Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Hand vs. machine kneaded bread dough

You'd think that going from kneading the bread dough by hand to kneading it by machine would be a piece of cake -- put everything into your KitchenAid and let it do the hard work. Well, not exactly.

As I became obsessed with bread baking in the last few years, I got fanatical about kneading by hand. It seemed like that was the only way I could really feel what was happening to my dough. Once in a while I was tempted to avoid the mess and just throw it all into my KitchenAid, but the results were never as good. The holes not as big, the crumb less chewy, and the whole thing less flavorful. I wrote it off as a problem with my mixer. Sure the professional mixers do a good job, but my low-end KitchenAid just couldn't develop gluten nearly as well as my hands.

There is nothing like an upcoming class to get me off my lazy butt and to question my assumptions. Next week, I am teaching Pizza and Focaccia. The recipes are ready and thoroughly tested for by-hand kneading. In class, we'll be doing it by hand because not everyone has a stand up mixer and there is nothing like getting close and personal with that wet dough if you want to become a good baker. But... There was a big BUT. I do want the students to make it at home as often as possible (which means as easily as possible) and that's where stand up mixers come in very handy. Is it possible to achieve exactly the same results with a mixer as kneading by hand?

Peter Reinhart and Rose Beranbaum thought it was, so I started reading and testing. Here were the problems I suspected with machine kneading.
  • Machine heated the dough too much which resulted in a very speedy first rise. That quick rising dough might look encouraging to beginner bakers, but it results in less flavor and structure development.
  • Machine didn't knead the dough evenly. The sides were getting a good workout, but the bottom was just being pulled a bit.
Rose confirmed by suspicion about machines heating the dough. She said it goes up in temperature by 2-3 degrees a minute of mixing, so it's best to start with much colder water when using a machine. I dropped it from 80 to 55F and what do you know. My dough ended up at perfect 75F (room temperature) after 10 minutes of machine kneading and rose slowly just like the one kneaded by hand.

So far, I was using a dough hook to mix the dough from the very beginning. As I dumped my dry ingredients into the bowl of a KitchenAid for another test and started mixing them with a hook, I noticed that not much was happening. The hook was not picking up the stuff from around the walls at all. That's when I remembered reading in either Rose's or Peter's books that it's best to start with a paddle and switch to a hook only after dough forms. I tried that and sure enough, the paddle was doing a better job with the dry ingredients and the initial mixing.

Once the dough was formed, I switched to a hook. At 5 minute mark, I looked inside to see what was happening. The dough was clearing the bowl on the sides as always, but the bottom was still stuck. Most recipes indicated that was normal, but I was wondering... What if I stopped the machine, rearranged the dough and mixed for another 5 minutes? Would the bottom still stick? I tried that and sure enough, but the end of the second 5 minutes, the dough was clearing sides and bottom and looking fabulously elastic (just like the one kneaded by hand).

So how did it taste? Every bit as good as hand-kneaded! Unfortunately, I can't have you taste it unless you decide to make it, but here is a side by side comparison of the crumb structure.

Dough kneaded by hand

My early machine dough tries

Machine dough with the above improvements

You see those lovely holes in the focaccia that is made by hand and the improved machine method? The chew and flavor were better too. I know -- fighting this hard to achieve empty space is psychotic. But if you ever get into artisan bread baking, you'll understand.

Focaccia Recipe

Monday, March 22, 2010

Never underestimate residual heat

If you've ever taken a class with me, you probably heard me lament that the default protein most Americans cook for dinner is a skinless boneless chicken breast. So you probably never expected me to be writing about chicken breasts. I didn't either. I never expected to want to cook them, write about them, or teach people how to make them, until three things happened:
  • I've tried Zuni cafe recipe for roast chicken
  • I realized that legs and breasts can't be cooked together (if you want perfection)
  • I stopped listening to FDA about the "safe" temperature of chicken
I stewed in those three thoughts for about a year, cooked 50 or so chickens, and what do you know -- you can indeed make chicken breasts that are as lovely as a pan roasted fillet of fish or a medium-rare rib-eye.

