Whenever I share brownies, bread, or a pie with friends, someone inevitably says, “You made this from scratch? I cook, but I don’t bake.” More and more, I’m finding people are increasingly proud of this. To them I say:
If you cook, but don’t bake, you don’t really know how to cook
Sorry, but it’s true.
And it’s fucking MADDENING when people who work in kitchens put down baking or flat out say, “I don’t bake.” (That one’s a twofer, because it’s usually redolent with sexism.)
It’s 100% correct that reading, processing, and putting together a recipe for baking is generally more laborious and time consuming than throwing a stew in the crock pot, but the lessons you learn from baking make you a better cook.
Here’s what learning to bake teaches you:
- How To Read And Break Down A Recipe: Reading, understanding, and executing a recipe is often hard for people, and that’s why on every NYT recipe, there are people who made a recipe with 3 substitutions because they didn’t have the correct items in their pantry. Substitutions in baking is a way to mess up your recipe before you even start. When you read a recipe, you need to not only check that you can make it, you need to read it and make sure you understand the steps involved before you get started, because once you do start, a lot of recipes are like a runaway train. Breaking down a recipe so you know that the sugar is being added to the flour and not being made into caramel is key. This will help you understand savory recipes better, too.
- How To Measure: Everything in baking needs to be measured or weighed precisely. Precision is the key to getting any recipe right, not just a cake or a pudding. Training yourself to focus on measuring correctly will make you a more disciplined cook.
- How to Organize an Effective Mise-En-Place: If your idea of cooking is just dragging ingredients out of a cupboard as you need them, you need to learn this skill. Baking is a timing and proportion dependent task. You need to get everything ready and laid out in the order it will be used in to maximize your chances at success. Baking will teach you how to be deliberate about mise-en-place.
- What Ingredients *Do:* In baking, you learn the scientific reasons why you add certain ingredients and why you add certain ingredients in a certain sequence. Understanding how the chemistry of food works helps you improvise and try new things in the kitchen.
- How To Focus On One Task: Baking has a lot of places where it can go wrong, but if you are focused on the task at hand, you will never burn your caramel or goof up a meringue. Baking trains you to focus.
- How To Be Observant: Some things in baking, like bread, chocolate, or sugar work, are different in different weather. You can’t operate off how long it takes for a task, you just have to be observant and wait for the look or feel of the result you want.
- How To Be Efficient With Time: A lot of people don’t bake because it can be time consuming, and buying a pie is not. Baking an item over and over can help you become a better cook because you will find efficiencies in the way you execute a recipe, and you will get a better feel for the time you need to bake.
- How To Be More Patient: When I first started baking bread, I made the Sullivan Street Bakery No-Knead recipe, which takes about 24 hours from start to finish (Actual work time is 10 minutes.) This teaches you how to be patient and that waiting can yield great rewards. There are many baking recipes that have wait times. Doing these will help you be more patient.
- How To Multi-Task: It’s pretty hard to multi-task in the kitchen when you’re making something like Lasagne from scratch. You pretty much have to just work on it from start to finish. This is often not true of baking. A lot of the time, you can prep parts of a recipe ahead of time and hold them until it’s time to assemble and bake. This allows you to prep multiple baking projects one day and finish them all off the next. You will train your brain to be better at triaging what’s important and prioritizing tasks.
- How To Repeat Difficult Tasks: Baking means you often have to make large numbers of things. This is great because it helps you understand how to divide batters and doughs and be precise when making multiples of something so that they are all uniform and cook properly. You will also develop more skills when it comes to shaping, piping, filling, and finishing items. These skills will carry over into cooking, whether you’re making dumplings or appetizers.
If you’re wondering where to start learning how to bake, I recommend starting with something that’s been well tested, with a small ingredient list. America’s Test Kitchen and SeriousEats are two places that don’t post recipes unless they’ve been thoroughly tested and are able to be understood by novice bakers (Obviously, both sites have advanced recipes too. You need to keep looking for the small ingredient list, or go with a recipe like Coffee Cake or Muffins. You could also start with Good Housekeeping or a baking book that has LOTS of photos of the tasks in order, so you can learn by understanding what things should look like.
If you’re planning to start out baking, Give yourself enough time. Don’t plan to do something before a party or with the idea of putting it in a bake sale at your kid’s school. Budget twice as much time as the recipe indicates so you have time to read and understand the recipe, get your mise-en-place together, and execute the recipe methodically. This isn’t something to sneak in in between other tasks.
Don’t discount the benefits of learning how to bake. The skills you will learn have a benefit to you in your everyday cooking, too, and hey, who would turn down a freshly baked brownie?