To Grind or Not to Grind?

Is grinding your own flour worth the effort? Or is it too much of a grind?

I was bit by the bread baking bug early in my amateur culinary career. First came the bread machine. Then came my discovery of no-knead bread. Soon, I was producing rustic loaves of cranberry-rosemary bread, and my ego began to inflate like a yeast-leavened boule. As my bread snobbery raged, I wondered how I could step up my game even further. Enter the grain mill.

There comes a time in every bread baking hobbyist’s life when they encounter the question: To grind or not to grind…your own flour, that is. My true desire as a burgeoning bread baker was to bake the perfect loaf of whole wheat bread, so the idea of grinding whole grains into flour intrigued me. I read about the virtues of home grain milling and was encouraged by glowing reports of delicious, healthy bread produced using freshly milled grains. Ultimately, I was persuaded to invest in a Nutrimill grain mill.

Still, there remained a grain of doubt in my mind as to whether bread made with my freshly ground whole wheat flour was indeed better than what I could have made with whole wheat flour purchased from the store. Sitting next to my behemoth of a kitchen gadget in the cold light of day, I began to think more critically about why exactly I was grinding my own flour.

I’ll begin with a brief flour primer:

  • What is flour, and how is it made? Flour is a powder produced by grinding grains, seeds, nuts, or roots. While we typically think of flour being made from wheat, there are actually myriad different types of flour. The process of making wheat flour starts with the mechanical grinding of wheat berries, which are the individual kernels of wheat. The different types of flour (e.g., all-purpose, whole wheat, etc.) differ by the way they are processed after the initial grinding (and can also differ by the type of wheat used).
  • What is the difference between all-purpose flour and whole wheat flour? If you’ve only ever baked with one type of flour, it was probably all-purpose flour (also called “white” flour or “refined” flour). To make all-purpose-flour, wheat berries (which are composed of endosperm, germ, and bran) are ground and processed to selectively retain the endosperm (the bulk of the wheat berry containing mostly starch and protein) while eliminating the germ and bran. This increases the shelf life of flour because the germ contains oils that become rancid over time. Additionally, removing the bran makes baked goods less heavy and dense. As more emphasis has been placed on the nutritional value of whole grains, whole wheat flours that retain the whole grain (endosperm, germ, and bran) have increased in popularity. Of course, enhanced nutrition comes at the cost of a shorter shelf life and an increased probability of producing doorstops instead of bread.
  • Do you have to separate the wheat from the chaff to make your own flour? Is threshing involved? When I tell people that I grind my own flour, they immediately picture me in overalls and a straw hat, slogging through waist-high fields of grain and violently threshing wheat stalks with a flail. (Or, at least that’s what I think they’re imagining between bouts of laughter.) While grain milling is not common to the modern American kitchen, it doesn’t require any type of wheat harvesting skills, either. Typical home grain mills are either of the hand-cranked variety or are electric mills like the Nutrimill. You simply purchase wheat berries from the bulk foods section at the grocery store or from a reputable source like Bob’s Red Mill, and you put them through the mill.

Here is a picture of freshly ground flour in the Nutrimill:

Now, let’s consider some reasons for grinding your own flour:

Taste: Grain milling devotees often point to the superior flavor of breads made from freshly milled flour. For example, the pamphlet of Nutrimill tips that comes with the mill claims, “The fresher the flour, the more nutritious and better tasting your bread or rolls will be.” As another example, the Great Harvest Bread Company attributes the superior flavor of its products to the fact that they are made from freshly ground, high-quality wheat berries. Employees at King Arthur Flour (KAF) actually prepared side-by-side loaves from either freshly milled flour or a bag of purchased KAF Premium 100% Whole Wheat Flour and compared them for taste. While they judged both loaves to be “delicious,” the loaf made from freshly ground flour tasted “sweet” with “no bitter tang.” In researching why bread made from freshly milled flour might taste better, I came across two explanations:

  1. In the same blog post I mentioned above, KAF suggests that the bitterness of breads made from commercially milled flour is due to the rancidity that develops as the wheat germ is exposed to air during storage. Conversely, the germ in intact wheat berries is protected from oxidation.
  2. Alternatively, it could be that freshly milled flour and store-bought whole wheat flour are entirely different things. In a 2011 LA Times article, baker Craig Ponsford claimed that most of the whole wheat flours sold in grocery stores are actually white flour (i.e., wheat flour with the bran and germ removed) to which the bran (but not the germ) has been added back. Since the germ is the “tastiest part of the wheat berry,” he claimed, bread made from freshly milled wheat berries tastes better.

Of course, these two explanations are in conflict because the first assumes that store-bought whole wheat flour contains the germ (which is true in the case of KAF’s Premium 100% Whole Wheat Flour), while the second assumes that the germ has been removed. (This Wikipedia article claims that many store-bought “whole wheat” flours have 70% of the germ removed to prevent rancidity.) I should also mention that hard red wheat berries, which are typically used to make wheat flour in the US, contain bitter-tasting tannins in the bran layer. So, we might expect bread made from either store-bought or freshly milled flour to be bitter from the tannins, unless the germ in the freshly ground flour can somehow counteract that inherent bitterness.

Nutrition: In addition to making claims about superior taste, grain mill enthusiasts often extol the nutritional value of bread made from freshly ground flour. The Nutrimill tips pamphlet asserts, “Freshly ground whole wheat flour offers the most nutritional value. Nutrients decrease rapidly after grains are milled.” So, what are the nutrients in whole wheat flour? We can divide them between the three parts of the wheat berry as follows:

  • The endosperm accounts for 83% of the mass of the wheat kernel and consists mostly of carbohydrates and protein.
  • The bran, which is the outer coating of the wheat berry, accounts for 14% of the mass of the wheat kernel and is mostly fiber.
  • The germ accounts for 3% of the wheat kernel’s mass and contains proteins, fats, and vitamins.

