I wasn't halfway through my lunch break on my first day in a professional pastry kitchen when I realized I'd made a grave error. I'd put the delicate custard-filled pies in the oven, set a timer for 15 minutes, and then walked away for 30—something I'd never do in my own house.
I knew that by the time I got off break, the pies would be ruined, their custards turned from silken and jiggly to bouncy and gelatinous. I was about to get fired without making it through day one. I was about to go down as the worst, most careless pastry cook in history. Goodbye, dreams.
But when we got upstairs, the pies were on the cooling racks, sunny-yellow and perfectly content, their surfaces smooth and flawless. (Reader, this would change as soon as I attempted to wrap them in plastic wrap—so don't breathe a sigh of relief just yet!)
Of course another cook had rotated the pies and, later, rescued them from the oven, but how had they known how long I'd set the timer for? How had they walked into the middle of my recipe? Who were these miracle-working time-whisperers?
Over the course of several more shifts, I caught wind of how our oven operated—and the irrelevance of its timer. No one uses the timer the way I do at home (ding! it's ready to come out!)—instead, the buzz serves as a friendly reminder to check out whatever is baking away in the oven.
See, cooks spin in and out of the kitchen as they take breaks, check inventory, and retrieve ingredients and equipment, and they're constantly setting timers for 5-, 10-, or 15-minute stints. Whoever happens to be nearby when the timer goes off knows to take a look at the cookies and, regardless of how long they've been in there, or what the recipe says (where even is the recipe?), to either dial the knob back for a few more minutes or transfer the baking sheets to the cooling rack.
The time a particular item stays in the oven is determined not by what's dictated by the recipe write-up but by how it looks, smells, feels, and behaves. Is the custard tart stable everywhere except for a 3-inch radius around the center? Pull it! Are the crackers pale in the center and tacky to touch? Give 'em another 5!
Many times, I've even been betrayed by the timer because the times that are written in our binder of recipes are frequently incorrect. I've pulled cookies and crackers too early, following the recipe's instructions instead of my own senses, not taking into account the unique conditions—like the rack placement or the temperature of the dough—that determine how long an item truly needs to reach its ideal state. But by learning visual and olfactory cues, like the exact shade of darkness for toasted biscotti or the smell of toasted pine nuts, the timer has become a helper, not a dictator.
I've read about the concept of timers as clues rather than certainties before. Samin Nosrat preaches the same philosophy in her excellent textbook-cookbook Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.
"When you read recipes, think of temperatures and cooking times as strong suggestions, rather than fixed rules,” she says. “Set your timer for a few minutes less than a recipe might suggest, then use all of your senses to check for doneness.”
I knew that this applied to the savory kitchen—caramelizing onions (some writers will tell you that it takes 30 minutes, but your eyes and nose know better) or roasting a chicken (sure, the recipe says it should be done, but is the skin crispy? do the juices run clear?)—but I had never stretched it to baking. Baking is a science! everyone trills—why would the timing be open to interpretation?
But it is! If you know what the finished product is supposed to look like—hopefully, the recipe you're following is accompanied by descriptive sensory cues ("golden brown and firm to the touch" or "deep brown with bubbling juices" or "your finger should leave an impression") and, if you're blessed, a photo—go with your gut, not with the timer. And always set that timer for a few minutes before the recipe instructs: Better to catch a cake that needs 15 additional minutes than to check at the suggested time only to see it's already gone too far.
When you bake, do you follow recipe times exactly, or are you more of an interpretative experimenter? Tell us in the comments below!