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Cooks vs. bakers

I am a reporter for the Baltimore Sun and I am looking for some thoughts on the differences between "cooks" and "bakers:" their mindsets, their rivalries, the differences in their craft. I'd be interested in hearing from both home cooks and professional chefs. Thanks

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  1. My feeling is that cooks are more intuitive and more likely to tweak recipes as they go along based on personal preferences or ingrredients on hand. Once you "know" how to cook, you understand how certain flavors and textures go together and often times don't need a recipe just an idea. The need to measure specifically is often a sticking point for cooks versus bakers. I love to cook and have found that the eyeball method of measuring is a complete disaster when it comes to baking. Bakers are definitely a more patient and precise lot and I love to eat the results of their efforts.

    3 Replies
    1. re: baseballfan

      Thanks, baseballfan. Would you be willing to identify yourself with a name, occupation and hometown...for my story? you can email me privately at susan.reimer@baltsun.com

      1. re: baseballfan

        I'd agree only insofar as most cooking allows for more mistakes while still producing an edible result. Having eaten more "intuitive" but abominable meals cooked by people under the delusion they were being creative just because it didn't actually look like a disaster, I can't agree that cooking is any more or less "intuitive" than baking. Except that beginners can get away with more mistakes. But to do either well, you must learn the basics well, and then start improvising. And at that level, baking is certainly as creative or intuitive as anything else. It's like any creative art or craft - you can't express yourself in the medium until you understand the medium. I think what throws people is that baking mistakes are usually more obvious, while cooking mistakes can be passed with "it's supposed to look like that." LOL

        And this comes from a cook-type, who started to learn to cook in the kitchen of his baker-mother... I can bake acceptably well (including some pretty fancy stuff), but the lack of constant engagement in the process tends to bore me. I'm fine up until it goes into the oven, but then I'm ready to be done, and except for stuff like bread, pound cake and muffins, you're not...

        1. re: baseballfan

          I love to cook. I love to bake, typically desserts. I love the more "forgiving" nature of cooking. I love the "wow" reaction I get when a dessert gets to the table. And, I love to needlepoint--I love the creativity in selecting the materials and the stitches, yet patience and precision are critical to projects not looking like a craft project doomed for the garage sale. I must have serious psychiatric issues.

        2. Cooks seem to be less text book as bakers are by the book. Baking is a science and you need to understand why certain ingredients work for a bread to rise or not. Cooks combine flavors to accomplish what they want and is not always from following a recipe. For instance, I never follow a recipe. I take pride in altering a standard recipe to call it mine. There are few tricks in baking.

          You will find cooks to be more rugged, aggresive, agitated and anqious. A baker seems to be more intellegent, calm and easy to work with. I have been in this business for 16 years. Most everyone will tell you the same things I have.

          I am a professional chef

          You will never find a chef who is an incredible cook and an incredible baker. I have never seen it. I think the reason is because, bakers use the left side (science/ grammar) of their brain to excel as the cook will use the right side (art/ math) to excel.

          10 Replies
          1. re: CHEFBUCK

            Great analysis. I am in the cook category. I do bake pies at Thanksgiving, but it is really an effort. OTOH, I am able to prepare and cook the entire Thanksgiving feast for 25+ with no problem. I LOVE when I see an exact recipe for a baked item on the home cooking board. I made a fabulous peach pie from a recipe on these boards a few weeks ago.
            I am not a professional chef, but, like you, do not follow recipes when cooking. I know what I like, what my family likes, and what ingredients compliment each other.

            1. re: CHEFBUCK

              That's exactly what I was going to say ChefBuck. IMO, English and Art majors make great cooks but if you want dessert, ask an engineer.

              1. re: southernitalian

                Interesting - in my household, it is the opposite. My husband is an engineer by training, and wouldn't bake to save his life because it would require following a recipe. When he cooks there is never a recipe involved (rarely a side dish either - but he's getting better!). I actually like both cooking and baking, though I taught myself to cook by strictly following recipes. In the past several years I've become more confident and experimental about my cooking, however, and have fun playing with ingredients that I've picked up at the farmer's market etc. Certainly baking is, I think, much more of a science, and in some ways requires mastering of techniques to get the recipe to turn out correctly - i.e., knowing when the egg whites are whipped properly. I think I've had a lot more baked goods turn out to be flops than savory recipes, despite following the directions.

