|October 24, 2002
Volume 33 Number 5
|A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico|
The Dirt on Dough
Ag professor uses breadmaking to demonstrate properties of soil
The delicious aroma of fresh baked bread wafted through the corridors of Tehama Hall as students filed in to agriculture professor Lee Altier's Food Forever class. Inside, Altier was grooving to the tune of "I Like Bread and Butter."
In the previous class session, Altier had dealt with the properties of soil. After a quick recap of soil textures and particle sizes, he excused himself to check on the status of the guest speaker, only to return a moment later as Professor Heubenhaffer, bread maker extraordinaire.
The world-renowned baker professed his love of baking and eating bread with his family, and -- one by one -- compared the characteristics of bread ingredients to soil elements, pausing only when his faux mustache fell to the floor. According to Heubenhaffer, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, and cornmeal have the same coarse texture and large particle size as sand. A demonstration of water percolation through cornmeal and through sand proved that water drainage properties for the two are identical.
Heubenhaffer explained that if there are too many "sand" elements in the bread dough, it will turn out "hard as a brick." He then demonstrated the silt-like properties of whole-wheat flour, and the sticky clay-like consistency of white flour when mixed with water. As he enthusiastically kneaded a lump of dough, Heubenhaffer explained how farmers test soil consistency by rolling samples in their hands, just as bakers use kneading to determine the optimal ratios of ingredients to create the best loaves of bread. Bakers know that if dough sticks to their hands, they need to add more flour. Similarly, farmers can determine whether or not the addition of large particle elements, such as sand, are necessary to mitigate the compaction caused by excessive levels of clay in the soil. If a soil sample rolled between the hands develops into a snake-like formation, it has a high clay content.
Heubenhaffer said the rich aroma of agricultural soil is caused by the combination of water, sand, silt, and clay particles, as well as micro-organisms such as mildew, fungus, and bacteria. Bread requires the addition of yeast, also a fungal organism, to complete the structural development of the dough. The addition of these elements aids in the development of air pockets, which are responsible for maintaining structural integrity and consistency -- in soil and bread.
"People don't think much about soil," Heubenhaffer concluded. "It's something they walk on. That's why I brought in the bread today. We all eat, and bread is something we're all familiar with. Hopefully, this will help you remember the texture of soils and the effect of organic matter in soils."
Students then did their own hands-on testing of soil samples and were invited to enjoy slices of Heubenhaffer's still-warm culinary masterpiece. "Somebody said that they'd never forget this one," Altier/Heubenhaffer said.
Loriann Maxwell is the administrative support coordinator for Public Affairs and Publications and an English major at CSU, Chico.
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