My mother is a fine woman, and I love her to pieces. Often, though, it seems I have the following sort of conversation with her*, and it exasperates the daylights out of me:
Mom: I can’t cook.
Me: Why do you say that?
Mom: I was having people over and I wanted a great dessert. My friend JoAnn makes wonderful rice pudding, so I used her recipe, but it didn’t turn out. And here I was thinking I’d be serving something so tasty and healthy at the same time, but it was terrible.
Me: Umm… rice pudding’s really not all that healthy. Not that I don’t love it.
Mom: Well, I wanted it to be low fat, low calorie, and high fiber. So I substituted nonfat milk for the cream and cut the sugar in half, and instead of white rice I used half brown rice and half quinoa. Oh, and I was out of cinnamon but nutmeg was on sale so I used that instead.
Me: OK then.
Even though I know that there are many people who bake like my dear mom cooks*, it always surprises me a little when I hear people asking what went wrong with their bread: they followed the directions for that “foolproof recipe” to the letter, only substituting whole wheat for white flour, so why oh why did they get a patio paver instead of a nice loaf?
Now I’m not saying that it’s not possible to make great bread from whole wheat flour or other more healthful ingredients. There are certainly some terrific recipes out there for doing so, and one of my resolutions is to do more whole-grain baking. But whole grains and other ingredients are different critters from your basic white flour, so simply substituting them into any old recipe, using methods that work for basic white bread, will probably not produce optimal results.
I’m also not suggesting that we shouldn’t experiment and adapt recipes to make them our own. In fact, one of the things I love most about bread baking is doing just that. But I do so knowing that 1) my result will most likely be different from what the original recipe intended; 2) my result may not be good; and 3) good or not, if I make a whole bunch of modifications at once I’m not going to know which ones made what difference.
So with a new recipe I usually follow it exactly at first, just to see. Then I modify away, usually one tweak at a time, in one of two general modes: 1) I’m in foreign territory, but I’m willing to risk baking a bad bread in the interest of scientific discovery, or 2) I have some basis, given my prior experience, for hoping that it will turn out acceptably well, or — and it does happen once in a while! – even better than the original. Of course, plenty often, it doesn’t work that way, so I’ve gotten really adept at retroactively switching into Mode 1.
*Mom, thanks for being a good sport. XXOO