Yeast Bread Baking – A Kitchen Science ‘Drama’

Does anything in the world ever smell quite so good as a just-baked loaf of bread? If you’ve never made yeast bread before, an adventure awaits!  And prepare yourself for one of the great “dramas” of kitchen science!

Every ‘drama’ is made up of various parts—cast, script, and various acts.  Bread baking is no exception. The cast of ingredients that go into a loaf of bread are simple—flour, yeast, liquid, sweetener (sugar), salt, and fat. Other ingredients can be added for flavor, texture, and nutritional value.  It is the nature of the ingredients and the way they are combined that create “drama!”

Meet the DRAMA Cast–Ingredients

Flour.  In most recipes, the flour used is either all-purpose flour or bread flour.  Both flours, derived from wheat, contain two proteins important to yeast breads—glutenin and gliadin.  When combined with liquid and manipulated, these proteins produced gluten, an elastic web that traps the gas released by the yeast.    All-purpose flours are a blend of hard and soft wheat in proportions to give satisfactory results for most baking, including bread.  Bread flour contains more hard wheat that soft wheat; with slightly more protein that all-purpose flour, bread flour is ideal for hearty breads because it allows for more structure.  Because the blend of hard and soft wheat used in all-purpose or bread flour may vary by manufacturer and flour gains or loses moisture depending on the weather or storage, most yeast bread recipes call for an approximate measure of flour rather than an exact amount.   Other flours or grains can be used in combination with all-purpose or bread flour to create breads with different textures, flavors, and nutrient value.

Want to see gluten and how it works? Science: What is Gluten? Here’s How to See and Feel Gluten by America’s Test Kitchen will answer those questions.

Gluten is formed when flour and water are combined.  Proteins in the flour react with the liquid to form gluten.  Beating and kneading the dough develops the gluten. 

Yeast.  Yeast is a living organism (actually a single-celled fungus).  Yeast ‘drama’ happens when the yeast granules awake in warm water, search out food (sugar), break it down, become active and release carbon dioxide—a gas!  It is the gas, trapped within the elastic web of gluten strands which cause dough to rise. 

To see yeast work, try this Scientific American experiment: Yeast Alive! Watch Yeast Live and Breathe.

Yeast is particular about temperature to thrive; lukewarm temperatures of 105-115 degrees F are perfect. It works slowly in cooler temperatures and dies when the temperature is too hot.

Yeast is available most commonly in the dry form as active dry or instant/quick-rise/fast-rise granules.  Compressed or cake yeast is less common and requires refrigeration.  Active or compressed yeast must be awakened prior to use in warm water (proofing).  Instant yeast is a modern variety which does not need to be proofed in the same way that active yeast does; it can be blended directly with the other dry ingredients.  However, there is no harm in proofing instant yeast.

Liquid.  Water and milk are the typical liquids used in making yeast bread.  Juice and vegetable water can also be used. The kind of liquid used plays a role in the bread’s outcome:  bread made with water has a crusty top and chewy texture; milk slightly weakens the gluten strands creating a bread with more tenderness and browner crust.   Even the kind of water—hard, soft, chlorinated—will bring about different characteristics.  Yeast is reluctant to dissolve in milk so is best dissolved in water.

An important step in making yeast bread is combining the flour and liquid in just the right proportion to yield a good dough.  Too much liquid weakens the gluten and too little makes the gluten tough so that it does not stretch sufficiently. 

Sweeteners/sugar and Salt.  Sweeteners, such as sugar or honey, and salt add flavor.  Salt also slows yeast growth but is not necessary to make bread.  Sugar furnishes food for the yeast.  Yeast can feed on the natural sugars in the flour by breaking down the carbohydrates but the break down takes time.  Since sugar or another sweetener is a readily available food, it speeds up the growth and rising action.  Sweeteners also add tenderness, moisture, and browning.

Fat.  Fat is an optional ingredient and is not necessary to make bread.  Fat, when used, adds flavor and tenderness and keeps the bread fresher for a longer time.

Eggs.  Eggs are also an optional ingredient and are more commonly used in rolls.  When used, eggs add flavor, color, nutrition, and improve the keeping quality and texture of the finished product.

The Script – A Good Recipe

Every drama needs a good script or in this case, a good recipe.  Like any other adventure in life, it is best to start with the basics and practice, practice, practice until one becomes proficient or skilled enough to branch out.  Bread can be made by hand, mixer, food processor, bread machine or some combination.  The best way to really learn bread is to use the hand method as it allows one to see and feel the ‘drama’ as it takes place which is great preparation for using any machine.

This basic or standard bread recipe makes two loaves and is the perfect starter recipe.

BASIC WHITE BREAD
2 cups milk
3 tablespoons shortening or butter
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons salt (optional)
1 package active, instant, or cake yeast
1/4 cup lukewarm (105-115F) water
6 to 7 cups all-purpose flour

Act 1.  The Plot Thickens – Making the Dough

Heat the milk on low heat. Stir in shortening, sugar, and salt and heat until all ingredients are dissolved; do not heat beyond scalding. Cool to lukewarm.

It is important to proof the yeast to ensure the yeast is alive and ready to create carbon dioxide.  To do so, dissolve the yeast in a large warm bowl with ¼ cup lukewarm water and ½ teaspoon sugar.  Stir and allow the mixture to stand for 5-10 minutes.  When the yeast mixture starts to bubble and foam, it is alive and ready for the bread.

Add the lukewarm milk mixture to the dissolved yeast. Stir in 3 cups of the flour; beat until smooth with an electric mixer or wooden spoon. Mix in enough of the remaining flour to cause the dough to form an irregular ball, come away from the sides of bowl and is easy to handle. Let the dough rest for 10 minutes for easier handling. 

Act 2.  Conflict – Kneading

Kneading is the process of working the dough by pushing, pulling and stretching to develop gluten and elasticity.  Kneading will develop muscle in the bread as well as the bread maker!  Prepare to have fun!

Turn the rested dough out on to a lightly floured surface for kneading.  To knead, take the heel of your hand and push the dough forward and stretch it. Then fold it in on itself, give it a quarter turn and repeat. Continue kneading until the bread dough is smooth, elastic, satiny, and air blisters appear just under the surface. The dough should no longer stick to the work surface or your hands. Kneading times vary, but generally it takes about 8-10 minutes of work. Don’t worry about over-kneading by hand—you will be tired long before you overwork the dough.  Shape the dough into a ball and place the dough ball back into the mixing bowl which has been lightly greased; turn the dough once to grease the surface.  Cover the dough with a clean towel or lightly greased plastic wrap for proofing. 

