time. You can use any combination of flours you want, but if you want a really chewy crust and crumb, you will need a high proportion of protein. Some recipes suggest “high-gluten” bread flour, which has an even higher percentage of protein than bread flour. King Arthur claims their “Sir Lancelot” flour is the highest-protein flour currently available for retail sale at 14.2% protein. I just used regular bread flour (10-12% protein), whole wheat bread flour (up to 14% protein, although the additional fiber seems to limit gluten action which is also why I didn’t make them with 100% whole wheat flour), and added approximately 1 T. vital wheat gluten per cup of flour (including the flour in the starter). Even if you just used all-purpose flour, they would probably still be good, just less chewy.

You can add more of any kind of sugar or whatever else you might want in them—dried fruits, nuts, chocolate chips, chopped spinach, grated cheeses, etc. And you can top them however you like—I used kosher salt for some, sesame seeds for some, and a combination of bits of fried garlic, fried shallot, black sesame seeds, and kosher salt, kind of like one version of an “everything” bagel. I think they’re best fresh out of the oven, slathered with butter, but true to form, they’re also good plain (and easy to stow in a bag for a convenient snack) and on days 2 and 3, they’re great toasted.

 and all the delicious bits that fall off can be pressed into the soft side 

Recipe: Sourdough-Risen Bagels (to substitute instant yeast see this entry)

  • 2 cups refreshed starter (450g)
  • 3 1/4 cups flour with 12-14%-protein (550g) I used:
    • 4 T. vital wheat gluten (50g)
    • 1 1/2 cups whole wheat bread flour (250g)
    • 1 1/2 cups bread flour (250g)
  • 4 t malt extract (20g)—optional
  • 2 t kosher salt (15g)
  • 3/4 cup water (170g)
  • 3 T oil (35g)
  • 1 T maple syrup (20g)
  • toppings—sesame or poppy seeds, salt, fried garlic or shallots, finely grated hard cheeses, etc.
  • 1 tsp. baking soda (for poaching water, not for dough)

1. Whisk together flours, gluten, and malt extract if using. Add starter, water, salt, oil, and maple syrup.

incredients combined enough of a dough to begin kneading

2. Mix until they begin to form a dough. Turn onto a lightly floured surface and knead for about 15 minutes. If you have a mixer or processer with a dough hook, you can use it for this step. Gluten development is pretty important if you want chewy bagels, so it’s worth checking for the baker’s windowpane.

after 12 minutes of kneading, close but not quite after 15 minutes, it's smoother and stretchier

3. Cover and let rise 3-4 hours, or until doubled. You can let it rise longer and nothing bad will happen, although the sour flavor will become more pronounced over time, and positively sourdough-like after 12-15 hours. You can significantly retard the rise by refrigerating the dough.

bagels 035 bagels 036

4. Divide the dough into 8-12 equal pieces. If you want to be especially particular, use a scale. Eight will be ~155g each, ten will be ~125g each (the size I made), twelve will be ~105g each. Shape them either by poking a hole in the middle of a round and stretching it out or rolling the dough into a rope 9-12 inches long, and pinching the ends together. In my experience, the latter makes for a slightly more consistent thickness.

the poking method the rope method two lumpier ones on the top right were shaped by stretching a hole, the others were all made with the rope method

5. Let rise another 3 hours (30-45 min. if using instant yeast) or cover and refrigerate overnight or up to a week, and remove 1 hour before you’re ready to bake to let them come back to room temperature (so if you want fresh bagels in the morning, you need to make the dough by the afternoon before).

6. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 400F, boil a large pot of water with 1 tsp. baking soda dissolved in it, and put a couple tablespoons of any toppings you want into bowls.

clocwise from the top left: kosher salt, "everything" mix of fried garlic and shallot and black sesame seeds and salt, and plain roasted sesame seeds

7. When the water is boiling, carefully place 2-3 bagels at a time (more if the pot is large enoguh that more can float in the pot without touching) and poach them for 1 minute on each side. Remove them to a colander and then, while they’re still wet, place them in one of the bowls of toppings.

poaching side 1 poaching side 2 collecting toppings

ready to bake 

8. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until browned. Rotate pans half-way through if your oven is uneven.

Fun With Etymology

Leo Rosten’s Joys of Yiddish (1968) says the origin is “beugel,” the German word for “a round loaf of bread,” although it’s a little perplexing why that would have been used to describe a bread that, unlike the ubiquitous round loaf, is ring-shaped. And also, Wiktionary is all “beugel? I don’t know no beugel.”

Several sources, including a 1993 New York Times article and a 2006 book titled Bakery Products: Science and Technology, refer to a popular myth that bagels were invented by Jewish bakers in Vienna as a tribute either King John (Jan) III Sobieski or a King Jan (John) Cobleskill of Poland after he saved the city from Turkish invaders in 1683. The King’s favorite hobby was horse riding, so they shaped the rolls like stirrups, the German word for which is “bugel” (the Austrian word is “beugel” which may be the origin of the first faux-etymology). However, a letter to the editor demanded that “that piece of fakelore be laid to rest,” noting that Yiddish word “beygl” appears in the communal rules promulgated by the leaders of the Cracow Jewish community in 1610: “The rules stipulate that bagels are among the gifts which may be given to women in childbirth and to midwives.” Furthermore, the word appears in the rules without any definition or explanation, suggesting that it was already well-established by the early 17th C.

