You Can Thank Science for Helping You Cook an Awesome Thanksgiving Dinner

Loosen your belts boys and girls, because we are approaching Thanksgiving, the day where diets and portion control cease to exist. To make things a bit easier for you, I have compiled some tips on how to make your Thanksgiving dinner a winner. And how do we do this? With science of course!

Turkey
friends animated GIF

When it comes to cooking turkey, the star of your Thanksgiving dinner, you have to make sure your bird comes out moist, tender, and flavorful. First thing to know is the cooking style and time depends on the parts of the turkey you are cooking. If you are going Ren-Fest style and just serving up turkey legs, a longer cooking time at a low temperature would be better to allow the tissue to break down slowly. However, if you are just serving up a turkey breast, it can be cooked at a higher temperature for a shorter period of time since there is not as much tissue as is in the legs.

Now I am going to assume that you are a Thanksgiving champion and are cooking the whole turkey. Here’s what you should do to make a winner winner turkey dinner:

  • As mentioned above, the breast and legs have different cooking times, however if you are cooking the whole turkey, this isn’t really an option. However, there is a way you can help differentiate the cooking times before putting your turkey in the oven. “Take the bird out ahead of time and let the legs warm up a little bit while you keep the breasts covered with ice packs. That way, you keep the breasts cold. The legs warm up by maybe 10, 20 degrees, and that way, when you put the bird in the oven, you’ve already built in a temperature differential. The breasts are going to end up, at a given time, less-cooked than the legs.“ – NPR- “Delicious Turkey Tips From Food Scientists
  • We have all had that dry, chewy turkey before, and I don’t know about you, but I would rather not repeat that experience. To help your turkey maintain its moist deliciousness, soak your bird in a saltwater solution prior to cooking–aka brining. Brining helps loosen the structure of the muscle fibers and increases the turkey’s water weight, these steps combined result in tender and juicy meat. Check out Butterball’s brining guide to find the correct brining time for your turkey.
  • If you are roasting the turkey, cook it on an elevated rack a few inches off the bottom of the pan to allow the heat to circulate evenly around the turkey. If your turkey is resting on the pan, the heat will not be able to fully circulate resulting in an unevenly cooked bird.
  • Have ever cut your turkey (or steak, too) while it is hot and seen the juicy deliciousness seeping out? Well, sorry my friend, but you are watching the flavor leave your meat. When your meat is still hot, the juices are still flowing and have not rested into the fibers yet. Therefore, you should allow your turkey to rest prior to carving. The rest time depends on the size of your turkey and can be anywhere from 5-20 minutes. Letting your bird rest will also make for easier carving.

Sides

  • Green beans
    funny animated GIF
    Blanching green beans brings out their vibrant green color, but you may have noticed that their color dulls over time. This is “a result of the chlorophyll molecules losing their magnesium ions in the heat.” To stop this, shock the beans with an ice bath immediately after they finish cooking.
  • Pie 
    the office animated GIF
    Who knew the secret to a flaky, yet easy to work with crust was vodka? When rolling out pie dough, water is often added to form a more cohesive crust that is easier to place into the pan. This is fine up to a certain point. Adding too much water will activate the gluten development causing the dough to lose its flakiness. However, vodka will add the extra moisture you need without activating the gluten development. (Don’t worry your pie crust won’t taste like vodka.) Source – Live Science
  • Stuffing
    television animated GIF  
    While cooking stuffing in the turkey is tradition, you may want to rethink that. Most stuffing mixes contain eggs which need to be brought up to a temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit in order to kill the bacteria. In order for the stuffing temperature to reach 165 degrees Fahrenheit, you risk overcooking the turkey and drying out the meat – not cool. Instead cook the stuffing on its own and serve it on the side or add it to your turkey platter after the turkey has been cooked.
  • Rolls
    bread animated GIF

    Rolls are one of the best parts of Thanksgiving in my opinion, but making it is not. If you’ve had homemade rolls you know there is nothing that you can get out of a box, carton, or frozen package that compares to the delicious fluffiness of homemade rolls. No one has the time, especially on Thanksgiving, to endlessly knead bread. Unfortunately, kneading is a necessary step in the break making process to “break down existing bonds and form stronger, straighter gluten sheets.” However, you can save your hands five minutes of kneading thanks to autolyse – i.e. let the dough rest before kneading (about 20 minutes). The resting time allows for the existing bonds to break down on their own. 

