BAKING. Baking refers to two culinary processes: cooking by dry heat in an enclosed oven and making up flour-based goods (breads, cakes, pastries) that are cooked by baking. By extension a baking day is devoted to making breads and cakes and includes the idea of a batch bake or tray bake made up in quantity for cutting into smaller pieces. Cooking flour-based items using a griddle is also considered a form of baking. "Roasting" meat or vegetables such as potatoes in the oven is also in practice baking. The idea is also implied in the clambake of shellfish, using layers of heated stones and seaweed.
Two trades are directly concerned with baking, the baker using yeast to make breads and the pastry cook producing delicate pastries and cakes. The demarcation is unclear in English, which often applies the word "baker" to someone who makes cakes. French distinguishes more sharply between the boulanger and the pâtissier, as does German between the Backer and the Konditor.
The technique has a wide geographical spread. It is used throughout North America and Europe, across the Middle East and North Africa, and into central Asia and northern India. The concept was introduced by Europeans to their former colonies, many of whom have continued the practice. Baking is exceptionally important in cultures that rely on wheat as their primary cereal. Methods and technology have developed principally to exploit and enhance the properties of the gluten it contains. Others (rye, barley, oats) contain less gluten but are used in northern and western European baking, usually as residual traditions from times when wheat was expensive and difficult to obtain. Maize does not lend itself to baking, although North American settlers managed to develop corn breads, and the Atlantic communities of northern Portugal and Spain also use it in breads and cakes.
The history of baking is one of interaction between ingredients, fuels, and oven technology. On a basic level virtually any food can be "baked" by burying it in hot ashes or placing it on a stone beside the fire, something that must have been known from the earliest times. Developing control to the point of producing items as diverse as breakfast rolls, soufflés, and chocolate brownies has taken thousands of years.
Early advances included the development of enclosed ovens. One type was a pit oven in the ground with a fire in the bottom. These were known by about 3000 b.c.e. in Egypt, where they were hollow cones of clay that contained a layer of coals. The modern tandoor, a large ceramic oven sunk into the ground and fired with wood or charcoal, echoes this idea. Tandoors have limited applications for baking but are essential for breads such as the flat, leavened wheat nan of Persian and northern Indian traditions. The dough is slapped onto the clay sides of the tandoor and cooks fast. Tandoors become very hot, and the fire remains in the base throughout cooking. This along with their shape makes them unsuitable for complex baking.
Another type was the beehive oven, a domed structure situated above ground. An early version is in an Egyptian tomb model of about 1900 b.c.e. Early ones were made of clay and had the advantage of enclosing food in a hot environment but allowing the baker the opportunity to make more than flat shapes. Stone or brick ovens of similar shape evolved later and can be seen at Pompeii. They were used for baking with wheat flour and sour dough leaven. Beehive ovens fired with wood became the primary means of baking in medieval and early modern Europe. They were used for wheat or rye breads and the sweet, enriched festive breads and cakes that developed from these breads.
To heat a beehive oven, a fire was lit inside. After a while the oven was cleaned out, leaving heat stored in the walls. This heat diminished slowly over time. It could not be controlled, but by the sixteenth century a sequence had evolved. Coarse breads were baked first, followed by white breads, pastries, and joints of meat (often in pastries or pies), and progressing to cakes that would burn at high temperatures. Residual heat was used for drying fruit or for confectioneries. It was a time-consuming and complex operation. The size of the ovens and scarcity of fuel led to the idea of baking communally. For a small charge customers could bake their own dough or meat in an oven owned by a village baker. Such habits were noted in southern England during the eighteenth century and were still observed in some Mediterranean countries, for instance Greece, in the early twenty-first century. Small clay ovens were also still used in some regions, such as the Iberian Peninsula.
Wood-fired ovens produce unique, much-liked textures and tastes. Italian restaurants sometimes use wood-fired pizza ovens, and French bakers advertise cuit au feu de bois (cooked with a wood fire). Baking in these ovens requires a peel, a special implement with a long handle and a flat plate at one end for lifting food into or out of these large and often extremely hot structures.
Little is known about the history of griddle baking. An ancient and widespread technique, it was available to anyone with a fire and a flat stone. At some stage specially made griddles—heavy metal plates—developed. Although it does not use enclosed heat, its association with cooking flour-based items links it firmly to the idea of baking.
Griddle baking is associated with Scotland and Ireland, where locally dug peat is used for fuel. Peat gives a slow, gentle heat unsuited to oven baking. The tradition continued in South Wales where cheap coal was burned in open kitchen grates, over which the griddle was balanced. Typical products include Welsh cakes, like small biscuits, and Scottish griddle scones or drop scones, small thick pancakes. British crumpets and muffins (made from bread dough) are baked on modern versions of the griddle, gas or electrically heated hotplates.
Another item used for baking with a open fire was the Dutch oven, which could be regarded as a form of covered griddle. It consisted of a heavy iron pot with a lid, both of which were preheated before use. Food was placed inside the pot, the lid was put on, and hot coals were heaped over it. They were used for baking bread, biscuits, and cakes as well as for roasting meat and other cooking. Both griddles and Dutch ovens were easy to carry and were much used by North American pioneers. Baking with these implements was enhanced in the mid-nineteenth century by the development of bicarbonate of soda, leading to the development of Irish griddle-baked soda bread. Bicarbonate of soda and baking powder were promoted through recipe booklets and rapidly became popular for making biscuits, quick breads, and cakes in parts of Europe and North America.