Two that seem more likely: According to, the Oxford Companion to Food (1999) says the word comes from “bugel,” not the German word for stirrup, but the Middle High German word for “ring or bracelet.” And in Jewish Cooking in America (1994), Joan Nathan claims that the word derives from “biegen,” the verb meaning “to bend.” Both “bugel” and “beigen” are derived from the Old High German “biogan,” meaning to bow, bend, or curve and the related root “boug-,” which in turn is descended from the Proto-Germanic “beugan” (which, incidentally, also gives us the Old English root “beag” or “beah” which also refers to a ring—“usually meant for the arm or neck; but in one case at least used of a finger ring” OED). So that Germanic root for all things bendy and ring-like is likely the origin of the Yiddish word that was in wide use in Poland by 1610.

Restaurants of New York: Stop Serving Assemblyman Felix Ortiz Food Prepared With Salt In Any Form

My sincere apologies to any lookalikes. Perhaps you could go moustache-less for a while? No salt for you!

Just over a week ago, a New York state assemblyman from Brooklyn named Felix Ortiz proposed a bill that would prohibit “the use of salt in any form in the preparation of any food for consumption” with penalties of “not more than one thousand dollars for each violation.” Presumably that wouldn’t prevent restaurants from providing salt for customers to add at their own discretion, but the bill offers no further details about what would and wouldn’t be considered a “violation” of the law or what is and isn’t included in the definition of “salt in any form”: see the full text here (hat tip: Reason).

Surely table salt (NaCl) would count, but what about any of the other edible ionic compounds that are chemically considered to be salts, like MSG (a sodium salt with the molecular formula C5H8NNaO4) or cream of tartar (a potassium acid salt with the formula KC4H5O6)? What about salty condiments like soy sauce, fish sauce, and ketchup? Would a restaurant that serves a ketchup-topped meatloaf have to forego the salt in the loaf mixture but still be able to slather ketchup on top (if so, why wouldn’t they just start adding ketchup to the mix as well, and finding ways to incorporate condensed soups and bouillon into dozens of other things that don’t already have them)? Or would they have to find or make their own salt-free ketchup—obviously a much larger burden on some kinds of restaurants? Even if it could make you live forever, would it be worth it?What about all the other prepared foods that already include salt and get used as ingredients in the preparation of other foods? Would Momofuku Milk Bar be banned from serving its famous compost cookies, which call for the addition of two “snack foods” like potato chips and salted pretzels?

House-baked, cured, and brined things would clearly suffer most from a law like this. It’s one thing to have to salt a soup or curry or burger at the table, but everything from deli pickles and salami to homemade cinnamon rolls and pie crusts would become completely unpalatable, if not impossible, without salt. When questioned by the Albany Times Union about salt-cured meats and pickles:

Ortiz didn’t have answers, saying repeatedly, "This all needs to be debated."

Of course, it’s probably not worth worrying about the ramifications of a bill that I can’t imagine has any chance of passing. Even the NYTimes has backed down from their initial, crazypants coverage of the recent NEJM study that claimed a small reduction in sodium consumption would save 44,000 lives a year—which is exactly the sort of statistic that gives legs to hysterical nutritional crusades (hysterical both in the funny-ha-ha sense and in the wandering-uterus-induced-insanity sense). The best example of that phenomenon is probably the equally batshit claim that obesity causes 300,000 deaths per year, but even anti-obesity crusaders have struggled to get far less aggressive measures passed, like the mandatory inclusion of calorie counts on fast food menus (which, incidentally, do not seem to reliably reduce how many calories people purchase).

Ortiz’s bill is actually so preposterous and so much more aggressive than the other recent proposals for reducing salt consumption, like the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s campaign to persuade food manufacturers to reduce the salt content of processed food by 40 percent over the next 10 years, that I initially thought it might be a sort of “straw man” bill designed by restaurateurs and/or salt-reform-skeptics to win people over by making salt reform seem even crazier than it actually is. But according to Ortiz, it was actually inspired by his father’s death:

He said he was prompted to introduce the bill because his father used salt excessively for many years, developed high blood pressure and had a heart attack (Albany Times Union).

Pity his father’s heart attack couldn’t be attributed to excessive exposure to creepy moustaches.

I've been trying to come up with equivalents and most of them end up being alcoholic: "As much as gin loves olives," "As much as tequila loves lime." There are so few other set-in-stone pairings. "As much as manchego loves quince"? "As much as rich gravies and stews love just a little bit of acid"? Ortiz’s salt-banning tribute to his dad is sort of like an inversion of the stories about filial love and salt that show up in traditional folklore of many different cultures from England to Central Europe to the Himalayan foothills. Many of them begin with a Lear-like scenario where a King or a nobleman in the unfortunate situation of having three daughters in a patriarchal society demands professions of love from each of them to help him decide how to divide his kingdom or estate between them (or, more accurately, their husbands). The elder daughters supply all the hyperbolic declarations of love you’d expect from adult children trying to protect their inheritance, although we’re meant to understand that they’re duplicitous opportunists who love their father’s money and power more than they love him. The youngest, who really loves him, says that she loves her father either as much as she loves salt or “as much as meat loves salt."

