Josey Baker explores some of the opportunities he has found in his decade of bread baking, both from the perspective of a baker but also from the perspective of a neighbor and community member.
Josey Baker answers questions about bread baking.
Editors note: This publication contains a lightly edited transcript of the question and answer portion of the corresponding lecture.
Image attribution: Peter O'Connor aka anemoneprojectors, (CC BY-SA 2.0).
Josey: It is all subjective. I try to always remember that every single loaf of bread that we make here and that goes out to the public could be somebody's first loaf of bread that they've ever had of ours. And it better be good, if that's the case.
When I pick up a loaf of our bread, I see a very different thing than someone who's picking up our loaf for the first time because of the years, because of the months, because of the days. I think we do a very good job of keeping our standards very high and keeping our product very consistent.
There are some days and some loaves that, for any number of reasons, are an anomaly. For example, we just went through a heat spell. Managing the fermentation through that heat spell was very challenging. One day our sandwich loaves fermented much more than usual because we didn't counteract by manipulating the temperatures appropriately. And so they were super voluminous, really, really big.
However, the tops of loaves baked quicker than the bottom of the loaves because they were in pans. The loaf was more airy and the top of the loaf was higher, so by the time the bottom of the loaf got fully baked, the top of the loaf was burnt.
One of my team members noticed that they were a little dark, but they were perfectly delicious bread. However, later we get an email from a customer who said they had been buying our bread for years, but that their most recent loaf was burnt. And I was grateful. I thanked them for communicating that we made a mistake. We judged wrong. Hearing their perspective, we realized they were right. That loaf is burnt. We shouldn't have sold that to them and we were sorry.
Any time I get one of those emails, I really am so touched that someone took the time to communicate with me because I know that it would be so much easier to just say that the bread sucks. This bread isn't what it used to be. I'm not buying this anymore. I got ripped off.
Now, I get very few of those emails, because, like I said, my team does a phenomenal job of keeping the quality very high and consistent. But it's still something that we wrestle with. It's very hard. It's very fricking hard to produce bread that is consistently very high quality because of the changing variables, not just the heat swings or heat waves, but also the changing flour and the changing temperature in our fridge.
For years, we had a fridge that broke pretty regularly, which wreaks havoc on the predictability of your fermentation. Oven malfunctions and then differences in everybody's own learning and judgments and skill level. All those things make it challenging. But, if we didn’t have some of these challenges, we'd be bored. So it's fine.
Josey: Yeah, absolutely. I recommend minimizing variables when you're first learning. It's good to be less jargony. Keep stuff the same except for one thing. If you're trying to refine your bread and trying to create the loaf that you have in your mind's eye, you have to get really scientific about it. You've got to get really specific about it.
So only change one variable at a time. If you change more than one thing at a time, you're not going to be able to connect cause and effect. You're not going to be able to say: “Oh, it's because I bulk fermented the dough for 30 more minutes that I was able to achieve a little bit more sourness.” If you change the fermentation time and you also change the way you feed your levain, you're not going to know what exactly caused the difference in the outcome.
You can play with any of the variables: with the hydration, with the fermentation, with the time, with the shaping technique, with the bake, all of it. Once you develop a recipe or loaf that's good, then just start chugging away at it. Each time you bake, tweak one thing. Try as hard as you can to keep everything else exactly the same. That's impossible, of course, because every day is different. But the more you can keep other things consistent, the more you will be able to connect cause and effect. Ultimately, if you stick with it long enough, you'll be able to bake the loaf of bread you want anywhere at any time.
It is hard to do that. You take somebody who's an extremely skilled baker, who makes the most beautiful bread in the world in their home every day, put them a couple hundred miles in any direction with different flour in a different kitchen with a different oven, and its going to be a hard for them to pass that test. But it's fun.
I once got invited to Australia to go to a food conference. The first loaf of bread that I baked (luckily, it was the day before the conference) was the crappiest loaf of bread I'd baked in a very long time. I was so embarrassed. But I had done exactly what I'm advocating: I kept track of the temperature. I kept records of everything I'd done with that loaf. I went back through it all to figure out what I had done.
I narrowed it down to my starter and decided that it was not quite as active as it should have been. I think I rushed the bulk ferment a little bit and added about 5% too much water. The next day I went back and I changed all those things. I ended up making some of the best bread that I'd ever made.
Josey: Well, as far as loaves that I've eaten, a few memories come to mind that are from a long time ago. One was this black pepper parmesan bread in Vermont with my mother. I was a child. We would make it into toast. It was good. We make black pepper parmesan here as well because of that experience. I also remember this apricot sage bread from a bakery in Massachusetts called the Hungry Ghost.
As far as the bread that I make, it was really probably that very first loaf of bread that I made. It was sourdough loaf. It was the first time that I'd made bread and I was just absolutely floored that it was pretty good. And it was the first time I'd ever done it.
It provided all these opportunities as part of the experience that I couldn't have given language to at that point but that were really fulfilling. It spoke to me in a very deep way. I take it upon myself any time I'm teaching or speaking to try to help people have an experience like that. To a certain extent I was just lucky to a certain extent that my first experience was like that. It allowed me to do it again. Whereas if I'd had a negative experience, if the loaf hadn’t tasted good, I think I would have been pretty discouraged. Bread has so much to offer us. But we have to fall for it first. I had a great first date. I'm like a relationship coach between people and bread. I'm trying to make the first date go really well, so that they can eventually commit to one another.