The argument that flour made from whole wheat (i.e., the entire wheat berry) is more nutritious than refined flour (from which the germ and bran has been removed) is a relatively straightforward one, although I should mention that refined flour is often enriched with vitamins that were lost during processing. The argument that freshly ground flour is more nutritious than commercially milled whole wheat flour is even more complicated. Those who claim that whole wheat flour loses 90% of its nutritional value within 72 hours after grinding (as stated in this article) are probably referring to the degradation of vitamins and therefore neglect the fact that a significant portion of the “nutrition” comes from the proteins, carbohydrates, and fiber. Given that some vitamins degrade fairly rapidly, the flour will obviously be the most nutritious immediately after it is ground. However, I am not convinced that the loss of vitamin content is a problem, at least assuming that our modern diets don’t rely exclusively on grains to fulfill our daily requirements for vitamins. (This blog post provides a nice discussion about the nutrition of milled flour.)

Creativity, variety: A strong (and much less controversial) argument for owning a grain mill is that you can make flours from a wide variety of grains (e.g., rice, barley, rye, oats, spelt, and dried beans, to name a few). By varying the types of grains you grind and the fineness of the flour, you can access new textures and flavors simply not possible with a limited selection of store-bought flours.

The Experiment

As you can see, it’s not entirely obvious whether grain milling is advantageous, especially from the perspective of taste and nutrition. I am not equipped to evaluate the nutritional value of bread, but the main reason I bought the grain mill was to make delicious whole grain breads. So, I decided to ask a simple question: Does bread made with freshly milled whole wheat flour taste better than bread made with store-bought whole wheat flour? An experiment was in order.

In this experiment, I baked two loaves of bread side-by-side. For both loaves, I followed a simple honey whole wheat recipe, but I made one loaf from freshly ground wheat berries and one loaf from purchased 100% whole wheat flour. Note that I halved the original recipe to make two small loaves.

Basic Honey Whole Wheat Loaf
(adapted from 100 Days of Real Food; amounts shown below are for a small loaf)

Ingredients

  • 266 g whole wheat flour (slightly less than 2 1/4 cups)
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 177 g warm water (3/4 cup)
  • 2 T honey
  • 1 T olive oil
  • 1 1/8 tsp instant yeast

Directions

  1. Stir together all of the ingredients in a bowl.
  2. Allow the mixture to rest for 20 min.
  3. Knead the dough by hand for about 5 minutes, adding flour as necessary so that the dough doesn’t stick to your fingers.
  4. Make a ball and put it in a covered bowl.
  5. Allow the dough to rise for 1-2 hours at room temperature. (If your kitchen is cold, you can warm your oven at the lowest setting and then turn it off and place the bread inside to rise.)
  6. Punch down the dough, knead as before, and shape the dough into a ball.
  7. Allow the dough to rise on a baking pan or tray for 1-2 hours, until doubled in size.
  8. Gently slash the top of the loaf to allow for additional rising in the oven. Bake at 350F for 30-45 min, or until the internal temperature of the bread reaches 205-210F.
  9. Optional: Spray the finished loaf with a little bit of water after it comes out of the oven to soften the crust.

Observations from the baking process:

First, let’s review the opponents:

  • To Grind: I used my Nutrimill Grain Mill to grind hard red wheat berries purchased from the bulk bin at Sprouts Farmers Market. I ground the wheat berries immediately prior to making the bread. I’ll refer to this flour as the “Nutrimill flour.”
  • Not to Grind: I used a package of freshly purchased 100% White Whole Wheat Flour from Trader Joe’s. I’ll refer to this flour as the “Trader Joe’s flour.” (Spoiler alert: I realize I should not have used white whole wheat flour since I was comparing it to red wheat berries. More about that later.)

Both flours formed a dough after stirring. As you can see, the Nutrimill flour (right) made a somewhat drier initial dough than the Trader Joe’s flour (left). However, both doughs became soft and tacky during the kneading process.

After the first knead, the dough was shaped into balls and left to rise in covered bowls. The extent of rise was similar for both types of flour. The Trader Joe’s dough (front) was noticeably lighter in color.

The second rise produced loaves similar in size and appearance.  Again, the Trader Joe’s loaf (back) was lighter.

The baked loaves were similar in appearance, although the Nutrimill loaf (back) was slightly larger and darker in color.

Looking at the crumb, the Nutrimill bread (left) was less dense and rose slightly higher, while the Trader Joe’s bread (right) was more dense and shorter.

Taste Test: Part 1 – Blind Taste Test with Volunteers

One of my reasons for doing this experiment was that I wanted to justify owning a Nutrimill grain mill. Not only is it a relatively expensive kitchen gadget, but it also occupies a fair amount of real estate in my small apartment kitchen. Considering my bias, I realized that judging the bread myself would have been a conflict of interest. So, I enlisted a small army of hungry volunteers, namely my lab mates.

I decided to make it a blind taste test, so I labeled the loaves “T” for the bread made with Trader Joe’s flour and “G” for the bread made with Nutrimill-ground flour. As you may recall, the question that motivated this experiment was whether bread made from freshly ground flour tasted better than bread made from purchased whole wheat flour. However, I also realized that additional factors, such as texture and moistness, influence our overall enjoyment of a loaf of bread. So, I asked my lab mates a more general question: Which bread do you prefer, and why?

