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All About Buttermilk

While I tell people that my favorite ingredient is pumpkin, that’s certainly true in the fall when pumpkins are in season.  Pumpkin inspires me, and it’s what I’m known for…it’s my “signature ingredient.”

But there’s another ingredient that I’m obsessed with, that I use every single day, and that I couldn’t live without.  Buttermilk.  Yet I get so many comments from fans asking me if they REALLY need to use buttermilk in my recipes…and what is an appropriate substitute for buttermilk…and the answer is simple.  Nothing.  Buttermilk is an absolutely essential, irreplaceable ingredient in baking, and a wonderful ingredient in cooking, and if you don’t have it in your fridge, you need to.

It’s easy to keep buttermilk around, it lasts FAR longer than its expiration date, and you only have to buy it once in your lifetime…all you have to do to make more is refill the container with milk and leave it on your countertop for 12 hours.  Buy it once, and you’ll never have to buy it again.  But more on that later…first, what the heck IS buttermilk?

An old-fashioned butter churn. These days you can make butter easily and quickly in your stand mixer.

Back in the “olden days,” people churned butter at home using raw milk from their cows.  That raw milk contained a variety of naturally-occurring bacteria, mostly from the lactobacillus family, which feed on sugars in the milk and, in turn, produce lactic acid.  Lactobacillus bacteria live everywhere…there are billions of them on your skin, in your digestive tract, and scientists say that bacteria on and inside our body outnumber our actual cells by 4 to 1.  We NEED these bacteria to be healthy, to properly digest our food, and to support our immune system.  Just as these bacteria live inside us, they also live inside the cow, and they come out in the cow’s milk, just as they come out in mother’s milk to establish her baby’s immune system.  At room temperature, these bacteria flourish and multiply, and they “sour” the milk fairly quickly, turning it into something that tastes like yogurt and is thicker than fresh milk, through the process of natural fermentation.  (This fermented milk substance is much closer to our modern buttermilk than true old-fashioned buttermilk.)  In the days before electricity, this was a way of preserving the milk so that it could be kept at room temperature for long periods of time, and while it was tart and tangy due to the lactobacillus fermentation, it was still VERY drinkable.    Once refrigeration became common, as people milked their cows, they skimmed the cream off the top of the milk and put this skim milk in their icebox to slow down this natural fermentation process, keeping the milk “sweet” for longer, but the cream was just poured into the churn and left at room temperature.  After several days of milkings, enough cream would have been amassed to churn into butter.  Over this time, though, the cream in the churn had naturally fermented into something very similar to modern sour cream or creme fraiche.  Then it was churned into butter, meaning that the fat particles in the cream got stuck together into larger and larger clumps, and the remaining liquid settled in the bottom of the churn.  That butter was tart and tangy because it was churned from cultured cream, and this “cultured butter” is still the most popular butter in Europe, though it can be tricky to find here in the US.  The butter was removed, and that liquid left over was a bit like our modern skim milk, with very low fat content, but it was cultured with lactobacillus, so it was much thicker in texture even than regular whole milk.  It was pleasantly tart, kept for a long time, and had the decidedly wonderful benefit of its acids reacting with baking soda, the primitive alkaline leavener that we still used today, to produce carbon dioxide bubbles, which made biscuits rise, pancakes fluffy, and quickbreads rise just like yeast breads.

Butter and Skim Milk, the products of churning butter from pasteurized cream

So buttermilk has been around as long as butter, and for thousands of years longer than humans have been drinking pasteurized milk, they’ve been drinking and baking with buttermilk.

In the 1940s, commercial milk producers began pasteurizing their milk.  That’s a fancy word for heating the milk to a temperature that destroys all the living bacteria inside it.  This means that milk will not naturally ferment, because all the lactobacillus that exist naturally in the milk are dead.  Pasteurization is important for many reasons…if a cow is sick and it transmits those bad bacteria, viruses, or parasites into its milk, anyone who drinks that milk is at risk for contracting an illness as well.  Also, back when refrigeration wasn’t precise or commonplace, milk from cows was frequently exposed to higher temperatures on its journey from cow to your refrigerator, and warmer temperatures encourage bacterial growth, so if there were a few bad bacteria in the milk, they might multiply, increasing your chance for contracting an illness.  With today’s modern industrial milking and transport practices, milk remains chilled to a point that discourages bacterial growth from a few seconds after it comes out of the cow until it lands in the grocery store…so from one perspective, pasteurization isn’t as important.  However, because virtually all commercial milk is produced on massive industrial farms run largely by machines, the dairy farmer doesn’t know each one of his animals intimately, and has no idea if they are sick and should be held off the milk line.  Moreover, industrial farms crowd their cattle into small lots, concentrating their waste and increasing exposure to pathogens, and they feed their cattle a scientifically formulated diet to maximize their milk production (at the cow’s expense), and many farms over-milk their cows.  So, it’s actually INCREDIBLY important, if you buy milk at the grocery store, that it be pasteurized.