The King balks at being equated with a lowly condiment and banishes her for her seemingly insufficient devotion. Then, one of two things usually happens: either her departure magically causes salt to stop coming into the kingdom, their supplies begin to dwindle and people begin to sicken and die until the daughter returns and feeds her ailing father a nourishing, salty broth or bit of bread spread with butter and sprinkled with salt and he realizes that she was the one who loved him best of all OR someone arranges to have a feast prepared without salt, and as course after course comes out of the kitchen completely inedible, the King realizes his error and welcomes his daughter back. In Ortiz’s case, it’s the father who loves salt too much and the son who doesn’t realize its value.

The crux of the trope is that it’s only after people are deprived of salt that they realize how important it is to their happiness, and everyone gets to live happily ever after. In the English version called “Cap o’Rushes,” after the Lear bit, the story proceeds basically like the Grimm brothers’ “Allerleiruah” or “All-Kinds-of-Fur.” After banished from her father’s house, the daughter disguises herself in a cloak of rushes and becomes a servant in another nobleman’s home. He happens to have a son of marrying age so there are series of wife-seeking balls, Cinderella-style, and she’s the mysterious girl who steals his heart and disappears, though Cap o’Rushes manages to hang onto her shoes. Instead, the prince-figure gives her a ring, and when he falls into a deep depression because he doesn’t know how to find her, she prepares a stew or some gruel for him and slips the ring into it. Her identity is revealed and he proposes—and the interesting part is that the story doesn’t end there the way it normally would, not just in fairytales but in most English bildungsroman involving female protagonists until the 20th C. Boys become men and get jobs; girls become women and get married, The End. But in “Cap o’Rushes,” the resolution is about the salt as much as the marriage. The girl’s father is invited to the wedding, and she instructs the cooks to prepare her wedding feast without a grain of salt. By the last course, the man bursts into tears, finally realizing how much the daughter he sent away really loved him. The bride comes to his side, he recognizes her, she forgives him, and that’s what makes people happy ever after.

So here’s my proposal: if Felix Ortiz really wants restaurants to stop serving food prepared with salt “in any form,” I think that’s precisely what they should give him, but only him. I suppose, like the bill, what “in any form” means should be left up to the restaurants themselves, but I would encourage them to take a broad interpretation in case that’s how the court would chose to interpret it. Probably none of whatever the nibbles in the lower right corner are, either. Catering counts as restaurant-prepared food, too.So, no soy sauce or MSG, although I suppose we can let non-sodium salts like cream of tartar slide. But definitely no ham, bacon, salami, pepperoni, mortadella, corned beef, pickles, or kippered herring. No meats that have been brined, rubbed with salt, or dipped in a salted batter before cooking—let him taste what fried chicken and blackened fish are like without salt, what pulled pork is like without salt in the dry rub, and what roast chicken is like without any salt rubbed under the skin. No Chinese-style tofu (silken tofu, which is often made from soy milk coagulated with acid instead of salt could theoretically be okay, but be sure to check the label). No ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, salad dressing, or cheese unless they’re house-made and can be made without salt. The same goes for pasta, bread, pastries, and puddings. No salt in the patty of any burger or in eggs cooked any style. No packaged potato or corn chips, pretzels, crackers, or cookies. No soups made with bouillon, no canned tomatoes. He can have them at home, but not at any establishment that would be covered by the ban.

If he goes to a noodle bar for ramen, he should be served a bowl of unsalted noodles in a salt-less broth with unsalted toppings. If he orders a BLT, he can have salt-free bread with lettuce, tomato, and salt-less mayonnaise—if there’s no salt-free bread or mayonnaise available, just the lettuce and tomato. Let him try salting cheesecake, ice cream, caramels, cookies, and croissants to taste at the table with a salt shaker. I don’t expect him to burst into sobs in the manner of Cap o’Rushes father, but we’ll just see how long it takes before he reconsiders the wisdom of banishing salt from the kitchens of New York.

Polenta with Cinnamon-Orange Prune Compote

I decided "Pruney Polenta Porridge" was a little too Precious

The Michigan weather gods have been teasing us with a premature Spring, which is glorious in the way that 50-degree sun can only be north of the 40th parallel. But I know it’s not going to last. Californians might be able to look forward to the first asparagus this month and fresh peas not long after, but here the only things “in season” for months to come are kale and cabbage and trucked-in citrus. So here’s one of my favorite winter porridges, adapted from World’s Healthiest Foods. The polenta offers a nice change of pace from oats and simmering the prunes in orange juice and cinnamon until the sugars begin to caramelize makes a tart, spiced topping that’s both sunny and comforting on cold winter mornings, which I’m sure we still have a few of to look forward to.