Here’s a summary of my findings:

  • Of the eight volunteers, five preferred the bread made from Trader Joe’s flour (T), while three preferred the bread made from freshly milled wheat berries (G). I have included a table of their responses below.
  • The primary reasons people preferred the bread made from Trader Joe’s flour (T) were related to its flavor and texture. Interestingly, two tasters commented that the bread made from milled flour (G) seemed healthier but was less preferable overall.
  • It seems the tasters who preferred the bread made from milled flour (G) were looking for a less sweet bread, excepting the taster who liked it because it seemed more sweet.

Taste Test: Part 2 – Jamie and Bill Sample the Bread

After seeing that my lab mates tended to prefer the Trader Joe’s bread, I was curious which bread Bill and I would prefer. After all, I am trying to justify owning a grain mill that I’ll use to make bread primarily for Bill and myself. Here are the results:

  • Bill: I gave Bill the blind taste test, and he preferred the bread made with Trader Joe’s flour. He said that, while the bread made from milled flour was softer and sweeter (which are good things to him), he didn’t like that it had a funny aftertaste that he described as “yeasty.”
  • Jamie: Since I made the bread and was familiar with how they looked and felt, I asked Bill to help me with a “blind a taste test.” I closed my eyes, and he fed me small pieces of the bread so that I wouldn’t be able recognize which was which by appearance or feel. I honestly assumed that I would prefer the bread made from milled flour since I had read so many good things about how grain milling makes unbelievably tasty bread. (You’ve probably already guessed what actually happened.) As it turns out, I strongly preferred the bread made from Trader Joe’s flour because it had a delicious flavor I described as “nutty.” I judged the bread made with milled flour to have a “weird” aftertaste. When Bill revealed which sample was which, I was shocked.

Summary

In the end, this was an imperfect yet informative experiment. The blind taste test with volunteers revealed that bread preferences are highly subjective. Nevertheless, the generally preferred bread was made from Trader Joe’s 100% White Whole Wheat Flour. I’m guessing the “weird” aftertaste that Bill and I (and some tasters) didn’t like in the bread made from milled flour was the bitter flavor of tannins in the red wheat berry. And herein lies the critical flaw in my experimental design. In purchasing whole wheat flour, I neglected to notice that the Trader Joe’s whole wheat flour is made from white (not red) wheat berries. So, I was actually comparing freshly milled red wheat berries to bagged flour made from white wheat berries, which are an albino variety of wheat berries that lack those bitter tannins.

Now, it actually makes sense that I naively made the wrong comparison. Hard red wheat berries are readily available in the US, while white wheat berries account for only 10-15% of America’s total wheat crop. So, it makes sense that stores are more likely to offer red wheat berries in bulk than white wheat berries. Conversely, since consumers tend to prefer the milder flavor of whole wheat flour made from white wheat berries, white whole wheat flour has become very popular in stores. (Trader Joe’s doesn’t even sell whole wheat flour made from red wheat berries.)

Poor experimental design aside, I learned that Bill and I don’t particularly like bread made from red wheat berries, even when it’s freshly milled. However, I am not yet convinced that grain milling can’t make the most delicious bread ever. This experiment only strengthens my resolve to justify owning a grain mill. Stay tuned for: “To Grind or Not to Grind? Part II.”

How to Bump up the Clump in Your Homemade Granola

A Granola Makeover Story

I have a confession to make. Although I am proud of the fact that I make my own granola, I am embarrassed to share it with others. “Why?” you might ask. Well, let’s just say that my granola lacks a certain “clump factor” that anyone who has purchased granola from the store has come to expect. I had long since resigned to eating from my secret stash of runny granola when my friend Lucy reminded me about a conversation we’d had about different strategies for making clumpy granola. The challenge piqued my interest, and I decided that it was time to tackle this problem once and for all.

I will now swallow my pride to reveal the “before” picture of my non-clumpy granola:

The Experiment

The challenge of getting granola to clump has been discussed on various online forums, and contributors have proposed a variety of solutions. I decided to test a few of the more popular methods. However, there are certain obvious ways to make granola clump, such as drenching it in absurd amounts of liquid sugar, that don’t jibe with my goal of healthy baking. Therefore, I had to set a few ground rules. First, I decided to keep the same basic recipe that I had been using, which calls for modest amounts of sugar and oil. Second, I wanted to find the simplest, least fussy solution – something that would be easy to do so that I wouldn’t be tempted to revert to my old recipe out of laziness.

Here are the methods I decided to test and their theoretical underpinnings:

Egg white method: Egg whites, which consist primarily of water and protein (mostly albumin), are used to coat the granola prior to baking. As the granola bakes, the egg whites denature and form an interconnected solid network. Oats that are in close proximity on the baking tray will be joined within this network of denatured protein, creating a cluster.

Oat bran method: Substituting ground oats (or oat bran) for some of the rolled oats is a technique that some people swear by for clumping their granola. Presumably, the ground oats soak up the sweetener and form somewhat of a glue that bridges adjacent oats.

The Recipes

Jamie’s Non-Clumpy Granola
(adapted from a recipe posted by The Kitchn)

Ingredients

  • 3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats (not instant)
  • ¼ cup sliced or slivered almonds
  • ¼ cup chia seeds
  • ½ cup raw sunflower seeds
  • ½ cup raw pumpkin seeds
  • ¼ cup shredded coconut, unsweetened
  • 2 tablespoons virgin coconut oil
  • 4 tablespoons honey
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 300F and place rack in the center of the oven. Line a half sheet pan (18″ x 13″) or two smaller baking sheets with parchment paper.
  2. In a large bowl combine the dry ingredients (rolled oats, almonds, seeds, and shredded coconut).
  3. In a small sauce pan, stir together the oil and honey and heat gently. Take off heat and stir in vanilla. Pour this mixture over the dry ingredients and toss together, making sure all the dry ingredients are coated with the liquid.
  4. Spread the mixture onto the prepared baking sheet(s) in a thin layer and bake for about 30-45 minutes or until golden brown, stirring about every 15 minutes so that the mixture browns evenly.
  5. After removing the pan from the oven, place it on a wire rack (or the stove top) to cool. You will notice that the granola may still be sticky when it is removed from the oven, but it will become crisp and dry as it cools.
  6. Once the granola has completely cooled, store it in an airtight container or plastic bag. It will keep for several weeks. Store in the refrigerator or freezer for longer.

