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Dec 30, 2011 06:47 PM

Learning to bake without recipes

I am sick of being a slave to baking recipes. I just want to understand the basic foundations of what goes into what to lay the foundations down in defining such-and-such baked good, but then be able to improvise (add-in additions or replace) from there in making whatever desired end product I want out of it in the end. This affords me a much more greater autonomy to expand upon when it comes to cooking and really understanding the process.

Micheal Ruhlman's book "Ratio" is a very good introduction to this. I was wondering if anyone else had any other advice, tips or books in how to do this also.

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  1. Baking is chemistry. You really need to understand all of your ingedients, what they do and how they interact with each other to be able to wing it successfully.

    5 Replies
    1. re: weezieduzzit

      I agree. Until you've learned why certain procedures are followed in baking and how to deal with the subtleties for handling dough, monitoring fermentations and developing specific flavor profiles (particularly in breads) you're not ready to venture out onto a creative adventure. Failure is the specter that lurks at the elbow of the undisciplined baker.
      As an incidental side note, baking doesn't usually follow a recipe - baking is chemistry and that means you'll be using formulas, not recipes.

      1. re: todao

        "Failure is the specter that lurks at the elbow of the undisciplined baker."

        That's one of the best lines I've heard to describe the bakers dilemma.

        For the OP - adherence to a baking formula is not being a slave to a recipe. Ratio is a great place to start, On Food and Cooking and Bakewise should be handy references in your kitchen; a thorough understanding of the chemistry and how individual ingredients work and work together will free you to expand your creativity. So, get going, because there's lots to it.

      2. re: weezieduzzit

        I have a kitchen apron that states "I don't need a recipe...I'M ITALIAN" which is not entirely true. My genes came from a different European country. However, the 1st part of the statement is true only about cooking foods other than those that need flour and a fermentation period. I agree with the statement that baking is chemistry.

        1. re: ChiliDude

          Cooking is chemistry; not just baking.

          That, by itself, does not make relying on a recipe a necessary condition.

      3. I think Ratio covers the bases thoroughly. People worry too much about strict adherence to baking recipes. There are various ways to handle the same ingredients that yield different textures but that doesn't make one superior to another unless you are fussy about your results.
        I routinely melt butter for cookie and quickbread recipes that call for creaming. The cookies are flatter and crisper that way, which I prefer. The quickbreads or muffins have more compact crumb but I don't mind that.

        1 Reply
        1. re: greygarious

          Ratio is fantastic. I have tweaked a few of his recipes, and I prefer Alton Brown's popovers (but I do use a popover pan), but otherwise it is outstanding.

        2. I rarely use recipes when baking.

          Learn how to make the basics by heart. A basic white cake, a custard, a crust, etc.

          Then go from there and experiment. There is no better teacher than experience.

          30 Replies
          1. re: ipsedixit

            Learn how to make the basics by heart is great advice for baking, and all sorts of cooking. Understanding that a particular recipe is 2 parts flour to 2 parts fat to 2 eggs or whatever the ratios may be means you can make sure it will come out decently and the your creativity. I came to baking late so still figuring that out and will have to look at Ruhlman's book.

            1. re: ipsedixit

              Do you ever bake anything that requires the use of yeast?

              1. re: ChiliDude

                Yes, all the time. Why?

                Baking bread and Focaccia are two of my favorite things to make. Chinese baos are another.

                1. re: ipsedixit

                  and some of the most forgiving yeast goods to make. back when i ate it, lol, i loved making bread and never used a recipe. except when i was first teaching myself how to do it. ;)

                  1. re: hotoynoodle

                    and wouldn't the tech applied to a recipe requiring few and basic ingredients still count on practice to result in a delicious loaf. I think so. Plenty of newcomers to bread baking wind up with bricks, doughy centers, too little/too much yeast...without a guidepost..the ingredients may not get a new bread baker far.

                    1. re: HillJ

                      If all one ever did was follow a recipe, has that person really learned how to bake?

                      1. re: ipsedixit

                        Not sure you understood my question or my comments on this thread, ips.
                        I hope the OP joins us.

                2. re: ChiliDude

                  I almost never use a recipe when I bake with yeast. You only need to measure your water when baking with breads because everything is a function of that component and even the water can be guestimated with sufficent experience or a sense of adventure. Once you learn a few simple rules, yeast is very forgiving.

                  I'm currently doing the final rise of yeast dinner rolls and I don't have a recipe for them.

                  1. re: Kelli2006

                    Recipes (with yeast) also do not take into account ambient temperature, hardness of water, altitude, etc.

