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A baker is a culinary professional who produces bread and bread products. In traditional kitchens, a dividing line exists between bakers, who produce bread and some related bread products such as rolls, and pastry chefs, who are responsible for cakes, tarts, and other pastries. This clean separation still exists in some upscale or very traditional restaurants, but many bakers produce both bread and pastry products.
The baking of bread was very important in ancient and medieval times. Leavened bread is a staple on many western diets and has been for many centuries. The process of making and baking bread is a complicated one, however, requiring both professional skill and some degree of infrastructure. The baking of bread, unlike many other cooking tasks, requires precise measurements and careful timing. In modern kitchens, recipes and measurement can substitute for skill and knowledge, but this was not the case in the ancient or medieval worlds.
In ancient times, a baker typically produced bread for an entire village or neighborhood. In many cases, the provision of bread was a critical function of government. Rome maintained civil order through the use of cheap Egyptian grain that the city’s bakers turned into food for the masses. Access to subsidized bread was a key privilege in the Byzantine Empire. The failure of the state to control bread prices was even a major cause of the French Revolution.
Most modern bakers do not work for governments, however, but for large factories, restaurants, or artisanal bakeries. Much of the bread consumed in the Western world is produced on an industrial scale. A baker must still oversee this process, but bakers working in such factories must have many of the skills of an industrial engineer as well as those of a traditional baker.
Restaurants employ a great many bakers, as warm bread — particularly fresh, hand-made bread — remains very popular among diners. A baker working for a smaller restaurant may also produce all of the other baked goods used by that restaurant, including pies, cookies, and cakes. Very small restaurants may simply have their cooks prepare bread throughout the day as their schedules permit.
Artisanal bakeries have always been popular in Europe and have gained popularity in the United States. The work of a baker at such an establishment typically focuses on the creation of high-quality bread, often in special varieties. This type of baker will produce breads that have been hand-kneaded, carefully flavored with a sourdough starter, or prepared with less common grains or recipes. Artisanal bakeries will also produce more typical sorts of bread, but of high quality.
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