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Ask HN: How did people bake before thermometers?
28 points by werber on Oct 11, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 47 comments
I was reading about https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mille-feuille and then googled when the thermometer was invented, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thermometer , then I googled 'how did people bake before thermometers' among other things and couldn't find a satisfactory historical reason. Anyone have the knowledge?

By using empirical rules related to the state of the ingredients (look, physical properties, etc). French especially has developed a very rich technical vocabulary for this. For example, the continuum from sugar to caramel has very precise phases (and words to name them) that you can recognize by color, consistence, and so on even if you can't measure the temperature of the sugar.

I'm glad this is the top comment, because I was really confused by the question and it explains why. Indeed, I'm French, and the only thing that I have heard people (including among people who have a cook diploma) use a thermometer for is fine pastries (e.g., meringue, don't know how they are called in English).

Sous vide cooking is a trendy cooking technique (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sous-vide ) which depends on good temperature control.

The French chef and molecular gastronomist Hervé This, for example, developed "6X degree C" eggs, that the, long-term cooking of egg at exactly, say, 65 degrees C.

You can order them at, for example, Blue Valentine in Paris, says his review at http://www.yelp.com/biz/blue-valentine-paris .

Well, I suppose even in France you set the oven to 200 degrees.

Not exactly. You would probably set it to 7 instead.

Really? In Denmark all ovens have temperature settings, except for older gas ovens, which are quite rare (though gas stoves are fairly popular still)

So I'm guessing you are mostly using gas ovens in France?

There are still a lot of those yes, but not only, we also have oven with exact temperature control. The thing with ovens is that whether you do or do not have this control, you just keep an eye on what you are cooking and get it out when it is cooked like you want it (judging with eyes, smell, and sometimes a knife for instance to get a feel of the internal texture of what you cook). So it really is okay to only know if your oven is somewhat hot, hot, or really hot.

Oh that makes a ton of sense, do you know of any pre thermometer texts about this, thank you for bringing sense to my bar discussion

Not a pre-thermomenter text, but a good summary: https://www.exploratorium.edu/cooking/candy/sugar-stages.htm...

To bring this full circle, my wife's sugar thermometer has the stages ("soft ball" etc) marked on it alongside the temperatures.

To insert a side rant on the subject: this is why IoT cooking gizmos like smart pand get a terrible reception. Because there's already a full set of tranditional techniques for cooking, most of which are fairly easy to learn with time.

Sous vide is revelation for delicate proteins and transforms low and slow for tough ones.

For everything else there is pressure cooker (which by the virtue of its design is extremely high tech/precise instrument).

I think any cookbook that predates the electrical oven, or at least its popularity, will do. Also, many old cookbooks tend to be generally vague on such details (I am thinking of Escoffier, for example). From what I have seen, algorithmic-like precision in recipes is more common in recent cookbooks than in old ones.

Strange question for HN .. anyway, plenty of people bake today without a thermometer. It requires "knowing your oven", such as by doing a reference batch of cupcakes to see the heat distribution. There's also various techniques for assesing whether a cake is done (does a wooden skewer inserted come out clean?)

Coal and wood fired ovens usually have a huge thermal mass so once it's up to temperature with a particular size fire it will stay there.

Edit: the gas oven doesn't predate the thermometer, but traditionally is set by "gas mark" rather than a thermostat. Old recipies would say "gas mark 7" etc.

That's far from an old thing - gas ovens are still in wide use, at least in the UK, and recipes will commonly mention both a temperature in degrees and the appropriate gas mark.

Having said that, gas ovens are a pain to use until you've got used to the one you've got. I've never had one where the actual temperature of the oven matched the gas mark it was set to. Typically you'll have to benchmark it with an oven thermometer and then adjust whatever the recipe says to fit.

Gas hobs however, you can take from my cold dead hands. I'd rather use a camp stove than an electric hob. Nothing beats instantaneous heat adjustments.

> Nothing beats instantaneous heat adjustments.

You can get that with a good induction stove. I still prefer gas, but induction is pretty good. Other advantages of gas are for example the ability to use non-flat pots (woks or similar). On the other hand it's much harder to clean.