And no, before noon, I do not grate my own cinnamon. Don't let that stop you, though. It’s remarkably quick and easy to throw together, largely thanks to the instant polenta. I just toss the prunes, orange juice, and cinnamon in a small saucepan set on high heat and a minute or two after I’m done microwaving the polenta, the compote is ready. If you’re more ambitious than I usually am before noon, you could use regular polenta. Russ Parson wrote recently about a stir-and-bake method method that supposedly produces the “deep, toasted corn flavor of a true long-stirred polenta” without the long-stirring. But instant polenta is a far cry better than instant oatmeal, and for a simple, hot breakfast cereal, it does well enough for me.

The recipe is also endlessly adaptable—you can use different juices, spices, fruits, and/or nuts. The original recipe includes apricots, and I throw them in when I have them on hand. I love  cardamom and almonds in place of the cinnamon and walnuts. Dried blueberries and cherries with nutmeg would probably also be great. Milk of any kind—cow, soy, almond, coconut—can be used instead of the water to make a richer polenta. If you were really hurting for summer, you could make a tropical version by doing one or more of the following: cooking the polenta in coconut milk, topping it with pieces of dried mango and papaya simmered in guava juice with allspice and a piece of fresh (or pinch of powdered) ginger, sprinkling it with shredded coconut and macadamia nuts.

But this is how I usually do it:

Recipe: Polenta with Cinnamon-Orange Prune Compote

  • 4 T. instant polenta
  • 1 cup water
  • pinch of salt
  • 1/2 cup orange juice
  • 5-6 prunes
  • generous pinch ground cinnamon
  • small handful of chopped walnuts
  • 1 T. honey (optional)

    a little blurry from the steam

1. In a saucepan, heat the orange juice, prunes, cinnamon, and honey over medium-high heat.

2. Combine the polenta, water, and salt in a bowl and microwave on high for 30-second intervals, stirring in between, until thickened (about 2 minutes).

3. When the juice has reduced to a sauce and is beginning to caramelize and the prunes are softened, pour it over the cooked polenta.

4. Scatter walnuts over the top.

April still can't come soon enough

Don’t Drink the Agave-Sweetened Kool-Aid Part II: What’s Wrong With Any High-Fructose Syrup

Who knew agaves grew in so many different flavors?

In the first post on agave nectar, I focused primarily on why it’s no more “natural” than high-fructose corn syrup, which is a delicious irony given how both sweeteners tend to be portrayed. But that isn’t necessarily a reason to avoid agave nectar. “Natural” is at best an imperfect heuristic for healthiness or environmental friendliness, and has no inherent relationship with deliciousness. But, as I also suggested in the first post, agave nectar is certainly no better health-wise than other sources of sugar, and the fact that it’s much higher in fructose than most sweeteners (70-90% vs. ~50%) gives me reason to believe it may actually be worse for your health than sucrose or HFCS-55.

So Don’t Drink the Agave-Sweetened Ketchup Either. Because That Would Be Gross.GRANOLA-WASHING

Perhaps the most baffling thing is how many people seem to think agave nectar doesn’t count as sugar. For example, the rave review of Wholemato Organic Agave Ketchup in Men’s Health, contrasts it with the “liquid candy” that is HFCS. And then implies that the even-higher-fructose agave-sweetened condiment is healthier than “fatty” butter (it’s like someone at Men’s Health was specifically trying to give me apoplectic fits): 

This ketchup forgoes the high-fructose corn syrup and uses agave nectar, preserving sweetness without clobbering your fries or hot dog with liquid candy…. Slather it on your sweet potatoes as an alternative to a fatty slab o’ butter.

Note: The review is only available on the Wholemato site because the “read more” link is broken, but I’m not inclined to think it’s a fabrication as the other links on their “buzz” page are legit and you can find nearly-identical, equally-apoplexy-inducing claims about Wholemato Ketchup at The Kitch’n, Girlawhirl, i like granola, and Well Fed Man, among others.

There are also people who claim to have given up sugar, but who still eat agave nectar. Some excerpts from the comment thread on Nicole MacDonald’s resolution to give up sugar in 2010:

Jennifer: I went sugar-free at 16 to help my psoriasis & still don’t have it, 8 years later .
I don’t miss it at all. If I want to make a cake or anything I will use agave nectar … you realise there are so many interesting & alive foods out there you can enjoy without compromising your health!! xx

Nicole: I have to admit that in the first few weeks I baked a lot using ingredients like honey, agave and brown rice syrup. Cookies are my favorite to make, and I have a long list of recipes on my blog to the right. I also drank a lot of flavored tea with honey added and that seemed to cure some of my cravings.

Beth: I stopped eating sugar last year and its worked out pretty well. As long as I can have natural sugars which are found in fruits, then I’m totally satisfied.

Not All Things That Occur Naturally In Fruit Should Be Consumed In Quantity. Like Cyanide.

Beth is certainly not alone in thinking that “sugars which are found in fruits” are healthier than other sugars. People are frequently resistant to the idea that fructose might be unhealthy because, as the name so conveniently reminds them, it’s found in fruit. Or, if they’ve been sold on the idea that HFCS is poison and fructose has something to do with that, they sometimes suggest that there must be different kinds of fructose. Take, for example, the comment by Dave on this post by ThursdaysGirl, which expressed some reservations about agave nectar:

[. . .] you say Agave is 70% fructose, ok, so that means that means a teaspoon of Agave (about 4 grams) has about 2.8 grams of fructose… Hmmm, a small tomato has about 2.6 grams of fructose in it, the same as a carrot!… so, by your ridiculous logic, you should run away from tomatoes and carrots as fast and as far as you can! OMG, never eat another tomato! And don’t even get me started on Apples!

