They Ain’t What They Used to Be

Reader Michael writes:

We were sitting around talking about why pastries from bakeries are nowhere near as good as they used to be. It came to me that it may have something to do with lard vs shortening vs oil. My brother commented that Panera used to have cherry danish that was awesome, then they changed the recipe and the result was not worth the effort so he quit eating it.

Perhaps we got our bakery recipes ruined by the corporate mentality that has given us cardboard flavored tomatoes. Then again it could be that the healthy dining freaks have succeeded in making our former “treats” so tasteless that they are not worth eating.

Hey Michael! Honestly I think it’s a combination of both factors. But first let me say it’s a sad testament on the state of modern baking when we’re getting nostalgic for the early days of Panera bread! Hehe…

I think a big part of the reason for the sameness of so much mass-produced pastry is that pre-made component suppliers like BakeMark have started producing cheapie laminated doughs in huge quantities and offer it at a very low price. Chains like Panera may well have switched from their own pre-produced pastry to BakeMark’s (or some other megacorp’s). This sort of outsourcing has been a growing trend in commercial baking. It makes a lot of economic sense, but then as you point out, it’s we the true pastry lovers of the world who pay the price.

The dietary scolds also play a part in this, as a company like BakeMark knows that every one of its offerings is going to be scrutinized for every last additive, calorie and gram of saturated fat. Like every other industrial food maker, they’re scrambling to create “clean labels” that only the world’s most food-obsessive personalities would find objectionable. So when you’ve got a situation in which very few suppliers are feeding products to the mass market, and those suppliers are under constant pressure from dietary pressure groups, you can imagine the outcome: yuck.

Best to learn to make your own while you still can in the privacy of your own home! Thanks for a great question, Michael!

20 thoughts on “They Ain’t What They Used to Be”

  1. This is interesting. We visited my mom’s family in Cold Spring, Minnesota in the summer of 2012, which of course involved a visit to the town bakery. And in the course of picking out our donuts, my uncle mentioned that they changed their ‘fry’ a couple years back and it’s not as good as it used to be.

    It’s very sad. I love local bakeries, and they’re almost extinct now. Even the beloved bakery of my youth isn’t what it once was.

    Now all we’ve got are grocery store bakeries and Panera.

    1. Hey GL!

      A couple of things might have changed with the doughnut shop. They probably switched to a trans-free fry medium, which has a different flavor. Also they might well have changed their doughnut mix. The odd thing about doughnut shops is that there have been virtually no made-from-scratch doughnuts since probably the 60’s. Mixes are just too easy to use…and there are dozens if not hundreds of different mixes out there to choose from. But scratch doughnuts are making a bit of a comeback I’m happy to say.

      It’s the way of things…everything gets standardized, but then people get tired of the lack of choice and new products are created. All is not lost!


      – Joe

      1. Where in the world are you going to come across such discussions other than on this blog? I got here after reading your post on Lenotre (always thought he was some master old-school pastry chef, but it seems there is more to him than that). I think you would love Pierre Herme’s “Pastries” book what with all the anecdotes / history preceding each 2 recipes (one, traditional, the other, adventurous). As for the effect that business decisions have on food quality – you should see what happens to this stuff when it travels outside its country of origin. Boy, do I know a few things about that…We have 2 popular American doughnut (perhaps do-not is more appropriate) chains here and I promised myself never again after my last binge at each of these establishments. One thing not mentioned above is that palates evolve and what used to excite me as a kid (the ice-cream at Dairy Queen used to send me to 7th Heaven one-way) now comes across as laughable (actually I would be crying but I shall save those tears for another day, another post). Thanks for the info.

        1. Hey OB!

          I have that book at it’s a lot of fun…now that all the typos are out of it! 😉

          But your point is well taken, sometimes foods just don’t travel well. It’s interesting to watch Mrs. Pastry’s Chinese colleagues interact with the Chinese restaurants here in Louisville. They like things that I expected they’d hate, and hate things I expected they’d like. All in all I’ve been surprised at which foods from China seem to have traveled well and which haven’t. Very interesting. Thanks for the thought-provoking comment!


          – Joe

  2. For me is just because big companies use cheap, bad quality ingredients. Like, they rarely use butter, good chocolate, fruits. Instead they use vegetable oil, milk chocolate with 10-20% cocoa, lots of sugar (and other sweeteners) and artificial flavors.

    Happily I love baking, so cherry danish is not a problem for me! But sometimes I would like to buy ready-to-bake pastry to make croissants. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to find any with butter (not shortening/veg oil) .

    1. Very true. Big food manufacturers just don’t want to expose themselves to the price fluctuations of real dairy…which is sad, but the reality is that those fluctuations can be extreme. Better from their point of view to use an ingredient that’s (mostly ) predictable. That doesn’t make their products any better tasting of course!

      Thanks for the note!

      – Joe

      1. And what always bugs me about the price fluctuations of butter is that the dairy rancher isn’t seeing that money. Wouldn’t bother me so much to pay the price if I knew THEY were getting the money! (There, my rant’s over!)

        1. Hey Tonia! I’m not as familiar with the economics of dairy production as I am with grain. Corn farmers for example can generally hold their crop and sell it when the market is most favorable to them. It seems obvious that dairy farmers don’t have that luxury. Is that what you’re getting at?

