Baking Like A (Mad) Scientist

     Good evening, friends and neighbors! I hope everyone’s spring is going well, and you’re enjoying the warmer weather! 

        Last entry, I talked about how baking was similar to alchemy- a mix of science, art, and magic. Tonight, I’m going to focus on the science part, and specifically how to develop a recipe, tweak a recipe, take notes, keep track of changes, and generally turn your kitchen into a laboratory- just because you don’t have bubbling beakers and Bunsen burners doesn’t mean you can’t do science with an oven and and stand mixer!

     To start with, we go back to basics. A long time back, I told you what the most useful and important tool you can have in a kitchen, baking or otherwise. Remember what it is? Here’s a hint: 


     Yes, the humble notebook. Pocket size, composition book, binder, whatever you like. Something with blank pages eager to be filled, and a thing to write with. You will be writing down EVERYTHING: Temperatures, procedures, ingredient amounts, ingredient forms and types, scalings and calculations, ALL OF IT. When you want to keep track of all the changes you will be making, having a hard record is vital. 

      Got a notebook? Good. Then we can begin.

All of culinary arts involve some kind of scientific knowledge and method. A fry cook needs to understand how proteins behave with heat so he can grill a steak. 
In baking, the name of the game is chemistry- your goal is to arrange ingredients in such a way that, with heat applied over time, you get accurate replicable results- meaning, if you hand your recipe over to someone else, ideally, your two products should be identical.  

The BHB’s Guide To Scientific Baking 

  • Keep the original recipe 

             “Hmmm.. what kind of flour did this recipe have in it to start with? How many eggs? Grr.. where did I put that recipe?” Keep yourself organized. Everytime you make a change, attach it somehow to the original, but KEEP THE ORIGINAL INTACT.

  • Work in ONE unit of measure whenever possible. 

             Home recipes out of cookbooks (at least in the US) tend to go off volume (cups, teaspoons, etc.) There are numerous problems with this- a cup could be a level cup, a heaping cup, a scant cup, a packed cup, etc. Professional bakers tend to use “formulas” rather than recipes, and almost all ingredients go by weight, rather than volume (i.e. a pound of flour rather than 2 cups flour) It increases the reliability and replicability of your work. ALWAYS work in the same measuring system- there is no percentage in bouncing between metric and imperial in a recipe.

  • Leave space for random notes in your book. 

             Did a little something different that time? Want to remind yourself of something in the future? A garnish? A flavoring? Keep notes.

  • Document from ALL 5 SENSES. 

            Your senses are the most basic and finest scientific apparatus you have. Did your cookies taste too sweet? Have a weird smell? Crumbly texture when you want chewy? Don’t JUST rely on numbers. Keep notes on EVERY thing related to your product- what you want to change, what you want to keep the same, and how.

  • Quantify as much as possible. 

            Yes, I know I just told you not to rely strictly on numbers. They DO, however, help create exactitude. How many times did you fold the batter? How long did you let it sit after baking? Remember- the goal of a good recipe is to give you the SAME PRODUCT, regardless of when it’s made or who makes it. No flukes- if you got lucky, keep good notes so yo can get that lucky AGAIN.

  • Mess up your cookbooks. 

            You know how your folks told you never to draw or write in books? Screw that. Cookbooks are meant for the kitchen- they are SUPPOSED to be scrawled in and messed up with notes, calculations, and food stains.

  • Scale into a separate column– NOT IN YOUR HEAD.
    At the moment, I do not care to say how many recipes I’ve botched because I was clever/ in a hurry and tried to scale up or down a recipe in my head, only to get confused and ruin everything. Keep separate columns on your recipes for multiplying or dividing batches. 
  • Keep track of variations, and note changes between. 
    You just finished a new batch of a recipe you’ve been tweaking. You’ve been working at it for months now- this batch though is missing something you liked from the one before.  Keep track of all the variations of recipes, and mark down every change between them so you don’t get yourself lost.
  • Get and value feedback

          This one is incredibly important. You are naturally going to be biased toward your creations, so you need to get honest feedback from people.  BE OBJECTIVE. Don’t take anything to heart. Learn especially to tell the difference between constructive and destructive criticism- and do not deal with anyone that gives you destructive criticism. 

Tomorrow, I’ll get into baker’s percentages, and give you the development sheets I use for hashing out new products. In the meantime,

Stay Classy,