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5 science of baking (and cooking) books to satisfy your inner nerd

5 science of baking books

I am a very geeky baker, as you’ve probably noticed. My inner nerd is the reason why I consider myself more of a baker than a cook. When I bake, I do a fair bit of math and I calculate ratios, whether it’s the ratio of dry to wet ingredients, or fat to dry ingredients, or maybe even fat to sugar to flour. I don’t do all this math simply to fill my head with numbers (I don’t really memorize or retain these kinds of things as a rule). I calculate the ratios so that if and when something goes wrong, I can then look at the key ratio behind the recipe (or the ratio I used that I suspect is a little wonky) and then I can compare that ratio to other recipes that I know work, or to recipes that give a specific desired result. I have Excel spreadsheets dedicated to chocolate chip cookies, where I’ve converted, from cups into grams, all the recipes I’ve come across so that I can see what it will take to one day to make the BEST chocolate chip cookie in the world. Of course, I may have a PhD in chemistry so you might be thinking what would I need these books for, but my PhD thesis revolved around medicinal chemistry and organic synthesis, so no matter how “educated” I am, I still have to consult a few books. These are the science of baking (and cooking) books I’ve been consulting over the years. If you’ve got any to add to my list, let me know in the comments. I’m always on the lookout for more geeky reads!

 

My bookshelf

My top 3 references:

There are 3 books that I cannot live without. Warning: none of these books have images. There’s no glossy full page photography here. Needless to say, you don’t buy these books for the stunning visuals. Then again, I didn’t buy these books for the pictures. I got them for the content and I read them like textbooks. Whenever I have a baking question that I can’t answer, I turn to them.

#1 How Baking Works by Paula Figoni (available on Amazon)

How Baking Works

This is my favourite book of the lot. Anna Olson (yes, THE Anna Olson) recommended it to me and I am so glad that I listened (I should really write her a thank you note). How Baking Works will teach you about sugars, caramelization vs Maillard browning, what gluten is exactly, how heat is transferred… Basically, this book will teach you just about everything you might want to know if you are as obsessed with baking as I am. It’s well written and it’s clear, but it’s not dumbed down either. I have consulted it so much in the last few years. I read certain sections over and over again. And if you want homework, each chapter has a quiz and lab exercises that you can do at home to better understand and apply the material discussed.

#2 On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee (available on Amazon)

On Food and Cooking

Harold McGee’s book is huge, both physically and literally. It’s 896 pages of content, loaded with science, historical anecdotes (like how a young colonist in 1755 reported that maple syrup was made from the sap using freezing techniques, not heat) and lots of side bars (like the percentage of sugar in some popular candies vs the ratio of sucrose to glucose). If you want to know, for example, what happens to bread dough when you cook it in the oven or what’s the difference between a prawn and a shrimp, Harold McGee has the answer. He covers most all topics and ingredients you can think of, and he has a few little schemes and diagrams to accompany the text. If you are curious about food and cooking in general, and not just baking, or you want to know the optimal pH for pectin gelation with scholarly references to back up the reported data and findings, this book is for you!

#3 Ratios by Michael Ruhlman (available on Amazon)

Ratio

Since I’m obsessed with ratios, it only makes sense that Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio would be on my list. If you like to tinker with recipes in the kitchen, it’s a good place to start because you know that whatever you do, if you are making shortbread with a 1:2:3 ratio of sugar/butter/flour, your shortbread cookies will most probably turn out. Armed with the basic recipe ratios, you can expand and vary recipes more easily and make intelligent substitutions. I’m telling you: ratios are a way of life! This book is for those who are very mathematical. Also, before you go out and buy Michael Ruhlman’s book Ratio, please, please, please buy this OXO kitchen scale (from Amazon) first. Just do it!

Two more to consider

More recently, I acquired these last two books, and while I’ve only used them a little so far, I still felt the need to mention them because they are a little different from the others.

Bakewise by Shirley O. Corriher (available on Amazon)

BakeWise

I had Shirley O. Corriher’s BakeWise on my Amazon wishlist for a very, very long time. It took years for me to actually buy a copy, and I don’t know why. This one has pictures (!), but not that many pictures, to be honest. My favourite part of BakeWise is the tables of tweaking options, like for pie crusts: “if you want tenderness, do this…”; “if you want crispiness, add this…”; “if you want colour, include this ingredient in your crust to promote browning…”. Tables like that are absolutely invaluable to every baker because Corriher is basically giving you the tools to take your recipes a step further and to tweak them according to your tastes and preferences. But, Shirley Corriher seems to disagree with me on cooking fruit before making pie (remember back in the fall, when I wrote about baking the sliced apples first before making this maple apple pie). She prefers to toss the fruit in sugar and let them set for 3 hours so that they release their juices, and then to concentrate those juices before assembling the pie. I guess I need to try that next before passing judgment (though I still think that my maple apple pie was magical!).