Act 3. Rising Action – Proofing

Proofing is the rest period during which yeast ferments the dough and produces gas or the time when the yeast and gluten do their magic work!  Proofing is best when the dough is set in a warm place (above 75ºF).  It will take about 45 to 60 minutes until the dough doubles its size.

When the bread is doubled in size, punch it down. This means plunging your fist into the center of the dough to press out some of the air inside the dough. Fold the dough over and form into a ball. Allow to rise a second time if possible. (A second rise allows yeast more time to work thereby giving the bread more texture and flavor.)   

Act 4. The Climax – Dough Becomes Loaf

After the first or second punching, divide the dough into two equal portions. Let the dough rest for 5-10 minutes to make the dough easier to handle.  Place the dough on a hard surface and roll or push out the dough to remove the air bubbles and shape each loaf by rolling and pinching.  Seal the edges by pinching the seam and place into two greased 9×5-inch loaf pans; cover and let proof again until doubled. This should take about 60 to 90 minutes.

When the bread has doubled in size, pop it into a 375ºF oven and bake for 30-45 minutes until golden brown and the internal temperature reads 195-210ºF on an instant read thermometer. Remove the baked loaves from the pans as they come out of the oven; cool the loaves on wire racks. Brush the top crust of the hot, baked loaves with butter or margarine, if desired, to keep the crust from becoming tough.

Act 5.  The Review – Enjoying the Results

Admire! Hold the temptation and allow the loaves to cool completely before cutting into them.  Use a serrated knife and a gentle sawing motion to slice the bread. Enjoy!

For visual help with the bread making process, check out Basic White Bread (Hand Kneaded) a YouTube by Kevin Lee Jacobs of Delicious Living. 

If you want to evaluate your bread, consider appearance,
crumb, flavor, and aroma.

APPEARANCECRUMBFLAVOR and AROMA
Symmetrical shapeMoistPleasing
Smooth rounded topFine, uniform grainSlightly sweet
Golden brown colorNo large holesNut-like flavor
Tender crustElastic or springy textureMild yeast overtones
Correct sizeNo dough streaks 
Light in weightCreamy color 
Small, defined break and shred (space
between top and sides)
  

When you have mastered basic yeast bread, you are ready to try variations using other ingredients and other techniques.  While the outcome may look or taste different, all yeast breads share a common ‘drama’.  The variety is endless and all are delicious rewards for the effort.  Your yeast bread adventure awaits!  Let the ‘drama’ begin!

[Note: this blog is geared toward 4-H youth in response for educational materials to include in a ‘box unit’ on yeast bread encouraging basic skills in the Food and Nutrition area.]

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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A New Year, a New Start, New Resolutions = Goal Setting

2020 is gone and it is time to start anew.  After a chaotic year, we eagerly welcome 2021 and a ‘fresh start’—anticipation that every new year brings—new hope of what can be and better things to come. For many, this leads to the tradition of making New Year resolutions for self improvement of one kind or another.

A big part of making resolutions is goal setting. Goal setting?  Yes, goal setting.  Having goals in life is essential and especially so when things are chaotic. Just having good intentions alone changes nothing. Resolutions without a plan is only wishful thinking. As 2021 begins anew with unlimited opportunities to change, perhaps it’s time to rethink goal setting as well.

Goal setting during a pandemic may seem silly when we’ve all learned that the best of plans or perhaps even goals can go awry.  The pandemic has also made the path going forward uncharted.  As many pundits are noting, a “return to normal” or life exactly as it was before COVID-19 entered our vocabulary, is highly unlikely. Therefore, perhaps it is best to set short-term goals for 2021 as we navigate the upcoming months of vaccinations and make our way back into a more social world.

For many years, 4-H members and their families have learned and practiced life skills: among them, setting and writing goals for their individual projects or a fair exhibit.  Surely the tips for 4-H projects apply to life and would appropriately be used to write our personal goals for 2021. 

So what makes a goal different from a resolution. A goal is the road map or navigator one uses to plan and reach a destination. A resolution is only a decision; there is no destination. From Tips for Writing 4-H Goals, goals include the following:

  • Goals must have three parts—ACTION (what one wants to do)—RESULT (what one is going to do)—TIMETABLE (when one plans to do it or have it done).
  • Goals must pass the “control test.”  Do YOU have control over the outcome of the goal or does someone else have that control?  Is the goal yours or that of someone else?
  • Goals must be S.M.A.R.T—SPECIFIC – MEASURABLE – ATTAINABLE – REALISTIC or RELEVANT – TIMELY.  For goals to be powerful, they should be designed to be SMART.

SMART goals are . . .

SPECIFIC.  What do you want to accomplish? Get down to the nitty-gritty. Saying you want to lose weight won’t cut it. Instead try, “I will lose 10 pounds and work out 20 minutes every day.”  Goals must be something that motivate you or gives you a reason to achieve them.  “By losing 10 pounds, I will feel better and fit into my slacks.”

MEASURABLE.  Consider the time necessary to reach your goal and break your goal into bite-sized chunks. Include precise amounts, dates, and so on in your goals so you can measure your degree of success. Simply saying, “I will pay off by VISA card” will not get the job done unless you have a stash of cash.  Instead, consider the debt and give yourself daily, weekly or monthly steps to reach the goal by realistically determining how much you can set aside for payment OR reach out to a debt counselor to help you reach your goal step by step.  Without a way to measure your goal, you have no way of knowing whether you achieved success and have reason to celebrate “I did it”.

ATTAINABLE.  The idea is to set a goal that ‘raises the bar’ by realistically challenging you. It makes no sense to set a goal that you have no hope of achieving or setting yourself up for failure.  Perhaps you’d like to climb one of the Colorado 14ners but presently don’t have the stamina to do so.  Rather than don your boots and attempt Pikes Peak, set a goal to find and follow through with a training program to develop cardio stamina, strength, and flexibility for the adventure when you are ready.

REALISTIC or RELEVANT.  Goals are personal and must be yours—not that of another family member or your boss.  The goal needs to come from within you so you have reason to achieve it for your own personal gain or direction you want to take your life, career, hobby, health, retirement, etc.  You must be the one to control the outcome.  A goal to get a pay raise or promotion is not within your control but to perform at or prepare yourself for the next level is.

TIMELY.  Set a time limit to cross the ‘finish line’ (the third part of a goal)—a time to evaluate whether you did or did not reach your goal—what was the outcome, were you pleased, what could have been done better.  From the onset, you need to define a plan of action or a realistic step-by-step approach, which can also be set in time increments, enabling one to get to the finish line.  For example, you might say, “I will learn how to use my new camera so well that using it is second nature to me by May 31.” To make that happen, calculate and schedule daily or weekly time and steps needed to learn the various aspects of the camera and practice shooting photos using what you learn.  Then do what you can to hit that goal by your target date.

