Sources of Starch: The starches are valuable and wholesome foods. They form the largest part, both in bulk and in fuel value, of our diet, and have done so ever since man learned how to cultivate the soil and grow crops of grain. The reason is clear: One acre of good land will grow from ten to fifteen times the amount of food in the form of starch in grains or roots, as of meat in the shape of cattle or sheep. Consequently, starch is far cheaper, and this is its great advantage.
Our chief supply of starch is obtained from the seed of certain most useful grasses, which we call wheat, oats, barley, rye, rice, and corn, and from the so-called “roots” of the potato. Potatoes are really underground buds packed with starch, and their proper name is tubers.
Starch, when pure or extracted, is a soft, white powder, which you have often seen as corn starch, or laundry starch. As found in grains, it is mixed with a certain amount of vegetable fibre, covered with husks, or skin, and has the little germ or budlets of the coming plant inside it. It has been manufactured and laid down by little cells inside their own bodies, which make up the grains; so that each particular grain of starch is surrounded by a delicate husk the wall of the cell that made it. This means that grains and other starch foods have to be prepared for eating by grinding and cooking. The grinding crushes the grains into a powder so that the starch can be sifted out from the husks and }coating of the grain, and the fibres which hold it together; and the cooking causes the tiny starch grain to swell and burst the cell wall, or bag, which surrounds it.
Starches as Fuel: The starches contain no nitrogen except a mere trace in the framework of the grains or roots they grow in. They burn very clean; that is, almost the whole of them is turned into carbon dioxide gas and water. This burning quality makes the starches a capital fuel both in the body and out of it. You may have heard of how settlers out on the prairies, who were a long way from a railroad and had no wood or coal, but plenty of corn, would fill their coal scuttles with corn and burn that in their stoves; and a very bright, hot fire it made. One of the chief weaknesses of the starches is that they burn up too fast, so that you get hungry again much more quickly after a meal made entirely upon starchy foods, like bread, crackers, potatoes, or rice, than you do after one which has contained some meat, particularly fat, which burns and digests more slowly.
How Starch is changed into Sugar. As we learned in chapter 2, the starches can be digested only after they are turned into sugars in the body. If you put salt with sugar or starch, although it will mix perfectly and give its taste to the mixture, neither the salt nor the starch nor the sugar will have changed at all, but will remain exactly as it was in the first place, except for being mixed with the other substances. But if you were to pour water containing an acid over the starch, and then boil it for a little time, your starch would entirely disappear, and something quite different take its place. This, when you tasted it, you would find was sweet; and, when the water was boiled off, it would turn out to be a sugar called glucose. Again, if you should pour a strong acid over sawdust, it would “char” it, or change it into another substance, carbon. In both of these cases that of the starch and of the sawdust what we call a chemical change would have taken place between the acid and the starch, and between the strong acid and the sawdust.
If we looked into the matter more closely, we should find that what has happened is that the starch and the sawdust have changed into quite different substances. Starches are insoluble in water; that is, although they can be softened and changed into a jelly-like substance, they cannot be completely melted, or dissolved, like salt or sugar. Sugar, on the other hand, is a perfectly soluble or “meltable” substance, and can soak or penetrate through any membrane or substance in the body. Therefore all the starches which we eat bread, biscuit, potato, etc. have to be acted upon by the ferments of our saliva and our pancreatic juice, and turned into sugar, called glucose, which can be easily poured into the blood and carried wherever it is needed, all over the body. Thus we see what a close relation there is between starch and sugar, and why the group we are studying is sometimes called the starch-sugars.
Wheat our Most Valuable Starch Food: The principal forms in which starch comes upon our tables are meals and flours, and the various breads, cakes, mushes, and puddings made out of these. Far the most valuable and important of all is wheat flour, because this grain contains, as we have seen, not only starch, but a considerable amount of vegetable “meat,” or gluten, which is easily digested in the stomach. This gluten, however, carries with it one disadvantage its stickiness, or gumminess. The dough or paste made by mixing wheat flour with water is heavy and wet, or, as we say, “soggy,” as compared with that made by mixing oatmeal or corn meal or rice flour with water. If it is baked in this form, it makes a well-flavoured, but rather tough, leathery sort of crust; so those races that use no leavening, or rising-stuff, in their wheat bread, roll it out into very thin sheets and bake it on griddles or hot stones.
