Category Archives: Test Kitchen

The test kitchen is a collection of lessons learned exploring different recipes and cooking techniques It’s also where you’ll find my favorite recipes that covers a wide variety of items from cookies to breads to pasta and even guacamole!

Sourdough Hydration

It’s been almost two years since I started baking my own bread, among other things. Baking appeals to me, more so than cooking. I think it’s because I see baking as more science than art, whereas cooking is more the opposite.

Two sourdough loaves of bread

Baking speaks to my analytical, engineering mind. Each bake is a like a science experiment where I am trying to find the right mix of ingredients. Even the slightest of changes in ingredient ratios can have dramatic effects, which is why I like to measure everything with a scale. The ultimate goal is to find the right mix and ratio of ingredients to create a repeatable process.

As part of my journey baking sourdough bread, I’ve experimented with lots of different variables. My latest experiment involved trying different hydration levels.

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Four Ingredients, Infinite Possibilities

artisan sourdough bread

I started baking bread about a year ago. At that time, I had pretty much cut bread out of my diet. I was convinced carbs were the enemy. But if that was indeed the case, carbs being the enemy, how come humans have been eating bread for thousands of years without adverse affects?

Then it hit me, maybe it had to do with the “modernization” of the process. If I could control the ingredients and the process, then maybe I could return to eating bread.

It’s amazing how simple the bread baking process is, yet how complex the outcomes are. A video I watched recently had a great quote about bread making that sums up the concept. A baker explained what captivated him about the process in four words:

Four ingredients, infinite possibilities.

Yes, that’s right, four simple ingredients – flour, water, salt, and yeast – can produce an endless number of results.

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Baking: The Long and Winding Road

It’s interesting to see the path people take developing their skills, interests, and hobbies. I’ll read stories about those who are passionate about something and have focused intently on building a skill since they were little kids. They’ve written books, created television shows, maintain active social media channels, and have loyal fan bases. It seems so simple. Pick something. Focus on it. Become an expert.

I’ve rarely found that to be the case for me. I also doubt that it’s the case for most other people as well.

When I look back on my hobbies, it’s more of a long and winding road than a straight path to success. I find that I tend to dabble in lots of things, working on them here and there. I’ll accumulate knowledge and skill until it reaches a flashpoint. Then, out of nowhere, a spark comes along, and wham! I’m hooked.

Such is the case with how I developed my passion for baking.

sourdough and starter
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Five sourdough discard ideas

Jar of sourdough discard

One of the by-products of growing your own sourdough starter is discard. As any experienced bread baker will tell you, you’re going to end up with a lot of it. And when I say a lot, I mean a LOT of it. Since I don’t like throwing food away, I needed a plan for it, which is one of the top lessons I learned from growing a sourdough starter.

As it goes with just about anything, sourdough discard can be a problem or an opportunity. I like taking an optimistic approach to life, so I chose to treat my sourdough discard as an opportunity, an opportunity to practice my baking skills.

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Sourdough Lessons

Jar with the beginning of a sourdough starter

When I started my bread baking adventures a few months ago, growing my own starter was not on my radar. If anything, I was against it. It felt like so much work. The feeding, the maintaining. I didn’t want the responsibility. Even though one of my favorite books from last year made it sound like a lot of fun, I wasn’t convinced.

My curiosity got the best of me. After baking a number of loaves with commercial yeast, I wondered why people were infatuated with sourdough. Could sourdough loaves be that much better than what I was already baking?

I’m here to tell you yes, they are. They may not be worlds apart, but there’s a noticeable difference.

When starting out, it can be intimidating. How a simple mixture of flour and water (see picture above right) turns into an active concoction of live yeast is a marvel of nature. It’s also quite the science experiment, which I’m about 2 months into.

Here are a few lessons I learned in the process of growing a sourdough starter. This isn’t going to be about how to make one, or how to care for it. There’s plenty of how-to articles already out there.

Consider this a post to inspire you to grow your own starter or to press on if you’re struggling.

