From coffee cakes to snickerdoodles, there’s a whole lot of science going on behind the scenes of your favorite baked treat. When it comes to baking, a little knowledge goes a long way for incredible and delicious results.
Many people who love to improvise and get creative in the kitchen enjoy cooking, but sometimes even the most dedicated home chefs draw the line at baking. Why is baking so difficult? Well, part of the reason is that baking relies on the fundamentals of science to produce successful results. For this reason, it’s often referred to as the chemistry of cooking. But even if chemistry isn’t quite your thing, don’t let that discourage you!
People spend a lifetime devoted to pastry making, bread making, and baking. However, all you need to know is a little bit about the fundamentals of baking, the ingredients involved, and the chemical transformations that happen when you mix everything up. Soon you’ll be ready to bake whatever it is your heart desires.
What is Baking?
Baking is a type of dry heat cooking, similar to roasting, that’s done in an enclosed space such as an oven, not over a direct flame. Most people think of roasting as something that’s done to savory meats and vegetables, while baking usually refers to desserts or savory dishes using flour. Others use both ‘baking’ and ‘roasting’ interchangeably.
Broadly speaking for bread, pastries, cookies, and cakes, baking uses flour, sugar, eggs, liquid, salt, and leavening agents that chemically change with movement and heat. During baking, heat is evenly transferred to the center of the item that’s baked, making a crust on the outside with a soft center. The dry heat of baking changes the form of starches in the food and causes its outer surfaces to brown, giving it an attractive appearance and taste. The color change on the surface and creation of new flavors is often due to Maillard browning and caramelization of sugars.
What culinary problem is this method solving?
Baking is a way to uniformly heat foods in an enclosed space. For savory foods, it helps to gently cook and tenderize each piece, and keep it moist. It also evenly warms casserole dishes and creates a crispy layer on top if cheese or breadcrumbs are added. For sweet treats and bread baked goods, baking turns a raw dough or batter into golden products with irresistible contrasting flavors and textures created by the exterior crust and crumbly or chewy centers.
Baking at low vs. high temps
Some baked goods with high-fat content can tolerate higher cooking temperatures for part of the time in the oven, but most baked goods that use a higher proportion of flour to butter or fat benefit from even cooking at moderate temperatures. Some yeast pieces of bread, like sourdough, which are very low in fat use the highest baking temperatures. Here are some common temperature ranges and when to use them.
Part of the science of baking is understanding the process of what happens to the fats, sugar, proteins, starches, and gasses while in the oven. If something is baked at a low temperature, the process takes place more slowly and evenly throughout the product with less overlap in processes.
The gentle rise in temperature allows the external part of what you’re baking to react in similar fashion to the inside. Conversely, batter placed in a high-temperature oven will have a number of processes going on in quick succession and with an uneven distribution. In this scenario, the recipe will undergo all of the steps more quickly than the internal portions. It all depends on your desired end taste and texture.
For example, baking a cake at 350ᵒF is sort of a happy medium between 300ᵒF and 400ᵒF and creates a cake that has lightness, texture, and ideal caramelization.
Cooking Temperatures for Baked Goods
- 325 to 350°F (163 to 177ºC): Probably the most common range for everyday baking. Temperatures over 300°F are where you begin to see caramelization (browning of sugars) and the Maillard reaction (browning of proteins). Cakes and cookies are also typically baked at 350°F since they have a fair amount of sugar. If baked at a higher temperature, the exterior of the cake could burn before it is fully cooked in the center.
- 375 to 400°F (191 to 204ºC): Shorter-term baking favors a slightly higher temperature to ensure crisp edges to cookies or baked goods using cheese.
- 425° t0 450°F (218 to 232ºC): This is where you’ll want to do any short-term baking because the burst of high heat ensures a golden color without having to stay in the oven for too long. For example, this is the ideal temperature for puff pastry, since you want the oven to be over 400°F to make sure the steam releases and puffs up the pastry.
- 475° to 500°F (246 to 260ºF): If you’re turning up the heat to the highest temperatures your oven can go, you’re likely making pizza or pieces of bread. A very high temperature will cause the bread or pizza dough to rise and cook before the gluten has a chance to set.
