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Is precision in pastry an illusion?


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The common stereotype is that cooks improvise but bakers follow recipes. Being someone who does 98% of his cooking on the savory side, I've always chafed at the rigidity of pastry work. However, when I do cook baked goods, I'll consult 2 or 3 reputable recipes and, more often than not, the ratios used diverge from each other quite significantly. How is it that precision is apparently so important in pastry and yet different pastry chefs don't even agree on the measurements?

PS: I am a guy.

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I'm not a professional, but I agree with you it's a puzzle. However, there are (I think, based on my own enthusiastic amateur experience) a few reasons for this being said.

1. It's not just that baking must be precise, it's partly that non-baking cannot be. Things like meat and vegetables all vary in size, quality and so forth so much that in many cases if you were to cook them "by the book" the results would be pretty poor. You have to use common sense to decide when a roast is done, or how to chop an irregularly shaped piece of chuck for braising. Whereas a sugar syrup heated to a particular temperature (for instance) will more reliably behave as it should. So precision is possible.

That being said, I think experienced bakers would say there are also many areas of baking where precision is impossible. One common example is deciding when something is cooked: timings and temperatures cannot be exact. Another is rising times for bread, at least in a domestic kitchen. Another is the exact quantity of liquid to be added to bread doughs and pastries. But I still think that at least relatively speaking the (largely industrial and highly processed) ingredients that bakers rely on are more "uniform" than the semi-agricultural ones that are used in much other cooking.

2. In pastry work it's often difficult, especially without deep experience, to make corrections "as you go along", because baked goods often undergo a "transformation" during which they cannot be altered. If you are cooking a sauce or a stew you can taste and (within reason) correct as you go along. But a cake batter or pastry before it goes into the oven is quite a different thing from what it will be when it comes out, and you can't make those sort of adjustments as it cooks. This means that for the inexperienced corrections are not easy. Of course, the experienced, who know what a batter or dough should "feel like" can and do make corrections, because they can predict the results. (In some cases, such as choux pastry and bread, such adjustments are actually rather important to the quality of the finished product, which is one reason why these apparently simply mixtures have a reputation for being hard.) So, at least for the inexperienced, the best advice is often to "follow the recipe" rather than make what may turn out to be ill-advised adjustments.

3. Coupled with this is the fact that some of the changes the home cook might feel tempted to make to a recipe are hard to predict. Reducing, say, the sugar in a mixture will not just make it less sweet, but will alter its characteristics in other ways too (drier, for instance). Rather small quantities of ingredient added to a dough or batter can have quite significant effects on the final product, which the ordinary cook may find it difficult to predict. So too can alterations in technique. The difference between an egg white whipped to a soft peak and an egg white whipped to a stiff peak might seem footling, but can dramatically affect the overall success of a dish.

4. Maybe there is also an element of "attitude" here. Precision in the sense of neatness, even size and colour, tidy lines and absence of mess is maybe something we look for more in baked goods than in many other foods, and emphasizing the need to be neat and precise might just be a way of trying to inculcate this attitude.

I don't think that variation in ratios between different pastry chefs tells us much. They may well have different preferences about the finished product. Tastes differ, between individuals and nationally. This is not inconsistent with trying to be precise about each recipe.

In the end, I suspect, the alleged distinction is -- as you hint -- slightly mythical, in that I suspect the best cooks are neat and precise (where that counts) whatever they are cooking, and equally ready to make sensible adjustments to the particular qualities of their ingredients, equipment, environment and so forth (where that counts) regardless of what they are cooking. But maybe when you are writing for the domestic cook, it's important to emphasize (in meat and vegetable cookery) the need to make constant small adjustments and equally valuable to emphasize (for pastry work) the need to be rather careful about making changes, since it takes a professional knowledge and experience to do so successfully.

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Paul, I'm not a professional baker, or even an accomplished amateur, but I have thought a lot about this question, and I agree with your points. Baking is all about predictability - if you are making the same cake over and over again you want a good recipe that will come out the same way each time. To get that, you have to follow the recipe the same exact way every time. But, one of my favorite Good Eats episodes is where AB shows what will happen when you make certain alterations to a chocolate chip cookie recipe: use melted butter instead of creaming the butter, use brown sugar instead of white, less or more eggs. It was really fascinating and I keep his tips in mind if I feel like altering a recipe.

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I think it's simpler than you might imagine.

1. Different formulas are designed for different results. All puff pastries, pastry creams, ganaches are not designed to be identical. Different chefs may be looking for different characteristics in the end product (or the same chef will have different needs for different applications).

