Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Old, The New

I learned photography in the "Old days" of film and chemistry. One of our first lectures (at Ohio State University) concerned the sensitivity of film to chemistry. It was alleged that a 1/2 degree (F) error or a mistake on the order of 10% chemical concentration could produce failure.

Now on the far side of 30 years in photography I know this information to be inaccurate - that is, except for color films, where chemistry and physics interact in ways that require extremely tight tolerances. However, the skills taught by paying close attention (which I did until I knew better) have paid off as I've struggled to be a better baker. The difference - for example - between a bread baked to inner temperature 195 and one baked to inner temperature 197 turns out to be quite significant.

Today's kitchen tools are wonderfully accurate, and that's great. An inexpensive instant-read thermometer can discern between 200 and 201; a $30 scale differentiates 1/2 a gram; electronic timers all agree with the concept of 20 seconds. I've learned to trust these instruments, and to distrust dry measures and approximations. Exactitude sounds contrary to the artistic instinct, but the big lesson I took away from photography studies remains with me in the kitchen: Know exactly what you're doing and you can do it as interestingly as you want.

Slightly irrelevant image AKA Spring Meditation #4

We've all heard the old saw "The Devil Is In The Details". This phrase tends to dismiss detailed thinking by associating it with Old Nick, so I've mentally changed it to "The Rapture Is In The Details." I take notes every time I make bread, then every month or so look back and compare.

I'm now realizing that recipes should be expressed as flow charts, with splits in direction leading to different results. This way the details can be expressed as choices that lead to effects, and "mistakes" can be converted into alternate but effective products. If, for example, you add too much water to a dough mix, you could look up on the flow chart what kind of results come from over-slack dough and make that bread.

What I'm outlining is my second project for 2010. Flow chart recipes, if I can pull them off, could revolutionize the way I use my kitchen. They might just be helpful to others, too. Hopefully I'll have some developed in time for my first workshop. Watch this space for details!


Take notes like a trained naturalist. Not only ingredients, but factors such as room temperature and outdoors humidity play roles. The more details you record the more you'll be able to see how everything comes together.

No comments: