The Trouble with Experiments

If you’ve been baking for a while, or even if you’re a new baker, chances are you’ve done some experimenting with ingredients or techniques to see what works best for you. Maybe an experiment goes something like this:

You have a choice of two flours, and you wonder which will produce a better bread. So you take your favorite recipe and bake it twice, once with flour A, and once with flour B. Except for changing the flour (the experimental variable) you keep everything else the same: the other ingredients, the fermentation time, the baking time and temperature. You like Loaf A better, so you conclude that Flour A is better.

Here is an experiment I did a while ago, but I’m not going to say what the experimental variable was, just yet.

I like the loaf on the left better because the grigne (cut) opened up much more nicely than the one on the right.

So what did I vary to produce this difference?

Well, I lied; this was not an experiment, it was just two loaves I baked one day. I varied nothing, actually. At least nothing I could control.

These loaves were as close to identical as I could make them without them being the same loaf. They were from the same batch of dough, the same weight, shaped and scored exactly the same (as much as I could control that), baked together in the oven.

My point is that when we bake there are lot of things we can’t control even if we try to. So when we run a single experiment, success or failure may not be attributable to our “experimental variable” at all, but to some other thing that was beyond our control or awareness.

Maybe I shaped Loaf B less tightly than Loaf A. Maybe the angle on the blade was different when I scored the loaves. Maybe B stuck to the peel a little bit on its way into the oven. Maybe the steam in the oven did not reach B as effectively as A. Who knows? Whatever it was, it happened by random chance or human error.

So here is my suggestion: experiment away, but if you really want to  understand what’s going on, don’t draw conclusions from a single time. Do it a lot of times with the same variable, like scientists do, so that  random chance and human error even out over time and you’re left with a truer picture of how your experimental variable affects (or doesn’t) your results.

This doesn’t apply only to baking, of course. How often do we make judgments about people, or restaurants, or ideas, or other things, based on a single limited encounter?  I’m just saying.

CommentsLeave a comment

  1. says

    “Do it a lot of times with the same variable, like scientists do, so that random chance and human error even out over time and you’re left with a truer picture”
    Mercy, that would be a lot of baking!

    Truth be told, I’d be ecstatic if my loaves ever looked like either of those…

  2. says

    You’re so right! The bread baking process is so full of little things that can be slightly different. As I am not a picky person and don’t have a ton of time to concentrate on bread baking, I guess I experiment every day and then smile at how every day, even with a basically similar bread, it comes out differently. I am doing whole spelt breads and would like to post the recipe… but before I do, I really have to bring it to ONE recipe and not change every day. But saying this, it’s also amazing how we THINK we need to follow a recipe, but realize that it can be modified in any number of ways and make a slightly different, AS good bread.
    Good point made, Susan… especially the last sentence! :-)

  3. pepsakoy says

    I agree with your point ! My personal preference is to experiment on something new ( once for each ) but not on the same thing with adjustments…So everytime I try a new recipe, given that I wouldn’t make it again, it’s a pure excitement to see what I’m gonna get out of the oven !

    As for your question about my olive and onion bread, I didn’t really measure the herbs (dried mint and parsley)..I just sprinkled them out of bottles but my guess would be about 1/4-1/2 tsp..

  4. SallyBR says

    Being a scientist, who happens to be just getting ready to do an experiment for the third time to get good statistics on the data, i have to say I absolutely loved your post

    and to echo Jane, particularly the last sentence….

  5. Lynn says

    Love your thoughts. Thanks for reminding us that life is life and we don’t have as much control as we think! Keep up the good work on this site. Love it!

  6. says

    Nancy: Mercy, that would be a lot of baking! Yes, what’s your point? ;)
    Seriously, I’m not saying everyone needs to be scientist when they bake. Only that sometimes we draw conclusions based on too little information.

  7. says

    Thank you. This was a very good post. I also enjoyed how you extended the thought to everyday issues. It made me think of stereotypes and racism.

  8. says

    Very thoughtful post.
    And a picture of identical twin bread loafs. If you want to keep one of them fresh, send him away on a spaceship travelling with the speed of light. ;)

  9. says

    Interesting post! You are absolutely right about trying things a few times and not jumping to conclusions – on many different fronts, not only baking! Your bread looks wonderful!