2. Ingredients are not the same universally. Standard pastry flour is not the same in the US as in France. Neither is butter. A formula written for one type of ingredient may need to adjusted for another to achieve comparable results. Formulas written for sea level will not work properly at high elevation. Fresh eggs act differently than old eggs; shell eggs differently than frozen eggs.

3. Method/time/ingredient/skill/temperature: There is often more than one way to achieve the same thing. Take something as simple as making caramel (just plain caramelized sugar, not a sauce or caramels, the candy). It can be made equally well and correctly by dry heating sugar in a pan or by combining it with water and cooking it down until it caramelizes. Each method has its advantages and drawbacks. Additionally some chefs will include a little acid (typically lemon juice or cream of tartar), or maybe some invert sugars to help prevent crystallization.

Put all this together, it's easy to see how you can end up with a number of different formulas for the same result.

The Big Cheese

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I agree with xxchef about the differences in formulas to account for different results (we have four different formulas for ganache in our kitchen depending on what we are going to do with it); I also feel that most people thinking about the precision in pastry versus savory is more about whether a formula can withstand too much of one or more ingredients or the omission of a key ingredient.

I am known for our carrot cake; and people are devotees to it. When I had a new cook last summer, she mistakenly scaled up the recipe and added 3.5 tablespoons of baking soda rather than 1.5. I didn't supervise her as she made the batter, but I knew instantly that something was wrong when I saw the cupcakes in the oven. She tasted them, and said they didn't taste bad, but I could not use them for sale. So for me, when I think of precision in pastry, it's more about accurately weighing/measuring than anything else.

ETA the word accurately!

Edited by JeanneCake (log)
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I think there have been some great responses already, and I particularly agree with #1 from xxchef.

I am STILL trying to find a few authors/chefs whose tastes generally agree with mine, so I can trust most of their recipes without having to make alterations. I find a lot of baking too sweet and a bit one dimensional. Though I think this isn't really what you're getting at, as it's more about flavours than structure and fundamentals.

But having said that, I think a lot of recipes don't get the ratios right, even for simple things. A lot of home baking, for example, "works" in that the end result tastes good, but then a professional recipe can be worlds apart. The little details are really noticeable, and I think great pastry chefs can be really selective in just how creamy they want a custard or mousse, the precise firmness of a pastry layer so the fork is resisted but cuts through, the way a cake will crumble or melt or fluff.

Recently a friend made a cake using a recipe I gave him and the result was not great. Edible but just not the same. It was a VERY simple recipe and I'm still not sure what he did wrong, but it reinforced in my mind that what we're doing is reliant on so many factors and that any consistency you can introduce through recipes and specific instructions is a good thing. But apparently sometimes it's not enough :)

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The common stereotype is that cooks improvise but bakers follow recipes. Being someone who does 98% of his cooking on the savory side, I've always chafed at the rigidity of pastry work. However, when I do cook baked goods, I'll consult 2 or 3 reputable recipes and, more often than not, the ratios used diverge from each other quite significantly. How is it that precision is apparently so important in pastry and yet different pastry chefs don't even agree on the measurements?

Different pastry chefs have their own recipes based on the intended qualities of the finished product. Not to mention, for different applications you can modify ratios - I'm not going to use the same ratio for a Brioche dough as a Savarin dough, even though they use the same ingredients and technique. And I'm not going to make ganache for dipping the same as I would for filling macarons or glazing a cake.

As for rigidity, pastry work needs to be rigid if you want consistency (since there's usually few ingredients, and all are key for providing not only flavours but especially structure), but if you're experimenting, you can try many different ratios of ingredients to produce different results and if you do it right, all will taste good.

Also, bakers improvise just as much as cooks. But rather than just throw things together, we come up with our own ratios and construct from there... (which is a necessity since pastries/breads requires to build structure whereas in savoury cooking the structure of the food is already there)

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While XXChef has answered the question perfectly, one of the main reasons pastry people scale out ingredients (whatever the recipie) is because of consistancy. I've got a zillion recipies for sweet dough, some only differing in the ratio of flour, or the use of powdered sugar vs granulated. Each recipie is intended for specific purposes, but each recipie must be made as consistant as the last batch.

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I agree with xxchef about the differences in formulas to account for different results (we have four different formulas for ganache in our kitchen depending on what we are going to do with it); I also feel that most people thinking about the precision in pastry versus savory is more about whether a formula can withstand too much of one or more ingredients or the omission of a key ingredient.

