Is the Kitchen a Science Experiment?

YES!! We just don’t think of it as one. We follow recipes and everything looks beautiful. (most of the time) But over the years, I’ve learned that recipes from friends for things they made that we l-o-v-e, may not taste the same when we make it! If Mom made it, you know what brands are in her kitchen. But coming from friends when we try it, it doesn’t taste the same. Why? Our friend used Duke mayonnaise and we always use Hellmann’s. There is a difference! They are not using the same recipe to make mayonnaise. So when I really love something, I will ask what brands they use! If they say Sauer Mayonnaise or MiracleWhip, I will buy that brand when I make that recipe. If they are using margarine instead of butter or some special special imported butter, you need to know.  The difference in cookies is unreal if you use butter instead of margarine. Most bakers know that.

Do you want to know how many times I’ve heard someone say, I can’t bake a cake from scratch to save my life. I bet if I watched them make one, I could tell you why their cakes flop. Cakes from scratch are not forgiving of our sloppy kitchen measurements! And often people don’t know enough so they use the wrong flour or something.

Have I make mistakes? Oh, yeah! I’ve experimented and it’s not worked. But bread can be very forgiving once you know a few things about the differences in flour and the differences between the basic recipes. Plus, you must have an understanding of yeast.

Yeast is a living organism sold to us in a dormant state. Yeast cakes have an expiration date, and because they are moist, they do expire!! Yeast granules also have an expiration date. I have yeast that is years old and well beyond the expiration date! I also haven’t use it in ages but I’m going to assume it is still alive and well in there. How do I know? I will proof it first.

The recipe will say if using dry yeast use two tablespoons. I start with two tablespoons and add it to “X” amount of warm water and stir well. Here’s where things vary. First if your water is too cool, you won’t get it going and if it’s too hot, you’ll kill it.  It has to be between 105 and 115 F. Folks, they make kitchen thermometers! Use one! Put the thermometer in the bowl and add the warm water. Give it a moment. A cold bowl will cool the water! You do it enough and you will know by the feel that you have the right temperature. I know by feel. Then I feed it!

I’ll measure out a cup of flour and put it to one side. That will be the cup I use for that recipe. It doesn’t matter that you if you put a cup in with the yeast or add it later. It’s a cup of flour – it counts in the recipe! I’ll added a few spoonfuls to the water. And I’ll use some sugar. Same deal as the flour. Why am I adding these things to that dissolving yeast? I need to know there’s healthy yeast in there that grows and does what yeast is supposed to do but it needs something to eat and it eats the flour sugar combo. It breathes. And since it breathes it makes bread rise with all the tiny bubbles of its exhales. All living organisms breathe. And because it is alive, it wants food. It has to be fed. Too much sugar will kill it and not enough hurts it!

Sounds gross? Well yeast is all around us! It’s in our air. It’s on our kitchen counters, on the walls, even on the dinner plates! It’s on our skin! It’s that sort of thing. Anyone who loves the San Fransisco’s Sour Dough Bread, the yeast there is different from say the yeast on the east coast. Apparently it’s embedded in the old brick walls. Really into history? Look it up. Fascinating to anyone who loves sourdough bread!

(Actually when you see the microscopic things that are on our foods you probably will never take another bite of food as long as you live. Obviously that wouldn’t take too long! Wanna know what causes bad breath? Probably not. If you did, you’d run in and brush your teeth again! But then you’d have to put that filthy toothbrush in your mouth.)

Anyway, years ago after reading about wagon trains and what it was really like to travel west, they talked about women protecting their yeast. Hey, this was bread baking which interested me as a baker, so I thought I’d try to recreate what they did if they had that crock of brewing yeast spill. I made up a batch from some non-salted potato water which I had used for boiling potatoes for the family meal. I fed it and waited and waited…and waited some more. Finally I had something! I fed it a little more and waited. I think I had two bubbles and I figured it was a flop. I had this big bowl on my counter and virtually nothing for all my hard word work.  I added a wee bit more sugar to the mix and went to bed! This wasn’t the same as playing with commercial yeast. I was trying to make my own yeast, just to prove I could do it!  😦

My girls were old enough to get up by themselves and get to school. (I was working at the time. And I’ve never been a morning person!) So about the time they left, it was time for me to get up. One is like me, just give her a cup of coffee! The other loved cereal! They were teens; they don’t need me to fix a bowl of cereal! Well, my oldest child had no idea what I was doing with that bowl, she merely went down the kitchen where she found a gray slimy mess of yeast! Mom’s failed science experiment!

Maybe it wasn’t a failure but a rather an over abundant success. (Remember my ability to function when I first wake up is nil.) I had yeast growing out of the bowl, across the counter over the bull-nosed counter edge, down the front of my lower cabinets onto the floor, and headed for the dining room wall-to-wall carpeting. The bowl is large enough to hold potato salad for 150 people and I had been playing with about a cup to one and a half cups of potato water, flour, and sugar in the bowl.

