Popular Science Monthly/Volume 25/August 1884/The Chemistry of Cookery XIV




SINCE the publication of my last paper, I have been told, by a lady to whom the readers of "Knowledge" are much indebted, that in the fatherland of potatoes, as well as in their adopted country, they are always boiled or steamed in their jackets; that American cooks, like those of Ireland, would consider it an outrage to cut off the protecting skin of the potato before cooking it; that they are more commonly mashed there than here, and that the mashing is done by rapidly removing the skins, throwing the stripped potato into a supplementary saucepan or other vessel, in which they may be kept hot until the preparation is completed.

Returning to the subject at the point where I left, it I must endeavor to describe the effect of cooking on gluten. It is usually described as "partly soluble in hot water." My own examination of this substance suggests that "partially soluble" is a better description than "partly soluble" (Miller) or "very slightly soluble" (Lehmann). This difference is not merely a verbal quibble, but very real and practical in reference to the rationale of its cookery. A partly soluble substance is one which is composed of soluble and also of insoluble constituents, which, as already stated, is strictly the case with gluten in reference to the solvent action of hot alcohol. A very slightly soluble substance is one that dissolves completely but demands a very large quantity of the solvent. I find that the action of hot water on gluten, as applied in cookery, is to effect what may be described as a partial solution, that is, effecting a loosening of the bonds of solidity, but not going so far as to render it completely fluid.

It appears to be a sort of hydration similar to that which is effected by hot water on starch, but less decided.

To illustrate this, wash some flour in cold water so as to separate the gluten in the manner described in No. 29; then boil some flour as in making ordinary bill-sticker's paste, and wash this in cold water. The gluten will come out with difficulty, and when separated will be softer and less tenacious than the cold-washed specimen. This difference remains until some of the water it contains is driven out, for which reason I regard it as hydrated, though I am not prepared to say that the hydration is of a truly chemical character, not a definite compound of gluten and water, but rather a mechanical combination—a loosening of solidity by a molecular intermingling of water.

The importance of this in the cookery of grain-food is very great, as anybody who aspires to the honor of becoming a martyr to science may prove by simply making a meal on raw wheat, masticating the grains until reduced to small pills of gluten, and then swallowing these. Mild indigestion or acute spasms will follow, according to the quantity taken and the digestive energies of the experimenter. Raw flour will act similarly but less decidedly.

Bread-making is the most important, as well as a typical example, of the cookery of grain-food. The grinding of the grain is the first process of such cookery; it vastly increases the area exposed to the subsequent actions.

The next stage is that of surrounding each grain of the flour with a thin film of water. This is done in making the dough by careful admixture of a modicum of water and kneading in order to squeeze the water well between all the particles. The effect of insufficient enveloping in water is sometimes seen in a loaf containing a white powdery kernel of unmixed flour.

If nothing more than this were done, and such simple dough were baked, the starch-granules would be duly broken up and hydrated, the gluten also hydrated, but, at the same time, the particles of flour would be so cemented together as to form a mass so hard and tough when baked that no ordinary human teeth could crush it. Among all our modern triumphs of applied science none can be named that is more refined and elegant than the old device by which this difficulty is overcome in the every-day business of making bread. Who invented it, and when, I do not know, but perhaps Mr. Clodd can tell us. Its discovery was certainly very far anterior to any knowledge of the chemical principles involved in its application.

The problem has a very difficult aspect. Here are millions of particles, each of which has to be moistened on its surface, but each when thus moistened becomes remarkably adhesive, and therefore sticks fast to all its surrounding neighbors. We require, without suppressing this adhesiveness, to interpose a barrier that shall sunder these millions of particles from each other so delicately as neither to separate them completely, nor allow them to completely adhere.

It is evident that if the operation that supplies each particle with its film of moisture can simultaneously supply it with a partial atmosphere of gaseous matter, the difficult and delicate problem will be effectively solved. It is thus solved in making bread.

As already explained, the seed which is broken up into flour contains diastase as well as starch, and this diastase, when aided by moisture and moderate warmth, converts the starch into dextrine and sugar. This action commences when the dough is made, and this alone would only increase the adhesiveness of the mass, if it went no further; but the sugar thus produced may, by the aid of a suitable ferment, be converted into alcohol. As the composition of alcohol corresponds to that of sugar, minus carbonic acid, the evolution of carbonic-acid gas is an essential part of this conversion.

