Ink

Ink: September 2014

There are fundamental differences between bread-baking books published just 10 years ago and those published today—home baking has changed and the bread is better for it.

September 1, 2014

InkIssue 8: September/October 2014

One part baker, one part inspirational speaker, and one part bread evangelist, Josey Baker wants you to bake great bread, and by God he’s going to show you how to do it if it kills him. Baker (yes, that’s his real name) starts off with the simplest and most straightforward of recipes; he’s careful not to scare anyone away with fancy talk about baker’s percentages, digital scales, or a treatise on the botanical history of wheat. Instead we get a steady progression of lessons that lead us, one loaf at a time, from a simple pan loaf made with commercial yeast to a beautiful hearth loaf from sourdough starter lovingly created from scratch.

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It was a trial for me, sometimes, to endure Baker’s prose, which is amply supplied with pointless asides, cheery encouragement, and a tonal register most often associated with the “For Dummies” series of books. But I got over it. When baking his introductory, beginner’s recipe, I deliberately violated every contemporary baker’s first principle by using volume rather than weight measurements, just to see if his recipe really is as flexible as he promised. It seems it is. Baker insists that the fashionable, fussy insistence on perfect measurements is overrated and a barrier to baking good bread in your home, and his book subtly but persistently admonishes us to keep our focus on the good bread, not the perfect technique.

After you reach “artisanal hearth sourdough” on Page 66, your seventh loaf of bread (at which point you will also have had a two-week delay while you await your starter to come alive), the book veers briefly into seed, cheese, and olive breads before heading into the world of kamut, spelt, and even (gasp!) a gluten-free “bread” that, dear reader, I did not attempt. Unusual grains seem to be a particular delight for Baker. I made his 100 percent rye loaf, which, thanks to the very low amount of gluten in rye flour, calls for unusual baking techniques I had never encountered. I’m glad I did—it’s richly flavorful and splendidly unlike any bread I have ever baked. He ends the book with sweets, desserts, and even a recipe for fermented oatmeal.

If you don’t have any baking experience, or if you want a gentle introduction to baking with unusual heirloom grains, Baker’s book is a great choice.

Where baker is one-third evangelist, Tartine Bakery’s Chad Robertson is pure artist, and his high standards provide a stern counterpart to Baker’s enthusiasm. I learned to bake from Robertson’s first book, Tartine Bread, and although the process was sound and the results outstanding, at times it just felt like a struggle. Instructions for the first loaf ran to 50 pages, and I was led astray by some frustratingly vague prose along with photographs without captions. His new book, Tartine Book No. 3, cuts the instructions for the basic loaf down to just eight pages of sparse text with excellent, informative photos, and I wonder if I might have been better served by this abridged version.

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From there, however, the book heads straight into the stratosphere of cutting-edge bread baking, with flours I’ve heard of but not baked with before, like buckwheat, kamut, spelt, and quinoa, to flours I haven’t heard of or been able to find locally, like einkorn and amazake rice. His recipes call for the home baker to hand sift many of these flours in order to remove bran and create “high extraction” flour—a process that he admits yields “variable” results—and many involve sprouting your own heirloom grains. One quickly gets the sense that this is a kind of baking that is hard to do if you don’t buy your grain by the pallet, know local farmers by name, and own a wildly popular bakery in San Francisco.

In the end, the book served me better as a beautiful catalog of the celestial offerings at Tartine Bakery than as a baking manual. After the efforts I expended in getting his basic country loaf down, I’m hesitant to commit the time to master this world beyond, one that involves grains found only in a particular corner of Denmark. I also spotted several errors of the kind that frustrated me so many times in his first book—like text that exhorts you to bench rest the loaf seam-side down, under a photo and caption with the opposite instruction.

I have, on more times than I care to admit, checked the price of airline tickets to San Francisco so I might get a croissant and a loaf of bread at Tartine Bakery. At Tartine Bakery, you can find a kind of Platonic ideal of bread and pastry, one that seems to be barely even possible—one that’s certainly not possible in my own humble kitchen down here on earth. We are very lucky to have Chad Robertson in this world, but his baking is from another one.

Written by the owner of ken’s bakery in Portland, Oregon, Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast charts a middle ground between Baker’s enthusiastic “It’s all good” style and the purist, rarefied approach of Robertson. I’ve eaten at Ken’s Bakery, and I believe the croissant I had there was the finest croissant I have ever had the God-given good fortune to eat. I’ve also had his outstanding bread and pizza, so I was excited to get his book.

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Like Baker, he leads the reader through the  baking process one loaf at a time, starting simply and adding new techniques one at a time. He does not share Baker’s disdain for digital scales—in fact he instructs his readers to order one immediately—and he strikes a much more serious tone than Baker does. And like Robertson he spends many pages on technique; the first recipe doesn’t arrive until Page 81. It is a loaf that can be made in a day with commercial yeast, and features the hard crust and beautiful crumb that is achievable with the old technique of very wet dough and the surprisingly recent discovery of baking the loaf not on a baking stone or in a loaf pan but in a Dutch oven, which seals in moisture and creates a hard crust.

I made this loaf and it turned out beautifully, but let the reader be warned: As soon as I sank my teeth into it, I realized—my beautiful loaf was bland! Because it was made with commercial yeast and had a quick rise, it did not have nearly the complexity of flavor of a traditional sourdough levain. I fear that if after 80 pages of study and toil I had made this bland loaf of bread, I would have given up on baking.

To his credit, Forkish warns of this, and repeatedly reminds his readers that this first loaf is only a beginning of what is possible. And he’s right. He soon leads the reader through an overnight rise with commercial yeast, which yields a much more flavorful loaf, and from there to more and more complex baking traditions and processes. The book also includes excellent instructions for pizza dough, as well as tips for baking it in the kind of ovens most of us have at home; it also explores mixed commercial and sourdough techniques for breads that capture the better features of each.

While beginners would do well to stick with Forkish or Baker, for a bread baker looking to update his or her technique, any one of these books will show you the way. There are fundamental differences between bread-baking books published just 10 years ago and those published today—home baking has changed and the bread is better for it.

Erik Ryberg is an attorney, gardener, and bread enthusiast who lives in Tucson.


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