                1. re: MMRuth

                  The same goes in my household. My husband is an engineer/IT person and loves cooking, improvising but hates baking. I'd much rather write but love baking. But, I attribute that to having a sweet tooth. My husband doesn't have one.

                2. re: southernitalian

                  I think I fit the bill... I'm a chemist and a better baker than cook. I absolutely love how you can dissect baking down to the molecular level. I spend a lot of time learning about the underlying principles with all of the techniques and ingredients. Salt fools the taste receptors, acid/base reaction makes my red velvet cupcakes fluffier, properly-handled yeast and gluten make a good loaf of bread, etc.

                  It's funny how my work and my favorite hobby are basically one in the same. I joke that I'm essentially "cooking" at work, but it's quite true. And without understanding how my reactions work, I won't be able to tweak them to produce the results I want. Same goes for my baking. Once I understand how certain methods work, I start experimenting with them. If something goes wrong, I like to break it down to the last detail for troubleshooting.

                  I'm a pretty good cook, but I think baking suits me a lot better. On a related note, I keep my kitchen the same way I keep my workspace. Obsessively clean. When I cook/bake, I keep things organized and regularly pause to clear off or wash dishes. Guess I'm not that good at leaving work at work.

                3. re: CHEFBUCK

                  I am a math atheist and do well with cooking and baking. I think it comes down to knowing that when you are baking you are using a formula and there is not much wiggle room except with something like flavorings or adding nuts for texture. It is funny, in my home I am the chief cook and pizza dough maker. My DH who has no math issues, and at one time was an English teacher, where I was a Home Ec Ed and Art History major, is a great bread baker. I got him started with it years ago and then got out of the way. He is a good cook too but generally leaves it to me

                  1. re: CHEFBUCK

                    I know it's rare, but don't forget Michel Richard!

                    My husband used to work in teh industry and he, like many of the folks here, says that the bakers were calmer than the cooks - but he always attributed to the fact that as a line cook he could sleep late, show up at work, work like crazy until midnight or 2AM, go out and party until 4, and then do it all again the next day. The people doing baking/pastries had to come in much earlier, and were much more isolated from the manic energy of the kitchen, so he always attributed more discipline to them.

                    1. re: meg944

                      No. The bakers would leave the kitchen around 8 am after ten hours of bench work and would do some serious drinking until about Noon. What a blast. And yes, there ARE bars that are open at 8 AM.

                      1. re: jlawrence01

                        Hah! He'll be amused to hear that.

                    2. re: CHEFBUCK

                      What an interesting analysis, chefbuck.

                      I learned to bake 40 years ago but only started cooking (in earnest) 20 years ago. I agree on the more forgiving nature of cooking. I find that I can experiment, but only just, when cooking. After having encountered some sad failures in baking, I now stick to the recipe. Although......I do add an ingredient or alter a dairy when I can.

                      I like cooking, but I love baking. And I dislike math!

                    3. Fun topic. I have worked as a chef and a baker, both personally and professionally for over ten years. Every style of food preparation that I have been involved in has been totally unique. That is what I love about making food. Each time I have become proficient in an area of food preparation to the point of really expressing my creativity through that avenue, I move on to a new challenge. For me, all of it will take a lifetime to develop and master, because I am constantly changing and enjoying the journey. Chefs and bakers are artisans and their creations reflect their thoughts and who they are. I feel that both require skill and creativity. There is definitely a bigger margin for error in cooking, so in that way baking utilizes more precision, most of the time. But I have thoroughly enjoyed being creative in baking and have created phenomenal desserts, sweets and even breads without measuring. Just like in cooking, once a person has spent time learning how ingredients work synergistically, he or she can use the alchemy of flavors and textures to create new wonders. Currently, I am exploring a food that is neither cooked nor baked, raw food. You would be amazed at what can be created when you challenge yourself to use all raw ingredients. The sky has no limit. Have Fun.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: allinone

                        What a terrific post, allinone! Simply terrific.