Due to regional poverty and the availability of slow-burning fuel, the East retained a form of griddle baking. Chapatis, the thin flat breads of Pakistan and India, are baked on metal plates over fires of dried cow dung, a fuel that gives slow heat.
Controllable heat was the key to modern baking. Initially this took the form of the cast-iron coal-fired kitchen range, an idea patented by Thomas Robinson, a London ironmonger, in 1780. Over the next century designs evolved to control the heat, partly through the work of the American statesman Count Rumford. Ranges became fixtures in many European and North American houses. For the first time convenient and controllable ovens existed, although they still needed skill for good results. However, gas was used as a fuel for domestic cooking by the 1880s, and electricity was introduced about a decade later, giving even more accuracy and ease. By this time numerous regional baked specialties had developed, including tortes and gâteaux in central Europe, Christmas Lebkuchen in Germany, and teatime cakes in Britain. North America inherited baking traditions from all European countries in the form of festive breads, cakes, and cookies. In turn, by the twenty-first century North Americans grew much of the wheat that sustained the baking traditions in their native countries.
Baking requires many utensils. Measuring is important, so most kitchens and all professional bakers possess spoons, cups, and scales. Bowls are needed for mixing, sieves and sifters for flour or sugar, rolling pins for pastry, cutters and molds for cookies, and forcing bags and nozzles for soft mixtures. Paper is used to line trays and molds and to hold cake and muffin mixtures. Flat metal baking sheets are used to support anything from a round loaf without a pan to a batch of cookies.
Many loaves of bread are baked in oblong pans. Common cake pan shapes include square, round, and tube pans. Many cultures have special forms as well, such as the German Rehrücken (a ribbed half cylinder for baking a chocolate cake in a "saddle of venison" shape) and the Alpine and Rhine areas' Gugelhupf (a tall, fluted tube pan). Novelty shapes run to Santa Claus and Easter lambs. Cake pans affect the rate at which mixtures heat, and ideally they should match the final volume of the cakes baked in them. Professional pastry cooks use many sizes, from the one-bite petit four up to cakes for large parties. Small shapes in special molded trays include patty pans for baking cupcakes or British mince pies and shell shapes for French madeleines. Pies and tarts, too, have special shapes, including plain round plates and tart rings with fluted edges. Cylindrical formers are used in England for raising pork pies.
In contrast, the only essential for baking meats or vegetables is a metal or earthenware container, although various patent "roasting tins," intended to be self-basting for cooking joints of meat, were developed in the twentieth century. The use of a thermometer designed to show the internal temperature of a piece of cooking meat is often recommended by cookery books.
Despite the fact that it typically uses temperatures ranging from 300 to 500°F (150 to 260°C), baking is an inefficient method of heat transfer. It relies on a combination of radiant heat from the oven walls and air convection. What it does effectively is dehydrate the surface of food at a high temperature, producing delicious flavors and aromas. These are due to the Maillard reaction, in which amino acids contained in the food react with sugars during heating, producing the typical smells of baking bread and roasting meat.
Physically, three stages can be identified during the baking of bread. They were summarized by Harold McGee (1984) as, first, when the yeast cells have been killed by heat; second, when the maximum temperature has been reached inside the loaf, gelatinizing the starch and coagulating the protein; and third, when the Maillard reaction induces surface browning, producing the characteristic flavor. Cakes follow a similar basic pattern. Yeast is not involved, but the first stage includes the expansion of minute air cells in the mixture and the release of carbon dioxide from any chemical leavening present. In the second, flour, egg, and milk proteins coagulate, and starch gelatinizes as the batter sets into a solid foam. Browning reactions set in during the third.
Nutritionally, baking has little effect on cereal foods, although it reduces the thiamin (vitamin B1) content. Many baked items are energy-dense because of the quantities of starch, fat, and sugar they contain. Some keep better than others. French baguettes stale quickly, but English fruitcake keeps so well it can almost be regarded as a form of preserved food.
Baking meat has the effect of coagulating the proteins of which it is composed. They shorten and toughen, squeezing out some of the water they contain, leading to weight loss in the cooked item. Most cooks aim at a compromise when oven-baking meat. Muscle proteins coagulate at about 160°F (71°C) and after that become dry and tough. But connective tissue requires long cooking at high temperatures to convert it to tender gelatin. As with cereal foods, the thiamine content is reduced, and the Maillard reaction develops the flavor and aroma. While this has no nutritional effect, it is important in provoking appetite. Baking vegetables, a relatively slow way of cooking them, reduces their vitamin C content significantly.
See also Bread ; Hearth Cookery ; Pastry ; Roasting ; Utensils, Cooking .
David, Elizabeth. English Bread and Yeast Cookery. London: Allen Lane, 1977. Ovens and baking, especially in England.
Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Eveleigh, David J. Firegrates and Kitchen Ranges. Shire Album 99. Princes Risborough, U.K.: Shire Publications, 1983. The development of the kitchen range.
Fussell, Betty. The Story of Corn. New York: Knopf, 1992. Development of corn breads.
McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1984; New York: Scribners, 1984. Physics and chemistry.
Mason, Laura, with Catherine Brown. Traditional Foods of Britain: An Inventory. Totnes, U.K.: Prospect Books, 1999. Baked goods in Britain.
Wigginton, Eliot, ed. The Foxfire Book. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor, 1972. Dutch ovens and wood-fired stoves.