Wise Cooking

Whenever I go to bake, I have two go-to books that I like to check first. One of them is Alton Brown's I'm Just Here for More Food, and the other is Shirley O'Corriher's Cookwise. I imagine I'll be adding The Breadmaker's Apprentice at some point, but I don't have it just yet. What makes me so interested in the first two books?

[amtap book:isbn=0688102298]
[amtap book:isbn=1584793414]
[amtap book:isbn=1580082688]

Alton Brown's book is great because it divides up the cooking by preparation type, which I think all bakers should start doing. If you're using yeast, it's the Straight Dough method, and if you're making bubbles by incorporating sugar into solid butter, then it's the Creaming Method. You get a much more firm understanding of the different baking processes than you would just by reading the recipes. As an example, I was transcribing the family Coffee Cake recipe over Thanksgiving, and I noticed it used the Creaming Method. This saved me no end of writing, and I was able to grab the important information. Also, there was a mistake in the recipe as it was written, and I was able to fix it when I first went to make it (the chemical leavener was added to the wrong bit in the recipe). It's easy to use, and it has some great applications (what some people would call "recipes").

Shirley's Cookwise is a completely different beast. Her chapter divisions are based more on the material being studied, such as sugars, fats, or bread. What assured me that I made the right decision in buying her book, and the thing I point to whenever I want someone to know about it, is the thorough way she treated flour. Flour seems simple on the surface - All Purpose Flour, Bread Flour, Pastry Flour, etc. You pick one based on the recipe you're using, depending on how much protein your recipe needs. Pastry flour has relatively little protein, so it's a soft flour, and bread flour has much more protein, so it's a hard flour. However, Shirley points out that AP flours from different regions have different levels protein, so Southern brands are softer than Northern brands, and bleaching has an effect on the hardness, and so on. Then she shows you how you can determine, for any given flour, what the percentage of protein in it is. Not that you may ever need it, but if you do, it's there.

The interesting thing about the recipes in Cookwise is that they are geared for success. They are not made to be simple, and they are not made to be quick. They are made to work. Every time. Any little trick that would increase the probability of your bread coming out perfectly is added in, and she makes notes of why the techniques or ingredients were added in to any given recipe, so you can understand what you would be doing if you left it out or modified it.

In all, I highly recommend both books, and I would likely be lost without them at this stage in my baking. They're not books that you would use because you just need a quick idea of what you want to bake for breakfast this morning, but they are books to get you to the stage that you can master the concepts involved in baking.