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Cook's Illustrated
The world of food and science, brought to your inbox
March 3, 2018
Crunch Time
This edition of the Cook’s Illustrated: Science! newsletter we’re talking all things texture. First, we dive into the fascinating world of highly specialized machines that measure all sorts of properties of food. Then, we unlock the scientific secrets to perfectly chewy brownies. Finally, we interview a former engineer who now quantifies food’s textures for a living. Yup, that’s a real job.
Measuring the Smooshiness of a Date
Measuring the Smooshiness of a Date
Everytime we cook and eat, our senses gather and process information about the texture of our food: the crunch of fried chicken, the stretchiness of pizza dough, the snap of a gingersnap.
The human body can qualitatively measure things like color, aroma, and texture. However, for food and drink manufacturers who look for consistency among their products, human testers can’t always provide the accuracy, or quantity, of data required.
That’s where the gadgets come in. Scientists and engineers have designed a surprising number of machines to measure just about every quality of food you can imagine (and many more you’ve probably never thought of) in precise and repeatable ways. We’ve rounded up some of our favorites—from the practical to the wacky—in this fun article. Here’s a sneak peek:
The Bostwick Consistometer uses a ramp and a timer to measure the flow of liquids like ketchup, honey, and hot sauce.
Sad, soggy French fries could be a thing of the past thanks to the R.P.C. Droopmeter (new band name?), which quantifies the bend in a French fry caused by gravity. Want to try it yourself? Grasp a fresh-from-the-fryer French fry between your thumb and index finger, so it’s parallel to the floor. Wait several minutes. Observe any bend in the fry. The greater the bend, the soggier the fry.
Any baker worth her salt knows that proper gluten development is imperative for stretching and shaping dough. The Chopin Alveograph, invented in the 1920s, stretches dough into a thin sheet and then blows air into it—think blowing a bubble with bubblegum—measuring the pressure the dough can withstand before it bursts, among other things. A modern version is still used today.
Check out the full article on Cook’s Illustrated: Science where you’ll be introduced to the Tenderometer, the Acoustic Envelope Detector, and the Massey Twist Tester, among other fantastically named machines.
Texture Goes High-Tech
Chew on This
After a heated debate about the merits of fudgy versus cake-like brownies, there was just one thing the Cook’s Illustrated team could agree on: a love for the nostalgic, chewy texture of box-mix brownies. Hear us out. While they usually fall short on chocolate flavor, their texture is irresistible: a shiny, crackly top above a moist, chewy interior. Senior editor Andrea Geary’s goal quickly became clear: Create a recipe with the beloved texture of box-mix brownies, but replace their typically artificial flavor with deep, rich chocolate. Easy, right?
Andrea began by baking a number of brownie recipes, all billed as “chewy.” But, despite the promise of their titles, all fell somewhere between cakey and fudgy, while absolutely none were chewy. Time to tinker: Different mixing methods and baking techniques were dead ends, and adding some unusual ingredients (biscuit mix! condensed milk! mayonnaise!) proved just as unsuccessful. Back to the drawing board it was.
After some deeper research, Andrea discovered the scientific secret to box-mix brownies’ chew: something called “high-tech shortening system.” Let’s break that down: The “shortening system” ensures the brownies have the correct ratio and amounts of saturated and unsaturated fats, which give them their signature texture. Saturated fats, like shortening, are solid at room temperature, while unsaturated fats, like vegetable oil, are liquid. Box brownie mix contains a precise amount of powdered solid fat. Users add a specified amount of liquid fat, in the form of vegetable oil, to the batter and, after baking, they’re left with perfectly chewy, fudgy brownies, every time. Since neither Andrea, nor home bakers, had a high-tech shortening system available, she set out to determine the ratio of solid to liquid fat that would deliver the chewiest brownies.
She stuck with butter as the saturated fat; it’s common in brownie recipes and more flavorful than shortening. Neutral-flavored vegetable oil would serve as the unsaturated fat. After testing various ratios of the two ingredients, a trend became clear: Brownies with a higher proportion of saturated fat baked up more tender, while those with more unsaturated fat were chewier. The chewiest brownies had a ratio of 29% saturated fat to 71% saturated fat, which, after some quick calculations, Andrea discovered was nearly identical to the ratio used in boxed mixes. Chewy texture, check. All that was left was to see how much chocolate flavor she could pack into one little brownie.