    Now get ready Thanksgiving, because we are coming for you!
    friends animated GIF

The sweetest story: Learn about the chocolate revolution at an HMNS Distinguished Lecture

On cold nights, one of the best comforts out there is hot chocolate. You come home from a long day’s work, take off your coat, defrost a bit (OK, we’re in Houston, so just go with me here), boil up some water, add in the mix and mmmm … hot chocolate.

Oh, the convenience of it all! But have you ever wondered what the real story of this drink was?

hot-chocolate

As modern Americans, we might consider hot chocolate to be a unique invention, seeing that much more of the chocolate around us exists in its hard candy form. But really, this drink harkens back all the way to early Mesoamerican cultures.

Cacao cultivation started as early as 1400 B.C. by the Olmec civilization. From residue left on pottery, we can tell that the Olmecs used the bean to create a fermented drink, most likely used in religious ceremonies. The Maya borrowed the Olmec’s cultivation techniques but created a drink far more recognizable to today’s chocolate connoisseurs, creating the first “modern” chocolate 2,000 years ago. The drink was associated with fertility and was also used in a ritual setting.
The Aztecs, in turn, borrowed from the Maya and seasoned it with vanilla, chili pepper and achiote to create a bitter, frothy drink called xocolatl. By this time, the beverage had become a luxury item for wealthy Mayans. Europeans would pick up on this when they came to the New World, and maintained chocolate as a luxury item for European courts until the Industrial Revolution would make chocolate accessible to the masses.

In 1828, the cocoa press was invented by Dutch chocolatier Coenraad J. van Houten. The press created a fine powder from roasted cacao beans, which dramatically lowered the production price. This, in turn, paved the way for British chocolatier J.S. Fry to make the world’s first chocolate bar in 1830. In 1875, the Swiss were the first to add powdered milk to the mix, creating milk chocolate.

Today chocolate is a worldwide industry, with 45 percent of chocolate revenue coming from Europe and two-thirds of cocoa produced in Western Africa. So to all the chocoholics out there, be grateful for the rich history of chocolate, which has made it so readily available to us today!

Can’t get enough chocolate history? Come to HMNS on Tues., Feb. 4 for “Chocolate, A Revolution in a Cup” as part of our Distinguished Lecture series. The lecture starts at 6:30 p.m., but come early for a chocolate frothing demonstration … and stick around after to taste unique chocolates from Araya Artisan Chocolate!

HMNS Distinguished Lecture
“Chocolate, A Revolution in a Cup”
Rosemary Joyce, Ph.D.
Tues., Feb. 04, 2014
6:30 p.m.

This lecture is cosponsored by Archaeology Institute of America Houston Society. Get tickets!

Teachers, get credit for hearing the chocolate doctor at a special Teacher Tuesday just for you:

ExxonMobil Teacher Tuesday
“Domestication of Plants: Chocolate”
Tues., Feb, 4, 5
8 p.m.

Examine the natural science and yummy cultural history of chocolate with hands-on classroom activities. Then attend lecture by Dr. Rosemary Joyce, who will tell how the cacao plant was domesticated to produce chocolate. Purchase tickets.

The Blue Morpho Blend, Part II: The coffee grind of hulling, roasting & cupping

In Part I, we talked about the Cockrell Butterfly Center’s Little Coffee Tree That Could, and how we grow, harvest, and dry coffee beans. But even after all this work, the beans are still not ready to consume. So let’s talk about how we get the dried (parchment) coffee to a state that can be enjoyed by the masses!