          – Joe

  3. Amen on the nod to privacy. I’ve almost started to hate giving out my festive recipes because of the look I get when people see the amount of butter and sugar that goes in them. I can sympathize, but instead butchering the recipe on a quest for a “healthier” dessert, I wish they would just cut a smaller piece.

    1. Amen and Amen and AMEN to that, Catherine!

      Good things in small doses are so much more satisfying that large doses of mediocrities. I’m on that bandwagon all the time. Charlie Trotter (God rest his soul) understood this very well when he opened his carry-out place on the North Side of Chicago in the 90’s. His staff made exquisite little half sandwiches that cost thirteen bucks. Provided you could afford the outlay, it was an everybody-wins scenario: the customer got a perfect little meal with about a third the calories of a Big Mac, and Charlie and Co. got paid well in the exchange. What’s not to love?

      Cheers and great comment!

      – Joe

  4. The sad part, to me, is most people would trade flavor and quality for quantity and chemicals to save a calorie. Someone recently asked me “can’t you make more low-cal treats?” I responded “I could if I was willing to sacrifice flavor and ‘real’ food for chemicals”. I told the gal I would rather see folks enjoy smaller amounts of a REALLY good treat that was WORTH the calories and time to eat it and enjoy it once a week or month than a light one that could be eating daily. Then again, I’m not arguing it is impossible to go light and still have an enjoyable treat but really shouldn’t the word “treat” emphasis the point of it being worth the effort even if less frequently to make it a real treat?

    1. So right on that one, Linda. I make this point a lot in regard to real buttercream. The complaint I hear the most often is: buttercream is so rich! My response is: then just have a little! You get all the pleasure and have none of the regret afterward. As you rightfully point out, we’re too conditioned to stuff!

      Thanks Linda!

      – Joe

      1. One of the obvious signs is to go to a party with a really high-end ingredients cake and watch the host (or hostess) cut pieces the size of thick books and watch all those wonderful ingredients get dumped in the trash because “it was just too rich to eat that much!” Well, yeah! It wasn’t all sugar and air–it had some real food properties there and a little goes a long way! I have learned to make a point to talk to the cake-cutter and caution “CUT SMALL PIECES”. If someone can handle a bigger piece…let him come back for seconds!

        1. Very right. Too often real buttercream is applied in half-inch thick layers. Who in the world could deal with that (except perhaps for my mother)? We need a pastry movement pushing back in favor of a.) richness, b.) real ingredients and c.) small portions. Should I draft up a manifesto?

          – Joe

  5. One of the big problems today is that restaurants and the like are expected to grow every quarter. There are three ways you could do that, you can open new locations (which is why so many crappy chains seem so much more interested in new ‘stores’ than in decent food) but at some point you hit your limit, you can charge more (and given that American industry seems intent on plumbing the depths of what people will work for this is a bad idea) or cut the quality of the ingredients you use. That (with smaller serving size added in) is the current prefered path. Given that most people appear to be willing to eat crappy food as long as it it cheap those of us that can tell the difference are going to have to suffer.

    My mom catered 50 years ago and people always whined about the prices but didn’t complain about crappy food so maybe its us who are wrong

    1. Hey Frankly!

      Sadly I think you’re right that most people prefer quantity over quality where food is concerned. On the restaurant operations front, it’s my feeling that there are other ways to squeeze cost out of the system besides just cutting ingredient quality. The QSR clients I’ve had over the years tend to be very good at that, since believe it or not, a company like McDonald’s would sooner buy cheaper gear than cut down the quality of, say, their beef. I know it sounds funny since Mickey D’s isn’t exactly Morton’s Steakhouse, but their brand is so wrapped up in the taste of their food (for good or for ill), they’d rather lop off a limb than change their formulas. But your points are very well taken. Thanks for your expertise.

      – Joe

  6. Yesterday I went to a movie and got some popcorn. I could only finish a third of it (and I LOVE popcorn). Ever since the Center for Science in the Public Interest (curse them) got after movie popcorn years ago, the taste and quality of popcorn has been going way downhill. I remember when I was a kid how good it tasted. The popcorn I got yesterday was stale and full of salt.

    1. Thank you so much for bringing up those stinkers, Ellen. Not many people realize that CSPI are the ones who gave us trans fats back in the late 70’s, then turned around a decade later and crusaded against them. In the process they thoroughly wrecked McDonald’s fries, legions of businesses and scores of iconic recipes. A disaster for the American diet, CSPI has been. A pox upon them! May their daughters all go out and get tongue studs and tribal tattoos.


      – Joe

  7. I don’t know about all this stuff. Our bakeries use real butter, sugar, etc. Not a single Bakemark product except for their corn syrup. Too many shops buy partially made or wholly made products to sell as their own. I’d rather keep my selves empty than fill them with crap.

    Economically, it makes no sense to do what is being done. We have been offered a mix that “comes close” to our lemon cupcakes. The mix would mean a $0.57 cost on a cupcake. Production time would drop 8%. Big Whooop. Our lemon cupcakes currently cost $0.0684. Not worth discussing.


    1. Nice, Paul! Your bakeries sound very much like the one I first trained in. I think if you have good formulas, good processes and good employees you can do a whole lot with scratch ingredients at a very low food cost. I wish all bakeries were still like that! Thanks very much for the comment!

      – Joe

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