Guest Essays

The Psychology of Baking

Written by Danielle Oteri

Cooks vs. bakers. Where do you fall on the spectrum?

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.

Steak with caper sauce
Photo: Casey Barber

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.

peach cobbler cake with rosemary, via
Photo: Casey Barber

“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.

Braided Swiss Bread
Photo: Casey Barber

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.)

lemon olive oil tart
Photo: Casey Barber

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.

spinach and ricotta stuffed shells
Photo: Casey Barber

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.”

breakfast pasta with spinach and egg
Photo: Casey Barber

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.

bacon and cheese Dutch baby
Photo: Casey Barber

“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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  1. I love to do both equally. I find baking relaxing because you just do what you’re told, unless I’m developing my own baking recipe. If I’m cooking I almost never follow a recipe exactly. I am always adjusting to my tastes and preferences.

  2. I obsessively follow directions whether I’m cooking OR baking. I don’t feel confident enough in my abilities to just wing it. So I suppose that, for me, there’s no huge difference between the two.

    Though I do get more satisfaction out of cooking, I suppose, because it just feels so good to nail a good, savory dish. (Then again, I DO love licking the bowl when I bake.)

  3. I always tell people that the reason I like to cook is because if you follow the directions, things turn out right–which is not always the case in life. However, I’ll have to admit that really does only apply to baking. When I was learning to cook I followed directions, but after 50 plus years of cooking, I just improvise. It’s all jazz.

  4. I rarely cook with a recipe, but because of that, my family complains that if I really make something great the odds of getting the exact same dish again are slim. I cook fast and easy though – nothing fancy. I love to bake, though. Of course, that has become a difficult task as a gluten free girl…

  5. I prefer baking, because of my sweet tooth. But cooking is more practical because it can provide a hearty meal. Brownies or scones are tasty but not so important.

  6. It’s an interesting idea, and one that I haven’t considered much because to ME baking and cooking are one in the same. I did, however, learn to bake first (as a child), if that matters. And, if you want to know the real challenge … I live at serious altitude, which makes baking even more precarious.

  7. Huh — I like both baking and cooking. I started out baking as a kid and fell in love, but we all know my baking issue these days. ;)

    BTW, is that first photo taken with your new camera???

  8. I hadn’t thought of it like that, but you’re right. You can’t mess with recipes as easily when you’re baking as you can with cooking. I like to do either.

  9. I am a finance dork by day but d0 creative side projects and I enjoy both cooking and baking. My good friend works in marketing and loves to cook but hates to bake. It’s the measuring! Throwing in a ‘tad’ or a ‘bit’ is much more natural to her than actually measuring out a 1/2 tsp.

  10. I’m more of a cook. Baking is not creative to me because you have to follow the directions exactly. There’s no room for improvising and making it your own. A cake will turn out the same no matter who bakes it. Chili, however, will always be different depending on who makes it, even if they follow the same recipe.

  11. I’m in the cooking camp, in large part because I’m not much chop as a baker. I do think it often (but not always) works out that you fit more comfortably on one side of the culinary equation than the other. And blessed are the couples who balance each other out in the kitchen.

  12. Baker here! I’m not at all adept at making things up as I go along, at least not in the kitchen. I’m a recipe kinda gal. Plus, there’s just something so homey and good about the smell of fresh pies or cinnamon rolls.

  13. I consider myself a baker with a cook’s yen for innovation. I like to mix and match techniques and ingredients to create new recipes. Like using a cake filling to make sandwich cookies, or making zabaglione with Irish cream instead of Marsala. Sometime the results are rousing successes, sometimes . . . . not. But always edible.

    1. Christine, I think that’s a great way to go about both cooking and baking – and the fact that you always end up with something edible ain’t bad either!

  14. I disagree with the assessment of baking not being creative and agree with Christine. If you know what you are doing with baking, you can certainly improvise and create new recipes. This is how I am learning to write my own recipes. There are ratios and there is science but there is a LOT more wiggle room than most people realize with baking. And I’m a Pisces, so by all astrological assessments, I should be a dreamy, instinct-driven cook. That being said, I love doing both but feel more comfortable covered in flour.

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