Thursday, December 18, 2008

Who am I?

I can tell you what I am not: a full-time professional in the food industry. Have I worked in the food industry? Yes. Most of my high school jobs were as a line cook at various restaurants. I cater small to mid-sized parties every now and again. I actually worked in a local organic bakery for several months to get the feel for baking in a large volume production kitchen. Do I come from four years of tough training from the likes of Johnson & Wales or the CIA? Nope.

My interest in baking good bread comes from my intense desire to eat good bread. It is amazing to me that at it's most basic, bread consists of flour, water, yeast, and salt. And yet, pick up almost every single loaf of bread in a grocery store and there are a myriad of additional ingredients that have nothing to do with nutritional value and everything to do with extending shelf life and making the product cheaper to produce (such as high fructose corn syrup). Why is it that we take all of the nutritive value out of our flours through bleaching and bromation, only to have to add it back in through supplements?

I got serious about bread about four years ago when I decided that I was tired of putting bread that was devoid of nutrition into my body. What was I left with? In the typical grocery store, not much. Usually I had to start moving toward the organic options, but at those prices, I would be paying $3-$5 per loaf. So, I decided to start doing breads my way, at home, from scratch. I would then supplement with store bought bread when I was in a pinch. I started out with only basic knowledge and a couple of recipes I had left over from a failed experiment with a bread machine I had owned years earlier.

Recipe in hand, I started making sandwich bread first, honey whole wheat. The problem was that I didn't realize that there is a science to making bread. As much as I profess that bread is different from pastry in that it is a living thing for which you must make concessions, it is in fact also rooted in the same science of chemistry that drives the precision that pastry chefs use to get repeatable results. Sometimes there is a little more or a little less moisture in the air, sometimes the ambient temperature in the kitchen is a little warmer or a little cooler. All of these things affect the final loaf. But of course, when I started doing all of this, I didn't know any of these things.

So, some loaves came out light and airy. Some loaves, well, didn't.

It wasn't until I picked up the book The Breadbaker's Apprentice by Peter Reinhart that my entire bread making approach just opened up. Mr. Reinhart brought the science of making bread to the table. And as any good engineer can tell you, it's all about numbers and the Scientific Method. Suddenly it dawned on me that maybe the reason my results weren't repeatable had more to do with the fact that my recipe was flawed, I wasn't measuring the ingredients properly, and my understanding of what exactly was going on in that little ball of dough was severely lacking.

Since then I have read many a book, taken many a class, given many a class, and worked for a brief stint at a bakery, all because I want to learn as much as I can about bread. Because if you are going to take the time to make bread from scratch, shouldn't you want to give it as much flavor and nutrition as you possibly can?

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