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.)