The art of baking requires lots of attention to details and accuracy, from the products being used to the quantities, from the size of the pan to the baking time, and in every other step of the way. Other than that, you need to have a deep understanding of how different ingredients are affect each other, the way they come together and what happens to them while in the oven. In fact, all those things and more are exactly why some say that baking is not an art – it is a science.
In almost every introduction class to baking the professor will say, with all seriousness, that baking is an exact science. There are a lot of common lines between baking and a scientific experiment. Every time we make a dough, a cream or a glazing we put exact quantities of ingredients; we need to put them in a specific order; and we need to use processes that require mixing, heating and cooling in order to get a new product with different qualities from the ones of the original ingredients.
Both in a scientific experiment as in baking, if we aren’t precise with the quantities or maintain the right order of adding them to the recipe, the result might be a failing experiment or dessert. Sometimes just mixing the bowl too fast or too slow, or heat it up to the wrong temperature, can completely ruin a dish.
Unlike cooking, in baking you can’t really wing it. Every good baker knows that the first thing you do is to work with a recipe, and before you start working you have to read it all the way through, making sure you understand completely and that you are ready to go to work. You also have to follow these instructions to the letter, otherwise you might find yourself with a broken mixture or a flat Soufflé.
After reading the instructions, comes the ingredients. It starts with accurate measuring of the different ingredients: if when you cook a dish you can simply sprinkle a dash of a certain spice, add more or less water, toss more eggs or play it fast and loose with the variety of vegetables, when it comes to baking you have to be precise when you measure. That is the reason in baking we use a digital scale instead of just counting cups and spoons (cups and spoons can differ in size, and also different people fill it in different ways – dense or loose, full, almost full or overflowing?). Too much water, and the dough will get sticky and not bake into perfect crispiness. Not enough sugar, and the egg whites will never become the perfect meringue.
Timing is also a most important factor to pay attention to. The timing in a baking recipe is not a recommendation. Timing can be the difference between the perfect whipped cream and churned butter. It can be the difference between a moist cake and a dry pastry. It can be the difference between a perfect and a burnt caramel sauce. Not just timing is important, but also temperatures. Now, of course you know that you need to heat up the oven to the right temperature when baking, but what about the temperature of the butter, or the eggs? Cold eggs are easier to separate, but room temperature eggs make better and fluffier meringue. Room temperature butter will never give you the same texture for a pie crust as cold butter.
And above all those things, there is the reaction of different ingredients that you need to be aware of. So many people don’t understand what the heck happened to their chocolate ganache once a single drop of water found its way inside. And why is it so important to make sure that the egg yolk will not accidentally break a little bit into the egg whites when making a meringue, or why is it important to mix it in a glass or stainless steel bowl and not, say, plastic? Why don’t you keep chocolate in the fridge and why is it so important to knead the dough for about 10 minutes before shaping it into a bread loaf? The understanding of ingredients and the things that happen to them during the different processes and baking is crucial in order to prevent fatal mistakes in baking. That is the reason the first thing you learn in chef school about baking is tons of theory about the science of materials.
Baking is a fun and creative thing, but it is as accurate and demanding as any other science. Once you are aware of that you can turn this science into an art and create your masterpieces.