I can't say that Zuni cafe chicken is amazing, but it has potential. Roasting in a skillet helps the skin crisp and leaves you with wonderful brown bits for the sauce, and high heat on a small chicken works surprisingly well. Salting at least a day in advance is a fabulous idea too. The chicken becomes more succulent, flavorful, and tender. If you are cooking a whole chicken, that is a great method, but you have no idea how much better it can be if you cook the legs and breasts separately.

The legs taste best when they are cooked to 200F before being removed off the heat (that's when all the connective tissue melts); the breasts taste best around 150F (taking residual heat into account, they need to be taken off the heat way before they reach 150F). Unfortunately, that's impossible to accomplish on a whole chicken. But if you break it up, you don't need to compromise with 160 breasts / 170 legs.

I am sure some of you are getting nervous even at the mention of 150F for chicken. Wait till I tell you to take it off the heat at 130F :) I used to take it off the heat at 140F, expecting the temperature to rise 10 degrees, but this weekend I put this theory to the test. I got the breasts out of the oven at 130F and left the thermometer in the center of the roast. During the next 15 minutes, the temperature went up by 26 degrees to 156F. My roast was 1 Lb 10 oz (the roast was 1 Lb 9 oz, plus an ounce of stuffing). Then my wonderful assistant Janet, agreed to perform the same experiment at home. Her roast was a bit smaller and not stuffed, weighing in at 1 Lb 5 oz. The temp went up by 21 degrees. So, never underestimate residual heat.

150F? Is that medium-rare chicken? No -- it's completely opaque and "normal" looking, just more tender and juicy than you are used to. Is it safe? I don't know what FDA would have to say about it, but here are salmonella facts that I was able to find. Salmonella dies if held at 131F for 1 hour, 140F for 30 minutes, 150F for 10 minutes, and 160 for 2 minutes. In other words, if you want officially safe chicken, cook it to 140F, and let it rest for 15 minutes. You'll get your 160F.

I do find that it tastes a lot better at 150F and I am willing to eat it, FDA be damned. First of all, bacteria don't go from super healthy to dead in a split second. If 150F for 10 minutes would kill them, 150F for even 5 minutes would weaken them and make the odds of them infecting you a lot lower. Also, keep in mind that duck breasts are routinely served at 130F. So is foie gras. That's still poultry and can have salmonella just like chicken.

What temperature you cook your chicken to is completely up to you. I just wanted to explain that taking breasts off the heat at 160F is an overkill safety-wise and a guarantee of dryness.

Instead of rewriting the recipe here again, I've updated my previous post with a few more details.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Trout, Arctic Char, and other questions

I love it when students ask me questions in the fish class (and any class, for that matter) that I don't know the answers to. When you teach a class for 8 years, you'd think you had heard all the possible questions and found out all the possible answers. But somehow, someone always manages to ask me something interesting that sends me on a little research project. The latest question I didn't have the answer to was this: "Is farm-raised trout raised in salt water or fresh water?" In the wild, there are both salt and fresh water trouts, but I wasn't sure how that works with farm-raised fish.

When I don't know something, I ask my fishmongers and if they can't help me, I ask my fishmongers' fishmonger. Andrew Marshall is just such a person. He works for Aquanor -- the company that supplies many top fish markets in New England area with fish. Andrew is also an avid fisherman and is a goldmine of information when it comes to fish.

When enough interesting questions about fish accumulate in my head, I send them to Andrew. Here are some things I was curious about lately and Andrew's answers.

Question: Is farm-raised trout farmed in salt or fresh water?
Answer: Farm raised trout is farmed in fresh water. Most of the farm raised trout is coming out of Idaho and they are done in small ponds.
Question: How is arctic char (charr) farmed: in the ocean (like salmon) or in a contained system (like barramundi or branzino)? Is it raised in salt or fresh water?
Answer: Arctic Charr are done in a closed system above ground tanks. There is no runoff into the surrounding ecosystem. Arctic Charr naturally start their life cycle in the rivers, make their way to the ocean and then move back up into the rivers to spawn and die. We replicate this life cycle in the tank. Certain times of the growth cycle there is more salt water than fresh, but there is always some salt water in the tank. We even need to switch direction of the current in the tank halfway through the growth cycle to mimic a natural migration. This closed system and the low feed conversion ratio have given charr a green status with all of the environmental certifying agencies.
Question: How long does it take on average for fish to get from water to the fish market?
Answer: For charr, it's 3-5 days depending on where in US it's going. Here is what the cycle looks like. The charr is grown in the north of Iceland. We ship the charr live in tank trucks to the south of Iceland. It’s then processed and packed that night. The following day, it is sent via airline to Boston. We receive it and re-ice the product, then it's shipped to fish markets. Other products like tuna from North Africa might take 5 days to even get to Boston. Then it takes 2-3 days to get to market. Longlined Swordfish might be 10 days to market. That’s why you hear of “top of the trip” swordfish. It means it was the last fish caught and at the top of the fish hold, making it the most fresh and commanding the most money.
Thank you Andrew for such informative answers!