                    1. re: ipsedixit

                      They also don't take into account the age of flour and the humidity which make a big difference in how much it needs and how the dough handles.

                      I will use a recipe the first time I make any baked good but I don't think that I have a single recipe that I haven't changed more then a few ingredients. My daughter/mom/friends are always asking me to write down my additions/changes so they get the same results.

                      I think that chemical leveners are far more unforgiving than yeast and must be measured, because too much baking powder can make something inedible and too little makes a hockey puck.

                      1. re: Kelli2006

                        re: chemical leaveners Is there really that big a difference between a 'recipe' and a 'ratio'? A recipe is specific that the liquid should be milk and the fat should be butter and the dry should be all purpose flour, while a ratio is x liquid: x fat: x dry? Bread is all over the map, and with time as an element leavener isn't important. Enough time, and you can make sourdough. With chemical leaveners, there are certain requirements you can't escape.

                        I bake scones without a recipe, but I'm still more or less following the ratio of 1 teaspoon baking powder to 1 cup flour to some sugar. Use heavy cream as both liquid and fat and add to desired consistency. I also make many sorbets with out a recipe, but that's not baking.

                    2. re: ChiliDude

                      I'd probably argue that yeast bread is the easiest baked good to make without a recipe.

                      With other stuff, I'm a little bit more careful. In a cake or muffins, I feel comfortable subbing pumpkin, sour cream, apple sauce, etc for egg, and that's about it. I'm more likely to patch together a few recipes to use up whatever is in the fridge than make one completely from scratch.

                    3. re: ipsedixit

                      I guess... This is sort of what I am trying to get at. How did you learn how to make the basics by heart? Surely there was a first time where you learned to bake your basic white cake, custard, crust, etc. from. So what resource would you recommend I learn from in that I can one day expand on and experiment?

                      1. re: achilles007

                        I must admit there is almost nothing I can bake without a recipe--not cake, custard or bread. But I've been cooking long enough that I am great at making substitutions--brown sugar for white, plums for apples etc. I would pick a cookbook that cooks the style or cuisine that you like and get to know it. I learned with Joy of Cooking and The Art of French Cooking. Both cover all courses of a meal so that is useful, and they do cover classic American/French cooking which will give you a pretty good understanding of "European" baking but it might seem much too traditional to you. Though they are easy to find second hand and that might be a plus?

                        1. re: achilles007


                          I had the benefit of growing up in a restaurant kitchen as both my parents were chefs/restauranteurs. My mom taught me how to make dumplings, hand-pulled noodles, baos, and all sorts of other Beijing pasta and bread specialties.

                          She ingrained in me not only the notion of what ratios to use (e.g. X parts of water to X parts of flour) but also to learn what a wet dough should feel like in the hands, and how much to knead before you over-knead. In other words, to trust your senses, esp. your sense of touch.

                          Then in high school, I did part time work at a bakery and then at a donut shop. The bakery never kept recipes, we were shown how to make something and then were expected to know how to make it. Again, it was by feel and touch. The proprietor always said that if he sold only things from a recipe, he might as well be in the publishing business. He wanted his goods to have soul.

                          So, I guess, my advice to you is simply to learn from someone. And short of that, just jump in and do it. Like I said up above, learn the basics -- by using a recipe if you have to -- and then let your imagination, creativity and soul do the rest.

                          That's baking. Everything else is just making something from a recipe, which is fine, but it is most definitely not mastering the art of baking.

                          1. re: ipsedixit

                            If you were making something you'd just eaten and wanted to recreate it, would you just improvise until you found the right way to do it? Or, would you consult some recipes and play with it from there? The former seems to be reinventing the wheel. I've never made speculoos but if I were going to, it makes no sense to experiment w/ spices, etc. in hopes of getting it right when I could look it up and see what is traditionally used. Call it making something from a recipe but if someone has perfected it, why not use that? Musicians play from a score but that doesn't mean they haven't mastered the art of the music.

                            1. re: chowser

                              There have been a number of times I have made something out of my head and then never been able to duplicate it again. So I have begun to work more from recipes and added/changed/dropped ingredients, which I note on the recipe. I really see no reason to start from scratch ever ytime when there is the wisdom and experience of many others to help me create a dish that works...why waste food trying to figure out the basics?

                              1. re: escondido123

                                I've done that, too, especially with savory dishes. I can't replicate what I did. I tried "butter chicken" recently, just threw in a bunch of things I had sitting around. My friend loved it and asked how I made it--it seemed evasive but I really didn't remember. Your method of recording it makes sense.