Lastly, but equally important, goals must be written down along with the steps needed to get there. The physical act of writing down a goal makes it real and tangible, holds you accountable, and tracks your progress. As you write, use action words like “will” or “shall”.   It’s also a good idea to include the reasons why you want to attain this goal. Success is achieved when you clearly define exactly what you want and understand why you want it in the first place.

As already pointed out, goals are personal and therefore may come from any or all of the meaningful aspects of our lives:  spiritual, fitness, health, educational, family, career, social, or financial.  Living through the months of pandemic uncertainty and restrictions has likely given many of us a pretty good idea of our personal vulnerabilities and a desire to be or do more or “. . . put ego away and really evaluate and try to figure out how do you chart a course to become the best version of yourself you can be.” (Matt Campbell, Iowa State University Head Football Coach, November 27, 2020)

Life happens and goals may go off track; 2020 was filled with one surprise or mishap after another. In real life, pandemic or not, there are speed bumps and roadblocks in our journey. As long as we stay the course, focusing on the end goal and taking small steps toward getting there, we will be on our way to attaining our goals and becoming the best version of ourselves.   Let’s get going!  2021 is here!

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Whipped Cream – Tips for Perfecting by Stabilizing

Light and airy, there’s nothing quite like a dollop of freshly whipped cream topping a bowl of cut fruit, strawberry shortcake, pumpkin pie, hot chocolate, or  . . . (dream on) to turn ordinary into extraordinary!   Whipped cream simply makes every dessert special!

Once you learn how to whip cream, you’ll never have to resort to that store-bought, non-dairy, who-knows-what, frozen topping again. Further, you can flavor it with vanilla, cocoa, cinnamon, liquor, strawberry, or anything else that sparks imagination.

In a scientific nutshell, whipped cream is a foam created by incorporating tiny air bubbles into a fatty liquid where the fat molecules line up around the air bubbles and cling to each other.  Cream must have a fat content of at least 30 percent to hold a stable, unseparated foam when whipped. Dairy products sold as ‘heavy cream’ or ‘heavy whipping cream’ contain between 30-36 percent fat.  The higher the fat content, the denser the whipped cream.

The King Arthur Baking Company has a great tutorial on how to whip cream beginning with a cold bowl (preferably stainless steel), beaters, and cream to keep the fat in the cream in a microscopically solid state.  Ordinarily, it takes a very short time to whip cream and it’s very easy to go from a soft, billowy foam to butter! And even perfectly whipped cream can be close to butter by the time it is stirred, spread, or piped as any additional manipulation has the same result as whipping.  Therefore, it is best to slightly under whip cream to be used as a frosting, filling, or piped decoration.

Whipped cream topped desserts, frosted or filled cakes, or desserts made with whipped cream, are best served the day made.  If the whipped cream needs to stand up longer, the whipped cream needs to be stabilized by adding ingredients containing protein or carbohydrate to give the foam more structure enabling the whipped cream to stay fluffier longer. Stabilized whipped cream adds 24-48 hours of additional life and holds up better at room temperature. This gives one the ability to prepare a day in advance without loss of loft or body, or releasing any of its liquid when stored in the fridge like standard whipped cream will.

Here are 7 common ways to stabilize whipped cream.  Each has its own merits or weakness.

Gelatin. Gelatin is commonly used and works very well but is the most complicated of stabilizers and is also not vegetarian. It does offer the option of making a non-sweet whipped cream.  To use gelatin, pour 1 tablespoon of cold water into a heatproof cup.  Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon unflavored gelatin.  Let it soften without stirring for 5 minutes.  Place the cup in simmering water until the gelatin is melted and the liquid is clear.  Let cool to room temperature.  Add to the whipped cream as the cream begins to thicken.1 When stabilized with gelatin, the whipped cream needs to be used right away as it sets from the gelatin. It will not be smooth again unfortunately. During refrigeration, the gelatin may form small lumps in the cream resulting in a marshmallow-like consistency.

Dry milk powder.  Dry milk powder is a great stabilizer and adds no change in flavor or texture to the whipped cream.  To 1 cup of heavy cream, add 1 tablespoon of dry milk powder2 at the same time that sugar would be added.  Dry milk powder and powdered sugar make a great combination.

Instant Clearjel. Instant Clearjel is a modified food starch made from corn that thickens instantly when it comes into contact with liquid.  Instant clear gel powder imparts no flavor and leaves no granular feeling. Mix 1 teaspoon Instant ClearJel with the sugar (2 Tablespoons) and add to the whipping cream (1 cup) 2 when the whisk or beaters start to leave trails in the bowl.  It is recommended that Instant Clear Jel be thoroughly blended with sugar before it is added to liquids in order to prevent lumping and to insure smoothness. The presence of sugar acts to control the rate of the hydration of the starch. Instant Clearjel is not readily available but can be purchased from online sources.

Cornstarch.  Cornstarch is an easy way to thicken and stabilize whipped cream.  To one cup of heavy cream, add 1 teaspoon cornstarch3 mixed with the sugar.  The cornstarch can leave a slightly gritty texture to the whipped cream and a bit of a starchy taste.

Confectioners or powdered sugar. Replace the granulated sugar with powdered sugar to take advantage of the starch (usually cornstarch) in the confectioners sugar.

Instant pudding mix.  Instant pudding, made with modified starches, adds strength, flavor, and sweetener.  Additional sugar may or may not be needed.  To one pint of cream, add 1 tablespoon of INSTANT pudding mix4 Pudding mix is added to the cream at the beginning of the whipping processes. 

Cream of Tartar.   Cream of Tartar is an acid commonly used to stabilize egg whites for whipping. It also helps to thicken and stabilize whipping cream but also adds a slightly sour taste to the cream.  Add a 1/4 teaspoon of Cream of Tartar to a cup of cream.5 

Last but not least, remember that cream is perishable and stabilizing whipped cream does not prevent it from becoming a food safety hazard if left at room temperature for too long. TWO HOURS is the max at room temperature!

Once whipped cream is mastered and the preferred method of stabilizing is found, that artificial non-dairy whipped topping will never again be a ‘go to’. Over time, I have experimented with all of these methods. For everyday toppings, I like stabilizing with powdered milk and powdered sugar. For cream cake fillings and cake frosting, I prefer using the Instant ClearJel. Cooks Illustrated also experimented and, over all, chose gelatin. No matter the method, homemade whipped cream is always worth the effort. Enjoy!

