Time for another Tested mailbag opening! Friend of the site Steve Lin dropped off an actual bag of awesomeness, and we were not prepared for the numerous treats within. Fans of weird international Pocky and Kit Kat flavors should brace themselves.
Time for another Tested mailbag opening! Friend of the site Steve Lin dropped off an actual bag of awesomeness, and we were not prepared for the numerous treats within. Fans of weird international Pocky and Kit Kat flavors should brace themselves.
Todd Carmichael of La Colombe and the TV show Dangerous Grounds, won the North Eastern division of the US Brewers Cup last week using this new technique, which combines a full immersion brew with a double filter technique that lets him explicitly control brew time without water lingering in the bed. I'm going to have to try this. (via @elisehogan)
3D Systems introduced their ChefJet line of food 3D printers at CES 2014, which will be the first kitchen-ready food printer when it's released later this year. We learn about how the ChefJet works and what kinds of food and shapes it can make, and then taste test some geometric sugar candy and chocolates created by the printer.
On the final day of Tested Christmas, Will shares some of his favorite books from this year. They range from dessert cookbooks to a comprehensive guide to modern tools to a mysterious meta-book that's unlike any we've ever seen. Put them on your list for reading in the new year!
Why don't most parents let their kids drink coffee? The first, most obvious answer is that caffeine is addictive. Overcaffeinated kids will be bouncing off the walls and staying awake at night, and letting them drink coffee is a likely way for them to get hooked. Soda, though, is also caffeinated, and a common beverage for kids in the US. Smithsonian Mag offers a different theory about why coffee's off limits: a persistent belief that coffee stunts the growth of children.
Smithsonian Mag writes: “'It’s ‘common knowledge,’ so to speak—but a lot of common knowledge doesn’t turn out to be true,' says Mark Pendergrast, the author of Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World. 'To my knowledge, no one has ever turned up evidence that drinking coffee has any effect on how much children grow.' "
No study has ever lent credence to the theory that coffee harms the development of children, though Smithsonian Mag points out that no study has ever exposed children to years worth' of coffee, either. "There has, however, been research into the long-term effects of caffeine on children, and no damning evidence has turned up," they add. "One study followed 81 adolescents for a six-year period, and found no correlation between daily caffeine intake and bone growth or density. Theoretically, the closest thing we do have to evidence that caffeine affects growth is a series of studies on adults, which show that increased consumption of caffeinated beverages lead to the body absorbing slightly less calcium, which is necessary for bone growth. However, the effect is negligible: The calcium in a mere tablespoon of milk, it’s estimated, is enough to offset the caffeine in eight ounces of coffee."
So where did this idea come from? What spawned the belief that coffee will stunt the growth of children, while it's perfectly fine for adults? The idea may have originated with advertising created by C.W. Post, who founded Post Foods in the late 1800s. The company is still a popular cereal maker. Post created a grain-based drink, called Postum, that was popular until the 1960s. It was only discontinued in 1967, but some longtime fans have brought the drink back, billing it as "a healthy coffee alternative for those who have dietary and health restrictions. Postum is caffeine free and won’t cause the sleeplessness, high blood pressure or digestive problems that are often linked to coffee and tea."
To push people to drink Postum with their breakfast instead of coffee, Post created a series of ad campaigns talking about coffee's harmful effects. Some ads called it "nerve poison." Other specifically discussed children, claiming it made them sluggards and robs them of the milk they need in their diet. One ad credited a "world famous Research Institute" for a study that conclusively proved coffee made children stupid. "Less than 16% of those who drank coffee attained good marks!" it exclaimed.
Somehow, Postum didn't stick around, but its ads must have worked their way into the public consciousness. Coffee doesn't stunt growth or make kids fail school. Still, you may not want them to drink it; there's still the no sleeping, bouncing off the walls issue to consider.
For the second day of Tested Christmas, Will shares a gadget that he finds immensely useful for cooking--a Thermapen thermometer. This is the same professional tool used by chefs in commercial kitchens to instantly read the temperature of anything you're cooking. Will explains why that's useful and why the Thermapen is worth its price!
The Searzall is an interesting kitchen gadget that we first heard about from chef Dave Chang when we went with him to NASA's kitchens in Houston. Chang, the founder of New York-based Momofuku Group, is a friend and business partner of David Arnold, the Chief Technologist at the French Culinary Institute in NYC. Tested readers may recognize him as the food scientist we visited back in September to learn about puffing gun cooking technology. And more recently, you may have heard us talking about Arnold in our Sous Vide Immersion Circulator test, recommending his blog as an excellent resource for sous vide cooking tips and insights. Well, one of Arnold's biggest insights is what resulted in the invention of the Searzall, and it's something we got wrong in our sous vide video.
