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 baking ratios for all my recipes, 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, which combined with the baking podcasts and the food podcasts I listen to, help me learn as much of possible about baking and food. If you have any books to add to my list, let me know in the comments. I’m always on the lookout for more geeky reads!
My top 3 baking reference books to learn the science of baking:
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 baking science book of the list and the #1 baking book that I consult over and over again. 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 to help me better understand baking recipes, order of ingredients, and to troubleshoot baking recipes. 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. If you are looking for a baking textbook, Paula Figoni’s How Baking Works is it.
#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 calculating baking 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!
#4 The Baker’s Appendix by Jessica Reed (available on Amazon)
The Baker’s Appendix is a new addition on my book shelf, and I’m in love. I pre-ordered The Baker’s Appendix book because I was THAT eager to get my hands on it. When it came, I was shocked at how tiny the dimensions of this book are. The book is small, and yet it is packed full of useful information. A large part of this book is dedicated to baking conversions and equivalents, and that’s my favourite part. This book is so handy because even though I started my own baking conversions list for my blog and recipes, my list is by no means exhaustive or complete. By the way, if you would like a printable copy, sign up to get the baking conversions chart pdf. The Baker’s Appendix covers most commonly used ingredients in metric and volume measurements, so grams and cups. There’s even a table for adjusting recipes at higher altitude, tables for baking pan volume conversions, and much more. And though this book is quite new, I now consider it indispensable for bakers. Why do I bake in grams and convert all my recipes? I try to calculate some of the key ratios behind the recipes so that I can better understand what’s going on and I think this works best if I work in grams. Remember when I wrote about the Québécois “pouding chômeur” recipe scandal? I showed you my spreadsheet of pudding cake recipes. My recipe spreadsheets are a huge part of my work. I make these spreadsheets for a lot of recipes I’m working on, and I actually have an ongoing mega spreadsheet with all the chocolate chip cookie recipes I come across. I’m building it up to eventually create the ultimate chocolate chip cookie recipe, and that spreadsheet will help me do that because I’ve broken down each recipe into key ratios. You can find Jessica Reed’s The Baker’s Appendix on Amazon. Get it!
#5 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!).
A few more baking references and baking books to consider
#6 How To Bake Everything by Mark Bittman (get it on Amazon)
How To Bake Everything is Mark Bitman’s latest cookbook and it’s a baking book to complete his series How to Cook Everything. I think the title of the book is pretty self-explanatory. How To Bake Everything is a huge book, as one would expect if we are going to learn how to bake everything, and quite the opposite of The Baker’s Appendix in size. The book covers everything, from the basic vanilla cake to a tall croquembouche. There’s even a Japanese mochi recipe in this book! The description of the book claims there are over 2,000 recipes and variations in How To Bake Everything, and I believe it. Most of the recipes come with a set of variations and applications. Actually, this book reminds me a lot of the Joy Of Cooking (Amazon), but for baking, because How To Bake Everything includes lots of diagrams and tables so that you can better understand the baking techniques behind the recipes and how to take the recipes further. How To Bake Everything would make a great cookbook for beginner bakers and experienced bakers, and it’s available on Amazon.
#7 The Flavor Bible or The Flavor Thesaurus (find it on Amazon)
I find that with experience (and a lot of eating), most of us have an idea of what flavours play well together. But whenever I have a doubt, or I’m looking for flavour inspiration so that I can try something new, I turn to The Flavor Thesaurus, which shows flavour pairings for commonly used ingredients. I have to admit though, lately, I’ve been a little frustrated with The Flavor Thesaurus because it doesn’t have some of the ingredients I want to bake with, like passion fruit and matcha tea, so I’ve been considering upgrading to The Flavor Bible, which I gather features a more extensive list of ingredients and flavours. You can buy The Flavor Thesaurus here on Amazon, and The Flavor Bible is also available on Amazon.
#8 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. So, I dropped a cake on the floor on purpose and in the name of science!
The eight books about baking and cooking listed above are a great start to help you get more serious about your baking and recipes, and I’d say most of these books are indispensable baking references to add to your collection as you learn about baking. Many on the list are purely baking references and don’t have recipes, but a couple are baking cookbooks (Bakewise and How to Bake Everything) and an excellent place to start if you are looking to buy cookbooks for beginner bakers. I have a fair bit of experience and yet I still consult all of these books all the time when I feel like I need more information and when I need to troubleshoot a baking recipe to make it better. There is a ton of information in these books to help you better understand the science of baking, flavours, baking ratios, and loads of recipes to get you started.
Now with all these books on our shelves, I think we are better equipped to bake something awesome.
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If you’ve got any other baking (or cooking) references that you think I should check out, let me know!