Saturday, April 1, 2017

Bread-Making Equipment (with occasional remarks on technique)

Compared to photography, or opera, or boating, bread-making is a pretty inexpensive hobby. Nevertheless, there is a somewhat dizzying array of implements available to help (and sometimes hinder) you, all available in a vast range of prices.  Many of the implements have fancy French names, and come to think of it, if you figure it on a per-fancy-French-name basis, bread-making must be about the cheapest hobby there is.

This post describes the equipment I have settled on at the moment as most helpful for me, with some comments. In the spirit of full disclosure, the products below have links to Amazon. If you use those links I will get a modest rake-off. If it's just as easy to use them that's great, but please don't feel obligated or pressured.  King Arthur Flour also sells a lot of equipment and is very much worth supporting.

I have divided the post into sections: "can't live without it," "use it but could live without it," and "own it but don't use it."

Can't Live Without It

Top of the list for "can't live without it" is a digital kitchen scale, as I have previously noted at length. If I were going to buy one today, I would get a Jennings CJ4000, as recommended by, about $26 on Amazon as of this writing.  You can get a good scale for cheaper, but this one claims to go down to half-gram accuracy, which is helpful if you want to measure yeast or spices by weight.

You need to mix your dough and let it rise ("bulk fermentation"). If you do both in the same container there is less to clean up, always a plus in my book! I use a Cambro 6-quart round translucent polypropylene bucket (or "food storage container" as they call it). For any Europeans who might be reading, you can see that a quart is slightly less than a liter.

 Cambro 6-quart round translucent polypropylene
Every word of that description is significant

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Making Bread with Natural Leavening (Sourdough Starter) Needn't Be Complex or Time-Consuming

OK, let's get a few things out of the way.  I don't really like to call bread made with natural leavening "sourdough" because a lot of people immediately turn off, saying, "I don't like sourdough bread."  Naturally leavened bread doesn't necessarily taste sour. The phrase "naturally leavened" is a little leaden and pedantic, so I instead favor the French word "levain," which sounds pretentious and, uh, pedantic. Oh well, "You pays your money and you takes your choice," as they say.  "Starter" works pretty well when it's not ambiguous.

Here are the top six reasons why I bake bread using natural leavening, in rough order of importance:

  1. It tastes better.
  2. It tastes better.
  3. It tastes better.
  4. It stays fresh longer.
  5. It is healthier (lower glycemic index).
  6. It seems amazing and delightful to me that the only store-bought ingredients in my bread are flour and salt. The water comes from the tap and the yeast comes from the starter, and ever-renewable resource.
So if the first objection is "I don't like sourdough," the next set of objections seems to be that baking with starter is intimidating because it is complicated and time-consuming. I would say: It can be, but it doesn't need to be.  Here's what works for me. It does add an extra step or two, but it's worth it.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Helpful Books on Bread Baking

tl;dr (that's internet for "executive summary"): If you want to make really good bread with minimal effort, go for Jim Lahey. If you want the next step after that, so you can make great bread with a bit more effort, go for Ken Forkish.

This post discusses some of the bread books I've used, and the pluses and minuses I've found. I hope it's of interest to you, and if you decide to buy any of them I hope you'll use the links here, because Amazon says they will give me a small kickback.

My aunt, Barbara Walker, taught me to make bread when I was about eight, in her kitchen in Ossining, NY.  I probably made it a couple of times and then stopped, but I remember unearthing the recipe one Christmas maybe three or four years later and making bread for all my friends and dropping off loaves at their houses. Apparently after that I was known to my friend Margy's grandparents as "the boy who made the bread."  There was kneading, and rising, and punching-down, and a bunch of stuff to do.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Why I Bake Bread Using a Scale, and You Should Too

I am doing some posts about my adventures in baking bread, including some recipes, and I realized that I have become completely attached to weighing ingredients rather than using measuring cups. So the first recipe had volume measurements but if you try that and want to keep following you will need to get a scale. You can get a good one for very little money. I picked one out for you on Amazon for 9 bucks but now it costs $40, so forget that. But if you look on Amazon you will find digital kitchen scales for $10-15 that will works great.  I would stick with one that gets 4.5 stars or more. (Update: gives top honors to the Jennings CJ4000, which apparently measures to 1/2 gram accuracy, helpful for things like spices. I don't think I can count on my current scale to be any closer than 2-3 gm. As of this writing it is $26 on Amazon.)

