Making Bread Is Like Running Science Experiments

22 Feb

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I made bread for the first time the other day during a bread making class! I quite enjoy cooking and baking. Not so much because it is a girl thing to do – my mom didn’t actually cook much, and I spent much more time working than cooking. If anything, I think it is because nothing relieves my stress better than chopping up vegetables with a knife on a chopping board (right, try not to get into my kitchen when I cook). My favourite recipes are the ones for apple crumbles and cheesecakes. This is the first time that I ventured into bread making.

Making bread, it turns out, is very much like running  science experiments. You have this bread that you would like to make and you think you know how to make it. In science, this could be a chemical reaction you want to make happen, a cellular process you want to study, some kind of interactions between organisms you need to analyze, and more. So you start out with your ingredients – as a beginner in bread making, you have flour, salt, yeast, and water. First of all, you have many factors to think about and many questions to ask yourself: How much of each ingredient do I add? How long will I need to leave the dough to rest (ferment)? What kind of flour do I use – and does that affect how much water I add? What temperature do I bake my bread in, and when do I turn the temperature up or down? It comes down to finding the winning combination by trying to change one factor at a time, or changing multiple factors but carefully record them so you can see if different factors interact with each other (when you do multifactorial analysis in science experiments, statistics is very important – I used to have to do this with my experiments and it was NOT fun).

But sometimes it doesn’t happen as planned. Sometimes you fail completely and after a few times you know that you will need to revise your recipe, or perhaps you are going to make a different kind of bread after all. Occasionally something unexpected happens – you follow what you think is the correct instructions to make a loaf but end up making a baguette – what happened!? It could be a silly mistake, or it could be a serendipitous discovery. Either way, the end result is exciting (and you obvious will eat the baguette :P). And this is why note taking and paying attention to details become important in bread making and science experiments, because if you don’t do so carefully you might not get baguettes again!

Once you are happy with the results and are familiar with the procedures, you then start asking more questions: If I know what each ingredient does to my bread, can I put together some sort of general guide that will allow me to get an idea what my bread is going to turn out before I even put my dough in the oven? Or maybe it is the other way around – that you baked so many different types of bread that you can start extracting how an ingredient works? Can I engineer a machine to make bread automatically – a bread maker? Or build a factory that can make 10,000 of the same bread (or of different types) at the same time? What happens if I introduce another factor – say, if I want to add pecans to my bread? Or do I start finding ways to evaluate different types of breads I get from all over the world? And once I have my wonderful bread that I think no one else made before, I will write the instructions down as a recipe, and state the kind of bread one can expect so that others can make the same bread. I then post the recipe (or even the mistakes I made) online so that I can share what I learn with others, just like I learn from others before.

Now, there are a few important things to considered here. Why share recipes? Part is for personal pride (“Look, I made this!” Much like what I am doing right now I guess). The other part is so that everyone get a chance to see what each other does, share experiences (good or bad), create new recipes, or even make the recipes better. The bonus is that one day you might decide to open a bread shop, and seeing what others do will help you decide who you want to work with perhaps. And this ability to share recipes is very important (how do you know you have a special bread if you don’t know what others are doing?). This is why scientists share the results of their research with other scientists through scientific publications. Also, if you are not careful in planning your recipe or writing down exactly what you do, others cannot repeat what you made, and cannot move forward to study the recipe further, to build on the recipe, or to make improvements to the recipe. It also becomes difficult to tell whether your recipe is truly a new discovery or some kind of random artifact. In science, the ability to reproduce another scientist’s results by following the same method is also extremely important (“reproducibility“).  And one more thing to note is that while bread making deals with bread, scientists usually deal with organisms or systems that interact with each other and/or the bigger environment, in very diverse fields – thus making scientific research more complicated than making bread. Bread making resembles my experience in scientific experimentation, but the field of science is so broad so others might have different paths (this is my disclaimer, haha). Scientists also try to answer one question after another, running one experiment after another, so to make this a never-ending quest of scientific knowledge.

Right, these are the kinds of things that I thought about when I was in my bread-making class. (Nerd Alert! :P) Here are some photos from the class. My instructor was Florin Moldovan, who used to own the Transilvania Peasant Bread on West Broadway. You check out his blog Baking Stories. By the way, apparently he’s a computer science guy by training…!

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One Response to “Making Bread Is Like Running Science Experiments”

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  1. What it’s like to be a scientist 24/7! | Science, I Choose You! - July 4, 2013

    […] but many of us think about science and research all the time – like, all the time! I once caught myself thinking about science during a bread making class (this, by the way, is still one of the most popular blog posts on this site). Science often creeps […]

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