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I have read it countless times, mostly in baking magazines: "This recipes always works!", "Always turns out great!" etc.

Of course I know that you can fail at all of them if you really want to, but what is the reason behind these recipes - are there really any recipes that always work (without being basic 'one pot' recipes) as long as you don't screw them up badly? Or do they only print stuff like this to get novices to buy the magazine?

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up vote 9 down vote accepted

Baking is a complicated process and requires precision; you start out with complex molecules, and transform them into something has to have many qualities precisely right.

The common quality of all baked goods is the foam structure: each baked good is best when its foam is right. Example: for a cake, the "right" foam has lots of tiny, regular bubbles, and the bubble walls support the foam, but are soft, not elastic. The ideal foam for a bread or pie crust is different.

There are other criteria for the cake layer to be good:

  • Evenly baked
  • Regular shape and surface, no cracks or doming
  • Neither overcooked nor undercooked, starch gelatinized but not retrograded
  • Moisture content correct, shouldn't be dry or melt in the mouth like a brownie
  • Color
  • Balanced flavor: not too sweet, eggy, salty, or bland

This list is just for the layer itself, frosting and combining layers makes it even more complicated!

With so many qualities to balance, you need a precise process to get reliable results; however home bakers don't want to monitor precisely. Most lack probe thermometers, and Americans often use volume measures for dry ingredients, rather than the more accurate weights. Finally, most home bakers don't understand the theory of baking.

Great bakers draw on both theory and practice when they bake, and their recipes rarely fail. Theory teaches them the significance of each step, and the hidden assumptions made by the recipe. Practice teaches to judge what is happening before his eyes, and how to recognize when something has gone wrong. Theory and practice together let great bakers identify when something has gone wrong and rescue the project.

A novice will have neither practice nor theory aid them. He is even likely to misunderstand steps. For example, he may stir vigorously when the recipe says "fold". He may also omit key steps when pressed for time, without realizing their significance. For example, using fridge-cold eggs when they should be room temperature.

Of course, everybody has to start somewhere, and not all baking recipes are created equal. Some have more room for error than others. For example, making a genoise for the first time is very hard. The egg yolks start foaming at around 50°C, but can't build a good enough foam at below 65°C. They curdle irreversibly at 85°C. So a genoise has to be created in a water bath at a temperature around 70 to 75°C, and when the yolks are foamed, the flour (which has to be low-gluten) is added and mixed well enough to not fall to the bottom in lumps, but not well enough to remove the air from the foam. After that, the layer is baked, and it glues itself terribly to the pan, unless the baker had the foresight to use parchment combined with proper flouring technique, and then used proper technique to remove the layer when it is still warm enough to separate but not so hot that it gets irreversibly squished. There are so many things to get wrong with a genoise that a novice will run into them without ever realizing what happened.

Recipes that "never fail" are the opposite; they are robust, and don't rely on precision. Simple muffins are one example: The chemical leavening of the baking powder works well in many conditions, unlike the fickle yolk foam leavening in the genoise. Muffins even work if the cook just beats everything together in the bowl. You don't have to worry about overmixing, creaming, or specific temperatures. The fat content keeps muffins moist even when measurements aren't exact, and masks mistakes by enhancing flavor. The cook actually seeks out doming, rather than avoiding it! Finally, the crumb doesn't have to be soft, regular and airy the way cake crumb should be. Muffins can tolerate a lot of mistakes!

To summarize: "never fail" recipes are recipes where:

  • There are few steps
  • Each step is simple to perform
  • Even if the baker makes an error, the end result is still likely to come out tasting good.

Of course, this ignores the catches! Publishers can claim a recipe will "never fail" when they are unreliable for a novice. Sometimes this happens accidentally, when a bad baker repeats a recipe enough that it becomes easy, but others have difficulty with it. Finally, not everyone has the same criteria for success. I once found a recipe for a wedding cake on a popular site; it used box mix, smothered it in pudding from a sachet, and decorated with gummi bears. Virtually all commenters insisted that it has turned out "great" and described how the wedding guests complimented them. I can't imagine that it was really "great", but suspect that people who know what a great cake tastes like didn't bother to make the cake or leave comments. There is no guarantee that a recipe labelled "always works" lives up to its name, or is actually good. But, if you're a new baker, it's a good idea to start with such a recipe until you have gathered some experience.

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You've got some excellent points here, and is there any way you could make it a bit more brief or split it into sections so it's easier to follow what you're saying? I'd be happy to suggest an edit if you're willing to take writing advice to improve communication of your comprehensive knowledge. –  BobMcGee Jun 20 '12 at 22:39
    
@BobMcGee I would gladly listen to your advice - I hadn't realized how long this thing became, but I am aware that my writing often can be improved. –  rumtscho Jun 20 '12 at 22:46
    
I appreciate that you have the maturity and patience to accept constructive criticism. Let me post my answer and then I'll work on an edit for yours. –  BobMcGee Jun 20 '12 at 22:52
    
An often helpful method for quickly making answers easier to read is simply to bold the most important pieces (as Bob's answer does). Even if you stop there, it helps readers, but it often points you to where you have a lot of extra text that's not contributing a major point, and shows you the important parts that you might want to reorganize to place earlier in an answer. –  Jefromi Jun 20 '12 at 23:37
    
@Jefromi: That's a good point. I'm also a big fan of one of Strunk and White's rules: "Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell." –  BobMcGee Jun 20 '12 at 23:54
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Some dishes are harder or easier to cook, but a good recipe can make them a lot easier. While "never fail" is a cheap line used to sell cookbooks, there is some truth that recipes can be more reliable.

Some dishes are intrinsically challenging; true (un-yeasted) sourdough and genoise require precise timing and handling to get the correct consistency. Even a well-written recipe for these will pose challenges to an inexperienced baker. In our household we don't discuss my first attempt(s) at genoise in polite company!

Other dishes are naturally easier: yellow cake and simple sandwich bread, for example. With these dishes the amounts of ingredients do not have to be precise, nor do bake times or temperatures. There's a wide range of conditions where you still get an acceptable result. To get an unacceptable result requires a major error, generally misreading a recipe or mis-measuring something. Magazines can legitimately publish easy recipes as "never-fail" and be honest, but they're not providing much value by doing so.

A well-written, detailed recipe can definitely help you get more consistent results. Measurements are more specific, using exact weights or volume, and not eyeballing with "small handful" of this and "generous pinch" of that. Baking times are given as a range where appropriate, and better yet, may include what the final internal temperature should be. A particularly helpful recipe will even offer guidance along the way so you know it is being executed correctly; for example, it'll tell you that a batter should have the consistency of heavy cream.

For a truly bulletproof recipe, it'll include pictures and descriptions of the intermediate product, and tell you how to identify and troubleshoot common problems. This is one of the reasons why Mastering the Art of French Cooking is such an excellent work; it tells you how to tell when the dish is coming out correctly, and how to fix it when it isn't. This sort of detailed and in-depth advice is what I would say distinguishes a very reliable recipe from a poor one.

Oddly enough, I've found that in-house restaurant recipes are generally of poor quality; because the cooks are skilled, the recipes rely on their abilities to work with vague measurements, and to gauge amounts of seasonings to use with a glance and taste. Also, they NEVER include troubleshooting advice, assuming the cook is smart enough to grab someone more experienced if they have problems. On the plus side, the recipes are very succinct and generally the amounts that matter are precise.

To sum up, there are harder and easier dishes, and recipes can become more reliable by offering more detailed advice and troubleshooting. There are also recipes that are just plain BAD, because they don't use the right amount of ingredients. Recipes you get from friends often seem to end up being the latter, unfortunately.

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