I think it’s safe to say that cheese is a mystery to most people. Where does it come from? How is it made? What are these ‘cultures’ people speak of? Bread can be equally puzzling – how on earth do the heavy ingredients of flour, salt, yeast, and water come together to make something so light and airy? Food, if we examine it closely, think about its components, and decipher its roots, is the most magical, the most scientific, the most miraculous thing we come across every day of our lives. It is equally methodical and chaotic, deliberate and accidental. Food is, really, a phenomenon.
No one understands this better than Michael Pollan, the food activist and author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma who made thinking about what we eat cool. In his book and Netflix documentary series Cooked, he explores food preparation through the lens of natural elements like fire, earth, and air. Boulder has embraced this back-to-basics philosophy for a while now, attracting people devoted to traditional cooking and baking methods. Here, a closer look at the local wizards nourishing our community through fire, earth, and air elements.
Of all the elements and their connection to cooking, fire is probably the most relatable. Who hasn’t grilled meat, seared a tomato, or heated water to boil pasta? Cooking begins with fire, and our ability to use it is what separates humans from all other species.
Most of us understand how it works: fire emits heat, which changes the chemistry of food to reach our desired flavor, texture, and nutrition. But how we use that heat makes all the difference.
Café Aion’s Chef Dakota Soifer has an interesting analogy for how cooking food at different temperatures influences the food’s flavor.
“Like making love, it is almost always worth it to take your time, allow things to heat up slowly, proceed with care and attention, and then savor the rich flavors you spent so much time creating. Of course, there are occasions when just a quick kiss of the flame is more appropriate…but not very often,” he says.
Think about the difference between a low and slow sous vide versus a hot sear. We are able to shape the tastes and textures simply by using different levels of heat. Yet when manipulating fire, there’s always an element of unpredictability.
“One of the things I love most about cooking and food is how beautiful the imperfection can be,” Soifer says.
“How the best roast chicken or lasagna will have a range of burnt, crispy, and tender parts. Cooking over a fire – which is much less predictable than an induction burner or sous vide – brings out and highlights these imperfect ‘burnt’ bits I find so beautiful and delicious.”
Less showy than fire, but perhaps equally violent and destructive, is the earth element. We just can’t always see it. Bacteria feast on, well, pretty much everything, causing decay and decomposition. Luckily, decay can taste pretty delicious; case in point: cheese.
“Bacteria is used in most types of cheese,” says Kate Johnson, owner of Longmont’s The Art of Cheese, an artisan home cheese-making school. “The bacteria feast on the lactose in the milk (the sugars) and convert that lactose to lactic acid, thereby acidifying the milk.”
Some cheeses are curdled only by this acidity, but for most, rennet is also added. Rennet contains an active enzyme that speeds up the milk coagulation, which means that more water is removed from the curd, forming a solid cheese.
Every step of the way, the microbes are doing their thing to impact the cheese’s flavor. Without them, we wouldn’t have our favorite dairy guilty pleasure.
Johnson is a pro at wielding that bacteria to produce a range of hard and soft cheeses. She teaches classes for more than 30 different cheese recipes, from mozzarella to gouda to brie. So the next time you’re cursing bacteria for that pesky food poisoning, just remember that it also gave you parmesan and be grateful.
In Cooked, Pollan explores air through breadmaking; after all, air is mostly what you’re eating when you eat bread. In Boulder County, the man who best knows how to create exquisite breads out of thin air is Andy Clark of Louisville’s Moxie Bread Co. He was first fascinated by baking bread back in high school while working at a health foods store. A co-worker introduced some amazing breads to the café, and Clark gravitated to the man’s zen approach to baking.
“You’re essentially birthing this little baby with dough that needs to be nurtured and taken care of, and I was immediately fascinated by the art and science of it all,” Clark says. “I kind of never looked back, not for a minute. That was 25 years ago.”
At Moxie, Clark focuses on simple ingredients: flour, salt, yeast, and water. The results are some of the best breads in the state. So good, in fact, that we forget about the complex natural processes that go into making those delicious loaves.
“Really good bread is often quite airy, full of big holes,” Clark says. “What we’re doing as bakers, and especially in the prep process of using natural leavening to make bread, is we’re essentially creating a big balloon that’s going to capture all this air and gas being created from the process of fermentation.”
During fermentation, Clark continues, gas, carbon dioxide, various organic compounds, and aromas are actually inside the air bubbles within the bread. After the bread has baked and is cooling, steam escapes, settling into the crumb and crust of the bread, giving it an even richer flavor.
That final stage of ‘curing’ for the bread is often bypassed by too-eager customers anxious to cut into their hot, fresh loaf. Don’t give into temptation, Clark warns. Bread usually tastes best a couple days after baking, so for maximum flavor, steady your will power and wait it out. Air will never have tasted so good.