If you've never had Idaho trout or Arctic Char, here is what to expect from them. They are both delicate textured, full flavored, fatty fish (lots of omega-3). Arctic char looks and tastes just like salmon (but fillets are generally a lot thinner than salmon). If you object to farm-raised salmon on environmental grounds, arctic char might be a great alternative. It's only 1/2 to 1/3 of the price of wild king salmon, available year round, and a lot tastier than previously frozen coho or sockeye salmon.

Here are some recipes for char and trout
Seared trout with braised fennel
Trout in almonds
Seared arctic char with apples and mustard cream -- yes, I know -- really scary pictures from my early blogging days.
Slow roasted salmon with chive oil -- but you can do this with char

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Roast Chicken Legs recipe

The "Things with Wings" class is rapidly approaching, which means I need to get my act together with handouts. Pretty much everything is in recipe form, except for Roast Chicken Legs. I blogged about them already with copious notes and explanations of which roasting techniques worked well for me and which didn't. And finally, here is the recipe.

How to cut up a chicken
You can buy just chicken legs or you can cut up a whole chicken yourself. With a little practice, you'll do a way better job of it than they do in the store and you'll have the option to keep the legs attached to the back bone as you see in the picture above. It's completely optional and will require a slightly bigger pan, but you'll get to enjoy the oysters (a little oval piece of meat right next to the back bone that is usually lost when legs are cut off). Some people believe it's the yummiest part of the chicken :)

Serves 2

2 whole chicken legs from a 4-5 Lb chicken (about 1 and 1/4 Lb)
1/2 garlic clove, grated on a microplane or mashed to a paste with a chef's knife
1 Tbsp melted butter
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 red onion cut into wedges (about 1/2 inch wide)
4 peeled garlic cloves,
leaves from 7 sprigs of thyme,
1/4 lemon, cut into 4 pieces
Salt and black pepper

Salting (1-4 days before cooking):
Separate the skin from the top of the thighs and sprinkle chicken with salt on both sides and under the skin of the thighs being more generous in the thick parts and less near the tips of drum sticks. I use 1 tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher salt per pound of chicken legs. You can adjust this amount to your liking and use other salts. Just remember that you'll need way less salt (about half) if using finely ground salt.

Place the legs in a zip lock back and refrigerate at least 24 hours or up to 4 days.

Drying the chicken (2 hours before cooking if possible):
Place between paper towels to dry very thoroughly then place in the fridge uncovered on a plate lined with paper towels for 2 hours before cooking. If you don't have 2 hours, you can cook right away.

  1. Preheat the oven to 450F with the rack in the middle.
  2. Rub the skin of the legs with mashed garlic clove (the skin should be covered with a thin film of garlic juice but no chunks). Melt 1 Tbsp butter and rub the skin with 1/3 of the butter (about 1 tsp) reserving the rest for later. Sprinkle the skin with fresh ground pepper.
  3. Set a 12 inch oven-proof skillet (not non-stick) over medium-high heat. Add 1 Tbsp olive oil. When the oil is hot (you'll see little ripples and waves in it), add chicken legs skin side up and transfer the skillet to the oven. If you don't have an oven proof skillet, you can do this in a baking dish that is large enough for about 3-4 chicken legs in one layer (you are only cooking 2, but will need extra space for veggies). Preheat the baking dish with oil in the oven until the oil is ripply and barely starting to smoke, 5-8 minutes.
  4. Roast the chicken for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, toss the onions, garlic cloves, thyme and lemons with a pinch of salt. Add to the skillet around the chicken (only add as many veggies as you need to cover exposed parts of the pan -- don't try to cram them all in). Baste the chicken with another tsp melted butter. Roast another 10 minutes and baste with remaining butter. Stir the veggies and rotate the pan 180 degrees. Roast until the chicken skin is starting to get golden brown, 15-20 minutes. Baste with the juices accumulating in the pan and stir the veggies. Roast until the skin is deep golden brown and the thickest part of the thigh registers 200F, 5-10 minutes. The total roasting time should be 40-50 minutes.
  5. Let the chicken rest 15 minutes and serve with veggies and juices from the pan.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Focaccia and Pizza (from the same dough)