The Science of Cooking by Peter Barham (available on Amazon)

The Science of Cooking

The Science of Cooking by Peter Barham is by no-means mainstream, and I’m not even sure it’s in print anymore. It’s a pretty short book (in comparison to Harold McGee’s) and I read through the sections that were specifically addressing baking. Peter Barham presents recipes along with the relevant science behind key techniques and the role of each ingredient. He also includes tables of troubleshooting suggestions. By far, my favourite part of this book is when he explains that the key to prevent cake collapse (as it cools) is to literally drop the cake “from a height of about 30 cm on to a hard surface” as soon as the cake comes out of the oven. I read this part (and his explanation of why this works) a dozen times because it’s so odd. I have yet to try his technique, but obviously, I will. Stay tuned for a blog post where I drop a cake on the floor on purpose and in the name of science!

If you’ve got any other baking (or cooking) references that you think I should check out, let me know!

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12 Responses to 5 science of baking (and cooking) books to satisfy your inner nerd

  1. Katie Meek February 12, 2016 at 10:36 am #

    I love these suggestions. I got How Baking Works for Christmas and have been waiting for a good opportunity to really dive into into it.

    These are totally nerdy pleasure reads—not a bit on the sciencey side—when it come to cooking, but I would recommend these:

    –Relish: Story of My Life in the Kitchen, by Lucy Knisley
    –They Draw and Cook: 107 Recipes Illustrated by Artists from Around the World, by Nate Padavick & Salli Swindell

    • Janice February 12, 2016 at 10:42 am #

      Thank you for your comment, Katie! I’m trying to read more (and Netflix less) so Relish is a wonderful suggestionI I will definitely add that to my next book order 🙂

  2. Sean February 12, 2016 at 1:00 pm #

    Aww yes, this stuff is right up my alley! I’m a scientist/teacher-turned-food-blogger, so this is certainly relevant! Thanks for sharing – there were a bunch of books here that I was unfamiliar list, and they’ve been added to my ‘to-read’ list.

    • Janice February 12, 2016 at 1:16 pm #

      I think it’s so important for us all to keep learning. It will make us better food bloggers and recipe developers! I’m glad I mentioned a few new ones. The last one, by Peter Barham, is sometimes used in college and university courses, but still, you can’t go wrong with Harold McGee 😉

  3. Carrie February 12, 2016 at 1:00 pm #

    Gotta check some of these out – I am a total kitchen nerd!! Thanks for sharing!

  4. Ginni February 12, 2016 at 1:03 pm #

    Love your post and your suggestions. I absolutely adore the fact that there’s someone else who organises their book in the order of the colour of their spine. Despite my intensive cookbook collection, I’m ashamed to say I have none of the books you suggested.

    I adore Heston Blumenthal as my geeky cooking expert even though he goes a little overboard for me at times, but its a fantastic result every time.

    Am off to amazon to do some cookbook shopping…….

    • Janice February 12, 2016 at 1:11 pm #

      Heston Blumenthal! Yes! He is such a geeky chef. I used to watch him on tv and he’d use rotovaps and lab equipment to make his dishes. That’s going a little too far for all of us home bakers and cooks, but still, I’d love to spend a week in his kitchen lab and see how he works.

      Much to my mother’s disappointment (she is a librarian!), I organized my books by colour and I find this way, I find my books faster because usually I know what colour the spine is 😉

  5. Brittani February 12, 2016 at 1:13 pm #

    Thanks so much for sharing these great resources! I’m on a mission to become a better baker this year but when I cook I rarely measure things. This does not work for baking lol I think knowing the science/reasons behind things will really help!

  6. Teresa February 12, 2016 at 3:45 pm #

    I love your recommendations. I think the intuitive cooking/structured baking divide scares people off from one or the other. Books like these can help people intimidated by baking’s strictures and get to the creative part.

  7. Justine @ JustineCelina.com February 12, 2016 at 5:34 pm #

    Wow, thanks for this incredibly helpful resource! I’m not much of a baker myself, definitely more of a cook! I have a couple of recipes that I’ve come up with over the years, but I’d love to do more. I’m bookmarking this for future reference! 🙂

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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