Most races that have wheat, however, have hit upon a plan for overcoming this heaviness and sogginess, and that is the rather ingenious one of mixing some substance in the dough which will give off bubbles of a gas, carbon dioxide, and cause it to puff up and become spongy and light, or, as we say, “full of air.” This is what gives bread its well-known spongy or porous texture; but the tiny cells and holes in it are filled, not with air, but with carbon dioxide gas.
Making Bread with Yeast: There are several ways of lightening bread with carbon dioxide gas. The oldest and commonest is by mixing in with the flour and water a small amount of the frothy mass made by a germ, or microbe, known as yeast or the yeast plant. Then the dough is set away in a warm place “to rise,” which means that the busy little yeast cells, eagerly attacking the rich supply of starchy food spread before them, and encouraged by the heat and moisture, multiply by millions and billions, and in the process of growing and multiplying, give off, like all other living cells, the gas, carbon dioxid. This bubbles and spreads all through the mass, the dough begins to rise, and finally swells right above the pan or crock in which it was set. If it is allowed to stand and rise too long, it becomes sour, because the yeast plant is forming, at the same time, three other substances—alcohol, lactic acid (which gives an acid taste to the bread), and vinegar. Usually they form in such trifling amounts as to be quite unnoticeable. When the bread has become light enough, it is put into the oven to be baked.
A THOROUGH BAKING, AND A VALUABLE CRUST
Note the cleanly way of handling the food.
The baking serves the double purpose of cooking and thus making the starch appetizing, and of killing the yeast germs so that they will carry their fermentation no further. Bread that has not been thoroughly baked, if it is kept too long, will turn sour, because some of the yeast germs that have escaped will set to work again. That part of the dough that lies on the surface of the loaf, and is exposed to the direct heat of the oven has its starch changed into a substance somewhat like sugar, known as dextrin, which, with the slight burning of the carbon, gives the outside, or crust, of bread its brownish colour, its crispness, and it’s delicious taste. The crust is really the most nourishing part of the loaf, as well as the part that gives best exercise to the teeth.
Making Bread with Soda or Baking-Powders: Another method of giving lightness to bread is by mixing an acid like sour milk and an alkali like soda with the flour, and letting them effervesce and give off carbon dioxide. This is the mixture used in making the famous “soda biscuit.” Still another method is by the use of baking-powders, which are made of a mixture of some cheap and harmless acid powder with an alkaline powder usually some form of soda. As long as these powders are kept dry, they will not act upon each other; but as soon as they are moistened in the dough, they begin to give off carbon dioxide gas.
AN IDEAL BAKERY WITH LIGHT, AIR, AND CLEANLINESS
Neither sour milk and soda nor baking-powder will make as thoroughly light and spongy and digestible bread as will yeast. If, however, baking-powders are made of pure and harmless materials, used in proper proportions so as just to neutralise each other, and thus leave no excess of acid or alkali, and if the bread is baked very thoroughly, they make a wholesome and nutritious bread, which has the advantage of being very quickly and easily made. The chief objection to soda or baking-powder bread is that, being often made in a hurry, the acid and the alkali do not get thoroughly mixed all through the flour, and consequently do not raise or lighten the dough properly, and the loaf or biscuit is likely to be heavy and soggy in the centre. This heavy, soggy stuff can be neither properly chewed in the mouth, nor mixed with the digestive juices, and hence is difficult to digest. If, however, soda biscuits are made thin and baked thoroughly so as to make them at least half or two-thirds crust, they are perfectly digestible and wholesome, and furnish a valuable and appetising variety for our breakfast and supper tables.