Last week, I went to the dry run of Leslie's Rustic Italian Baking class. I came back with a pizza dough and a new found inspiration for baking yeast breads. My first baking discovery, was a complete accident. We didn't need a pizza for dinner. What we needed was bread and unfortunately, I forgot to buy it. So on a whim, I gave the pizza dough a rise, shaped into focaccia, proofed and voila -- it produced a very respectable focaccia. After 5 more batches, the results were much more than respectable. They were simply transcendent. When experimenting with breads, you can only change one small thing in each batch. I consider myself extremely lucky that it only took 5 batches to achieve exactly what I wanted. Normally, it takes me closer to 20.

What's so cool about making 2 completely different breads out of the same dough is that you can see what all that manipulation of time and temperature is about. For a pizza, all the dough needs is 1 rise. For focaccia, you'll get best results with 2 rises and a proof (one more rise after the dough is already shaped). This gives the dough more flavor and chew.

Notes about Ingredients and How to Measure them

The ingredients for rustic breads are as simple as it gets: flour, salt, yeast, water (and sometimes a little sugar and oil). Yet, even the smallest variations in proportions can result in a completely different finished product. Here are the ingredients you'll need to buy, and how to measure them to make sure that you start your baking experiments on the right foot.

I use unbleached all-purpose flour from King Arthur. Gold Medal and Pillsbury will be close enough, but don't buy generic brand flour since its protein content is untested and will produce unpredictable results. If you found a 3 year old flour in the back of your cupboard, do yourself and favor and buy a new bag. Flour is perishable and I don't recommend using it more than a year after opening. This recipe also calls for a small amount of Whole Wheat Flour. I use King Arthur for that too.

Another important thing to learn about flour is how to measure it correctly. For the purposes of this recipe, a cup of flour weighs 5 oz. I strongly recommend that you get yourself a cheapy digital scale and weigh your flour. Your 5 ounces will be exactly the same as my 5 ounces. But your cup can vary from my cup by as much as 25% even if you use exactly the same technique of scoop and level. This is due to the differences in container size, fluffiness of flour, and whims of the baking gods. Note that "spoon and level" method is supposed to approximate 4.5oz cup and no one in US agrees on what exactly a cup of flour is.

The word "yeast" usually scares the hell our of home bakers, but these days yeast is as easy to work with as salt or sugar. This recipe calls for SAF instant yeast. You can buy it at most Whole Foods. After opening, transfer it to a jar, look up the expiration date on the package and write it on your jar (it usually lasts for several years). Then store in the fridge and you never have to worry about working with dead yeast. There is no need to bloom this yeast in water like you would active dry yeast. Just add it straight to your dry ingredients.

I use Diamond Crystal Kosher salt. It's available in most supermarkets, except for Whole Foods. Note that Morton's Kosher salt doesn't dissolve as well in baked goods. You can use table salt, but you'll have to adjust the proportions. 1 tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher salt = between 1/2 and 2/3 tsp table salt.

Measure water in a glass measuring cup. Set it on the counter, then get down until your eyes are on the same level as the line to which you are measuring. In other words, if you want to get 1 cup of water, your eyes should be level with 1 cup mark. Water curves up at the sides of the cup to form a meniscus. Make sure the bottom of the meniscus is at the measurement line (it will appear as if some water is actually above the line). You can also weigh the water if you got yourself a scale for weighing flour. Then you don't have to worry about meniscus. Use an instant read thermometer to make sure the water is the temperature specified in the recipe (too cold and the yeast will have a hard time waking up; too hot and you might kill it).