Click here to be taken to the Real Milk Finder

The negative side of pasteurization is that it destroys those lactobacillus bacteria that also naturally exist in our bodies, which gets replenished when we consume natural sources of that bacteria.  (Antibiotics can virtually wipe out the natural colonies of bacteria in our gut that keep us healthy, and we’ve all taken antibiotics.)  Additionally, pasteurization deactivates the natural enzymes that exist in the milk that digest the milk’s complex sugars for us when we drink it.  If you’re not lactose intolerant, you know many people who are, and get horrible gastrointestinal repercussions from drinking milk.  (Or, if you’re like me, you just get really gassy when you drink milk!)  Most adult humans do not retain the digestive enzymes necessary to properly break down milk, but luckily, milk naturally contains those enzymes!  So if ANY adult, even a lactose intolerant one, drinks raw milk, they’ll have ZERO problems digesting it.  (Unless, of course, they have an actual milk allergy.)  Pasteurization destroys these enzymes, unfortunately, so all the milk in your grocery store does NOT contain the enzymes that take care of digestion for us.

Wait a minute…how on earth did this blog on buttermilk turn into a diatribe on pasteurization?!?  I guess because it’s part of the story of buttermilk, because the butter churned from pasteurized cream resulted in “sweet cream butter” which is far and away the most popular kind of butter sold today in the US, and the “butter milk” left over after that churning process was not the tart, thick, creamy cultured product that remained in the old-fashioned process.  It was simply skim milk.

But, because buttermilk had become firmly integrated into our recipe traditions over the centuries, dairies had to continue providing us with an acidified milk product, so our recipes would continue to work.  So they reverse-engineered a “buttermilk” by simply adding lactobacillus cultures to regular pasteurized milk with various fat contents, and allowed the milk to ferment into something very similar to old fashioned buttermilk.

Today when you go to the grocery store, you’re likely to find 2 types of buttermilk…low fat or fat free, and standard, which is often referred to as “old fashioned.”  (Strangely enough, the low fat should be called “old fashioned” because the real old fashioned buttermilk had almost no fat in it, other than flakes of butter that didn’t get strained out.)  They both work just fine in recipes, though I prefer the richness of full-fat buttermilk.  There’s a new type of buttermilk that has appeared on most grocery store shelves recently called “Bulgarian-style buttermilk.”  It is fermented with yogurt cultures and at a higher temperature, so it tends to be thicker and tarter than conventional buttermilks.  I love it.

Lowfat buttermilk on the left, "Country Store" or full fat buttermilk on the right

At some fancier gourmet markets, you may find “REAL old fashioned buttermilk” which is either churned from factory-cultured cream that was originally pasteurized and then recultured, or it is churned from pasteurized cream, and then flecks of cultured butter are added in.  You’ll pay a pretty penny for this fancy buttermilk, and I don’t find it’s any more impressive in my recipes, only for straight drinking.

Kate's, one of the few commercial buttermilks made after churning butter (though definitely not the "old fashioned" way with naturally fermented cream)

It’s incredibly hard to find organic buttermilk, and when you do find it, it’s breathtakingly expensive…but I’m going to teach you a trick in a bit on how to make your own organic buttermilk.

You’ll even find buttermilk “powder” in most grocery stores.  You add water to this stuff and it “becomes” buttermilk in the same way that dry milk becomes “milk” when you add water.  (Hardly…ever tried to drink reconstituted dry milk?)  Still, this product IS made from buttermilk, so it may have similar impacts on recipes.  My Mom uses it religiously, but I’m still not convinced enough to use it in any recipe other than one that calls for dry milk, like my granola recipe.

As I mentioned before, buttermilk is an integral part of baking.  The old fashioned leavener we still use today is baking soda, which is an alkaline substance.  Ever mix baking soda with vinegar in a soda bottle and wait for it to pop out a cork from the pressure built up as carbon dioxide is released from the interaction of alkaline and acid?  The same thing happens in your biscuit dough…the baking soda meets the acidic buttermilk, and gas is released that causes the biscuits to rise.  We have a more modern leavener called baking powder that is a combination of alkaline baking soda and powdered cream of tartar, a dry acid powder that results from the wine making process.  Once the mixture is moistened, the two products react and produce carbon dioxide.  Newer “double acting” baking powders also contain an acid that doesn’t react with baking soda until it is heated to baking temperatures, most commonly sodium aluminum sulfate…though recent research may indicate that ingesting aluminum might cause a variety of serious health problems, including Alzheimer’s.  So, for health reasons, it’s probably better to stick to aluminum-free baking powders, or stick to recipes that call for baking soda plus an acid like buttermilk.

