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Chemistry? Or Flummery?

post #1 of 11
Thread Starter 
I had started this discussion at a different site. I was thinking about moving it here anyway, to see what y'all think. The suggestion, on another thread, that you need to weigh the flour and oil when making a roux, goaded me into doing so.


I didn’t grow up with a baking tradition. In my house, the smell of fresh-baked bread wafted up from a white paper bag, not from the oven. Fresh bread and pastries? That’s what a bakery was for; and there were several within walking distance.

So, for many years, I slavishly followed recipes when baking bread. And I bought into that much mentioned concept that baking was more science than art. A science I didn't understand.

The past few years I’ve started to learn what bread baking is all about. And the more I learn, the more I realize that, as the old buffler hunter said, thar's 'siderable art to hit---that bread making is not quite the cut & dried science bakers have made out.

True, bread making is not as flexible as stove top cooking. But it’s not as cast in concrete as we’re constantly told.

Several straws in the wind:
  • They say weighing is more precise than volume measurements. Objectively this is true. However, it may just be European snobbery as well. Millions of loaves have been successfully baked using volume measurements. And the question is: If volume measurements are so inconsistent; person to person and day to day, how come the bread still mostly comes out just fine?
2. On any particular day, flour contains more or less moisture. Depends on ambient humidity and other factors. Which means even if you weigh the flour, the hydration percentage isn’t quite the same. Which is why virtually all formulas, whether based on volume or on weight, say to adjust the dough using more flour or more water as necessary.

3. There are numerous recipes and formulas to achieve the same end. I have at least a dozen recipes for baguettes in my files, all of which differ in the relative amounts of flour, yeast and water. Some utilize starters and preferments, others don’t. Some entail delayed fermentation, others don’t. Yet they all produce bagettes.
4. Yeast is the key. It’s taken as a given, among bakers, that you only use the amount of yeast required by the dough. And yet, that figure varies, sometimes radically, even for breads of the same type. It seems to be a by-guess-and-by-gosh sort of thing. Or as a buddy used to put things, a swag (scientific wild assed guess)
5. New breads, particular artisan breads, are developed all the time. If bread making was such a hard & fast science, how could there be room for these new breads?
So, the long and the short of it is this. In a rather long-winded way, I’m asking your opinion. Do you really think baking; particularly bread baking, is as scientifically based as proponents have insisted? Or is there room for the same sort of experimentation you do on the stovetop?
They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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post #2 of 11
I'm no baker. In fact my attempts at baking have not been very good. I tend to stay away from baking/pastry because it is so scientific, and I prefer using my instincts when I cook. Yes, it's an intellectually lazy approach, but it gets the job done.

I am well aware that I would achieve consistency when I bake if I were more attentive to the properties of my ingredients, more faithful to the hard rules and recipes, and better educated as to when the various techniques are meant to achieve. (One day after I retire, I am determined to become the best baker in the world!!)

You mix flour, salt, water and yeast and you will have a bread. Use a starter and you will get a different result. Make a roux by weight vs. volume, and you will get two roux with subtle differences. All these techniques exist to make a better product. Yes they need to be questioned and understood periodically, and this makes us better cooks.

You say that baking is not the cut and dry science it is made out to be. I disagree. I think there's a lot of 'touchy-feely" aspects to bread making that are not addressed in recipes and in books, but that DO have a scientific basis. How to knead? How to adjust flour to account for humidity? etc. These are, though impractical, measurable variables. They are details that might overwhealm the average amateur reader/baker, but they are tangible and still reside in the realm of science, not art. We use the term "art" far too loosely in cookery. The culinary education system would produce better, more creative cooks with a much wider repertoire if they acknowledged that and used a more scientific approach.

You mention your many recipes that produce baguette: surely you'll agree they all produce subtle differences? Even if they did produce the same baguette, are you implying that you could through the ingredients together without weighing to produce the identical result? I'm sure a seasoned baker could do that but I still wouldn't call it instinctual baking. It's the brain remembering formulas and variables from years or repitition, and examining output to determine input.
post #3 of 11
Why do bakers use scales? It just isn't the Europeans, go into ANY bakery , States or anywhere and you'll find scales. Actually look at those hyrglphics(sp?) from the Egyptians on pyramid walls and you'll find bakers using scales.

Why?

Speed. No baker worth his salt is going to stand there scooping out cupfuls outa a bag of flour. Time is money in the professional wold, and any advatange you can get, you use.

Accuracy True, you can get good resulsts with cups and spoons, but when measuring out large quantities like flour, if you're off by a 1/8 of a cup, and measure that by 5 or 6 cups...

