Engineering Your Way To Better Sourdough (and Other Fermented Goods)

Trent Fehl is an engineer who has worked for such illustrious outfits as SpaceX and Waymo. When he got into baking, he brought those engineering skills home to solve a classic problem in the kitchen: keeping a sourdough starter within the ideal, somewhat oppressive range of acceptable temperatures needed for successful fermentation.

A sourdough starter is a wad of wild yeasts that you make yourself using flour, water, and patience. It’s good for a lot more than just sourdough bread — you can scoop some out of the jar and use it to make pancakes, waffles, pretzels, and a host of other bread-y delights. A starter is a living thing, a container full of fermentation that eats flour and has specific temperature needs. Opinions differ a bit, but the acceptable temperature range for active growth is about 60 F to 82 F. Too cold, and the starter will go dormant, though it can be revived with a little love. But if the starter gets too hot, all the yeasts and bacteria will die.

While there are of course commercial products out there that attempt to solve this problem of temperature control, most of them seem to be aimed at people who live in some wonderland that never gets warmer than 80F. Most of these devices can’t cool, they only provide heat. But what if you live in a place with seasons where the climate ranges from hot and humid to cold and dry?

The answer lies within Chamber, a temperature-regulated haven Trent created that lets these wild yeasts grow and thrive. It uses a Peltier unit to heat and cool the box as needed to keep the mixture fermenting at 26°C /78.8°F.

Thanks to the Peltier unit, Trent can change the temperature inside the chamber simply by alternating the direction of current flow through the Peltier. He’s doing this with an H-bridge module driven by a Raspberry Pi Zero. When it starts to get too warm in the chamber, the fan on the outside wall vents the heat away. A second fan inside the chamber pulls warm air in when it gets too cold.

Trent says that Chamber performs really well, and he’s recorded temperatures as low as 60F and as high as 82F. He mostly uses it for sourdough, but it could work for other temperature-sensitive food sciences like pickling, growing mushrooms, or making yogurt. We think it could be ideal for fermenting kombucha, too.

Chamber works well enough that Trent has put further development on the back burner while he makes use of it. He does have several ideas for improvements, so if you want to help, check out his website and Github repo.

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Beer Keg Becomes High-Performance Pizza Oven

Pizza varies all around the world, with several cities having put their own mark on the Italian dish. To make an authentic pie in the Neapolitan style requires extremely high temperatures in order to cook the pizza through in just a couple of minutes. Armed with a beer keg and some ingenuity, [AndrewW1977] got down to work, building a rig that could get the job done.

The build starts by cutting the keg in half. A series of zigzag steel pieces are welded inside, in order to give the refractory cement more surface area to stick to. With the cement poured and set, a handle was welded to the keg for ease of use, as well as a thermometer to monitor internal temperatures.

Initial attempts to cook using the rig used a wood-fired rocket stove design. This had the drawback of taking up to 45 minutes to reach the appropriate temperature, so the build then switched to using God’s Gas, clean burning propane, as a fuel source. With a jet-style burner installed in the base, the oven was ready to start turning out pizzas.

The idea of cooking a hot, fresh pizza in just a couple of minutes has us salivating at the possibilities. We’ve seen other high-speed pizza ovens, too. Video after the break.

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Cooking A Turkey With 880 AA Batteries

Cooking a turkey right is serious business this time of year. With major holidays on the line, there’s no room for error – any mistake can leave guests disgruntled and starving. [Stephen Farnsworth] took a risk, though, and attempted to cook a turkey using AA batteries.

The allure of the AA for such a task is precisely because it’s such a poor choice. Designed for portability rather than high power output, it was never designed to be the energy source for a major cooking job. To get things over the line, [Steve] busted out the math to figure out how many batteries would be required. This involved computing cooking efficiencies, battery thermal performance, and the specific heat of the bird itself. With the numbers coming together a 300W slow cooker was put on duty, in order to avoid over-draining the batteries.

With 880 AAs loaded into a custom carrier, [Steve] hooked up the power meter and the cooker and kept a close eye on the temperatures. After a couple of hours, the battery pack started to heat up, so additional cooling was brought in to avoid fire. At just before the six hour mark, the turkey was cooked through and ready to eat. Estimates are that the batteries still had plenty of capacity to keep going for a few hours yet, too.

It’s not a fast or effective way to cook a turkey, but it’s certainly achievable. We fully expect [Steve] to submit the coin-cell turkey cook-off next year, too. Remember, a little engineering always helps, especially in the kitchen. Video after the break.

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Open Source Smart Smoker Brings The Heat (Slowly)

Conceptually, cooking on a grill is simple enough: just crank up the flames and leave the food on long enough for it to cook through, but not so long that it turns into an inedible ember. But when smoking, the goal is actually to prevent flames entirely; the food is cooked by the circulation of hot gasses generated by smoldering wood. If you want a well-cooked and flavorful meal, you’ll need the patience and dedication to manually keep the fuel and air balanced inside the smoker for hours on end.