Sous vide, if you recall, is the process of cooking food in a controlled-temperature water bath, using a vacuum sealer to protect your meat from the liquid. What you get from sous vide is your food cooked to exactly the temperature you want to kill bacteria and make it safe to eat, but not overcooking it. Steak that comes out of the vacuum-sealed bag can be perfectly medium-rare and ready to eat, but it lacks the seared crust that you would get from the heat of a broiler or grill (the enzymatic browning of proteins and sugars, also known as the Maillard reaction). In professional kitchens, chefs "finish" a steak by putting it on a cast iron skillet or in a broiler, and a new preferred method is actually cryo-frying the meat to get that delicious crust.
A popular alternative for home cooking, which is what we've been doing in our sous vide videos, is using a propane or butane blowtorch to finish the meat. The same kind of gas torch used to caramelize the top of creme brulee (which is actually not the Maillard reaction). In our video, we talked about holding the torch upright when finishing the steak to avoid dripping any uncombusted fuel onto the meat, which we said was what causes a sulfur-like "torch-taste." But as it turns out, Dave Arnold and a flavor chemist at UC Davis discovered that it wasn't leaking fuel that was causing the taste. As Arnold explained to me on the phone earlier this week, he tested finishing meat using Modernist Cuisine recommend MAPP gas, which burns faster and at a higher temperature than propane and butane. And after using a gas chromatograph to study the effects of torching meat with different fuels, Arnold concluded that torch-taste may actually be caused by these blowtorches putting too high of a direct heat on the meat.
That's how he and his lab team came to create the Searzall, which is an attachment that converts the narrow flame of a blowtorch into a large patch of radiant heat. It turns the torch into a hand-held broiler. Heat from the torch flame is captured inside the bulb's ceramic insulation, and then released through two layers of high-conduction nichrome mesh (the same alloy used in reprap 3D printer heating elements). To sear something like a steak, it uses the same amount of gas as a direct torch flame, taking just a little more time. Said Arnold, "A torch is just putting coloration on something. You can't actually put a crust on meat with a torch, and a lot of people pull too far back. It's too damn hot, it's not moderated enough, and it's a direct blowing flame. The entire flame of a torch is under three-quarters inch in diameter, and it's directed in a blasting column. The Searzall takes that flame and spreads it out into a three-inch diameter." And when held about an inch over sous vided ribeye, searing that crust takes between one to two minutes per side.
If steak isn't your dish, Arnold listed a bunch of other uses for the Searzall, including finishing fish and scallops, making grilled cheese, and even reheating pizza. When you have a portable broiler, everything starts looking like it could use a good searing. Sushi chefs, for example, can use it quickly cook crispy salmon skin without ruining the raw fish.
One caveat that Arnold admits is that Searzall takes a little while to cool down after extended searing. That's why he designed a wire safety cage around the cone, and has specific recommendations for what kind of fuel, torch, and fuel cylinder to use with it. Propane is preferred (MAPP definitely not recommended), with a Bernzomatic TS8000 torch, and a 16.4oz fuel cylinder. The larger cylinder (14.1oz is the more common size) is for physical stability, so you don't risk the Searzall tipping over. That's something he learned after loaning 20 prototypes to chef friends. And while feedback has been positive, Arnold isn't expecting to see his invention replace commercial broilers or deep fryers in Michelin star kitchens. It's about finding the right tool for the right job, and learning where the Searzall makes sense, like at a catered event.
Or my home kitchen. Searzall reached its Kickstarter goal yesterday, so Arnold and his team have the resources to work with an overseas manufacturer for production. They're targeting next summer for shipping units, and backers can reserve one for $65.
The New York Times has a good brief on the origins of the spork. According to Bee Wilson, author of the book Consider the Fork, spork-like utensils--with both scoop and prongs--have been in use since medieval times, even though it wasn't patented as invention until 1874. The utensil has been known by many names: terrapin (for eating turtles), sucket, sporf, splayd, spife, and even the more recently popular knork. But the spork as a trademark didn't come into effect until 1970. It's now of course an essential piece of backpacking and camping cutlery.
Home cooking is at an all-time high in popularity, as the availability of recipes and ingredients make it easier than ever to cook like the pros. But science is also taking on a greater role in the kitchen – here are ten techniques based in science that can improve your home chef experience.
There's creative cooking, and then there's creative cooking. The former may be coming up with a new recipe for chicken. The latter requires something more unusual--like, for example, cooking salmon, chicken or vegetables in a coffee maker.
