Baking: Art or Science?


The pros make it look so easy, right? Just browse the Food Network for the latest reason to feel inadequate in the kitchen. The truth is, when it comes to baking, well, let's just say a lot of people would like to avoid it altogether.

Why? Baking involves failure. There's a relatively small margin of error. Most of us do not like this. Why can't baking be more like cooking? You know, a pinch of this, a dash of that, add some more of this--and it all works out in the end. Well, it may help to think of cooking as an art, and baking as a science--with some overlap, of course. Both are creative endeavors, but with baking make no mistake: chemical forces are at play, my friends.

Each ingredient you use when baking contains organic compounds that not only interact with each other, but also must be exposed to the right temperatures and in the correct ratio relative to the components in other ingredients:

Flour: The proteins and starches in flour, and the proteins and lecithin in eggs create structure in breads and cakes.

Fats: Shortening and butter counter the formation of gluten to create a moist, tender product.

Leaveners: Yeast, baking soda, baking powder and even steam create lift. They react to heat, sugars and acids to make cakes, breads and batters rise for a light and fluffy texture.

Sugars: Yes, they sweeten baked goods, but they also create that caramel flavor and aroma that makes bakery so appealing. They feed yeast and tenderize dough and batter. And, they provide liquid for batters.

Salt: Think of it as the brakes. It draws water out of the yeast, thus slowing the leavening process. It balances out flavors by acting as a counter to sugar and other dominant flavors in the recipe. Its negative ionic charge strengthens dough to make it less sticky and more pliable.

Each of these main components of baked goods must be in the correct ratio to each other, and exposed to the temperatures that activate them without destroying them. Why don't your muffins rise? Buttermilk without baking soda, too-low temperature or a liquid-to-dry ratio that's too high could be the problem. Tough cake? Most likely you over-mixed the batter, used a flour with too much gluten, or didn't whip enough air into the butter-sugar mixture.

The list of no-no's seems endless. The good news? All master bakers started out having to learn the tips and tricks of perfect (or near-perfect) baking. And, with patience and practice, so can you. The key to success is understanding the science behind the art!

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