Notes about Equipment
None of this stuff is expensive, but it's not always found in everyone's kitchen. Before you get started make sure you have:
  • an instant read thermometer (digital is a lot easier to read)
  • a scale (digital is a lot easier to read)
  • a pizza stone (rectangular works best)
  • pastry scraper / dough cutter (not necessary, but comes in very handy)
  • parchment paper
  • large mixing bowl, rimmed baking sheet, and mixing spoons are also handy
  • for pizza, you'll need a peel or a rimless baking sheet (but an inverted rimmed sheet will do in a pinch)
Stage 1: Making the dough
This amount of dough produces 4 pizzas (each one serves 1-2 people), or 2 focaccias

For mixing the dough:
16.25 oz (462 g) unbleached all-purpose flour (3 1/4 cup)
1.25 oz (36 g) whole wheat flour (1/4 cup)
4 tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher salt (or 2 1/2 tsp table salt)
2 tsp sugar
2 tsp SAF instant yeast
13.85 oz (392 g) water (80-90F) (1 2/3 cup)
2 tsp olive oil

For kneading:
1.25 oz (36 g) unbleached all-purpose flour (1/4 cup)

By hand method:
In a large bowl, mix together all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour, salt, sugar, and yeast. Make a well in the center and add the water and olive oil. Mix with a fork or a rubber spatula being careful to keep the wet dough in the center and the flour on the outside. When a rough ball forms switch to kneading with your hand. Keep one hand clean and dry for rotating the bowl. To knead, fold the dough in half towards you, press together gently and rotate the bowl 90 degrees (both clockwise and counter clockwise work fine as long as you stick with one or the other). Knead until all the flour is absorbed. The dough will be very sticky.

When kneading gets too hard, you can sprinkle a little bit of flour into the bowl under the dough. But make sure you are disciplined with how much you use. Measure out 1.25 oz (1/4 cup) and don't let yourself go over that amount. If possible try not to use it all. The more you knead, the more elastic the dough will get and eventually it will stick to itself more than the bowl and will begin clearing it. The wetter your dough the nicer holes you'll get in the finished product.

Once you are clearing the bowl with no problems, you can switch to kneading on the counter. This opens more kneading options (like whacking the dough on the counter and folding it away from you, then rotating 90 degrees). This rough handling helps develop gluten giving your dough more structure and chew. Whichever way you knead, do it quickly. If the dough sits on the counter or in a bowl for even a couple of seconds it will start to stick.

Over-kneading by hand is impossible, so err on the side of too much than too little. If you are not very experienced with breads, knead for at least 15 minutes (even 20). If you are very good at kneading, 8 minutes might be all you need. Judging when the dough is kneaded enough is hard for beginner bakers. It will get smooth and silky and very elastic. If you press your finger into it, the indentation will fill immediately. Until you get a good feel for these things, just give your dough 15-20 minutes of energetic kneading and don't worry about it.

Place the dough into a lightly oiled bowl (4 quart or larger) and cover with plastic wrap. Ideally, you want a bowl that is not too wide.

By machine method:
You can make this dough in a stand up mixer. The measurements are the same as by hand with 2 modifications:
  • increase all-purpose flour to 16.85 oz. That's adding about half of the flour we reserved for kneading by hand that can be added right up front when using a mixer.
  • lower the temperature of the water to 55-60F since the mixers tend to heat the dough. You don't want to end up with a very warm dough in the end of kneading or your first rise will happen too quickly, which won't result in adequate flavor and texture development.
Mix dry ingredients together using a paddle attachments on low speed (2 on KitchenAid), add wet and continue mixing on low speed until no dry flour remains. Switch to a dough hook and mix for 10-20 seconds until dough forms. Crank up the speed to medium (4 on Kitchen Aid) and mix for 5 minutes. After a few minutes of mixing, the dough should clear the sides, but stick to the bottom of the bowl. Stop the mixer, rearrange the dough and mix on medium (4 on KitchenAid) another 5 minutes. In the end the dough should be clearing the sides and bottom of the bowl.

Stage 2: Rising

Rising is best done at low room temperature of about 70F. Of course, you don't always have control over that, but don't try to stick your dough next to a radiator or some other warm place. That comes in handy for proofing (final rise after the dough is already shaped), but not for rising. The lower the temperature, the more flavor you'll develop. You can't speed up the rising process, but you can always slow it down and eventually stop it if it's more convenient to proceed the next day. To do that, put the dough in the fridge. It will continue to rise for a few hours (since it doesn't immediately cool down), but will eventually stop.

