Baking is Not a Ritual

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.