Cleanliness. Even something as complicated as cheescake or cookies, the only thing that gets dirty is the mixing bowls itself, the scale does all the work. I'd scream if I had to wash up separate cups for butter, sugar, corn syrup, teaspoons for spices, salt, etc.

No, you're wrong, baking IS a science. You just don't have ALL of the variables nailed down. If you're off a 1/2 cup of flour in your recipie on a dry day, it won't matter much, on a humid day it will. EVERYTHING matters: Temperature, humidity, time spent resting, time spent proofing, mixing times, (the longer you mix the more friction you have and therefore the warmer your dough), time in the oven, type of oven, even if you have cold hands or warm hands.

I'm not saying you have to don a lab coat and work with Erlenmeyer flasks, but you have to be aware of the properties of each ingredient--how they behave, their tolerences, your environment, and your equipment. You can be very creative, but you must first know how to control everything before you cana start to create. It's just like an artist that can only start to be creative one he has mastered colour combinations, perspective, and shading...
...."This whole reality thing is really not what I expected it would be"......
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...."This whole reality thing is really not what I expected it would be"......
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post #4 of 11
Being a person with a Bsc. in biology i can appreciate science. It does help me understand recipe process but cooking is simply art and science is knowledge that can be applied to the CULINARY ARTS Until Dupont Begins to hire chefs and bakers for product development, i'll Keep my opinion as such.
"Ye can lead a man up to the university, but ye can't make him think."

Finley Peter Dunne
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"Ye can lead a man up to the university, but ye can't make him think."

Finley Peter Dunne
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post #5 of 11
Precisely the message I was trying -gauchely- trying to convey. Thank you. :)
post #6 of 11
I wanted to share a quote in response to this. "All children are artists. The problem how to remain an artist once they grow up" I don't think that children posses the knowledge your statements claim you need to be creative. that is because knowledge can be part of the creative process but not a necessary component.
"Ye can lead a man up to the university, but ye can't make him think."

Finley Peter Dunne
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"Ye can lead a man up to the university, but ye can't make him think."

Finley Peter Dunne
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post #7 of 11
Just because you draw what's in your head, doesn't make you an artist. Art comes easy when there's no limitations (guidelines, knowledge of what's been done before, etc.). But a really good artist creates despite limitations, goes above and beyond them, uses them.
post #8 of 11
I bake breads and pastries.....not every day but often. There is an awful lot of thoughful rifting in the process. Last week we made bourbon raisin pastries....never made them before just used whatever filling goo making experience I've had and made them....
We make bagels on a regular basis and are adapting the process/proportions to fit the amount of bagels we want at the end.

like most have said, knowing how to fix something that is "not right" is key to rifting.....that comes from playful experience.
cooking with all your senses.....
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cooking with all your senses.....
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post #9 of 11
To me, creativity is the action of obtaining knowledge. How can you possess knowledge of something That did not exist until you created it?
"Ye can lead a man up to the university, but ye can't make him think."

Finley Peter Dunne
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"Ye can lead a man up to the university, but ye can't make him think."

Finley Peter Dunne
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post #10 of 11
Now, I like the part in your previous post about ..."Science being applied to culinary arts"... but I have to disagree with with ..."Creativity is the action of obtaining knowledge"... in your latest post

In my humble opinion you can ONLY be creative when you know and apply the science behind what you are doing. Take for instance Hollandaise and related sauces. You can have the most wonderfull ideas of ingredient combinations and with what kind of foods the sauce can compliment with, but unless you understand and execute properly the technique of sabayon making, you will never have a stable warm butter emulsion sauce. Or take the little old lady who has been making bread for eons. Makes wonderfull bread--all kinds of braided breads, sweet, yeast risen breads etc. Then one day the Church gets a new minister who's diabetic, so the little old lady substitutes "Sweet n'low" for sugar in her bread--it's a flop because she doesn't understand that the yeast needs to feed off of the sugar.

There is however a certain organic quality about baking, a "one-ness with ingredients, techniques and equipment. After a while you know the ingredients, how they behave--what they like and don't like, you can look at a recipie in a magazine and say to yourself :"They're crazy, waaay too much sugar in there, it'll turn out dark brown and hard".... You know the hot spots in your oven, they way the mixer flings around ingredients in the bowl. Being creative takes all of these factors into account and gives you great tasting and repeatable results. Anything else is just a shot in the dark.
...."This whole reality thing is really not what I expected it would be"......
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...."This whole reality thing is really not what I expected it would be"......
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post #11 of 11
foodpump, you hit it right on the head......thanks for being able to explain it better.
cooking with all your senses.....
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cooking with all your senses.....
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