Jul 8, 2013

Baking by the Numbers

I learned how to bake when I was little. In my "Tweens" (before that was even a demographic), I spent a couple of years baking bread for Christmas presents. I even came up with a vile concoction as part of a fifth grade marketing project. It was a soft pretzel stuffed with toothpaste, with the idea of having your breakfast and brushing your teeth at the same time. There may be a very good reason why it didn't catch on.

After college I spent many years doing very little cooking. In Japan, even when you could find ingredients, having access to recipes (especially in English) was even more of a challenge. When I moved to Hawaii, I ran into a completely different problem. The humidity made most recipes impossible. I once tried making naan, and finally ended up with about twice the flour, just to make it kneadable.  And by that point, the flavor was awful.

I got back into baking in earnest when I moved back to Boston. So it has only been over the past few years that I've come to appreciate a well written cookbook. Over that time, I have come to one conclusion. All baking books should be written by scientists. Baking is the tastiest kind of chemistry, and relies on precise ratios to be successful.

My first experience with this came from Joanne Chang's book Flour. I learned about Joanne from an episode of Booby Flay's Throwdown, where she beat Bobby with her sticky bun recipe. So we made a pilgrimage to her bakery to try these. They are very good. But on that trip I was introduced to her cupcakes, or more importantly her frosting. This stuff was buttercrack, not buttercream. It was addictive. When I found out that she was publishing her first cookbook, I bought it for the "Magic Frosting" recipe alone. What does this have to do with science? Joanne Chang started out at Harvard in the applied mathematics department, and made extra money selling chocolate chip cookies to the dining hall. All of her recipes are in weight and volumetric measurements. She also has an entire section where she talks about the importance of the temperature of the butter when used in certain applications. Because of the attention to detail and her clear instructions, I have now made several things from this book, and every one of them has come out perfectly.

The cookbook that blew my mind, however, was Shirley Corriher's Bakewise. Shirley was a chemist at Vanderbilt before she got into food science. And while you may not recognize her name, if you watch the Food Network at all, you probably know one of her students, Alton Brown. If you are a Good Eats fan, then you may have even seen her on an episode or two. She has written two cookbooks, Cookwise and Bakewise. I must admit, I have been so enamored with Bakwise that I haven't even had a chance to work through Cookwise yet. 

For the scientifically inclined, the book starts out talking about your oven, and how it heats, or more importantly why it has a fairly broad spectrum of temperatures throughout the heating cycle. Complete with graphs and charts. There are sections talking about the chemistry of baking, protein structure, the ratios of protein to fats, how leavening works, the effect of acidic ingredients on your baked goods, how you can read the label on your baking powder to know when in the baking cycle it will activate, and how you can use math to look at a recipe and figure out right off the bat if it will be a dismal failure, and what shape of pan to use. If you are not a science person, and that looks a bit daunting, there are also plenty of recipes throughout the book that just have a "what this recipe shows" section at the front. So even if you really don't care about the math, the recipes themselves will still turn out great, and possibly give you something to think about. It is the first cookbook that I will sit down and read like a novel or textbook.

Both of these books really appeal to me because they address the why of baking in addition to the how. It has also made me look at all recipes a little bit differently. Now, I think I might even be able to try baking in Hawaii again.

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