                                I was thinking the same thing about trying to figure out the basics, if it's already been done. Ideally we could have someone show us (which is essentially a "live" recipe) but when we don't, it doesn't make sense to do it from scratch, especially if there's a tradition behind a dish and how it should be made.

                                1. re: chowser

                                  I have been thinking that dishes were probably first made with ratios--two handfuls of flour to one handful of butter etc etc--and the someone said "Gee why don't we measure these items in some way that can be replicated so we can make the same dish again?" Then along came measurements by the pound, the cup, the liter or whatever, along with small measurements for spices and such. Of course, that also meant people having the ability to read and write, which would have been necessary to put that information down on paper. Think of all the dishes that would have been lost until someone "discovered" them if they'd never been written down. (Our family stopped making a dessert called "Company Cake" until someone came upon the recipe tucked into an old cookbook. We would have tried to do it but we ate it when we were young so had a hard time remembering exactly what was involved.)

                              2. re: chowser

                                If you were making something you'd just eaten and wanted to recreate it, would you just improvise until you found the right way to do it? Or, would you consult some recipes and play with it from there?

                                The former.

                                Although "improvise" might be the wrong word. Revers engineer might be more apt.

                                But again, the OP and the theme of the sub-threads as I understand it is to learn how to bake (or cook), not how to cook one particular dish. If it was just how to cook on particular dish (or baked good), then, yes, I agree with you that consulting a recipe would be the most efficient way of doing things.

                                1. re: ipsedixit

                                  I think you've had an enviable background, as learning to cook goes. But some of us don't have access to that (it's almost impossible to be hired these days as a pastry assistant w/out a degree since there are so many degreed/ trained chefs w/out jobs). I've taken classes but that gets expensive. I follow recipes and then play. But, I rarely memorize them. I know the techniques but not the exact measurements,

                                  1. re: chowser


                                    I don't begrudge following recipes.

                                    But don't you think there is a difference between these two statements?

                                    1. I want to learn how to bake

                                    2. I want to learn how to bake Grandma's Special Chocolate Cake.

                                    To learn No.1 goes beyond recipes, and learning how to recreate a recipe. That is what No. 2 is about.

                                    To master No.1, a person can no doubt use recipes as a starting point, or even as a supplement, but to truly understand "how to bake" (or how to cook or whatever), one has to understand the quiddity of a recipe. In other words, a person has to learn the "what" and "how" of the particulars of a successful recipe, not just that the recipe seems to work if you follow A then B then C.

                                    Why does Grandma's cake call for more baking soda than Epicurious' chocolate cake? Or why does Grandma's recipe call for beating the egg yolks and whites separately when others don't? Etc.

                                    This is why Alton Brown's "Good Eats" is such an instructional series for someone who really wants to learn how to make something.

                                    1. re: ipsedixit

                                      I've been thinking about this the past couple of days. "I want to learn how to bake" is too wide of a subject. The OP could have said, "I want to learn how to bake a genoise" and that in itself would be a long series of techniques and ingredients. But "baking" means far too many items, techniques, etc. which is why pastry chefs spend so much time in school. Learning the general science behind it all is helpful (and also wide)--Shirley Corriher's books are a start but then, she has a college degree in food science which shows how in depth one can get. That's why I suggested picking one item and mastering it. What you learn there will help translate to some other items, eg chocolate chip cookies will help w/ other cookies but it still won't help bake a loaf of ciabatta.

                                      1. re: chowser

                                        Let's approach this issue from another view.

                                        Let's assume, as you seem to suggest, you take one recipe and master it. We can use chocolate chip cookies as our example. Where does that exactly get us?

                                        If all you do is take one particular recipe and completely master it so that you can make chocolate chip cookies from that one particular recipe without fail, under any condition, have you learned how to make chocolate chip cookies? Or have only learned -- nay, mastered -- how to follow that particular recipe for chocolate chip cookies?

                                        Now, let's pan out a bit, and do what you propose. Master making chocolate chip cookies in general. How would one go about doing this? By scouring Google and mastering every iteration of chocolate chip cookie recipe in existence? Or by learning the science, technique and basic underpinnings of cookies? I think we can both agree that the latter approach is both more practical, if not infinitely more sound.

                                        So with all of that said, I think we can both agree that regardless of whether a person wants to "learn how to bake" or "learn how to make chocolate chip cookies" she cannot rely on recipes alone. In fact, if she does, she is doomed to a journey of frustration that would make Sisyphus' task seem like child's play.

