Baking is one of the oldest forms of cooking food. Most anthropologists agree the invention of cooking-fires began approximately 250,000 years ago with the discovery of hearths, earth ovens, burnt animal bones, and flints across Europe and the middle East.
Some anthropologists speculate that bush fires — created by lightning strikes — scorched stems and roots that were subsequently eaten by our ancestors, providing the impetus for cooking with fire.
Crude ovens can be traced back to ancient man who mashed grains, and soaked them in water to make a paste-like pre-bread batter. They then pounded and flattened bread batter on a flat hot rock, and roasted the concoction over smoldering wood branches. In the Bronze Age, inverting a pot over hot stones was used as a primitive oven.
The process was refined by the Egyptians and Babylonians. The Greeks baked bread made from flour and honey soaked in wine, and the Italians constructed stone ovens used for baking. During the Roman Empire, being a professional baker was a coveted profession, where Romans used mills to grind grain into flour, and baked bread in ovens with built-in chimneys.
From the Romans, the concept of baking spread throughout Europe, and eastern parts of Asia. In London, baked goods were sold by specialist bakers from handcarts, and in cafés in Paris.
Today’s commercial ovens consist of two heating elements: one for baking, using convection and conduction to heat food, and one for broiling or grilling.
The Maillard Reaction
The dry heat of baking changes the anatomy of starches in food while partially sealing in the food’s moisture. The browning is caused by caramelization of sugars and the Maillard reaction — a chemical reaction between an amino acid and a reducing sugar.
High temperature, low moisture levels, and alkaline conditions all promote the Maillard reaction.
In this process, hundreds of different flavor compounds are created. As these compounds break down they form even more compounds exponentially, and each food has its own intrinsic set of flavor compounds. Chemists actually create artificial flavors by mimicking the flavor compounds that result from the Maillard reaction.
It is the unique chemical reaction between amino acids and sugars in the Maillard reaction that is responsible for flavors in foods like roasted coffee, roasted meat, toast, biscuits, and the crust of brioche, cakes, and quick breads.
Caramelization may cause browning in the same foods in which the Maillard reaction occurs, but it’s important to note that the two processes are distinctly different: the Maillard reaction involves amino acids, whereas caramelization is merely the transformation of sugars via heat.
Here are some great baking tips courtesy of Sarah Phillipes at Baking 911. No matter what the recipe, make sure you always: Measure dry ingredients in a dry ingredients measuring cup or spoon. Measure liquid ingredients in see-through measuring cups at eye level. Use an oven and/or instant read thermometer for precise temperatures. Follow each recipe exactly. Preheat the oven.
Tip #1: Read through the recipe & gather the ingredients, make sure all pans and equipment are clean and dry, wash & dry hands before starting.
Tip #3: Use the appropriately sized baking pans & properly prepare them.
Tip #4: Adjust oven shelves & preheat the oven. Use an oven thermometer.
Tip #5: Carefully follow each mixing step in the recipe. DO NOT Over- or Under-Mix. Each step has a purpose. Use a kitchen timer to help you keep track of how long to mix, etc.
Tip #6: Don’t crowd the oven & avoid opening the oven door during baking. With certain recipes, rotate pans halfway through baking.
Tip #7: Pay special attention to baking times. Let your eyes, nose, as well as other indicators be your guide.
Tip #8: Cool baked goods thoroughly before serving or storing.
Tip #9: Finishing Touches
Tip #10: Store baked goods properly.