Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Is Baking a Science?

The most overused cliche in the American food writing world may just be the simplest: Baking is a science. Every blogger, writer, cookbook author and Twitteratti uses that term as some sort of merit badge. What they really mean is, "Look you may be able to cook a side of beef with horseradish crust, stir a roux to mahogany completion, and simmer stock from hand hewn veal bones, but do not try to bake. For baking is science and you are no Thomas Dolby Edison."

First off, everything is science. Here are some other examples of science: breathing, pouring milk, answering an email, cutting the lawn, exercising (an evil science), and watching TV. Be careful, calling your mom on the phone is science! How dare you try and hang that picture yourself; you failed AP Physics.

Cooking is scientific. Just to put an average American dinner on the table (fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and green beans) culls together thousands of scientific reactions and processes. First, you should brine and flour your chicken (this is chemistry and microcellular biology). Then you need to fry it (thermodynamics). Now make perfectly smooth and rich mashed potatoes (rocket science). Finally, properly blanch your green beans (mastery of chlorophyll and botany).

Now, I will grant you that the underlying chemical reactions which occur when one combines flour, yeast, water, and a leavening agent are, in fact, scientifically proven. But again, similar processes happen in regular cooking. Baking is simply cooking with a degree of difficulty. So if you can cook, you can bake.

Last week using the Twittersphere, I stated that baking is not science. The culinary dames who patrol that area of the interwebs immediately responded with differing viewpoints. And to be fair, their responses are quite compelling. Some such as Chef Mary Sonnier responded that chefs are hesitant bakers, thus showing deference to the pastry chefs. Lindsay from Scoop Adventures responded that baking requires precise measurements. Most people ignored me. Lorin Gaudin just punched me in the face and slashed my tires. The last two are unremarkable occurrences.

But here is the simplest reason why baking can not be science: Science denotes an absolute exactness. Either the sun will rise at 6:23 am or it doesn't. Either the introduction of this chemical will cause the solution to crystallize or not. Wearing my lucky Saints shirt causes them to win. Science, you see, is exact.

Recipes for baking, however, are not. A simple look through my cookbook collection reveals 10 different recipes for pizza dough. Up to 7 different for brioche. Countless variations on cornbread litter the pages of any respectable southern cooking, and many less savory ones. Having multiple recipes disproves the exactness. Let's agree to this: Following a specific recipe for bread may require exactness, but baking as a sub-class of cooking does not.

I also remain unconvinced that there can ever be a precise measurement of anything. Certainly, this debate could enter a more philosophical context. Although my Delorian is broken, I am positive if we went back in time to the creation of bread, measuring cups were not around. Watch a cake maker carefully measure a batter, gently place it in a calibrated oven, and then use a toothpick to test if it is done.

Earlier this summer, I made pizza dough based on a general formula from Tariq Hanna of Sucre. In his matter of fact way, Hanna told me to "Combine 1 packet of yeast, 2 cups of water, half your flour. Let it sit in fridge overnight. There you have mad a sponge. Next day, knead in the remainder of your dough. Simple as that, works like a charm." SCIENCE!!!!

I had planned to use 7 cups of flour. Because I am careless and forgetful, I used four heaping cups the first day, another four the second day, and likely another cup while kneading the dough. Did it fail? No, it was delicious.

Writers such as Jeffrey Steingarten have spent hours and vast sums to figure out how delicacies like Pizza Bianco in Rome is made. Reading these accounts you will notice the bakers are always portrayed as these monkish, cultish figures. Bakers work with flour, water, and yeast on a daily basis. They adjust their proportions based on the weather, humidity, and mood. To them baking is not a science but a calling, a lifelong pursuit to create the perfect baguette or buttery, yet crusty croissant. Some of these figures, such as Jim Lahey, have persuaded an entire generation that yeast and kneading are practically unnecessary to creating great bread.

Baking has less in common with science than it does with religion. As in religion, there are some rules set in stone that you really shouldn't violate. Don't kill or always sift your flour, for example. But the rest of it is plain good advice. You can choose to be a fundamentalist and follow every rule with dogmatic conviction. If the recipe calls for 3 cups of water and seven hours of kneading, by all means follow it. Or you can be a lax Catholic, follow some directions, maybe ignore others, but generally figure it out as you go.

The point is don't be afraid to try your hand at baking. You don't need special skills to begin making hearty breads, crackly pizza crusts, and rich cornbreads. Like betting on Pascal's side of the Wager, even if you don't follow the directions exactly, sometimes the reward is just as sweet.


Celeste said...

For the record, Steingarten's pizza bianca recipe is not a good one. Dan Leader's version is much better, and Lahey's is pretty good, too.

Ordinary home baking isn't science...hell, every 10-year-old budding cook begins with cookies and cupcakes, so it can't be too hard. But to truly understand the how & why of baking DOES require some scientific understanding....like whether you can use baking powder or baking soda as leavening, or if one or the other will suffice. Or understanding how hydration percentages determine a bread's crumb texture, or how enzymatic action affects crust browning.

No, you don't need an organic chemistry class to bake....but you do need to understand the science in order to improvise while baking.

Jody said...

I would go with "Baking is an art".

I am learning to cook, but every time I bake my breads come out doughy or dense. I think you've just given me confidence to give it another go!

Snakebite said...

"It's science." -- Ron Burgundy

Lorin Gaudin said...

Don't make me punch you again Louapre. This blog clearly demonstrates you're "half-baked." That's a fact.