Kitchen 101

Kitchen 101: (Almost) Everything you knead to know about flour

Hiiiiiiiiiiiiii there. I took a three day weekend from work and it feels like I’ve been on another planet or something. I’m back on planet cubicle and wishing I could blast off again, but duty calls. Or something. I realized that we were overdue for a Kitchen 101 around here, and seeing as the Blogger Bake Sale for No Kid Hungry is this weekend and I’m about to be knee deep in it, I thought I’d give you a little lesson on flour.

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For those of us who didn’t grow up around/with prolific bakers, our first introduction to flour was probably good old All Purpose. My mom wasn’t a baker at all. In fact, I was more familiar with the yellow box of Bisquick and the Duncan Hines box than I was real flour, but we did occasionally make a batch of cookies. Sometimes, she would attempt my Granny Bea’s biscuit recipe, too. Generally speaking, though, I would have never known there was more than one kind of flour if I hadn’t spent time in my Granny’s kitchen. She introduced me to Self Rising flour, which is one of two ingredients in her “The Easy Way” biscuits.

Nowadays, even the regular grocery store will probably have a pretty overwhelming list of flours available. Not only will you see all the flours made from wheat, you’ll also find flours made from a variety of other grains and nuts. For the purposes of this post, we’re going to stick to the wheat flours for now. If you are  using alternate flours because of gluten sensitivity or other dietary concerns, my guess is that you probably know more than I do (almost nothing) about how to use them. If you have any specific questions about them that you’d like me to research for another post, feel free to leave them in the comments.  The Bob’s Red Mill website has a ton of good information, though, and they say it a lot better than I could.

Let’s do a quick review of wheat anatomy before we get started. We’ll use this handy dandy little graphic from breadpastry.blogspot.com.

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A wheat kernel, the part we eat, is made of three components: the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. Processed flour comes from the endosperm. If you see a flour labeled “whole grain,” this means that the bran and the germ are included.

All Purpose (AP) Flour is the most commonly used flour. As its name implies, this flour can be used in just about anything, from breads to pastries. Nearly all the AP flour sold in the US has been enriched, to add back the vitamins and minerals lost by removing the bran and the germ.

Self Rising (SR) Flour is literally just regular flour with baking powder and salt added to it. It’s great for biscuits (I promise to share my Granny’s recipe with you someday soon!), but because it already has a leavening agent in it, it gives everything bake with it a little bit of a lift. Take note that 11% protein Self Rising flours is the SR equivalent to AP flour, and the ones with 8% protein are the SR match for Cake flour. If you are using a recipe that calls for SR flour and you don’t have any on hand, just add  1 teaspoon baking powder and  1/4 teaspoon salt to each cup of AP flour and combine well before adding to the rest of your dry ingredients.

Whole Wheat Flour, or whole grain wheat flour, is made from the entire wheat kernel. Because bran is included, the gluten development is restricted. Baked goods made with this kind of flour will be denser and heavier than those made with AP flour, so many bakers use a combination of AP and Whole Wheat flour to get the texture they want.

Bread Flour is very similar to AP flour, but it has a higher gluten content. This makes it a better choice for making yeast breads. Why? The gluten helps the dough develop the elasticity it needs to hold on to the gas produced as the dough rises and the bread bakes.

Cake Flour is a much softer, more finely textured flour with low protein and higher starch than regular flour, making it ideal for pastries and cakes because it helps keep the final product tender.

Semolina Flour is the coarsely milled endosperm of durum wheat, a very hard wheat. It has a very high protein content, which makes it the perfect flour for making great pasta. It’s very rarely  used for pastries or breads all by itself, but it can be blended with AP or cake flour. This recipe from MarthaStewart.com is a great example of how to utilize semolina flour in a dessert. I’ve used it (with a few minor edits) and can vouch for it’s deliciousness. It’s still tender because of the cake flour in the recipe, but the semolina flour adds an interesting texture and flavor.

Those are the facts, kids. I hoped that helped sort things out! As I’ve mentioned in a previous Kitchen 101 post, if you have to make a choice about what flour to keep around as a staple, AP flour is the way to go. Any other kind you have on hand really just depends on the kind of baking you do.  If you keep some type of flour around for no other reason, you should have some handy to smear on your face and sprinkle in your hair when people come over for dinner so it looks like you’ve been slaving away all day, even if there isn’t a speck of flour in anything you’ve cooked. 🙂

P.S. I’ll probably remind you again on Thursday, but if you’re interested in learning more about the Blogger Bake Sale or the No Kid Hungry campaign, head on over here for the details.

I’ll take my bread on the rocks, please.

You guys… this baking thing is going to be the death of me. I’ve actually pondered doing a separate baking blog, just to chronicle all my baking related… disasters? tragedies? debacles? Whatever you call them, they make me just frustrated enough that I’m compelled to keep at it until I get better.

Case in point, the sourdough. My starter is lovely and bubbly and alive and I thought, “That went ok. Maybe this bread thing will work out, too?”

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This is the recipe I used. As you can see, it’s meant to produce a lovely, light, airy loaf of sandwich bread.

