Skip to content
May 31 / scott.campbell

Baking powder: the final chapter

You may have heard before that it’s a good idea to replace your baking powder after a couple years. But is that really necessary? I put this to the test yesterday when we completed our taste testing journey through the products left to us from Grandma Zollinger’s basement.

Old product (left), new product (right)

Old product (left), new product (right)

According to Wikipedia, “Baking powder is a dry chemical leavening agent, a mixture of a weak alkali and a weak acid, and is used for increasing the volume and lightening the texture of baked goods.” Baking powder is used to help various baked goods like biscuits, pancakes, etc. to raise a bit so they become fluffy rather than flat and dense.

As usual I popped the tops off the cans and took water activity measurements.


Old product=clumpy



New product=light and powdery


Old product (A), new product (B)

As one might expect, the old product was full of clumps while the new product was a fine powder. The older product, A, came in with a reading of .330 aw and the new product read at 0.399 aw, so not too much of a difference there. What’s interesting is that what seems such a small difference in water activity (0.06) actually has quite an effect on a product like baking powder. That just shows how important it is to have an accurate, recently calibrated water activity meter so you can get the most accurate readings possible when testing samples.

Since you can’t really eat straight-up baking powder I decided to make pancakes to test out the properties of the baking powder. I used the recipe my mom makes from scratch which involves frying the pancakes in butter…mmm mm good.

Batter using new baking powder being cooked

Batter using new baking powder being cooked

Batter using old baking powder being cooked

Batter using old baking powder being cooked

My pancake making did not go quite as planned, unfortunately. I was a little unfamiliar with the induction stove top in our new company kitchen, and at the start I only had one pan going that had a hard time getting warm enough.  Fortunately the pan warmed up eventually and I found a couple more pans to finish off the pancakes.

I unfortunately didn’t take many pictures of the pancakes during and after cooking, mostly because things got kind of crazy trying to finish the pancakes before my testers arrived. Both batters looked basically the same, but the difference came once the pancakes had cooked. The pancake batter using older baking powder did not raise much and produced pretty flat, dense little pancakes. On the other hand, the pancake batter using the new baking powder raised and got fluffy like every good pancake should.

Pancakes using old baking powder

Pancakes using old baking powder (sorry I didn’t get a picture of the pancakes using new baking powder. The ones using new powder were more raised)

When I had my testers come in I offered them a plate with pancake A (old powder) and another plate with pancake B (new powder). No pancake syrup, just testing (which I felt a little bad about later…pancakes need syrup!) On the whole, the pancakes basically tasted the same. Some commented that B was better than A or “yummy” or “more ‘pancake-y’  taste” while A was “bland” or “fair”, but on the whole there wasn’t too much discrepancy. While there wasn’t too much of a difference in taste, there was a noticeable difference in texture. Many testers mentioned in some way that A, the pancake using older powder, was “dense” or “flat.” On the other hand, most testers made a comment about the fluffiness of B, the pancake using new powder. Out of 12 participants that made ratings on their papers out of a scale of 1 to 10, 10 gave B a higher score, 1 gave A a higher score, and 1 gave them the same score. A had an average score of 5.2, and B had an average score of 7.9.

As predicted, looks like old baking powder should be replaced so you can have baking powder will have its intended leavening effect in your recipe. If the old stuff was all you had though, you’d be okay. You’d just have a recipe that didn’t raise much and possibly had a slightly blah aftertaste.

I hope you, the reader, have enjoyed reading about our taste tests comparing products with different vintages. At METER we are always interested in the effect water activity has on the shelf life of different products. Join us for future posts about shelf life and water activity, whether it’s about homemade prosciutto or 39-year-old freeze-dried stroganoff.

Download The Food Manufacturer’s Complete Guide to Water Activity—>

May 31 / scott.campbell

Just Add Cheese and Sausage

In addition to the prosciutto, I decided to start 2 concurrent projects.  The first is cheese.  Almost a year ago I got a bunch of stuff for making cheese, only to grow discouraged over the tedious nature of cheese production.  I decided to give it another try after finding this, a temperature probe that sits in a water bath and keeps the bath at a constant temperature.  This makes it pretty easy to keep fussy cheese curds at a particular temperature for a long time.  Thus, I took a swing at a recipe for farmhouse cheddar.  It took me about 4 hours to make, and when I was done, the pressed cheese looked like this:


I then dunked it into a pot of brine, which is where the whole project sits right now.  To me, the cheese still feels very wet.  The saturated brine is sure to take some of this water out, but the cheese itself is still squishy.

