Looking for Real Bread, Finding Masonry Ovens
I have baked bread for thirty years. Not professionally, but regularly: I made a lot of bread in all those years. Most of the bread I baked was not as good as the best bread I have ever eaten, though. It was better than any bread I could buy, but only because few bakeries in this country were making bread that was better, none of them were nearby, and bread is perishable.
Don’t get me wrong: I had fun baking, and everyone liked my bread. But when my bread was only okay I could still see and taste in my mind the bread I wanted to bake—a hearth loaf with an open crumb and a resilient crust, full of flavor. Bread that would stay fresh for days without added sugar, milk, or fat. For years I just couldn’t seem to make bread like that. Now I do, almost every time I bake. My success surprises me a little, even though I know it is my own bread coming out of my own oven, and of course I know exactly what I did to make it. Each time I open the oven door and I see and smell the loaves, my heart jumps and swells a little.
Learning to bake that way didn’t come without a lot of flailing around, because I was walking in the dark at first. The steps I eventually took to learn to make the kind of bread I like are ones that you can take more easily with the help of this book. Although a first-time baker will get plenty from this book, he or she may not realize the value of the information I have collected. People who have baked before—but never really understood what they were doing—are going to get the most out of it. That is especially true for people who want to make wonderful rustic loaves, and haven’t been able to.
To do that, you must first learn to ferment your dough naturally (using what most Americans call a sourdough starter) and you have to understand fermentation well enough so you control it, not the other way around. That is how you make a full-flavored loaf that honors the remarkable grain it’s made from, that delights the eye, and holds whatever degree of sourness you seek—a little or a lot. In this book you will learn how and why rye flour, or whole wheat flour, or machine kneading, or a hot day, or many other factors will change the dough you make and the bread you bake. Controlling natural fermentation is the first big step on the path to creating great bread.
The second big step is to bake your bread in hot masonry. The reasons for this will become clear as you read the book, but take it as a given for now. "Hot masonry" means you can bake many loaves at a time in a masonry oven or you can bake one loaf at a time in a ceramic cloche in a conventional oven. (Bread from a cloche is not actually the same as bread from a masonry oven, but is so close that you almost need the two loaves in front of you to tell the difference.) Only by baking in masonry can the home or small commercial baker get a loaf that looks, chews, and tastes right. That is true even if the dough is perfectly made before it is baked.
If the secrets of good bread baking are so simple (fermentation, hearth baking), why do so many people have trouble making good bread? There are four reasons for our failures: The first is that most of us have tried to learn the process from books, and there haven’t been books in English that adequately explained fermentation or discussed masonry ovens. The second reason is simple confusion—the best described sourdough baking technique in this country (using a sour starter to react with baking soda to raise flapjacks and quick breads) is not similar to the process for making good "European" naturally leavened bread. Americans tend to maintain sourdough starters in a way that does not produce consistent results when baking bread, but would be fine for pancakes. The third reason is that for more than seventy-five years bakers have been taught to equate successful baking with fast baking—witness the profusion of instant yeast brands—while the opposite is true. The impetus for speeding up the process of making bread was first reflected in advertising that yeast companies directed to commercial bakeries (the familiar "time equals money" equation). Faster baking was then presented as a lifestyle improvement to home bakers who did not realize what speeding up baking would do to their bread. Although the amount of time spent mixing, kneading, slashing, and baking is only marginally longer for good bread than poor bread, the number of hours over which the steps occur is much longer for good bread, regardless of whether the dough is raised with small doses of commercial yeast or from a natural leaven. The fourth reason? The ovens—most people are trying to bake hearth breads in kitchen ovens.
You can gauge the extent of the confusion about natural fermentation by reading the questions posted to Internet Usenet newsgroups such as rec.food.sourdough and rec.food.baking. Many of the people who post questions to these groups are experienced (often professional) bakers who encounter difficulty changing from speed-baking with store-bought yeast to baking with a natural leaven. These otherwise able people don’t understand the principles of natural fermentation because those principles have not been laid out—the lessons of research in cereal chemistry, dough microbiology, and so forth have not been explored to any extent in popular books on baking, while specialized seminars and videos about sourdough are expensive, costing hundreds of dollars. Baking books give elaborate and intimidating descriptions of how to start and maintain a leaven when it would be more enlightening to describe in detail what is happening in the sourdough process and to consider the properties of sourdough ingredients—water, flour, salt, wild yeast, and bacteria. Methods and rules are not as useful as understanding. A baker who understands the process is liberated—free to create new recipes and to manipulate the determinants of bread quality in pursuit of his or her perfect loaf. This book is short on recipes (on purpose, as there are many excellent sources of recipes) but long on the background information you need to make the kind of bread you want, either by adapting an existing recipe you like, or making up a new one. "Fermentation." "Cereal chemistry." "Nutrition." All of this sounds intimidating to the non-scientist. To be truthful, it is even intimidating to a scientist—but you don’t need to be a scientist to understand it. You just have to want to learn. Since I knew little of the "science" of fermentation or cereal grains when I set out, the information I found was new to me, and I hope that it seems fresh as I relay it to you. Although most of it has been published somewhere, no source I could find includes it all, or digests it for consumption by the committed layperson. I hope that the "bread" half of this book will teach you the characteristics of sourdough hearth bread and the factors (that you can control) that determine those characteristics.