Part of me decided if I put it down the kitchen sink I would either clog the sink with the flour in the mix or there would be clogging, continuous growing slime in the pipes at my place to the city’s waste treatment plant. (The headlines would read: Woman arrested for kitchen experiment gone wrong. Entire city shut down from yeast slime at waste treatment plant, as city fights with growing problem.) The trash was the better place for it. My hubby helped me scoop up the slime and bag it.

At first, I wanted to salvage what was in the bowl and make bread, but the look my husband gave me told me to be grateful I had proved to myself that yeast could be made from potato water. But I thought about that horrible mess for weeks and finally decided if I had a heavier flour mixture as in soft dough, it would not have overflowed and that extra shot of sugar might have been too much especially when I hadn’t used any salt which retards growth. I also decided I would never leave proofing yeast for any reason.

I did try it again, and that time, I managed to create yeast. Compared to commercially sold yeast, mine wasn’t great.  It made a heavy loaf and I happen to like that fresh yeasty taste, which was lacking with my homegrown yeast.

As for kneading bread? It’s not difficult. You don’t want to tear it apart as you knead. Heavier flours such as bread flours or whole wheat need to be kneaded longer. (Figure about 8 minutes compared to maybe 4 minutes with plain flour. ) You don’t dig your fingers into it. I get into a rhythm when I  knead and I enjoy it. The dough is ready when you have something that feels like a baby’s butt, soft yet firm and smooth.  Watch someone else do it. Or try it with an experienced bread baker at your side. Or learn the way I did. I read everything I could on bread baking and flours, and did it without any help. There was no YouTube to help me. I was on my own. Trial and error.

Over rising will but a big holes in the bread and not enough make it heavy. Start with a simple recipe using an all-purpose flour. Then move on to a bread flour. Using a cake yeast is the easiest for a beginner as is fresh granulated yeast in those small packets. Don’t mess with whole wheat, rye, or  try to create whole grain breads until you are familiar with baking bread. Then go ahead and experiment by adding sun flour seeds, etc. (I often use a rolling pin on some of those nuts to break them down before adding them.)

A few years ago when bread machines came out, my girls thought maybe giving me one for a holiday gift might be something I’d enjoy. Fortunately one of my girls hinted about buying one for me. Horrors! NO! The fun is in the kneading and creating something from what seems like nothing. From plain white, to challah, to multi-grain, I’ve made it all and I enjoy the process. Even my mother-in-law would concede that my breads were delicious.

Biscotti, cakes, cookies, and whatever can be baked, is something that has given my pleasure over the years.  Fruit cakes, Philadelphia sticky buns, Boston brown bread, plum pudding, if it goes into the oven, I’ve made it! Plus for a baker, what’s a few cups of flour and a little time in the kitchen?

Don’t have a lot of time to spend kneading dough and waiting for it to rise? Try a Sally Lunn bread. You’ll impress your family and friends with your homemade tasty bread.

Yes, I’m a baker. I didn’t start off that way. And I never really saw my mom make bread. She was very gourmet and watched over the family nutrition, but I never saw her make bread.  She taught me to bone a chicken and how to wrap it when I was done. I could make chocolate chip cookies. That was a family joke as they all swore that was all I could make when I first married. But it didn’t take me long to figure out I could make bread cheaper than I could buy it and it was healthier with more taste. And I did learn to cook!

If you can read, you can cook! My cookbook collection is unreal, but it’s those few original  baking books that I treasure the most.  The ones that taught me the difference between a water based bread and a milk based bread. The ones that showed me how to knead and punch dough down.

I also learned along the way what was worth making from scratch and what wasn’t. But some things are just too delicious not to take the extra time to make from nothing. And there’s something very fulfilling about making things such as bread from scratch. It’s like putting that perfectly roasted turkey on the table at Thanksgiving. It is given to the family with pride. And the pride in a loaf of bread I swear is like nothing else.

So give it a try. Once you’ve eaten homemade bread, you’ll skip the bread aisle.

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4 Responses to Is the Kitchen a Science Experiment?

  1. Carol says:

    Thanks for this great post! Makes me want to make a loaf of bread today. You’ve done it all. Bet your family looked forward to coming home at night. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • E. Ayers says:

      That’s funny. My girls thought they were in heaven when they ate at a friend’s house and were served plain, store-bought white bread. And since they both work and don’t have time to make foods from scratch, they have since learned the difference. It’s not unusual to hear them say, “Oh, Mom wait until you try this. She makes her crusts from scratch.”
      Okay, I’ll give the friend credit for that, but I keep wondering when she’ll learn to make the filling from scratch. It’s not difficult to cut up fruit. 😦

      At least my youngest makes her own applesauce.

      And I’ll concede that pumpkin pie filling from scratch is a challenge and a complicated process even for those who are used to making their own fillings. It’s just easier to grab that can of solid pack pumpkin. Which also makes great pumpkin bread, muffins, etc.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. leighmorgan1 says:

    Yes! My kitchen is always experimental. Sometimes good, sometimes not so much :). Love to make homemade cake, pizza, pie and almost anything with chocolate!


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