Variation 1: Egg white method

After coating the oats and seeds with the oil/honey/vanilla mixture, stir in two egg whites. (I didn’t beat or whip them before stirring into the granola, although some recipes suggest to do this.) Bake the granola as instructed in the original recipe, being careful not to overstir. (Update: Actually, not stirring at all produces the clumpiest granola.)

Variation 2: Oat bran method

Substitute oat bran for one-third of the rolled oats (i.e., 1 cup of oat bran + 2 cups of rolled oats) and combine with the dry ingredients. Prepare the recipe as instructed.

Results

The original recipe produces a crunchy, albeit non-clumpy granola. I typically sprinkle it over my oatmeal or muesli, so the lack of clusters is not a huge problem. However, I do have the problem that the smaller components (like the chia seeds) settle to the bottom of the container. You can see how the black chia seeds settle to the bottom of the mixture in this picture taken of the bottom of the bowl.

The egg white method was the clear winner of this competition. It produced nice granola clusters that bound up the smaller components, preventing the chia seeds from settling to the bottom of the bowl.

The oat bran method failed to clump the granola, presumably because my recipe lacks the amount of sugar necessary to generate an oat bran “glue.” You can see the oat bran dust and chia seeds that have settled to the bottom of the bowl.

In summary, the egg white method produced the desired clumpy granola.

When I showed Bill the different containers of granola I had made, his mouth was full of another type of cereal. He pointed at the clumpy one, nodding enthusiastically to indicate his approval. He then turned to the one made with oat bran, frowned, and shook his head disapprovingly. I tend to agree with his assessment.

And now, I triumphantly present the “after” picture of my granola makeover:

And it’s not a makeover story if there’s no “before and after” picture:

Although the egg white method worked reasonably well, there are some future refinements I might consider. First, I noticed that stirring the granola during baking broke up some of the clumps. However, stirring is necessary to ensure even cooking; otherwise, the outer edges will burn and the inside portions will not brown. One suggestion is to add the egg white to the granola halfway through the baking process and then discontinue stirring. Another suggestion is to add the egg white before baking and arrange the granola around the edges of the baking sheet, leaving the center of the sheet empty, as described here. Finally, I wonder if the same effect could be achieved using a “flax egg,” which is often used as a binder in vegan baking.

(Update: I made this again using the egg white method, and I found that it is actually possible to bake the granola without stirring it at all. Just watch it toward the end to prevent burning. The egg white/no stirring method is extremely effective in producing large sheets of granola.)

And finally, some granola tips:

  • Don’t leave the granola out to cool overnight! It will lose its crunchiness. Instead, just leave it out long enough to cool (about an hour or two), then seal it in a container or bag.
  • Please, please, please don’t bake dried fruit with your granola! This produces rock-hard, tooth-breaking, inedible pellets of burnt fruit. Just mix it in after the granola has baked and cooled. Thank you.

The Price of Produce: A Home Economics Experiment

How much more am I paying for organic produce delivery?

The idea of receiving a box of fresh, local, organic produce through a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program has appealed to me since I first heard about it a couple of years ago. Of course, CSA has been around for several decades, but the rise of the locavore movement and the growth of produce box subscription services have increased the popularity and accessibility of CSA programs in the past few years. I tend to be a slow adopter, so it’s no surprise that I arrived a little late (okay, a lot late) to the produce box party.

One of my major reservations about subscribing to an organic produce delivery service was the cost. Organic produce is expensive, and having it delivered is, presumably, even more expensive. Yet, the idea of supporting local farms and, more selfishly, receiving a “surprise” box of high-quality produce was an intriguing notion that challenged my frugal tendencies. I finally gave in and subscribed to Farm Fresh to You, a large CSA subscription service based in California’s Capay Valley, a couple of months ago. Conservatively, I selected the small box of mixed fruits and vegetables to be delivered every other week at a cost of $25 per box. Here is a typical box:

Things started off well. I anticipated each delivery with giddy enthusiasm, and I was impressed with the delivery service and the overall quality of the produce. Furthermore, I was inspired to try new recipes using new-to-me items such as bok choy and broccoli rabe. However, as the honeymoon period wore off and I began noticing a few not-so-nice produce items (e.g., rotten tomatoes and shriveled corn in the last box), I decided to take a sober look at my various produce purchasing options. Was it worth it to continue with the produce delivery service? How much of a premium was I paying for organic produce and the delivery thereof?

I am fortunate to have a number of grocery options in my area. For this experiment, I braved the hordes of fanatical foodies at my local farmers’ market, I survived the snootiness of Whole Foods, and I even scavenged the shelves of Safeway with the goal of becoming a savvy produce consumer.

The Experiment

My field of science involves a lot of work at the lab bench, so I was excited for this opportunity to conduct fieldwork. For this experiment, I researched the price of each of the items I received in my July 3, 2012 produce box at various local grocery establishments. I also took note of whether the item was organic and assigned it a quality score (1 = poor; 2 = average; 3 = good). To be clear, I didn’t purchase these items, so my quality scores are based on visual inspection and any other reasonable tests (such as touch and smell) that I could do in the store without attracting too much attention. To ensure a fair comparison, all of my price data were collected on the same day (July 8, 2012).

Farm Fresh to You (FFTY) Small Produce Box ($25.00)

Let’s begin by taking stock of the contents in the produce box delivered to my doorstep on July 3, 2012. As you can see, the box included a pretty nice spread of summer produce.

