On Becoming a Baker
Cooking vs. baking: It’s a weird dichotomy in the culinary world, with savory and pastry cooks tucked into their respective corners of the boxing ring. Here’s why one avid home cook has finally decided to bridge the divide.
It’s funny, the way insecurity can sneak even into the kitchen. I’ve long subscribed to the notion that—like the jets and the sharks, Batman and the Joker, liberals and conservatives—some people are bakers and others, cooks. The bakers, I told myself reassuringly, were the same type who love graph paper and science, engineering and math, measuring carefully and (if I’m brutally honest with myself, here) maybe not knowing how to have a good time.
I’m a different stripe of culinary nerd—the savory kind. I want to read about the Maillard reaction and why steak gets almost candied when you sear it properly. I love that I’ve finally mastered how to deglaze a sheet pan using bourbon, and make a gravy that is the Platonic ideal to drizzle on a pork chop. (More on that soon!) And although I’ve edited cookbooks and major national food sites and I’ve been a food writer and avid cook for more than a decade, I’ve always told people I’m a mediocre baker.
It doesn’t matter that I, well, bake. I make tarte tatin (but it’s a foolproof recipe). I make elaborate caramelized onion and Taleggio tarts (but I use frozen puff pastry). I make awesome homemade pizza (but the dough is just so easy). I always have an excuse for why it’s not impressive.
This is silly, I’m finally realizing; it’s unfair to myself. How can baking be the territory of “science people” and not me? Making a perfect loaf of bread can’t solely be the turf of the engineer ex-boyfriend who carried around a moleskin notebook, or of the professional pastry chef.
The bias is connected, I think, to a snobby self-identity as a onetime English major and literary aesthete. “How can you get a D in Nat Sci?” my friend Nikhil asked me once at our hippie Oregon college, bewildered. The course in question was laughingly nicknamed “Rocks for Jocks”—a walk in the park for bio majors like him—but I couldn’t bring myself to write lab reports. To me, anything formulaic, drawing conclusions thousands of people had drawn before me, embodied the very worst sort of writing. What could be less interesting?
Perhaps because baking entails this sort of precise science—there’s a reason the Modernist Cuisine geeks have devoted a whole book to it—I’ve been intimidated. I’m a very good savory cook, and I’m unafraid to make a 21-ingredient molé poblano, butcher a rabbit, or tackle a difficult French recipe. It’s time to apply that confidence to baking. So I’ve started making the famous no-knead bread, and mine was good, but not great. I’m buying a scale today to measure my yeast and salt more accurately. Baking isn’t all that forgiving, and my “winging it” approach isn’t gonna cut it.
And I’m bracing for big pleasures. My first buttermilk biscuits? Really good. Like, impress-a-Southerner good. Turns out, too, that there’s something very soothing about watching bread rise. I’m a nurturing person, and I like checking on my dough as it rises, eyeing its bubbles, maybe whispering, “How you doing, little buddy?” as I walk by. (I do not do this when I check on a 12-pound pork shoulder.)
So I’m ready to embrace the constantly-covered-in-a-fine-powder-of-flour cliché instead of denigrating myself for a lack of proficiency. Why not take the credit, and be happy when what you cook is extraordinary? As I fill my kitchen full of tarts, gougères, and bread, I will try to remember to revel in the science—and satisfaction—of it all.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Martha Stewart Living, Travel & Leisure, New York Magazine, and Epicurious. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alexvanburen