I followed the instructions for mixing… combined the water and the yeast…

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Added the flour and salt…Kneaded until my fingers and wrists and elbows got crampy…

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And then…… then the whole let it rise thing got me. Did the first rise, then split the dough and put half in a loaf pan and let it rise again.

It looked weird when I put it into the oven, but I thought… maybe it’ll still be ok.
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But….. well……. *insert big, dramatic, Oscar worthy sigh here*

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I went back and re-read the directions and determined that I need to do this whole thing during the day. I put the dough in the fridge overnight to have its last rise before going into the oven, but I’m pretty sure I’d already jacked it up at that point. It was dense, and REALLY hard on the outside. Like, if someone broke into my apartment and tried to steal me, I could fling this loaf of bread at them and probably cause some serious harm to their head area (assuming my aim is that good, which it never is). I will probably just make breadcrumbs out of it and try again on Saturday, when I have a whole day to really pay attention to the timing like I should.

I will say this… it does taste good. If I can duplicate the flavor it has now, AND get it to be all beautiful and light like sammich bread, I’ll do the happiest of happy dances. That starter is the bomb, and I hate the idea of not being able to use it to make something worthy of all that awesome flavor it’s bringing to the party.

So, this probably isn’t the last you’ve heard of my adventures with sourdough. If things go better on Saturday, I’ll post a quick update.

Is there a recipe you’ve tried and tried and tried again before you finally got it right? When did your persistence finally pay off? Tell me in the comments!

Let’s Get Funky!

I don’t know why I’m so fascinated with the thing I’m so not very good at, but here I go again, starting another baking project.

Did I tell you guys I made gingerbread cupcakes in class last week, and when they sunk in the middle I cried? Yeah, I know that school is for learning and learning means messing up, but this is something I’ve made at home before a few times and never had an issue and I was just so upset about it I made a big ole fool of myself. Snotty and red faced and the whole nine. But then three different chefs came over and gave me pep talks, really good ones, and I’m over it now. Mostly.

And now headlong I’ve gone into this thing… a sourdough starter. But not just any sourdough starter… one made with bottle dregs from this beer:

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If you’re not familiar with bottle dregs, here’s the scoop. Sometimes, you’ll drink a beer that has “stuff” floating in it. Usually, unless you shake up the liquid, the stuff sinks to the bottom of the bottle and never makes it to your glass. Contained within that stuff, the dregs, are bacteria and yeast that were used in the beer making process. Those dregs still have live “bugs” in them, and can be reused to make more beer, or, in this case, give a sourdough starter a big ole kick start.

To make mine, I used the basic process laid out here, at thekitchn.com. They do a great job of explaining what a starter is, and why you’d want to make one, but I’ll give you the Reader’s Digest version.

When you make bread, you need a leavening agent to make it rise. Most of the time, you’re going to go to the store and buy the yeast that has been grown and cultivated specifically for the purpose of baking. You don’t have to corral all those little yeasties yourself because someone has done it for you. Essentially, by growing your own starter, you’re creating a medium in which you can cultivate and grow all the wild yeast that’s already in the flour to use as your leavening agent, versus using the stuff from the store.

I started with a 1:1 ratio of flour to liquid– 4 oz. flour, and 4 oz of a combination of the bottle dregs and water. The moment I put the two together, I already started to see bubbles. That’s a good sign.

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Every day for the past five days, I’ve been feeding the starter with fresh water and more flour. Here it is on day two:

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And day four:
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It’s a little hard to tell, but it’s starting to get frothier and just generally gooey. It also smells kinda sour at this stage (duh), and at day five, closer to being ready to use, I can also smell that lovely yeasty smell. What you don’t want to smell is acetone. If you smell that, it means things have gone a little sideways and you probably need to start over. But, as long as you feed it every day, and store it in a spot with a consistent temperature of around 70°F, in about 5 days you should have a healthy starter that you can use to make everything from bread to pizza dough.

I’m in school for the next three days, so the first opportunity I’ll have to test out my starter in a loaf of bread will be late Friday evening. Of course, I’ll take pictures and tell you how it goes.

Have you ever made your own starter? How do you use it? Leave a comment and let me know!

Kitchen 101: It’s Crunch Time!

Happy Tuesday!

It’s the first day back to classes for me. This quarter I’m taking a Sustainable Purchasing class, as well as an American Regional kitchen lab. I’m pretty excited. I can already see from the syllabus that the menus are a little more complicated, and we’re going to get to work with more than just chicken. Yay!  In fact, it’s while I was glancing through the Deep South menus for this quarter that I got the idea for today’s Kitchen 101. I think a lot of people assume that all Southern food recipes pretty much end in “dip in batter and fry.” Restaurants that stake their claim on Southern Food typically feature things like fried chicken, fried fish, and chicken fried steak as menu highlights, and there’s no doubt that battered and fried items have a place in many Southern cooks repertoires. Of course, as someone who grew up in the South, I know there’s so much more to Southern food than that, and I’m pretty excited that we’ll get to explore those other elements this quarter. In the meantime… If you’re looking for a way to get that taste and texture of the breaded and battered South without ingesting enough fat grams for a third world country, I have a few tips for you.