The arduous process of making buttermilk at home.

I’ve been teasing you in this blog that you only need to buy buttermilk once in your life, and that’s somewhat true.  While I have obviously bought buttermilk far more often than once, I typically only buy it for my home 2-3 times a year, yet I ALWAYS have buttermilk around.  This is because buttermilk is simply milk that has been inoculated with live lactobacillus bacteria and left at a temperature warm enough for the bacteria to ferment the milk.  In simple terms…when you’re almost out of buttermilk, refill the container with fresh milk, shake it well, leave it on your countertop for 12 hours, and you have fresh buttermilk.  You’ll know its ready by its texture…if it has thickened up nicely, it’s cultured and ready to go back in the fridge.  If it’s still thin, leave it out at room temp until it’s thick.  If it’s as thick as yogurt, it over-cultured…simply add a little milk, shake it to mix.

Do you like buying organic milk products like I do?  A gallon of organic milk is now affordable for most of us…around $5-6 at many places.  Refill your buttermilk container with organic milk, and you’ve got half a gallon of organic buttermilk for about what non-organic buttermilk costs.

But what about the expiration date, especially if you’ve made your own buttermilk?  Don’t sweat it.  Once the milk is fermented, it contains a VERY healthy, prolific colony of lactobacillus bacteria, which are notoriously aggressive against infection by bad bacteria.  Your buttermilk is not likely to EVER get moldy or spoil.  It’s already spoiled!  With GOOD bacteria.  If your buttermilk starts to get a little “chunky” when you pour it, simply give it a good shake.  If it starts to separate and gets a layer of “whey” at the bottom, simply give it a food shake.  However, if it fully curdles, you should probably throw it out (or feed it to your chickens, or compost it, or water your plants with it) and buy a fresh container.

Because of this lovely self-preserving feature, buttermilk keeps FAR beyond its expiration date.  NEVER throw out buttermilk until it has completely curdled.  I’ve found buttermilk MONTHS past its expiration date in friends’ fridges, and it’s perfectly fine, even for drinking.

Buttermilk is indispensable in baking.  I use it in biscuits, pancakes, and waffles.  I use it instead of milk or cream in French toast.  I use it as the base for yeast breads like my overnight cinnamon rolls, my 1 hour English muffins, and my 1 hour Monkey bread.  I use it in my 3-minute microwave oatmeal breakfast cake and my 5-minute molten chocolate lava cake.  It’s essential in my 5-minute oil-based pie crust recipe that many people tell me is more flaky and delicious than the laborious butter pastry that requires chilling and is chock full of saturated fat.  It is indispensable in cornbread.

Buttermilk also crosses over into cooking.  It’s a healthier and more flavorful substitute for heavy cream in soups and sauces.  However, because buttermilk is acidic, it curdles at much lower temperatures than non-cultured milk products…meaning, you can’t heat a pot of buttermilk without it separating into curds and whey (which is the first step of the cheesemaking process, and you can make a lovely fresh cheese simply by heating buttermilk until it fully curdles, then strain the curds in cheesecloth for an hour and stir in some salt…and any other ingredients you’d like, lemon zest, black pepper, fresh thyme, olive oil, etc. etc. etc.).  However, you can whisk buttermilk into hot (but not simmering or boiling) soups and sauces the same way you would add cream.  I finish my potato leek soup this way, I use it in every cream soup I make, and turn regular white gravy into buttermilk gravy by making it with half the amount of milk the recipe specifies, and then whisking in buttermilk at the end.  I finish mashed potatoes with buttermilk, rather than tons of butter and sour cream…same rich texture, BETTER taste, and far less (or no) saturated fat.  Marinate or brine meats in salted buttermilk with any other flavors you want.  I make what most people say is the best fried chicken they’ve ever tasted by brining chicken in rosemary buttermilk, then using that buttermilk to sprinkle into a seasoned flour and cornstarch mixture with a little baking soda added to form crumbs that expand into a light, flaky crust when fried in a cast iron skillet.  Use buttermilk in frozen desserts like ice cream and you can virtually eliminate the fat content, but still have thick, rich, full-flavored ice cream with a pleasant tang reminiscent of frozen yogurt.  Check out my buttermilk sweet potato ice cream recipe, it’ll blow your mouth away!

Have I convinced you yet that you need to have buttermilk in your fridge?