                                        1. re: ipsedixit

                                          "By scouring Google and mastering every iteration of chocolate chip cookie recipe in existence? Or by learning the science, technique and basic underpinnings of cookies?"

                                          The former would be the America's Test Kitchen, right? The latter is what I've done but at the same time for centuries people did it by feel, w/ no knowledge of protein content, etc. and just learned from experience (I always think these types of people must have great memories. I rarely remember from one time to the next what I've done). That type of desire to improve isn't necessary in my mind, though. If someone finds a recipe, he/she likes and learns it, who's to say he/she hasn't learned to make a chocolate chip cookie? Have you read Jim Leff's thread about Von and his oatmeal cookie? I don't know how much he has learned about the science, technique and basic underpinnings of cookies but he apparently knows how to make a darn good cookie, even following the recipe. Has he learned, in your opinion, how to make a good oatmeal cookie? I think he has.

                                          1. re: chowser

                                            A lot baking science research is motivated by the needs of millers and big commercial bakers. You can get a sense of that by looking up dough conditioners on Wikipedia. I did a bit of that back when bloggers were hyperventilating about some chemical that starts with 'a' that was in the McRib - actually it was in all the MD breads. But much of that research is either inaccessible or irrelevant to home bakers. Writers like H McGee and S Corriher, and shows like ATK and Good Eats are probably the best sources of the relevant science for the home cooks.

                                            General purpose cook books like Joy of Cooking explain the main ingredients (ap, bread, pastry, cake, bleached flour), give some substitutions, and explain methods (cake method v muffin method etc). And most usefully give at least one recipe (and often several, with variations) of every major category of baked items. Look, for example, at the section on egg based cakes - genoise, angel, chiffon, etc.

                                            If the OP isn't already familiar with Joy (or something similar) I'd strongly recommend getting a copy from a used book store and spend of week of evenings just reading it, especially the 'ingredients' chapter.

                                            1. re: paulj

                                              For a beginner, I'd also recommend Shirley Corriher's Cookwise and reading just the sections on baking. That's a good synopsis of Bakewise. And, all these books, like the ones you've recommended, can be found in my public library. Plus, there are infinite number of really good sites, like baking911, that have good information. If one wants to learn about baking and ingredients, it's easy to find.

                            2. re: achilles007

                              Probably the best way to learn ratios and you aren't going to learn all the ratios for everything by heart is to go through all the recipes you are interested in and write in the ratios. You'll find they are all pretty similar. All the butter cakes will have similar ratios. You may be surprised in the variances of custards, I was. The big differences will be in the flavorings but once you get a feel for the required ratios for butter cakes, you will be able make a lot of different cakes with the same basic ratio... just different flavorings.

                              1. re: achilles007

                                You may be looking for a more directed approach, but I use allrecipes. Using the ingredient search, I can pull up results that match what I have in the fridge. They have a button to convert to metric, and after reading a few recipes, I can start to get an idea of the proportions.

                            3. achilles007, if you're willing to break alot of eggs and go thru lbs. of butter-more power to you. I have plenty of technical experience but I experiment constantly. To find your sweet spot for baking though you have to put in the time. So start with something you really love to eat and bake it the way you'd like the recipe to go. If you're happy with the results-great. If you feel the recipe needed tweaking-figure out the rewrite. But however you approach baking it involves practice, a willingness to throw out the fails and lots of experimentation. Otherwise, you're just wasting good ingredients and that's not how to bake.

                              9 Replies
                              1. re: HillJ

                                The mention of eggs and butter suggests that you are mainly thinking of cakes. That's, perhaps, the least forgiving area of baking. And certain kinds of cookies are also picky. But there are other areas that are more forgiving, especially if your own tastes are forgiving.

                                Pancakes are particularly easy item to experiment with. You can use a variety of flours, a variety of fats (melted butter, oil, etc), liquids (milk, water, buttermilk etc), amounts of eggs, degrees of sweetness, various add ins. Plus you can adjust the recipe from cake to cake.

                                Quick breads/muffins are also easy to vary. Cornbread threads illustrate the possible variations in that quick bread, from a strict southern no sugar and no flour version to sweet puddings with cream corn.

                                Then there are biscuits, scones, flat breads, and yeast breads.