Types of Baking
- Cakes: Whether it’s layer cakes, sheet cakes, cupcakes, or cheesecakes, there are hundreds of different kinds of glorious cakes. Most fall into two basic categories, depending on the quantity of fat used: shortened cakes, using shortening, butter, or oil, or unshortened cakes using little to no fat.
- Custards: Rich and creamy, custards are thick desserts made with eggs and milk. Crème brûlée, pots de creme, and pannacotta are some of the most popular.
- Chocolate Baking: One of the most popular types of baking, using chocolate in baking is a sure fire way to gain big points with any chocolate lover. Knowing the right type of chocolate, from cocoa content to fat content, is key.
- Bread: An age-old food, bread is completely satisfying and very rewarding to make at home. From flatbread to focaccia, pizza dough to baguette, many types of bread use some form of yeast as a leavening agent to achieve airy holes and a nutty flavor. Irish soda bread is an exception, that uses chemical leavening agents for a quick crusty product.
- Quick breads: Flaky buttermilk biscuits, banana bread, muffins, and doughnuts are all examples of quick bread, which usually use chemical leavening instead of yeast for their rise.
- Pastry: Love phyllo, croissants, and puff pastry? Then the pastry category is something worth checking out. It’s a broad family with some of the most challenging types of baking, but all use a combination of fat, flour, water, and salt to achieve their unparalleled texture and mouthfeel.
- Pies and tarts: Flaky crusts for savory and sweet applications alike, pies and tarts rely on a thin dough that is tender and crisp at the same time. Think crostatas, double crust pies, fruit tarts, and galettes.
- Cookies: Cookies are loved all over the world, and are incredibly versatile. From traditional holiday recipes to casual snacks, they span a wide range of varieties. They can be dropped, sliced, molded, rolled, cut, baked into bars, sandwiched with fillings, and decorated with colorful icings, sugars, and toppings.
Stages of baking
There are 9 stages of baking for batters and dough from the start to after it’s been freshly baked. All of these contribute to the texture, structure, and taste. (Source: On Baking- A Textbook of Culinary Fundamentals)
- Gases Form: Carbon dioxide, steam, and air that is present before or develop during baking affect the final texture.
- Gases Trapped: Egg and/or gluten proteins are expandable networks that trap gases in the product.
- Starches Gelatinize: Starch granules in flour/grains absorb ~ 10X their weight in moisture and expand at 140ºF (60ºC).
- Proteins Coagulate: Proteins in gluten, dairy, and eggs solidify at 160ºF (71ºC), setting the majority of the structure.
- Fats Melt: Fat droplets disperse and steam is released. The fat coats the starch granules to help moisten and tenderize.
- Water Evaporates: During baking, the water turns to steam and evaporates, with continued heating a dried crust forms.
- Sugars Caramelize: Sugars heated above 320ºF (160ºC) carmelize, thus develop deeper color and flavor.
- Carryover Baking: Depending on the product and time it sits on the pan after baking affects heat transfer to the center.
- Staling: Change in texture and aroma due to moisture loss. The structure of starch granules modifies called starch retrogradation. This causes drier, firmer, crumbly, or less crisp texture. This happens faster at refrigerated temperatures of 40ºF (4ºC), so keep baked goods at room temperature or frozen as long as there is not perishable filling.
The role of Gluten
Part of the reason people tend to think of baking as ‘magical’ is that relatively simple ingredients go into making such a vast array of delectable things. It all comes down to gluten, the way that flour transforms with kneading, blending, and beating, into something else altogether. Gluten is a protein that is derived from wheat flour and developed when incorporated with water and mixed. While technically flour doesn’t contain gluten, once it’s mixed with a liquid, kneaded, then baked, the hydrated proteins in the flour cause gluten formation to occur in the baked good.
Room temperature ingredients
Unless you’re making a flaky pie crust or some other recipe that relies on cold fat and flour for ultimate flakiness, most professional bakers require their ingredients to be at room temperature, or even warm, when making a recipe. Room temperature ingredients allow for a fine texture and light mouthfeel because the eggs are better able to emulsify (join fats with liquids) with the sugar in baking recipes, and butter (or a butter substitute) is better combined as well. If you’re caught with cold eggs, use some warm water to get them up to temperature before adding them to the mixing bowl.
When baking, try to remember that a recipe is more of a formula than a set of guidelines to follow. Ratios and proportions have to be correct, so it’s very important to measure accurately for the best results.