I think this is the key: a professional knows what can be "pushed" or "pulled" in a recipe--e.g., ratio of fat to flour, substitution of one thing for another and in what proportion--and still have it work--and achieve what she wants from that push or pull in terms of taste and texture.

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1. Different formulas are designed for different results. All puff pastries, pastry creams, ganaches are not designed to be identical. Different chefs may be looking for different characteristics in the end product (or the same chef will have different needs for different applications).

I think that accounts for most of it.

Also, some pastry items require more precision than others. Some offer as much room for improvisation as soup; others, especially certain cakes, will collapse if you look at them wrong.

The better pastry chefs I've met have great improvisational skills. If they don't use them at work, it's because of the need for consistency. You see this in the professional hot kitchen too; as an extreme example, Thomas Keller has his cooks weigh out mirrepoix vegetables to the gram.

Notes from the underbelly

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My girlfriend (not a professional pastry chef) rarely follows recipes exactly, and routinely bakes (bread, more often, but occasionally sweets or quickbreads) in an... improvisational manner. Bread, in fact, she almost always does strictly by feel. Of course, there are occasional mishaps, but more often than not, the results are excellent.

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My girlfriend (not a professional pastry chef) rarely follows recipes exactly, and routinely bakes (bread, more often, but occasionally sweets or quickbreads) in an... improvisational manner. Bread, in fact, she almost always does strictly by feel. Of course, there are occasional mishaps, but more often than not, the results are excellent.

The implication here seems to be that "by feel" = "imprecise" but I'd argue that the opposite is true. Since the true quantity we'd like to measure when making bread is the dough elasticity, anything else we try to measure precisely is just a proxy (e.g. flour-to-water ratios are designed to give a specific dough hydration and texture, but depend on the flour and local humidity levels, etc.). In this case, "measuring" the elasticity by feeling the dough is as precise as you can get.

Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

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The implication here seems to be that "by feel" = "imprecise" but I'd argue that the opposite is true. Since the true quantity we'd like to measure when making bread is the dough elasticity, anything else we try to measure precisely is just a proxy (e.g. flour-to-water ratios are designed to give a specific dough hydration and texture, but depend on the flour and local humidity levels, etc.). In this case, "measuring" the elasticity by feeling the dough is as precise as you can get.

I absolutely agree that "by feel" can be precise (maybe, in certain ways, more precise, as you say), for bread especially. But it takes time and practice to get to the point where you can do it by feel and achieve consistency. And I think for pastry stuff (vs. bread), even professionals will usually weigh everything, no?

Edited by Will (log)
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First time poster... I agree with xxchef, but here are my additions.

In a large-scale production, everything must be weighed and scaled accurately to achieve consistency. When I make mousse in the shop we make it for 750+ individual pieces, so things need to be scaled precisely. When the recipe calls for 200g of gelatin, that's what it gets, but I wouldn't go crazy if I put in 208g. When working in small-scale, things are much different. I would weigh things to the T, and be cautious through the steps.

Very few pastry chefs I've worked with would go through the trouble of weighing out ingredients for a fruit sauce as sugar contents vary, but the formula is in the ballpark.

Bread is another topic, especially if using a starter, as the water content can vary... but that's when the experience comes in to play.

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  • 1 month later...

Awesome interchange. As with most things, it seems to me that baking is part art and part science. Almost anyone can mechanically measure out a few ingredients, pre-heat an oven, set a timer and produce decent results if they have just a few basic techniques (that's the science). The "art" is where the magic is. Whether it's the one responder's girlfriend who knows just the right time the dough is done for her bread or the baker with the steady hand that is able to put finishing touches that give the final product the 'wow' factor. And, it's the "art" that makes me want to go into every bakery I see to experience the unlimited variations that result. Got to go. Nearby bakery calling.

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"If you don't want to use butter, add cream."

Julia Child

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Cooks who are compelled to push their own limits need to be precise for the purposes of recipe testing. New ideas require testing and testing requires precision. Imprecise cooking only works when you are cooking by wrote. There is absolutely no other distinction between "culinary" and "pastry"; if you are changing food for the purposes of better eating, you are COOKING. To put it in familiar context: Grant Achatz is indeed a pastry chef if any such distinction exists.