                                1. re: paulj

                                  And many of these you mention, paulj, require more precision when measuring ingred. I'm hoping the OP will come back and specify the type of baking that they would like to try sans recipe. While plenty of lousy recipes and inaccurate measurements line the walls of recipe-dome, a well written, foolproof method for say rye bread is a keeper or the airy-ist of scones appreciated on a Sunday morning or biscuits you just know are going to make the meal....these recipes I cultivate in my own kitchen and follow to the letter because they work. Experimenting with flavors, add-ins, spices, etc. sure but sometimes learning to bake without a guidepost is more enjoyed once fluent.

                                  Is the OP frustrated and experienced or just frustrated with baking?

                                  1. re: HillJ

                                    Thinking for example about biscuits and scones, changes in the recipe will affect the final product, but the result might still be acceptable.

                                    What fat do you use? A traditional Irish soda bread has no fat. Other biscuit recipes use grated frozen butter, or rub in shortening, or use heavy cream. My mom preferred an easy recipe that used oil. I've made some great tasting biscuits with olive oil and grate cheese.

                                    Shirley Corriher's Touch of Grace biscuits use shortening and cream, and leave the dough so wet you have to handle it with floured hands. The Chicago (area code) biscuits in Ratio are rolled and folded like puff pastry dough, and require a resting period.

                                    How about the leavening? Buttermilk and baking soda? 1 tsp baking powder per cup of flour? Or more bp? Some recipes use both baking soda and baking powder. Single or double acting baking powder? Why not buttermilk and baking powder, and no added baking soda?

                                    What flour do you use? White Lilly self rising? AP? white whole wheat? half oats, half wheat? How many eggs in scones? None in many British recipes, 1 is common in the American version. How much sugar? Raisins, nuts, diced ham?

                                    1. re: HillJ

                                      Well... I didnt really have a baked good in mind. I am completely inexperienced to the world of baking, yet at the same time... completely overwhelmed with all the info, techniques, recipes, etc. And just plain have no idea where to start.

                                      1. re: achilles007

                                        We were all there once, achilles007. So like many of us have suggested, focus on a minimum of baking recipes that really appeal to you and work on getting them under your belt. Once you feel comfortable baking, you are more likely to experiment and even view recipes in a diff. light. But enjoy experimenting and relax! It's only baking :)

                                        1. re: HillJ

                                          And just plain have no idea where to start.
                                          For what it's worth, achilles007 I started by clipping recipes from magazines when I was about eight and trying one at a time. None of the recipes were gourmet or a long list of ingredients they just had me curious...and I come from a line of bakers, food service folk, restaurant owners and food stylists in my family tree....and it took a second career to get me in a teaching kitchen...and I continue to learn all the time. So, the idea of baking without some formal guideline is hard for me to fully endorse but at the same time I believe experimentation and a joy for delicious results is worth taking chances with recipes.

                                          So the advice I offer is this: continue to try if you really want to bake. Have fun with it and don't worry too much about where to start....just start.

                                        2. re: achilles007

                                          I cast a vote for plain old flour/water/yeast/salt bread as a place to start.

                                          1. re: achilles007

                                            Start with one recipe. Say for a loaf of bread. Make that same recipe over and over again. You make bread twice a week for a year, that's 100 loaves. Over the course of those 100 loaves you're going to discover all sorts of subtleties that aren't in any book. At some point you'll probably start tweaking this and that and trying little experiments. Don't be afraid to make mistakes... you'll learn more from the failures than you will from the successes. Don't worry if the 2nd or the 5th or the 27th loaf isn't any good. Throw it out and try again. Keep pushing. Have fun!

                                            1. re: jonoropeza

                                              i started baking bread for fun while living on the gulf coast of florida. when i moved back to boston, my results were drastically different because of the relative lack of humidity.

                                              it's all a learning process.

                                    2. in terms of books:
                                      Harold McGee's On Food and Science - great all purpose kitchen chemistry book, baking encompassed in it
                                      BakeWise by Shirley O. Corriher - not a bad book explaining the science and breaking down the recipes she includes

                                      I'd highly recommend knowing a lot about ingredients, i.e. the functions of fats, flours, sugar, eggs, different leaveners, solid vs liquid fat, etc. and knowing how they affect recipes - if you wanted softer more tender chewy cookies, increase brown sugar, add an extra egg yolk, add protein - this is an obvious example but that kind of thing.

                                      look at recipes you love. identify your preference for sweetness ratios. play with your favorites, seeing what happens when you alter components.

                                      also, play with techniques for mixing - ie with cakes, creamed, sponge, 2 part, etc.

                                      when you're baking, look at textures, feel your batters, smell them... try to remember the stages...

                                      good luck!