                        I do both. Been cooking & baking at home for more years than I want to admit - love the creativity, and just started culinary school (local community college, so the cost won't break the bank). My goal is to be the best I possibly can - I love the challenge, & want to learn everything.

                        And yes, I've also worked with raw foods in the past (veggies & fruits). There is so much to learn..

                      2. I'm much more of a baker than a cook (hence my name). And my family, friends and co-workers would definitely be more likely to describe me as "intelligent, calm and easy to work with" rather than "rugged, aggressive, agitated and anxious." I find the precision of baking to be a nice, relaxing change from the chaos and inexactitude (if that's a word) of my job and the rest of my life. And while I enjoy the chemistry of baking, what's drawn me to it ever since I was a kid is the magic - it never ceases to amaze me how the same basic elements - sugar, flour, butter, vanilla, chocolate - can be totally transformed into so many different baked goods. On the other hand, when one cooks beef, fish, pasta, vegetables - the end result may be delicious, but almost all the time, at the most basic level it's still what one started with. Does that make any sense? I also love the "art project" aspect of decorating cakes and cookies. Plus there's nothing like the rush I get from serving a pie, cupcakes, candy, whatever, and having people taste it and then say "You made this?!"

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: cookie monster

                          Thanks,cookie monster. Would you be willing to identify yourself with a name, occupation and hometown...for my story? you can email me privately at susan.reimer@baltsun.com

                          1. re: cookie monster

                            "And while I enjoy the chemistry of baking, what's drawn me to it ever since I was a kid is the magic - it never ceases to amaze me how the same basic elements - sugar, flour, butter, vanilla, chocolate - can be totally transformed into so many different baked goods."

                            Yes! This sums up exactly how I feel about baking. It is just fascinating to me.

                            "Plus there's nothing like the rush I get from serving a pie, cupcakes, candy, whatever, and having people taste it and then say "You made this?!""

                            I love this part too! :)

                          2. Pastry, Baking deals with exact science. Chemestry. Once a dough or batter is made, It generally can't be corrected. Pastry and Baking require accurate measurements and temps. Cooking can be corrected as you go.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: rednyellow

                              But bread requires a much more intuitive nature, IMO. Sure, there are the ratios of water to flour, but there are so many other subtle factors (humidity, etc.) - in the long run, I will just 'feel' what is right - or wrong - about the dough.

                              My cakes & cookies are according to a recipe, of course, but I tweak and add stuff after I am familiar with whatever I am baking. Some things don't lend themselves to that - but others do (I love to bake biscotti for that reason - I make them different all the time, because I add different things, but the batter [usually] stays the same.)

                            2. I love to cook AND to bake - although if I had to choose one I'd say that I'm more passionate about baking. Sometimes I'm in the mood for the precision of baking, and sometimes I'm more in the mood to cook "intuitively".

                              But I have to say that I find baking to be just as much a creative outlet as cooking is. I play around with baking all the time, with fillings, with flavors, with contrasting textures in a dessert. Just deciding what to bake is creative for me, trying to find the perfect dessert to complement a meal or to suit a special occassion, for example.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: flourgirl

                                I'm in the same arena as you, flourgirl. I enjoy both baking and cooking, but I consider my baking truly a "labor of love". Early on, I had baked on a professional level (mostly in resort restaurants), but it took all the fun out of it. I would say that baking does require patience, and requiring of precise weights and measurements, but it is never an exact science. Only because, ovens vary, and weather can greatly affect how ingredients marry together. Like, you would never try and make meringue on a really humid day, unless you had a temperature controlled environment. But then, if transport is involved, that can be a problem, too.

                                I have my own set of techniques, but I really think baking requires a sense of knowing when something is done, because that window of time from undercooked, to dry and overcooked is short.

                                As for cooking, it much more freeing. I am always experimenting with flavors, too. Almost anything goes.

