Baking is a term that covers a wide variety of cooking styles and methods. But basically it is a way of cooking savoury or sweet items in the dry heat of an oven.
Although baking itself is a relatively easy process, it is important to have some knowledge of the role each ingredient plays in creating the final dish. Baking ingredients perform such functions as strengthening, binding, thickening, sweetening, leavening and moistening. Some ingredients perform multiple roles. And others will only perform their duties under specific conditions. For this reason baking is often compared to the science of chemistry.
One need not be intimidated by baking however. A reasonable knowledge of certain basic methods and ingredient functions can open up a world of infinite variety and opportunity for artistic creativity that is the raison de faire cuire au four of the typical pastry chef.
The dry heat of baking gelatinises starch and causes the outside of the food to brown or char, giving it an attractive appearance and taste, as well as partially sealing in the food’s moisture. The browning is caused by caramelization of sugars and the Maillard Reaction.
Moisture is never really entirely “sealed in,” however over time, an item being baked will become drier and drier. This is often an advantage, especially in situations where drying is the desired outcome, for example in drying herbs or in roasting certain types of vegetables.
The most common baked item is bread. Variations in the ovens, ingredients and recipes, used in the baking of bread result in the wide variety of breads produced around the world. Over time baked goods become hard in a process known as ‘going stale’, this is not primarily due to moisture being lost from the baked products but a reorganization of the way in which the water and starch are associated over time, a process similar to recrystallisation.
To compensate for moisture loss, some items (usually meats) are basted on the surface with butter or oil to slow the loss of moisture through the skin. Some foods are replenished with moisture during baking by placing a small amount of liquid (such as water or broth) in the bottom of the pan, and letting it steam up into or around the food.
The term baking is not usually associated with the cooking of meats in this manner, it is instead, termed roasting.
Breads, desserts, and meat (see also roasting) are often baked, and baking is the primary cooking technique used to produce cakes and pastry-based goods such as pies, tarts, and quiches. Such items are sometimes referred to as “baked goods,” and are sold at a bakery.