With these facts before us, their practical application in bread-making is easily understood. To the water with which the flour is to be moistened some yeast is added, and the yeast-cells, which are very much smaller than the grains of flour, are diffused throughout the water. The flour is moistened with this liquid, which only demands a temperature of about 70° Fahr. to act with considerable energy on every granule of flour that it touches. Instead, then, of the passive, lumpy, tenacious dough produced by moistening the flour with mere water, a lively "sponge," as the baker calls it, is produced, which "rises" or grows in bulk by the evolution and interposition of millions of invisibly small bubbles of gas. This sponge is mixed with more flour and water, and kneaded and kneaded again to effect a complete and equal diffusion of the gas-bubbles, and finally the porous mass of dough is placed in an oven previously raised to a temperature of about 450°.

The baker's old-fashioned method of testing the temperature of his oven is instructive. He throws flour on the floor. If it blackens without taking fire, the heat is considered sufficient. It might be supposed that this is too high a temperature, as the object is to cook the flour, not to burn it. But we must remember that the flour which has been prepared for baking is mixed with water, and the evaporation of this water will materially lower the temperature of the dough itself. Besides this, we must bear in mind that another object is to be attained. A hard shell or crust has to be formed, which will so incase and support the lump of dough as to prevent it from subsiding when the further evolution of carbonic-acid gas shall cease, which will be the case some time before the cooking of the mass is completed. It will happen when the temperature reaches the point at which the yeast-cells can no longer germinate, which temperature is considerably below the boiling-point of water.

In spite of this high outside temperature, that of the inner part of the loaf is kept down a little above 212° by the evaporation of the water contained in the bread; the escape of this vapor and the expansion of the carbonic-acid bubbles by heat increasing the porosity of the loaf.

The outside being heated considerably above the temperature of the inner part, this variation produces the differences between the crust and the crumb. The action of the high temperature in directly converting some of the starch into dextrin will be understood from what I have already stated, and also the partial conversion of this dextrin into caramel, which was described in Nos. 13 and 14 of this series. Thus we have in the crust an excess of dextrin as compared with the crumb, and the addition of a variable quantity of caramel. In lightly baked bread, with a crust of uniform pale-yellowish color, the conversion of the dextrin into caramel has barely commenced, and the gummy character of the dextrin coating is well displayed. Some such bread, especially the long staves of life common in France, appear as though they had been varnished, and their crust is partially soluble in water.

This explains the apparent paradox that hard crust, or dry toast, is more easily digested than the soft crumb of bread; the cookery of the crumb not having been carried beyond the mere hydration of the gluten and the starch, and such degree of dextrin formation as was due to the action of the diastase of the grain during the preliminary period of "rising."

Everybody has, of course, heard of "aërated bread," and most have tasted it. Several methods have been devised, some patented, for effecting an evolution of gas in the dough without having recourse to the fermentation above described. One of these is that of adding a little hydrochloric acid to the water used in moistening the flour, and mixing bicarbonate of soda in powder with the flour (to every four pounds of flour one half ounce bicarbonate, and four and a half fluid drachms of hydrochloric acid of 1·16 specific gravity). These combine and form sodium chloride, common salt, with evolution of carbonic acid. The salt thus formed takes the place of that usually added in ordinary bread-making, and the carbonic-acid gas evolved acts like that given off in fermentation; but the rapidity of the action of the acid and carbonate presents a difficulty. The bread must be quickly made, as the action is soon completed. It does not go on steadily increasing and stopping just at the right moment, as in the case of fermentation.

I remember the first introduction of this about half a century ago, and the anticipations which accompanied it. London was agitated by the bread-reform movement, and bakers were alarmed. A large establishment was opened in Oxford Street, and much amusement created by an opposition placard display in some of the neighboring bakers' shops, "Bread sold here with the gin in it." This, of course, was fallacious as the alcohol produced by the panary fermentation is driven off by the heat of the oven. Other methods similar in principle have been adopted, such as adding ammonia carbonate with the soda carbonate. The ammonia salt is volatile itself, besides evolving carbonic acid by its union with the acid.

In spite of the great amount of ingenuity expended upon the manufacture of such unfermented bread and the efforts to bring it into use, but little progress has been made. The general verdict appears to be that the unfermented bread is not so "sweet," that it lacks some element of flavor, is "chippy" or tasteless as compared with good old-fashioned wheaten bread, free from alum or other adulteration. My theory of this difference is that it is due to the absence of those changes which take place while the sponge or dough is rising, when, if I am right, the diastase of the grain is operating, as in germination, to produce a certain quantity of dextrin and sugar, and possibly acting also on the gluten. Deficiency of dextrin is, I think, the chief cause of the chippy character of aërated bread. It must be remembered that this stage is protracted over several hours, during which the temperature most favorable to germination is steadily maintained. Other and very interesting phenomena connected with bread-making will be treated in my next.