The other project is more cured sausage, this time with soil moisture sensors to match the ones we’re using to monitor the prosciutto.  Here’s what the scene in the fridge looks like now:


Making more sausage confirmed a simple fact about sausage-making: it’s disgusting.  Working with all the stinky hog middles makes me wonder why I bother with them, but they have given us the best results in the past.  This go around, I’m trying to grow lots of good mold, so I’m keeping the fridge humidity pretty high, and watching them closely.  I’ll soon have some readings on the moisture to share, and I’m interested to watch the dry-down of the sausage over about a month or so.

Download The Food Manufacturer’s Complete Guide to Water Activity—>




May 30 / scott.campbell

Multi-Prong Solution

My last post talked about some of the ways we’re going to monitor the moisture of curing meat remotely.  Two days ago, I made good on my promise to impale an innocent ham with two soil moisture sensors and watch their readings over time.  This was intended to do two things: test the concept that meat curing can be observed with an “in-situ” sensor, and also use the electrical conductivity readings to see how the salt migrates into the ham.

Having procured the ham and removed the aitch bone, I began burying the ham in salt.  By the way, can I nominate “aitch bone” for dumbest bone name ever?  I have no idea how to pronounce or spell it, and the bone itself is a nuisance to remove.  After getting a bit of salt going, here’s where I installed the probes:

photo (5)

photo (6)

photo (7)


photo (8)

Not rocket science.  After covering the ham with more salt, I socked it away in the fridge to sit for 12 days or so.  Now (2 days in) I already have some data, which I have been looking at from the comfort of my desk.  Here’s a snapshot:

Ham Data 5-30-13


The humidity (red line) is at about 80% – no problem.  The two moisture content lines are showing a little divergence.  The dark green data line is from the metal 3 needle sensor, and the light green one if from the 2 prong shorter sensor.  Moisture shouldn’t have changed that much, though, in only 2 days.  We do expect to see water move out of the ham, though, but this hasn’t really started yet.  The interesting line to me is the dark brown one, which shows salt moving into the ham, increasing its electrical conductivity.  What should the electrical conductivity of the ham be when we stop the salting step?  I’m really not sure, but that’s one of the first things we hope to find out.

Download The Food Manufacturer’s Complete Guide to Water Activity—>

May 24 / scott.campbell

Just Dream(Whip)-y

After last week’s powdered milk, I needed to redeem my taste testing reputation. This week we tested something much more pleasant than powdered milk: “Dream Pie.” This is a recipe that uses Dream Whip whipped topping mix to make a whipped topping+pudding pie.

Older product (left), newer product (right)

Older product (left), newer product (right)

What is “Dream Whip” you may ask? Dream Whip whipped topping mix is a powdered mix that is packaged in 4 envelopes to a box. Blend the stuff with milk and vanilla, and voila, instant whipped topping that kind of tastes like homemade whipped heavy cream but not quite. You can just make the stuff as whipped topping or you can use it as a “fluffing” agent in certain recipes. One application of Dream Whip is cake. My mother is making the cake for my wedding reception and was told to use Dream Whip in the cake mix to make the cake extra moist and fluffy. And of course, Dream Whip is used in the infamous “Dream Pie,” a pie where you blend Dream Whip mix, any flavor pudding mix, milk, and vanilla together and spoon it into a crust to get “lighter, fluffier, Dream Pie.” This lightness and fluffiness added to the pie is explained well by this picture on the back of the older box of Dream Whip:


Different from past taste tests, I didn’t have my testers sample just the product itself. Instead I put the product to the test in a recipe to see if the products with different vintages would make any difference in taste and texture in the finished product.

When I tested the two products’ water activity using an AquaLab 3TE, I got a reading of 0.153 aw for the older product and a reading of 0.246 aw for the new product. This seems understandable because the two products were packaged similarly, and overtime the older product would have become drier as some of the moisture in the older product would have had a chance to migrate outside the package. The dry mixes looked similar in texture though the older product was slightly yellowed with age.