Recipe sources:
1 Joy of Cooking, 2019 edition
2
Stabilized Whipped Cream, University of Wyoming
3 Tip: Stabilized Whipped Cream, theKitchen.com
4 Easier Stabilized Whipped Cream, Food.com
5 Decorator’s Never-Fail Whipped Cream, FineCooking.com

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Holiday Simmer Pots

Simmer pots or simmering potpourri are one of my favorite ways to make our home smell cozy and warm throughout the year, but especially so during the holidays.  They truly bring out the best of the season with very simple natural ingredients such as spices, rinds, sliced fruit or fruit skins and water.  Simmer pots are affordable, sustainable, and an easy way to make your home smell like something good is cooking!

I prefer simmer pots over the many scented candles available on almost every store shelf because most of them are petroleum-based paraffin with dubious artificial scents.  Since it is my preference to steer clear of petroleum-based products in my house as much as possible, I turn to what my grandmother did: simmer a pot of spices. 

Grandma used her stove; I use a small crockette originally designed for warm dips as there is little chance of me getting distracted and ‘boiling the pot dry.’ Because the crockette does not boil, I start the processes by bring the mixture to a boil on the stove and then pour it into the crockette to simmer as long as desired.  To simmer on the stovetop, bring the ingredients and water to a boil, then turn the heat down to simmer. Water should be added about every 30 minutes to prevent ‘boiling the pot dry.’ A slow cooker can also be used to create a simmer pot.  To do so, fill the crock with water to at least half full, add the ingredients, put on the lid, and heat on high. When steam rolls off the lid, take the lid off and set the slow cooker to a low or simmer setting. Add water as needed to keep it at least halfway full.

Simmer pots are also a great way to recycle rather than compost or throw away orange rinds, lemon and lime peels, and apple and pear skins.  They can be used fresh or dried. (And, it is also possible to refrigerate the ingredients for a few days and reuse for simmering a 2nd time.)

Simmer pot combinations are more of an art than a science.  There are lots of potpourri combinations but really it boils down to personal preference or what you have on hand to work with.  Experimenting with combinations is fun. Some of my favorite holiday combinations include apple skins, orange rinds, cinnamon sticks, and whole cloves along with bay leaves, whole nutmeg, fresh or dried rosemary, and fresh or dried ginger.  Sometimes I use a drop or two of pure vanilla or an essential oil and even a little apple cider if there is some on hand. 

A simmer pot recipe can also be great when someone is sick as long as the smell does not upset their stomach. The combinations of citrus, rosemary, clove, cinnamon and eucalyptus are germ-fighting as well as comforting, soothing, and healing to the body as the vapors are breathed in.

Simmer pot ingredients make wonderful hostesses gifts, gifts for a teacher, friend, or neighbor, and lovely party favors for guests, too.  They are cost effective and everyone can use it.  To gift, start with dried ingredients.  Simply add the chosen ingredients to a clear treat bag or Mason jar, tie with a bow, add a gift tag and you’re ready to give a little a bit of the holidays to that special someone. 

There’s nothing like the smells of the holiday to create a warm and welcoming home.  With a simmer pot ingredient gift, you can give beautiful gifts that will help friends and family deck their halls, too.

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Safe Homemade Food Gifts

Homemade food gifts are thoughtful holiday (or anytime) gifts. But how do you know if the food gift you are giving or receiving is safe to eat? Not everything that is made commercially can be made at home safely.  This is especially true when it comes to canned food gifts—jams and jellies, butters, soups, pickles, salsa, pesto, barbecue sauce, flavored vinegars or oils, and more. 

The National Center for Home Food Preservation offers these guidelines to evaluate the safety of home-canned gifts:

LOW RISK.  Fruit jams and jellies, fruit spreads, and whole fruits like peaches and pears are low-risk because their natural acidity and high sugar content provide an extra measure of safety.  Jams or jellies made with artificial sweeteners or with gelatin would be exceptions.  Those made with artificial sweeteners must be made with an appropriate gelling agent and stored per directions; gelatin based products must be refrigerated or frozen.

HIGH RISK.  Low-acid meats, vegetables and mixtures pose a higher risk because these products can support the growth of the botulism bacteria if improperly prepared and/or processed.  These products must be prepared with a tested recipe and processed in a pressure canner.

HIGHEST RISK.  Mixtures of acidic and low-acid foods such as salsas, some pickled products, pesto, soups, sauces, herb and oil mixes, and cream-based soups are of highest risk for potential botulism if they are not prepared with a tested recipe and properly processed in a jar of proper size. There are NO tested recipes for canning vegetable based butters, such as Pumpkin Butter, pesto, fudge/chocolate sauce, cream soups, or herb/vegetable oils. 

For any home canned product to be unquestionably safe, the product must be prepared using a USDA approved and TESTED RECIPE explicitly followed without exception.  Further, gifts canned in decorative, untested, jars or with unconventional lids should also be suspect. A sealed lid doesn’t mean a canned product is safe.

Another NO in the world of canned gifts are the so called ‘canned breads and cakes.  Referring to a previous blog, ‘Home-Canned’ Cakes and Breads for Gift Giving – A Big NO, these products involve no canning per say and are not safe in any way.  “Many cake and quick bread recipes often have little or no acid resulting in a pH range above 4.6, a pH level that will support the growth of pathogenic organisms that cause foodborne illnesses. Of greatest concern is the microorganism Clostridium botulinum (botulism) growing in the jars. Conditions inside the jar are ripe for hazardous bacterium given that cake and bread recipes may include fruits, liquids, or vegetables which increase moisture content AND the practice does not remove all the oxygen from the jar. The two factors create a rich environment for microorganisms to thrive.”

If you are the recipient of a food gift, be gracious and thankful for the gift as it is the thought that counts.  If you are comfortable, it is appropriate to ask a few kind questions if you know the giver well; it may seem ungrateful to ask the same of a lesser known acquaintance.  If there is any doubt, throw it out and don’t bring up the issue again. 

If you are the giver of a homemade food gift, particularly a home canned food, know without a doubt that the gift you are giving is explicitly safe—it has been prepared with a USDA approved and tested recipe and processed appropriately.  Jarred gifts should also include a clean, rust-free ring to avoid accidental loosening of the flat lid.

Handmade gifts are the best kind, particularly when they’re edible. They are very personal and truly an act of love.  Besides canned products, consider frozen or dehydrated foods, dry mixes in a jar or bag, sweet or savory nut mixes, candy, flavored popcorn, fresh breads or rolls, cookies, crackers, granola, gingerbread anything, or chocolate bark combinations just to name a few and, all of which, would be without the potential of harmful microorganisms to cause a foodborne illness or worse.  

Here’s to keeping the holidays ‘jolly’ with safe food gifts!