FFTY claims to deliver 100% organic produce. Generally, the quality of the produce has been good. I thought the plums in this box were particularly delicious. However, I was disappointed with the quality of the tomatoes and corn. There was a big rotten spot on one of the tomatoes (artfully hidden in the photo), and it tasted mealy. The other two rotted after one day. The corn was a disgrace. One ear looked okay but wasn’t very sweet. The second ear was rotten at the top, and the third ear was shriveled and inedible. So, while the quality of the produce I’ve received from FFTY has been generally good, this box earned a cumulative quality score of 20 out of 24.

Farmers’ Market ($17.20)

I am quite fortunate to live within walking distance of a farmers’ market. Since it tends to adhere to an ethos similar to that of community-supported agriculture, I consider the farmers’ market my best alternative to the FFTY produce box.

The farmers’ market offers a bounty of seasonal produce, so it was not difficult to find all of the items in my produce box. Everything was organic with the exception of the plums and cherries, which were marked as “pesticide free.” I basically count that as organic; it’s just that the farm is not certified organic. Furthermore, the quality of the produce was superb (24 out of 24). I broke the rules and bought myself three ears of corn, which were delicious. The total cost of the produce box items from the farmers’ market ($17.20) was not a big surprise to me. I figured it would be expensive but cheaper than FFTY, which presumably works a delivery fee into the total cost.

Whole Foods ($20.58)

I don’t tend to do the majority of my grocery shopping at Whole Foods, primarily for budgetary reasons. As you can see from the total cost of the produce box items at Whole Foods ($20.58), there’s some truth to the joke that the store should actually be called “Whole Paycheck.” Nevertheless, the hefty price tag gets you some really high-quality produce (quality score of 24 out of 24). Interestingly, not everything was organic – only 75% of the items. Nevertheless, with their bountiful offerings of beautiful organic produce, Whole Foods is a good alternative to a farmers’ market and is generally more accessible. And it’s still cheaper than the produce box (but not delivered to your doorstep, of course).

Sprouts Farmers Market ($8.95)

I discovered Sprouts (formerly called Henry’s Market) last year while living in San Diego and was pleased to find them in the Bay Area as well. Although it’s definitely more of a grocery store than a farmers’ market, the store layout puts a major emphasis on produce, which fills the entire center of the store rather than being marginalized to a sliver on the side. As such, Sprouts can buy seasonal produce items in bulk and pass the savings on to the customer ($8.95 for the produce box items).  (You can see below that half of the items were on sale.) Of course, the compromise is that they don’t specialize in organic produce (0% organic items), and they don’t carry some of the fancier items, such as heirloom tomatoes. In any case, the overall quality was pretty good (quality score of 21 out of 24 – slightly better than the FFTY produce box).

Safeway ($14.31)

I tend to turn up my nose at the idea of Safeway produce, but as an exercise in open-mindedness, I decided to take a look. Not everyone is blessed with a wealth of produce options in their area, and produce purchasing is part of many people’s one-stop shopping at a store like Safeway. The produce box items totaled $14.31 at Safeway, and nothing was organic. Quality varied among the items, resulting in an overall quality score of 16 out of 24. Some items looked perfectly respectable (including the lettuce, cucumbers, and potatoes), while others (such as the squishy, rotten tomatoes) were downright disgusting.

Trader Joe’s ($15.27)

Admittedly, I wasn’t planning to include Trader Joe’s in my research, but I got a little carried away. Compared to the other establishments I visited, Trader Joe’s is a bit of an oddball. Their produce selection is quite limited, so I had to make some substitutions for my data collection. For example, the only kind of cucumbers they had were Persian, and the lettuce came prewashed in a bag. For several of the items, they had both organic and non-organic options. In those cases, I chose the organic option, which was actually cheaper than the non-organic option in two cases (potatoes and onions). Furthermore, this was an entirely fictitious purchase because I wouldn’t have been able to buy the desired quantities (e.g., cherries were sold in a 3 lb box for $6.99). In the end, the produce box items from Trader Joe’s were 63% organic and totaled $15.27 with a quality score of 20 out of 24.

Summary and Analysis

The bar graph below summarizes the individual and cumulative costs of the produce box items at each grocery establishment.

Below, the data are presented in a table. We can calculate the difference between the highest price (in red) and the lowest price (in gray) for each item to see how much of a savings can be achieved by shopping around. For example, the biggest price difference was in the tomatoes ($3.50 difference), while the corn was similarly priced everywhere ($0.51 difference). Factoring in cost and quality, the best organic option was the farmers’ market, while the best non-organic option was Sprouts.

My original question was how much of a premium I’m paying for the delivery of organic produce. We can use the data in the table above to estimate the extra price I am paying for (1) organic produce versus non-organic and (2) the delivery of said organic produce. (Note that this analysis is purely hypothetical and is based on the assumption that the produce from the FFTY box and the farmers’ market are equivalent in value.)

  • The extra cost of organic produce: [Best organic option (Farmers’ market): $17.20] – [Best non-organic option (Sprouts): $8.95] = $8.25 extra for organic (Put another way, the organic produce was almost twice as expensive as non-organic produce.)
  • The extra cost for delivery of organic produce: [FFTY produce box: $25.00] – [Farmers’ market produce: $17.20] = $7.80 extra for delivery
  • In summary, we can separate the $25 cost of the FFTY produce box into three components: Base produce cost ($8.95) + Organic fee ($8.25) + Delivery fee ($7.80) = $25.00

Of course, this analysis is based on just one produce box, and boxes will vary week by week. However, I would argue that summer produce probably costs more than winter produce, so the $25 may be even less of a value in the winter.