Left to right: Older product (A), newer product (B)

Left to right: Older product (A), newer product (B)

The recipe for Dream Pie was located on the back of both boxes. The wording on each was slightly different, but all the ingredients were in the same proportions. I started by making the older Dream Whip. The box says to “BEAT whipped topping mix with 1 cup milk and the vanilla…at HIGH with electric mixer for 6 minutes or until topping thickens and forms peaks.”  Well, it wasn’t until at least 6 minutes had passed before I had an indication of “peaks” being formed in the older Dream Whip.

Whipped topping at start

Whipped topping at start

Whipped topping after beating 6+ minutes

Whipped topping after beating 6+ minutes

See what I mean? Not super peaky. But maybe you need a comparison. The picture below shows the new Dream Whip after probably only beating 3-4 minutes. For reals.

New Dream Whip, mixed

New Dream Whip, mixed

Much more peaky, and took less time. The new Dream Whip was also a purer white than the older Dream Whip.  The older Dream Whip product needed more time to thicken and didn’t get quite as thick as the new product even after getting some extra time to whip.

After I added the pudding mix and the rest of the vanilla, the old and new products were visibly comparable. The old product may have looked a little more grainy and the new one a little smoother, but that was were differences stopped, at least visually.


Left to right: Pie using older Dream Whip (Pie A), pie using new Dream Whip (Pie B)

Left to right: Pie using older Dream Whip (Pie A), pie using new Dream Whip (Pie B)

After spooning out the product into the pie crusts I admit to licking the bowls to see if there was a difference in flavor. Even though all ingredients were the same but one, I could taste a difference. The older one tasted somewhat chemical-y, while the new one tasted fresher and creamier. But what’s my opinion to that of my testers? Time to bring a fresh crop of them on the scene!

This week I had the highest participation rate yet for a taste test with 17 people. I guess my powdered milk from last week didn’t scare them away after all.


Scott takes taste testing very seriously.

Scott takes taste testing very seriously.

The room was near silent as the testers tasted and took notes on the provided feedback sheets. After a few bites I think it was obvious to most which pie contained the old product and which contained the new. In their ratings, 12 out of 17 preferred product B (the pie using new Dream Whip), while 3 preferred the pie using old product and 2 couldn’t tell the difference, giving their product the same rating.

Comments were a little varied for both pies, but some general trends existed. Many participants noted something odd about the flavor of Pie A with comments like “slight metallic flavor” “strange flavor” “tiny after taste of rubber” “hint of bleach, little more acidic” “a little pasty” and ‘tastes more chemical-y than the other…tastes like plastic…not great at all.” An unpleasant aftertaste was noted by at least three people. Comments varied for texture but some said it was “grainy” “slimy” and “thicker than B.” The ratings for the product weren’t bad, with an average rating of 5.6. Some discrepancy existed though, since the lowest score was a 1 and the highest an 8.

Unsurprisingly, Pie B got many more positive comments than Pie A. Most testers said it was good and/or tasty. My favorite two comments were “Delicious, chocolate-y, lovable, cuddly :)” and “This is how a choco-cream pie should taste. A delightful pas de deux between the chocolate and the graham cracker crust.” (Yeah, the people I work with are pretty cool). Some noted that B was “less chocolate-y than A” “not very flavorful” and “weak” but generally the comments regarding B were positive.  In regards to texture, many noted that the product was fluffy, smooth, and creamy. The average score of B was 7.9, with the highest score being a 10 and the lowest being  a 4.

While some general trends existed to differentiate the two pies, some of my testers weren’t able to tell much of a difference between the two. Comments in this regard included “almost exactly the same” “I’m considering disqualifying myself from future taste testing because I can’t tell any difference in taste” and “visibly these two products are identical and look delicious!”

In conclusion, I think if you were in a pinch to get a dessert ready and didn’t have the time to go the store to get some Dream Whip (or you just wanted to be cheap), you could use Grandma Zollinger’s old Dream Whip mix and probably be just fine. The pie might end up tasting a little off, but without a comparison, who’s going to complain about Dream Pie?

Download The Food Manufacturer’s Complete Guide to Water Activity—>



May 22 / scott.campbell

Lanced Ham

Water activity is great.  This proclamation shouldn’t be surprising, given I work for a water activity meter company.  Still, it does have a little ‘splainin’ to do.  While water activity is very precise, sampling technique can influence readings.  What’s more, charcuterie that has been sampled properly is likely to end up with holes in it – not an attractive quality to many consumers.  This underscores the fact that you must cut away part of the product and put it into a sample cup in order to test its water activity.

