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
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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
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    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 
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    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
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    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
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    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!
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Cold Snap Raises Concern: How will the monarchs fare?

Should I be concerned about the monarch butterfly?

Is it going extinct?

Will these cold temperatures kill the ones I’m raising?

What is “OE” and should I worry about it?

If you have questions about monarchs, you are in good company.

Thanks to the recent petition to US Fish and Wildlife by a number of conservation organizations to grant them “threatened” status, monarch butterflies have been in the news a lot this fall. Also, more and more people are hearing about the protozoan parasite that affects monarch health, the dreaded OE (short for the unpronounceable and unspellable “Ophryocystis elektroscirrha”). Finally, if you are in Houston, or other areas with monarch butterflies that do not migrate but spend the winter here, you may have questions about what this unusually early and unusually cold snap will have on the caterpillars and adults in your garden.

This is a quick response to all of those issues:

  1. Monarch butterflies are not in any sense endangered. The species is very widespread, found throughout the world, from Australia to southern Spain, Hawaii, etc., etc. What the groups petitioning for threatened status hope to achieve is to bring awareness to the possible end of the huge annual migration that takes place in the North American populations. Within the past decade or so, the number of individuals making the southern migration to overwintering grounds in Mexico has declined by about 90%. This is indeed worrying, and it would be a terrible loss if this unique and spectacular phenomenon ended. But there will still be monarchs – just not as many (millions instead of billions) and perhaps only non-migratory ones in areas where they can survive year-round. The decline in the North America population is thought to be due to a number of factors – the main one being loss of habitat. Genetically modified corn and soy beans have been bred to resist herbicides such as RoundUp, so farmers can spray their croplands for weeds (including milkweeds) and not affect these GMO crops. Until the widespread use of GMO crops, milkweed was abundant in the rows between plantings and in the highway right of ways.  Thus the huge expanse of farmland in the central USA cornbelt was critical in building up their populations during the breeding season (summer).  GMO crops, and subsidies for ethanol (which encourage corn farmers to plant every bit of their land, right up to the roadways) mean that this “cradle” of monarch populations is no longer available. There are other factors causing the huge decline in the migratory population – global climate change, urbanization, some habitat loss in Mexico – but this, i.e., habitat loss in the central USA, is the main factor. We do not know yet whether monarchs will be designated as “threatened” – such proposals take a long time to go through the various review processes. The good news is that this petition is raising awareness about this worrying loss of habitat – which affects not only monarchs, but bees, other butterflies, and many other organisms.

  1. “OE” is a naturally occurring protozoan parasite of monarch and queen butterflies (genus Danaus). This tiny organism multiplies inside the caterpillar stage, and is spread in a dormant spore form by the adult butterfly. Low levels of OE do not greatly affect their hosts, but parasite levels build up rapidly over successive generations of monarchs, and when infection levels are high, many detrimental effects (including death) are seen. Infected caterpillars may not pupate properly, or they may not be able to get out of the pupa, or the adults may be weak, malformed, or die early. Unfortunately, well-intentioned people raising successive generations of monarchs, especially on tropical milkweed (which does not have an annual dormant period) appear to be the main cause of OE buildup (via the very persistent spores).

    In areas like Houston, where mild temperatures allow for resident, non-migratory populations year-round, researchers have found that most adult butterflies are carrying the spores (i.e., over 75% of the butterflies they test are infected). For more information, visit the Monarch Watch organization’s website or click here for more information from the University of Georgia.

    You can also find plenty of information by doing an online search for Ophryocystis elektroscirrha.

  1. You raise monarchs and are concerned about whether they can survive the cold temperatures we’ve been having.

    The whole “point” of the monarch migration is to avoid cold temperatures – monarchs are really tropical butterflies that, like many songbirds, take advantage of our summers. However, in our area where it seldom gets truly cold, and where there is now lots of tropical milkweed available, thanks to the butterfly gardening craze, some monarchs forego the migration and spend the winter here, where they continue to breed (the migrating monarchs do not mate or lay eggs until spring). 

    Cold enough temperatures can certainly kill or harm monarchs, especially in the caterpillar stage or if they are in the process of pupating. However, unless it freezes and/or the caterpillars, pupae, or butterflies are highly exposed, monarchs can survive temperatures in the 30s. 

    During a cold snap, caterpillars will often crawl to the base of the milkweed they are eating and curl up on the ground until it warms up again. Adult butterflies can hunker down in a sheltered area and will come out again when it’s warm enough to fly. But if it’s cold enough for long enough, they will die. Of course it’s hard to tell people to let nature take its course — but that is probably best — especially given the high levels of OE we see in most people’s home-grown monarchs. If you do want to save your babies, you can always bring them inside for a few days until it warms up. 

