Loafing Around at MIT

Why baking bread should be your next hobby
MAY 2020
Chanyoung
P.
Biology

I started baking not too long ago, mostly at the advice of acquaintances who were already proficient bakers. My first few attempts weren’t great; I once managed to omit an entire cup of water from a naan recipe, resulting in a hard puck-shaped mass with the texture of stale Ritz crackers. But I kept at it, improving my skills and eventually moving onto more complicated endeavors, such as making a braided loaf.

So, why bake?

Reason 1: You’ll need an outlet for grad school stress

During grad school, you’ll eventually run into instances of frustration: an experiment might fail, a paper might get rejected, or funding might fall through. Through these moments, it’s important to have a means to destress. For me, baking fills that role. I usually set aside some time over the weekend to bake. It forces me to take a step back from the difficulties of grad school but still feel productive. After I pull a fully baked loaf from the oven, I often find I can revisit the challenges of my PhD with greater clarity than before.

Reason 2: Recipes are straightforward

It’s easy to get started―all you need at a minimum is some flour, yeast, salt, and water. Start with a classic sandwich bread; you’ll start to get a feel for the steps involved and how things should behave. While I do have an electric mixer, I normally choose to work the dough by hand (it’s extremely satisfying to mix all of the individual ingredients together to form a soft and smooth dough). If you want a healthier option, try making a whole wheat loaf. There is immense variation in available recipes, and often, you can find one that contains any and all ingredients you might want to include.

Reason 3: Baking is as flexible as you need it to be

The basic ingredients are all shelf stable, so you can use them at your own pace. If you don’t have access to materials such as bread tins, you can always freehand your loaf. Some apartments and dorms may have small ovens, but you can overcome that by simply reducing the recipe (provided you keep all the ratios the same!). For those who may be concerned about time, worry not! Although yeasted doughs do have long rising times, there are many great alternatives such as chemically leavened soda breads or unleavened variations such as roti.

Reason 4: The stakes are low, the payoff is high

Baking bread is also an extremely forgiving process. For example, a recipe might call for bread flour, but you might not have any on hand. Don’t let that hold you back! Bread flour is just normal all-purpose flour with added gluten proteins―you can just substitute in normal flour and you’re good to go. If you start to notice things going wrong (maybe your bread isn’t rising quickly enough or overbaking), you can easily see what’s happening and take steps to course correct. And if you do make mistakes during the course of baking, you’ll usually still end up with an edible, and most likely tasty, result. You might not want to enter The Great British Bake Off, but you (and your roommates) will still have some delicious fresh-out-the-oven bread to enjoy.

Reason 5: Experimentation is encouraged

Occasionally, I like to challenge myself by introducing either a new method or a new ingredient. Instead of using an oven, why not try steaming the dough? How does adding matcha to the mix affect the bake? It’s in these tests that I face the most difficulty but also the greatest reward. I can build off of recipes already developed to add variations of my own, testing how different conditions and additions affect the result. Sometimes, when I’m not sure if something is a good idea, I can ask a community such as Breadit, or call up the Baker’s Hotline.

If you’re looking for a way to destress from your research, or just looking for a fun hobby, try out baking! You can choose to make something simple, or if you’re up for a challenge, try something new, such as making Hokkaido milk bread, Korean rainbow tteok, or if you’re feeling funky, some live starter and sourdough. Even if you make mistakes, you’ll likely make something delicious in the end.