Hulling
Once the beans have been prepared and dried, the parchment — a thin, brittle skin that completely covers the bean — must be broken and the green bean removed. This is typically done by a special machine that shakes the beans, and the vibrations knock the parchment off.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have access to any of these machines, so we went through this process by hand — and the entire Butterfly Center staff and volunteers have the calluses on their fingers to prove it (of course, hindsight is 20/20 and we could have probably used a rock polisher and saved ourselves some labor, but I’m sure even Juan Valdez went through some trial and error before he perfected his process!).

coffee blog II 1

Roasting
Now being the traditionalist sort who orders a “large coffee” if I ever find myself in a Starbucks, seeing some of the advancements and new technology when it comes to roasting and brewing was a real eye opener.

Enter local roaster Matt Toomey of Boomtown Coffee in the Heights. Lucky for us, Boomtown had a roaster small enough to accommodate our single harvest, and Matt was happy to explain the process to us — the uninitiated roasters.

First, we weighed out the beans to be roasted and preheated the electric sample roaster. The temperature needs to be around 480 degrees Fahrenheit so that the beans can be heated to between 380 and 480 degrees, depending on the desired roast (as soon as you add in the beans, the temperature drops significantly). So, 380 degrees yields a light or cinnamon roast, while 480 degrees gives you a dark Spanish roast. The roaster we used can only hold about 1 pound at a time, however, the basic idea behind all roasters is the same: turn the beans continuously to ensure uniform roasting of the beans. The central drum spins the beans as they roast to achieve this uniformity.

coffee blog II 3

FUN FACT: Experienced roasters know when the beans are ready — not by smell, but by sound. The coffee bean, much like popcorn, will pop or crack up to two times as it roasts. For our Blue Morpho Blend, we did a full roast, or specifically a “full city roast” — which means you pull the beans out at the beginning of the “second crack.”

After all this work, we finally have a bean that is ready to grind and brew. But wait what if it’s not any good? If we made any mistakes during the growing, fermentation or drying process it can give the beans a foul odor and taste; this is where “cupping” comes into play.

Cupping  
Cupping is a method of taste testing coffee to determine the quality of the bean. You take a small cup, and observe the different aspects of the brew, like aroma, body, sweetness, acidity, flavor, and aftertaste. We did this using a Chemex brewing system, shown below, which is the opposite of a French Press. Where a French press leaves a lot of sediment in the coffee, the Chemex uses a very fine filter that creates a “cleaner” coffee.

coffee blog II 7coffee blog II 9
Success! The Blue Morpho Blend passed the cupping with flying (or should I say fluttering) colors! We found it has an earthy, almost nutty aroma, with a flavor that has a hint of amaretto, and an amazing aftertaste!

Now a lucky few will get the chance taste it and tell us what they think at our Butterflies and Beans event on Jan. 18th. We’ll let you know what they say!

The Blue Morpho Blend, Part I: Growing coffee in the Butterfly Center

When we think of coffee, we normally assume that the best quality coffee comes from Java, Colombia, Ethiopia, or Kona. But maybe it’s time to add Houston to the list!

This year at the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s Cockrell Butterfly Center, we were fortunate to have a large enough crop on our coffee tree (Coffea arabica) to harvest, process and roast — which means we’ve got brews for you! This journey has given me a brand new respect for my daily cup of Joe.

Come along with me, and I’ll let you in on how to be one of the select few who gets to sample this exclusive Houston grown “Blue Morpho Blend” at Butterflies and Brew: HMNS’s first harvest.

Botany
Coffee comes from the plant Coffea arabica, a member of the family Rubiaceae which is native to Ethiopia, but now grown throughout the tropics. The plants make small trees, growing 10-15 ft. in height, with glossy, evergreen leaves. The small, white flowers smell like gardenia (a member of the same plant family). The flowers are typically self-pollinating and take between six and eight months to ripen into a red fruit called a “cherry,” each of which contains one to three coffee beans.

A typical coffee plant will take between three and six years from germinating until it begins to produce fruit. As it happens, our tree in the Butterfly Center is about four years old.