    Butterflies can be fed sugar water, Gatorade, or fruit juice (place them with their feet touching a sponge or paper towel moistened with one of these sweet fluids and they will probably extend their proboscis to get a meal. If you would like to test to see if your butterflies have OE (only the adults can be tested), click here to learn how to do it. We (at the Cockrell Butterfly Center) would be happy to look at your samples, or you can send them to the University of Georgia.

If you have questions that were not answered here, feel free to write us at bfly-questions@hmns.org.

 

 

 

Mark Your Calendars for the events happening this week (11/10-11/16) at HMNS

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Bust out your planners, calendars, and PDAs (if you are throwback like that), it’s time to mark your calendars for the HMNS events of this week!

Travel back in time and test your battle strategy with the War Game Event in our special exhibit Battleship Texas, venture back in time to learn about the Princess Naia, one of the oldest remains found in the Americas from marine archaeologist Dr. Dominique Rissolo, and revisit your childhood with the Take Two showing of The Goonies ¬– this week at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

War Game Event
Veterans Day
Tuesday, November 11
9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.

Experience another dimension to the Battleship Texas—war gaming. Interact with two simulated maritime battles, including a battle that never was, between USS Texas and the German battleship Tirpitz. See if Texas could have matched up to Tirpitz, sister to the famed Bismarck. The event presented by the Houston Beer and Pretzel Wargaming club. More info on BeyondBones blog.

Lecture: Ice Age Yucatan By Dominique Rissolo
Wednesday, November 12
6:30 p.m.

The complete, well preserved skeleton of a young girl from over 12,000 years ago was found in an underwater cave on the Yucatan Peninsula. Nicknamed “Princess Naia,” her remains are among the oldest yet found in the Americas. Her discovery is reshaping our understanding of human migration into the Western Hemisphere. This lecture is presented by marine archaeologist Dr. Dominique Rissolo, expedition coordinator for the Waitt Institute. This lecture is cosponsored by AIA – Houston. Click here for tickets.

Take Two: The Goonies
Friday, November 14
7:00 p.m.

A group of kids set out on an adventure in search of pirate treasure that could save their homes from foreclosure. Click here for tickets.

Attention Movie Lovers: Now you too can spend a “Night at the Museum” with overnights at HMNS!

Editor’s note: This post was written by Julia Russell, HMNS Overnight Program Coordinator and Curator of Education Collections.

Movies have the power to entertain and transport us, and yes, maybe even teach us a thing or two. We laugh, we cry, we… go to museums?

Over the past decade, movies have increasingly inspired moviegoers to follow their intellectual curiosity out of the theater and into the museum. With the release of movies like Lincoln, National Treasure, Night at the Museum, and Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, museums across the country have seen a fairly dramatic increase in attendance over the past 10 years.

The Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois had a 7.7% increase in visitorship following the release of Spielberg’s Oscar-winning movie Lincoln. The National Archives saw an increase of 200,000 visitors after National Treasure hit theaters in 2004. Though, I would bet that a good number of those visitors were probably trying to get ahold of the Declaration of Independence. (There’s a treasure map on the back, you know! Or maybe there’s not…) The American Museum of Natural History in New York City had a 20% increase in attendance after the release of the first Night at the Museum movie in 2006 as did the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. after the second Museum movie came out in 2009.

Overnights 1

These movies have reignited an interest in history, science, and culture in the American public. They’ve also resulted in museum staff hearing questions like “Okay, so when does everything in this museum come to life?” on a daily basis. Audiences across the country are leaving movie theaters wanting to know more about the political savviness of Abraham Lincoln, the secrets of the Declaration of Independence, the ferocity of Tyrannosaurus rex, and the wisdom of Theodore Roosevelt. And where are they turning for the answers? Their local museums, historic houses, aquariums, and zoos! Zoos and aquariums certainly aren’t immune to the “movie bump” that’s happening across the country. Dolphin Tale increased visitorship to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium almost tenfold after its release in 2011!

Museum goers can satisfy their movie-induced curiosity by visiting a museum to see Lincoln’s original stovetop hat or dinosaur skeletons in the flesh…well, sort of, maybe it’s more like seeing dinosaurs in the fossil. These Hollywood blockbusters have also given museums a chance to provide some unique opportunities for their visitors. Many museums across the country are letting visitors get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of their institutions after hours. Lucky for you, HMNS is one of them

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The Overnight program at HMNS actually started back in 2004 even before Ben Stiller saw the treasures at the Museum of Natural History come to life for the first time. Since the start of this program, we’ve had thousands of children and adults spend a night at the museum. This program gives people an opportunity to see one of their favorite Houston landmarks in a new light (or in a new dark, actually)!

For more information about HMNS’ Overnight program and how you and your group can see HMNS after hours, click here or email overnights@hmns.org. Maybe you can spend a night at the museum and finally answer the question, “Does everything come to life at night?” You never know, our objects could speak to you in a whole new way.