Archive for the ‘Pop Science’ Category

Apple Pie, FAQ

Wednesday, September 30th, 2015

This pie was the best ever - flaky and flavorful.

Pile apples high with at least two varieties, use fresh spices, and taste filling before baking.

Consumers love pie! But baking pie seems to be problematic for many people. I am totally sympathetic to the pie-challenged, since pie making was not always my favorite baking activity. But practice definitely results in better pies. Over the years I’ve learned a few tips for making wonderful tasty and flaky apple pie:

About Apples
Sadly, I’ve found that recommendations for best baking apples were not always accurate.  I learned early in my bakery career there was inconsistency in those lists. My biggest irritation was piling a mountain of apples into the crust for making a mile-high apple pie; but then occasionally the apples baked down to mush while the pie crust stayed nice and tall. I solved the problem by using a mixed variety of 3 kinds of apples and from then on my apple fillings were always excellent.

Last week for home use, I bought two kinds of apples.  There are so many new varieties I wanted to try, I just picked ones that looked good to my hungry eyes. The pie was for family so I wasn’t concerned about customer complaints. It wasn’t until the next day when I was slicing those apples that I checked several internet lists and the two kinds I had purchased were both said to be “mush” in baking. Damn. I briefly considered making a strudel which would surely hide the problem, but I decided to make a pie and cut the slices thicker. Success! The “mush” prone thicker apples held up just fine. (I haven’t replicated this procedure but I would try it again the next few times I make apple pie. If you inadvertently buy apples that may not hold up in baking, and try this method, please email to let me know your results.)

Apple Pie Tips: 1. Use at least two varieties of apples.  2. Cut apples into both slices and smaller chunks. The smaller pieces fill in the crevices. 3. Most recipes don’t have enough flavor. After mixing your filling, taste it and see how you like the taste. Older spices tend to lose flavor so feel free to add more spice (and more sugar).

About Pie Dough
Recently I’ve been involved with a pie crust project which means lots of pie baking. As I researched the subject, I came across foodie/scientists, foodie blogs, and their “science of cooking” which is a misnomer (here’s one of the many articles I found.) Proper scientific methods include repetition to achieve repeated similar results. Unfortunately, many foodie/scientists jump to conclusions, write with authority, and create ever more myths. I am not a food scientist. I can only share what I have learned from practical application and baking thousands of pies (sometimes grudgingly) throughout my career.

Pie Dough Tips: 1. For many years I used ice cold water but on several occasions there was no ice water when it needed to be added to the mixer. My practical experience taught me that results for using ice water vs cold tap water were the same. Now I use cold tap water. (Warm water will soften the fat too much.) 2. I like a wetter dough which = softer dough, and easier to roll out. 3. I read all about the science of using vodka (actually any alcohol works, it depends upon the flavor and color you’re looking for) so I’ve been experimenting with using vodka for part of the water. To reduce the number of variables, my current pie project is only using vodka. 4. In family focus groups (taste and texture tests) I’ve learned that while butter is nice, an all-vegetable shortening and vodka makes for a flaky crust and a delicious taste.

Not a scientific study: Three year olds don't always like weird pie foods, top left, but five year olds will eat their own piece plus their brother's.

I still often use my part butter crust recipe, but below is a variation that results in consistently excellent pie.

yield: enough for two double crust pies
5 cups all-purpose flour (approx. 1¼#) plus extra for rolling
½ teaspoon salt
2 cups vegetable shortening (1#)
¾ cup cold water (or use part vodka, part water)

1. Have your filling ready, and set aside.
2. Pan spray baking tins and preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
3. In a large bowl, lightly mix flour and salt, then cut in shortening. When mixture looks fine-grained, drizzle in water/vodka and mix into a ball. Knead lightly, then separate into four pieces, two slightly larger. Use at once or wrap and chill for one hour or up to five days.
4. Don’t worry about working fast – take the time you need. Roll out larger pieces of dough and place in lightly greased pie pans. Trim any dough hanging more than ¼” over the edge. Add filling, roll out top crust, and place over filling. Gently roll edge of top and bottom crust together and press down to seal. Flute edges, or not, in any way you want. Vent top of each pie. If you wish, pie tops can be brushed with water, milk, butter, or beaten egg. You can also sprinkle with sugar. Or just leave plain.
5. Place pie pans on a cookie sheet with a large piece of parchment or aluminum foil under each pan. Bake in preheated 375° oven 45-60 minutes. Pies are done when juice has bubbled out for a few minutes.
6. Let pies cool at least two hours before cutting. To freeze, cool to room temperature then wrap well and place in freezer.

Home-Based Baking at its Best! If you have a home-based food business and do not make pies, consider adding this product line to your offerings. With the trend toward home-made, seasonal, and local, your customers would appreciate purchasing fresh pies any time of year.

Visit Us on Facebook


Coffeecake Drops Out of Science Class

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

There were many responses to my previous post about cookie science. Apparently I’m not the only person who finds this brand of pop science somewhat irritating. In today’s post I ran my own little “science” test.

Blueberry Crumb Coffeecake

I have several sour cream coffeecake recipes, some that are quite similar to each other. I focused on those and compared the recipes. They all have the same ingredients – butter, sugar, eggs, flour, etc. – but the amounts are different; sometimes slightly different and sometimes very different. Although the batter yields are all the same, some start with a pound of butter while some use only one-quarter pound. Leaveners are different, sugar is different, etc. The one constant is that the results are all tender with the texture I expect to find in a coffeecake. Is there anything I can learn without running a real scientific test?

