116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Before the pandemic, food science was the hot topic. Driven by popular TV shows and the endless quest for novelty, chefs were obsessed with bait and switch. Trying to gel a mango puree so that it looked like an egg yolk. Cut into it with a fork and it runs like a sunny side up. But put it in your mouth, and surprise! Mango.
There was another side to the new interest in food science. One that resonated with me more than making something behave against it's base nature. The other side of food science was precision.
I was a pasta guy for years. Pastaio is the proper job title. I made fresh pasta, from scratch, for a living. It's an odd duck as far as cooking jobs go. It falls under the same umbrella as bread bakers and pastry chefs. There's a lot of science happening, a lot of traditions and a lot of superstition. It was my job to sort through that mess and find out how to make it work. Here.
That was an eye opener, for me. It's one thing to say, 'How does it work?” It's another thing to say, 'How do we make it work, here, now, this time?” The 'here” part is the key to solving that puzzle. Pure science is one thing, but applied science to your particular situation is something else entirely.
Bakers have the benefit of the French tradition. Everyone knows the French chef trope: 'I cannot work under these conditions” in a crummy accent. Part of that is true. The French chef traditions and schooling methods are notoriously unforgiving. You must not veer from the path. You must make your pastry with an oak rolling pin on a marble slab cooled to 34 degrees. And so on. That's fine and well, until the temperature changes or a storm rolls in on the horizon.
The real virtue of a baker is that they know how to roll with the punches. You've done it so many times that you kind of feel like: today, this dough doesn't need as much water. It's very hard to describe in words. It's a touch thing. To get a feel for it, you need to touch it enough times to remember how it feels.
I'm getting sidetracked. This is about spaetzle. The German dumplings that are not quite a dumpling and not quite a pasta. Somewhere in-between. So I dug up my old recipe from when I used to be chef at Sauce, and it was a percentage recipe. A decimal ratio, written in grams. I know it's a solid recipe because it always worked. But then I hit the problem of 'how do I translate this to someone cooking for their family at home?” Well, there's the rub.
I ended up calling some friends, to see how they dealt with that. Taylor Friese is an extra ordinary baker who teaches classes these days. She uses 'baker's percentages,” meaning that her recipes call for x grams of flour, and then x percent of that weight in butter, water and salt.
Steven Prochaska from Anvil Meat Market uses gram weights for all his ingredients because it's easy to multiply up or down, depending on batch sizes.
I used to work for Mike Phillips of Red Table Meat Co. in Minneapolis. He was born and raised in Cedar Rapids, and we became friends in Minneapolis. After chef life, he started a dry-cured charcuterie business. He said he has to use percentages of the meat weight to factor his spices and nitrates in his salumi. It's regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture. There has to be a precise percentage of preservatives to the meat weight.
We are aware of this science now, of percentages and mass weight, but haven't completely mastered it. So how did we get here? In my conversation with Taylor, we talked about how hard it is to describe touch. A good recipe has targets. 'Bake until crispy” is an easy target to describe. Some targets are harder to share. I once saw 'heat until it is the temperature of warm blood,” and 'it should be as pliable as your earlobe” as recipe targets. Aside from the yuk factor, it's just hard to write that in a meaningful way. This is how we came into grams and percentages as bakers - a desperate attempt to communicate the inexplicable.
How did we do this before all that numeric calculator nonsense? The answer is surprisingly simple. We apprenticed. Learned from a mentor, and made a lot of mistakes on the way. In the best instances, we had someone to show us why things went sideways. Maybe even how to fix it.
So, back to spaetzle. It's an old German staple. As common as bread and butter. Reading classic recipes for spaetzle, something you see a lot is 'stir it with a wooden spoon 200 times.” Why the wooden spoon? Because the batter can be pretty stiff, and a metal or plastic spoon will bend or break. And yeah, 200 times is a lot. But that's a simple way to communicate that the batter needs to be thoroughly mixed.
I made at lot of spaetzle at Sauce, and I found a neat workaround based on simple science. I would lightly mix the dough, then stick it in a plastic bag and then vacuum seal it. The vacuum pressure would force-hydrate the batter. This made the process ideal when making a big enough batch to feed 50 people a night.
