The cooling temperatures of summer’s end brings fresh bread back into my kitchen. (While our antiquated air conditioner can keep up with light cooking, our oven puts more calories of heat into the air than the a/c can remove.)
Baking is a very different form of cooking from the stove. While equally creative, it is a far more exact science. I usually improvise my way through stovetop cooking: two dashes of cayenne instead of three in my curry, five cloves of garlic instead of four; but doing so in baking can be pure disaster. Get the wrong ratio of sauce to egg white in a soufflé and you can get a dense disaster instead of puffy magic. (Actually, soufflés are rather forgiving once you figure out the right technique, but I digress.) In stovetop cooking, you can usually get away with a 25% increase in one ingredient. Or take measures to fix lousing up the steps of a recipe. Not so in baking. You need exact ratios, and oftentimes you need to follow the steps exactly.
There is so much subtlety that you need to pay attention to: The percentage of protein in the flour. The milkfat in the dairy. The yeasts and bacterias used to raise the dough. Humidity. But there are also other little secrets that bread bakers know that most of us do not such as throwing a cup of steaming water into the oven right as you close the door. These are things that do not just make the process more efficient, or a little better. They are what turn what would be a soft, but perfectly edible load into a symphony of crackle. Being able to tell when a loaf of bread is ready by sight. Being able to hear if it is going to be good (maybe I’m making that one up).
Some secrets do not stand up to the rigors of science. Terroir in wine is a load of crock, (the secret of the flavor of really good wines is in the yeast and bacteria, not the soil). But others will completely reshape what is produced such as confectioners and bakers adding cayenne to enhance the flavor of chocolate, or a dash of oyster sauce in fried rice.
It is clear every field has its little secrets. Every sub-field their cup of water. Some, we can learn from experience. But the complexity of our fields means that individual experiments only get us so far, even if we start from the beginning and dedicate our whole lives to them. So other little secrets we need to be taught by those who already know.