Baking is Not a Ritual

by Sisi Cheng4 min read25th May 202025 comments

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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.

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The key point is this: The big difference between baking and cooking is that baking involves much more chemistry than cooking, which means that altering the recipe without understanding what you're doing is much more likely to result in failure. (Bad substitutions/ratios in cooking means the result might taste/look a bit strange, but overall it'll likely be fairly close to the original. Bad substitutions/ratios in baking means you probably get a brick / dust / other unidentifiable garbage.)

Thus, if people approach baking like cooking, they probably fail. Repeatedly. Hence the ritual thinking.

Yes, I would say baking is the most complicated form of cooking to understand because it is chemically the most complex.

I think the general point of the OP is you cannot easily violate the ritual (ad lib with the recipe in baking). I suspect most people don't grasp the difference between baking and other cooking (which is also rather chemical reaction driven). I would suggest the different is widths of the error bands. Baking has really narrow bands, other cooking has relatively wide ones.

I think the post gets to a much deeper question. Just when should someone be a ritual follower and when is that not so important. I think part of that answer related to the error band concept. It also related to knowledge of the gears.

The idea of complex interactions + small error bands leading to ritualisation neatly explains why medicine is so ritualised despite its practitioners being among the most educated professionals.

This was new information to me, thanks. 

Thank you for this! Two things that helped me immensely with developing my models of baking were (1) watching a lot of Bake Off, and (2) having to contend with dietary restrictions (I was vegan when I started baking in earnest, and am now gluten-free but not vegan, for complicated reasons). 

For (1): In addition to being both calming and delightful as a thing to watch, I find Bake Off really helpful because the bakers all have really good models of how and why baking works, and they often share them verbally. This, for example, is how I learned that kneading functions to 'develop' the gluten in a dough, and therefore cut it out of any recipe where I wasn't using gluten (although, naive substitution there is basically always doomed anyway), but that's only one among many examples. 

The other really cool thing is that you get to see the bakers make lots of mistakes, for both simple and complex steps. Observing failure modes is great for this kind of model-building, and it's all the better that you don't have to make the mistakes yourself!

For (2): Starting my baking career without eggs helped me get an intuitive feel for what they're used for (and also put me in complete awe of eggs, especially once I started using them). Similarly, cutting out gluten and seeing what happened to my tried and true recipes as a result made me understand what flour does better. Maybe I should have a concept of 'emulsifier', but I've gotten along pretty well with 'binding agent' vs 'raising agent'. (Correct me if I'm wrong but) eggs function as both. 

I never really went for weird ingredients like flax eggs or agar agar, which gave me a great chance to understand more common ingredients better! The trusty binding agents I have on hand if something isn't coming together are xanthan gum (dry) and applesauce (wet), although, I mean, usually you just want to add more of whatever is in the recipe (e.g. flour for dry, eggs for wet). For raising agents, vegan recipes will generally using both baking powder and [baking soda + acid]. Lemon juice and apple cider vinegar work equally well as the acid, although as an edge case you probably wouldn't want to, like, substitute apple cider vinegar for lemon juice in a recipe for lemon muffins.

There are also smaller things like, using almond milk instead of regular milk led me to realize that milk in recipes is almost always(?) more about fullness of flavor than about the fat, so you could really just use water and the recipe would still come out, though it would probably be less rich. Similarly, fats are somewhat interchangeable in many situations (e.g. melted butter vs olive oil in cupcakes probably doesn't make a huge difference) but definitely not all - for doughs in particular, you really want to pay attention to the behavior of the fat at the temperature you're working with, as you mentioned. Normal butter and vegan butter have slightly different melting points, which can affect doughs that you want to be flaky, and vegetable shortening has a higher melting point than either, which makes it good for doughs if you can't be arsed with all that freezing butter stuff. Unfortunately, butter tastes better than everything else.

Finally, since this is just a brain dump at this point, gluten-free all-purpose flour is heavier than normal flour, which makes it slightly harder to make rise. This isn't generally a problem for almost all recipes, but somehow turns into a complete disaster when you're using yeast. I try not to let failure stop me from trying things, but I am completely done with trying to make gluten-free yeasted breads. Even with all the knowledge I'm claiming to have here, I cannot fathom the depths of the disasters that occur in this realm.

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Okay well, that was a lot. Thank you for coming to my TED talk. And remember kids: if a recipe calls for self-rising flour, they're lying to you; just add baking powder and salt to your normal-ass flour and you'll be fine.