Remember, HFCS, regardless of what the lying chemists say, is not a natural source of Fructose. It is a man made molecule. It is illegal to call High Fructose Corn Syrup “All Natural”. I wonder why… Agave can be found both All Natural and Organic!!! Small amounts of Fructose actually help metabolize Glucose better, plus its low glycemic, has natural inulin fiber which is amazingly beneficial [. . . .]

I would trust the Mayo Clinics recommendations as regards to High Fructose Corn Syrup… it is poison. But really, Apples, Carrots, Tomatoes etc all bad for you? Stop it.

It’s actually not illegal to call HFCS “natural.” The FDA has been notoriously unwilling to define “natural” aside from the essentially meaningless distinction between “artificial” and “natural” colors and flavors—which Eric Schlosser talks about extensively in Fast Food Nation (pp. 121-131). As of July 2008, HFCS is “natural” for the purposes of food labeling. You can read all about the ongoing legal debates here. However, that hasn’t stopped people from trying to differentiate “natural” fructose, like the stuff in fruit, from “chemically-produced” fructose, like the stuff in HFCS. The problem is that they can’t seem to agree which side the fructose in agave nectar is on.

As you might expect, the agavevangelists are on the side of “natural.” According to Kalyn’s Kitchen Picks :

It’s been a long time since I discovered a new product that rocked my world in the way agave nectar has done…. The sweet taste in agave nectar comes from natural fructose, the same sweetener found in fruit (not to be confused with high fructose corn syrup which has chemically produced fructose.)

On the other side, there’s Rami Nagel, whose Natural News article been widelycirculated and cited by people on both sides of the agave nectar debate. According to Nagel, agave nectar is composed of bad, man-made “fructose,” which he claims actually has a completely different chemical formula from the sugar in fruit, which he calls “levulose”:

We all know that the chemical formula for water is H2O: two hydrogens and one oxygen. The opposite would be O2H, which is nothing close to water. Likewise, man-made fructose would have to have the chemical formula changed for it to be levulose, so it is not levulose. Saying fructose is levulose is like saying that margarine is the same as butter. Refined fructose lacks amino acids, vitamins, minerals, pectin, and fiber. As a result, the body doesn’t recognize refined fructose. Levulose, on the other hand, is naturally occurring in fruits, and is not isolated but bound to other naturally occurring sugars. Unlike man-made fructose, levulose contains enzymes, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and fruit pectin. (Similar claims here and here)

However, levulose is just an alternate name for fructose. A search for “levulose” on Wikipedia automatically redirects to their fructose entry. ChemBlink claims they’re synonyms with the exact same molecular formula and structure:

levulose/fructose...not quite as catchy as tomayto/tomahto 

And even the earliest examples from the OED reveal that the terms are completely interchangeable: 

1897 Allbutt’s Syst. Med. III. 386 Cane sugar is partly left unchanged, partly converted into glucose and lævulose. 1902 Encycl. Brit. XXII. 721/1 Glucose and fructose (lævulose)the two isomeric hexases of the formula C6H12O6 which are formed on hydrolysing cane sugar.

With “levulose” eventually giving way to “fructose” by the the 1970s:

1974 Nature 10 May 194/3 Although it is true that some bacteriologists are extremely conservative in the names they use for carbohydrates, surely nobody now uses ‘levulose’…in preference to ‘fructose’ these days.

A PubMed search for “levulose” also turned up 30,398 articles about (surprise!) fructose. The twenty articles that actually had “levulose” in the title were almost all translations, mostly from German.

So no, there is no difference between “naturally occurring” and “chemically-produced” fructose (and if the fructose in HFCS is the latter, so is the fructose in agave). Nonetheless, Dave and Rami Nagel are both at least partially correct. Fructose/levulose may not contain enzymes, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and fruit pectin, but the fruits that contain levulose/fructose certainly do. And there’s no reason to believe that eating a small amount of agave nectar, say a teaspoon, with similar amounts of fiber, protein, and other nutrients as would be found in a tomato or carrot would have a different or worse effect on the body than the vegetables themselves.

Fructose and Your Liver

Just because fructose isn’t necessarily bad for you in the amounts present in most fruits and vegetables, that doesn’t mean it’s a healthier substitution for other sugars. The evidence from studies on humans is still pretty scant. However, in a 2008 study where 23 subjects got 25% of their caloric intake from either fructose-sweetened or glucose-sweetened beverages for 10 weeks, the subjects who drank the fructose-sweetened drinks showed signs of decreased insulin sensitivity (a sign of diabetes) and increased fat in their abdominal regions, especially around their heart and liver, which is associated with cardiovascular disease (here’s the study itself or a translation from WebMD).

