To Bake Well, Be Patient and Add a Dash of Science

An interview with baker and onetime chemical engineer Melissa Weller.
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A picture of freshly baked cinnamon rolls taken from above, with white icing atop browned, coiled rolls.

Melissa Weller's Cardamom Cinnamon Rolls

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Johnny Miller

Chris Gorski, Editor

(Inside Science) -- Baker Melissa Weller excelled in science and math in school and baked for fun. After working for a few years as a chemical engineer, she began working in kitchens full time. "I just wanted that creative outlet," she said.

After spending years working at bakeries and restaurants, and putting her own twist on Parker House rolls and caramel sticky buns, among other delicacies, she's releasing her first cookbook, "A Good Bake," written with Carolyn Carreño. As highlighted in the book's subtitle, bringing an organized approach to "the art and science" of making baked goods can yield delicious results.

Weller is currently the head baker in residence at the Brooklyn restaurant Gertie. In an interview with Inside Science, she described how she brings the rigor of the scientific method to the kitchen. She also shared some tricks that might help home bakers rekindle their sourdough starters, improve favorite holiday recipes and even determine when they should literally let their dough chill out. The conversation below has been edited for brevity and clarity.


Chris Gorski, Inside Science: The introduction to your book goes into a lot of detail about how you employ science in your baking. Do you find that your approach is different from that of other bakers?

Melissa Weller: I do think most bakers think about the things that I think about. I might take things a little bit more extreme. I actually do know a lot of engineer career changers to baking, so maybe there's a commonality there. I just always, for myself, strive to understand why something's happening because I want to make it better. I think that's the perfectionist in me.

How do you work out new recipes? Do you think of them as experiments?

I put the ingredients in a spreadsheet and list each one. Then I look at the ratios of the ingredients to each other. And then I think, well, what do I want to change here? And I do this with pie dough, with the water content, for example, or I'll do this with my babka dough and I looked at the percentage of sugar in proportion to the amount of flour.

I'll look at the ratios and I'll think about what that is based on my experience. I create new percentages and then come up with a new formula. And then I'll test it out.

Sometimes I don't even get close to what I'm picturing in my head, and I just sort of put it away for a while. There was a period of time where I was putting sourdough starter in everything, because I really liked the result it was giving. It was kind of like, "Whoa, what's going on -- this is amazing!"

Lots of people were really interested in making their own sourdough starters and bread baking over the spring and summer. For people who might be late to the party on that, or if their starters might've faded, what are some of the things that they should be thinking about if they want to start or maintain a starter?

I like that question a lot. First thing is that if you have an active starter, you can spread the starter out on a piece of parchment paper with an offset spatula, and you can dry it, and you can leave it out at room temperature and let it just air-dry for a couple of days until it's hard. And then you can break it up into pieces and you can just store those in your freezer.

And the second thing I find is that all new bakers say "I've killed my starter." I don't think that's true at all. Pour the liquid off -- that's acidic and you don't want to mix that into your new starter that you're making. Then feed your starter flour and water and let it sit out in a warm spot and keep feeding it every 12 hours.

If you see bubbles and it's robust and it passes the float test, just keep feeding it. I sort of feel like that's sourdough starter 101, but I also think that you can do great baking without sourdough starter. And I think I was telling one of my bakers that over the summer, you don't have to make a sourdough loaf of bread at home. If you're uncomfortable with sourdough starter, start with a loaf of, like, pain ordinaire, which is basically a beautiful loaf of bread.

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Baker Melissa Weller stands at a counter rolling dough around a filling.

Patience with Sourdough Starter

Melissa Weller: Somebody told me that it's really easy to start a sourdough starter in a bakery because there's all of this natural yeast floating around in the air. And I felt like that was a little bit of an old wives' tale. I didn't really believe it. And then another baker just laughed at me when I told them the stories, like, "no, that's not true."

Well, I've lived in my apartment for 16 years now and, and I've been making sourdough starter in it for almost as long. And when I first made my sourdough starter here from scratch it wasn't very strong at all.

Well, nowadays, if I want to start a sourdough starter in my apartment, all I have to do is mix flour and water together. And tomorrow it will be alive. The writer of my book, Carolynn, she was making all of these recipes in her house in San Diego and her starter was not as strong as my starter. And she followed my recipe, like starting a starter from scratch using the natural yeasts that are found on whole grain rye flour. And it was taking her a lot longer.

I feel like a new baker shouldn't beat themselves up for not having the same results as somebody who's been doing it longer or has a better starter.

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Johnny Miller

How much of the success in baking comes from being organized and being patient?

Melissa: I think that's where all of the success comes from. Everything in baking is temperature-related. Let's say you're talking about sweet baking or pie crust.

The most beautiful results come from repeatedly putting your dough back in the refrigerator and waiting for it to chill down before you handle it. If you want those picture perfect lattices, if you are handling the dough when it's really soft, it's going to sort of mold into your finger shape, and it's not going to look as pretty. So if you are willing to keep putting it back into the refrigerator to get the right temperature, then it turns out beautiful.

I think the same for sugar cookies. I remember when I was a kid, I'd try to roll them out and they'd get all stuck in the cookie cutter and mushy. We never refrigerated that dough really when I was a kid.

If you want to bake it as a cookie, you have to wait for it to chill down. But if you wait too long for it to chill down, it will be solid as a rock, and you won't be able to separate it into balls. So you have to let it cool down to a specific temperature.

If you're organized and you make a baking schedule for yourself, when you plan things out, nothing really takes a long time. The longest amount of time is the waiting part, like waiting for something to ferment, waiting for pie dough to chill down.

If you're a professional baker, your whole day revolves around having this organized schedule of doing things in a specific order, because the actual steps don't take time, but the waiting part takes time.

I presume that a lot of people won't be able to celebrate the holidays the way they usually would like to. They won't be able to gather in big groups with friends and family, but they will still want to enjoy an old family recipe, maybe Christmas cookies, maybe a family favorite, like a big Christmas cake concoction. If someone can get their grandmother's recipe or whoever's it is, what are some of the things they should keep in mind in trying to adapt it to their own kitchen?

I think that if you can talk to the person and just sort of hear how they make it as opposed to just seeing it written out, I always think that that's a good thing to do, because you get more information that way.

And then for me, as a baker, I'm going to add salt. I feel like a lot of recipes that might get passed down, just look and see if they have salt, because that wasn't always [a] common thing to be included in recipes. And -- this is just me -- I always convert everything to a weight so that I know what I'm working with. And so, if I see something that says a cup of sugar, I'm going to convert it to 200 grams. I usually go about things that way, although that's probably more extreme than most people.

Did you ever hear the "This American Life" episode (Act 14 here) where they talk about how a hot dog maker moved to a shiny new plant, followed all their old procedures, but they couldn't figure out why the hotdogs were different?

That's so interesting. I've worked at a lot of different restaurants and bakeries in New York. And a lot of my recipes just stay wherever it is. As soon as I go, the recipe changes. And I think somebody asked me, "Aren't you concerned?" I was getting ready to leave a bakery. And I said to them, "Well, when I leave, then somebody else will be making the recipes and then it will be different."

It will change because there are all of these little things. Little intricacies that you don't really necessarily know and you don't necessarily see. And sometimes, if you miss one little thing like that, it's a completely different product. With my cookbook, I just really wanted to make sure that I captured all of those things, so if somebody was as particular as I am about doing something, they would have it all there right in front of them.

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Chris Gorski is an Editor for Inside Science and runs the Sports beat. Follow him on twitter at @c_gorski.