So what do you do if you don’t have buttermilk handy?  Well, first of all…shame on you.  But it does happen to the best of us.  We reach for the buttermilk, and there’s only half a cup left, when we need 2 cups.  Because it takes about 12 hours to culture a fresh batch, and because not all of us have a corner store a few minutes away, sometimes we have to make substitutes for buttermilk.  The BEST substitute is a mixture of half plain yogurt, and half milk.  And for my friends who live in other countries where buttermilk isn’t sold, this is your best way to replicate buttermilk, as yogurt is widely available in almost every country.  Use unsweetened yogurt, or even sour cream, creme fraiche, clotted cream, or any fermented milk product.  Even a Tablespoon of this stuff is enough to culture a few liters or quarts of milk overnight, but for immediate use, you’ll need to use half and half.

Keep the vinegar AWAY from the milk! Except as a last resort.

If you don’t have a cultured milk product in your fridge, you’ll have to resort to the popularly-referenced milk and vinegar combination.  This DOES NOT resemble buttermilk, either in texture or flavor.  All it does is make the milk acidic so it will react with baking soda and baking powder.  Whisk in a Tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice per cup of milk.  I actually HATE this substitution, because it encourages people to think that they never need to keep buttermilk around.  Don’t do it except in a last-resort case.  I will actually drive 10 minutes to the grocery store to buy buttermilk rather than use this substitute, unless I’m in the middle of cooking and suddenly discover I’m low on buttermilk.

2700 words on my favorite ingredient!  I could easily write 10,000.  Buttermilk is miraculous.  It’s incredibly healthy for you.  It turns milk into a virtually unspoilable, magical product that completely transforms the texture and flavor of baked goods.  I could not cook without it.  And now that you know all this…I’m guessing YOU can’t cook without it, either?  Go get some.  NOW!

Please comment below, and subscribe to my blog near the upper right corner of your screen so you don’t miss any more great posts!

MasterChef 4 recap: Eggs and Salmon (S4E18)

(PLEASE NOTE: This blog contains the maniacal ravings of a Season 2 survivor with [practically] no inside knowledge of how this season was produced.  It should be treated as opinion only, and isn’t fit to be read by anyone.)

We’re down to 6…but are we?  Apparently, the producers are pulling another surprise comeback, but this one is just bizarre.  Each of the judges has invited back one formerly-eliminated contestant.  Gordon selects Bri to come back, Joe brings back Lynn, and Graham selects Bime.

This is weird, folks.  If I had been a recently eliminated contestant like Eddie, I’d be furious.  All 3 of these contestants were eliminated before him, but now THEY get a chance to win back their spot, but HE doesn’t?  Of course…that’s assuming that MasterChef is real, which it most certainly is not.  It was at this same point last season that I basically threw in the towel of ever being able to watch MasterChef seriously again…  These moves remove ALL suspension of disbelief that this is actually a contest.  They prove, plain as day, that the producers are completely manipulating the results of the show for dramatic effect.

From one perspective, it’s not fair to allow ANY eliminated contestant to come back.  However, the theoretical format of MasterChef isn’t fair at all…the strongest competitor can get eliminated on a single challenge of the only thing (s)he’s weak on, and while (s)he may be stronger in 99% of challenges than ALL the other contestants, a single falter can get them eliminated.  That’s not fair to begin with.  (The PROPER format for a cooking competition like this is for EVERY contestant to stay the ENTIRE season and participate in EVERY challenge, and the overall winner of the most challenges wins that ‘coveted’ MasterChef trophy.  But then there’s no suspense from episode to episode, so you stop watching.  So you can thank the short attention span of the American audience for driving reality TV to the engineered elimination format.)

But making this comeback colossally unfair is this subjective selection of 3 contestants, rather than the LAST 3 eliminated.

Now that we’re stuck with this infinitely bizarre choice, I personally think Lynn is the most talented sophisticated cook (perhaps in the whole competition), so I’d be interested in seeing him come back most of all.

The contestants are told they have 5 minutes to shop in the MasterChef pantry, and when they dash back, they discover that the only ingredient in the pantry is eggs.  Millions of eggs.  And this challenge will be about producing the perfect sunny-side up egg.

To a lot of folks, this would be a terrifying challenge.  I mean, even a short order cook at a diner usually doesn’t get it right.  To others, this challenge is offensively elementary.  (I mean…it’s really, REALLY easy to cook a sunny side up egg once you know how to do it.)  My 5 year old nephew can do it.

