While I value this book as a reference, I find I most often turn to it for the short essays Jeffrey has scattered throughout its pages. I quoted from one of them last week, and I'll steal a few lines again today to whet your appetite, from an essay entitled "The Baker's Hands."
"It's true that the machines of today can with certainty guarantee a consistency of output, and breads can be produced of predictable food quality. On the other hand, the baker who relies on his hands will surely have mishaps, and at times his efforts might yield only a 75 percent level of quality. But at other times he will coax loaves of incredible beauty and taste, and score a 95 percent! He lives for this, and the memory of these surpassing loaves lingers. He strives for perfection, for the perfect loaf, secretly hoping never to attain it-- for where would he go from there?"
This passage, and the one along with the one from my last post, sum up much of what I love about making baking. The consciousness of effort. The immediate and tangible results. The reward of a good day's hard work. And greatest of all, being presented with a chance to do better every morning. What a wonderful thing to be reminded of each new day.
Lots of things progress these past weeks. A few small things linger, and I still need to get some things together in anticipation of the oven's arrival (looking at you, PGE). Depending on the timing of things I still hope to do a soft opening using a residential oven. Patience is the word of the day here at the Silver Falls Bread Company.
"When it all goes just right (which it rarely does), and the day's breads have attained more than just good taste, but are, for that day, memorable and charismatic, then the baker knows again why he sets his alarm for that challenging hour. And when all has not come out of the oven just as he had wished or expected, he gets another chance tomorrow-- each day we have the opportunity to redeem the setbacks of yesterday."
Lovely and insightful. Thank you Jeffrey.
Update: I've got the majority of the plumbing work done here. The floor will be going back just in time for me to receive a whole slew of equipment goodies. By the end of next week I should have a complete bakery, less one oven. My latest update has my oven leaving Italy on October 5th. Ouch. I don't have the patience to wait until November to open, so I'm now scheming ways to do a limited opening using a rented oven or residential ovens. This new plan means I'll have to compromise a little and bake using loaf pans. Doing hearth loaves in a non-hearth oven is possible, but it's not practical at the scale I'm imagining. It's a bit of a downer, but it will allow me to dial in a bunch of things before the real deal oven arrives. Keep checking in these next few days for more updates.
Alright. Now lets talk about a couple of my favorite things. Bread and books.
Here's the first installment of what I hope will become a semi-regular review of books. I'm going to start off with two of my favorites: Flour Water Salt Yeast, and Tartine.
Ken has distilled the process used by the most successful artisan bakers into a format friendly to the home baker. He does it in a clear and concise manor, and includes plenty of illuminating photographs to help you stumble through your first few attempts. Additionally, Ken has put out a great series of youtube videos to help you along. All in all, this is a great first book for the aspiring baker, and an excellent reference for any baker. Don't forget to check if your local library carries a copy.
Hello fine readers. I'm happy to report that as I type this two plumbers are hard at work in the shop, bringing me one step closer. Once I put the floor back I'll be set to bring in the remainder of my equipment, less the oven. PGE is working on their solution to my power supply problems. The factory in Italy where my oven is manufactured is returning from their month long vacation, so I expect to hear good news on that front soon.
I've been doing lots of home baking lately. Trying out different flours, fine tuning recipes, making sure I don't lose my touch. One result of these baking endeavors is a pile of bread gets stale faster than I can eat it. It's with stale bread on my mind (and in my stomach), that I sit down to write to you today.
Turns out, stale bread is a surprisingly interesting subject. For one, staleness is subjectively defined. There are no scientific criteria, it's simply bread that the eater thinks isn't fresh. For another, stale bread results in some very big economic consequences (well, big if you're a baker), and some very wasteful practices.
A number of things influence how fast bread stales, some of which are in the hands of the baker, and others in the hands of the consumer. These are the subjects I'd like to take a look at with you all.
What is stale bread?
There are some universal attributes associated with stale bread. The crust loses it's crunch and becomes tough. The crumb (a baker's term for the stuff inside the crust) becomes hard and dry. Flavors mellow and are lost. These tragedies occur over a spectrum, and the process starts happening as a soon as the loaf of bread cools. We think of bread as stale when these qualities build up to undesirable levels. The immediate onset of staling is why it's paramount to buy your bread fresh, not in Costco-esque quantities, stashed in the cupboard.
Why does bread stale?
That's a hard question to answer without a chemistry degree. Moisture loss, or perhaps more accurately moisture migration, is an important part of that process, but even bread kept in a sealed plastic bag becomes dry and tough. Staleness occurs at the molecular level of the starches within the bread in a process known as "starch retrogradation." Rather than betray my ignorance on the subject I think I'll let it go at that. For those interested in learning more: Bread Science by Emily Buehler is a terrific reference.
What do baker's do about it?
Some breads resist staling better than others. It has long been observed that sourdoughs hold up better than breads made with commercial yeast. This is often attributed to the natural acidity of sourdoughs. Shape is also an important factor, for a baguette will lose moisture very quickly because of it's larger surface area. Ingredient choice also matters quite a bit. Sugar and the fats from butter, milk, or oil act to keep the crumb moist and tender far longer than in a lean dough (a dough comprised of flour and water only). Other obscure enzymes and chemicals additives are also commonly used. As you might imagine, there is a huge economic incentive to delay the staling of bread, and that accounts for some of those strange ingredients you might find on any given label.
An interesting side note: Breads made with high proportion of rye flour have tremendous resistance to staling. There are many who attest to enjoying pure rye breads long after they are baked. This property helps account for the old peasant practice of baking extremely large loaves once every few weeks, due to the relatively high cost of firing the oven (when you could be storing all that precious wood for winter!). In fact, one gentleman from Germany fondly told me about his grandmothers rye. It would sit in the cellar for weeks, only reaching it's peak in flavor after it was covered in a white mold.
What can you do about it?
There are several ways to prolong the freshness of bread after it's been baked. The best solution is of course to eat it quickly. Bread that survives your first day of purchase can be handled a few different ways. I prefer to keep my bread in paper bags or wrapped in a linen cloth or towel on the counter. I usually eat a loaf within a couple of days so I don't worry too much about the bread drying out. If I think I'll want to keep the bread for more than a few of days I'll store it in a plastic grocery bag, also on the counter. It stays moist longer, but the crust quickly softens and loses that nice crispy crunch. If you eat very little bread each day you might choose to slice and freeze it. Then you can pull out one or two slices as needed. What you should not do is store it in the refrigerator. Starch retrogradation progresses most quickly under refrigerator temperatures.
I always reheat bread that is more than a day old. Reheating it freshens up the starches and temporarily reverses some of the effects of staling. My preferred method is to quickly fry the bread in a hot pan with butter. A toaster or broiler will also do the trick.
Don't lose hope should your bread grow stale beyond palatability. Use it to thicken soups, make croutons, transform it into delicious bread pudding, or any of the countless other uses for stale bread. There is even an old world tradition of using old bread in the next day's dough, the result of an era when not one ounce of nutrition was allowed to go to waste.
Have a wonderful week you guys.