The other half of this book is about building and using masonry ovens. Simple retained-heat ovens (in which a fire is built in the same chamber where the bread will be baked after the fire is removed) are what I actually started out to write about. Masonry ovens have great historical appeal because they are the way bread was baked for millenia, but they are being built now out of more than a purely historical interest. They are built for the unique way they bake: masonry ovens "shock" dough with a massive transfer of heat when the bread is first put in, and they preserve the dough’s moisture when the crust is first forming and the loaf is expanding.
I had never seen a masonry oven until 1992 or 1993, but that first experience (an oven inauguration at the house of Heather and Randy Leavitt in East Barnard, Vermont) produced such wonderful bread from the same natural leavened dough I had been making for years that my course was set. I visited Alan Scott—America’s preeminent masonry oven builder, renowned sourdough baker, and my partner in this book—for advice and went home to build my oven. Over the next year Alan and I decided that since he cannot spend half a day with every baker in the country (and I have blocks of time in which I am not practicing medicine), I should help Alan produce a book devoted to the history and principles of masonry ovens, and to oven planning, oven building, and oven management. Because there is little useful literature on most of these topics, the "oven" sections in this book are based on basic principles and direct experience—Alan’s, mine, and that of many bakers I visited while writing this book.
I want to state again that much of what I learned and discuss here about ovens I learned from Alan or from sources (manuscripts, publications, articles, and introductions) that he provided. The plans in this book are Alan’s plans, the photographs are of Alan’s ovens or of ovens built to his plans (except where noted), and the research on managing a wood-burning oven was done with equipment that he provided. In addition to his technical and organizational involvement in this book, he has been its major spiritual influence. Although I am not totally without spirit, mine is the kind that gets one kept after school. Alan, on the other hand, is a deep thinker, and he thinks about things from first principles. Alan follows a spiritual teacher, he practices meditation every day, and he has made a life that is congruent with his spiritual knowledge.
That spiritual life is part of what he contributes to this book, and is one thing that makes it more than a "how-to" manual. Alan became on oven builder in the early 1980s when he did the forge work for the iron fittings for the first oven built for Laurel Robertson and her community. As a participant in their pursuit of good bread (which resulted in the Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book) he went on to become an oven builder, a baker, and a teacher in his own right—a man people travel hundreds of miles to meet and bake with, as I did. Alan and I both believe that baking in a masonry oven makes the best possible bread, though, as you can see from the Preface, we came to this book by different paths and the bread we make is different.
I began this book to help Alan get the word out about masonry ovens, and neither of us thought we would be doing original research on the thermal characteristics of ovens, or that the book would have more than a little in it about bread and baking—there are already so many books on the shelves about bread and baking. But the more I read, the more I learned, the deeper I dug into scientific journals and correspondence with other bakers, the more I realized that much of what one reads in popular baking books is misleading, especially about natural fermentation. As I added more and more to the "baking" side, the book became balanced, almost unintentionally: it now contains a lot about baking and a lot about ovens. It is vastly more researched and detailed than we anticipated, and will answer questions that occur to even very experienced bakers.
To introduce you to these subjects I will first describe the differences between good bread and insipid bread and delineate the factors responsible for those differences. As I make this exploration I will define terms and topics. Then I will tell you exactly what I do when I make dough and then bake it, and what Alan Scott does and talks about when he makes dough and bakes it. After that I will present chapters that progress through the book from grain to finished bread, using a fairly linear approach. Each chapter is followed by one or more "visits" that profile people and companies dedicated to hearth baking: restaurants, consultants, suppliers, bakers. I hope that the good versus insipid bread review and the breadmaking section will give you enough perspective to carry you through any potentially dry spots, and that the visits will give you some perspective about how natural fermentation of dough and brick oven baking work in the world of the professional artisan baker.