I like it. FWIW, I find this is exactly the same line that must be crossed to become an expert at many things. Some examples that come to mind, there are probably more I just don't have enough experience with to be able to be sure they are examples:

  • programming
  • mathematics
  • writing

Things that seem like anti-examples, i.e. things that are not in this category with baking:

  • rock climbing (although there is a lot of skill involved, you don't have to understand the gears to succeed, you can learn to intuitively make efficient motions that move you up without understanding too much about why or how that happens)
  • meditating (although lots of people get into the gears, plenty of people successfully meditate either without a deep understanding of what they're doing or possibly actively mistaken theories that work anyway)

Again, I'm sure there are more, and I think for all of these there's plenty of room to argue on the margins.

If I had to guess at what the divider is it's something like how robust the ontological abstractions around the topic are at levels that matters for the task. The more robust, the less like baking, the more fragile and leaky, the more like baking.

To say a little more, programming is the thing that resonates for me most strongly with the above description of baking as not ritual. I notice it because there are lots of people who learn to program by ritual. They do well enough to get jobs and become my coworkers, but then they also write code full of cruft because they are programming by ritual rather than through deep understanding.

The classic examples of this that come to my mind are things like people thinking the iterator variable on a for loop must be named i or else it won't work, or struggling with sed because they don't realize they can pick the separator character on each invocation, or thinking they need [technology X] because they heard successful businesses use [technology X].

To add to this, I've noticed something that I do when I'm programming is rely on various constructs/built-ins that I have a solid gears-level model of. I often find myself unwilling to use functions/constructions where I don't understand why they do what they do because I'm worried that the code might cause unintended effects that cause bugs, especially since debugging is extremely difficult without gears-level models.

I think the ideal programmer maintains probability distributions over whether or not they understand what various parts of their code is doing. If there is a bug, then they have some weighting over where the bug probably is, enabling faster debugging.

I'm in the midst of a career transition into computational biology. I taught myself coding at a young age and find it intuitive, but I've never worked in a tech job before. This reassured me that if people who don't know that an iterator variable doesn't need to be named "i" to work, that I can get a job in tech too, since I'm at least beyond that. Thanks :)

A'ight. Engaging with the post a bit more than my previous comment (note: haven't yet read the whole thing, just the first half). 

I have some kind of aversive reaction to the claim:

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

I certainly agree that you'll gain a lot of benefits if you approach baking this way. But, like, sometimes I just don't have the time/energy/investment to fully understand a process, and just want a blackbox procedure that mostly works. And, sometimes I try to fudge that procedure and then want to complain about it a bit.

(I think your overall point stands, and in other circumstances I might have been the person arguing that "yeah you really should understand the underlying process here.")

Put another way: insofar as you're defining "Ritual" as "blackbox process you don't really understand", it's probably true for most rituals that you'd be better off if you understood the underlying process. The question is how often it's worth paying the upfront cost. You can't do it for literally every process you use.

I understood "ritual" here as not just a blackbox process, but a blackbox process which has undergone cultural selection - i.e. metic knowledge. If we "treat baking as a ritual" in that sense, it would mean carefully following some procedure acquired from someone else, on the assumption that some parts are really important and we don't have a good way to tell which.

I thought "ritual" was used in a rather dismissive way, like "superstition". In defence of rituals: Cultural evolution is a process that comes up with rituals (like food preparation steps) that actually work. Sometimes for the wrong reason, or they have an important but unacknowledged side-effect.

I highly recommend "The Secret of Our Success" by Joseph Henrich on this topic. It has a story how a complex process of detoxifying manioc was passed down over generations. Apparently if you only cook it you still get chronic poisoning over decades. Ideally you know and understand this. But if not, you better just copy the exact preparation steps from the most healthy and successful community member.

Rituals can be useful even when nobody understands why. For example a community of hunters reading bones like a map to predict their next hunting success. It randomizes the place they are hunting, and prevents them form re-visiting the same spot where they were successful.

Put a little differently, there is a reason why we have Betty Crocker cake mixes and Aunt Jamima or Bisquick pancake mixes for people. It provides a ritual they can blindly follow and get repeatedly good results.

However, it they try deviating from the ritual (the defined recipes on the box) the results will start getting unpredictable with the underlying knowledge. In worst case scenarios (not sure baking gets us there but perhaps) people start thinking the world in that area is just random outcomes or is unpredictable.

I have been baking for a long time, but it took a surprisingly long while to get to this practical "not a ritual" stage. My problem was that I approached it as an academic subject: an expert tells you what you need to know when you ask, and then you try it. But the people around me knew how to bake in a practical, non-theoretical sense. So while my mother would immediately tell me how to fix a too runny batter and the importance of quickly working a pie dough, she could not explain why that worked in terms that I could understand. Much frustration ensued on both sides.

