Adventures in bread land
How I learned to wrestle the dough and go with the flow at the San Francisco Bread Institute.
Flour haphazardly dusted my hair, sourdough starter clung to the crook of my neck and my arms were embedded elbow-deep in approximately thirty pounds of baguette dough. I took a moment to pause. Wrestling dough right alongside me was a former executive chef for the American Embassy in China, and across the way was an accomplished pastry chef who had just returned from a two-year stint in London. What exactly was I doing here?
Here was the San Francisco Baking Institute, home of some of the most renowned artisan bread- and pastrymaking courses anywhere. My classmates came from around the world (Brazil, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand) and all for the same reason— to learn how to make really great bread.
Or, in some of our cases, to learn how to bake bread. Period.
Bless Rosie, an energetic empty nester who had never even attempted a single loaf before setting foot in the institute. In a class full of accomplished chefs and bakers, she was the only one who had less experience than I did. Although the course is billed as suitable for professionals and enthusiasts alike, the professionals outnumbered us fourteen to three: daunting odds, to say the least. I was firmly in the enthusiast category.
While I adore bread, until recently my expertise was limited to the consumption of it. Cinnamon buns and no-knead bread dominated my limited bread-baking repertoire.
That was until the Dauphine Bakery closed and my daughter’s favourite bread ever—the addictive onion and sage loaf—suddenly became unavailable.
At that moment my quest began.
My first stop was the library. I lugged home every bread book imaginable (eventually gravitating to Ken Forkish’s Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast). Next up was a visit to Owen Petersen at Prairie Mill for a container of Julie, his resident sourdough starter. Sourdough terrified me, but I knew it was an essential component of Dauphine’s bread.
I was armed and ready. Or so I thought.
After a couple of months and varying degrees of success and failure, I grew tired of the failures.
That’s how I ended up at the San Francisco Bread Institute for two weeks in early January, from 7 to 3 (sometimes later) every day.
Through a combination of lecture and lab sessions (mostly lab), we learned about everything relating to bread. The first week concentrated on breads made with yeast, and the second was all about sourdough.
It became apparent that bread is a complex creature—far more complex than I had ever imagined. The other thing was that failure was simply part of learning, something one of my instructors reminded us of, constantly.
Many factors need to be considered when it comes to making bread: the Where all type of flour that’s used and the enzyme and protein content of that flour; the amount and temperature of the water; the quantity of the dough and the intensity with which it is mixed; the number of times the dough is folded; how long the dough bulk-rises and proofs for; and how you pre-shape and shape the dough. Even the angle and depth at which you score a loaf matter.
Our two weeks was non-stop. We scaled out ingredients for dough. We mixed and folded dough. We divided, preshaped, rested and shaped dough. We loaded and scored dough in preparation for baking. Then we baked it.
Over and over and over.
Everything we did emphasized how (seemingly) minor changes can significantly affect the final product.
Nothing highlighted that more than our endless baguette-making sessions. We made hand-mixed baguettes, baguettes with a short mix versus an improved mix versus an intensive mix; baguettes that were autolyzed (where the flour has been hydrated with the water before adding the yeast) and those that were not; baguettes that were retarded (put in the cooler overnight for the final rise) and baguettes that weren’t; baguettes with different types of preferment (poolish, biga, levain). I must have shaped over a hundred baguettes during my twoweek stint. And that doesn’t include the multitude of other breads we tackled. But the comparisons were invaluable.
At the end of each day, we cut open all the types of bread we had made and we snifffed, felt and tasted. We compared differences in the crumb, the crust, the colour, the rise, the taste, everything.
It became readily apparent that time is key when it comes to making bread: flavour takes time to develop. The breads that had a pre-ferment of some kind (like sourdough) and longer rising times definitely tasted the best.
Beyond the science behind exactly what was happening at which stage of the process, getting a sneak peek into bakers’ lives was one of the most eye-opening aspects of the two weeks. A fellow classmate from New Zealand was in the midst of touring a number of different bakeries in the United States. He was working for free in exchange for knowledge—his plan was to open a bakery once he returned home. Long 12-hour days were his norm, yet he classified those as easy compared to the hours he typically works. And he wasn’t alone.
I have since returned home, graced with way more knowledge than before I left. Can I make a better loaf of bread? I can only answer that with a hesitant perhaps. I’m not mixing 30 pounds of dough at a time and I don’t have access to fancy steam ovens, a crucial element in making good bread (although a cast iron pan, some bolts, and a holey old tin pan filled with ice will do in a pinch).
Nor do I have instant access to knowledgeable instructors or talented classmates.
It’s just me. And it’s not the same.
My two weeks mainly focused on white bread and understanding the basics. And I can make a decent loaf of bread (sourdough and otherwise). My daughter actually loves my recreated onion loaf. It’s when I venture into 100 per cent whole grain territory with some sprouted barley and a bit of Julie added (my indispensable sourdough starter) that I’m not so sure about. But then again, whole grain bread isn’t going to behave like white.
There’s a course on baking with ancient grains coming up—that may be my next adventure.
Right now I am content experimenting and eating the experiments. On those occasions when I do wander into a bakery, I’m happy to pay whatever they ask, knowing full well that it’s not nearly enough.