Baking is a method of cooking food that uses prolonged dry heat, normally in an oven, but also in hot ashes, or on hot stones. The most common baked item is bread but many other types of foods are baked. Heat is gradually transferred « from the surface of cakes, cookies, and breads to their centre. As heat travels through it transforms batters and doughs into baked goods with a firm dry crust and a softer centre ». Baking can be combined with grilling to produce a hybrid barbecue variant by using both methods simultaneously, or one after the other. Baking is related to barbecuing because the concept of the masonry oven is similar to that of a smoke pit.
Because of historical social and familial roles, baking has traditionally been performed at home by women for domestic consumption and by men in bakeries and restaurants for local consumption. When production was industrialized, baking was automated by machines in large factories. The art of baking remains a fundamental skill and is important for nutrition, as baked goods, especially breads, are a common but important food, both from an economic and cultural point of view. A person who prepares baked goods as a profession is called a baker.
All types of food can be baked, but some require special care and protection from direct heat. Various techniques have been developed to provide this protection.
In addition to bread, baking is used to prepare cakes, pastries, pies, tarts, quiches, cookies, scones, crackers, pretzels, and more. These popular items are known collectively as « baked goods, » and are often sold at a bakery, which is a store that carries only baked goods, or at markets, grocery stores, farmers markets or through other venues.
Meat, including cured meats, such as ham can also be baked, but baking is usually reserved for meatloaf, smaller cuts of whole meats, or whole meats that contain stuffing or coating such as bread crumbs or buttermilk batter. Some foods are surrounded with moisture during baking by placing a small amount of liquid (such as water or broth) in the bottom of a closed pan, and letting it steam up around the food, a method commonly known as braising or slow baking. Larger cuts prepared without stuffing or coating are more often roasted, which is a similar process, using higher temperatures and shorter cooking times. Roasting, however, is only suitable for finer cuts of meat, so other methods have been developed to make tougher meat cuts palatable after baking.
One of these is the method known as en croûte , which protects the food from direct heat and seals the natural juices inside. Meat, poultry, game, fish or vegetables can be prepared by baking en croûte. Well-known examples include Beef Wellington, where the beef is encased in pastry before baking; pâté en croûte, where the terrine is encased in pastry before baking; and the Vietnamese variant, a meat-filled pastry called pâté chaud.
The en croûte method also allows meat to be baked by burying it in the embers of a fire – a favourite method of cooking venison. In this case, the protective casing (or crust) is made from a paste of flour and water and is discarded before eating. Salt can also be used to make a protective crust that is not eaten. Another method of protecting food from the heat while it is baking, is to cook it en papillote (French for « in parchment »). In this method, the food is covered by baking paper (or aluminium foil) to protect it while it is being baked. The cooked parcel of food is sometimes served unopened, allowing diners to discover the contents for themselves which adds an element of surprise.
Eggs can also be used in baking to produce savoury or sweet dishes. In combination with dairy products especially cheese, they are often prepared as a dessert. For example, although a baked custard can be made using starch (in the form of flour, cornflour, arrowroot, or potato flour), the flavour of the dish is much more delicate if eggs are used as the thickening agent. Baked custards, such as crème caramel, are among the items that need protection from an oven’s direct heat, and the bain-marie method serves this purpose.
The cooking container is half submerged in water in another, larger one, so that the heat in the oven is more gently applied during the baking process. Baking a successful soufflé requires that the baking process be carefully controlled. The oven temperature must be absolutely even and the oven space not shared with another dish. These factors, along with the theatrical effect of an air-filled dessert, have given this baked food a reputation for being a culinary achievement. Similarly, a good baking technique (and a good oven) are also needed to create a baked Alaska because of the difficulty of baking hot meringue and cold ice cream at the same time.
Baking can also be used to prepare various other foods such as pizzas, baked potatoes, baked apples, baked beans, some casseroles and pasta dishes such as lasagne.