Baking is Science! Recipe Fails Explained.
We have all had that experience where you see an amazing recipe online, run out and get all the ingredients (sometimes expensive ones!), and follow the recipe to the letter, only to have the recipe turn out blasé or worse, totally bomb. What happened, you wonder.
If you measured precisely, timed it correctly, etc., it's likely that the issue came down to the ingredients. Since baking is the result of many different chemical reactions, each individual ingredient has an impact on the end result. Sometimes those results are easier to spot, like a cake that is so crumbly it won’t hold together. Sometimes they aren’t cosmetic at all and instead impact flavor, like a vanilla cake that tastes like cornbread (a huge pet peeve of mine). While it is true that some recipes are incredibly forgiving, many are not.
Let’s consider an example to illustrate what I mean. Let’s say you plan to make a chocolate cake and the recipe calls for all purpose (AP) flour. Did you know that the protein content of AP flour varies from brand to brand? Is your AP flour bleached or unbleached? Both impact your results. Protein impacts the structure, bleached flour impacts the flavor. Okay, so you grab for whatever bag of AP flour you have in the cupboard (let’s hope it’s a fresh bag because old flour has its own issues).
Then the recipe states that you can use whatever milk you choose (usually this applies to recipes that use plant based milk). So you grab for almond milk because that’s what you have. The almond milk you buy from the refrigerated section has very little protein compared to say, soy milk. Was soy milk used in the original recipe? If so, that cake would benefit from more structure. Was the recipe actually tested with every different kind of plant based milk before it was posted or is it just an assumption that any milk will work?
Okay, so you have your flour and your milk. What’s next? Baking powder. Can you even remember when you opened that baking powder container? As baking powder ages it greatly loses its leavening power. Additionally, not all brands of baking powder are equivalent. I have personally found that just changing the brand of leavener can change the rise and taste of my baked goods. And on it goes with each individual ingredient.
From the brand of cocoa powder (there are significant variations in the fat content from brand to brand, too much fat in the recipe and your crumb begins to suffer) to type of oil you use (impacts flavor), all these differences matter in a recipe, especially if it’s a finicky one. There is a reason why professional bakers stick to the brands they know and trust.
So, what does this all really mean? First, it means that if your finished product left you feeling underwhelmed (despite the hype it received from the person that posted it) it likely wasn’t your fault. In a perfect world, you would know what brand of flour they used, exactly which type of milk (and brand, if was plant based milk because they contain added stabilizers, and are fortified with vitamins and minerals, which can throw off your batter chemistry), the brand of cocoa powder, etc. Knowing their baking elevation would be amazing too since elevation greatly impacts results of baked goods, especially cakes.
Second, it means that there are a lot of people walking around in the world believing that they are terrible bakers when in fact, they might actually be great provided they received more guidance on ingredient selection.
And third, and I think this is the most important take-away, it means we should celebrate every occasion when a recipe actually turns out because really, it’s kind of a chemistry miracle!
(P.S. In the photo of the two donuts, there is only one difference in the recipe and it's probably not what you think. Everything is exactly the same (including the brand and amount of cocoa powder) except that one donut was made from batter with only baking powder and the other, a combination of baking powder and baking soda.)