Cake A (round cakes in front). Cake B (9x13 cake in back).

I started with my favorite recipe, below, and baked the recipe twice for a side by side test. Cake A was baked exactly as written. Cake B had several changes and substitutions such as part sour cream and part yogurt. While Cake A had exact flour, I was sloppy with the flour measurement for Cake B and that batter came out too thick. I then poured in amaretto without measuring. Also with Cake B, I stirred in the salt after everything was mixed. (Sorry, accidental part of the planned experiment.)

Cake A

Cake B

What can I conclude from this test? Both cakes came out great and I have written results. But I didn’t learn anything useful that I could state as a fact, since any conclusions would be based on a one-time test. Maybe if I ran it exactly the same way multiple times (using the same brand ingredients, same mix times, bake times, and process, etc.) I would have results to compare and conclusions could be reached. But without real controls it’s impossible to come up with a reliable evaluation.

Unofficial conclusions
Conclusion #1: It’s hard to screw up sour cream coffeecake.
Conclusion #2: If you are a scientist and understand how to conduct legitimate scientific experiments, great. But if you’re a foodie, enjoy your fabulous coffeecake and leave science to professionals.

Sour Cream Coffeecake
Filling, optional

  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • 1 cup chopped nuts
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon


  • 1 cup butter
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 4 large eggs
  • 2 cups sour cream
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 2 tablespoons liquor
  • 4 cups all-purpose flour (18 oz.)
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups fresh chopped fruit or berries, optional

1. Heat oven to 350º F. Grease 9×13 pan, or (2) 9” pans, or any variation of smaller pans.
2. If using filling, in small bowl, mix all filling ingredients and set aside.
3. In large bowl, beat butter and sugar, then beat in eggs, sour cream, vanilla, and any liquor. Mix in flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Mix in fruit, if using.
4. For a fruited coffeecake, spread batter in pans. If you prefer using filling, spread ⅓ of plain batter (about 2 cups) in pan; sprinkle with ⅓ of the filling. Repeat until batter is used.
6. Bake 45-60 minutes (depending upon size of pans) or until toothpick inserted near center comes out clean. Cool and sprinkle cakes with confectioners’ sugar.

Home-Based Baking at its Best! This recipe works well with fresh, seasonal fruit.

Visit Us on Facebook


Cookie Science?

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014


Last year, Tessa Arias, a food blogger, began a fun series about chocolate chip cookies. She wrote The Ultimate Guide to Chocolate Chip Cookies, followed by several more posts. Arias is a culinary grad with a personable style. I enjoyed her viewpoint but was rather surprised to read in the Ultimate Cookie Troubleshooting Guide that, “The posts illustrated the science behind cookie baking.”


I am not a food scientist. I am a former bakery owner and have baked thousands of cookies, cakes, brownies, muffins, coffeecakes, breads, rolls, etc. I learned by reading and making the same recipes over and over and over. I write about food but my results are not science.

A basic principle in science: testing must be done numerous times and results must have the ability to be independently reproduced. Where’s the science behind the cookie testing results? While Arias’ posts are fun to read, they are not scientific. Calling a fluff piece “science” is misleading. It attempts to elevate recipe development to a higher status but only succeeds in devaluing the true nature of scientific testing.

I wouldn’t have addressed this issue, but then Anne Miller wrote, The Science Behind Baking the Most Delicious Cookie Ever and referred to food blogger “…Tessa Arias, who writes about cookie science on her site, Handle the Heat.”

Christa Savery Dunn, Baking Outside the Box, an avid writer and recipe developer wrote, “I need to do this experiment myself because I have had different results than some of the ones shown here. What do you think of the science behind this? … I have had brown sugar cookies come out flat and white sugar cookies come out fluffy, so I question that. Also, beating speed and time are not mentioned in this article, and I think that is a major omission.”

Dunn made some excellent observations. And I have more concerns. Does the author use weight or volume measure? If you’ve been hanging around the food/baking world for any length of time you no doubt have heard that weight is accurate and volume is inaccurate with inconsistent results. Volume measure is fine for home bakers, but frowned upon for commercial baking and absolutely unacceptable for scientific results. This blog series gave volume measure for flour, with the caveat, “if you’re interested in the weight…”


In Miller’s piece, a couple of things are right. But there’s a lot wrong, such as “Ooey-gooey: Add 2 cups more flour.” WRONG WRONG WRONG. Adding 2 more cups would be a disaster. Is there no proofreader on duty? Churning out these types of food articles is what happens when food becomes trendy.


We are blurring the lines between science and pseudoscience. But everyone does it so that makes it okay? Unfortunately, Miller’s well written but not-so-scientific article was reposted in Time and again in NPR.

I can certainly see why a food blogger would write about baking chocolate chip cookies. But I’m disappointed with how “science” has evolved. There are similar “science” pieces out there, some good and some not.  But really, please, stop already with this pseudoscience.


Our society worships everything food and everyone wants in. Media stars, marketing personnel, lawyers, English professors, home cooks – far too many people who have no business discussing and writing about food “science” have crossed the line. The food hobby has gone crazy. Enough already.

Visit Us on Facebook