But my first qualm is with Graham saying, “No burned edges.”  Well, eggs don’t really burn unless you’ve got no clue what you’re doing, what he means is, “No browned edges.”  This is one of my biggest gripes with the common chef attitude about cooking eggs.  Eggs brown up just like meat at proper temperatures.  Which means added flavor and texture.  I am fed up with sallow, pale omelets and fried eggs.  I cook ALL my eggs at high temperature so their surface is crusty and caramelized, and they are INFINITELY more delicious this way than when they are cooked at such low temps that they never brown.  However, cooking them with high heat means VERY narrow margins between over-easy and over-hard, so you have to manage your heat and time very well when cooking that way.

Cooking with lower heat that doesn’t brown the egg gives you WAY more wiggle room, and making a sunny side up egg this way is as easy as falling off a log.  And the contestants have 15 minutes to cook as many sunny side up eggs as they can, with 12 nonstick skillets and 2 stoves.

The very first egg from my backyard flock, and the lady who laid it.

Let’s chat eggs, shall we?  One of my favorite subjects, obviously, as I have 11 chickens living in my back yard.  Actually, a proper article on eggs would be an entire book, so let’s just talk about frying eggs.  This is the ONLY application in my kitchen that I use a nonstick skillet for.  If your cabinets are filled with nonstick skillets, donate them to Goodwill and get those outta there.  They’re bad for you, for one.  At high temperatures, the nonstick coating begins to break down at the molecular level and release carcinogens into the air.  (Enough that it can kill your pet parrot dead in a few seconds.)  WebMD and Good Housekeeping tell us, under the authority of a food science professor, that as long as you don’t heat nonstick pans above 500 degrees, you’re fine.  Still…I don’t really wanna be cooking on a surface that becomes carcinogenic “only” at a certain temps.  ?!?  So many years ago, I ditched all my expensive nonstick, except for a single 8″ omelet pan that is used only for cooking eggs.  And I never looked back.  Nonstick is a HORRIBLE cooking surface, in terms of performance.  If you prefer sacrificing flavor for ease of cleaning, you might as well just buy all your food in the frozen section and heat it in the microwave.  Ditch your nonstick and fill your cabinets with cast iron, and clad stainless steel pans with copper cores.

To make the perfect sunny side up egg the way the judges want you to, preheat your nonstick pan over medium-low to medium heat (depending on how hot your stove is).  When you can feel the warmth coming gently from the surface after a few minutes (or have a surface temp around 275F if you have one of those nifty infra-red thermometers), the pan is ready.  Give it a spritz with spray oil, or brush it lightly with melted butter or bacon fat.  Crack your eggs into the pan…or for better control, crack them first into a bowl so you can remove any bits of shell and ensure the egg isn’t rotten or with a bloody yolk.  (A red spot or flake here and there is fine.)  Let the egg bubble gently and keep an eye on the white right around the yolk.  Once that white is completely solidified and is no longer translucent, tilt the pan toward your serving plate and gently shake the egg loose and onto the plate.  Then salt and pepper and serve.

To make a BETTER sunny side up egg, heat the pan surface to 350F or so.  This will give you some caramelization on the bottom of the egg for extra flavor and texture, and the white should cook through in under a minute.

Eggs from my backyard chickens, looking radically different in the pan from storebought eggs

A side note for those of you who are curious…my backyard eggs from my chickens have a white that’s VERY different from commercially available cage-free, organic eggs.  (Well,the yolks are also very different.)  The white has 2 dramatically distinct parts, the normal “runny” white that spreads out in the pan when you crack it (of which there is VERY little in my eggs), and a layer of VERY thick white that encases the yolk.  This white is SO thick that it even forms a layer ON TOP of the yolk as it cooks, so my backyard eggs don’t work well for sunny side up eggs, because there’s still raw white sitting on top of the yolk, and if I cook it long enough for all the white to solidify, the yolks are cooked solid all the way through.  I’m assuming this is because I typically eat the eggs the day they are laid, whereas as a storebought egg may be a week or two from being laid, or more.  The whites break down and become runnier as the egg ages, but my delicious backyard eggs never sit around for that long before being eaten or gifted to neighbors, friends, and family.

I’ve also noticed quite a difference between the whites and yolks of eggs from the different breeds I have.  The Black Australorps lay eggs with almost no runny white at all.  (The eggs in this photo are from my Australorps.)  While the eggs from the Wyandottes have more runny white and less thick white.  The eggs you get at the store are laid by White Leghorns (pronounced “LEG-urns”), if they’re white, or Rhode Island Reds (or sometimes Hampshires), if they’re brown.  So eggs from those chickens are the only eggs that the vast majority of Americans are familiar with.  But there are HUNDREDS of breeds of chicken, and each lay eggs with their own unique qualities.  And chickens which forage for their food lay eggs that differ dramatically by season, based on what their diet is.  In a culinary-wise country, like France, they know which breeds and seasons are best for which applications.  For example, spring egg yolks from Crevecour hens make the best custard.  Whites from fall Faverolles hens are best for making meringue.  But in our industrialized food production system, we move toward something called “monoculture” where we only raise 1 variety of something (which has often been selectively bred or genetically modified to maximize production) so other types of chickens, pigs, tomatoes, watermelons, etc. are becoming increasingly rare.  Monoculture is bad news.  Variety is always best.

