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Hacking Chicken: The Tasty Science of a Secret Ingredient

Hacking Chicken: The Tasty Science of a Secret Ingredient

crispy fried chicken

Living and working in the remote woods has many benefits. But we do miss a couple of things about city life – chief among them dialling up some delivery for dinner after a long day. Not even the thickest-crust pizza would last the schlep to DFC headquarters – but, according to chef Eric Huang, some fried chicken from his pop-up Pecking House in Queens, New York, might!

That’s because Huang has innovated hard in the face of the pandemic, and the subsequent rush on all kinds of takeout – even foods that traditionally can’t withstand a bouncy trip inside a box or bag. Huang’s wheelhouse is one such vittle, fried chicken, which, thanks to a scientifically solid secret ingredient, has turned itself into a hot carryout commodity instead of a sad soggy puddle of oily fowl.

“Huang found his solution in EverCrisp—a modified wheat dextrin (a type of starch found in wheat) from the food science products emporium Modernist Pantry. In most fried foods, as the protein releases its moisture after being fried, the gluten in the flour absorbs it, eventually causing the crust to become soggy. Wheat dextrin, on the other hand, retains less oil. Also, in the manufacturing process for EverCrisp, the gluten is removed. […]
Huang theorizes that this process results in a crust that better sticks to the chicken, by hydrating the flour and therefore creating a ‘uniform, durable substrate for dry starches to adhere to when fried,’ he says. […]
When he was developing his fried chicken, he ordered some EverCrisp and tested out replacing 20 percent of the flour in his dredging mixture with EverCrisp. The results spoke for themselves. ‘People pick it up in Queens and drive it to Connecticut, and it is still crispy,’ Huang says of his fried chicken.”

While Huang’s chicken could hypothetically survive the voyage to our dining room as easily as Connecticut, the waitlist for this golden bird is a staggering eight weeks long. Good for them! Though I might be better off snagging some magical EverCrisp myself and getting resident food scientist David cooking (literally) on a homegrown version… We’ll let you know if DFC opens a pop-up any time soon!

Tales from the Tip: Medieval Garbage Pit Reveals Glimpse into Jewish Life

I’m just kicking myself that I didn’t encounter this story until Passover ended. But I definitely can’t hold onto this fascinating archeological news until the next holiday; so please, feel free to imagine your own thematic tie-in here!
 
A team of researchers from the University of Bristol have recently published their findings from an archaeological dig in the medieval Jewish quarter of Oxford, UK, which they began in 2016. They were “blown away” by evidence, in a combination latrine and garbage dump at the site, of the Jewish community’s adherence to kosher dietary laws.
 
Jewish life in Oxford had a narrow window in which to flourish: between 1066, when William the Conqueror specifically invited Jewish merchants from the Continent to settle in England; and 1290 when Edward I expelled the Jewish population due to rising discrimination. While communities were well documented on paper, the Bristol team’s research is especially interesting because it’s the first scientific and physical evidence of specifically Jewish day-to-day life in the ancient city.
 
And the science itself is particularly cool: First, they studied the bones dumped in the pit after meals.
 
“‘Normally you would expect a mixture of cow, sheep, goat and pig,’ [biomolecular archaeologist and team leader Julie Dunne] says. ‘Instead, we found a massive, I mean massive, amount of chicken and goose bones.’

Crucially, none of the food remains found at the site came from pigs, shellfish or other non-kosher foods. […]

In addition to the bones, the team found more than 2,000 fragments of ceramic cooking vessels. They analyzed organic residue left in the pottery to determine what it had once held.
 
‘This process allows us to distinguish animal fats from ruminants and non-ruminants, as well as from dairy products,’ Dunne tells the Jewish Chronicle. ‘And what we found was astonishingly precise.’

The researchers found no evidence of non-kosher fats, or of milk and meat being cooked together – a practice prohibited by kosher tradition.”

The archeological evidence was also neatly siloed by time – the bird bones and kosher pottery dated to specifically the 11th and 12th centuries, while pig bones found nearby were determined to be 9th century and decidedly Saxon.
 
