Posted by: kentauros | January 1, 2014

Bakers “vs.” Cooks

No, this isn’t a story on any competitive nature between bakers and cooks, or which is better. There are plenty on both “sides” willing to argue points like that, while I am unwilling. Rather, I wish to attempt a little bit of clarification.

The Internet is, as usual, rife with error and a lack of facts, all too often pushed on us as fact. As I, and others I know, have worked in both professions of baking and cooking, personal experience is one form of fact that most will accept. And thus, here’s mine.

The first big error I have come across is that bakers don’t cook; they only bake, and their only heat-making tool is the oven. While I could trounce that notion like your typical competition-junkie, it’s an honest mistake. People see baking as being only cakes, breads, and pastries. They only think about the final result, and not so much the process leading up to that result. It’s easy to overlook where the frosting comes from, or the syrup glaze, or the savory fillings. That is, a cook made those things and the baker assembled the final piece with the parts that got baked in the oven. When you don’t do baking, not knowing the steps involved leads to this misconception.

The next misconception about bakers is that we must follow the recipe to the letter, unlike cooks. Now, this is true to some extent, yet there is enough variation involved that we can still come up with new recipes for cakes, breads, pastries, and so forth. The basic recipes for all of our various creations may remain the same, while there’s enough leeway to allow for changes, and so, new creations. Baking and pastry would be rather dull if we couldn’t make changes at all.

My professional background in baking isn’t nearly what it is for those still in the profession. I have had a few semesters of baking and pastry making, but I am lacking the companion classes in cooking. Yes, bakers and pastry chefs have all either had classes or on-the-job training in cooking first. You must know the basics of cooking before becoming a good baker or pastry cook and chef.

That may seem contrary to what many cooks know. How can cooking knowledge help a person that uses a dough hook and an oven more than any other tool in the kitchen? Well, like cooking, it starts with a recipe. And even as some cooks balk and state “I never use recipes!” that isn’t entirely true. Any food we eat that has been prepared in some way is part of a recipe, whether we used that set of instructions or not. And that’s all a recipe is anyway: a set of instructions. A good cook knows enough about cooking to not need to reread those instructions; the basics are part of their cooking skills.

The same it true for a good baker, as odd as it might seem. Both rely on proven techniques, all of which is based in the science of cooking. You can’t get away from that, either, whether you think about such things or not. It all comes down to the regulation of temperature (hot and cold), mechanical changes to substances (egg whites aerated into meringue, for example), moisture-control (boiling and steaming), and finally, presentation (including decoration.)

The baker must know all of the above. A good English Custard filling for your average éclair has to be cooked just right., usually over (not in) boiling water, without curdling the eggs in the mixture. Do that, and you might as well toss the mistake, same as if a cook makes the same mistake for a savory pudding. A genoise cake with buttercream frosting requires the cake be lightly moistened with a flavored syrup before frosting is done. If the baker doesn’t watch that syrup as it cooks, you won’t get your interior flavoring as she’ll have either thrown out the cracked syrup, or used the “wasted” result for candy-making. Don’t caramelize those onions in your spanakopita filling or they won’t taste right in the delicate filo dough sheets.

It is true that bakers aren’t cooks and cooks aren’t bakers. Most cooks shy from baking because of the idea that they can’t be restricted by a recipe, without seeming to understand that they are restricted by the means of cooking at all. Take it all into consideration, and you could leap that self-imposed hurdle and embrace it all, becoming like a baker as a result. Because those of us that are bakers know what cooks do, what can be done in the kitchen, and then apply that to our baked creations for a combined result of culinary expertise. Where would we be if bakers had never ventured beyond the mud oven and cooks had never contemplated puff pastry?



  1. I’m a baker primarily, but yes I cook as like you said that matters for baking. I actually find myself being more creative with baking recipes than cooking ones.

  2. Happy New Year’s Eric! Great information.Happy Baking and Writing in the upcoming days. Lisa the arty writer.

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