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Getting the Oven Ready for Holiday Roasting and Baking

Baking for the holidays is about more than sugar cravings. It’s about passing along family traditions, singing or listening to holiday music as you mix, roasting nuts and special meats, and delivering fresh-baked cheer to family, friends and neighbors.

Whether this is your first time for holiday baking and roasting or you’re a pro with the butter-stained recipe cards to prove it, it is a best practice to have your oven ready for what you have planned for it. Because some of us despise the chore of oven cleaning, ovens often become a culinary crime scene!  So before whipping out the ingredients, get that oven in tip-top shape.

Manufacturers recommend that ovens be cleaned every three to six months depending upon how much they are used and spiffed up in between when spillovers of food or grease occur.  Regular oven cleaning improves the quality of the food prepared in it; the aromas of old grease and spilled food can taint the flavor of what is being baked or roasted.

While few look forward to the chore, with the right knowledge and a little elbow grease, oven cleaning needn’t be an overwhelming chore.  Depending upon how the oven will be cleaned a few tools may be necessary—gloves, eye protection, newspaper, paper towels or old towels, cleaning clothes, synthetic scouring pad, and a large garbage bag. I also like the nylon pan scrapers that fit into the palm of your hand as they are excellent for helping to remove those hard-to-remove aged grease spatters and scraping up burned on residue.

Oven Interior

There are three primary ways to clean the oven interior—self-cleaning, chemical oven cleaners, and DIY with baking soda, vinegar, and water.

Self Cleaning.  If you have a self-cleaning oven, check and follow your owner’s manual for detailed instructions. Make sure to wipe up any spillovers or liquid grease to avoid excessive smoking during the cycle and setting off your smoke alarm. Remove any oven accessories and the racks before starting the cycle. The self-clean cycle takes about two hours (exact time varies by oven type) during which the temperature reaches 800-1000 degrees F. Because the extreme heat has the potential to destroy the shiny chrome finish on the racks, it is recommended that they be cleaned outside of the oven (instructions follow).  The oven gives off a tremendous amount of heat during the cycle as well as some toxic fumes. You should stay at home while the oven is self-cleaning just in case anything goes awry but you and your pets should stay out of the kitchen and vent the room as much as possible. When it’s over, you’ll see a white ash on the oven bottom that you’ll need to wipe out once the oven cools. 

Chemical Oven Cleaners.  This is the easiest, fastest process and will remove serious amounts of grease and grime. The caveat is that oven cleaners can be quite caustic, so if you’re sensitive to harsh chemicals or prefer an all-natural approach this is not for you.  There are low- or no-fume products on the market that do work quite well. Carefully follow the directions on the product and be sure to protect the area around the oven with newspaper, paper towels, or old towels.  Remove the racks for cleaning (instructions follow) as well as any other items in the oven.  Spray the entire interior being careful to not get spray on the heating elements of an electric oven or the gas inlet of a gas oven.  Lift the heating element and spray under it. Gloves and eye protection should be worn when using oven spray cleaners. Also be aware that it is possible that using an oven cleaner could affect the surface of the oven; you may experience white or grey discoloration of the surface. Also, due to the porous nature of the oven surface, some of the product may be left behind after the cleaning process and fumes will be detected the first time the oven is turned on.

DIY.  While this may not be the fastest way to clean the oven, it is by far the safest and is appropriate for any oven type.  Begin by removing everything from your oven and protecting the floor beneath your oven with newspapers, paper towels, or old towels.  Mix 1/2 cup of baking soda with 2 to 3 tablespoons of water to make a spreadable paste.  Spread the paste around the inside of the oven using fingers, spatula, or brush covering the entire interior including crevices. Keep the paste away from the heating element of an electric oven and away from the gas inlet of a gas oven. It is also possible to lightly mist the paste with white vinegar in a spray bottle which will cause the paste to bubble and foam.  Close the oven and allow the paste to sit for 30 minutes to 10 – 12 hours, or overnight depending upon the depth of cleaning needed.

After time has elapsed, glove up and begin to rub the surfaces with a synthetic scrubbing pad dipped in vinegar or a plastic scraper to loosen baked on grime.  Wipe down all surfaces with a damp cleaning cloth. If the paste is dry, spray with vinegar to soften and remove.  After all of the paste and grime has been wiped away, spray the oven with vinegar and wipe dry.

Racks

Racks can be cleaned with either chemical oven sprays, ammonia, or with baking soda and vinegar.  If oven sprays or ammonia are used, the work should be done outdoors with rubber gloves and eye protection.  Once the racks are cleaned, washed, rinsed and dried, replace them in the clean oven.

Chemical Oven Sprays.  Lay the racks on a garbage bag that has been cut open, spray the racks with the cleaner, cover, and tuck the bag tightly around the racks and let them sit overnight.  Spray wash them with a garden hose to remove the chemical residue and then wash them with dish detergent in either the kitchen sink or bathtub scrubbing as necessary. Discard the bag used by placing inside of another bag and putting in the trash.

Ammonia. This is the most dangerous method but one that is frequently used.  Place the racks in a large trash bag. Add 2 cups ammonia to the bag. Tightly tie or seal off the bag so that the ammonia cannot leak out and let them sit overnight lying flat. The racks do not have to be coated in the ammonia because the fumes will circulate and do the job. The next day, open the trash bag being cautious of the ammonia and the fumes.  (Avoid inhaling the fumes.)  Spray the racks with a garden hose and then wash with dish detergent followed by a rinse.  Dispose of the ammonia by mixing with water and pouring down the kitchen sink or toilet.  If you have a septic system, the ammonia should be neutralized with baking soda, cat litter, and sand and disposed in the outside trash.  The bag should be sprayed with the garden hose, bagged, and also put in the outside trash.

Baking Soda, Vinegar, and Hot Water.  Place the racks in the bathtub. Plug the tub and sprinkle baking soda on the racks and then pour vinegar on top creating a foam. When the foaming stops, run hot water until the racks are fully covered.  Allow the racks to sit in the water for 10-12 hrs or overnight. Remove racks from the water and scrub with a cleaning cloth, pumice, or synthetic scrubber until all grease and grime is gone.

Pat yourself on the back when the job is done. You might want to reward yourself with a holiday gift by investing about $10 in an easy-to-clean non-stick oven liner that catches spillovers and crumbs and helps prevent the fore mentioned ‘culinary crime scene’.  Be sure to use the liner correctly in your oven.

Lastly, give yourself a break and don’t stress if the oven doesn’t turn out spotless.  The object is to get it clean enough that the grime doesn’t taint anything that is baked or roasted in the oven and the aromas coming from the kitchen are pleasant.  After all, ‘tis the season for a little fun, too!