It is amazing what kind of information surfaces from past cultures’ tell-tale garbage dumps. (We might do well to remember that for ourselves!) I’m fascinated now by how this community’s least valued items have become its most important scientific documentation. Garbage has hidden worth after all!

Chocolate Hunt Yields Historical Treat

very old chocolate

It’s said that honey has no expiry date; pots uncovered in ancient Egyptian tombs are routinely found to be perfectly edible after thousands of years underground. Would that the same held for another sweet treat, chocolate! If it did, a bar of the stuff recently found in Norfolk, UK would have quite the sugar high to go with its amazing story.
 
This particular goodie was made to cheer troops in the 1899 – 1902 Boer War and was recently found among the mementoes of centenarian Frances Greathead, the daughter of English soldier and baronet Henry Edward Paston-Bedingfield, by the staff of the National Trust. The original packaging and Paston-Bedingfield’s bar itself were completely intact (though unappetizingly dusty), turning this humble snack into a time capsule from 121 years ago! With a decidedly political aftertaste: The half-pound bar came in a tin with Queen Victoria’s portrait on it and included messages from the monarch to her troops engaged in one of the colonial endeavours that marked her long reign. Intrigue followed its production at home as well.
 
“British confectionery giants Cadbury, Fry and Rowntree manufactured chocolate batches in 1900 to boost morale for soldiers fighting in the Second Boer War in South Africa, although it’s not certain which company made this particular tin. […]

[National Trust curator Lynsey] Coombs said Cadbury, Fry and Rowntree initially refused to brand the chocolate because they were pacifist Quakers who opposed the war in South Africa.
Eventually they caved to Queen Victoria’s request and produced 100,000 tins, many of which the soldiers preserved, she added.”
 
And the historical organization will continue to preserve it, reporting it has wrapped the bar in acid-free paper, pending future display along with the helmet and helmet case in which the chocolate was found.
 
It’s in honour of Easter that we bring you this tale of a chocolatey treat, that has experienced its own resurrection of sorts. Here’s hoping the little ones in your life have found all the chocolate the Easter Bunny left this weekend… Something tells me finding a grody old Kinder Egg under the couch in July won’t be as welcome a discovery!

The State of the Shape of Pasta

Did you know that the number of Italian pasta shapes out there is estimated to be between 260 and 600? Even the low number came as a shock to me – who can count on two hands the pastas I can remember off the top of my head, and on one hand those I routinely keep in my pantry. (Penne for life!)
 
Well, add one more shape to that mind-boggling tally, as The Sporkful podcast host Dan Pashman has partnered up with artisanal pasta makers Sfoglini to create cascatelli – adorably, “little waterfalls.”
 
The saga is covered in a five-part arc (“Mission: ImPASTAble”) on Pashman’s popular podcast, describing his trip through the pasta design world. Turns out, the seemingly simple food item, quickly cooked, and just as quickly devoured, is not simple at all.
 
“The result of many rounds of designing, engineering, and trial and error, the final product resembles an oversized comma with ruffles on either side of a curved half-tube. It’s supposed to maximize three core qualities: ‘sauceability’ (how well sauce adheres to it), ‘forkability’ (how easily it stays on the fork), and ‘toothsinkability’ (how satisfying it is to sink one’s teeth into it). […]

Long, short, round, flat, ridged, smooth, curved, even angular — if you can picture it, a shape probably already exists. Or if it doesn’t, then there’s a reason why. Turns out that designing a shape that is both original enough to count as its own entity, practical enough to be able to be manufactured at some scale, and tasty enough to even warrant being brought into this world, is not a walk in the park. Sorry to all the would-be inventors whose late-night buzzed idea is ‘just combine, like, a macaroni with a mafaldine.’”
 
Pashman’s cascatelli success (the shape, at least via Sfoglini’s website, is on massive backorder brought back the last time I remembered this happening when French designer Phillipe Starck created a new pasta shape back in the 1980s. Dubbed “mandala,” the deeply ridged tube was buttressed inside by a ying-yang-like crossbeam. But, despite Starck’s considerable qualifications, the shape flopped for a very basic reason – it cooked too unevenly! It seems outsider Pashman’s innovation avoids that particular pitfall; I wonder if cascatelli will stand the test of time, and enter the pasta shape hall of fame?