This recipe is going to compare and contrast techniques. One science based, one traditional.
Chef Tibbs, also known as Joshua 'Tibbs” Tibbetts, is a Cedar Rapids native who has been a professional chef for about 30 years.
Serves 4 as an entree pasta or starch side dish. Serves 8 as a bolster in soup.
3 eggs (170 grams)
1/3 cup whole milk (85 grams), plus more to adjust batter if necessary
2 cups all-purpose flour (256 grams)
1 1/2 teaspoons (7.6 grams) salt
1 teaspoon (4 grams) nutmeg
Cooking oil, any style you like, to toss cooked spaetzle in after it is cooked
Spaetzle press (sometimes 1/2 called a potato ricer), or a colander with large holes
Wooden spoon with a heavy handle
Vacuum sealer (optional)
Slotted spoon or skimmer
Ladle (if using colander)
Whisk the eggs and milk together until smooth.
Put flour and salt in a mixing bowl and make a well in the center.
Add eggs and milk to the well and stir with heavy wooden spoon.
If you are using the colander, go ahead and add an extra half cup of milk. The stiff batter can be hard to push through the colander. There are no problems with the press, it gives you some leverage to squeeze it out.
Stir in a sweeping round motion 50 times. Count out the rotations in your head. The batter should be like a thick, stiff pancake batter. It can take a toll on your arm, so take breaks if you need to.
If you have a vacuum sealer, this is when you would put it in the bag and vac seal it. You lucky folks aren't going to need to stir it any more.
If you are going old school, then stir it 50 more times. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place it in the fridge. It needs to rest for at least an hour to get that flour fully hydrated. It can rest for up to a full day, but needs at minimum one hour.
Take the bowl back out of the fridge. Stir it 100 more times.
If you are using a colander instead of the press/ricer, find a stockpot that your colander rests neatly on top of. Fill it with enough water so that the water level is about an inch lower than the bottom of the colander. Toss some salt in that water. Bring the water to a simmer.
If you are using a spaetzle press or a ricer, fill a gallon stockpot almost to the top with water and a bit of salt. Bring the water to a simmer.
While the water is coming up to temperature, prepare your cooking area. You're going to want the baking sheet, cooking oil and slotted spoon on one side of the water. The other side will have your batter, skewer, and the colander or press will be sitting on that plate. Colanders especially can get pretty messy, so we want that plate to catch any batter that might drip off.
For the colander: when the water comes to a boil, scoop a cup or two of batter into the colander and nest it over the stockpot. Push batter through the holes with the big wooden spoon. Lift up the colander with one hand and scrape any sticky batter off the bottom with your skewer. Spoon, colander and skewer go back to the plate. If your batter is too stiff to push through the colander, thin it down with a little milk.
For the press: fill up the chamber with batter, squeeze it over the water and swipe it clean with the skewer. Pressed spaetzle tends to be long and stringy, like a coarse noodle. You can cut them into smaller chunks later after they've cooled.
Keep an eye on your spaetzle while they cook. When they float to the surface, let the water come back to a simmer. Then let it cook for another minute and a half.
Skim the cooked spaetzle out. Let the excess water drain off then toss them on the baking sheet with a little oil.
Repeat the process until you have cooked all of your batter.
Your spaetzle is ready to go at this point. It can go in the fridge now, on that baking sheet. Once cool, you can transfer to a plastic bag or container; it should keep for several days in the fridge.
Spaetzle can be added to a soup as-is, as in chicken spaetzle soup. Add them at the very end, since they are already cooked through. Or they can be treated like a pasta. Heat a cast iron skillet on medium heat, melt some butter and fry them up until golden brown.
Some of my favorite spaetzle preparations are pan fried. Just add some cooked chicken, bacon or pork, frozen green peas or fresh green beans. Mustard greens, kale or chard go really well. Toss it in some creme fraiche and a little braised garlic. Definitely add some fresh parsley or dill. Shred some nice Swiss or Parmesan on top.
Have fun with it, play around. Spaetzle is pretty versatile. It's a bit of work to make it, but it's real fast to whip up a dish once you've got some fresh cooked spaetzle in your fridge.
Source: Joshua Tibbetts