The Science of Baking
I don’t know why but the simple act of tossing together a few basic ingredients like flour, fat, a rising agent, and when necessary, a sweetener resulting in a hearty peasant bread or maybe a 4-tiered wedding cake–has always fascinated me. Take eggs, for example. The magical egg. Think about it–you can scramble it, fry it, boil it, bake it–and that’s just the meal. Moving on to dessert–you can add it to bread, add it to cake, add just the yolks to cake, or just the whites. You can whip the egg whites with sugar for a delicious meringue, add a bit of butter for a swiss meringue–just amazing. I wanted to know more about how and why the same ingredients could have different outcomes.
Why do we need xx amount of sugar in cake? How many strokes is enough when told mix until just incorporated–what happens if you over or under mix?
After four years of professionally baking and many, many more years baking as a hobby, I’ve discovered that the science behind baking goes so much further than just following a basic recipe. There are many other influences that effect the whys and hows of making cake or any other baked good or dessert.
I learned that environmental influences like how cold or warm your room is can have an impact on the outcome of whatever you’re baking. The heat and humidity of 90 degree days in mid-August can result in your batch yielding several dozen more cupcakes than when making them on a January day when your stainless steel clad industrial kitchen is freezing cold, for example. And it’s not just the temperature of the room, but how well (or not) the batter has been mixed. Some batters like to be mixed long, some don’t need but a quick mix “until incorporated”. But why?
One of the best books I found for getting a really well-written and useful lesson on the science of baking is Rose Levy Beranbaum’s, Cake Bible. She explains the science of batter mixing, the need for sugar in tenderizing cake, and she gives reasons baking soda is needed as opposed to baking powder. This book was given to me by my husband for one of my twenty-something birthdays and has been an indispensable text book for getting me through Baking 101, 102 and so on throughout the years. It was this book with its beautiful glossy photographs of a scarlet bomb, strawberry Maria, chocolate oblivion that took my desire to bake to a need to bake level. I needed to make a jelly roll that looked beautiful, tightly rolled, with just the right amount of gorgeous red raspberry puree peaking through.
So, why bake? I guess I just really like dessert! But mostly, the creativity of putting ingredients together to create so many different things is, umm, really appetizing. And delicious!