Tuesday, November 24th 2009

Baking water — for science!
posted @ 10:42 am in [ ]

One of the sure signs that you’ve somehow become a grown-up — along with any sugar sludge at the bottom of your coffee cup or cereal bowl no longer looking appetizing — is that your weekends are busier than your weekdays and the few days before a holiday are busier still. No doubt about it: I’ve got a busy day!

At least a lot of the busy-ness is mitigated by pleasure, though: I have some class prep for the morning writing class, but it’s all short papers, most of which are the satire assignment, which should be a lot of fun to read. I have a class to teach tonight, but it’s my favorite session of the series. I have a ton of errands to run, but I can bump a few to tomorrow if it comes down to it, and they’re all either quick, or in anticipation of Thursday’s festivities, or both. I also have some work to do for Oakland Local, but that’s generally fun stuff. I get to work with neat people on a cool project, and while I’m at it, find out more and more about what has to be one of the most vibrant, passionate communities in the country. I am perpetually knocked out by what Oaklanders are up to.

One of today’s tasks is an experiment. As you well know, I haven’t intentionally eaten the landgoing since the Reagan administration. I really don’t proselytize about it, though, and I’ve been known to prepare meat for others from time to time. One of those times will be Thursday. I’m making a 21-pound turkey for 4 carnivores. I can only hope each of them wants to eat 5.25 pounds of turkey. I know, I know, but it was only 40 cents a pound and it was the last one left, so even the reasonably-sized ones were more than twice as expensive.

The last time I made turkey (and the first time, incidentally) was 15 years ago, when I was living in the D.C. area with Phillip, before we were married. Phillip had this frozen turkey from work, and in a shocking fit of domesticity and loving sacrifice, I decided to cook it up for him. It came out quite well, but the process was a total freakshow. I recall it doing a number of different things, all of them bizarre and unexpected, the most memorable of which had to be the giant, golf-ball-sized fat bubble it grew out of its armpit. I called everybody I knew whom I thought might have the vaguest clue what might be going on: parents, auntie, friends of the family… It was like an X-Files episode, complete with frantic conspiracy going on in my oven. What was that thing?! Was there something terribly, horribly wrong with the turkey? Was it part of the pop-up thermometer system? Should I pop it, or could that wreck something? What if I stabbed it or tried to pop it and it exploded, spewing hot turkey fluids all over the place, possibly burning me and the kitchenette beyond all recognition? What if I stabbed it and it didn’t pop at all? Would that be even worse? Was it plastic or actual avian tissue? Did I leave something in/on the turkey that I wasn’t supposed to? (Oh, you didn’t take the evil alien membrane off it before you cooked it? Everybody knows to take the evil alien membrane off it before they cook it…)

So I have cooked a turkey before, and I have made large Thanksgiving meals without turkeys before (someone else being in charge of roasting birds, and the guests being lovely people), but I have never done both at the same time. I don’t anticipate any problems weirder than wingpit fat bubbles, but I do need to know just how long to cook the turkey. “Until the thermometer pops up” and “about 20 minutes per pound” don’t cut it, because everything else has to hit the table at about the same time. I need that endpoint, dammitt!

There is an added wrinkle. At this altitude, cooking and baking become slightly more complex. I usually end up baking things at a lower temperature, and longer, otherwise they burn on the outside and stay raw on the inside. I couldn’t say what the exact values are for that for meat (I could only give percentages on cookies), so I was unable to come up with a mathematical or physics solution for the doneness dilemma. My dad came to the same conclusion: not enough data.

The best idea we came up with was to go ahead and use the real meat thermometer I was planning to use anyway, and take temperature readings every 15 minutes for the first several hours. Then, by the time I would have to start making all the other stuff, I should know the increase of temperature and shape of the data well enough to predict what time the turkey should come out of the oven: an engineering solution. We were predicting a likely logarithmic curve, or possibly a near-linear progression. (No, I don’t think the system, although containing feedback, would be chaotic enough to exhibit any power law scaling. Not enough variables: with four, you get chaos. Five bucks. You know who you are.) I would then slug the absolute time values into my now relative timetable and finish the job.

My dad also suggested a sort of dry run — but in this case, a wet run. Because the tissue of vertebrates is at least 80% water, he recommended baking 21 pounds of water at 325 and seeing what the pattern of data did. If nothing else, it should at least give me a minimum time.

So I’m doing that right now. I filled the roasting pan with approximately 21 pounds of water and duct-taped the meat thermometer to the side of the pan (what with not having any meat to stick it in, and thermometers generally not standing up in tapwater). The meat thermometer doesn’t start reading until 140 degrees, though, so it’s not as much data as I’d like. I tried a candy thermometer, which starts reading around 75 or so, but unfortunately, the oven started melting it before it yielded any interesting results. Such is science.

The water has been happily baking away for a few hours now. At first I thought the experiment wasn’t going to work at all, because of the lack of sub-140-degree data, and because the temperature was rising pretty quickly: about a degree a minute. Then, it started slowing down a lot: more like a few degrees every 15 minutes. Now it’s barely moving: maybe a degree every 15 minutes. Even if it doesn’t end up taking the 7+ hours I expect the turkey to take, that’s still some interesting information that helps me out. Such is science.