SENSOR-squareThe ideal method would be one that can detect small changes in the water of the meat, but is “in-situ”, a fancy word for measuring something in place instead of taking a sample back to the lab.  So I had an idea.  Why not use soil moisture sensors to look at changes in the water of a ham as it cures?  I’ll admit that the idea crossed my mind because in addition to water activity meters, my employer also makes things like soil moisture sensors.  Soil moisture sensors sense changes in soil moisture due to the difference between soil’s dielectric constant (2) and water’s dielectric constant (80).  The readings will be relative since I’d have to calibrate the sensors to relate their readings to water activity or moisture content.  Still, after considering this a while, a few things became clear:

  1. This will make life way easier.  From the comfort of my Costco-sourced task chair, I can look at the sensor readings on my computer screen every few hours and know whether things are going well.
  2. The above sensor also measures electrical conductivity.  This will probably tell me how well the salt seeps into the ham during the salting phase.  Since we ended up with overly-salty prosciutto as thanks for our 10 months of effort last time, I’m hoping this comes in handy.
  3. If small or medium-sized processed meat companies want to monitor the curing of their meats, this would be a simple and relatively inexpensive way to do it.  A barebones water activity meter costs about $2k, while a sensor/data logger combo would cost perhaps $700.  That’s still a hefty sum for small businesses and hobbyists, but less than a water activity meter.

So here’s the plan.  Plunge the TEROS 12 sensor deep into the ham, pack the ham in salt, and wait about 2 weeks.  The ham will lose water and take on salt.  Then, as the ham cures over 5 months to 1 year, it’ll dry out.  I’ll watch the readings change over time, and post them here on the blog.  During that same time, I plan on making some more salami and peperone – I’ll also outfit some of those sausages with sensors so we can see that data, too.  We’ll test the water activity when we think they’re done, but not before.  This will make for less holes in the meat, and more product for me and my co-workers to consume.  I think that’s something we can all live with.

Download The Food Manufacturer’s Complete Guide to Water Activity—>

May 17 / scott.campbell

Powdered milk, anyone?

…didn’t think so.

In week 3 of our taste tests we revisit Grandma Zollinger’s basement to find this:

Old (left) and new (right)

Old (left) and new (right)

Thankfully, I personally was never forced by my mother to drink powdered milk. You may have been though, or you know someone who was. This stuff is just really not the most pleasant thing; a new package only makes the product bearable, really.  Thus, I was really grateful to those who were not forced, but volunteered,  to participate in this taste test.

The “old” product was actually just packaged in ’95 and is our youngest “old” product to date (18 years old…you’re welcome) I’ve tested. However, it was probably the nastiest product I’ve tested. Unlike last week, figuring out which one was the old product was quite obvious.

The water activity of the old product was 0.3356 aw while the new product had a water activity of 0.2863 aw. Not too large of a difference there. One interesting thing was the texture of the two powders. The old one was more fine while the newer product had powdery granules. I guess they just don’t make powdered milk like they used to?

Old product

Old product

New product

New product

I prepared the milk about an hour before the test and then left it in the fridge to chill.



When it was close to testing time, I put the milk in cups and then Scott stuck them into the freezer to keep the cups cold. P1 was the old product while P2 was labeled the new product.


Then it was time for testing! Here are some of our brave participants.

DSC00592 DSC00594

Deciding which milk was which was quickly discerned. The old milk, P1, was given many comments about it’s “nasty,” “gross” taste. Comments included “like a box,” “slightly sour taste,” watered down taste, ” and my favorite, “Tastes like a protein drink. Doesn’t taste like it will kill me but tastes weird.” I noted that a few people complained of a bad aftertaste, one commenting that the “aftertaste returned after P2.” Several participants also noted a “strong” or “chalky” smell (I personally thought it smelled like baby formula…but not in a good way). As for texture, participants commented on P1’s “chalky,” “bit gritty” texture. The ratings showed just how disgusting the old product was, with an average of 2.2 and a low score of -1 and a high of 7 (as a disclaimer, the 7 was from the participant that said P1 was “not too bad, like powdered milk I’m used to”). Yes, that stuff was just that bad.