People assume I'm advocating for a scale because it's more precise. It is true that weighing ingredients is more accurate, since flour especially varies in how much it compacts depending on how you store and measure it. I have taken a certain amount of good-natured guff in response to my admittedly-crazily-obsessive post about the inaccuracy of tablespoon measures.  My cousin Anna, a far more accomplished baker than I will ever be, wrote, "When one is not in a medical setting, that level of precision rarely matters. That's what I love about baking!" And her mother Barbara, award-winning cookbook writer/culinary historian, who first introduced me to bread-baking when I was 8, was even more pointed in a good natured way: "What is the takeaway message? My answer would be, walk away when a mathematician is in the kitchen. I am trying to think of a recipe that demands precision in tablespoon measures. I'll get back to you when something turns up."

They are right, of course.

So why weigh your ingredients, really?

  1. It's easier, quicker, and has less cleanup.  You put your mixing bowl on the scale, zero it, and throw in the ingredients one by one, zeroing the scale again after each one. No measuring spoons and cups to wash out (OK, you might still occasionally use a measuring spoon). Have you ever measured out tahini in a measuring cup? Or peanut butter? It's not pleasant to try to get air bubbles out, and it's not pleasant to wash the measuring cup afterwards.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A Simple, Purely Geometric Proof that the Square Root of Two is Irrational—With a Couple of Bonus Side-Trips

Lots of proofs are based on simple ideas, but get bogged down in notation or exposition that doesn't bring out the salient points, as if the soloists and all the members of the choir were singing at equal volume.

Sometimes some warm-ups can help people understand what is essential in a proof and what is extra. They can help the simplicity of an idea shine through.

So the first warm-up is a purely geometric proof that the golden ratio is irrational. A number of years ago, I saw such a proof... but the diagram that went with it was laid out on a single line, and it got bogged down in a bunch of notation, and I kind of got it but it certainly didn't excite me.

Then one day I was looking at my business card and I realized that the proof was right there.  When I was designing my business card, I tried to figure out a good logo, and I eventually settled on a golden rectangle and golden spiral:

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Making Really Good Bread is Really Easy!

OK,  I have been meaning to do this post for almost a year now. In April 2016, I organized a workshop, and had dinner with four out-of-town colleagues afterwards. They asked if I was happy with how it went; I said that I was very happy with the workshop, but I mentioned that I was also happy because the previous week I had finally managed to make a loaf of bread that I was truly pleased with. All four were quite interested, and I thought I should put together a post about it.

That rolled around in my head for a while until in April I decided to do a demonstration using only equipment that most people have in their kitchens.  So  I made some videos, but I got distracted and then let it sit until now.  I have some subsequent posts in mind and we'll see how long they take.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

OK, how big is a tablespoon, REALLY?

One of the handiest cooking factoids in our crazy US measurement system is that there are 4 tablespoons in a quarter cup.  If you are doubling a recipe for a sauce that calls for 2 tablespoons of flour, don't measure 4 tablespoons, just measure 1/4 cup and you're all set.

So I was a little surprised when I was looking at a source I consider reliable (Samuel Fromartz's In Search of the Perfect Loaf, p. 87) to see "Mix 3 tablespoons (30 grams) lukewarm water..."  Now, "everyone knows" that a tablespoon is 15 ml, and 1 ml of water weighs a gram, so 3 tablespoons of water should be 45 grams.  OK, precision is overrated in cooking, but it is more important in baking, and this is a 50% difference (45 being 50% more than 30), and that is actually significant.