We’ve known for over 50 years that fructose is metabolized differently than glucose. Once it enters the body, it’s taken up by the liver, so it doesn’t raise blood sugar levels as much as glucose. It bypasses the step that insulin regulates, so diabetics can digest fructose about as well as non-diabetics. Which initially sounds good, especially for diabetics; however, more recently, fructose has been shown to have the same effects as alcohol on the liver:

I won't pretend to understand everything that's going on here, except that it illustrates the various processes and feedback mechanisms that cause fatty liver disease. From “Fructose Takes a Toll” in the August 2009 Hepatology (login required)

As a recent article in Physiological Review notes:

Fructose was initially thought to be advisable for patients with diabetes due to its low glycemic index. However, chronically high consumption of fructose in rodents leads to hepatic and extrahepatic insulin resistance, obesity, type 2 diabetes mellitus, and high blood pressure. The evidence is less compelling in humans, but high fructose intake has indeed been shown to cause dyslipidemia and to impair hepatic insulin sensitivity.

So while probably harmless in small amounts, it’s certainly not a “healthy” sugar or a free pass to eat sweet things without potential/likely health consequences.

I’ll do a follow-up eventually about the claim that you can use less of it because it’s sweeter. There are lots of conflicting claims about how much sweeter it is and how much less of it you use that I’m still trying to sort out. So far, I’m not at all convinced that the small caloric benefit is a reasonable trade-off for the risks of increased fructose consumption. I’ll also address one final defense: at least in some applications and to some palates, agave nectar may taste better. I admit to being a little skeptical, but a friend has promised to arrange a blind taste-test of mint juleps made with agave nectar, simple syrup, and a 50-50 agave nectar/brown rice syrup blend. That won’t happen until the national day of mint julep drinking, which falls on May 1, 2010 this year. So, until then, I’m going to take a little break from reading and writing about agave nectar.

Cheddar-garlic Biscuits: In Defense of Garlic Powder

Lobster not included 

I have been carefully trained to look upon garlic powder with great disdain.

S.J. Sebellin-Ross

At the third Ann Arbor Ignite last Thursday, the audience cheered and applauded when the last speaker exhorted us to use fresh garlic instead of dried or powdered (about 41:40 here). And sure, in a recipe like the bolognese he was describing, I’d probably use fresh garlic, too, but that’s hardly a reason to cheer. The crowd’s reaction instead seemed symptomatic of the emblematic status fresh garlic has achieved. Its superiority has become one of the central commandments of the “food revolution,” and no wonder, it hits all the right notes: seems more “natural” and more “authentic,” supposedly better-tasting, and possibly healthier (although, as that site notes, it’s possible to dehydrate garlic without deactivating the enzymes with therapeutic value, which cooking can destroy). It also has the added bonus of a built-in villain in the form of its dehydrated, powdered counterpart, which for many people is associated with the industrial food system, bland mid-century midwestern cooking, and laziness.if you're afraid of losing foodie cred, click on the picture for instructions on how to make your own powdered garlic (assuming you have a dehydrator) from The Deliberate Agrarian

But aside from being slightly more convenient for busy or novice cooks, garlic powder really works better for numerous applications—it dissolves in dips and gravies, it keeps dry rubs dry, and it can be sprinkled to taste on popcorn or pizza or whisked into the dry ingredients of any bread recipe. Instead of thinking of it as a bad substitute for the fresh stuff, I prefer to think of it as a pedestrian version of the powders made by bleeding-edge chefs like Alinea’s Grant Achatz and WD-50’s Wylie Dufresne. Sure, they often taste different than the non-powdered versions, but they open up a whole array of different uses. Of course, you could make biscuits with a garlic-infused fat or stud the dough with chunks of raw or roasted garlic, but neither of those options is going to give you the same intensity of flavor or evenness of distribution as garlic powder. And these biscuits definitely challenge the notion that powdered garlic can’t be delicious.

Most recipes for cheddargarlic biscuits, even Paula Deen’s, simply suggest adding garlic powder and grated cheddar to a baking mix like Bisquick. That would probably be pretty good too, but I don’t have enough uses for Bisquick to keep it around (especially given that rumors about toxic molds developing in expired pancake and biscuit mixes turn out to be true, if somewhat overblown). So instead, I added garlic powder and grated cheddar to the recipe I use for rich, buttery biscuits. The recipe has a higher proportion of fat : flour than most baking powder biscuit recipes, so it makes biscuits that are rich enough to eat plain (and too rich to make a very good vehicle for gravy or butter). Whatever fat you use, it must be solid so chunks of it will remain in the dough. Those chunks melt during baking to create the flaky layers. Lard or shortening work slightly better than butter or margarine because they don’t contain water. However, butter is delicious, so I used half butter and half lard. If you don’t eat butter or lard, margarine or vegetable oil shortening should work equally well (although if you’re avoiding trans-fats, you should stick to ones composed largely of palm oil or produced by fractionation).

