I started baking about 2 years ago. Since I became a frequent supplier of baked goods in the office, a lot of people have come to me for baking advice. I’ve noticed a trend of comments about baking that all share a common root cause.
See if you can spot the common failure mode that led to these very-paraphrased comments:
- “Baking is too precise for me. I want to bake without following recipes exactly, but I feel like I can’t improvise.”
- “I tried making this. I left out ingredient Y because I didn’t have it and the recipe only needed a little bit of it. Why didn’t it work out?”
- “I tried doing step X for exactly N minutes this time and that worked well. Oh, you’re saying that duration doesn’t matter? Well, it worked for me so I think I’ll just keep doing it just in case.”
- “I always have to repeat a new recipe a bunch before I stop ruining it every other time.”
The misconception that leads to these comments is treating a baking recipe like a ritual and blindly following it, without attempting to understand the baking process at a gears-level.
Many people seem to approach baking like it is a ritual, where one follows a recipe exactly and some magic happens to produce the baked goods. Things will go mysteriously wrong if you stirred the cauldron counter-clockwise or added the water too early. In reality, baking is combining and heating up a series of ingredients so they undergo physical and chemical reactions to achieve certain texture and taste. There are underlying principles that govern the process of baking and the results.
Looking at a recipe and following the steps works fine a lot of the time, if a recipe is good and has the right details. However, if one treats the baking process as a black box ritual, without understanding the underlying mechanisms, one can run into troubles, such as:
- Unable to improvise or change a recipe
- Not knowing which parts of the recipe matter, i.e. have a strong effect on the end-results. Some people end up compensating for this by just trying to do everything super precisely, even when some of the steps don't make any difference.
- Unable to react when something goes wrong, like a missing ingredient, or a mistake in an earlier step.
The right way to approach baking is to realize it is not a ritual. Instead, try to understand the principles of how baking works, to understand why an ingredient is in the recipe, and why a particular step is needed. Some examples of gears-level principles are:
- Acidity interacts with baking soda to create bubbles, so don’t leave out lemon juice in a recipe that calls for baking soda
- Kneading a wheat dough folds and so strengthens the gluten, which makes the end product more chewy, which is commonly desirable in bread but not in cakes or biscuits
- Eggs acts as an emulsifier to help combine water and oil ingredients. Don’t skip it in recipes where an emulsifier is needed, but they’re optional in recipes that don’t need an emulsifier.
- A wetter dough rises more, so add more liquid ingredients if you want a fluffier result, and less if you prefer a denser version.
Understanding these underlying principles can make recipes flexible. One can easily make tweaks if one knows why each ingredient is needed and how it affects the final result. For instance, this apple bread is one of my staple recipes. I once baked it while I was short one egg, but I knew it was not a key ingredient in this recipe (i.e. it did not act as an emulsifier), so I compensated by adding some extra butter and some yogurt to make up for the missing egg’s fat and liquid content - it turned out just fine. I’ve also adapted this recipe to use cherries instead of apples, because I know the fruit part can be fully swapped out.
Cherry bread adapted from an apple bread recipe
Understanding the baking process also means knowing which steps of the process is important, and which are not. This lets one focus on key parts, but be “lazier” with parts that either do not matter or can be easily adjusted later. For instance, the exact amount of vanilla extract doesn’t make a difference in my recipe above, so instead of dirtying yet another spoon to measure exactly ¼ teaspoon of vanilla extract, I just give the bottle a squirt and call it a day. Another example, I know that additional flour can be easily added when kneading a yeast dough, so while many people swear by precisely measuring flour by weight, I can be lazy and approximate when measuring out flour by erring on the side of adding less to start, then sprinkle in more as needed.
Yeast bread, after kneading and the final product
On the other hand, mixing in cold, pea-sized butter is important for achieving the flaky crumbly texture of biscuits, so even though it’s more work, I grate my butter and take care to keep it cold throughout, sometimes even running my hands under freezing water before working with the biscuit dough.
Cold, pea-sized chunks of butter in the dough is crucial to making biscuits flaky and crumbly, so don’t take the easy way out by melting the butter or substituting with canola or olive oil.
Understanding the baking process can help one understand new recipes, because many recipes share the same underlying principles. If it’s a recipe for something similar to baked goods I’m familiar with, I can often evaluate it at a glance and draw conclusions like “oh this step is probably unnecessary” or “I don’t have X but I can substitute with Y”. My friends find it helpful to run a new recipe by me before they begin, as I can often highlight key steps to them and give advice even if I’ve never used that recipe.
Realizing that baking is not a ritual and that there are underlying principles is often sufficient for people to seek out these principles and improve. One additional tip is, when learning to make something completely new, don’t try to perfectly follow one recipe. Instead, look at multiple recipes for the same item. Many recipes on the internet are accompanied by blog posts and comments. These often contain tips and advice at the gears-level and give insights into why a certain amount of an ingredient is needed, and how a certain step would affect the outcome. Paying attention to not only the recipe but also reading through these advice when learning to bake something new allows one to have a much greater success rate, even on the very first attempt.
I was challenged to attempt a souffle. Not perfect, but it did rise on my first try after I researched extensively on how beating and folding in the egg whites makes the souffle airy.
In conclusion, many people I talked to seem to believe baking is a ritual, where you have to follow recipes exactly to be successful. They never open the blackbox and therefore lack the understanding of baking at a gears-level. When one grasps that baking is not a ritual and learns the principles behind the ingredients and the steps in baking, one can easily make adjustments, adapt recipes, and be more successful.