The challenge begins and ends rather immediately, and judging begins with Joe throwing away 2 of Lynn’s eggs because they were undercooked.  (He throws the entire plate into the garbage, shattering it.  That’s not wasteful at all, Joe.)  Then he throws away the PROPERLY cooked eggs with br0wned edges…that’s how they’re supposed to be cooked.  More broken plates.  By the time Joe has finished breaking plates, Lynn has 8 perfect eggs left.

Now it’s time to break some of Bri’s plates, and she ends up with 13.  Bime is last, and of his 32 eggs, at least 9 are acceptable, once again bouncing Lynn from the MasterChef kitchen.

Now Bri and Bime will battle to win back their apron by breaking down and cooking 7 portions of Alaskan king salmon, asparagus, and potatoes, and serving them with Hollandaise sauce.

The judges present 2 beautiful salmon that they claim are line-caught off the coast of Alaska and cost $500 each.  That’s a pricey salmon!  Whole wild king salmon on the west coast usually costs between $12 and $16 a pound, which means this salmon must weigh 30-40 pounds, or it was sorely over-valued!

The challenge ends and the plates are delivered to the remaining 6 MasterChef contestants, plus Joe.  We see some shots of fillets with that white stuff squeezed out of the sides.  That’s not fat, as most people think.  It’s a combination of proteins called “albumin.”  The more you cook salmon, the more gets squeezed out.  You can minimize this by brining the salmon for 10 minutes…use 1 Tablespoon of kosher salt per cup of water.  This technique works for ALL steaky fishes, which all exude albumin, but because most of them have white flesh, it’s less noticeable.

The contestants place their votes for the best salmon, and miraculously, it comes down to 3 for Bri and 3 for Bime.  Funny how that ALWAYS works, right?  Without fail.  It ALWAYS comes down to the last vote in every scenario like this.  I mean, those odds are so good, you could bet on them every single time.

The last vote goes to Bri, and she regains her apron to bring the finalist count back up to 7.  It’s lovely to see Bri come back…she’s one of my favorites.  There is, however, a rumor mill that Bri is actually a hired actress and not a real contestant.  (Her social media indicates she’s been friends with upper-level producers BEFORE the show was filmed.)  And she’s been working as a pastry chef in LA since the show filmed, and has been offered a job as a pastry chef at Thomas Keller’s legendary NYC artisan bakery Bouchon.  Such offers have NEVER been bestowed on an amateur chef from MasterChef before…in fact, such an offer is practically unheard of in ALL of competitive food television, including shows with professional chefs.  Which sorta leads me to think that Bri is a professional pastry chef (and her college theatre background is merely how she’s being labeled on the show), and the producers know her well enough to know what a perfect addition she would be to the cast this year.  Her character on the show may, in fact, all be an act.  Check out her professional acting portfolio shots: http://www.starnow.com/brikozior/photos/2216100/#!photo-2216112

(Thanks to fan Nick Shiraef for finding those.  They’re actually great photos, Bri!  But certainly nothing like the pale, geeky vegetarian we’re seeing on MasterChef.  Some people are saying she’s actually not vegetarian at all, which would explain why she cooks meat so well!)

Again…all this is merely rumor.  But more than one MC contestant from previous seasons were beginning to doubt the authenticity of her spot as an actual contestant BEFORE these rumors and Facebook photos started flying around, so it’s certainly not unthinkable.  (UPDATE: Bri has sent me a comment via her Facebook account that she would like included here, so you can read her side of the story in the comments below.)

But one thing is certain…Bri’s character on the show is totally adorable, and I’ll be glad to see more of it, whether it actually represents her authentic self or not.

Let me know what you thought of this episode on the comments below, and relish these last few blog posts, because once I hit the road for Burning Man on the 17th, I won’t be watching or blogging about MasterChef until AFTER the show has finished airing, when I get back in late September!  Only one blog left until then…

NEWS FLASH: Once upon a time…meat was ALIVE!!!