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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50 Shades of Gra-vy

At this time of the year, we are usually talking turkey with lots of questions about how to make the perfect turkey gravy.  Gravy is often the star of a turkey dinner, the condiment that ties the meat, potatoes, and veggies together.  While making gravy is nearly the same for all meats, for the purposes of this blog, we’ll zero in on turkey gravy.

In its basic form, gravy is a thickened sauce made from meat drippings with perhaps the addition of stock and seasonings.  It starts as a roux or equal parts of fat and flour cooked in a skillet until it is golden brown and bubbly.  (Cornstarch and potato starch are other options for thickening gravy when flour cannot be used and will be addressed later.)  The best fat is found in the drippings rendered by the meat during roasting found roaming at the bottom of the roasting pan. Drippings are flavor packed and add a depth of flavor to any gravy.

When the turkey reaches temperature, remove it from the oven, tent, and let rest for 20 minutes.  During this time, the turkey will continue to rise in temperature and leak additional drippings.  Remove the turkey from the roasting pan and drain the drippings through a colander or strainer to remove the coagulated bits of this and that.  Discard the bits and save the strained drippings to make the gravy.

Separate the fat from the liquid drippings with a separator or with a spoon.  If there is sufficient fat, use the separated fat to make the roux.  If not, use butter or any other fat preferred (coconut oil, vegetable oil, olive oil, margarine, or bacon fat).  For each cup of gravy desired, use a ratio of two tablespoons of fat, two tablespoons of flour, and a cup of liquid to produce a rich and thick gravy. (This ratio can be doubled or tripled as needed.) In a skillet (or roasting pan), whisk the flour into the fat over medium heat.  Let the mixture bubble and brown slightly.  Slowly add the defatted drippings or a combination of drippings and broth or other liquid, whisking vigorously to dissolve the roux into the liquid and prevent lumping.  Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer gently until slightly thickened.  Stir in desired seasonings—salt, pepper, herbs (dried or fresh) such as sage and/or thyme.  Go lightly on the salt if salted broth is used or the drippings are already salty.  Taste as you go.  Allow the gravy to simmer and thicken for about 10 minutes longer adding more liquid to thin if needed. 

There are unlimited recipes for making turkey gravy; many family recipes have been passed along for generations and may be made with cream, giblets, cream soups, broth only, variety of seasonings, wine, cognac, and other unique ingredients.  There is nothing wrong with going outside of a basic gravy recipe.  Whether basic or otherwise, sometimes things go wrong and other than scorching, most gravy can be rescued.  Some quick cures:

Bland – add a little more salt or herbs, a drop or two of soy sauce, or sautéed onions or mushrooms

Lumpy – blend in a blender or with an emulsion blender until smooth

Too thick – add more drippings, broth, or even water to thin (I’ve even seen orange juice used.)

Too thin – make a slurry of flour and water and slowly add to gravy bringing it to a boil OR make a small roux (equal butter and flour) and add to the gravy

Too greasy – use a slice of bread to soak up the grease as much as possible; add a little more liquid, whisk briskly and serve quickly

Gravy is perishable. Bacteria grow rapidly at temperatures between 40 °F and 140 °F. Therefore, homemade turkey gravy should be discarded if left for more than 2 hours at room temperature. To maximize the shelf life of homemade turkey gravy, refrigerate in airtight containers.  Properly stored, homemade turkey gravy will keep for 2 days in the refrigerator.  To further extend the shelf life, it can be frozen in airtight containers or heavy-duty freezer bags.  In the freezer, turkey gravy will maintain best quality for about 3 months, but will remain safe beyond that time.  When reheating homemade turkey gravy, always bring the gravy to a slow rolling boil, stirring frequently to prevent scorching, before serving.

When flour cannot be used, cornstarch and potato starch are the best options for gravy.  Avoid arrowroot and tapioca starches because they can get “stringy” and look artificial in gravy.  Cornstarch gravy is more translucent than flour based sauces. Potato starch gravy is more opaque than cornstarch, but less opaque than flour. Gravy made with starches require less simmering than flour based sauces. Avoid boiling as overcooked starch based gravy will lose some of its thickness.  Keeping time in the refrigerator remains the same but know that starch based gravy does not freeze well.

A delicious homemade gravy is easy to make but shouldn’t be hurried even though it might be the last item made to complete the menu.  Some like to make their gravy ahead of time. If made ahead, bear in mind refrigerating, freezing, and reheating precautions.  An electric gravy boat, thermos, or slow cooker (warm) is a great way to keep gravy at serving temperature and consistency after reheating or while waiting for dinner to be served.

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Pie Baking – Fill ‘Er Up!

Pie has been a proverbial favorite beginning with the ancient Egyptians according to the American Pie Council.  Despite its long history, pie baking has been held in such awe that the process has become intimidating for some.  To help quell the anxiety, I’ve written two previous blogs on pie baking with tips from my mother-in-law who needed no reason to bake a pie and did it as casually as putting on socks. 

In the previous two Pie Baking blogs, tips on ingredients and equipment and making a pastry crust have been shared.  Now it’s time to fill that crust.  With a pastry crust, there are generally two options—single- or double-crust.  A single crust is just that, the pastry lines a pie plate to form the shell for the filling with the top open. (Sometimes, a single crust can also just be a top crust covering the filling underneath it.)  The double crust begins as a single crust with the additional steps of topping it with a second crust, lattice, or shingled cutouts after filling (usually with fruit) and sealing the two crusts together.  Either of them are a blank canvas just waiting to be filled with goodness! 

The Not So Lonely Single Crust

The ways that a single crust can be filled is unlimited.  Depending upon the desired filling, the crust is perfect for baked and unbaked fillings giving one the ultimate choices of cream pies, custard pies, baked fruit pies with or without crumble toppings, jelled no-bake fruit pies, cookie pies, and quiche.  If the single crust is to be filled with a cream filling—coconut, banana, chocolate, lemon, peanut butter, etc—a jelled fruit filling—fresh strawberry or peach, etc—or a precooked fruit filling, the crust must be first blind baked. 

Blind baking is baking without filling to ensure a crisp, thoroughly baked, crust ready to fill with a filling that is not baked.  After the dough is fitted and formed in the pan, the crust should be pricked (also called docking) with a fork.  Secondly, the crust is lined with parchment paper and weighed down.  As the pie dough bakes, the fat melts creating steam.  Steam creates the flaky layers, but without the pricking and weighing down, the pie crust shrinks down the sides of the pie plate and the dough puffs up.  Special purchased pie weights, dry beans or rice, and even granulated sugar can be used for weighing down.  Fill the crust to the brim with whatever weight is used.  Place the crust in a preheated 375֯F oven for about 20 minutes or until the edge is dry to the touch and light brown.  Remove the weight and parchment paper and bake 8 to 10 minutes longer until the bottom of the crust is a light brown and dry to the touch.