The newer product, P2, wasn’t as bad as P1,  but it wasn’t good either. Many people made a comment about P2 being closer to tasting like real milk or skim milk. Comments like “normal,” “okay,” “bland,” and “not too bad” professed the mediocrity of the product. One participant said, “I don’t think P2 is that bad.” Well, like I said, it wasn’t that bad…but it wouldn’t be my first choice when selecting a beverage. And that was the new powdered milk! The average rating on the new product was 6.2 with a low score of 2 and a high of 9.

I had already guessed this would probably be the least pleasant of the tests I have and will plan to do, and that held true. My participants were champs though for helping me out, so I made sure to reward them with cookies after the test was over. And cookies make everything better…right?

Well, it’s sure a good thing you’ve got that pudding in Grandma’s basement, ’cause so far that might be the best thing you’ll eat down there while barricading yourself inside the house from the ravenous zombies on the loose during the aforementioned apocalypse.

Download The Food Manufacturer’s Complete Guide to Water Activity—>



May 10 / scott.campbell

Just one of those (surprising) things that gets sweeter with time

Yesterday afternoon we continued the saga of testing Grandma Zollinger’s old food storage. This time, however, I think the results were far more pleasing…and surprising. Yesterday we tested vanilla pudding, and I mean, who doesn’t like pudding? We even had an improved turnout this time with 16 participants (last week I had 12).

This week’s specimen was Boyd’s brand Vanilla Pudding and Pie Filling. The pudding mix came in a #10 can similar to the can that our 39-year-old stroganoff came out of last week. I haven’t been able to figure out an exact age on this product, but I’m estimating it has a similar vintage to the Mountain House product based on the exterior. The Boyd’s brand was one you cooked (pretty sure instant pudding is a more recent invention), so when finding a comparable product from today I simply purchased Jello-O Cook & Serve Vanilla Pudding & Pie Filling.

2 different puddings

Upon opening the can of pudding mix, I was very surprised. Mind you, this product has been sealed tight for decades and was first opened by me with a can opener yesterday morning. I was expecting to find stale, clumpy powder. What I found though was a powder that didn’t look that funny at all. It was a bit pale but it didn’t smell funny either. It smelled kind of pleasant and sweet, actually. Aside from the paleness of the product you wouldn’t have guessed it was 30+ years old. In my opinion, Boyd’s did a great job of packaging this product.

Old pudding mix

Good as new?

Next I opened the packet of new Cook & Serve pudding mix. I’ve made enough instant pudding in my life to know what to expect. Yellow-ish, somewhat sweet smelling powder (the bag smelled a bit funny, but not bad). Nothing surprising.

New product

Nothing surprising here.

What was very surprising though was the water activity readings of the two products. The newer product read at 0.3457 aw, while the older product read significantly higher at 0.5144 aw. This is fascinating because last week we saw the newer product having a higher water activity than the older product. The older product’s reading seems surprisingly high, especially for a very vintage, canned product. Perhaps this higher water activity is possible though with a sealed, airtight #10 can like the older product was in. The lower water activity on the new product may also be a result of the packaging. The new product may be dried out more so that it can have a longer shelf life since it has not been sealed in an airtight can.

Sample cups with pudding mix

Older product (P2) on the left (0.5144 aw), newer product (P1) on the right (0.3457 aw)

Before the test in the afternoon I made sure to prepare the puddings beforehand so I wouldn’t be rushed and they would have a chance to chill and set.

Cooking puddings: P1 (new product) on the right, P2 (old product) on the left.

Cooking puddings: P1 (new product) on the right, P2 (old product) on the left.

P2 (old product) cooked and chilled

P2 (old product) cooked and chilled

P1 (new product) cooked and chilled

P1 (new product) cooked and chilled

After observing and testing the two products, it was time for “Taste Test, Round 2.” For this test I added a twist for participants that have attended both taste testings. The first product, Product 1 (P1), was the newer pudding while the second product, Product 2 (P2), was the older pudding. Last week the old product was first (A) and the new product was second (B). Because of this I feel like there may have been some bias from the two-time participants because they thought the first would be the old one like last time. Based on what they tasted (and what I tasted too), they thought they were right. But boy, did we have everyone fooled.