Preheating an oven is especially important with baking when you use yeast, baking soda and baking powder as leavenings, all of which react to heat. Your recipe also cooks faster in a preheated oven because you’ve got the right temperature from the start and your dish can start cooking properly as soon as you put it in the oven. An oven thermometer will help you calibrate your oven’s temperature to see if your own oven runs a few degrees too cool or too hot.
Conventional vs. Convection Oven
Another option is to do conventional or convection baking. Conventional ovens cook food by surrounding it with hot air, while convection circulates the air with an internal fan for more even and often times quicker cooking. This may require adjustments to temperature and baking times.
Where to set the oven rack
Believe it or not, where you set the racks in your oven makes a big difference in the outcome of your baked goods. Not all ovens heat consistently, so it’s important to follow a few simple rules.
To bake a cake on one rack, place the rack on the lower third of the oven, just below the center. If baking multiple pans, be sure to rotate the pans from the front to the back about halfway through the baking time to cook evenly.
For cookies, try to bake in the center of the oven. If you’re baking multiple trays of cookies, use the lower and upper third of the oven and rotate the pans from lower to upper and back to front about halfway through.
Most baked goods don’t have the density to keep cooking once taken out of the oven, which is called carryover cooking. Make sure that when you remove your recipe from the oven, it’s completely done, and allow to cool according to the instructions before moving to the next step of the recipe. One way to set the exterior of the product and gently prolong heat transfer to the center is to keep the item on/in the pan for a few minutes after removing it from the oven. Denser, higher fat cakes like cheesecake can continue to cook, however.
Unless you want everything you bake to be flat and hard like a roof shingle, you’ll need some kind of leavening agent to help your recipe not only taste good but feel good, too. The workhorses of the baking world, leavening agents are often a crucial ingredient in baking, responsible for giving baked goods their light and porous texture. Be sure to measure carefully and use the exact amount of each type in the recipe you’re using. Too much or too little can make a huge difference in the outcome of your recipe. Here are some basic types:
- Chemical (C02) – Baking powder (a combination of baking soda, calcium phosphate, and sodium aluminum sulfate). The most common type of baking powder is double-acting, which releases some carbon dioxide when moisture is added, and the rest is released when heated in the oven. Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) is alkali and can make your recipe taste “off” unless it’s used in combination with acidic ingredients (buttermilk, applesauce, honey, brown sugar, molasses, vinegar).
- Yeast (CO2) – A leavening agent primarily used in bread making, yeast is a single-celled, microscopic plant that thrives on simple sugars in the dough, turning them into carbon dioxide. This is what gives bread all its many air bubbles. Yeast can come in active dry form, compressed cake form, a fast-rising form, or as a starter, like sourdough starter. It needs, moisture, warmth, sugar, and time to do its work, a process called fermentation.
- Air – By beating egg whites, creaming ingredients, and sifting dry ingredients, you’re incorporating air into your batters and doughs, which when bake will become lighter.
- Steam – Steam needs water and heat in order to become a leavening agent. Water molecules get hot enough to change from a liquid to a gas, leaving behind big, fluffy holes in baked goods; éclairs, popovers, and cream puffs are famous examples of steam leavening.
Benefits of Baking
Baking is important for making bread, cakes, pastries, custards, casseroles and various other common foods that we eat. It’s also an important part of our culture, and a great way to diversify our diet.
- Time: Most baked goods don’t take much time to make, unless you’re making a complex recipe or something that takes considerable rising time, like yeast bread. A batch of cookies or a pan of brownies comes together in under an hour.
- Taste: We all have our favorites, but there isn’t anything quite like the alchemy of eggs, sugar, and flour. Everything in moderation, however!
- Texture: Baking is all about its many beautiful textures. Sticking to a recipe’s measurements and using the right temperature when baking is key to getting that ideal texture that baked goods are known for: flaky, crunchy, soft, cloud-like, ethereal, dense and rich, or silky smooth.
- Nutrition: While nutrition varies depending on your recipe, baking is a great way to incorporate whole grains, healthy fats, alternative flours, and even fruits and vegetables into your diet.
Tools for Baking
- Non-Stick Bakeware
- Leaveners & Yeast
- Baking Mat
- Oven Mitts
- Cooling Rack
- Baking Cups
- Adjustable Rolling Pin
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