The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Why We Bake

Elagins's picture

Why We Bake

I recently got a message from someone here whom I respect a great deal, both as a person and as a baker. However, one part of his message stung me: the part where he says, "I don't remember seeing any original recipes or methods from you." That got me thinking about what I bake, how I bake, and most importantly, why I and others bake, and whether "original recipes or methods" are or ought to be a measure of bona fides as a baker.

Obviously, there are as many reasons people choose bread baking as a hobby or occupation as there are bread bakers, but I think we all fall into a few broad groups, which naturally overlap.

- The first consists of knowledge- and mastery-seekers - bakers who strive to extract maximum flavor from wheat berries, using traditional methods and minimum ingredients, augmented by modern knowledge and the evolution of sustainable technologies. They are the people who are committed to unlocking the secrets of flavor and the magical interplay of flour, water, yeast and salt.

- The second group is made up of people who want to go back to an earlier time, to recreate breads and other foods that may be personally or culturally meaningful to them, or who want to experience another culture through this most basic of foods.

- The third group finds its motivation in the intimacy and personal engagement that's implicit in breadmaking, which is not only about nourishing the people one cares about, but also the simple fact of getting one's hands covered with dough, experimenting with new flavors, and personalizing the process of transforming an assortment of disparate ingredients into a single exquisite experience.

None of us, I think, is exclusively in one or the other; all of us fall to some degree into each of those groups, and all of those motivations are present in each of us. It is, perhaps, a matter of relative emphasis and where we go first to reap our satisfactions.

I'm the first to admit that I fall squarely into the second group - those who look backwards and use baking to recreate and recapture the experiences of those who came before me. My interest in, and satisfactions from, baking bread are largely about refining what's already out there and rediscovering what may have been forgotten or lost, like those onion rolls everyone's crazy about. I didn't come up with the recipe, Norm did. But I was the one who remembered them asked him for it. My satisfaction came from reliving an experience I hadn't had since my childhood in 1950s Brooklyn and making it part of my life today.

When I bake 100% rye black bread, I do so both for the pleasures and challenges of working with rye, which I love, but also as a means of experiencing for myself what my ancestors subsisted on for centuries in the villages of Russia and Poland, and in so doing, understand at least this tiny piece of their lives. Is that about "original recipes or methods?" Absolutely not. The methods and recipes are centuries-old. Does that make me any less a baker than others here or elsewhere? I think not. I hope not.

I think the one thing we all have in common is our search for authenticity in an increasingly commoditized and alienated world. All of us respect process, respect our ingredients, and, one hopes, respect each other's sincerity and commitment to whatever motivates us to bake bread. Life is tough enough in the world of Wonder Bread without carrying the battle back home.



subfuscpersona's picture

Great post. Thought provoking.

Am I in group 3?

I started baking bread about 30 years ago. Mostly because it was fun but also because it was a lot cheaper to make bread than buy it.

Some things don't change. Its still fun. But, having learned a great deal more about bread, it is signficantly more challenging (I like that - it makes it more fun).

And cost? Well, I'm just a home baker, so I buy my ingredients retail (higher cost) plus I mill a lot of my own flour (and whole grains are expensive) but still, a one-pound sourdough boule with about 30% whole grain flour costs me about 60 cents for top-quality ingredients whereas bakeries in NYC (where I live) charge about $3.50 for an equivalent loaf.

My only problem with having a fun, challenging hobby is cost. Over the years I've bought a fair amount of equipment - some good, some bad - some cheap, some expensive. I've learned a hard lesson which is - for home bakers, resist the temptation of too much equipment. You don't really need that much to make top quality bread.

Elagins's picture

when i bake, i think about the bakers 300, 400 years ago, who carried on their trade with nothing but a bench, a scraper, a peel, maybe a couple of large bowls for mixing, and an oven. everything else is enhancement.

cake diva's picture
cake diva


Ignore the snob who asked to see an original bread recipe from you.  That's just the height of ignorance.  I mean- it's bread, it's been around forever, and just because someone adds 10% First Clear flour instead of whole wheat flour doesn't mean he's making a breakthrough in breadmaking. I suggest those people join the American Association of Cereal Chemists to share their insights.