Classic Brownies vs. Chewy Brownies
Replacing two tablespoons of the butter with 2 ounces of unsweetened chocolate, which has roughly the same same saturated fat content, boosted the brownies’ chocolate flavor even more. And folding in bittersweet chocolate pieces right before baking created gooey pockets of melted chocolate.
The final result: Chewy, fudgy brownies brimming with chocolate flavor, complex enough for an adult palate, but with a hearty dash of nostalgia for bake sales past.
Get the full recipe on Cook’s Illustrated: Science and learn more about the chemistry of baking with an All-Access Membership.
Texture Goes High-Tech
Texture Goes High-Tech
There’s no shortage of high-quality cooking equipment here in the test kitchen. We have dozens of shelves stocked with our winning appliances and cookware, from cast-iron skillets to waffle irons. But there’s one piece of equipment in our kitchen that you probably won’t find in home kitchens: a texture analyzer. Typically found in laboratories, we use our CT3 Texture Analyzer to measure everything from how much force it takes to bite into a piece of beef to the tenderness of mushrooms. Recently, Eric Chiang, a Sales Manager at AMETEK Brookfield, which makes the CT3, visited the test kitchen to teach us more about this powerful tool. Eric has been working in the field of texture analysis for years. Naturally, we were curious as to what that entails, so we asked him a few questions:
Cook’s Illustrated: What, exactly, is texture analysis?
Eric Chiang: Texture analysis establishes a correlation between the quantitatively measured physical properties of a sample—like its hardness, chewiness, stickiness, crispness—and the subjective sensory properties perceived by the consumer during actions such as touching, squeezing, chewing, or spreading.
CI: Who uses texture analyzers in their work?
EC: Our Brookfield Texture Analyzers are used in a wide range of industries, such as food, cosmetics, personal care, pharmaceuticals, and materials science. It’s also used by colleges and universities in their labs.
CI: What kinds of products do they test?
EC: For food, we see texture analysis used on a wide range of products: mayonnaise, flatbreads, granola and energy bars, cheese, peanut butter, dough, fruit, and more. In personal care and cosmetics, companies measure properties of items like shampoo, conditioner, lipsticks, and compact powders.
CI: How are we, as consumers, impacted by the results of texture analysis? Where might we experience their results in what we buy and eat?
EC: Companies use a combination of quantitative texture analysis and consumer insights to create products with the most desireable textures—product consistency influences customers’ selections and product preferences. For example, if a customer purchases a specific brand of cookie because it is chewy, he would expect it be chewy every time he purchases it thereafter. A texture analyzer helps with quantifying and qualifying the desirable chewiness of these cookies. It’s also used for quality control, to keep products’ textures consistent from batch to batch.
CI: Is there any way a home cook could do some amateur texture analysis at home?
EC: That’s a tough one! If a person can control how deep and how quickly they can press their finger into something like a muffin, then they will have successfully performed a version of the firmness test. It might give some clues to the freshness of the muffin (or lack thereof).
CI: So, what is your role in all of this?
EC: I was originally a plant and process engineer, which led me to AMETEK Brookfield, who designs, manufactures, markets, and supports all their instruments. As a Sales Manager, I work with the engineering team on new texture product development, test customers’ samples in the lab, and provide technical support as well as training on how to use the instruments.
CI: Last question: What’s the wackiest texture test you’ve ever done on a food product?
EC: Testing the elasticity and extensibility of the small intestines of beef. They’re known as chinchulín, and they’re widely consumed in Latin America. I ate some while in Buenos Aires. . . but testing their extensibility was bizarre.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What To Cook This Week:
The Ultimate Crispy Fried Chicken
The Ultimate Crispy Fried Chicken
Chewy Brownies
Chewy Brownies
Beef Stir-Fry with Bell Peppers and Black Pepper Sauce
Beef Stir-Fry with Bell Peppers and Black Pepper Sauce
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