DSC00573 DSC00575

Both products looked relatively the same, which made it near impossible for my participants to tell from the start which was which. P1 (new) was a paler yellow while P2 (old) was a more potent, full yellow color. They also had approximately the same texture: smooth and lumpy. Granted I am not an expert at cooking pudding and I wasn’t pleased with the lumpy texture that most participants noted on their comment papers. I guess that’s also just the nature of cook and serve puddings. The puddings were chilled to gelatinous masses that I stirred up before serving.


What was surprising was the majority preference. Upon a raise of hands, only 2 or 3 people preferred P1 (new). The majority preferred P2 (old)!

The two puddings looked and tasted fairly similar. Most comments regarding the texture of both were pretty similar: lumpy, smooth, good texture.  However, I noticed some major trends in comments regarding flavor differences for the puddings. Eleven people made some comment about P1 (new) having a “light,” “weak,” or “mild” flavor. I also got comments like “eggy,” “like flour,” “tastes ‘old,'” and “starchy tasting.” The texture of P1 (new) was lumpy and smooth as noted above, though I did get a couple comments like “more watery” and “not as thick as the second one.” P1 had an average score of 6.4, with the lowest score being a 3 and the highest being 8.75.

On the other hand, nine people made a comment about P2 (old) having a “strong,” “full,” and “great” flavor. One person even said P2 was “awesome.” While P2 had a strong flavor, several participants noted it wasn’t quite a vanilla flavor. Comments such as “not much vanilla flavor compared to P1,” “caramel-y,” “tastes like Nilla wafers,” “almost like tapioca,” and “flavor was different, weak vanilla.” One person said P2 was “more chunky, but definitely better overall.” P2’s average score was 8.2, with the lowest score being a 4 and the highest being a 9.

When preparing this test I had not realized that the newer pudding would have such a weak flavor and that the older pudding would be so strong. I loved the great reveal when I showed everyone the new package and the old can. The looks of surprise on their faces were priceless, especially from those that had attended last week’s taste test that expected the first product to be the old product.

One disclaimer: P1 (new) I had a bit of a hard time getting to cook. The box cooking directions said to “bring to full boil on medium heat, stirring constantly” and I kept waiting for a rolling boil or for the pudding to thicken in the pan like the older one was. I’m concerned I may have cooked it a little too long, hence the lacking flavor. One person even commented that the P1 “tastes like it cooked longer.” Sometime I’d like to try making Cook & Serve pudding again to see if cooking it for a different amount of time or different temperature would affect the flavor. Despite the fact that the new pudding was lacking flavor, I still think it’s surprising that the old pudding had such a strong, potent flavor.


Well, if you were stuck in Grandma Zollinger’s basement during the aforementioned zombie apocalypse, you may not be too pleased with the freeze-dried stroganoff. Luckily for you though you’d find a pleasant, sweet surprise in that old can of pudding mix in the corner of the pantry.

Download The Food Manufacturer’s Complete Guide to Water Activity—>


May 3 / scott.campbell

Can I eat Grandma’s food storage?

One of our former employees, Tyler Zollinger, graduated last December and left us at METER with a few gems from his grandma’s basement. Food storage items that were 20-25 years old (or older) were left with us, including a can of Mountain House brand freeze-dried noodles and stroganoff sauce with beef. Mountain House has been around for 44 years now and makes tons of freeze-dried entrees, breakfasts, desserts, and other items for use when camping, backpacking, and even food storage and emergency preparedness. I’ve had entrees like Lasagna with Beef Sauce and Chicken Teriyaki with Rice while backpacking and it’s actually pretty tasty. Of course those were fairly new packets of food I’d tried. We were dealing with a whole other animal from Grandma Zollinger’s basement.

The Mountain House website claims that their #10 cans of freeze-dried entrees and other foods have a 25 year shelf life because of tests under real world conditions. If an employee of Mountain House will personally test a 35-year old food product and claim that “it still tastes great!”, then trying some of Grandma Zollinger’s old stuff would be fine and safe, right?

Well, it’s not so much a matter that the food is safe, but more a matter that it tastes good. Granted if the product is less aged then it will taste better (unless you like decades-old bottles of wine or really sharp cheese). We wanted to try this out by breaking into this can and taste testing the contents. There’s no date on the can but Scott guessed it’s about 25 years old based on the dates of the other products we have.

25 years old...or older?

25 years old…or older?