Recipe: Cheddar-garlic Biscuitsfats cut into pieces before chilling

  • 1/2 cup solid fat—I used 4 T. butter and 4 T. lard
  • 9 oz. all-purpose or cake flour (about 2 cups)—I used bread flour with 2 T. replaced by cornstarch
  • 2 1/2 t. baking powder
  • 1/2 t. baking soda
  • 1 t. kosher salt
  • 1 pinch sugar
  • 1 1/2 t. powdered garlic
  • 1 T. dried parsley and/or chives (optional)
  • 4 oz. grated sharp cheddar (about 1 cup)
  • 3/4 cup buttermilk (or regular milk soured with 1 T. lemon juice)
  • extra flour for dusting
  • extra milk for brushing biscuit tops

1. Preheat the oven to 500F. Cut the fat into pieces and chill while you prep the remaining ingredients.

2. Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, sugar, garlic, and herbs if using.

3. Toss the chilled pieces of fat with the flour and and combine them with a pastry cutter, crisscrossing knives, a food processor, or your bare hands—just don’t melt the bits of fat. You want the largest pieces of fat to be about the size of small peas.

Criss-crossing knives = less dishwashing even if it takes a little longer than the food processor. My hands tend to be too warm for the bare hands method. Just a minute or two later: big chunks of fat remaining, but fat relatively well distributed throughout the flour

4. Mix in the grated cheddar and the buttermilk or milk. Stir just until most of the flour is moistened—you don’t want gluten to form so the goal is to handle the dough as little as possible once you’ve combined the wet and dry ingredients.

the sharper the cutter, the less it will squish the edges, which can prevent rising brushing with milk isn't strictly necessary, but it does promote nice browning

5. Dust a table or countertop with flour, dump the dough onto it and press or knead together just enough to form a dough. Flatten the dough to between 1/2” and 1” thick and cut desired shapes—if you don’t have a biscuit cutter, a glass or empty jar will work, or you can just cut the dough into squares or triangles.

6. Place on an baking sheet (ungreased) and brush the tops with buttermilk. Place in preheated oven, and reduce the oven temperature to 450F and bake for 7 minutes. Rotate the baking sheet and bake another 5-7 minutes, or until the biscuits are golden brown.

neglected, sprouting rutabega in the background warm, garlicky, cheese-studded biscuits. kind of hard to beat.

Don’t Drink the Agave-Sweetened Kool-Aid Part I: “Natural” my foot

UGH the subtitle. I really want Ms. Catalano to show me exactly where in "nature" she gets her agave nectar. Also, I find the use of "ultimate" to mean "exemplary" or "best" instead of "final" or "last" grating, but that's a petty battle against usage change that "Ultimate Frisbee" has clearly already won. Still, I like to think of it as "Frisbee for the End Days" Just as "wholesome" as any other hydrolyzed, refined sweetener. If you've been snarky about the Corn Refiners' Assn's recent "Sweet Surprise" marketing campaign, but have a bottle that looks like this in your cupboard, I have some delicious all-natural snake oil to sell you, good sir or madam.

This entry was nearly titled “Things That Might Not Kill You In Moderation But Certainly Won’t Make You Any Healthier Vol. I,” or “Hydrolyzed, Refined Sweeteners Masquerading as ‘Natural,’ Whole Foods,” but those seemed a little unwieldy. They do, however, capture the essence of the argument: agave is nutritionally no better than most other refined sweeteners, including high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). If anything, it’s probably worse because it contains more fructose than table sugar or HFCS. It’s also no more or less “natural” than HFCS—it’s actually produced in a remarkably similar process that was first used on the fibrous pulp of the agave in the 1990s. While, as its proponents claim, the higher proportion of fructose has enabled people to call it a “low glycemic index sweetener,” sometimes alleged to be safer for diabetics and recommended by weight-loss programs like Weight Watchers, recent research suggests that large amounts of fructose aren’t healthy for anyone, diabetic or otherwise.

I mentioned agave nectar in passing in the HFCS post, but there’s enough conflicting information about it to merit its own post(s). A lot of the misinformation comes from agavevangelists, who can sometimes get a little sanctimonious about their avoidance of the demon HFCS and preference for “natural” sweeteners. Even this Vegfamily article that concludes “the physiological effects of all [caloric] sweeteners are similar” nonetheless claims:

Given the choice between sugar, HFCS, and agave nectar, I’ll stick with organically-grown, unbleached cane sugar (evaporated cane juice) and organic raw agave nectar that are free of pesticides, herbicides, and chemical bleaching agents; not genetically engineered; and still retains some nutrients, as well as being vegan. Since HFCS is not available in organic form and is highly processed, I would never use it.

But agave nectar is just as processed as HFCS.

HFCS and Agave Nectar: One of These Things is Not Almost Exactly Like The Other

1910 magazine advertisement from Like most starches, corn starch consists of large glucose polymers—70-80% the branched, non-water soluble amylopectin and 20-30% linear, soluble amylose. Normal or non-HFCS corn syrup, like Karo, is produced by breaking those polymers down into their constituent glucose molecules using acids, enzymes, and/or heat. For the history buffs: the acid hydrolysis of starch was first discovered because of the 1806 British blockade of the French West Indies. Napoleon I offered a cash reward for anyone who could come up with a replacement for cane sugar, and a Russian chemist named Konstantin Kirchhof found he could produce a sweet syrup from potato starch by adding sulfuric acid. The same process was first applied to corn in the mid-1860s, and gained popularity in the U.S. during the sugar shortages of WWI (source: The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America).

