There are two common responses I get from career cooks when I start talking about baking. It’s either “Bakers are fucking useless and can’t do shit without a recipe book in front of them” or “Bakers are mad scientists and just the idea of baking terrifies me. It’s so precise that anything could fuck anything up.”
They are both right and both wrong because cooking and baking require different mindsets. Being able to do both is not just a matter of skill, it’s a matter of being able to switch between two different sets of priorities and relationships with time. As for “always needing a recipe book…” I humbly suggest that baking recipes can be done on the fly if you know which rules to follow and which to break. Once you know the right ratios, you can whip up a dough, bread, or filling from memory, but I’ll thank you not to disrespect our sacred grimoires, thank you.
Talk of wizardry and alchemy aside, though, what makes baking so scary?
1. “It’s So Complex!”
Yes and no.
There’s a difference between complex and involved.
Baking is chemistry. You are manipulating, creating, and staging chemical reactions to reach a desired result. This happens in cooking too- the key difference however is that the cook has more opportunities to change, interrupt, or divert reactions than the baker does simply because the majority of the baker’s work won’t be evident until the food comes out of the oven.
The same things that affect baking recipes can affect cooking recipes– too much heat or not enough, too much stirring or not enough, too much resting time or not enough. The real difference is only in what you can do to “correct” an error. You can pour more sauce on an over/undercooked dish- you can’t do that with an over-mixed cake or shitty pie filling.
2. “It’s So Precise!”
Again, yes and no. Cooking and Baking adhere to the same chemistry and physics rules. You just need to know what rules you can bend- and how far before they break.
I am definitely a pie guy, but I still love the quiet patience and skill needed to make a good bread. Breads are definitely not my forte, but I churn out a good loaf for my house more often than not. Imagine my surprise then when a colleague of mine- in casual conversation about her work at a bagel shop- revealed that they have to double the amount of yeast in their cinnamon raisin dough because, at a certain saturation, cinnamon has antiseptic properties that kill yeast.
It’s moments like that that make me realize that my old adage of “add what you want, just don’t fuck with the chemistry” has limits. A little cinnamon into that loaf of sandwich bread you’re working on might change how much of a proof you get. Whole wheat flour necessarily needs to be cut with some plain flour because the addition bran fibers can literally cut gluten bonds, making the bread crumbly.
Can you play fast and loose with a baking formula? Yes- but only if you know what everything is doing and what it might do if you add a new ingredient in. In truth, that’s the same as cooking too- cooking just tends to happen fast enough that one doesn’t always need to think about it and again, there are more opportunities to fix it.
3. “I Suck At Math!”
Ok, this is some bullshit. What’s more concerning is that I have heard it from nurses, chemists, and bartenders. Two of those fields, I gotta wonder what their CVs look like if they are responsible for figuring out dosages and formulas*, and for bartenders I KNOW they know ratios. “Two parts blah blah, one part bloo bloo, dash of la dee da…”- that sort of thing.
Here’s the thing- calculators exist. By nature of their fomulaic recipes, baking recipes are scalable. Want two dozen cupcakes but the recipe makes one dozen? Multiply everything by two. Use a calculator if you need to and write it down. If the recipe is a good one- checked and tested by the creators- you will wind up with two dozen cupcakes. Remember, this is alchemy. As the Elric Brothers taught us, the law of Equivalent Exchange is in effect.
What do you think? If you are nervous about baking, what throws you off about it? What advice would you give to new bakers that are afraid of screwing it up? Drop it in the comments and let’s help each other out!