1 tablespoon "=" 15 ml

Friday, January 8, 2016

Data Ain't What They Used to Be. Or Is They?

"Hmm... that makes sense," said Ben.

"Uh, you sound surprised," was my response.

"Well, usually when people start out by saying 'Here's my take on that,' it tends to not be that helpful." Well Ben's a smart guy, and if he hints that it might be helpful, that was enough to get me to write this post, which has been rattling around in my head probably about since blogs were invented.

My "take" had been prompted by another iteration of a typically tedious discussion that you may also have been involved in periodically: whether "data" is singular or plural. For those of you too young to know, or too smart to care, "data" is the Latin plural of "datum," meaning "a piece of information." So when a hapless person would say "There isn't enough data," grammar snoots would correct them and try to get them to say "There aren't enough data."  It's been a losing battle.  (David Foster Wallace fans will know that he actually called these people SNOOTS, all caps; an executive summary is here.)

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Land of Trac

In the third grade, our teacher Mrs. Smithy read us The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first of C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, in which a group of kids find a secret door in the back of a wardrobe and enter a fantastical, undreamed-of world.

In the fifth grade, in 1968, I became part of a group of kids that had found such a door.  The group was called the RESISTORS, and the door led to the world of computers and what is now called "information technology."

The group met in the house and barn of Claude Kagan, an engineer at the Western Electric Research Center in Pennington, NJ, near Princeton, where I grew up.  Claude was a complicated guy, by turns fun-loving, cantankerous, generous, childish, and more—but unswerving in his commitment to value of letting young people learn things and above all do things.  The principles of the RESISTORS were "Hands On" and "Each One Teach One," and those principles have stood me in good stead for the last 45 years.  (As I side note, last night I read a piece by Atul Gawande in the New Yorker in which he wrote that an essential realization in the dissemination of the medical miracle of oral rehydration was that when teachers fanned out to villages, the teaching was much more effective if the villagers made the solution under the teacher's instruction than if the teacher "showed them how."  This was one of the first things we learned as RESISTORS: if you are teaching people things, THEY should sit at the Teletype [a primitive 100 bps terminal, which no self-respecting Bangladeshi villager would tolerate today] and YOU should sit next to them, talking them through it.)

We used a number of computers and computer languages, but the computational beating heart of the group was Claude's PDP-8 computer at Western Electric, which we would dial into from a Teletype in his house.  It ran Trac, a computer language designed by Calvin Mooers, an independent thinker based in Cambridge, Mass.  The PDP-8 had 4K of RAM.  Yes, 4K, i.e. one one-millionth of the amount of RAM in the two-pound MacBook I'm typing on right now.  RAM was insanely expensive because it was made of little magnetic "cores" which were hand-strung, reportedly by armies of Filipinos.  OK, actually it had 4K of 12-bit words, so technically you could say it had 6K bytes.  A "Trac processor" (interpreter) could fit on such a machine, with some room left over for user-written scripts (programs).  There is really no computer today so minuscule that Trac makes sense as a language, and even fewer people would ever have heard of Trac today if Ted Nelson hadn't happened upon the RESISTORS and mentioned Trac in Computer Lib.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Final comment on Errol Morris's series

I can’t resist taking one last stir at the dying embers here.  @LG #6: I join many others in thanking you for what seems to me to be a very able and cogent summary.  And as you say, it has been an interesting week, certainly very different from just reading a series in the newspaper.  @Skoorby #66: thank you for your very interesting description of the process of following this and other writings and discussion; I can relate to pretty much all of what you said, and I think it’s a valuable contribution as we adapt to this brave new world (in small letters, i.e. Shakespeare more than Huxley) of the web.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

My comment on Errol Morris's 4th installment of "The Ashtray" ran over 5,000 characters

I finally hit my limit today, and I had some time, so I wrote a comment on Errol Morris's 4th installment of his  "Ashtray" series on the Times web site.  Comments are limited to 5,000 characters and the site cheerfully informed me that I had minus 1520 characters remaining.  So here it is in its entirety:

There is apparently yet another Thomas Kuhn here, one I don’t think he would have ever anticipated: the Thomas Kuhn who threw the ashtray.  Speaking as his son I have to say that, try as I might, I just can’t get myself to believe that he threw that ashtray.