Industrious chefs have come up with a few creative ways to cook food in coffee makers. The enclosure at the top of the coffee maker can house and steam veggies. Food inside the coffee pot, like a chicken breast, can be slowly poached over the burner. Eggs and other foods can even be boiled inside the coffee pot. And without the pot, the burner can serve as a makeshift grill.
"We tried making the classic coffee maker meal: poached salmon with steamed broccoli and couscous," writes NPR. "The veggies steam up in the basket while the couscous and salmon take turns in the carafe. The salmon looked a little scary while it was poaching. But the whole meal actually turned out pretty tasty. Was it gourmet? No. But it was healthful and quick to prepare — about 20 minutes total. And the cleanup was superfast."
NPR points out that coffee maker cooking is more energy efficient than using the stove, drawing about 1000 watts versus about 1500 watts, though those numbers obviously vary between appliances. For some people, though, coffee maker cooking isn't about efficiency or finding a quirky alternative to the stove. Jody Anderson, one of the coffee maker's proponents, started developing recipes for her nephew who was in the army. The only appliance he had in his room was a coffee maker, so she came up with ways he could prepare his own meals.
"Trying different containers and taking their temperatures to see how hot the water would get and to see if I could raise it became an obsession with me," she writes. " I tried a metal camp cup first. It would hold 2 cups of something, would not break and was easy to wash...The secret is using a lid to hold in the temperature and raise it even more. If you want to fry or bake you will need a sierra cup, and don’t forget the lid."
And coffee-maker cooking isn't that weird, when you think about it. It has a burner and a container perfectly designed for steaming. But NPR also recently wrote about another creative cooking alternative that's even more out there: dishwasher cooking.
The march towards viable 3D food printing continues on. Earlier this year we wrote about the technology being developed to 3D print space food, which could be great for astronauts in the future. They'd potentially have access to a wider variety of foods, and the printer and ingredients would likely take up less space in transport. Meanwhile, the rest of us down here on the ground will be twiddling our thumbs and eating our normal food. Unless, that is, you're interested in plopping down about $1300 for Natural Machines' upcoming 3D food printer, the Foodini.
Smithsonian Mag writes that Natural Machines has developed a 3D food printer for foods that start off as pastes or doughs. It can also handle pureed ingredients, sauces--some of the printer's completed meals include ravioli, bean burgers, and bread. Naturally, it can print chocolate.
In the same way 3D printers extrude plastic onto a printing platform, the Natural Machines printer really just squeezes liquid materials into a precise formation. There's no fancy CAD software here. It also doesn't cook its ingredients, though it does have some built-in heating elements to keep ingredients warm during the process. The difference, in this case, is that the printer houses five ingredients capsules for creating its meals, rather than the 1-2 materials most 3D printers currently can print with at once.
Natural Machines is going through all the work necessary to get its 3D printer approved by the FDA, and the company hopes to build up a community to create and share recipes for the kitchen printer. Those who expect it to automate all their cooking will almost certainly end up disappointed, but that's not really Natural Machines' goal. They want the device to streamline some of cooking's more rote activities--forming dough into a dozen breadsticks, or filling and forming individual ravioli--to encourage more people to eat healthy foods rather than opt for the frozen package. And that might just work.
I hope you've seen that photo going around the Internet this week of a frozen McRib patty posted by a McDonalds' employee to Reddit. It's a reminder that the McRib is an example of McDonalds' marketing brilliance, including the generally accepted conspiracy theory that it comes and goes from the menu based on national pork prices. This in-depth analysis by The Awl in 2011 breaks that theory down and debunks that, as well as franchise owners' insight that the timing of the McRib is planned at least a year in advance. Ian Bogost's object lesson on the sandwich for The Atlantic is just as scathing, exploring how the marking of the McRib makes diners objectify and desire it. Its ephemeral status not only makes it desirable to some, but makes the rest of McDonalds menu more palatable. "The purpose of the McRib is to make the McNugget seem normal."
In this short profile, The New Yorker interviews Chad Robertson, co-owner of San Francisco's famous Tartine Bakery about the art of making bread. Robertson talks about trekking through Denmark and Sweden in his search for grains to incorporate into his bread. Ancient grains have different qualities that modern ones bred for mass production and high yield, and are easier to digest. At Tartine, Robertson and his bakers experiment with different ways to incorporate different varieties of wheat into their signature bread, which can take two days to rise.