Once a year, my friends and I rent a cabin somewhere off the grid. Sometimes, those cabins (or small ex-farms) still have working stone ovens. It's not hard, you make a big fire and when the wood has been reduced to embers and the stone has soaked up the heat, you put your baking goods into it. It works great for pizza, bread, pastries, everything. You have to inspect the state of the process from time to time, but as you get more experience you need to do it less frequently.

Personally, when I bake things in modern ovens, I don't use the thermometer either. Sort of, because they still have a thermostat of course. But in general you really don't need a thermometer for baking.

How do you inspect and decide what the oven is right for?

Like others have said, mostly based off of experience and reference.

For example, I've baked a pizza enough times _with_ a timer and specific, but different temperatures set that now I need neither and can just adjust the temperature to what I'm used to and know that the pizza only needs a certain amount of time. The end result should be a certain way. As long as it gets there correctly then whether there's a timer/no timer it should be fine.

Do you put different things in at different periods of the burn cycle, and how do you determine what to put in when

I would say by trial and error, although I didn't really experience any bad results yet. When the fire has reached the ember stage, temperature can remain stable for a long time.

In general, you can put in things with a large surface-to-volume ratio at almost any point, like pizza, pretzels, or buns. If you put them in early they just get done faster. With larger things like bulky bread loaves, I would wait a bit until the oven cools down somewhat because they are at risk of heating up slowly on the inside while the outside is already done. Personally, I find the bread variants with larger surfaces more appealing, so I don't have a lot of experience with the bulky ones. With pastries it depends on the temperature tolerances of their components.

Really, I would suggest you try it out yourself. I found that intuition works pretty well, even for me as a city-dweller with a non-agricultural background.

There are some kinds of food that evolved out of that question. French tarte flambée (a very thin pizza-like dough with a topping of sour cream, bacon and onions) was used to determine if the oven has the right temperature for bread. If the temperature is right is bakes in a handful of minutes. So you'd heat up the oven and do a couple of test-bakes with a quick tarte. Then you'd bake the bread while not heating the oven. After the bread, the oven has the right temperature for cakes.

I do it like the guy above and I just set it to some amount of heat and keep looking at the thing every 5 min. You can gather from the looks of it if it's going too slow or too fast and adjust accordingly.

Baking things often works at a fairly wide range of temperatures. What matters I that the inside of what's being baked gets to a certain temperature and you can achieve that with different oven temperatures. It just takes a different amount of time. Then there are techniques like poking a fork or a toothpick into your cake to see whether the dough sticks to it or not. If not, it's done. And then there's trial and error and experience. Others mentioned a gas oven which a) doesn't have a precise temperature and b) often an uneven heat distribution. Works just as well, though, with a bit of learning.

I think your question is a bit more involved than "just cook it". Pastry evolved over many years. Techniques were developed and learned and passed on.

This involves more than just the temperature of the oven. When baking bread you want long gluten chains, so you need the bread. But for most pastries you don't want that so you need to distribute the fat without building up the gluten chains.


> The many different kinds of pastry which are made in Britain today have evolved over the centuries from a crude flour and water dough mixture invented by the Romans. The paste was wrapped around meat and game before roasting and was not intended to be eaten. It served only to retain meat juices and aroma.

Like everyone here has already mentioned: knowledge and practice.

Knowledge of cooking was passed down from generation to generation via schools, guilds and families. We stand on the shoulders of giants. Thousands of years of trial and error passed down. People measure by sight, sound, touch and smell. For example, there are multiple ways to guess steak doneness. Simmering is visually different from boiling which is different from a rolling boil. If you're frying something in a pan, you can guess the temperature by sound. If you're making a stew or braise, it's done when the meat breaks apart. Doesn't matter what the cookbook says about exact times because environment and cooking equipment is different for everybody. Water boils before 100 C at high elevation. I moved to an area with high humidity in the summers and all my baking recipes from home failed.

With practice, you also build an intuitive sense of doneness. For example, I've cooked enough "black on the outside, raw on the inside" chicken to know how hot the heat should be and how long it should take--even without a thermometer or a timer. Like others have mentioned, sometimes you just have to cook a proxy item or sacrifice a piece.

One of the big differences between new cooks, and experienced cooks is that people who have cooked for a while are constantly tasting, touching and inspecting their food. New cooks tend to follow recipes word for word and only taste at the end. Then they get surprised when something is under/over cooked and under/over seasoned.