A while ago I came across Harold McGee's "On Food and Cooking" and Jeff Potter's "Cooking for Geeks". These books explained what was going on in a format that made sense to me - starch gelation, protein denaturation, Maillard reactions, and so on - *and* linked it to the language of the kitchen. Suddenly I had freedom to experiment and observe but with the help of a framework of explicit chemistry and physics that helped me organise the observations. There has been a marked improvement in my results (although mother now finds me unbearably weird in the kitchen). It is also fun to share these insights: https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1263895622433869827.html

The lesson of my experience is that sometimes it is important to seek out people who can explain and bootstrap your knowledge by speaking your "language", even if they are not the conveniently close and friendly people around you. When you get non-working explanations they usually do not explain much, and hence just become ritual rules. Figuring out *why* explanations do not work for you is the first step, but then one needs to look around for sources of the right kind of explanations (which in my case took far longer). Of course, if you are not as theoretical explanation-dependent as I am but more of the practical, empirical bent, you can sidestep this issue to a large extent.

Man, I came here much more excited about the prospect for someone making the case "Baking is not a symbolic act that transforms you via meaning you ascribe to it", which, well, sounded (usually) true, but hinted at some kind of very interesting worldview disagreement somewhere.

(This is mostly a joke. Post seems pretty straightforward)

The only thing I want to add is that despite pretenses to sameness it's useful to remember that not all ovens are equal and having a conscious awareness of oven quirks can help a lot to diagnose what went wrong.

Excellent post! I'd love to see more content like this on LW.

In general this is also how I think about baking. One thing I struggle with, though, is understanding the role of ingredients. For example, I've been trying to figure out how to make vegan Choux pastry. When I replaced the eggs with aquafaba, I can get a great foam and it pipes out great. But the eggs also seem to have some kind of structural role, and my dough collapses to a flat sheet on the baking tray. How would you go about figuring out what role eggs play in the recipe?

Are there cookbooks that look at the world this way?

Here is a recipe that might be helpful, as either a ritual approach or by looking at the different ingredients and then at what they might be doing chemically and structurally.

Egg whites are proteins and so are gluten in wheat and both will provide some degree or structural rigidity.

Since we don't know your recipe I would make a rather wild guess that perhaps the use of cream of tartar. This suggests "A pinch of cream of tartar also helps stabilize whipped cream to prevent it from deflating", so perhaps as well as functioning as a leavening agent with the baking soda it is also adding some strength.

Here is one more link. A quick scan of some sections suggests you won't need a chemistry background but it does talk about how the ingredients work at the level. For instance, I never new salt worked to act as a strengthener for gluten during baking.

I did use an acid to stabilize the aquafaba the most recent time I did it, and while I got a better foam it still collapsed in the oven.

That recipe looks similar to what I tried but isn't exactly the same, so I may try it at some point, thanks!

Great post. 

I've seen recipes written in the precise ritualistic format many times, but rarely seen discussions on the chemistry patterns/etc — how do people typically learn the finer points?

I imagine there's some cookbooks / tutorials that go into the deeper mechanics — is it that, or learning from a knowledgeable baker that understands the mechanics, or...?

This is really cool! I've been reading a lot of cookbooks on dessert/watching elementary baking videos for fun lately, and knowing why every ingredient does what it does is extremely interesting as well as useful.

I wonder, if more baking books emphasised all potential spanners in the works early on (climatic factors, different oven temperatures, etc), whether your approach to baking would be more widely adopted? Would a reframed focus on difference, rather than sameness, encourage independent understanding on the part of the cookbook owner?

It would be neat to have a bread baking recipe book (or website) in which each recipe was accompanied by nicely-designed and organized descriptions of the science behind each ingredient and step. Almost always, the filler in recipe books is autobiographical, or describes the dish itself; scientific descriptions are rare.

To me this doesn't seem too far off from the mentality/approach one should take when cooking or when making metaphorical bathtub drugs. Though it's probably in between the two regarding complexity.

The on thing that annoys me about baking as opposed to cooking is that for most of the process you can't taste things and adjust based on that, whereas with cooking there's usually more feedback you can get via constant tasting , which goes a long way especially when your only making the dish for yourself or yourself + people which have culinary preferences well known to you.

On the other hand, isn't it very easy for baking to fall into a taste/health trade-off where the better your pastries the more likely you are to regret eating them 10 years from now ?