                              2. In a "steel death cage match", I'm betting on the cooks, on account of they're more likely to be creative. By comparison, most bakers are used to strict adherence to process and protocol, whereas cooks are more 'in the moment'. Once the cooks start throwing unorthodox moves at the bakers, the bakers won't know how to react, and they'll either get knocked out or have to submit pretty quickly. Of course, I'm speaking mostly of amateurs of both...pro bakers probably have a much more technical understanding of their craft, and may knock pro cooks for a loop because of that greater understanding.

                                What, the title *wasn't* referring to a fight?

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: ricepad

                                  Funny post, ricepad. Would you be willing to identify yourself with a name, occupation and hometown...for my story? you can email me privately at susan.reimer@baltsun.com

                                2. i'm a pro chef, i've worked most restaurant positions, foh and boh, as a caterer, bartender, and i worked part time as an artisan baker when i was 20.

                                  although it takes a *special* person to want to be cooped up in a chaotic, stressful kitchen with other crazy people for 10-12 hours a stretch, the cook vs. baker personalities are very distinct. bakers are calm and easygoing, mathematically gifted and with their own completely bizarre sense of humor (it's the early mornings). cooks tend to be adrenaline junkies with a masochistic streak. pastry cooks can be pretty random personalities midway between the sets: complete opposite successful pastry cook personalities: the antisocial insomniac who comes into the kitchen at 3 am and leaves by 6, leaving exquisitely spiced sauces and glazed fruit confections, and you don't see him for weeks at a time, the tarts just keep appearing in the case; and the warm, social pastry chef, universally popular with her co-workers who likes to come in and bake pies so she can hang out with everybody.

                                  bill buford does a nice job imo of describing typical cook personalities in "heat." --successful cooks, weird outside the kitchen. as he states, cooks are often nonverbal types. verbal cooks end up being exec chefs or cooks that have some sort of pr slant to their jobs-- personal chef, t.v. chef, teacher, etc.

                                  both pro cooks and pro bakers are usually good team players, with cooks being more individualistic.

                                  my dh (chef with me) and i talk about how weird our bakers are all the time (we love them but their humor goes over our heads, mostly). confectioners and other specialists are another whole bag of worms! LOL

                                  susanj best of luck and i want to be part of the discussion on this fascinating--to me anyway-- slice of human sociology, but to be upfront-- i'm remaining nameless & faceless, location MSP.

                                  1. I'm an amatuer, typical "guy cook": no rigid adherence to recipes, very little measuring, counting on the opportunity to fine-tune along the way. Obviously, not a baker's mentality.

                                    My ex would much rather bake, especially to spare herself the last-minute crunch, preferring to do it in her own time.

                                    Compliments to the original poster - great way to develop a story!

                                    1. Hi,

                                      I'm from Montreal - a Chef, and I often specify to clients that although I can bake - the end result isn't always the most beautiful looking thing. As a chef, I revel in the freedom of

                                      1. Interesting idea to look at professions and seek out a trend in the cook vs. baker saga. I, the cook, am a professional fundraiser and securing funds for a project is an organic process. There is not a formula. My husband, the baker, is a physician and uses chemistry and other sciences to explain everything.

                                        1. I can honestly say that I don't like to bake or make pastry. I recall the dread in culinary school of having to go to the basement bakery at 4:30 am. It felt like being in captivity. Not only being below ground but having to follow all the formulas with such precision. The water is too hot or too cold for the starter, the butter too hard or too soft. yikes
                                          The freedom of cooking allows me to express and impress on levels I never dreamed.
                                          You could always tell who the students were that would go full time to baking, more on the nerdy side and pretty straight laced. The cooks were wilder bunch. The bakers were a little too quiet, brooding, worried if the souffle would fall. I remeber one Chef instructor telling me that the sign of a good Chef is the ability to improvise on a moments notice. I It has been over 20 years since culinary school but I recall it well. My company produced over 500,000 frozen entrees last year but all of our desserts were outsourced. At the end of the day, do what you do best.

