Baking and Culture of Measurement

I have been obsessed with baking Asian cakes such as mooncakes, anpan, Hokkaido bread lately. My tiny New York City apartment kitchen has been filled with baking ingredients and tools including five different types of flour, different molds for different cakes and bread. The basic equipment and ingredients are readily available in my home.

However when I started making mooncakes for example, I ran into the problem of recipes. In order to get a hang of baking techniques, I often go to Youtube, and observe how other people from different countries make mooncakes, and Hokkaido bread. Once I read a few blog posts, and watch a few videos, I seem to get a conceptual hang of the workflow, and feel that I can comfortably make a new type of bread without much difficulty. However, people often say that baking is a science. That means, what determines whether a cake is a success or not lies in the precise measurement. This I found to be a troubling issue especially when making Vietnamese cakes.

I found recipes in Vietnamese on the Internet to be very underwhelming. Most of the time, the measurements are not precise, which throw me off. Whenever I found a ciabatta recipe for example, the instruction is full with details that I feel happy about actually not reading the extra story that the writer tags along to personalize the food making experience. I would go straight to the end of the blog post, look at the recipe, get a general idea of the workflow, then I would go to Youtube and find videos to see how the recipe actually is executed, and certain steps that could never be verbalized in writing.

This general workflow helps me with many cuisines: Chinese, German, American, Mexican and Mediterranean. But when it comes to Vietnamese food particularly Vietnamese recipes that I remember as kid growing up in Vietnam, I find lots of frustration. I often find the writing to be dry, not detailed enough, and it leaves me with an unsatisfactory feeling that the author does not try to make sure that I’d be able to re-create the same experience. This realization made me think about a culture of writing cookbooks, recipes, and blogs. Each recipe takes a lot of care to master, and then to write a blog post to explain what one does. This is a lot of labor and care. What sets the Vietnamese recipes and Western cuisines recipes apart for me now is this level of care, level of appreciation.

I believe that there are many Vietnamese recipes out there that people need to try. Yet, in order to figure out what they are, one needs a class of cultural producers who would be able to introduce these different recipes online, and then popularize it in the world. This is such a cool idea for a Youtube channel, and food blog. I hope that a class of young talented Vietnamese people out there are doing precisely this: to make sure that Vietnamese recipes are accessible to the culinary world, and treat Vietnamese foods with care, and patience.

4 thoughts on “Baking and Culture of Measurement

  1. A few interesting threads/challenges re: baking in terms of process and presentation of recipes:

    1. like all cooking, it is based in embodied, tacit knowledge (defying description, there’s an interesting article from Collins describing Japanese scientists trying to program baker’s knowledge into bread machines) and mastery directly related through recursive practice (you must bake in order to learn to bake). K Ray’s (2016) side by side comparison of the production of “ethnic” cooks to fine-dining cooks speaks to social production of knowledge and cooking as a occupation.

    2. “scaling” bread baking recipes, in terms of process, requires very context-specific adjustments especially in terms of ingredients (leavening agents, ie. baking soda, yeast, that actually do not scale 1:1 — bulk production vs making 1 loaf, for example); in terms of technology (ie. oven temperature distribution, ambient temperature, humidity, air flow in room); in terms of the larger social infrastructure in which baking takes place (for example, gas flows into home vs. commercial kitchens, or traditional communal ovens vs. industrial/commercial spaces) and as you pointed out, specific cultural context (why are some types of recipes/knowledge translated or “thought through” as web-based recipes?).

    Both points, I would argue, challenge the notion of the “scientific” approach of baking (vs. other forms of cooking) that, in fact, require specificity in terms of situating space, technology, practice, knowledge and “feel” (not to mention, in terms of chemistry, biology, social-ecology — where/how are particular ingredients available within a social process of transformation and exchange)


    1. All interesting points you’re raising.

      1. I agree that baking as any human recipe has an embodiment aspect to it. But if we’re thinking of writing about cooking and baking as writing ethnography, even if we cannot fully capture the rhythm, movements, and the spirit of it, we can capture certain baseline via the medium of writing.