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Baking bread

No-Knead Crusty White Bread

For the last three years, I’ve significantly reduced my carbohydrate intake. More specifically, I’ve eaten a lot less wheat-based carbohydrates, which significantly reduced my bread consumption. My diet changed from eating 3-4 servings of bread per day to 3-4 servings every month or so. So instead of eating carbohydrates, I’ve consumed a lot more protein and natural fats such as nuts.

My motivation came from what I read in Wheat Belly, Grain Brain, Primal Body – Primal Mind, and It Starts with Food. My desire to get my weight below 160 pounds was also a significant factor. While I’ve adjusted to the diet and don’t necessarily miss bread, I decided it was time for a change. Variety is the spice of life, right?

I decided to take the bold move of adding bread back into my diet, but under one condition. It couldn’t be any bread. I wanted to bake it on my own so I could control the ingredients being used. I didn’t want to pollute my body with all the ingredients found in a store-bought loaf of bread that I either don’t know or can’t pronounce.

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Tales from the Test Kitchen: Baking vs Cooking

I enjoy tinkering and experimenting in the kitchen. Some of it is driven by my desire to maintain family recipes for apple pie and pierogies. Most if it is a desire to find ways to improve upon some of my favorite foods such as chocolate chips cookies, guacamole, and pasta. I also like to help Lisa cook a new dish for dinner every now and then, although it’s been a lot more ‘then’ than ‘now’ as of late.

When I tell people about my hobby, they tell me that I must like to cook. When I tell them I prefer baking, the typical response is, “aren’t they the same thing?”

While it might seem that way, they are two totally different things. Allow me to explain.

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A lesson in marketing from a common kitchen utensil

Zulay kitchen bench scraper

I’ve recently become captivated by the process of baking my own bread. My kitchen is well-equipped, but not necessarily for making bread. After watching a few instructional bread baking videos on YouTube, I realized that I was missing a very basic but important tool for handling bread dough – a bench scraper.

The bench scraper is a flat, wide, stainless steel blade with a handle on one of the wider sides. In the world of kitchen utensils, it’s a commodity. There’s really nothing special about it. There isn’t a whole lot of differentiation. Therefore, I expected price would be the primary factor in my purchase selection.

Off I ventured onto Amazon in search of a ‘kitchen bench scraper.’ Of course, I was inundated with dozens and dozens of results. And as you would expect for a commodity item, the prices were pretty similar. They were almost all grouped around $10, plus-or-minus a couple of bucks. So how to pick one?

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Lessons from the Test Kitchen: The Kitchen Scale

kitchen scale

There are lots of tools and techniques you can use to get more consistent results from your baking or cooking. One of the easiest is to use a kitchen scale.

In the past, kitchen scales were rarely used by amateur cooks and hobbyists. The main reasons were convenience and cost. Older kitchen scales were bulky, took up a lot of shelf and counter space, and did not always provide accurate measurements. For those that looked good and worked well, the cost was prohibitive.

Well, times have changed. Today’s kitchen scales are compact, easy to use, highly accurate, and economical. As with most everything else these days, they have been transformed by the digital age, and they are easy to get. A search on Amazon for ‘kitchen scale’ yields dozens of results, with most available for less than $20.

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Introducing the Test Kitchen

I don’t need another category on my blog, and I certainly shouldn’t be taking on any new projects right now. But, I can’t help myself. I’ve decided to start a new section on the blog called the Test Kitchen.

The Test Kitchen is where I plan to collect lessons learned exploring different recipes and cooking techniques. I’m also going to keep my favorite recipes that I regularly come back to for cooking all kinds of things, whether it is cookies, pies, bread, pasta, guacamole, and more.

I’m not going to commit to a regular posting schedule. I’m just going to post when I have something to say, when it’s convenient, and when it makes sense. It may be once a week, once a month, or a couple of times a year. Who knows.

In the meantime, I’m going to move my favorite recipes into the Test Kitchen, and I hope to add more soon. To give you a preview, I’ve become addicted to the King Arthur Baking site over the last month or two and have quite a few thoughts I hope to share around bake goods, especially bread which I never thought I would make!

Stay tuned….