I’m a baker by inclination, not trade. My mother recognized an inclination to the kitchen and got me a cookbook for my eighth birthday. Smart mother.
Years later, tired of the city, we decided to move to the small town of Rigby, Idaho, where Merri Ann, my wife, was raised, and start a business. “Do something that you love because you’re going to put a ton of hours into your business.” I was an avid Saturday baker and had put in a stint in a bake shop in my twenties.
I figured that I knew enough about baking and could learn the rest. I bought a stack of culinary texts and went to baking. I studied my books and baked eight to ten hours a day for over a year. Then we started the business.
After we started the business, I decided to write a book. I figured the discipline of writing a book and the research necessary plus the kitchen time involved would polish my baking education.
With help, from Merri Ann and my daughter Debbie, we created How to Bake: The Art and Science of Baking. It’s now in its fourth edition, a little less techie and little more readable than the first.
We’ve sold it, but mostly, we’ve given it away—as an electronic edition. We’re still giving it away, now as part of an eleven-volume kitchen library.
Common Kitchen Problems
I had a professor who said that if you really wanted to learn a topic, either teach it or write about it.
For several years, Debbie and I taught baking classes together in the evening. They were fun, light-hearted classes with a lot of discussion and banter. (Debbie’s a quick wit and professor. She can be a riot.)
In a casual environment, we fielded hundreds of questions. It seemed that many of them fell into three problem areas. We caught similar questions from customers in the store and online.
Problem #1: Your Temperature is Wrong
One weekend, we did a demo at a local furniture store. We asked them to test their oven temperatures before we began. They were 35 degrees off but that’s pretty common.
That temperature indicator on your control panel—don’t believe it either. Chances are, it is run on a timer and not a thermometer. And your oven temperature is not always constant at the same setting either. Ours takes a lot longer to heat than expected and after it’s been on for a couple hours, gets hotter than we want.
How do we know? We have an oven thermometer clipped on the rack in the oven. Knowing what temperature the oven really is, we’ll make accommodations in time and settings.
Your local appliance repair shop can send a technician to adjust your temperature—at least for many oven makes. But the problem is, consumer ovens are not built for precision. They are slow to heat and quick to lose their heat once the oven is opened so you never know for sure how hot your oven really is. That is, unless you have an oven thermometer.
Problem #2: You’re Using the Wrong Pan
“Lose the silver pan.”
That’s what I tell people when they tell me that their cookies spread too much. When they tell me their fruit pies are soggy, I tell them the same thing. When their desserts take forever to bake, the first thing I ask is about a silver pan.
Rarely do I use a silver pan. Silver pans reflect heat. Dark pans absorb heat. Most recipes are developed with dark pans.
That’s not the only problem; a different sized pan requires a different baking time. The depth of the batter is a major determinant in the time required to bake. It takes a long time to drive heat through deep, heavy batter. In the meantime, the edges are getting crustier and drier.
If your pan is too deep, it’s impossible to bake a good product. The middle may be soggy or the edges dry. Use the right sized pan. Use a dark pan.
Problem #3: Don’t Believe the Bake Time
By now you’re sensing that there are a lot of variables going on inside your oven. The listed bake times in your favorite cookbook are guesses. Someone once said that a recipe is a description of what happened one time in one kitchen. Knowing your oven, your pans, and your recipe helps, but check your baked goods early; don’t rely too much on what the recipe says.
But here are the overwhelming tendencies:
- We over-bake cookies, muffins, and cakes.
- We under-bake breads.
Is there a lesson to all this?
My father was a mechanic all his life. I think back to my childhood in a small town. Most of the people that I knew, the adults that I knew, settled into a career and worked there for the rest of their life. Now we’re told to expect career changes. Even if we stay in the same industry, many industries evolve dramatically. If my father was still a mechanic, he would have to know electronics and computers.
I’m an optimist. Out of college, I was a controller and then a financial officer. It was okay to become a baker. People have a remarkable capacity to change and an opportunity to learn.
I think we are often prepared for the road ahead. In my case, when we were still in the city and I was still a finance officer, I was impressed that I needed to learn to write, that it would be an important part of my future. The impression was strong enough that I went to Amazon, then an early Amazon, and bought a stack of books on writing–How to Write was one–and started writing.
I was puzzled when we started a baking business. What did that have to do with all those hours of writing? It turns out that we built the business around writing.
So for me the lesson is that we can change even in our life’s work, we have the ability. It’s an opportunity. Life’s journey can be exciting and energetic. Follow your heart.
Dennis Weaver has burned food from Point Barrow, Alaska, to Miami, Florida. He is the founder of The Prepared Pantry in Rigby, Idaho and the author of How to Bake: The Art and Science of Baking available as an E-book or as a Kindle book on Amazon.
Dennis lives in Rigby, Idaho, with his wife, Merri Ann. They have five wonderful children and five beautiful granddaughters.