HFCS is produced by converting the glucose into fructose using an enzyme technology developed in Japan in the 1960s (detailed here). The resulting syrup, which contains up to 90% fructose, is then typically mixed with corn-based glucose syrup to produce HFCS-55 (the kind used in soft drinks, which has 55% fructose/45% glucose) or HFCS-45 (the kind used in baked goods, which has 45% fructose/55% glucose). Some people, like Cynthia commenting on Daily Candor, have suggested that the fructose and glucose in HFCS are absorbed into the bloodstream faster because they’re “free" instead of bound the way they are in the disacccharide sucrose, which is broken into glucose and fructose by the enzyme sucrase. Theoretically plausible, but apparently not true:

Sucrose is hydrolysed by brush-border sucrase into glucose and fructose.
The rate of absorption is identical, regardless of whether the sugar is presented to the mucosa as the disaccharide or the component monosaccharides (Gray & Ingelfinger, I 966, cited by H. B. McMichael in “Intestinal absorption of carbohydrates in man”).

I'm going to start refering to packaging like this as granola-washingJust like HFCS, agave nectar is produced by breaking down a plant-based polymer into its constituent sugars. In the case of agave, the relevant molecule is inulin, a fiber composed mostly of fructose units with a terminal glucose. Just like with corn and potato starch, there are different methods of hydrolyzing the sugars in inulin.  Blue Agave Nectar uses a thermic process. Madhava uses an enzyme process, just like HFCS.

Agavevangelists like to claim that agave nectar is a traditional sweetener used by native peoples, which appeals to the popular notion that the foodways of the past were generally healthier (e.g. Michael Pollan’s advice not to eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food). Some, like Lynn Stephens of Shake Off the Sugar, merely note that the agave plant itself “has long been cultivated in hilly, semi-arid soils of Mexico.” That’s true, although it’s about as relevant as the long history of corn cultivation. Others claim that agave nectar itself has an ancient history. Flickr user Health Guy says of agave nectar: “It is 1-1/4 times sweeter than sugar, so you need less, and it has been consumed by ancient civilizations for over 5,000 years.”

Wrong. According to the website for Madhava Honey:

Agave nectar is a newly created sweetener, having been developed during the 1990’s. Originally, the blue agave variety was used. This is the same plant used in the manufacture of tequila. During the late 90’s, a shortage of blue agave resulted in huge increases in cost and a sweetener based on this plant became uneconomical. Further research was done and a method using wild agave was developed. Overcoming the language barrier between the Indians able to supply the nectar from the wild agave on their land and the Spanish speaking local manufacturer was the key that finally unlocked a supply of raw material and has led to our bringing this wonderful new product to market.

Still doing some native-washing (wild agave harvested by Indians who don’t speak Spanish—can’t you just feel the virtue?), but here’s what happens to the agave sap after harvesting, as described in the abstract of the 1998 patent issued for the production of fructose syrup from the agave plant:

A pulp of milled agave plant heads are liquified during centrifugation and a polyfructose solution is removed and then concentrated to produce a polyfructose concentrate. Small particulates are removed by centrifugation and/or filtration and colloids are removed using termic coagulation techniques to produce a partially purified polyfructose extract substantially free of suspended solids. The polyfructose extract is treated with activated charcoal and cationic and anionic resins to produce a demineralized, partially hydrolyzed polyfructose extract. This partially hydrolyzed polyfructose extract is then hydrolyzed with inulin enzymes to produce a hydrolyzed fructose extract. Concentration of the fructose extract yields a fructose syrup. (via Patentstorm)

Probably the healthiest sweetener pictured here and the one most shoppers in the market for a "natural sweetener" would be least likely to purchaseIt’s true that the corn used in HFCS is less likely than agave to be organically-grown, but you can get organic-certified corn syrup from the same manufacturer as the blue agave nectar pictured above and nutritionally, the main difference between that, the HFCS used in most processed foods, and agave nectar is the ratio of glucose: fructose. The regular corn syrup is 100% glucose, HFCS is usually 55/45 glucose/fructose, and agave nectar 56-90% fructose, depending on the plant and the process.

I’ve already talked a little about fructose vs. glucose here and here, but more coming soon in Agave-rant Part II concerning:

1) whether the fructose in agave is somehow better than, or indeed, different in any way from the fructose in HFCS

2) whether the fact that it’s sweeter than sugar makes it a lower-calorie alternative to sugar

3) whether its “low glycemic index” rating makes less likely to produce insulin resistance than table sugar and

4) whether it’s safer for diabetics

All of which people have claimed. I won’t keep you in suspense, especially given how long it may take me to put all of that together. The short answers are:

1) not in any nutritionally meaningful way

2) perhaps very slightly, but a <10 calorie/serving difference likely doesn’t make up for the increased risk of fatty liver syndrome and insulin resistance

3) no, it’s actually more likely to produce insulin resistance and

4) in miniscule amounts, perhaps, but recent trials involving diabetics and agave nectar were halted because of severe side effects.