Baking is a method of preparing food that uses dry heat, normally in an oven, but can also be done 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 center. As heat travels through, it transforms batters and doughs into baked goods and more 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.
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.
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 flavor of the dish is much more delicate if eggs are used as the thickening agent. Baked custards, such as creme 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 souffle 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.
The first evidence of baking occurred when humans took wild grass grains, soaked them in water, and mixed everything together, mashing it into a kind of broth-like paste. The paste was cooked by pouring it onto a flat, hot rock, resulting in a bread-like substance. Later, when humans mastered fire, the paste was roasted on hot embers, which made bread-making easier, as it could now be made any time fire was created. The world's oldest oven was discovered in Croatia in 2014 dating back 6500 years ago. The Ancient Egyptians baked bread using yeast, which they had previously been using to brew beer. Bread baking began in Ancient Greece around 600 BC, leading to the invention of enclosed ovens. "Ovens and worktables have been discovered in archaeological digs from Turkey (Hacilar) to Palestine (Jericho (Tell es-Sultan)) and date back to 5600 BC.
Eventually, the Roman art of baking became known throughout Europe and eventually spread to eastern parts of Asia. By the 13th century in London, commercial trading, including baking, had many regulations attached. In the case of food, they were designed to create a system "so there was little possibility of false measures, adulterated food or shoddy manufactures." There were by that time twenty regulations applying to bakers alone, including that every baker had to have "the impression of his seal" upon bread.
The aroma and texture of baked goods as they come out of the oven are strongly appealing but is a quality that is quickly lost. Since the flavour and appeal largely depend on freshness, commercial producers have to compensate by using food additives as well as imaginative labeling. As more and more baked goods are purchased from commercial suppliers, producers try to capture that original appeal by adding the label "home-baked." Such attempts seek to make an emotional link to the remembered freshness of baked goods as well as to attach positive associations the purchaser has with the idea of "home" to the bought product. Freshness is such an important quality that restaurants, although they are commercial (and not domestic) preparers of food, bake their own products. For example, scones at The Ritz London Hotel "are not baked until early afternoon on the day they are to be served, to make sure they are as fresh as possible.
The dry heat of baking changes the form of starches in the food and causes its outer surfaces to brown, giving it an attractive appearance and taste. The browning is caused by caramelization of sugars and the Maillard reaction. Maillard browning occurs when "sugars break down in the presence of proteins. Because foods contain many different types of sugars and proteins, Maillard browning contributes to the flavour of a wide range of foods, including nuts, roast beef and baked bread." The moisture is never entirely "sealed in"; over time, an item being baked will become dry. This is often an advantage, especially in situations where drying is the desired outcome, like drying herbs or roasting certain types of vegetables.