For pizza:
If you want to make pizza, you only need one rise of about 2 hours at room temperature or until the dough doubles. If you want to bake it the next day, let the dough rise for 30-45 minutes at room temperature and move it to the fridge. Then proceed to shaping and baking instructions.
For focaccia:
While you can get away with just one rise for focaccia, it can really benefit from 2 rises. This gives it more flavor and chew. During each rise, the dough should at least double in volume (ideally, triple on the first rise). Each rise takes about 2 hours at room temperature assuming the dough wasn't just removed from the fridge when the rise starts (in which case it will take about 3 hours). Unless you are home all day, it's most practical to make the first rise overnight. Let the dough rise for 45 minutes to 1 hour at room temp (until it's about one and a half times the original volume) and move it to the fridge until the next day.

To deflate the dough after the first rise, sprinkle the work surface lightly with flour. Turn the bowl upside down and let the dough drop. Stretch it into a rectangle, then fold into thirds. Don't be afraid to pop the bubbles at this stage. Return the dough to an oiled boil, cover with plastic and let rise again until doubled.

Stage 3: Pre-heating the oven, shaping and baking

For pizza:
If the dough was refrigerated, remove it from the fridge 30-60 minutes before baking.
Set the rack on the lowest setting in your oven (a few inches above the oven floor). Place a pizza stone on it and turn the oven to 500F. Pre-heat for 30 minutes.

10 minutes before you are ready to bake, shape the pizzas. Prepare 4 pieces of parchment paper about 12x12 inches. Cut the dough into 4 pieces. Stretch each one with floured hands or roll it with a floured rolling pin on floured surface into a rough circle (don't worry if it's not really round). Try to get it as thin as possible without tearing it (about 1/8 inch thick). If it tears, just smoosh the torn part together. Place each pizza on a piece of parchment paper. Top with sauce and toppings (ending with cheese if using). Remember that less is more here (go very easy on the sauce and toppings).

You'll need to bake these pizzas one at a time, but they bake fast. Slide a peel or a rimless baking sheet (if you don't have either, use inverted baking sheet) under the parchment paper and slide the parchment paper onto the pizza stone. Bake for 8-10 minutes or until the bottom is crusty enough to your liking. Slide the parchment paper back onto a peel or baking sheet and proceed with the other pizzas.

For focaccia:
Focaccia is a lot thicker and ideally bubblier than pizza (with more nooks, crannies, and holes in it's crumb). The second rise contributes to that, but so does the proof (a final rise that happens after the dough is shaped.

An hour before your are ready to bake, prepare 2 large rimmed baking sheets by placing a piece of parchment on them, and drizzling each with 1 Tbsp of olive oil (2 Tbsp total). Spread it around with your fingers into a circle about 10 inches in diameter. Cut the dough in half and place halves on the 2 sheets. Oil your fingers and stretch the dough gently into rough circles about 10 inches in diameter and 1/2 inch thick (don't worry if they are not really round).

Drizzle each dough with 1 Tbsp olive oil (2 Tbsp total). Cover with plastic wrap (try to stretch it over the sides of the sheets so that it doesn't cling to the dough too much. Let rise for 1 hour.

30 minutes before you are ready to bake, set the rack on the lowest setting in your oven (a few inches above the oven floor). Place a pizza stone on it and turn the oven to 500F. Pre-heat for 30 minutes. I usually place the breads near the oven to help them proof.

When the focaccias get visibly puffy (about 1 hour of proofing), remove the plastic wrap, sprinkle them with fresh rosemary leaves (or toppings of your choice), and use an oiled finger to dimple it. You don't need to be gentle. Push your finger all the way to the baking sheet and make these holes at about 2 inch intervals.

Place the baking sheets (one at a time) on the pizza stone and bake 13-16 minutes or until focaccia is deep golden brown, rotating the baking sheet 180 degrees after the first 7 minutes.

As soon as focaccias come out of the oven, drizzle each one with an additional 1 Tbsp olive oil (2 Tbsp total). If you are using oily or cheesy toppings, skip this extra oil. Transfer to a cooling rack and cool at least 10 minutes before cutting.