The best time for coffee is not, in fact, the moment you sluggishly drag yourself out of bed. At least, not according to science. Brainfacts writes that the study of chronopharmacology, aka the interaction between drugs and the body's biological rhythms, reveals when we should and shouldn't drink coffee. More specifically, it dictates the best and worst times to inject ourselves with a peppy dose of caffeine. If your first cup of morning joe comes between 8 am and 9 am, you're doing it wrong, at least according to the study of chronopharmacology.
The body's circadian clock can affect how it responds to drugs, making them more or less effective, altering our tolerance, and so on. Brainfacts writes that light, more than any other environmental stimulus, affects our biological rhythm. That rhythm is controlled by the hypothalamus, which also controls our sleep/wake cycle, hormones, and sugar homeostasis.
The hypothalamus' control of the hormone cortisol is the key that ties together our biological rhythm and consumption of coffee. "Drug tolerance is an important subject, especially in the case of caffeine since most of us overuse this drug," writes Brainfacts. "Therefore, if we are drinking caffeine at a time when your cortisol concentration in the blood is at its peak, you probably should not be drinking it. This is because cortisol production is strongly related to your level of alertness and it just so happens that cortisol peaks for your 24 hour rhythm between 8 and 9 AM on average."
Caffeine will naturally be least effective when cortisol is at its peak, which happens to be right around the time most people drink coffee in the morning.
In other words, caffeine will naturally be least effective when cortisol is at its peak, which happens to be right around the time most people start chugging their morning pick-me-up. Brainfacts goes on to argue that using a drug when it's needed is a key pharmacological principle, and drinking caffeine when it's least effective means you're more likely to develop a tolerance and need to up your dosage.
Drinking a cup of coffee when your cortisol levels are low, on the other hand, will give it some more kick. Cortisol levels apparently swing up between noon and 1 pm, and between 5:30 and 6:40 pm. That leaves a couple windows of opportunity--most importantly, between 9:30 am and 11:30 am or so--where caffeine will really be able to do its job.
One other Brainfacts tip: Since light has a major affect on our biological rhythm and will help cortisol production in the morning, making the morning commute without sunglasses will get the cortisol pumping more quickly. It might not be as stimulating as a cup of coffee, but it's an au naturel way to wake up just a little bit faster.
Coffee trends have pushed coffee lovers away from their countertop machines and towards French Presses and Aeropresses and Chemexes, slower methods of brewing that tend to produce a better cup. Of course, millions and millions of people still prefer the cheap convenience of a coffee maker. Homebrewing beer, on the other hand, has never been as convenient as turning on Mr. Coffee. It's the kind of hobby people love to put time and energy into. But if you like to press a button to make your coffee, and wish you could do the same thing with beer, a Kickstarter for that just raised $661,026.
The PicoBrew Zymatic, created by former Microsoft engineer Bill Mitchell, is the coffee maker of home brewing systems. It's a self-contained box full of all the ingredients necessary to brew beer, automated to get brewing with a few buttons presses. It's a lot bigger than a coffee maker--it looks more like an industrial microwave oven--but that's still far smaller than your average brewing system.
Homebrewers will be able to brew their own recipes with the Zymatic, or replicate other recipes. "After downloading a recipe over Wi-Fi, users simply pre-load the water, malted barley and hops into each specified container before pressing 'brew,'" writes Smithsonian Mag. "A computer system controls the entire process and separate software allows users to monitor the beer’s status from any device. Once the 2 1/2 gallon keg of unfermented beer is ready, it only needs to be cooled and have yeast added to complete the process, which takes about a week. Each component was designed to be modular so that it easily fits in a dishwasher, to boot."
The PicoBrew Zymatic's development process, shown briefly on the Kickstarter page, is fascinating. Bill Mitchell and his brother, who co-founded PicoBrew, started with Arduinos and off-the-shelf parts. It took a couple years of prototyping before they nailed down the automated brewing process and developed custom control boards to control the process.
Naturally, the Zymatic isn't cheap. Kickstarter backers who shelled out between $1300 and $1600 guaranteed themselves a home brewer. The money gathered during the Kickstarter will be used to get the brewer into production.
Eating–it’s one thing that we all have to do. But science and technology are transforming not just what we eat, but how we eat them. Today, we’ll explore ten different food substitutes that entrepreneurs are pushing forward as the future of eating. Foodies, this isn't for you.
Soylent is not people, but it is now backed by $1.5 million in Silicon Valley venture capital. If you're unfamiliar with Soylent, it's the recent creation of software engineer Rob Rhinehart, who finds eating, except as a social exercise, a bit of a bother. There's all that buying and cleaning and cooking food and washing dishes and blah blah blah. Who has the time? It would be cheaper, and easier, he reckoned, to create a nutrition sludge containing all of the vitamins and minerals essential to life. So he spent months researching nutrition and came up with the soylent mixture of carbs, protein, fat, and a whole lot of other essentials.
