The Psychology of Baking

Danielle Oteri

by Danielle Oteri on January 7, 2011

There’s definitely a psychology underlying a preference for cooking vs. baking. I fall squarely in the cooking camp and it goes far beyond my leaning toward savory over sweet.

The answer is simple: I hate following directions. I’m irritated by the idea that if something is not coming together, it’s because I did something slightly wrong back in a mysterious chain of chemical reactions that I don’t really understand. I prefer improvisation and developing the dish as I go, adding more stock, more salt, sugar, red pepper flakes, and deglazing a pan to great, smoky, hissing drama.

But is my dislike of baking more petulant than punk? I’m not sure, but in the course of researching this piece, I learned that this question can reveal a lot about person’s instincts and insecurities.

Because I also like to think it’s due to my astrological personality as a grandiose, obeys-no-authority Leo, I consulted C.C., a fellow Leo who had an entirely different take on the matter. C.C., who loyal GFS readers know as being “culinarily challenged,” likes the rules of baking.

“I like having directions to follow because otherwise, how would I know if I’m doing it right? And even when following a recipe, I stress out if I did it wrong because I impatiently measure imprecisely (which counts in baking) or I skim over important things, like when it says to ‘cut in the butter’ and I just mush the butter in some inelegant way that is not cutting, because I have no idea what cutting is, nor the wherewithal to have even realized that it meant something specific.

“Similarly, I may add melted butter where it calls for softened butter because I overheated the butter and just used the melted butter anyway, reasoning, that it’s still butter, right? Wrong. So wrong.”

As for my love of deglazing, C.C. comments, “It would probably set off my fire alarm.”

Next, I asked my brother Jamie and his girlfriend Amelia. My brother is the cook of their household, but Amelia always brings delicious homemade desserts to family functions. She tells me, “I love baking because there are exact measurements. I easily get frustrated and confused when cooking. If I’m told ‘just add a bit’ or ‘a tad’ I freak because I don’t know how much a ‘bit’ or ‘tad’ is.

“I have searched the internet for terms like simmer and sauté because if I’m asked to do it, I have to be exact. With baking, I am relaxed because I can follow directions perfectly and make exact measurements. It makes me feel safe.” (Note: Amelia is also a Leo, so my astrology theory has been thoroughly defenestrated.)

Jamie, in his usual easygoing, shoulder shrugging, whatsa-matta-with-you manner says, “I hate baking, I cook exactly like you do. No directions, just put stuff together. When in doubt, add more garlic!”

No one in the world knows better how to follow directions like my friend Hadas, a scientist who I have adored since high school, when she was the “tribal elder” of the Environmental Awareness Club, to her current position as a fellow at the National Academy of Sciences. She is terrifyingly organized and now that she has a smart phone, I’m fairly certain she could lead small countries in her spare time. But lo and behold, Hadas prefers cooking!

“As a scientist and a bit of perfectionist, the idea of following directions appeals to me and I do like to bake from time to time,” Hadas explains. “That being said, I don’t always have the patience for it. When I cook, even when I do follow directions, I like to improvise and there is something very nice about throwing things together and seeing what you get.”

Melissa, a fiction writer and my CSA partner, managed to capture my feelings on baking: “Baking [also] has seemed to me to be chemistry, while cooking is like art. Art you can taste as you go—and for me, that’s a big part of it. I like to stick my fingers, er, spoon, into whatever I am cooking and taste at every step.

“I like to smell and taste the spices and individual ingredients before I put them in, slices of bell peppers, cheese, it’s all part of the process,” she continued. “I’ve always wanted to be someone that bakes…someone that wakes up early in the morning and puts muffins in the oven and then the apartment smells like muffins! What happens, though, is that the apartment smells like burnt muffins.”

So it would appear that your cooking personality cannot be predicted! Whether the rest of your life is lived by the book or by the seat of your pants, in the kitchen, roles can be reversed. Cooking or baking can offer a respite, a place where you can choose to feel safe or feel free.

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