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First of all, let’s get past the idea that coating food in breading is automatically bad for you. There are lots of ingredients you can use to lighten up the breading but still get that perfect crunch. If you’re avoiding gluten based breadings, of course you can use gluten free bread crumbs, but you might also try a low moisture cheese like parmesan, or ground nuts like almonds, or even rice flour. Crushed potato chips are another option, as well as crushed corn flakes.  Just let your imagination run wild! Try out a few different crunch carriers (or even combine a couple of them) to find out what tastes best and has the right texture for you.

We also have some options in cooking methods to help us get the crispy exterior we want.

If you opt for the traditional frying method, try using a healthier oil that is low is saturated fat like canola or soybean oil. The key to keeping any breading from absorbing all that oil is to bring the oil up to the magic temperature of 375°.  If your oil temperature is too cool, the breading will absorb the oil and you’ll get that soggy, greasy outside. Gross, yeah? Obviously, oil that is too hot burns the outside of the food before the inside can cook, and that’s no good, either. Oil at the right temperature will cause the moisture inside the food to boil, then push its way out to the surface of the food. As it does that, it puts up a barricade that keeps the oil from penetrating the inside. The end result is that golden, crispy crust with a nice, satisfying crunch.

If you want to avoid deep frying altogether, another option is to oven fry the food. Regardless of how you do it, frying, by definition, is done in oil or fat. The benefit of frying food in the oven is that you are only using tablespoons of fat or oil vs. the cups of them that you use when deep frying. The trick to getting that crispy outside for oven fried foods is to preheat both the pan and the oil in the oven. When you drop the food onto the hot pan, you’ll hear the sizzle that means that moisture barrier is being formed and a crust is forming.

Of course, you can also just bake the food. You’ll use even less oil, and can even opt for cooking spray instead of oil or fat. It’s still absolutely possible to get that crunchy texture when baking.

You know I’m not going to leave you without a recipe! I had some avocados in the bowl that were juuuuust this side of soft, so I needed to use them right away. Short of just digging in with a spoon (which I’m totally down for, by the way), inspiration was running short. Then I remembered these avocado fries that I had at a few weeks ago at this bistro in my ‘hood, and a serious craving started to kick in.

Equipment:
Cookie sheet/baking pan
three medium sized bowls
a fork or tongs (or you can just use your hands, but they can get kinda gunky)
measuring cup and spoons
knife

Ingredients:
Two medium avocados
1/2 C flour, seasoned to taste
1/2 cup ranch dressing (I used Bolthouse Farms Yogurt dressing)
1 1/2 T lemon juice
1 1/2 C bread crumbs (or whatever you want to use, really)
salt and pepper
other spices or seasonings as you see fit
cooking spray

Preheat the oven to 425°.

Slice the avocados lengthwise and season them with a little salt on both sides. Spray your cookie sheet with the cooking spray and set it aside.

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Set up your three bowls for a standard breading station. Your first bowl will hold the seasoned flour. I just used salt and pepper as the seasoning in this bowl. The second bowl will hold the wet ingredients. I think most people use an egg wash for this stage, but I didn’t have any eggs so I used the ranch dressing thinned out with the lemon juice for a little added punch. The third bowl will hold the bread crumbs. I just sorta randomly added some Zanzibar Curry seasoning to it on a whim. I don’t know if anyone on any planet would put Ranch dressing together with a curry seasoning, but I did. I was totally in “Let’s See What Happens If I…” mode.

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Dredge each avocado slice in the seasoned flour, shaking off as much of the excess as you can. Move it into the dressing mixture to coat, and then cover it on all sides with the bread crumbs. You can use a fork, or tongs, or your hands to move the avocados from one bowl to the next, but remember that if you stick your hand in the flour, and then in the wet stuff, and then in the bread crumbs, you will have probably succeeded in breading your fingers together. You could use the “one hand dry, one hand wet” method, but if you’re anything like me, you’ll forget which is which and end up with gummy hands anyway.

Once all your avocado slices are breaded and onto the cookie sheet, pop them into the oven for about 15-18 minutes, turning once about halfway through, and bake until they’re golden brown.

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The  nice thing about using the ranch dressing as part of the breading is that we didn’t need any sort of dip for these. They packed some pretty serious flavor all on their own. The outsides were crispy, and the insides were creamy and full of avacadoey goodness.  We snacked on these while watching a movie, but they could be served as a side with a burger or a sammich, or as an appetizer.

Enjoy!

Finally! Finals Week

Hi folks! Just a little note to let you know that I’m going to be taking a few days off from the blog because it’s finals week. I have my written final tonight, and my cooking final tomorrow, then we have something called “Kitchen Appreciation Day” on Wednesday (cleaning. cleaning. and also, cleaning.) I’m working on something for Friday, and then I’ll be back to my regular Tuesday/Thursday/Sometimes the Weekend schedule.

I hope you all have a wonderful week! Please send “Remember Everything and Don’t Freak Out” vibes my way!