Being trained as a chemical engineer in the university but subsequently worked as a meteorologist for 9 years, my educational background in science and engineering has enabled me to understand and analyse chemical and physical processes systematically. I once thought that I need not to analyse like a scientist anymore when making pastry and baking, but I was absolutely wrong.
Baking itself is as sophisticated as engineering. I just had a baking experiment class in school last week, where the original recipe of a pound cake was modified. So, my classmates and I baked nine pound cakes in total, and eight of them had one ingredient being replaced by something else. Although it was not a scientifically well-designed experiment, we could still observe how the appearance, texture and taste of the pound cakes changed as a result of the replacements.
Icing sugar 187g
Plain flour 244g
Baking powder 6g
1. Butter replaced with shortening
2. Butter replaced with oil
3. Plain flour replaced with wholemeal flour
4. Plain flour replaced with buckwheat flour (gluten free)
5. Eggs replaced with black bean paste
6. Eggs replaced with flax seed paste
7. Eggs replaced with banana puree
8. Sugar replaced with maltitol (artificial sweetener)
I was quite amazed by the experiment, because it showed that most of the time recipe was just a guideline. By understanding the functions of each ingredient, recipe can be altered to meet special dietary needs, such as gluten-free, refined-sugar free or egg-free, through experimenting with different ingredients in order to search for the best replacement. The gluten-free pound cake made with buckwheat flour, and egg-free pound cake using flax seeds as a substitute turn out to be my favorites.
At the end of the day, I understand that bakers do not JUST bake. Putting on a chef jacket and apron does not mean I no longer think and analyse like a scientist or engineer, because BAKERS are in fact MAD SCIENTISTS. When I mix the ingredients together, I have already started the mass and heat balance around the mixers. A chain of chemical reactions (e.g. Maillard reaction) are subsequently set off from the moment the dough or batter goes into the oven (or even before they go into the oven).
So, I guess, I am still a chemical engineer, but the only difference is that now I am engineering my bake products in the kitchen. After all, it’s about the chemistry.