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 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)
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)
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)
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)
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 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!