I am not someone to take the ramparts to defend my father against every allegation.  He was a complicated guy and he did a lot of things.  Many were admirable.  Some were absolutely indefensible.

What we’re seeing here is not a rejection of his views; it’s a rejection of a caricature of his view.  He never believed in any sort of relativism that says there is no truth other than the point of view people take on it.  He believed very much in truth, but he also knew that understanding what it is to be true is much more complicated than it might first appear.

He certainly made mistakes, and I certainly heard him say things that I knew to be false but that he believed based on his own distorted point of view.  But I don’t believe I ever saw him say anything that he knew to be untrue.  He believed in truth, and he believed in truthfulness.  He had a bad temper at times.  He could be angry, he could yell, he could behave quite badly, but I never, ever saw him be violent, threaten violence, or throw anything, not even the pencil that was perpetually tucked behind his ear.  I’m prepared to believe quite a few unflattering things about him, and to say some myself (though mostly in private), but I just can’t get myself to believe that he threw that ashtray, and neither can anyone I’ve talked to who knew him well—among whom there is quite a spectrum of overall opinion about him.  (I should say here that, as a few commenters have noted, he could also be generous, helpful, understanding, encouraging, and more).

"The Legacy of Thomas Kuhn"

Errol Morris, whom I otherwise greatly respect, is in the midst of posting a five-part series on the New York Times web site entitled "The Ashtray" about my father, their vexed relationship, the nature of truth, etc.  The series is by turns...  well, I'm hoping to write more about it here later—we'll see whether that happens.

In the meantime, it reminded me of some remarks I made at a November 1997 "Symposium on the Legacy of Thomas Kuhn," at MIT's (late) Dibner Institute, in response to another former student of his who had suggested in a presentation that the most sensible way to account for the widespread dissemination of Kuhn's ideas was because he had Narcissistic Personality Disorder (as defined by the by-then-already-outdated revised 3rd edition of the American Psychiatric Association's DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of...]). Never mind the fact that most people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder don't get their ideas disseminated very far.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The first armband!

Well, I did wear the armband to Fenway.  Many thanks to my wife, without whom this would not actually have happened.

Somewhat the worse for wear at the end of the day, but you get the idea.

There was a long line for blood donations, so I was there for about two hours.  No one said a word to me about it.  But I'm guessing some people did notice it, and thought about it.

I heard a chunk of Tom Ashbrook's On Point today, which was a show on Islam in America.  It included a good discussion on the diversity of opinions and beliefs among muslims in the US and around the world.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Does the 9/11 Qur'an-burning make you sick? Here's something we can DO!

7pm Thurs 9/9 update: So the media are reporting that the Qur'an burnings are off (this may link to the Times article, or not, due to some "issues" at, though the pastor in question has made a questionable claim that he obtained an agreement to move the mosque.  I'm still planning to wear my armband, and I hope other folks will, too.  This is a lot bigger than one guy in Florida.

So despite Gen. Petraeus's pleas, the Florida "pastor" says he will go ahead with his planned burning of the Qur'an on September 11th.  But somehow allowing a moderate Muslim to erect a community center near ground zero is a "desecration"?  I never expected that Michael Bloomberg would show up on my list of American heros, but I'm glad someone is showing up.

Saturday, December 26, 2009


Every so often I read a book and think, "I wish my dad were around to read this."  The most recent is "Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth" by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou—a graphic novel centered around the life of Bertrand Russell and detailing the "Quest for the Foundations of Mathematics" through the development of the discipline of mathematical logic.

I found it on one or two "ten-best" lists and gave it to my son Ben for Christmas.  On the way to wrapping it I picked it up and started to read it (being as careful as I could not to break the spine).  I enjoyed what I read and kept going.  To my surprise, I wound up loving this book.