Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Science or Art, tales of a fallacy

Yesterday, while I was throwing together some short paste (your typical modern pastry crust), I thought about the fairly common idea that Cooking was an art but Baking was a science. What drove my thoughts in that direction was the sudden moment of panic when I grabbed the shortening container and the recipe for pastry was not on it, instead they replaced with a cake-type recipe. For that short moment all I could think about is that I would get it wrong, it would not be consistent with the pastry I grew up with and it would fail.

Then I snapped out of it and simply scooped a bunch of shortening into the bowl with some flour, salt and egg yolk (always best to put the flour in first btw, get less stuck to the bowl that way) and cut it together... decided that it was not short enough (simply put, it did not have enough fat) so I threw in some margarine until it looked nice and crumply when cut and then mixed in some cold water...
This pastry was fantastic! So... what was the problem?

We are obsessed with consistency! Our recipes are not founded on anything being so much of a Science or Art, but on our desire for consistency. The problem is, not that it is a problem at all, is that things baked or cooked otherwise, are a combination of both Artistry and Science. The reason things work the way they do and how they work in relation to other things is the Science of cookery and our manipulation of these things is the Art. A cook using those early cooking books would be able to understand this concept while many modern home cooks have been mostly plugging in data and following instructions which can, to some people, feel like a sort of science experiment in the lab that must follow exact formulas for them to work.

Of course, back to the pastry, I did take the time to compare various different combinations to see how they work as a pastry. I come to understand simple things like why we put salt in it, it is a seasoning... do not laugh, this is not always understood and after reading what many others have come up with, it became evident that people did not know it could be skipped or replaced with something else such as sugar. Egg yolks effect the colour and bind the pastry without causing it to deform/rise too badly but the amount added will still effect the level of deformation. Cold water will not melt the fat and allow tiny intact chunks to create flakiness. Harder fats when done with cold water can make a very flaky pastry while melting the fat and using warm water will create a  more malleable pastry that can hold it's shape... providing there is not too much fat, but that can be corrected with more flour. Water itself, as a last ingredient (even when butter is melted in it, it still remains a last ingredient) added slowly, will effect the nature of the pastry from a harder pasta to a shape-able heavy paste to a softer paste.

Of course, what really seems to scare people is baking cakes and bread. For me, bread is not scary at all and I have made it from my own started yeast with no recipe... but again, I have learned what effects different things have on it. With something like cake, I am yet to experiment so my desire to grab a recipe book is at it's strongest, but it is something we should try... or at least try to understand as simply a knowledge of what the ingredients do, how they interact with each other and how we can manipulate that to create something rather neat!

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