We decided to do a taste test comparison by purchasing a brand new packet of freeze-dried Beef Strogranoff with Noodles. Slightly different name, but we assumed they were approximately the same product.

2 products

2 products









Then it was time to open up that old can for the first time in 25 (but maybe more) years. The freeze-dried pieces looked like tiny little rock chips, smelled “old” and stale…and a bit like gardening soil? Or possibly marine life? I also took a picture of what the new stuff looked like (sorry it’s not the best picture of the new stuff, but you get a good idea of what the old pieces looked like). The contents of the new bag smelled a little better and had more of a powdery, soft feel as opposed to the little rock chips in the can.

In-bag/can comparison

In-bag/can comparison

Then it was time to test the water activity of the two samples, the old product dubbed product A and the new product dubbed product B. The results of our tests were somewhat surprising. Product B came in at 0.2168 aw, but Product A came in at the very low aw of 0.0442 aw! Absolutely bone dry! I was able to crumble Product B more than Product A into the sample cup, but I’m not sure it made too much of a difference. Product A was pretty rock hard as it was.

I discussed this excessively low water activity of Product A with Scott. He said that when you freeze dry an item, it should be at a very low water activity like shown. If the product had been hanging out in a sealed #10 can for years with no chance of oxygen intrusion or chance for moisture to migrate into the product, the product could potentially have a water activity that low after all those years. Turns out that held true for this product, even though that low of a water activity reading is still pretty unusual.


Old product (A) on left, new product (B) on right

Then it was time to round up some brave employees for a taste test. I had the chance to use METER’s brand new kitchen to boil some water and hold the experiment…er, taste test. I passed out a paper to each of the 12 participants with instructions to taste each product placed in bowls A and B. They were then to write their thoughts about the product in regards to flavor and texture as well as give the product a rating on a scale from 1 to 10. I also had them indicate which product they tried first.

Dishing out Product A...mmm?

Dishing out Product A

Then the tasting began!

DSC00539 DSC00542 DSC00540

As results and feedback came through, it was very obvious which product was new and which was old. Most people (at least seven out of the twelve) tried Product A first. Six people used the word “bland” to describe Product A, with two people each saying it was “not flavorful” and “tasted like dried food”. As for texture, six people said that Product A’s noodles were mushy or squishy, with other comments like “noodles don’t hold up” and “texture of jello.” The mean score given to Product A was a 5, with the lowest score being a 2 and the highest being an 8.

This was Product A after it cooked. It really didn’t look appetizing…looked more like pig slop than stroganoff…


When describing the flavor of Product B, however, seven people said that Product B was “more flavorful than A” or had “better flavor.” Some said “tasty” and “pleasing” and “more salt content than Product A”. As for texture, Product A was described as “not mushy/squishy” and “creamier.” The mean score for Product B was not surprisingly an 8, with the low score being a 5 and two people even giving it a high score of 10. After everyone had left, I even had some leftover Product B as my afternoon snack because it was that good. From the results I gathered, it was obvious that Product B was much better than Product A.

Product B after it cooked…much better looking. And much more tasty.

Product B...mmm.

Product B…mmm.

As a side note, I may have put a little too much water into both products. However, I found that Product B soaked up the water much better than Product A. Product A had a harder time soaking up the water and was thus left in a pretty sorry, soggy state. Despite this it was still quite obvious that the flavor and texture of B was better than A.

Product A (left) and Product B (right) samples

Product A (left) and Product B (right) samples

We did the taste test yesterday, but while doing some research on the Mountain House website for this post  I figured out how to decipher the stamped date code on the old can. The can was stamped E210, which indicates two things. All products from 1970-1988 were given a letter from A (1970) to U (1988). E was the year given for 1974, and 210 is the Julian date when this product was packaged. So…this product was packaged on July 29th, 1974. This product is 39 years old! No wonder it tasted so bland and looked so gross. My poor fellow employees…so brave… I think they all deserve candy now. Or some other prize of unspeakable value.

While Product A, aka the 39-year-old freeze-dried product, was not the most pleasant thing to eat, it won’t get you sick. The stuff is still quite edible even though it’s not particularly tasty. So the moral of this whole book of a blog post: if it’s the zombie apocalypse and you’re stuck in Grandma Zollinger’s house with only 39-year-old cans of freeze-dried entrees to eat, you’re going to be okay.