The practical importance of the fermentation described in my last is strikingly shown by the fact that, in the course of sponge-rising, dough-rising, and baking, a loaf becomes about four times as large as the original mixture of flour, water, etc., of which it was made; or, otherwise stated, an ordinary loaf is made up of one part of solid bread to more than three parts of air-bubbles or pores. French rolls, and some other kinds of fancy bread, are still more gaseous.

So far I have only named the flour, water, salt, and yeast. These, with a little sugar or milk added according to taste and custom, are the ingredients of home-made bread, but "baker's bread" is commonly, though not necessarily, somewhat more complex. There is the material technically known as "fruit," and another which bears the equivocal name of "stuff," or "rocky." The fruit are potatoes. The quantity of these prescribed in Knight's "Guide to Trade" is one peck to the sack of flour. This proportion is so small (about three per cent by weight) that, if not exceeded, it can not be regarded as a fraudulent adulteration, for the additional cost involved in the boiling, skinning, and general preparing of the small addition exceeds the saving in the price of raw material. The fruit, therefore, is not added merely because it is cheaper than flour, as many people suppose.

The instructions concerning its use given in the work above named clearly indicate that the potato-flour is used to assist fermentation. These instructions prescibe that the peck of potatoes shall be boiled in their skins, mashed in the "seasoning-tub," then mixed with two or three quarts of water, the same quantity of patent yeast, and three or four pounds of flour. The mixture is left to stand for six or twelve hours, when it will have become what is called a ferment. After straining through a sieve, to separate the skins of the fruit, it is mixed with the sack of flour, water, etc.

It is evident from this that it would not pay to add such a quantity in such a manner as a mere adulterant. The baker uses it for improving the bread, from his point of view.

The stuff or rocky consists, according to Tomlinson, of one part of alum to three parts of common salt. The same authority tells us that the bakers buy this at 2d. per packet, containing one pound in each, and that they believe it to be ground alum. They buy it thus for immediate use, being subject to a heavy fine if they keep alum on the premises. The quantity of the mixture ordinarily used is eight ounces to each sack of flour weighing two hundred and eighty pounds, so that the proportion of alum is but two ounces to two hundred and eighty pounds. As one sack of flour is (with water) made into eighty loaves weighing four pounds each, the quantity of alum in one pound of bread amounts to 1160 ounce.

The rationale of the action of this small quantity of alum is still a chemical puzzle. That it has an appreciable effect in improving the appearance of the bread is unquestionable, and it may actually improve the quality of bread made from inferior flour.

One of the baker's technical tests of quality is the manner in which the loaves of a batch separate from each other. That they should break evenly and present a somewhat silky rather than a lumpy fracture, is a matter of trade estimation. When the fracture is rough and lumpy, one loaf pulling away some of the just belongings of its neighbor, the feelings of the orthodox baker are much wounded. The alum is said to prevent this impropriety, while an excess of salt aggravates it.

It appears to be a fact that this small quantity of alum whitens the bread. In this, as in so many other cases of adulteration, there are two guilty parties—the buyer who demands impossible or unnatural appearances, and the manufacturer or vender who supplies the foolish demand. The judging of bread by its whiteness is a mistake which has led to much mischief, against which the recent agitation for "whole meal" is, I think, an extreme reaction.

If the husk, which is demanded by the whole-meal agitators, were as digestible as the inner flour, they would unquestionably be right, but it is easy to show that it is not, and that in some cases the passage of the undigested particles may produce mischievous irritation in the intestinal canal. My own opinion on this subject (it still remains in the region of opinion rather than of science) is that a middle course is the right one, viz., that bread should be made of moderately dressed or "seconds" flour rather than overdressed "firsts," or undressed "thirds," i.e., unsifted whole-meal flour.

Such seconds flour does not fairly produce white bread, and consumers are unwise in demanding whiteness. In my household we make our own bread, but occasionally, when the demand exceeds ordinary supply, a loaf or two is bought from the baker. I find that, with corresponding or identical flour, the baker's bread is whiter than the home-made, and correspondingly inferior. I may say, colorless in flavor, it lacks the characteristic of wheaten sweetness. There are, however, exceptions to this, as certain bakers are now doing a great business in supplying what they call "home-made" or "farm-house" bread. It is darker in color than ordinary bread, but is sold nevertheless at a higher price, and I find that it has the flavor of the bread made in my own kitchen. "When their customers become more intelligent, all the bakers will doubtless cease to incur the expense of buying packets of "stuff" or "rocky," or any other bleaching abomination.