FUN FACT: Our tree was a surprise. It appeared as a seedling from a stray bean that fell off an older coffee plant that was taken out several years ago.

History
Although many legends surround coffee’s origin (all of them very interesting), the first official account of people using coffee for its stimulant properties can be traced back to the 15th century in the monasteries of Yemen. By the 16th century, coffee had made its way all over the Middle East, Turkey, Persia, and North Africa. From there it spread to Europe, Indonesia, and finally North and South America — and the rest, as they say, is history.

FUN FACT: Americans spend nearly 4 billion dollars per year importing coffee. A majority of Americans (63 percent or 150 million people) drink coffee every day, yet Hawaii is the only state in the U.S. that has the proper climate to grow coffee successfully. So it’s no wonder that most people walk right by our beautiful coffee tree in the Butterfly Center without recognizing it as the source of their daily drip!

Harvesting
In order to save time and money, agriculturists have developed machines to do the harvesting of many fruit crops. However, most of the world’s coffee is and will most likely remain a hand harvested crop, for a number of reasons.

First, most coffee grows best at high elevations, usually on the side of a hill or mountain. In extreme cases, harvesters have to secure themselves with ropes just to pick the cherries; such sites are impossible for heavy machinery to access.

Secondly, much of the world’s coffee is grown in developing countries where labor is cheap, so investing in expensive machinery is typically not cost-effective.

Finally, and most importantly, the best quality coffee is made from only the ripest of cherries, as immature cherries impart a bitter and acidic flavor. Ripe cherries can be tucked in among several immature cherries, so it takes a picker with a skilled eye combing through the trees every 8 to10 days to get only the mature red fruits.

While there are machines developed in Brazil that will strip-harvest the fruit off the branches, this process wastes about half of the crop because it is not ripe. Furthermore, the flat land where they are growing on the machine-harvested coffee was once rainforest that has been cleared for farming. This is definitely not sustainable, and should not be encouraged.

FUN FACT: We took three harvests off of our tree this year yielding just under two pounds of roasted coffee.

Processing
There are two methods for processing coffee beans after they have been harvested: dry and wet.

The dry method is the oldest and most common way of processing coffee. In this method, you take the entire coffee cherry, clean it, and let it dry in the sun for about four weeks with the pulp and flesh of the fruit still on the beans. While this method is simple, it is not recommended for rainy or humid environments.

We therefore used the wet method, which consists of pulping, fermenting and drying. While more labor intensive, this way we were able to make sure no mildew or fungus formed on the beans.

Coffee blog 3

Pulping
Once the coffee has been harvested, the red flesh and pulp of the cherry needs to be removed from the seeds or “beans.” Since the beans have a slimy covering, any pressure applied to the cherry will cause the beans to shoot out, making this one of the easier aspects of coffee harvesting. We simply grasp the cherries firmly, squeeze and voila! — the mucilage-covered beans pop out.

Fermenting
Next, the mucilage coating must be removed from the beans. We let the beans ferment in water for 24 to 36 hours, changing the water and rinsing the beans several times in that period. Any unripe or damaged beans will float to the top of the water during this process and can easily be tossed out. When fermentation is complete, the beans have lost their slimy texture and feel rough to the touch.

Drying
Now that the coffee has been harvested, de-pulped, and washed, it’s ready to undergo the drying process. At this point, the beans still contain a lot of water. Their moisture content needs to come down to about 10 to 12 percent moisture before they can be roasted.

Depending on the climate, this drying process can take as long as four weeks. Drying is usually done on large tables in full sun or in specially-built greenhouses, where the beans are raked or stirred often to make sure they all dry at the same rate.

At the end of this process you will have what is called “parchment” or pergamino coffee. Although coffee beans are sometimes sold and shipped en pergamino (“in parchment”), they still have to be hulled to remove the parchment coating before they can be roasted.

Stay tuned for Part II (the tastiest part!): Hulling, roasting, and enjoying!

And don’t forget to buy tickets to Butterflies and Beans: HMNS’ First Harvest, where you can try our very own Blue Morpho Blend Coffee on January 18!