When I started baking shortbread on a regular basis, I quickly began believing that what people have been telling me, “baking is a science” might be true. My indecisiveness to follow rules or regulations when I’m in the kitchen, is based simply on my southern roots, and with that said it is no surprise that learning to cook, by observing my mother, was not taught in exact measurements or precise ingredients. My lessons came by way of “a little bit of this”, “a pinch of that”, and “you can throw that in if you have it”. It was always a “feel” or an “instinct”, and it works.
Even though I am not even slightly as good a cook as my mother, what I can and do cook (with or without a recipe) is good. There are some things (like mac-n-cheese, peach cobbler, and candied yams) that I make without a single measurement, but unlike my mother, I would prefer exact levels and amounts because my goal is to get the same results each and every time.
When I first started baking, my mother graciously went to the store and purchased my shortbread supplies for me, but instead of “Bleached All-Purpose Flour” she bought “Unbleached All Purpose Flour”. To her, all-purpose flour is just all-purpose flour, and for her baking needs, she likes “cake flour”. Needless to say, I was in the midst of a baking frenzy, and I didn’t notice the labels on the flour. When I removed the cookies from the oven, I was horrified because they didn’t flatten or spread out. They looked just like they did when I scooped them out and put them on the pan, but they were cooked. They were extremely dense. They weren’t light or fluffy or anything close to delicate, and they didn’t taste like “my” shortbread. To keep from being wasteful, I found a way to make the “unbleached” flour work by changing my butter/flour/sugar ratio, but that took some serious tweaking and time.
Now, I frequently research and read about the science of baking just to make sure that I understand what’s going on. I was amazed to learn about the different types of flour and the possible results when using butter, margarine, or shortening. I believe baking is a science, and I’ve learned from trial and error that if I don’t follow my recipe, things can go terribly wrong.
The following links are a few websites that I have learned invaluable information from:
- The Science of Baking – Kitchen Chemistry (www.culinate.com)
- Baking Science (www.busycooks.about.com)
- The Science of Baking (www.suite101.com)
- Facts About Cookie Baking (www.cookies-in-motion.com)