Lastly, I think previous generations had different expectations of consistency and quality. Modern society is hyper-precise. Traditional recipes have a huge margin for error.

I've spent hundreds of hours baking bread over a period of months. For some reason I got into the habit of baking a fresh loaf for the family and one for my sister-in-law to take to work, daily.

I started using a bread thermometer. Experimented with various breads and converged on trying to make a great basic french boule. Doing this at 6000 feet in Colorado in a conventional oven is challenging.

I could write at least 4000 words about bread, so I'll cut to the chase. I eventually got rid of the bread thermometer because I had my recipe down. The trick is measuring quantities (by weight, not volume) and using the same recipe, oven configuration and oven temperature every time. Once you figure out what works, that is. Once you eliminate variables and all you're left with is temperature or 'doneness' it's easy to just use time instead of temperature.

So to answer your question, I think they used to use trial and error, then consistency. Or perhaps a baker who taught the apprentice the exact method, perfected over time.

With a crisp loaf, you can just knock the underside and you'll get a reasonable idea of whether it's done. But a few fails (or not perfect results) will eventually get you to where you need to be.

Just for fun, here's some more detail: If you're interested in bread in your conventional oven, I'd highly recommend the awesome experience of making bread out of just flour, salt, yeast and water - a classic french recipe. And then hand knead it. Don't fall to the temptation of adding an egg yolk, sugar or olive oil just yet. It's like adding cocaine to soda. Of COURSE it will be more popular. But get the basics right first.

A few tips for your conventional oven: Get the thickest pizza stone you can get and a cast iron pan. Put the stone on a middle rack and the cast iron pan on the lower rack.

Use a moister dough (70 to 80% IIRC) and calculate the percentages of water vs flour based on weight. A scale is essential and a huge time saver. Make a nice wet dough and learn how to knead it. This will give you that wonderful crumb with big spaces. Learn about when to knead and when to rest. For better results, make an autolyse where you just lightly knead only the flour and water first and let it rest for 30 minutes before adding the yeast and salt and kneading. Sounds odd, but it gives amazing results. Calvel's technique (Julia Child's guru).

Preheat the hell out of the stone in the oven AND the cast iron pan under it. Boil a kettle full of water. Put thick gloves on for this next part.

When you put the bread into the oven, put the moist dough directly on the hot stone. Then immediately pour just a few ounces of the hot kettle water into the pan under the stone and shut the oven as soon as you can (with a face full of steam). You now probably realize that filling the kettle all the way saved you from having to tip the whole kettle into the oven and getting a nice steam burn. And those gloves were handy weren't they?

What you've just done is simulate a commercial baking oven in your crappy kitchen oven. The bread will rise suddenly and then the crust will start forming after about 7 mins. Let it get nice and crisp. Check it at around 30 to 45 mins depending on your oven temp. Use a bread thermometer. Take it out when it's 195. Flip upside down on a bread rack and let cool. Resist, resist, resist the urge to bust it open because you'll damage the fragile loaf at this point. After about 10 mins you can cut it if you want to serve hot bread.

When I was in my bread phase, my wife and I would eat hot bread fresh out of the oven with mature cheddar that would soften on the hot slices with red wine late at night.

I also got into a bread-baking period a while ago. It's wonderful to eat your own bread every morning even though it's not always perfect. Makes it much more interesting that you can test a new flower mix every time.

The base receipe I used was 240 g flour, 0.35 l water, 5 g yeast, salt

And the most important part, 12 hour leavening time, no kneading and a cast iron pan preheated in the oven. Makes for very easy baking.

Mostly, by learning small tricks. Stovetop isn't all that much different to cook on once you get the fire going - stoves and grates of sorts have been around for some time. Baking - you'd stick your hand in the oven and see how long you can keep your hand in there and things of that nature. (keep your hand in 2 seconds but not more and the oven is ready).

If you are really curios to see it done, I'd suggest visiting a live history museum - the only one I know of is outside of Indianapolis, though. They put the research in to make it historically accurate, including the cooking you see them do, and employees are generally knowledgeable about their roles.

By sight and experience. It‘s not very difficult to cook food without thermometer. We still do it, for example when grilling with coal. Also, humans can eat raw, over-cooked and everything in between for nearly all foods.