Download The Food Manufacturer’s Complete Guide to Water Activity—>

Jan 14 / scott.campbell

Totally Wasted, Dude

Every once in a while, I see a news story that relates to the subject of food preservation that underlies the products we’ve made on this blog.  The latest one: “Up to Half of All Food Wasted“.  This story is based on a report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMECHE).  One visit to their web site showed me that I should’ve been taking this subject more seriously a long time ago.  Which is to say, I had no idea that entire trays of glazed danishes were hanging in the balance.

My first question was why IMECHE was interested in this subject.  The answer came when I read the report: “Controlling and reducing the level of wastage is frequently beyond the capability of the individual farmer, distributor or consumer, since it depends on market philosophies, security of energy supply, quality of roads and the presence of transport hubs.”  Yes, it’s true that engineer job security increases every time the words “inadequate infrastructure” are uttered.  But they may have a point.  As inputs become more dear and energy costs go up, the real cost of wasted food is bound to increase.

How can water activity help?  Well, first, it would help for the concept of water activity to have a high enough profile that IMECHE would see fit to include it in their report.  Sadly, they say only: “Moulds and fungi will quickly affect most foodstuffs if their (insert sound of screeching tires as brakes are applied) moisture content  is too high” (crash).  Technically, it’s true that moisture content affects mold and fungi growth, but only because it’s related to water activity.  Note that 2 silos of wheat that are both at 12% moisture will behave differently if one of those silos was dried down to reach 12%, and the other one was wetted up (the one that was wetted up will mold because its water activity is too high).

To the extent that mold and yeast are problems for stored foods around the world, monitoring water activity can pinpoint when to harvest crops and when to leave them in the field.  It can also predict which piles of grains or other commodities will spoil.  It won’t tell you whether rodents are devouring your stored grain (a problem in many developing countries, says there report) but mold and yeast tend to be bigger problems than mice.  This report is another indication of the importance of water in food, even if they did fumble one or two details.  Please excuse me now while I polish off a plate-sized glazed danish – I’d hate to see it go to waste.

Download The Food Manufacturer’s Complete Guide to Water Activity—>

Jan 3 / scott.campbell


When I wrote the cheese post almost a half year ago, it may have appeared to be the beginning of a glorious new cheese-filled future for  Needless to say, 5 months and zero posts later, any such hopes have been dashed.  The main reason for this is that making cheese is quite a bit harder than I thought it would be.  Making cured sausages isn’t easy, and cheese is more difficult than making sausage.  My first batch devolved from provolone to queso fresco due to a series of small but crucial mistakes.

This is not to say that no cheese was made.  In addition the the accidental queso fresco (which was tossed a couple of hours later) a colleague of mine did  put together a successful batch of provolone that has now been sitting alone in our curing fridge for many months.  Here are some pictures of the actual production of the cheese:




Keeping the milk the proper temperature was the most painstaking part of the process.




Cutting the curds





Stretching the curds









Cheese boules – each about 4 oz.

One reason I picked Provolone is because the stuff from the grocery store is often nothing more than a poor imitation of real Italian provolone (or so I’m told by an Italian friend).  Store-bought has no character or sharpness, but the recipe promised that aging the cheese for 6 months would give it this flavor.  One major mistake committed during the aging process was neglecting the humidity of the fridge.  It often dropped into a region below 10%, which left the cheese as hard as a rock.  Luckily, the inside of the boules is still cheese-like, as opposed to the outside skin, which is injection-molded -plastic-like.   This allowed us to taste the cheese as well as test its water activity.

Here’s what it looked like:








And on the inside:








The interior of the cheese measured about 0.75 aw – really not that low considering how dry the fridge was.  You may recall we were going to test water potential on these cheeses to measure minute changes in their water activity – no need to do that now, as we have little but hardened  chunks of milk and cream.  The exterior of the cheese was not very good – it smelled of baby puke and tasted stale.  The inside (which still smelled of baby puke) was a different story.  After 5 months it had developed a sharpness that was quite pleasing, without any of the staleness of the exterior.  I think it would be wise to declare this initial project “not a total failure”, although at the same time “not remotely close to a success”.  We’ll try again shortly.  I’ve also been wanting to make more of the cured salami and peperone – how soon this can be done remains to be seen.

Download The Food Manufacturer’s Complete Guide to Water Activity—>