                                          1. I'm an engineer by trade, but worked in a mom and pop restaurant during college.
                                            I really enjoy bread making and cooking. The recipes in cooking are general guides and a lot more forgiving while the recipes with bread making are a little more exact. In fact, I believe bakers refer to their recipes as formulas. However, even though, bakers weigh their ingredients a lot of baking is also by touch. Does the dough feel right?

                                            I enjoyed Soupkitten's description from a pro's pov. If I were to change careers (who knows with my line of work), I'd probably be a baker - waking up early, getting the job done and going home. Although, the social pastry chef type sounds like me too. I do enjoy socializing and just seeing people enjoying my work. Maybe that's why I enjoy cooking and baking – sharing bread, making people happy and the compliments stroke my ego. lol.

                                            1. Good topic, founded on some astute observations. I'm a decent home cook who uses recipes as interesting suggestions, or for information on, say, how much gelatin you need to stiffen up this much liquid, or as enjoyable reading. My baking is mostly confined to hot quick breads and cookies, but my forays into the Land of Yeast have been kinda fun, and I intend to explore that territory a whole lot more...but when I read of bread artisans obsessing over The Perfect Loaf, and getting up at 3 am to bake it, I feel no desire to go there. I do love good bread, but my definition of that term is a whole lot broader than my definition of a good meatloaf. So...yeah, I'm a cook. Even when I'm baking.

                                              3 Replies
                                              1. re: Will Owen

                                                I'm not sure the differences are as clear-cut as some have characterized them here. I think it depends a lot on the kind of cooking/the role of the cook, and the kind of baking. I think, also, bread baking is quite differnet from pastry. And while baking is based on formulas, with the proper knowledge it allows for substantial crativity, as much creativity as cooking. And as far as operating in the moment, and dealing with anything: pastry chefs do it all the time. I think one thing that really distinguishes a pastry chef from a cook is that individual pastry chefs deal with whole thing, from begining to end: it's very conceptual, very structural, very big picture work requiring patience and follow-through, as well as manual skill--a certain amount of artistic talent. While a line cook with a particular, repetitive task may not work this way, a small owner-chef or other chef that creates and perfects dishes may. So the differences in what kind of person cooks/bakes what may be more those of degree, not of kind. www.littlecomptonmornings.blogspot.com

                                                1. re: janeer

                                                  I totally agree. I'm a cook who got into baking late. When I first started baking, I was so caught up with trying to be precise and follow formulas, etc., that I nearly drove myself crazy. I certainly didn't enjoy it. But gradually I found a few recipes that gave me confidence, and I realized that although you must follow certain rules, you have a lot of freedom within the set parameters. You can vary flavors and ingredients and make adjustments to suit your taste, or the availability of ingredients.

                                                  Also, I think back to a relative who made Irish soda bread. She never looked at a book. She just eyeballed everything, and knew by touch if she needed more liquid, or more flour, etc. There's also the Lahey bread. Since the first time I made it, I haven't looked at a recipe. I experimented recently with yeast amounts and rising times, and found it very forgiving. I think it's just a matter of familiarity. But then I'm a home cook, not a professional!

                                                  1. re: Kagey

                                                    I'm the same way with the bread. I have tried making it a food processor and with a mixer but can't feel the dough to know if it's right or not. It's like that with pasta, too. Touch is so much more important than visual for me in making dough. But, with making cookies and cakes, I taste the dough--taste is more important then. But, that's what's great about cooking and baking. It's all about the senses.

                                              2. ok, people, as a baker I am saying:

                                                Not all bakers are science-minded individuals. Not all bakers are cool and collected. I have gotten in screaming matches and worked for people with huge egos, so whatever stereotypes exist of the "cook" or chef as "artist" are also found in fairly wide use within the baking communities as well. Technically, as many people have said the crafts are practiced differently. Cooks spend hours preparing their ingredients-dicing veggies, simmering stock, whatnot...and their magic is putting it all together into a dish. Bakers spend far less time measuring the ingredients for cake or custard, but the measuring is EXACT (and usually done in ounces or grams, susanj, as opposed to cups, at least in the professional kitchen), the technique is key, and then the product bakes. In the cooking process, you can correct a poorly seasoned product, a too-thin product...in the baking process, you can very rarely correct a mistake once you've made it.

