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 doshit 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?
“Look, I’m just saying it’s missing something. I don’t know what, but it needs something else.”
The conversation next to my bench had been going on for close to 20 minutes. Our manager had just tried a spoonful of soup that we were going to selling tomorrow. It was a spicy African Peanut soup- dried ancho peppers had been infusing the pot with a smoky flavor, carried on the fat of the peanut butter and oil the veggies had been fried in. There was a suggestion for salt, but the recipe already had a lot.
Black pepper, sage, garlic, more cayenne, it went round and round. The owner looked over the pot and called me over. “Matt, taste this- what do you think it needs?”
I grabbed a spoon and took a taste. Smoke, peanut, and fried veggies washed over my tongue… but no heat. The heat from the anchos needed something to cut through the fat. “It’s good, but dull… you need some kind of acid in there to carry the heat and brighten it up. Got some lemon juice?”
The hot pepper might give the soup bite, but acid gave it jaws to bite with. When you become a cook, you start learning a different vocabulary for flavor, which is itself the vocabulary of food.
So in addition to being an amazing piano teacher and partner, my wife Emily also tends to act as my editor. She doesn’t just proofread my work, but tests it for readability. IS what I’m writing actually coming across? IS the blog post actually meeting it’s purpose?
Sometimes this comes out by her asking follow-up questions. While she was reading through last week’s post on yeast and fermentation, she got to the part about the different sugars and starches present in wheat.
“Why does the yeast have trouble with starches? “Why isn’t there enough alpha amylase in the wheat, and why does malted grain provide it? “Is this why there are different kinds of flour? What’s the difference between bleached/unbleached/enriched/bread flour/pastry/cake/all purpose? Hey, you should write a blog about that!”
So this week, let’s do a deep dive on the science of flour!
After last weeks post about the basic science of bread, I figured it might be a good idea to keep going on this rudimentary road trip through the land of yeasted loaves and carbs. For this post, and most of the posts coming up, I pulled out one of my old culinary school textbooks as a reference, and the memories came flooding back.
A few years back, Emily and I were checking out a candle shop in Collingswood, NJ. The place (predicatably) smelled almost overpowering. Besides candles there was a lot of incense, Wicca, natural- healing, and- what I have been told is an accepted term- “woo-woo stuff.”
The proprietress was behind the counter, and she asked what we did as she rang up our purchases. I told her I was a baker, and the following exchange happened:
“Oh good! I’ve always wanted to ask a baker this! Okay, so what’s the difference between wheat, yeast, and gluten? Like I’m trying to go gluten free because it’ll help my chakras align, but I’m also vegan and I REALLY like nutritional yeast, so like, is there gluten free yeast? Isn’t yeast alive, so isn’t it actually not vegan? And I was also wondering bzzzzzzzzzzz…..”
To avoid anyone from having to deal with this shenanigans again, and to answer a couple questions that have been pitched to me by other non-baking pros, here’s a Crash Course on Bread.