  10. Patrick says

    After following your blog for about a year, I have to say that I have learned more from you about sourdough bread and starters than the Professional Pastry/ Baking course I recently completed and for that I thank you. Beautiful loaves. I do have 2 questions. Do you ever spike you formulas with yeast and when is your book coming out?

  11. says

    Great advice, and not just about bread. It’s all about getting to know something / someone really well and understanding where they’re coming from.

  12. says

    Experience . . . enough experience with a certain sensitivity and we begin to develop wisdom. Wisdom processes experiences and only over time does meaning rise to our awareness. Wisdom seems more about questioning than about judging.

    I love thinking about you looking at these loaves hot from the oven, analyzing looking for a variable and getting to random chance or human error. But the real beauty comes when you pull it all together with how easily we jump to judgements based on single encounters. I think you have wisdom there Susan.

  13. says

    hello , I find this blog extremely interesting.I am an italian artisan amateur baking.
    I perfectly agree with you and with your conclusions.
    I could just say that the cut on that loaf may not have opened enough because you folded too tight : this is just my feeling.
    Roberto from Rome

  14. says

    You’re absolutely right! That’s what I call “scientific method”, exactly what I don’t have patience to follow, even though I studied Chemistry at the University… ;-)

  15. Dan DiMuzio says

    Great point about making conclusions based on too little observation. I think many bakers want to move from recipe to recipe, or keep changing things in one recipe, before they have really mastered any one variety.

    Get really good at making just a few types of bread, using the same recipe each time, and you’ll recognize the significance of changes much more.

  16. says

    And I didn’t see any difference at all in the first place in the breads (good to read on and find out I’m normal ..hehe) .
    Real philosofical, but true, unfortunately this world is turning round faster and faster. And most people don’t seem to have the patience to find out anymore and just label someone on just a few minutes.

  17. Matt says

    That is interesting…I just did an experiment with 2 flours and was suprised that one looked so much nicer(grigne) and it was the cheaper of the 2. Upon further discovery tasting texture etc the winner was actually the ugly loaf.Your loaves prove to me that the ugly duckling could certainly be a swan.

  18. BreadintheBone says

    Oh gosh yes! Happens to me all the time, and makes it very difficult to experiment. Besides, I get bored easily, so I keep introducing new variables 8-).
    My guess is that one loaf rose just slightly more than the other, or that one was ever so slightly more slack. Which one? Couldn’t tell . . .

  19. says

    So true! Another good reason to always keep an eye on whatever you’re baking — things that finish in 20 minutes yesterday may only need 15 min today!

  20. says

    Now wait just a minute here, did I read this correctly? Are you actually suggesting that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions? But, but… without daily jumping, how will we ever get any exercise?


    P.S. I love the look of both loaves! But I’m with you; the one on the left is really beautiful. Do you think it might have been slightly different oven temperature (within the oven) that caused the difference in the grignes?

  21. says

    Thank you for the article! I always keep in mind that bread baking is not merely science, but also art. The uniqueness of each loaf is a result not only of temperature, moisture, time and other qualities, but in the quirky uniqueness of each artisan baker’s hands. If I knew every single loaf I baked would turn out exactly the same, the excitement of cutting into a new loaf, or in receiving a descriptive report from a recipient of my bread, would disappear – as would my enjoyment of baking.

  22. says

    I have baked so much bread in the year I worked in a restaurant in the Presidio. We had bread ovens with steam injectors, same dough, same weight, baked at the same time. Most of the time it came down to the shaping. If the loaf is just a little thicker on one side, when it rises and even more when it springs in the oven you can have a huge difference in appearances, with very asymmetrical results. We were making hamburger buns with brioche bread, and some people couldn’t roll tight enough so they looked like ufos when they came out of the oven.

    I love your site, it is so inspirational!

    Keep on baking!

  23. says

    Both loaves look quite lovely, and i’ve never even considered that someting as seemingly simple as variation in shaping could have such a dramatic effect! Scoring is one thing I really need to work on, it seems as though my loaves deflate too much whenever I slash before tossing in the oven.

  24. says

    Ooo Susan – you are one smart lady. Nice observations.

    Don’t you think too that our “experiments” are taking place on two levels, the conscious efforts we intend to control, and then the unconscious, where our skills are evolving and changing, even without us being aware?

    Why am I enamored with the science of baking – I thought I hated science!

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