                                                1. What a terrific idea for an article! Though I don't see the world as "black or white," I do, though, tend to categorize people as either "bakers" or "cooks." Bakers are of a more exacting discipline, cooks are passionate and rather spontaneous . That's my own personal rule of thumb. Bach would have been a superb baker. Chopin -- a wild cook...

                                                  Let us know when the article comes out. All the best!

                                                  1. I am a professional cook, who started out as a pastry chef. In my experience they can be each be as insane and particular as the other. They might just have different ways of expressing it. And to say that a good cook can never be good at pastry, I disagree. Both have to start with a solid understanding of how their ingredients work and basic technique, and I think both have to be willing to leap from what they know into the unknown to pursue their craft. Cooking might leave you more room for a little more or less of one thing or another, but it is still about balance. In the States, I find bakers to be more clean and tidy than chefs and ready to be completely self sufficient from beginning to end. Chefs like a team. Both can have huge egos and be tireless at getting the job done. Both have to have incredible organizational skills, but somehow pastry chefs seem better at it on the whole. They also seem a lot more willing to creep in at ungodly hours of the morning. fayefood.com

                                                    1. I worked as a baker the summerI graduated from high school--in a famous resort area. Who wants to get up at 4:00 am to go down and make the same stuff over and over again in enormuos quantities when you're 18, have been up having way too much fun all night, again, and are dead tired? And then it took years to figure out how to make one loaf of bread or a small batch of pastry.

                                                      Although I cook 10 times or more against baking, what I have retained is the feel of the dough...the tactile sense that the dough is alive and well and will do what I want--or, on the other hand, that something went wrong and its better to start over again.

                                                      But both cooking and baking are the same in the sense of doing either or both for other people, thinking about them as you put things together.

                                                      1 Reply
                                                      1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                        I used to work in my bakery at college for extra $$. I had to be there at 4:30 am 4 days a week. I loved it. Just rolled out of bed and went. I had my fun in those days too. But there is nothing more satisfying to me than making big batches of something yummy and watching people enjoy it. And of course, I would rather bake w/exact measuring than cook by the seat of my pants. Like we talked about in an earlier post, I bake when I am stressed (or when I find a new way to make a batch of Chocolate chip cookies-just found a recipe that adds peaunut butter with the butter). Susan, will you let us know where we vcan find your article once it is written? Thanks!

                                                      2. Susan, what a great idea for an article. I've been a chef, restaurant start up guy and owner. My weakest suit has always been baking, so I have a great respect for bakers and what they do. Like sevreal folks on this board have mentioned... Really good bakers seem to be quite crazy, often unreliable and very rare. I think it's the bakers hours that attract a different breed. They're lives are upside down, which tends to limit a social life ... except for going out to drink at 8 AM... when most of us are going to work. Many of the bakers I've hired over the years were heavily into drugs and alcohol. Even more than the BOH crew (which says alot). I've put up with pretty bad behavior from several. bakers, just because they were so damn brilliant and no one could replace them. The really good one's (that actually "bake" without using "product") make up a very small club these days, which also ups the ante, when it comes to the money thay can demand for their services.

                                                        1. Well, susanj - I love to bake. I'm kind of quiet - especially when I'm baking - or cooking - I also love to cook. Only use recipes as a point of reference (except for a cake, or cookies, of course). Everything is practically intuitive with me. Need a cabinet full of spices, flavorings and flavored oils, nuts, coconut, soy sauce, lemon & lime juice, etc.... so I can create easily.

                                                          For instance: last Christmas, after my kids made me promise to do a simple meal, I followed their wishes - we had lasagne w/homemade semolina pasta, homemade ricotta, (homemade sauce, OF COURSE - I'm part Sicilian, 'nuf said..) Started my bread the day before (no machines.. we don't need no stinkin' machines here), homeroasted the coffee earlier, also. Made only two or three pies, biscotti.. I know I'm leaving something out. (My daughter joked & asked if I grew the wheat out back & ground the grain myself.. hmm.. that's a thought.)