Once the crust has cooled thoroughly, it is time to add any favorite cream (instant or cooked), jelled fresh fruit, or pre-cooked fruit filling.  If a cooked cream filling is to have a meringue topping, the meringue is added while the filling is still warm as the warm filling helps seal the two layers together, preventing separation.  The pie is placed in the oven to bake until the meringue is browned on top.  Cream pies should be allowed to cool at room temperature for 1 hour and then placed in the refrigerator to chill for at least 4 hours before slicing and serving.  Instant cream and jelled fresh fruit pies should be refrigerated immediately after preparation and also chilled for 4 hours before slicing and serving.

Recipes differ on quiche or custard fillings such as pumpkin, classic or fruit custard, chess, pecan, and sour-cream raisin as to whether the crust should be blind baked before filling and baking or simply filled and baked.  The blind baking helps to prevent a soggy crust.  Some recipes will also have one brush the bottom of the crust with a beaten egg yolk and bake for 3 minutes to glaze the bottom to seal the crust.

One-crust baked fruit pies are always a family favorite.  They often are topped with a crumb topping made from a variety of ingredients.  The crumb topping is spread or sprinkled over the fruit filling before baking. 

Devine Goodness between the Layers – Double Crust Pies

If there is ever a mental picture of an American pie, it has to be the classic double crust pie with juicy fruit oozing from a slice.  Double crust pies are typically filled with fruit, but can be savory or meat-filled, too.  Typically, the second crust is a lid-like covering over the filling.  However, the top crust need not be boring; a quick peak at a Taste of Home pie feature shows multiple, creative pie toppers.

When using fruit as the main ingredient of a double-crust pie, it is important to note that fruit can be a tricky or fickle ingredient whether it is fresh or frozen fruit.  The most beautifully crafted pie using a tested recipe can result in a pie swimming in juice when sliced for serving.  Apple pie would be an exception as apples have enough pectin to hold together well.  The juiciness is all about the ripeness of the fruit and the amount of juice the fruit contains.  Further, if frozen fruit is used, water is released when it is thawed.  Thickeners such as flour, cornstarch, or tapioca are commonly used to shore up fruit liquid but sometimes the amount suggested in a recipe just isn’t enough.  So how does one get it right?

One of the best ways is to macerate the fruit by gently mixing the fruit with the sugar called for in the recipe letting it stand for 20-30 minutes.  While applying gentle pressure to the fruit, strain the juices away from the fruit.  Bring the juice to a boil and then simmer until the juice is reduced to about 1/3.  Combine a small amount of the juice with the thickening agent (cornstarch, flour, tapioca) and whisk into a slurry.  Return the slurry to the remaining juice and add the fresh fruit.  Cool to room temperature before filling the crust. During the baking, the fruit will thicken.

For frozen fruit, the process is much the same.  Thaw the fruit and strain off the liquid pressing the fruit gently.  Simmer the juice to about 1/3.  Mix the sugar and thickening agent together; add to the juice and whisk into a slurry.  Stir in the fruit and cool to room temperature before adding to the crust.  The thickening agent will do its work while baking to thicken the pie.

To bake the pie, preheat the oven to 425֯F.  Place the pie in the lower third of the oven for 15 minutes.  The high temperature and lower rack position kick start the baking of the pie shell to prevent a soggy bottom.  For phase two, place a cookie sheet or liner under the pie and move it to the middle of the oven reducing the temperature to 350-375֯F baking for the time specified in the recipe.  Since individual ovens vary, it is important to stay with your pie through the baking process peeking at it through a window now and again.  If the oven has hot spots, it may be necessary to rotate it if the oven.  Sometimes the edges brown too quickly and covering with a pie ring or foil strips to prevent overbrowning is necessary.  If the top is browning too quickly and the fruit is not yet done, tent the whole pie with foil.  The pie is done with the crust is a lovely golden brown and the fruit is bubbling with clear juices.

Writing these blogs has been a little bit of a trip down memory lane as my mentor is no longer able to make pie and sadly has no memory of her craft. I hope I have inspired you to gather a few simple ingredients, throw down some flour, pick up a rolling pin, and make pie your new game or up your pie game. It really is that simple!

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Pie Baking – Crust Perfection

As mentioned in the first of the Pie Baking series, late fall seems to bring out the pie baking instinct in many.  In the first blog of the series, I shared the “basic three” ingredients and equipment needed to form the foundation of the pie, the pie crust.  In this blog, the second of the series, I’ll continue with tips from my mother-in-law on making the crust.   Aprons on, let’s get to mixing, rolling, and forming!

On to Pie Crust Perfection!

Temperature – Keep It Cold.  It is most important that the fat and water be cold.  Butter and shortening can be used right out of the refrigerator.  Other fats should be chilled for at least 15 minutes before using.  Add ice cubes to water to get it as cold as possible but do not mix ice cubes into your dough. (Some like to put the flour, bowl, and rolling pin in the fridge or freezer to get them cold, too.)

Mixing the Dough – Less is More – It’s All in the Feel.  Put the solid fat into the dry ingredients in chunks. Use your fingers (not hands) to press the fat into the dry ingredients so that the small fat pieces are flattened and well incorporated into the flour. Once the fat and dry ingredients are combined, gradually add ice water in small amounts to just moisten the flour with your fingers. Once the dough appears “shaggy” (holds together when squeezed but not sticky or crumbly), form into a disc (a slightly flattened ball) or divide the dough if the recipe is for more than one crust and form discs. A disc may be used right away or wrapped in plastic and refrigerated for 30 minutes. Letting the dough rest allows the gluten to relax and gives the flour time to absorb the water evenly usually making it easier to handle. (If refrigerated for longer than 30 minutes, a brief warm up period may be needed before rolling out the dough.)  When making a double crust pie, chilling one round while rolling out the other is always a good option. (A pastry blend, mixer, or food processor can be used to mix the dough, too.)

Rolling Out the Dough – Work Quickly to Keep Dough from Getting Warm. Always roll out dough on a lightly floured, clean surface.  Wax paper or parchment paper are options but tend to slide around. A chilled surface is ideal for those that have them. Starting with a disc, use steady pressure on the rolling pin, rolling from the center outward.  To maintain a circular shape, rotate the dough a quarter turn and repeat or rotate the rolling direction.  If the dough sticks to the surface, throw a little flour under the dough and keep going until the desired shape, size (1-2 inches larger than the pie plate) and thickness (1/8th-1/16th-inch) are reached.