Dividing the dough to bake on different days:
Once the dough is kneaded, it can be divided, and put through rising and shaping on different days.

Pre-portioned pizza dough can also be frozen very successfully. It's especially convenient to let it do the rise, then deflate, divide, and freeze in oiled zip lock bags. A day before you are ready to bake, move the pizza dough to the fridge to start defrosting.

Monday, March 1, 2010

BlueStar update (after 6 months of ownership)

It's time for another BlueStar update. It's been 6 months since I bought this pro-style range. It took months of research and sleepless nights to make this decision. If you are not in the market for a range, you'll probably find this post very boring. Come back in about a week when I'll post something yummy.

Let me start with the good news. I have never had to change my dinner plans or cancel a class due to the range becoming completely dys-functional. The range also cooks and bakes exceptionally well. The stove top gives me control from the lowest low to very high and everything in between. The oven bakes evenly and holds heat well. The convection fan gives me that extra boost of browning when I need it.

Now the bad news. The reliability has been atrocious.

In my last post, I mentioned the jet engine noise the oven made after being on for about 30 minutes at high temperature (400F or higher). The first service call from Vesco (the only service company I am allowed to use if I don't want to null and void my guarantee) blamed it on the propane company. They wouldn't even stay long enough to reproduce the problem and their propane pressure meter was broken, but they said it can't possibly be the range. My propane pressure is likely dropping sometimes, causing the noise, they said. The propane company came and did a ton of tests and reproduced the problem several times. It was not the pressure at all. It was the range. I was lucky they took pity on me and didn't charge me for the long service call that turned out to not be their fault at all.

One good thing about BlueStar's terrible reliability is that it puts you in touch with long lost friends. I got an e-mail from Mark, who was my partner at CIA (Culinary Institute of America), and he said he just bought a BlueStar too and it was making the same noise. He was googling for this issue and came across my blog. What BlueStar said to both of us is that the pipe that sends propane to the stove gets warped out of alignment when the oven heats up. This results in propane igniting in the wrong place and making very loud noise. Luckily, they had a solution handy -- a small piece of metal to keep the pipe in place. The Vesco guy came out, put it in place and the noise stopped. Why don't they put it on all their ranges to begin with? That piece of metal couldn't possibly cost more than $10.

All was well in my kitchen until around December (4 months after I bought the range). The door started sticking. I heard about this happening and googled for a solution. EuroStoves, who is a big BlueStar retailer, and the leading expert on it, explained in one of its instructional videos that you should spray the hinges with Pam every once in a while to keep the door operating smoothly. I tried Pam. It helped. But a week later the door was getting badly stuck again. I kept spraying it with Pam (at some point, I had to do it every 2 days). And one day, I couldn't open the door at all to get something out of the oven. After turning the oven off, and pulling for 5 minutes, the door finally opened. But as you can imagine, that's not a very good situation to be in. I called BlueStar. They said they'll send me a new door. They said they have a better design now that prevents the hinges from overheating and deforming (my left hinge was in pretty bad shape). Now the door has ventilation holes not only on top, but on the sides too.

A month later, the new door finally arrived and got installed. Meanwhile, it was a lot of Pam, tagging, and pulling. I asked to get a year guarantee on the new door. It's only been in existence for 1 year, and they said most people don't have any problems with doors for 1-2 years. Considering their quality assurance record, I thought I should at least get 1 year guarantee. They said it's only 90 days or until my regular guarantee runs out (which is in August 2010). After that, they claim they've been sending free doors to customers who have problems up to 4 years, but won't cover the installation. It's hard to say whether that was a real guarantee, or just some temporary policy. If I didn't use my oven 5 times as much as normal cooks, I'd be worried. But I am hoping I'll start seeing problems if any before August 2010 since I use the oven every day.

I wonder what they'd say if I started having door problems after my regular 1 year guarantee ran out? I might be on my own, which would be very costly. The door is around $500, plus $125 for installation.

Hope this post was helpful to all you guys who've been contacting me with BlueStar questions. By the way, if you need a good contact at BlueStar, it's Eric. Calling the general number is useless. If you need his direct number, send me e-mail. I don't feel it's right to just post it on the web. Good luck and I feel your pain!