                                                          My girls are vegetarian, so other years I'd make one of my vegetarian tofu creations for them (and me) and a meat dish for the boys (and me).

                                                          I get compliments from everyone, about just about everything. (In fact, I just started culinary school - better later than never, I say!)

                                                          I use my creativity in both cooking & baking - but maybe I'm an aardvark! (and I hate math, btw)

                                                          1. I tried reading everyones posts but they were so long sometimes that I couldn't.

                                                            As far as I knew, it was as simple as this. Baking is about a formula. It's a chemical reaction of a sort and not having the correct balance will throw off the dish. No room for improvisation.

                                                            Cooking is all about improvisation. You don't like this so you substitute that. The same dish can tasted decidedly different.


                                                            4 Replies
                                                            1. re: Davwud

                                                              Baking is not all about formula. Really good baking starts with formula and flies (same as cooking).

                                                              1. re: Davwud

                                                                Yes, I completely disagree with this as well. I often tinker with baking recipes and change proportions of ingredients. And that's just the components that build the underlying structure. As far as flavoring elements go, there is no end to the improvisation that is possible. Sometimes I modify recipes to include elements that will boost the flavor profile of the recipe. Or I change the flavoring elements completely. You can mix and match things like filling, frostings, toppings, etc. Play around with savory elements in traditionally sweet foods and vice versa. I think that people who believe that baking is strictly a "by the book" formula are simply not bakers.

                                                                1. re: flourgirl

                                                                  totally agree, I am always tweaking my recipes while baking-I can't help it. Although I do follow the exact measurement for some things, I'll go with the original formula and change slightly as I go along. I improvise all the time. Sometimes with good results.

                                                                  1. re: flourgirl

                                                                    A recently retired pastry chef/chocolatier here. It is about precision, and the feel to know when precision won't be precise! (and, if I do say so, incredible organization along with second and third senses to track 4 or 5 things in the oven/on the stove) When I was in pastry school, our master French pastry chef instructor wouldn't let us use a thermometer for confectionery because, if we relied on a thermometer "it doan gun be RIGHT!" It was the best skill I got: knowing just when to take a pan of boiling syrup from the fire, to allow for the time to walk across the kitchen to the mixer. Who was it who used the term "repeatable perfection"?

                                                                2. Hi susanj, home cook here. What a great project to work on. However, after reading though the responses, I'm really not seeing any monumental differences that define either side of the issue.

                                                                  I am a self taught cook, but I am a fantastic cook, and I think the reason is because I have a great palate. I'm really good with smell and taste. I can taste ingredients and spices that most people have a hard time with. My nose works very well too. Luckily, if I eat something once and concentrate on the flavors I can duplicate it, and I have.

                                                                  Baking, is something that I've never been really very interested in, or learning about. That is until about 2 years ago. Then I decided I wanted to learn to bake, and I wanted to learn to bake well. So I read cookbooks on baking, and I tasted a lot of baked goods, and looked at pastries and such and I asked questions whenever possible. Then I started with simple breads, scones, cookies, and quiches. All of which I do quite well now. But again I rely on taste, so I really studied them, and yes when it comes to baking them of course "feel" comes into play big time.
                                                                  Temperature is key and knowing how to use it correctly and to your advantage while baking, you really need to understand what the heat is doing to do the product. A cook can get out of the woods fast, remove the pan from the heat source, not so with baking, either way to late or too soon if you get that wrong you're doomed,.

                                                                  So to answer your questions, IMHO baking is subjective. And you can't make a generalization. Isn't it all about mindset and about ones personality and attitude.

                                                                  Rivalry? Not for me, I look up to anyone that can bake a perfect baguette, I bow to good bakers, and although I am not professionally trained, no papers just blessed with my God given talent, experience and a large desire to learn as much as I can, it seems to me that bakers are the ones with more discipline where as I (a cook) go by the seat of my pants.