Moving the Dough to the Pie Plate – Easy Does It.  Getting the rolled dough into the pie plate can be done by any method that works for you. Some options:  1) Carefully fold the dough in half (or fourths), pick up and lay into the pie pan and unfold. 2) If rolled on waxed or parchment paper, place the pie plate upside down centered on the dough circle; place hand carefully under the paper, turn dough and pie pan right side up letting the dough sag into the pie plate as the paper is gently removed. 3) Roll dough around a floured rolling pin and unroll over the pie plate.  Being careful not to stretch the dough, allow the dough to settle into the pie plate by gently pressing into place.  If it cracks or tears, gently pat back together. (A fingertip of water also acts as glue to mending cracks and tears.)

Finishing the Crust – Making It Pretty.  For a single crust pie, trim the overhanging dough to about one inch from the edge all the way.  Turn the cut edge under to form a thick lip resting on the pie plate rim. For a double crust pie, fit the bottom crust into the pie pan leaving the overhanging dough in place.  Add the filling. Lay the top crust over the filling. Trim both top and bottom overhang together to about one inch, then tuck the overhang underneath itself so the folded edge lays on the edge of the pan. Add a decorative edge of choice. For ideas check out the YouTube video, 20 Creative Pie Crimping Techniques in 120 Seconds.

A lattice top is a third option but takes a little more time and patience. Lattice top pies are created by cutting the top crust into strips before moving it to the pie, then weaving the pieces under and over across the top of the pie. Finish the edges like a double crust pie.  Another option is to shingle the top of the pie by cutting shapes (hearts, rounds, diamonds, etc) from the top crust dough with a cookie cutter and placing the shapes on top of the pie filling so they overlap slightly like shingles.

Finally to give any double, lattice, or shingled crust a glossy, golden, sparkling finish, brush the top with an egg-, milk-, or cream-wash and sprinkle with granulated, decorator, or flavored sugar.

Vent – Let the Steam Out.  Double crust pies need vents or small slices through the top crust to allow water vapor to escape. These can be cut before placing the top crust on the pie or after.  A small cookie cutter can be used to create decorative vents before topping the pie. Lattice pies have built in vents.

If visuals are helpful in making a crust, check out Episode 1 of Iowa’s well known pie author and Pie Lady, Beth M Howard. Ms Howard offers a free YouTube series of pie lessons, Stay Calm and Bake Pie.  In the episode, Ms Howard demonstrates how to make a crust for a double crust pie in nearly the same relaxed, casual fashion I remember my mother-in-law making her crusts. 

The Pie Baking series will continue with filling the pie in a third blog.

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Pie Baking – Simple Ingredients and Equipment

Who doesn’t love a piece of pie?  Pie has been a proverbial favorite beginning with the ancient Egyptians according to the American Pie Council. The history of pie is quite fascinating and while I love to share the history of food, I will reserve pie history for another time—perhaps National Pie Days (December 1 and January 23 not be confused with Pi Day, March 14).  Pie is such an act of love that I think it should be celebrated whenever one is given the chance to enjoy a piece.

 While there is not a designated time to bake a pie, late fall seems to bring out the pie baking instinct in many.  Perhaps it is the combination of bumper crops from our gardens and fruit trees with the anticipated holiday season and cooler weather enticing one to turn on the oven that brings on the urge to tie on those apron strings and get baking.  I’ve felt it myself.

I’m hardly an expert when it comes to pie baking.  There are countless books, articles, and videos written by real experts on how to bake the perfect pie providing endless tips and recipes each offering their own ‘how to’.  While all of the information is helpful, some may still find pie baking intimidating. Sometimes the best teacher is that person in your life who truly loves to bake pie; for me, that would be my mother-in-law who in her younger days needed no occasion or excuse to bake at least one pie ‘just because’ as any day was a pie day. Needless to say, I learned a lot from watching her nonchalant approach to making pie.

Making pie is easy and need not be intimidating. Using tips from my mother-in-law, let’s get into the art of pie baking beginning with the ingredients and equipment needed for the foundation, the pie crust.

3 Basic Ingredients and Simple Equipment

Pie crust starts with three basic ingredients—flour, fat, and water.  Some recipes will add salt, sugar, eggs, milk, vinegar, leavening and other ingredients which can enhance a pie crust, but the ‘basic three’ are the only ones necessary. The recipe is as easy as 3-2-1–3 parts flour, 2 parts fat, 1 part cold water.  Here’s a brief description of how they work together to create pastry.

  • Flour.  All-purpose flour is all that is necessary; it has the perfect amount of gluten (11% protein) to provide structure yet create a tender, flaky crust.  Protein content is directly related to the gluten structure; the higher the protein, the stronger and faster the gluten structure forms as the dough is worked. Cake flour has too little gluten and bread flour has too much.  Unbleached flour is slightly better for pie crust than bleached but either will do. Pastry flour is another option but all-purpose is sufficient and readily available.
  • Fat.  Lard, butter, shortening, vegetable oil, or some combination are fat options.  Everyone has their favorite.  Fat has a dual purpose:  1) it coats the flour particles to prevent excessive gluten formation; 2) during baking, the pea-size fat pieces melt releasing steam which lifts the pockets to create a flaky, tender layers. Solid fats result in a flakier crust than melted or liquid fats.  Chilled fats provide the best results.
  • Water.  Think of water as the glue that holds the flour and fat together. Always start with small amounts and gradually add more as needed to just moisten the flour. Like fat, liquids should be ice cold.  If water is not used, milk (regular, evaporated, or reconstituted dry milk), egg, vinegar, or combinations are other liquid alternatives.

The equipment needed to make a pie crust is also quite basic–bowl, measuring cups, rolling pin, hard surface, pie plate and knife or scissors. However, one can upgrade from the basics as much as desired by adding a pastry blender, mixer, food processor, fancy rolling pins, pastry clothes, dough scrapers, pastry wheels, and metal pie crust shields to name a few. In all humbleness, a suburb pie crust can be made with the basic three ingredients using a bowl and fingers. A rolling pin is necessary to flatten the dough but wine bottles have been used in a pinch. There are many kinds of pie plates and any of them will work. Of all, the simple clear glass pan is probably the best choice. Glass pans produce wonderfully brown, crisp crusts that are usually not soggy on the bottom. (It may be necessary to reduce the baking time or oven temperature with a glass pan.) No matter the material of the pie pan, it is more than possible to bake a great pie in it with a little practice and possible tweaking of time and/or temperature as each material is different. The disposable aluminum pans create the most challenge to even baking, but many have mastered that challenge with admirable results–beautiful golden-brown, fully cooked, no-soggy-bottom pies.

I will continue with pie baking in follow up blogs.  Next up, tips or keys to pie crust perfection!

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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