A Baking Myth

17Jul09

Many people have given up baking from scratch at home. They use the premade cookie dough, premade pie crust, boxed cake mixes, etc. They have gotten scared from doing it themselves because they have heard that everything needs to be precise. You’ll hear many cookbooks tell you how IMPORTANT precise measuring is when it comes to baking because of all the CHEMISTRY going on. “Oh, no, you CAN’T use measuring cups, you have to do everything by WEIGHT and you shouldn’t use just ANY scale, it should be digital and measure down to the nano-gram (you DID know it had to be METRIC didn’t you?).”

In reality, there is a fair amount of leeway available in any given recipe. As evidence, pull out two or three random cookbooks and look at a recipe for Chocolate Chip Cookies. While they all will have a similar list of ingredients, odds are they are not exactly the same. They will all have slightly differing amounts of each ingredient each of which will make slight changes in the result. They probably even have different baking temperatures and times. One cookie will be a little sweeter, the next might be a little more cake-like, and the other might stay soft longer. The most important reason for the precise measurement is to achieve a perfectly consistent result—and even that isn’t guaranteed. Your dough might be warmer today because it’s June instead of January, it could be a little more humid because it’s raining outside for the last week, or you’ve been baking lots of cookies today and the cookie sheet is still a little warm from the last batch to come out of the oven. I’ve heard that avid bread bakers will actually get more rise out of their bread over time because of yeast particles floating around the air in the kitchen. A great pastry chef (no, I don’t claim to be one myself) knows this: they can feel the air in the kitchen or see little cues as they go and know they have to tweak the recipe this way and that to get the same end product they got yesterday. The important thing to know is what each of these variables will do to your finished product. Another good example: look at any baking mix product in your cupboard. A lot of them have “High altitude directions”. Of course that’s because there are atmospheric differences between say Denver and New Orleans. They’re usually for altitudes of 3500 to 6000 feet. But how much difference can there be from 3200 to 3500 feet? Why isn’t it actually a sliding scale? “Add ¼ teaspoon flour, increase baking temperature by five degrees and increase baking time by 1 minute for every 750 feet elevation above sea level.” Who is getting the “perfect” recipe?

I learned recipe flexibility kind of early in life. When I was taking a Home Economics class in Junior High (officially titled Foods I, cleverly followed by Foods II and Foods III) one of the first things we made was Chocolate Chip Cookies. Of course, with a class of 25 or so and only 6 kitchen stations we had to work in groups. We had gotten the lecture about being very careful measuring everything and one of our grading criteria was how the final product came out. Of course the teacher knew the recipe like the back of her hand. We’re all working at getting everything measured out (the whole group is working at it as fast as we can) and we get to the vanilla. The kid with the vanilla measured out comes over to the bowl and dumps it in at the same time as a couple of us realize that he has out a Tablespoon when the recipe called for a Teaspoon. There was a panicked “No WAIT!” but it was too late. It was in the bowl. We all kind of looked at each other and wondered—Do we admit the mistake and start over (and possibly not have time to finish) or do we just push onwards. I think I might have been the first to say “Let’s just deal with it.” Later the cookies come out of the oven and the teacher checks them all. She gives out the grading sheets—PERFECT SCORE! With an incorrect ingredient we got the only perfect score in the class. Ever since then I’ve tripled the vanilla in EVERY Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe I’ve ever made—and now I even use Double-Strength!

Now I’ve developed a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants style of cooking. If I haven’t ever made something before I’ll pull out a few of my cookbooks to find a recipe, search online for one, or both. I look them all over and make note of the similarities and the differences. I’ll have one of the recipes on the counter, but as I go I’m making little tweaks here and there based on the other recipes I’ve looked at and then some more based on just knowing what it’s likely to do. I don’t think I’ve followed a recipe to the letter more than once in years—I’ve got some recipes that I’ve written myself and I don’t even follow those precisely. Baking can be such fun if people can just relax and let it be.

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One Response to “A Baking Myth”

  1. 1 Bruce

    I hardily endorse your recipe suspicions for three reasons: 1) Tastes are different. I like salt, a friend’s dad has high blood pressure. She grew up with extremely low salt content and is now acutely aware of salt content. 2) Ingredients are different. Especially in baking, the precise protein content of the flour changes the degree it absorbs moisture which will change the crumb immensely. Reactivity of leavening can be a wildcard too. 3) Recipes are often not tested as well as you might imagine. I like to pick on Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day . A book with about 225 pages and more than 20 errata (http://www.artisanbreadinfive.com/?page_id=73).

    Good post.


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