      2. I like your point about Collins’s sociology of knowledge. The transferring knowledge to the bread maker is interesting. Does it then de-skilled people when human bakers no longer need to have that embodied knowledge? Collins has written a lot about emotional energy in human and collective activities. To me baking brings joy because you’re doing certain things, and having certain expected outcomes. Maybe this is more along the line of Durkheim’s ritualistic dimension in my daily activities. To be honest, I have never finished Ray’s book. I got caught up in the early theorization part. My favorite book about food now is Foodies: Democracy and Distinction by Johnston and Baumann. I think they capture the kind of activities that I’m engaging. I am not quite a haute cuisine French chef; I am also not necessarily an ethnic restauranteur. My only goal is to be able to recreate certain food experience that I imagine to be authentic via instructions that I found online. Sometimes, I try to recreate eating experience that I have had in certain settings. This does not give me legitimacy as a part of an occupation, but it puts me in a snobbery consumer group who is wiling to try out certain things.

      3. I think the role of the Internet is important here in terms of social reproduction of knowledge which Collins and other scholars of food have ignored for too long. This is definitely something we should explore if we’re serious scholars of food. A sociologist of consumption once told me that the Internet killed cook book publishing in the US. Publishers used to get a lot of money from publishing cookbooks. Now everything is online. People hardly write cookbooks anymore. Though they still have the prestige factor. My question is whether the Internet plays a role in democratizing this culinary knowledge.

      4. And I agree that the notion that baking is scientific is problematic. Yet, I still want to maintain that there’s some baseline in baking that in a society that is obsessed with quantification and measurement, we kind of have an understanding what it is. I would argue that your notion of specificity points to the up-scale part of baking. It’s more similar to what making a cake in France would mean than how I would make a home-made roti or dumplings. Then we’re entering the boundary making area of human society.

      5. Finally, one trend that I found in my research is that there’s a class of highly educated people going into making foods, and working as freelance cooks in NYC. Juliet Schor argues that there’s is a process of destigmatization of once low-status work, and that younger workers feel that working as line cooks are great because of passion, and that in Schor’s work, platforms make a precarious job look so glamorous through their ad campaigns. I’m sure you’ll have some insight.


  2. Yes! Thinking out loud (on your blog comments section) …. not at all to detract from the joy and expression and creative process of cooking.

    I see a vast potential for modeling the social process of cooking, specifically in terms of social reproduction, following from the fact that cooking takes place both inside and outside the commodity/wage form; it represents a social process, configured and reconfigured, over and over. In all the talk about consumption, essentially as an economic metaphor, sometimes literal consumption gets lost.

    Agreed, there is certainly a baseline for analysis that runs through it all. In addition there is a rich (in some ways, untapped) literature, both academic and popular, for comparison at the organization or kitchen level (*if/when we move beyond “the Chef” or owner as individuals) — all cooking follows the same basic steps, all kitchens have the same basic operative functions, in different configurations, within different social contexts. Examining cooking inside/outside the wage relation, allows us to address social problems/stratification/etc (on many scales) and at the same time account for cooking as organized according according to many different ways of knowing, doing and being (including learning and sharing and experimenting). Importantly, I feel, this provides an out from the dead end of Bourdieu-influenced theorizing around “distinction” (food primarily as a descriptor) and movement towards understanding the social process by which we cook and eat as a generative form, producing other social processes/relations (which seems like common sense, especially in this era of so-called “essential” work until you examine the literature, sociological or otherwise).

    Your point about the internet is well taken, we might see the digital modes of communication serving the function of reproduction of knowledge in new forms — however the catch, as you suggested, is that you already have to possess a feel and taste for the end product, or at the very least have experience with the basic process….

    I’m sure there’s more… to all of your points…. for another time and place? Thanks for sharing!


    Liked by 1 person

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