As you all know, I run an underground restaurant here in Dallas with the stunning Jennie Kelley.  We met on the set of MasterChef and have become incredibly close friends.  FRANK is a celebration of fresh, local, sustainable food.  And for our upcoming French-themed Bastille day dinners, our main course is coq au vin, a classic French dish which traditionally consists of an older rooster (which tends to be tough and stringy but BURSTING with old-fashioned chicken flavor that you never get these days), stewed long and slow in red wine, which makes the meat tender and juicy.

Rather than tromp to the grocery store and purchase a hermetically sealed styrofoam package with mass-produced chicken, we located a farm in nearby McKinney, Texas, where Farmer William had an overabundance of organic, free range roosters.  (Roosters don’t lay eggs, and basically just fight with each other and terrorize the hens, so roosters are often used for meat on the farm.  Most of the chicken breast you get at the grocery store is actually from a castrated rooster called a capon…more on grocery store chicken in a moment.)  So this morning I got up and drove out to McKinney to hand-pick a dozen roosters for our table at FRANK this weekend.  Shortly after arriving on the farm, I posted this on Facebook:

Immediately I was accosted by furious posts.  (I knew I would be, but not to this extent.)  Here are some examples of what was written:

Not all the comments were so hasty.  I appreciated this one from my fan Nicole:

I am, however, supremely confused as to how this photo conveys “Ha ha guess who’s dinner tonight?”  As you all well know, I’m a very verbose person, and if I typed in my Facebook post what you’re about to read in this blog, no one would even start to read it because it would be 4 pages long.  However, I thought it quite obvious that I’m showing supreme respect for the ingredients I cook with by traveling an hour to an organic chicken farm to select happy, healthy chickens, give them an honorable and quick death, and serve them to people I care about.

Before I wax poetic on my philosophy about eating meat, I’ll let some of my fans do the work for me:

A bit abrupt, and not too philosophic, but most definitely true.  Chickens aren’t very self-aware creatures, as any farmer knows.  But the chicken wouldn’t even exist today outside the forests of Asia had humans not domesticated them and selectively bred them over centuries.   These types of chickens only exist because humans eat them.

This is my fan Tim Brooks who is a talented chef in Chicago.  He, too, has an interesting perspective on meat, as he works in a meat store.  On his blog, Mulligan Soup, he describes a visit to a lamb slaughterhouse, which you may find insightful.  I love that line “Showing a completed dish is never the whole story.”  This could be a bulletin board.  And I’ll get on that subject in a moment.

Carefully saving all parts of the chicken so they can be put to good use

Of course I wasn’t trying to be disrespectful to the animal in any way.  Yes, there’s a great big smile on my face.  Do you honestly think it’s because I’m DELIGHTED that I’m about to take a life?  If you do, you don’t know me at all.  It’s not fun slaughtering any animal.  It’s tough.  I take a moment of silence to thank the animal for sacrificing its life so that we can have sustenance and live.  It gives its life to further life.  That smile on my face is because I am thrilled to be participating OUTSIDE the mass-meat-production chain.  Mass produced chickens live horrible, miserable lives of torture and are electrocuted to death and butchered by machines before you buy them without thinking twice for $1.99 a pound on sale.  I am supporting the livelihood of a local farmer who is raising his chickens with care and respect, giving them an honorable and respectful death YEARS after they would die in a meat factory, and recycling EVERY bit of that chicken.  (The heads and feet are simmering to make stock on my stove right now, and the feathers are in my compost pile to nourish my garden next year.)

You all know Tony Scruggs from MasterChef season 2.  He was one of my favorite people on the show.  I’ve been to his farm in Illinois where he raises turkeys and chickens for meat and has an incredible garden.  In fact, while I was there I demonstrated my method for hynpotizing poultry, which relaxes them.  I usually do this before slaughter so that they are calm and peaceful.

And, like Tony said, I’m not sure you nay-sayers understand exactly HOW MUCH I LOVE CHICKENS.  I adore them.  I kiss them on the mouth, for Heaven’s sake.  I would never glorify in their death for the purpose of making people laugh.  But I WILL REVEL in sharing with you all photos of what a happy, healthy, free range chicken looks like, so that you understand exactly how important it is for chickens to live that kind of life, rather than a factory life of terror and misery.

My girl, Crystal.  I’m willing to bet my house that most of the nay-sayer posts were from meat eaters.  Because virtually all of the vegans, vegetarians, and pescetarians I know are very tolerant, educated people.  Here we’ve got someone who DOESN’T eat chicken, but who really gets everything that was meant behind my post.  I adore you, Crystal.

Ever seen fat this yellow on a storebought chicken? Of course not. That's because this free range farm chicken eats grass and bugs and seeds, which is what a chicken is SUPPOSED to eat.