Liebig asserts that in certain cases the use of lime-water improves the quality of bread. Tomlinson says that, "in the time of bad harvests, when the wheat is damaged, the flour may be considerably improved, without any injurious result whatever, by the addition of from twenty to forty grains of carbonate of magnesia to every pound of flour." It is also stated that chalk has been used for the same purpose. These would all act in nearly the same manner by neutralizing any acid that might already exist or be generated in the course of fermentation.

When gluten is kept in a moist state it slowly loses its soft, elastic, and insoluble condition; if kept in water for a few days, it gradually runs down into a turbid, slimy solution, which does not form dough when mixed with starch. The gluten of imperfectly ripened wheat, or of flour or wheat that has been badly kept in the midst of humid surroundings, appears to have fallen partially into this condition, the gluten being an actively hygroscopic substance.

Liebig's experiments show that flour in which the gluten has undergone this partial change may have its original qualities restored by mixing one hundred parts of flour with twenty-six or twenty-seven parts of saturated lime-water and a sufficiency of ordinary water to work it into dough. I suspect that the action of the alum is of a similar kind, though this does not satisfactorily account for the bleaching.

The action of sulphate of copper, which has been used in Belgium and other places for improving the appearance and sponginess of loaves, is still more mysterious than that of alum. Kuhlmann found that a single grain in a four-pound loaf produced a marked alteration in the appearance of the bread. Fortunately, this adulteration, if perpetrated to a mischievous extent, may be easily detected by acidulating the crumb, and then moistening with a solution of ferrocyanide of potassium. The brown color thus produced betrays the presence of copper. The detection of alum is difficult.

I should add that the ancient method of effecting the fermentation of bread, and which I understand is still employed to some extent in France, differs somewhat from the ordinary modern practice described in my last. When flour made into dough is kept for some time moderately warm, it undergoes spontaneous fermentation, formerly described as "panary fermentation," and supposed to be of a different nature from the fermentation which produces yeast.

Dough in this condition is called leaven, and when kneaded with fresh flour and water its fermentation is communicated to the whole lump; hence the ancient metaphors. In practice the leaven was obtained by setting aside some of the dough of a previous batch, and adding this when its fermentation reached its maximum activity. One reason why the modern method has superseded this appears to be that the leaven is liable to proceed onward beyond the first stage of fermentation, or that producing alcohol, and run into the acetous, or vinegar-forming fermentation, producing sour bread. Another reason may be that the potato mixture above described, which is but another kind of leaven, is more effectual and convenient.

Dr. Dauglish's method (patented in 1856, 1857, and 1858) is based on the fact that water under pressure absorbs and holds in solution a large quantity of carbonic-acid gas, which escapes when the pressure is diminished, as in uncorking soda-water, etc. Dr. Dauglish places the flour in a strong, air-tight iron vessel, then forces water saturated with carbonic acid under high pressure into this; kneading-knives mix the dough by their rotation. When the mixture is completed, a trap at the lower part of the globular iron vessel is opened. The pressure of the confined carbonic acid above forces the dough through this in a cylindrical jet or flat ribbon as required, and this squirted cylinder or ribbon is fashioned by suitable cutters, etc., into loaves. The compressed gas expands, and the loaves are smartly baked before the expansive energy of the gas is exhausted.

The difference between new and stale bread is familiar enough, but the nature of the difference is by no means so commonly understood. It is generally supposed to be a simple result of mere drying. That this is not a true explanation may be easily proved by repeating the experiments of Boussingault, who placed a very stale loaf (six days old) in an oven for an hour, during which time it was, of course, being further dried; but, nevertheless, it came out as a new loaf. He found that during the six days, while becoming stale, it only lost one per cent of its weight by drying, and that during the one hour in the oven it lost three and one half per cent in becoming new, and apparently more moist. By using an air-tight case instead of an ordinary oven, he repeated the experiment several times in succession on the same piece of bread, making it alternately stale and new, each time.

For this experiment the oven should be but moderately heated -130° to 150° is sufficient. I am fond of hot rolls for breakfast, and frequently have them à la Boussingault, by treating stale bread-crusts in this manner. My wife tells me that when the crusts have been long neglected, and are thin, the Boussingault hot rolls are improved by dipping the crust in water before putting it into the oven. This is not necessary in experimenting with a whole loaf or a thick piece of stale bread.

The crumb of bread, whether new or stale, contains about forty-five per cent of water. Miller says, "The difference in properties between the two depends simply upon difference in molecular arrangement."

This "molecular arrangement" is the customary modern method of explaining a multitude of similar physical and chemical problems, or, as I would rather say, of evading them under the cover of a conventional phrase.

I am making a few experiments which promise to afford an explanation of the changes above described, without invoking the aid of any invisible atoms or molecules, or anything else beyond the reach of our simple senses, and will communicate the results in my next paper.—Knowledge,