Should I continue paying a premium for my organic produce box?

I’m currently on the fence about whether to continue my produce box subscription. I have enjoyed learning about and experimenting with new-to-me produce, and it’s less likely I would be so adventurous if it weren’t for the “surprise” produce box. At the same time, I’m paying a lot for a CSA subscription service compared to other high-quality produce options in my area. A reasonable solution would be to continue supporting local farms by purchasing produce from the farmers’ market, while supplementing with some cheaper items from Sprouts. But where’s the surprise in that?

In closing:

  • Small organic produce box delivered every other week for a year – $600
  • The same produce items purchased from the local farmers’ market for a year – about $400
  • The same produce items (but not organic) purchased from Sprouts for a year – about $200
  • Attempting to cook something with bok choy and giggling uncontrollably while taking a picture of the failed results in the trash canPriceless

A Quick Experiment in Home Pickling

Quick Pickling: A sweet vs. sour face-off

Have you ever eaten something you found soaking in a bath of sour bacterial waste products? There is a possibility that you have if you’ve ever eaten a pickle. Now, don’t get your panties in a bunch. Prepared properly, pickles are perfectly safe to eat, and some even argue that the bacteria that grow on them offer beneficial probiotic properties. If you want, you can even make your own! Just wait four to six weeks, and enjoy! But what if you want a pickle RIGHT NOW? Or tomorrow, perhaps?

The last produce delivery left me with two cucumbers and in a bit of a cuke quandary. Recalling a recipe I had once seen for quick pickles, I saw this as the perfect opportunity to dabble in home pickling.

Before we begin, let’s learn about the strange and fascinating world of pickling.

Pickling is a food preservation technique that involves storing foods in an edible acidic solution to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. There are two methods for creating acidic storage conditions:

  1. Fermentation pickling: The food is soaked in a salt solution to promote anaerobic fermentation, which results in the production of lactic acid.
  2. Chemical pickling: The food is marinated in an acidic solution, typically vinegar.

Although Americans tend to think of pickled cucumbers as “pickles,” the word “pickle” can technically be used to describe any food item that has been pickled. So what else can you pickle?

Things that you can pickle: (Note: I said “can” and not “should”.)

  • Cucumbers
  • Cabbage (think sauerkraut, which translates directly to “sour cabbage”)
  • Many other vegetables, including beets, carrots, garlic, onions, asparagus, and peppers (recall Peter Piper?)
  • Fruits such as watermelon and plums, to name a couple
  • Meats such as corned beef and herring
  • Eggs
  • and much, much more!

I find this pickle primer positively fascinating! Tell me more!

Although there is a prescribed pickling method for certain foods (e.g., sauerkraut and kimchi are pickled by fermentation, while meats and eggs are typically chemically pickled), cucumbers can be pickled by either method. Let’s dive a little deeper into the pickle barrel to learn how pickled cucumbers are made.

  • Fermented pickles: Also known as cured pickles, brined pickles, sour pickles, and good old pickle barrel pickles, these pickles are prepared by soaking cucumbers in a salt brine. At the proper level of salinity, the “good” bacteria (lactobacillus) found on the skins of the cucumbers are encouraged to grow, whereas “bad” bacteria and microorganisms are kept at bay. By a process of anaerobic fermentation, the “good” bacteria digest sugars in the cucumber and convert them to lactic acid. The accumulation of lactic acid causes the brine to become acidic, which in turn prevents the growth of harmful bacteria and microorganisms. Fermentation pickling typically takes 3-6 weeks, after which the pickles can be stored in the refrigerator to slow the fermentation process. With proper maintenance (i.e., skimming the bacterial gunk off the surface of the brine), these pickles can be kept in the refrigerator for a year or longer.
  • Quick pickles: Also called fresh-packed pickles, quick process pickles, marinated pickles, and refrigerator pickles, these pickles derive their flavor from a solution of vinegar and spices rather than from lacto-fermentation. The vinegar basically kills all the bacteria on the cucumbers, even the “good” bacteria. These can be stored in the refrigerator for about ten days, or they can be canned for long-term storage.

As someone who has been fortunate to enjoy actual pickle barrel pickles at Saul’s Deli in Berkeley, I wondered whether quick pickles could come close to the delicious complexity of their fermented counterparts. With my two farm-fresh cucumbers, I decided to make some quick pickles.

The Quickle Face-Off

As I began to research recipes for quick pickles, I sensed a sweet versus sour schism. I wondered whether the sour recipe would more closely replicate the sourness of fermented pickles, or whether the sugar was necessary to build complexity. With two cucumbers, I decided to make one of each. Here are the recipes:

Sour Quick Pickles
(adapted from foodinjars.com)

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/2 cup vinegar (I used apple cider vinegar)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cucumber, ends chopped and cut into wedges
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 teaspoon dried dill weed (mine expired in 2006)

Directions

Bring the water/vinegar/salt mixture to a boil. (Since I was making such a small recipe, I just boiled the liquid in a measuring cup in the microwave.) Stir in the dried dill, add the garlic, and then submerge the sliced cucumber in the hot solution. Leave it out on the counter until it cools, and then cover the container and refrigerate. The pickles should be ready to eat after 24 hours.

Sweet Quick Pickles
(adapted from seriouseats.com)

Follow the recipe for sour pickles, but add 1 tablespoon of sugar to the water/vinegar/salt solution. For a fair comparison, I added exactly the same flavoring components (garlic and dill) to both pickle preparations.

Taste Test and Edibility Evaluation

I allowed the pickles to soak in the refrigerator for 24 hours. When I examined them, they largely resembled regular pickles with the notable exception that the white flesh had taken on a slight pinkish hue from the apple cider vinegar.

