For those just tuning in, From the Caterer’s Kitchen is an occasional series of kitchen tips, tricks and advice from my mother, a professional caterer for over 30 years. Interested? Start here.
Broadly speaking, this is an easy one. Cooking takes place atop the stove; baking is what happens in the oven beneath it. Assuming, of course, you have a combination range and oven, rather than my dream kitchen set up of separate double wall ovens and range (along with an apron-front sink and a pantry big enough to hold a Costco’s worth of shopping… but I digress).
However, there is more to consider than those two differences. The easiest-to-understand explanation I’ve found, again, comes from On Cooking (for real: if you are at all serious about cooking, get yourself a copy. This book is fabulous). I rely heavily on these authors’ genius.
Both cooking and baking involve transforming food with heat. That heat can be transferred to the food either by a wet method (water or steam), a dry method (air or fat), or a combination of the two.
While cooking can be accomplished by any of these three, baking relies on the dry method: food surrounded by hot air in a closed space. This dry heat dries out the food and caramelizes it, giving baked foods their characteristic brown color.
Note that baking and roasting are the exact same thing. (This puzzled me for years.) I always assumed the difference was because roasting sounds wild and macho, like you’re standing around in your caveman loincloth cooking a whole pig on a spit, whereas baking is rather more precise and delicate. At any rate, it’s just an oddity of language that we tend to say roasting when talking about meat, and baking when we talk about bread or other dishes. I have noticed this is changing — it’s common to see a reference to roasted vegetables on a menu these days — but this division is still fairly prevalent.
Baking also requires much more care, I have found. Improvising is easy when the food is right in front of you on the stove: you can salvage a dish really quickly if you just need to add pepper or a bit of butter. If you’re making a casserole or a loaf of bread, however, that’s simply not possible. You need to start with a good recipe to be successful, and not deviate from it very much, unless you have an exceptional sense of how much seasoning is appropriate, or the best ratio of wet ingredients to dry ones in a baked good.
This need for care makes baking a tougher nut to crack for the new cook. Many times I thought I could get away with a loose recipe for something baked and I discovered to my everlasting disappointment that it didn’t quite take off. If you like to experiment, by all means, do — it’s the best way to learn, after all — just be prepared for the fact that not everything turns out to be edible in the end.