The Chef’s Garden vegetables are known to be sweet and flavorful, and, Brix readings play a crucial role in growing vegetables with this amazing flavor.
Cathy Seamans is the go-to person at The Chef’s Garden whenever a Brix reading needs taken and she shares insights from this job, one that she loves. “Picture a kaleidoscope,” she says, “with one end cut at an angle. The prism surface of the device is located at that angle. At the other end is the eye piece, with a long tube in between. That’s an Analog refractometer, the device we use to get Brix readings.”
As crops are growing in the fields, she says, she may be asked to get a reading. “Perhaps the peas aesthetically look ready for harvesting,” Cathy says, “but we need to definitively determine if they really are ready. In that case, I would smash a pea sample using something like a garlic smasher and extract the juices. The liquid goes on the prism piece of the refractometer and light refraction measures the solids dissolved in the solution, which gives us the reading. The more the light bends, the more solids there are, and we use this system to harvest crops when they are at the peak of flavor.”
This technology can also be used to compare one type of pea to another type, such as a new variety from Calvin Lamborn, with sweetness of each compared. “This info can be shared with chefs so they know what to expect with a particular product,” Cathy says.
A Brix reading can also help The Chef’s Garden to assess farming practices, perhaps to study the way the ground was prepared for a particular crop. “We can use it to create timelines for harvesting and to determine if there is a practice that we should change. We can evaluate the nutrient value of a product and so much more.”
Cathy may take a specific pea plant and analyze both the young leaves at the top and the old at the bottom. If readings are different, say high on top and low on the bottom, then a phosphorus issue may need examined. By selecting a smattering of additional pea plants from various places in the field, more intelligence can be gathered and acted upon.
When Cathy analyzes a plant, she sometimes sees haze, rather than straight lines, in her readings. “This,” she says, “is a fabulous indication of shelf life. If a reading is super hazy, that means there is a tremendous amount of calcium in the plant, which is a direct indicator of good shelf life. These plants will last longer and maintain aesthetics, as well.”
Refractometers can easily be compared to thermometers for plants – and here’s an interesting fact about plant health. “Higher sugars,” Cathy says, “are toxic to insects and, if an insect ate a very healthy plant with a high Brix reading, it would die of sugar overload.”
Watch our blog for a post about how Cathy became interested in biology research for The Chef’s Garden!