Soylent's name cheekily draws on the famous Charlton Heston sci-fi film, though it's actually inspired by the soya and lentil concoction from the book Soylent Green was based on. It's flesh-free. And the idea certainly isn't anything new, which Rhinehart has been happy to admit. Single-source food shakes like Ensure and SlimFast have been around for decades. For most people, a liquid diet doesn't really stick. But Rhinehart's been living off of Soylent for months, documenting the results, and he and other testers have been tweaking the formula to be better.
Now here's the weird thing about Soylent: It's got some people really mad. Take the comment in the Wired story, for example, which calls Soylent "everything that's wrong with the tech industry, in one neat example. Dehumanization, ahistoricism, authoritarianism." That seems extreme. Worst case scenario--assuming no one tries to live off of soylent for years and somehow ends up dying as a result--is that the concoction turns out to be ineffective over the long term. Rhinehart and the people he's working with are hoping to design Soylent as a food that you could completely subsist on, or could combine with a diet of solid foods as well. Current meal replacements don't offer the balance of nutrients necessary to live on forever, which is Soylent's goal.
If Soylent actually attains that goal, the benefits could be huge. Best case scenario, Rhinehart has created a food substitute that can feed the poor on $5 per day and give people too busy to prepare proper meals a much healthier diet. If it doesn't work as intended, the naysayers have something to gloat about.
There are, of course, concerns about Soylent from real experts. io9 writes: "We reached out to a handful of nutritional scientists to get their opinions on the product, and they were generally surprised that anyone would want to replace their food with a single mixture. Their opinions of Soylent were overwhelmingly negative. Steve Collins, founder and chairman of Valid Nutrition, a company that manufactures Ready to Use Foods for the prevention and treatment of malnutrition, said, speaking through a colleague, that, except in exceptional circumstances, he felt that trying to replace a diverse diet with a single product was misguided. Susan Roberts, Professor at Tufts University's Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, likened Soylent to already available nutritional shakes. While there might be some benefit to Soylent's low saturated fat content, she said, there are certain risks inherent in a non-food diet. '[T]here are so many unknown chemicals in fruits and vegetables that they will not be able to duplicate in a formula exactly,' she said in an email. She says that, if Soylent is formulated properly, a person could certainly live on it, but she doubts they would experience optimal health. She fears that in the long-term, a food-free diet could open a person up to chronic health issues."
If a chicken nugget was 19 percent protein, would you still call it chicken? That's a question you'll have to answer if you look into the research of Richard D. deShazo, MD, a professor at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. "“I was floored. I was astounded,” deShazo said to The Atlantic, describing his reaction after he looked at a chicken nugget under a microscope. The contents of the nugget did, technically, come from chicken. But if you consider chicken meat, well, the two nuggets deShazo checked out don't exactly qualify.
The Atlantic writes "The nugget from the first restaurant (breading not included) was approximately 50 percent muscle. The other half was primarily fat, with some blood vessels and nerve, as well as "generous quantities of epithelium [from skin of visceral organs] and associated supportive tissue." That broke down overall to 56 percent fat, 25 percent carbohydrates, and 19 percent protein.
"The nugget from the second restaurant was 40 percent skeletal muscle, as well as "generous quantities of fat and other tissue, including connective tissue and bone." That was 58 percent fat, 24 percent carbs, and 18 percent protein."
To some, the chicken nugget is a relatively pure fast food item--it's white meat, solid protein, with a not-totally-terrible batter around it. And at some fast food places, especially ones like Chick-fil-a that focus on chicken, that's probably true. Though deShazo didn't reveal the fast food places he tested from, one is likely McDonalds. He intended his research to be a reminder that "Chicken nuggets available at national fast food chains...remain a poor source of protein and are high in fat."
The National Chicken Council (if only we had a National Chicken Nugget Council to turn to) argued that a test of two nuggets is hardly reflective of the millions (billions?) of chicken nuggets served at fast food restaurants every year. That's true. Just keep in mind there's a good chance you're chomping into some cartilage, intestinal tissue, bone fragments, and skeletal tissue when you take a bite out of a nug.
Fake food in window displays isn't just a practical counterpart to menus at Japanese restaurants, it's also a revered and lucrative business that's considered an art form. This brief AFP video explores the culture of food displays in Japan, showing the making of wax models of tempura and lettuce (most fake food is now plastic). Learn more about the history of fake food displays on these travel blogs.