CSI: Squid Ink is on the scene, out to solve some cold (and hot) kitchen cases. These are problems that have perplexed us for some time. From egg shells that can't be removed, to sunflower seeds that turn cookies green, we figured there had to be scientific explanations for these culinary conundrums. Helping us in our investigation is Ritamarie Little, Associate Director for the Marilyn Magaram Center for Food Science, Nutrition and Dietetics at CSUN. "Fifty years ago they weren't mysteries," points out Little. "Our grandmothers knew this stuff."
True, but in defense of our ignorance, our grandmothers' brain cells weren't compromised by watching shows like "Real Housewives" and "Dance Moms." To see what we uncovered, turn the page. And if you have a kitchen mystery you'd like us to look into, let us know in the comments.
5. Why Is It Sometimes So Difficult to Remove Shells from Hardboiled Eggs?
You've got a craving for egg salad. And what could be easier to make? You boil the eggs -- but then, when it's time to remove the shells, your lunch plans implode, because the shells won't come off and you end up losing half the egg. What's going on?
"I'll be honest with you, I sometimes struggle with this too, even when I follow all the rules," confesses Little. To understand what is happening, she says it's helpful to know something about the structure of an egg. If you thought it's only about white and yolk, wrong! There are also two very thin membranes underneath the shell. As eggs age, there's a space called an air cell that forms between these membranes and the shell. The older the egg, the bigger this space becomes.
"Fresher eggs are harder to peel, because that air cell is smaller and it's really tight against the shell. As the egg naturally ages, it will actually pull away from the shell a little bit and it becomes a little bit easier to peel," she says.
In addition to using eggs of a certain age, another tip for easier shell removal is to give your eggs some shock therapy. While there are many opinions on the best ways to hardboil eggs, if your main concern is easy shell removal, then try giving the eggs a "hot start" (which is not as sexy as it sounds.) What this simply means is that you boil the water first, then carefully put in the eggs. After they simmer for about 10 minutes, take them out and immediately submerge them in icy cold water.
"You kind of shock that membrane away from the shell. That will help it peel a little bit easier," says Little. And here's another tip: make the first crack at the larger end of the egg, where the air cell is bigger. Then roll the egg between your hands, to loosen the shell.
4. Why Don't Our Split Peas Get Soft?
While a typical recipe says it should only take 30 to 45 minutes to cook split peas, it sometimes takes way longer. Since nobody likes crunchy split pea soup, we wanted to figure out what we're doing wrong. It turns out it might not be us, but the water we're using.
Little explains that the carbohydrate pectin is present in legumes, and this needs to be softened in order to make them edible. Big beans generally require overnight soaking, while smaller ones like lentils and split peas do not, because the pectin in them can soften up simply by cooking them.
"There are some things that can get in the way of that softening. Things like minerals," says Little. "If you have hard water, it sometimes will take longer. I live in Burbank. Our water is as hard as can be."
Higher altitudes can make it more challenging to cook legumes, as well. And acidic ingredients, such as tomato, lemon juice or vinegar also can interfere with the softening process, as can salt. One possible solution is to first cook the split peas separately in plain water, then add them to your broth and other ingredients. We've also found using a pressure cooker can dramatically speed up the process of softening any kind of bean.
3. What's the Difference Between Baking Soda and Baking Powder?
Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate. Baking powder is the same thing with an acid added (cream of tartar) and, often, cornstarch. Both are chemical leavening agents for baked goods. Baking soda typically is used for cookies, and baking powder for things that need to rise more, like quick breads, muffins and cakes.
With both baking soda and baking powder a chemical reaction takes place, which produces bubbles of carbon dioxide. These expand when baked goods are in the oven, causing them to rise. Baking powder comes two ways, single-acting or double-acting. Moist batter activates single-acting baking powder right away, and you need to start baking as soon as the ingredients are mixed. Double-acting baking powder is more forgiving, and baked goods made with it can sit at room temperature for a short time before putting them in the oven.
We wondered why foods baked with these leavening agents sometimes have parts with an off taste. Little says this could be the result of adding too much baking soda or powder, which then doesn't chemically react with the other ingredients, leaving residual bits that result in a "kind of icky, metallic taste."
2. Why Do Carrots Sometimes Split Down the Middle?
Call us paranoid, but we've always been wary of carrots that have cracks. Wondering why such splits occur is a favorite topic of conversation whenever we're in a produce department, but no one's ever been able to offer an explanation -- until now.
"This is a little bit more of an agriculture question," says Little. "Carrots require a steady amount of water as they're growing. If, at a period of time, there isn't a steady supply of water, when they do get water, they will absorb an extra amount. They kind of go through this spurt of growth, which will cause it to crack."
We wondered if it's all right to munch on a raw, cracked carrot. Little says it's perfectly safe to eat, with one caveat: Make sure you clean the carrot really well, because microbes you don't want to consume can hide inside the split.
1. Why Do Sunflower Seeds Turn Green In Baked Goods?
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This one really threw us for a loop the first time it happened. We baked cookie bars with sunflower seeds, then wondered why they turned moldy. We learned that it was not, in fact, mold, but a compound called chlorogenic acid, present in sunflower seeds, blueberries, coffee, tea and other foods. When exposed to the heat of an oven, chlorogenic acid will oxidize and turn bright green.
Little says you can avoid this startling pigment change by adding more acid to the recipe, with ingredients such as lemon juice, cream of tartar or buttermilk. And while the weird green color doesn't look very appetizing, it won't do you any harm: "It's not appealing, but it's safe to eat."
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