Indeed.  The chicken you buy in the grocery store is mass produced.  Roosters are castrated (caponized) which causes their breasts to grow abnormally large.  Then they are force-fed antibiotics which causes dramatic meat production.  They live their entire life in small cages, crammed in with 3 other roosters.  (Do you know what roosters do when caged with each other?  They fight.)  So they spent their entire lives cramped, panicked, fighting for their lives.  Often they are fed antidepressants to calm them down and reduce fighting.  They are slaughtered for meat anywhere from 1 month to 6 months of age.  Have you seen the size of boneless skinless breasts in the grocery store?  A normal free range farm chicken can live 5 years and never have breasts HALF the size of what you see in the store.  Storebought chicken meat is abnormal and comes from tortured animals.  Free range, small farm chickens are allowed to live their lives naturally.  You are exercising SUPREME respect for meat when you get your chickens from a small producer right on the farm.

Thanks, Jamie.  And that is exactly what I’m trying to do with my posts about meat animals.  To show you that your steak or chicken breast or pork chop once had a head…probably a fairly cute one.  So don’t treat meat with callous disrespect by buying it just anywhere, or by throwing away leftovers that you didn’t eat.  A living, breathing, probably-adorable animal GAVE ITS LIFE for you to eat that fried chicken finger.  So let’s understand that, because it makes us think twice about where it comes from and what kind of life it led.

Susan knows!  It’s not pleasant being exposed to revolting information about something as common as the meat you eat every day of your life, but it’s the truth, and it’s time for our country to realize that our industrial meat production system, which we’ve had since World War II, is making us unhealthy, and is colossally cruel to animals.  Most other first-world countries (and virtually ALL developing countries) still raise animals on a small scale with diets that emulate their diets in nature.

That’s Kris, and if you can’t tell, he’s a character.  He was almost cast on MasterChef this season, and you’ll be seeing him on TV some day soon.  He’s a great chef with a big personality, and he speaks the truth…in his own special, sarcastic way.

Folks…I understand that this is an uncomfortable situation.  The fact is, MOST people who live in urban surroundings are honestly not comfortable with the fact that they eat meat.  Which is sad to me, for starters, but downright dangerous.  Deliberately not wanting to face the fact that animals die for you to eat meat leads to a complete ignorance of the industry that produces meat.  So they can just go on without criticism, because people don’t REALLY want to know what goes on behind those factory doors.

The food chain exists in nature.  Whether you subscribe to a religion that defines your food chain for you, or whether you subscribe to no religion and simply choose to observe the life on this amazing planet…the food chain exists.  Humans are, by nature, omnivores, and have been since the dawn of our race.  Meat is part of our life.  Our ancestors hunted.  Then they learned that some animals could be domesticated and actually improved, and that’s where we get chickens, sheep, cows, goats, and pigs.  These animals would have been long extinct had we not taken them into our farms and given them a purpose in life.

I do not believe it is a crime to eat meat.  (Some will argue with me, and I completely respect their decision to not eat meat.)  But I grew up on a farm where we ate the animals we raise…and no, it was not easy for a 6 year old to lose his favorite pet lamb, and later be told that the lamb chops he was eating came from his pet.  But I learned from an early age that THIS IS THE WAY IT IS.  So it’s our responsibility as humans to give these animals the best life they can live, slaughter them respectfully and quickly, and use every bit of their body possible to help sustain and improve life for ourselves and our families.

Please think before you make a rash comment about meat.  If you’re uncomfortable seeing a living animal that you know is going to later be eaten, you need to take a close look at what you really believe, and if it’s even appropriate for you to be eating meat in the first place.

For me, I will NOT STOP spreading the message that meat comes from living, breathing creatures who must die for us to eat.  And I will continue to make my choices in such a way that local farmers can make a living raising meat animals with respect and care, and so that industrial meat producers realize that there IS an alternate option for virtually everyone in this country.

If you’d like to find a local source for meat, you can often find it at your Farmer’s Market.  Also, surf over to http://craigslist.org and type in “chicken” or “beef.”  I guarantee, in the farm section, you’ll find a local farmer that’s selling meat from his farm.  It may not be legal (which is a TRUE crime), but it will taste better, and probably be CHEAPER than the regular industrial meat you buy on sale at the grocery store.  These farmers often have weekend sales where you can buy a dozen cleaned and packaged chickens, bring them home and toss them in your freezer, and you’ve got incredible chicken for a month.  Yes, it’s out of your way.  But I can’t tell you how much you’ll be glad you did it.  And your food will taste infinitely better, too.  All that…and you can go to bed with a conscience that knows you made the RIGHT CHOICE for yourself, your family, your farmer, and his animals.

(If you would like to delver further into this matter, I highly recommend the book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan.  It is incredible.)