                                                                  1. Bakeing vs. cooking?? This seems to be a distinction made by pros. I'm just obsessed by gardening and cooking, but until recently I have only seen the coast of the continent which is named "Baking." I've made sourdough pancakes for decades, but now my bro, (who is a pro), has introduced me to focaccia. You bakers seem to be worried about tight tolerances in your ingredients and techniques. I think this is due to your focus of making a lot of dough to make a big batch of bread or whatever in a big oven.
                                                                    I like primitive cooking techniques like grilling and smoking stuff with a wood fire. Dutch ovens and winter cooking on wood heating stoves. Hearth cooking.
                                                                    It's physics, chemistry, and art. It's about having a good nose. Brewing ale is the highest refinement of baking.
                                                                    There are musicians who can play a tune they've never heard from a score, a piece of sheet music. There are others who can't read a note, but if you play the tune for them a couple of times they just remember it. Might need the score to read the words, but the music is stored in some motor memory center and never has to be read again. I am in the latter group, and the former group amazes me, as we do they. To me the "naturals" are better than the "technicians." We don't care about precision, it's like "never the same way once." Less mechanical. Constant experimentation. We're the one's who figure it out in the first place, and then the techs write it down.
                                                                    So it goes with cooking. A handful of this and a pinch of salt and a smidgen of fresh tarragon.
                                                                    We don't just do things the way nana taught us, either. For a pro, it's different, you have to produce consistent results on a regular basis. Home cooks have a lot more room to be inventive. If it flops, try again until you get it right, or even better.
                                                                    So I'm going to knead this dough with 4 kinds of flour and sourdough starter in it. Roasted red peppers, capers, fresh rosemary and oregano. Coconut butter, poppy seeds. Kalamata olives and smoked sprats and anchovies.
                                                                    I don't know just how the bread will turn out, with the flour mix and the water content and the starter and the thickness the oil and how long to let it rise or how many times to punch it down, but it will be good. Focaccia was invented on a hot hearth by being baked under the ashes, and then dusted off.
                                                                    I understand what you're getting at, but is not all baking cooking? In my mind fishing and hunting and gathering and gardening and cooking all merge together.


                                                                    1. The day my husband (the Chemist) started to explore baking ten years ago, was the day I tasted freedom from the tyranny of baking. He loves baking and is fascinated by baking science. And when he experiments, he has no problem testing and retesting and tweaking and researching. He feels like he does more science in the kitchen than at work. The only thing I bake? His birthday cake, once a year. Give me a saucepan anyday.

                                                                      1. I don't know - it's not a distinction that interests me that much. I would say, rather: what sort of cooking? What sort of baking? The pastry chef who assembles a torte from buttercream, meringue, sponge cake, and ganache, having developed this dish through a fantasy of combinations ("pistachio cake, white chocolate ganache, pistachio buttercream? no, raspberry") has a lot in common with a chef who makes ravioli, make a filling, creates a sauce, and puts these things together in his head ("and those onions as a garnish!"), even if the pastry chef might have a little less leeway in making the components. A baker who mixes up bread from a sourdough starter and adds the leftover grains from last night's dinner, working completely without a recipe (yes, you can!) and baking off in a woodstove has a lot in common with the cook scrambling through the fridge throwing together odds and ends for a pasta sauce. Sure, bakers have a structure to hang their improvisations on that can actually fail completely if certain proportions are not roughly maintained, and most cooks can improvise without a fear of failure of the same degree (the fish may taste awful, but it's still recognizably fish, as compared to a cake that wouldn't rise at all). But the two are not nearly so far apart as one might think.

                                                                        I will agree that it usually takes longer for people to feel comfortable improvising in baking.

                                                                        1 Reply
                                                                        1. re: curiousbaker

                                                                          Interesting post. I especially liked the comparison of the pastry chef creating an assembled dessert with a chef creating and putting together a dish comprised of several components. I'm finding myself heading in that direction more and more in my own (at home, amateur) baking and it's proving to be very creative and rewarding.