Edited by Sethro (log)
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I am no professional but I love reading books about pastry. As I was browsing through eggulet, I find your topic interesting because it so happened that I was reading this alteration that you could do for sponge cakes. Sponge is just a sponge isn't it? Well, that was what I thought initially. I always thought that to make a sponge cake its all about the fluffiness and how well you whip the whites and folding them through the other ingredients. But the truth is, it really depends on what you are after. Some recipes may give you an end result of a denser sponge that holds shape and some a lot fluffier. I used to think that pastry is all about exact and accurate, but ever since I started working in the kitchen, I realized that pastry good can be improvised too.

Take the sponge for example, depending on whether you want a softer sponge or a denser one, whole eggs, entirely or partially can be replaced with egg yolks or whites. If you use more egg yolks, you have a denser sponge which is good and if you use more of whites you have a softer and more fragile sponge, which is good too. But of course there is a catch to this concept just the same as cooking itself. There is always a rule to the ratios of ingredients you can improvised on any food at all and in the case of sponge cake is actually equal amount flour, eggs and sugar. But this equal amount produce an extremely heavy sponge and as said before if you wish to alter it, you could by changing the ratio like for example, instead of using all purpose flour, you could combine bread and cake flours and if you wish for a a softer texture, you could use more whites than whole eggs in the sponge. Like cooking, if its too bland, you add a bit of salt, but if you add too much, it becomes too salty, the same with if you add too much sugar in a sponge, it will burn easily but if you dun it would not have enough flavor and would not give color. Therefore, the recipes are there, but to what result you want them, is entirely up to you which recipe is best. :)

Hope you understood what I meant cause as i was writing this, I got abit confused myself... teee heeeheee

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I didn't read anyone's posts. My answer to the original question is very simple, people talk too much and have no idea what they are talking about. "Cooking" can be as precise as "Baking/Pastry" and "Baking/Pastry" can be as improvised as "Cooking". Take it from someone who has been doing both his whole life. The end.

Dean Anthony Anderson

"If all you have to eat is an egg, you had better know how to cook it properly" ~ Herve This

Pastry Chef: One If By Land Two If By Sea

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I have not read all the comments yet so forgive me if I am repeating someone. Baking as with cooking involves agricultural products that are not the same from brand to brand nor from season to season so the differences in products will make a difference in results. Flour, for instance is milled for different purposes and you cannot know exactly which kind or measuring method the person who wrote the original recipe used so most likely it will require a different amount to get the optimal results.

Some parts of baking are chemistry and do not allow for much variation. Baking soda and baking powder react differently and measure differently so you alter or interchange those ingredients at your peril. In short baking is an art but knowledge of the science involved is a very useful thing to have so you don't vary the wrong thing at the wrong time.

Edited by Norm Matthews (log)
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How is it that precision is apparently so important in pastry and yet different pastry chefs don't even agree on the measurements?

I have read everyone's posts......

I think that both good cooks and good bakers.....:

1) know their ingredients well, how they behave, and how the ratios interact with each other.

2) know that the key to consistancy and repeatability is to use scales to weigh out ingredients.

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I think that both good cooks and good bakers.....:

1) know their ingredients well, how they behave, and how the ratios interact with each other.

2) know that the key to consistancy and repeatability is to use scales to weigh out ingredients.

If we were to draft an eG Constitution, I don't think there could be a better start, and I say that as someone who is very much still working towards the first part of the above quote.

 

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I don't think there's a huge difference between the two styles of cooking, either. That said, if you ever read the comments on sites like Allrecipes.com and see how far some home cooks choose to deviate from recipes...well, at times their end products bear hardly any resemblance to the original dish! When seen in that light pastry making does seem pretty precise.

Edited by sheetz (log)
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One problem I've seen with measuring flour by weight is that many people convert a recipe in cups to flour after going on line and finding out how much a cup of flour weighs. I went to 4 sites and got 4 different answers. If a recipe says use 115g of bread flour, by all means measure it. Your results will be nothing if not consistent. If it says use 1 cup of flour and someone converts it to grams, the number they choose is random. It probably won't be the same as the original recipe. If someone from Georgia uses White Lily all purpose flour to make a bread recipe for bread that came from France, even measuring the exact amounts of flour won't bring about same results as the original. One must understand how to use flour by look and feel and the knowledge of which flour is the best, and by treating any measurement of flour to water ratio as an approximation..

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My son's MIL was married to a Mexican. She quickly learned that all corn meal is not created equal. The reason one kind will produce better results may be because of chemistry or physics but having the knowledge to use which kind for optimal results isn't precision. I don't know if it is artistry or not but I suspect it is more the latter than the former. Same with lard v shortening v modern day Crisco. The differences are chemistry, the results are different. The person who knows which will make their old time recipe have the best taste and texture isn't because of precision.

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