Anyway, I don't see myself in any of the 3 categories of bakers.  When I think about it, I bake bread because I enjoy the process:  scaling, scooping, looking at the reciipe, going to the next step, making notes and observations.  Nothing sensual or therapeutic there- I just enjoy going through the entire making process.  Well, I will admit I get happy when my bread turns out alright.


Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

Those who want to share their baking experience or ask the experience of others bakers in order to gain applicable knowledge.  I'm sure we both touch a little onto all five categories.

Like you dear Stan, I bake with a crowd and am surrounded with fine memories.  I think you are more appreciated than you know.  I am certainly glad you joined TFL and your contributions have been calming and backed with experience.   I like your straight fowardness.  Thank you.

I like to bake because I like to.


Elagins's picture

thank you!

deweytc's picture

I bake bread simply because I live in a very small rural town in north central Kansas.  If you like "Wonder" bread, the groceries stores are full of it.  There are no bakeries around here.  The closest bakery is 200 miles away in Lawrence KS.  So, after moving here from Traverse City, MI, I had no choice but to continue with my SD.  I don't care what my bread looks like, but only care that it tastes good.  I have learned alot from TFL and hope that I continue to do so.

I experiment using different flours and I know that I should write things down, but I have not, so I know that I would not be able to replicate the bread if it tasted good.  I share my bread with family and they enjoy it and I have asked them to be very honest about the bread.  They have been honest and this way I learn more.  To me, all my bread tastes good, so I am not a good critic.

I am not out to get the picture perfect looking bread and I don't think that I will ever try to do that.  If it tastes good, it is good bread, no matter what it looks like.


marc's picture

I think that I'm a little bit of all 3. I'm completely in agreement with Mini: I too like to bake because I like to.

My mom became well aware of my passion for baking when I had feigned illness one day so that I could stay home from school. I must have been about 10 or 11 years old. Concerned about my condition, she came home from work mid morning just to make sure that I was still alive, and there I was—pulling a perfectly baked pecan pie out of the oven.

Needless to say....I wasn't able to enjoy that pie before I was briskly whisked back to school.


avatrx1's picture

I guess if I had to pick - I'd be in group 2, but I like the feeling of accomplishment when I can throw together a few ingredients and come up with something that tastes good and that others enjoy.  For me, it's a 'giving' thing because my hubby would prefer wonder bread over artisan.  I have finally convinced him to at least eat whole wheat wonder bread.

I made bread years ago when my kids were little because I enjoyed making it, and it was much less expensive.  Basic white or wheat bread, day in and day out.

Now bread baking has become a challenge and I'm a challenge oriented person.  I enjoy conquering the elusive crumb and crust.  I should say I enjoy the pursuit of hopefully conquering the crumb and crust......................................

Using sourdough starters is my new challenge.

My mother rarely baked or cooked.  On the other hand my grandmother and aunt on my Dad's side were wonderful scratch cooks.  I think I'd like to emulate them and maybe someday my grandkids will say "WOW - Grandma was a really good cook".  Although I'll most likely never achieve that notariety - I will always try to 'make from scratch' something that I can share with others.

This site has a plethora of wonderful and helpful people working patiently with me and my never-ending questions about recipes and how to do stuff. For that I'm always grateful.


Shiao-Ping's picture

A great post!  

To me, baking is a personal act.  I share and I show off but I would not say any of my fancy combinations are original.  I'd like to think when we bake we are not machines - we have thoughts and feelings (and memories).  It's not always functionality and practicality that drive people to do things.  For me as an amateur home baker, baking satisfies emotional needs on many levels (as well as the parent physical needs).  To me, baking is a craft, like sewing, ceramics, leaning to play an instrument, or learning to write calligraphy.  What is not apparent to the eye in the act is often the driving force behind.  So, why do we bake?  Baking is a vehicle to something else, be it "knowledge- and mastery-seeker" as in your first group, memories and affiliations as in your second group, and "the intimacy and personal engagement that's implicit in breadmaking" as in your third group.  Stan, you summed it up really well. 

Thank you for posting your thoughts.