I get that, I can cook free style fine and somewhat consistently. But how did people bake the same thing multiple times and establish pastries, like what was the process I guess would be a better question

>But how did people bake the same thing multiple times

They didn't. The concept of food or beverages that taste the same, no matter when or where they're made is an extremely modern invention. It really only came about in the late 19th and early 20th century when industrial processes, statistical techniques, and physical sensors became well developed enough to reasonably guarantee the same outcome over and over again, for run after run. Prior to that, people just accepted a greater level of inconsistency in their foods, because that's all they'd ever known.

I would think that people that were baking all the time would build up so much practice and experience that they could probably be surprisingly consistent.

If you were a professional baker, or you had to bake all your own bread, I'd think you would become intimately familiar with the performance of your oven, with the characteristics of your leavening agent (probably a continually refreshed yeast or sourdough culture that you'd keep going for years), and with the local flour.

Although, since I'm currently reading through the Aubrey-Maturin novels, I wonder if the predominance of all these puddings they are always eating had something to do with them being easier to prepare reliably, compared to baked deserts.

Yes, or course there'd be some level of consistency, but nothing we'd recognise as the industrial level of consistency we're used to today. The specific characteristics of the local flour will change from harvest to harvest, and plausibly through the season as well depending on storage conditions. The sourdough is a living organism with "temperament", and ambient factors like temperature and air moisture (which obviously change from day to day) affects the outcome as well.

> I would think that people that were baking all the time would build up so much practice and experience that they could probably be surprisingly consistent.

I used to live round the corner from a baker that was still doing most steps by hand. I could tell from the shape of the rolls whether he was up long the day before. Practice makes you pretty consistent, but there are so many factors influencing the result that it's never exactly the same - which is part of the appeal.

Try grilling pizza if you haven't. Then compare it to baking it. It's a pretty cool experience to grasp the relative cook times.

I don't think my gas stove has an accurate themostat of any kind. I use my hand if I'm making a pizza or something. You have to keep an eye on the thing that's cooking I guess. If I cooked pies everyday, I would probably get it nailed down by trial and error. I wouldn't ever need to know the exact temperature as a scientific measurement though. The hand measurement is like "hot" vs. "really hot".

Everybody has an unique tongue/mouth so a taste which is connected to old memories. I do beleive temp control is good if someone want to automate their receipe but for new cookers it is like casting double to short, best tastes can be only found with tons of expriments by trying never tried.

I heard that the acadians people where praying in front of the over. If they can stay there until the end of the pray, the oven is ready to bake the bread. Otherwise, they had to wait a few more minutes. I think it was this way because they didn't learn how to count.

It wouldn't be about "not learning how to count", but about keeping a rhythm that makes the time predictable within a relatively small variation. I used similar tricks for long exposure photography back in the long ago. (There was a period in the late '70s and early '80s when radium illuminated dials had gone away, their replacements didn't stay illuminated long enough, GraLab-type timers were too bulky by far, and neither LEDs/micro fluorescent segment displays nor LCD side-lighting on watches were up to the task. I had, between cadets and the regular force, more than a decade of military experience then. British Grenadiers - a marching tune - takes 16 seconds to play/whistle/hum through once, breaks down easily into 4-second chunks, and only "feels" right if the speed is right for a 120 paces-per-minute march. Heart Of Oak takes 32 seconds, etc. That allowed me to be remarkably consistent across exposures without a usable external timing device. Habitual prayers, especially when combined with something like a rosary to keep the count accurate, would have the same sort of consistency.)

The way I've seen described most often is that you stick your arm in the oven and count the number of seconds before it becomes uncomfortable. Early cookbooks used this method to describe various oven temperatures.

There's a story in Primo Levi - The periodic table where a raw onion is used in the recipe for a varnish and nobody knows why. Turns out that it was used in the past to measure temperature (it would fry at a certain temp) and people kept doing it even when it was no longer necessary.

Was that for pastries? That's super interesting

No, it was a chemical plant.

Reddit is the best place for questions like these, in my opinion. You will get better answers and discussions.

The comments on here are the best I've seen anywhere, but I'm scared of trolls. Also, I think it's a legit hacking question

I agree about the quality of discussion on HN - although you should also find the communities at AskCulinary and AskHistorians quite troll-free - AskHistorians in particular has a very strict policy on rigorous answers that can be fact-checked.

Oh these look great! Thanks

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