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Bread Lab: 1922

Bread Lab: 1922

Washington, D.C., circa 1922. "Corby's laboratory." A newspaper ad reveals this to be Mrs. M.M. Brooke, "chemist in charge of the Corby Baking Company laboratory." National Photo Company Collection glass negative. View full size.


Re: Kjeldahl flasks

Kjeldahl flasks ... six-nozzled Bunsen burners ... rubber tubes to draw off the acid fumes...

The wonderful expert knowledge in the comments is but one of the reasons I love Shorpy.

Better Eating Through Chemistry

First off, Dave, thanks for defending the place of chemistry in cooking. Sadly, the importance of chemistry is too often misunderstood.

On the left of the picture are a couple of six-nozzled Bunsen burners, the like of which I'd never seen before. Above them are Kjeldahl flasks, indicating this is where analysis for total nitrogen was being done. Nitrogen content reflects protein content and is important in evaluating nutritional value. I do wish these rigs were in a fume hood, however. The rubber tubing indicates the acid fumes were drawn off by vacuum and trapped in the water in the Erlenmyer flasks.

This method is done more simply these days, but the importance is still the same. The name is the game is still quality control.

Wheat Chemistry

The bench on the left and the center island were taken up with the chemical analysis of protein. On the left, several long-necked Kjeldahl flasks can be seen. Samples of flour or baked bread would be weighed into the flasks and they would be digested with sulfuric acid and hydrogen peroxide. The digestions took place on the 6-position gas burners on the left bench. They have 2 of these, so you could do 12 digestions at one time. Note the vacuum system on top of the flasks to suck off hazardous fumes. The center bench is primarily for distillation of the samples. Once the digestion is complete, they would add concentrated sodium hydroxide, and steam-distill the nitrogen in the form of ammonia into a flask for analysis. The large spherical copper apparatus at the far end of the island is probably a steam generator for the distillations.

These tests are required in order to manage the milling and baking equipment, and chemists are still needed in flour mills and bakeries to oversee the operations of these types of chemical analyses.

Mrs. Brooke, Profit Center

I grew up in the wholesale baking business, and I once worked for the company that Corby eventually became part of, so this brings back memories.

Mrs. Brooke is making sure the bakery got what they paid for from their suppliers. It looks like maybe she's testing a batch of flour for gluten content in the photo, and back in the pre-pure food days making sure you weren't buying watered down milk or a lesser grade of flour would have been a never-ending battle.

It still is, but today a bakery would just Fedex a sample to a testing lab every so often instead of paying for a Mrs. Brooke, but I bet she paid for herself many times over by putting the fear of God into the suppliers.

Of course, even under the best conditions the quality of the ingredients will vary, and it's a constant adjustment process to produce a uniform product. The fact that Corby was doing this back in 1922 is amazing.

Chemist in Charge


Bread Experiment Gone A-Rye

From the splotch on the ceiling it looks like Mrs. Brooke burst a beaker or two in her day.

It is good to know

that the Corby Baking Company did not discriminate against women, and that Mrs. M.M. Brooke was put in such a high position in the company.

Shelf Life Notwithstanding

I would rather see a chef in a baking company than a chemist. Better living through chemistry? I think not.

[That would be baker, not chef. Any baker is a chemist -- baking is all about chemistry. Reactions involving or affecting leavening, yeast, rise times, nutritional content, etc. - Dave]

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