My taste testing was admittedly unscientific, although I can argue that it was a blind taste test because I didn’t label the measuring cups, and they basically looked the same. Both types of pickles were crunchy and juicy, just as a pickle should be. However, I could definitely tell the difference between the sweet and sour pickles, and I strongly preferred the sweet pickle. Nevertheless, both were really, really vinegary! It’s no surprise, then, that the sweet pickle was preferable because the sugar balanced the vinegar somewhat. You’ll find my rankings on the edibility scale below.

After smelling the strong vinegar solution, Bill became vehemently opposed to the idea of quick pickling and decided to boycott the entire experiment. Despite my attempts to reassure him that vinegar is relatively harmless and commonly used for cleaning, he opened all of our windows and insisted that the smell I had created was evil. As a concession, I agreed to make the Hasselback potatoes again that he loved so much.

Luckily for Bill, this experiment has soured me to the idea of home pickling. While the quick pickles I made could pass as sandwich accompaniments in a pinch, I definitely prefer the more complex, less vinegary flavor of regular old pickle barrel pickles.

Wait! There’s more!

Although the sun has set on my short stint in home pickling, I found my pickle research really fascinating. I’ll end this post with a pickle Q&A.

  • Is a dill pickle made by fermentation or chemical pickling? Dill pickles can be prepared either way. The name just indicates that they are prepared using dill weed or dill oil as the main flavoring agent.
  • What is a kosher pickle? Despite what their name implies, kosher pickles (or kosher dill pickles) do not necessarily adhere to orthodox Jewish dietary laws. Rather, they are prepared following the methods of traditional Jewish New York City pickle makers. Basically, this involves adding a lot of garlic and dill to the brine.
  • How are jarred pickles you can buy in the grocery store made? From what I’ve read, it seems that the majority of grocery store pickles are “quick-pickled” (i.e., made with vinegar). Some stores may sell fermented pickles, but they are likely to be more expensive.
  • Can I be sure that there are live cultures of “good” bacteria in my fermented pickles? This is a good question to ask if you’re a savvy pickle purchaser. First off, you have to make sure that your pickles were actually fermented and not just soaked in vinegar. However, even if the pickles were fermented, you have to confirm that they were not subjected to a packaging process (such as pasteurization or adding vinegar as a preservative) that can kill the bacteria. Your best bet is to find a reputable source, such as The Cultured Pickle Shop, and buy the real thing. Or you can make your own.
  • Should I really make my own pickles? It depends on how much you love pickles. If you really want to make them, I would suggest that you go all the way and ferment your own. Just be aware that fermented pickles can be fickle since they are sensitive to changes in temperature and salinity.
  • What type(s) of cucumbers should I use to make fermented pickles? Pickling cucumbers, of course! But seriously, the two major categories of cucumbers are pickling cucumbers and slicing cucumbers. Slicing cucumbers are best eaten raw (on salads, for example), while pickling cucumbers have been bred to stand up well to the pickling process and are said to make for crisper and more flavorful pickles. The Cook’s Thesaurus has a nice description of cucumber varieties. Also keep in mind that you want to use freshly harvested cucumbers that are firm and that haven’t been treated with anything that would kill the “good” bacteria on their surface.
  • I just ate a pickle that tasted fizzy/carbonated! Will I die? I had this experience once at Saul’s Deli, and I’ll admit that I was concerned. But I didn’t die. In fact, the carbonation was evidence that I was eating the real deal. Even after they are transferred to a refrigerator, fermented pickles still contain live bacteria. If you take them out of the refrigerator and they warm up a bit, the bacteria will continue the fermentation process, generating carbon dioxide gas as a by-product. This article gives more detail about the heterolactic fermentation process responsible for generating this fizz-producing gas.
  • When are you going to stop talking about pickles? This is a question that Bill and some of my close friends probably want to ask me. I promise that I’ll stop now and find a new research subject.

A Peachy Experiment to Test Some Fuzzy Logic

Putting several “best” peach ripening techniques to the test

I’ll admit that I’m a bit of a peach snob. A perfectly ripe, juicy, sweet, fragrant peach is among the foods I consider exceedingly edible, while I dismiss unripe, green, crunchy peaches as a tart travesty. And don’t get me started on canned “peaches”! Although I love peaches, I’m often hesitant to purchase them hard and unripe from the store because I’m afraid that I’ll end up with a mealy mess. Is there a good way to reliably ripen a peach? As the inaugural experiment on VegEdibles, I decided to scratch beneath the fuzzy surface of peach ripening techniques.

What do we know about peach ripening?

Before getting into the various peach ripening techniques, let’s review the fundamentals of peach ripening.

  • Peaches are a climacteric fruit, meaning that they continue to ripen after being picked from the tree. Other climacteric fruits include bananas, apples, tomatoes, and other stone fruits like plums.
  • Ethylene is a plant hormone that is released as a gas and triggers a cascade of physiological changes associated with climacteric fruit ripening.
  • As fruit ripens, it becomes sweeter (due to the conversion of starch to sugar), softer and less green (due to changes in the cell wall and the production of color compounds), and more fragrant (due to the production of volatile compounds) (see Wikipedia article on ripening).
  • In California, peaches are typically picked after ethylene production has triggered the ripening process. Therefore, ethylene exposure is not necessary for fruit ripening, and peaches are ready to eat once they have softened.

That’s nice, but what do I do with my hard peaches?

I had heard about ripening fruit in a paper bag, but I decided to tap into the collective wisdom of the Web to find the best way to ripen a peach. It didn’t take long before I stumbled upon a popular blog post describing the best way to ripen peaches. This technique involves placing the peaches stem side down between two cotton tea towels. And the peaches must not touch one another or be disturbed in any way. For obvious reasons, I will refer to this as the “pampered peach” method. The author claims that this method is superior to the “paper bag” method, which he believes causes the fruit to rot or become mealy. But so many others swear by the paper bag method. And what about just leaving them out on a plate?