Or in the case of the Smokey Mc Smokerson, you just let the electronics handle all the hard stuff while you go watch TV. Powered by the Raspberry Pi Zero and a custom control board, this open source smoker offers high-end capabilities on a DIY budget. Granted you’ll still need to add the fuel of your choice the old fashioned way, but with automatic air flow control and temperature monitoring, it greatly reduces the amount of fiddly work required to get that perfect smoke.

[HackersHub] has been working on Smokey Mc Smokerson for a few months now, and are getting very close to building the first complete prototype. The initial version of the software is complete, and the classy black PCBs have recently arrived. Some simulations have been performed to get an idea of how the smoke will circulate inside of the smoker itself, built from a 55 gallon drum, but technically the controller is a stand-alone device. If you’re willing to makes the tweaks necessary, the controller could certainly be retrofitted to  commercially available smoker instead.

Ultimately, this project boils down to tossing a bunch of temperature sensors at the problem. The software developed by [HackersHub] takes the data collected by the five MAX6675 thermocouples and uses it to determine when to inject more air into the chamber using a PWM-controlled fan at the bottom of the smoker. As an added bonus, all those temperature sensors give the user plenty of pretty data points to look at in the companion smartphone application.

We’ve actually seen a fair number of technologically-augmented grills over the years. From this automotive-inspired “turbocharged” beast to a robotic steak flipper built out of PVC pipes, we can confidently say that not all hackers are living on a diet of microwaved ramen.

Perfect Cheese Every Time With This Temperature Controller

Anyone who is from a background in which cheesemaking is a feature will tell you that it is an exact science in which small differences in parameters can make a huge difference in the resulting cheese, to the extent that entire batches can be rendered inedible. In particular the temperature at which the milk is held can be crucial to the production of individual styles of cheese. A friend of [William Dudley]’s had this problem, as a dairy farmer and artisinal cheesemaker they had to carefully control their vat with a set of profiles depending upon the recipe in use. This was achieved using an Arduino Mega 2650 and a thermocouple to control the heat source for the hot water in the outer wall of the vat.

A cheap K-type thermocouple amplifier proved unsatisfactory, so a Sparkfun item was substituted. A relay, Ethernet adaptor, and LCD display provided power control, access to a web interface, and user feedback respectively. Four buttons to select programs were added, and the whole was neatly boxed up to survive the dairy and put to work. In tests with a saucepan it was configured as a PID controller, but the real vat proved to have a much greater thermal inertia so a simpler bang-bang home thermostat style approach was used. Temperatures are logged in an eeprom for later retrieval via the web interface.

We don’t see the cheeses produced, but we’re sure they must be worth the effort. Blessed may be the cheesemakers, but doubly blessed are they who have a little help from an Arduino.

UbaBOT Mixes Up 50 Cocktails To Quench CCCamp Thirst

[Steffen Pfiffner’s] tent during the Chaos Communication Camp is full of happiness delivered by something greater than alcohol alone. He’s brought a robot bartender that serves up a show while mixing up one of about 50 cocktail recipes.

The project is the work of five friends from Lake Constance (Bodensee) in southern Germany, near the borders with Switzerland and Austria. It started, as many projects do, with some late night drinking. The five were toiling to mix beverages more complex than your most common fare, and decided to turn their labors instead to robot making.

Since 2012, the project has gone through five revisions, the most recent of which the team calls Uba BOT. Delightfully, the cup tray which moves left and right on the front of the machine is connected using a strain gauge. This provides a way for the robot to sense the presence of a cup to avoid dispensing ingredients all over the bar itself. It also provides a feedback loop that verifies the amount of liquids and volume of ice added to the cup. Once everything’s in the cup, a rotary milk frother lowers itself into position to stir things up a bit.

A Raspberry Pi is in control of eighteen pumps that dispense both liquor and mixers. The team is still trying to work out a way to reliably dispense carbonated mixers, which so far have been a challenge due to over-excited foam. The software was originally based on Bartendro, but has since taken on a life of its own as these things often do. The first time you want a drink, you register an RFID tag and record your height, weight, and age which keeps track of your estimated blood alcohol content based on time and your number of visits to the robot. The firmware also tracks the state of each ingredient to alert a meat-based bar attendant of when a bottle needs replacing.

Join us after the break to see an explanation of what’s under the hood and to watch Uba BOT mix up a Mai Tai.

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Preserved Lemons On A Hacker’s Budget

“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” [Carl Sagan]. If you wish to make preserved lemons the same way as [Uri Tuchman], you have to start with that mentality. Video also below. The recipe for [Uri]’s preserved lemons involves two ingredients see sea salt, and sliced lemons, but we don’t expect you came here looking for a recipe and the food is less important than the journey.

Recipes take for granted that we have all the necessary utensils on hand, but what if you are missing one? What if you are missing all of them? Life’s lemons won’t get the best of us, and if we’re utensil-poor and tool-rich we will make those lemons regret trying to take a bite out of us. The first fixture for cutting lemons is a cutting board, then a knife, and finally an airtight container. We see him make all of them from stock material by hand. Does that seem like a lot of work? You forgot that if you’re going to eat up, you’ll need a serving platter and fork. If he ever opens a restaurant, don’t expect it to be fast food.

Maybe humans will only need one tool in the kitchen someday but at least one cat receives food from a single silicone-brained tool.

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