Designing a peach ripening experiment

I found the “pampered peach” method intriguing, but I wanted to determine whether it was worth it to go to that much trouble. Therefore, I decided to compare the “pampered peach” method with three other common methods for peach ripening. Here are the four methods I tested:

  1. The “pampered peach” (Towel) method: This method, as described above, involves placing the fruit stem side down on a table between two cotton tea towels. And, of course, the peaches must be set apart from one another to obey the “no touching” rule.
  2. The “paper bag” (Bag) method: Basically, the fruit is left in a closed paper bag to promote ethylene accumulation. (Some web sources claim that this hastens ripening.) I placed the peaches stem side down and apart from one another to enable direct comparison with the “pampered peach” method.
  3. The “paper bag with a fruit friend” (Bag + fruit) method: This is a modification of the “paper bag” method. The addition of ethylene-producing fruit, such as an apple or banana, is purported to further hasten the ripening process. I placed the peaches stem side down and apart, as in the “paper bag” method, and I added an apple and a banana to the bag as well.
  4. The “fruit bowl” (Plate) method: This is my default fruit ripening method and was somewhat of a control to see whether the other methods were superior.

I purchased 12 equally firm California peaches from Trader Joe’s and randomly assigned them to the four ripening conditions.

The peaches were placed on a table in their respective ripening environments. They were observed daily for signs of ripeness and were evaluated for taste once they were judged soft enough to eat.

Ripening results

Bill kindly volunteered to blindly judge the ripening process, so every night I set out the peaches in a line (in random order) and he judged their ripeness.

We used three ripeness indicators to judge the peach ripening process:

  • Firmness: Bill gently pressed the flesh surrounding the stem in a few different places. He assigned each peach a relative firmness score. In general, the peaches started off uniformly hard and softened slowly over the course of a week. I took the average of Bill’s firmness scores from days 3-6 for the graph below. As you can see, there was little difference in firmness between the peaches, although the “Bag + fruit” group had the two most firm peaches as well as the softest peach.

  • Smell: Although Bill attempted to score the degree of fragrance of each peach, it turns out they were too similar to rank. Generally, we observed that the peaches started off with minimal fragrance and became very fragrant after a week. Interestingly, Bill was able to consistently identify peach #11, which was in the bag with fruit, because he claimed that it smelled like a banana. However, he did not identify the other two peaches that were in the bag with the banana, and peach #11 was not any closer to the banana than the other two peaches. I could not smell the banana on peach #11, suggesting that Bill has superior smelling abilities.
  • Color: Bill judged the color of the peaches by looking at the skin surrounding the stem. Generally, the peaches turned from green to orange/yellow over the course of a week (see peach #2 below as an example). Using color change as a measure of ripening, there was no major difference between the peaches as far as the speed or quality of ripening.

Tasting results

It turned out that most of the peaches had softened and seemed ripe enough to eat a week after the start of the experiment. A few seemed harder and less ripe, but it made sense to taste them all at once and see whether the less ripe ones were from a particular group.

Bill and I both took on the formidable task of tasting the peaches. To make this a blind taste test, I placed peach slices (a quarter of a peach per sample) into randomly assigned positions in two muffin tins. Bill’s muffin tin had a different arrangement than mine so as to prevent influencing each other’s scoring. We tasted the peaches, taking note of important ripeness indicators such as sweetness and juiciness.

WARNING: Eating three peaches in one sitting is not recommended, as it can wreak havoc on the digestive system. Enough said.

After tasting the peaches, Bill and I independently ranked them from sweetest/most ripe to most tart/least ripe. Here are the key findings:

  • As you can see from the rankings below, we were in reasonable agreement. Considering the peaches that we ranked in our top half, we were in agreement for five out of six.
  • There was no clear winner as far as ripening methods go. We both found peach #8 (paper bag method) to be the sweetest, but peach #5 (also paper bag method) was toward the bottom of the rankings for both of us.
  • We both ranked two of the three peaches from the plate, towel, and bag methods among our top half.
  • Interestingly, we both ranked all three peaches that had been ripened in a bag with fruit among our bottom half.

What can we learn from this peachy experiment?

As you may recall, since peaches are typically picked after ethylene production has triggered the ripening process, ethylene exposure is not necessary for fruit ripening. Nonetheless, a cursory Internet search will reveal that it is widely recommended to ripen peaches in a closed environment to promote the trapping of ethylene gas. This process is often purported to accelerate fruit ripening, although I couldn’t find solid evidence to back this claim. I decided to put this fuzzy logic to the test.

The results were a mixed bag (no pun intended). The bottom line is that there was no clear winner among the ripening methods, although the “bag + fruit” method produced the least desirable peaches in this experiment. I’ll end this post by addressing some important questions for my fellow peach lovers who actually made it to the end.

  • Can I buy hard peaches and expect them to ripen in two days? The peaches I bought were very hard and took about a week to soften regardless of the ripening method. They were still hard after two days and only began to soften after 3-4 days. They weren’t actually ready to eat until days 5 or 6. So, if you need a peach to be ripe in two days, you should probably buy one that is already somewhat soft.
  • Can you tell from the color of a peach whether it will become sweet? Probably not. Peaches #2 and #8 started out quite green, but were ranked among our sweetest. On the other hand, peach #5 started out yellow/orange, but it was much less sweet.
  • Can you tell from the firmness of a peach whether it will taste good? Again, probably not. Two peaches in the bag with fruit (#9 and #11) were the most firm and #6 (also in the bag with fruit) was the least firm, and all three were not very sweet.
  • Is it a good idea to eat three peaches in one sitting? No. Definitely not.