What’s more essential, elemental, to the human experience than bread? Bread, famously, is the staff of life. Huge swaths of humankind have relied on it for survival for upwards of twenty thousand years. Breaking bread with friends and family isn’t just an act of eating – it’s something that reverberates with existential significance. Breaking bread is a celebration of life; of the inexorable wave of human innovation and creativity that, over the course of the millennia, has shaped the world we live in today; and of the tapestry of human bonds that that insulate and comfort us along our journey through the overwhelming vastness of life.
Of course, when we imagine breaking bread, we don’t imagine breaking Wonder Bread or any of its mass-produced, plastic-wrapped cousins from Aisle 9. We imagine great bread – a crusty, aromatic loaf, fresh from the oven, filled with that magically rich-yet-airy, buttery-soft interior – the kind of bread that stops us in our tracks and has the power to trigger an out-of-body experience. Good bread excites the mind, body and soul in a way few other things do. A taste of good bread is a taste of good life.
So what is it that makes great bread? What creates that vast gulf between the bread that stops us in our tracks, and those soulless factory-produced bricks of mush piled high on the supermarket shelves?
In his book The River Cottage Bread Handbook, renowned baker Daniel Stevens sums it up well: “There are only two kinds of bread in the world: bread that hands have made and bread that hands have not. In an ideal world, all bread would be hands-have-made – by your hands and my hands, and by the hands of those few professional bakers left who are still doing it properly.”
The vast majority of bread on, and between, our shores today falls into the ‘hands-have-not’ category – most modern breads are mixed, kneaded and shaped entirely by enormous steel machines, and are loaded with preservatives and all sorts of hard-to-pronounce ingredients that would be woefully out of place alongside the simple collection of flour, water, yeast and salt on a ‘hands-have-made’ baker’s counter.
On a quest to better understand the perfect loaf, I first met with Nathan Leamy, a long-time master of the sourdough arts, and a regular bread-making instructor at The Brooklyn Kitchen in Williamsburg.
“When we think of good bread, we’re usually thinking of artisan bread, which by definition is something that’s made by hand, at least at some point in the process” Nathan said over tea. “When we talk about artisan bread, you might be tempted to think it means it’s made exclusively by hand from beginning to end, but in reality no one makes bread that way anymore unless you’re making it at home.”
“Bread completely changed with the invention of machines that could knead dough. It changed how much bread you could produce – how would you ever knead the amount used by big producers, by hand? Even before the days of electric mixers, breadmakers were looking for ways to knead more dough than they could by hand. There were manual mixers turned by mules tethered to spokes of a wheel. Humans pushed other mixers by leveraging their bodyweight. These days, everything produced on a mass scale is made purely by machines. But to make great artisan bread, you have to use your hands in some way. Making bread that way is an art, and like any art, you need that human touch to give it variety – to make it unique.”
“I specialize in sourdough,” said Nathan, “and what I really love about it is that unlike almost any other form of cooking, you are working with something that’s alive. The yeast is alive, and that living element means you can’t just use a machine. You can’t say, ‘Hey, machine, do this.’ Because it’s alive, your product is going to change a lot every time you make it, and it actually takes play and interaction to maintain some kind of consistency, while still respecting the variety you’ll always get when working with a living dough. When baking at home, or even in the bakery, there’s an ideal range you aim for with flavor and texture, but you will get that variety every time. When you’re baking with wild yeast, the dough changes based on the day, its mood, the weather, the flour. No matter how precise you try to be, you get something that’s a little different every day, and that’s something that constantly surprising, and truly…magical. It’s funny – when I was younger and knew nothing, this is what I was taught. This is what I was shown. I didn’t realize at the time that I was learning these timeless, profound laws of baking bread. But I was.”
So, as with many of the higher-quality products in our modern world, great bread, is born of a careful balance between man and machine – a balance that allows the artisan’s human creative touch, and the living essence of the bread itself to shine though, while leveraging machines to increase production to a level that can support an actual business. But what else factors in? What other combinations of ingredients and process are required to make really good bread?
The next stop on our quest to understand great bread was Bien Cuit – a bakery on Smith Street in Boerum Hill, opened only a year ago by Zachary Golper and Kate Wheatcroft, that has already earned a reputation as maker of some of the city’s finest breads. On a recent Sunday afternoon, in search of answers, I spoke with Zachary as he rolled out dough for the next day’s pain au chocolat.
My first question? The obvious – I asked Zachary about the name.
“It just means dark – it literally translates to ‘well cooked,’” said Zachary. “When I lived in France I’d go into bakeries and it was really common to hear people say, ‘Je voudrais une baguette bien cuite,’ or ‘I’d like a well-cooked baguette.’ I thought, ‘Cool…I like that.” So I started ordering them that way, and I loved the bread. That’s what inspired me to start baking. When I started baking for restaurants, I baked bread real dark. I just found that you get more flavor by bringing the grains to a full roast. The roast saturates the crumb – the interior of the bread – producing layers of flavor and a ton of nuances that you don’t otherwise get. And when you crunch into it, it just feels really nice – it feels like a better bread.”
While all of Zachary’s breads are born of a process driven by an uncompromising passion for quality, Bien Cuit’s sourdough bread the one that garners the most accolades. I asked him to give me a primer in sourdough.
“People use the term sourdough loosely. It means different things to different people. But in the world of bread baking, sourdough just means that the baker uses a ‘wild’ yeast as the rising agent, rather than a manufactured, dry commercial yeast.”
Taking a step back, Zachary explained that in its purest form, sourdough bread has only four ingredients: Flour, water, salt and yeast. Flour is generally made from wheat grain. A grain of wheat is essentially a seed. That seed is composed of three parts: The bran, or outer skin, is packed with protein and is the source of that nutty whole wheat flavor; The germ is at the core of the seed, effectively the wheat plant’s embryo, packed with vitamins, nutrients and more protein to nourish the growing seed; and the endosperm surrounds the germ and is in turn surrounded by the bran – it’s loaded with carbohydrates (made of sugar and starch). Flour is the ground-up combination of these parts. Whole wheat flour contains particles of all three parts of the grain, while white flour is exclusively the carbohydrate-rich endosperm – the bran and germ are sifted out.
There are many types of flour – flour can be made with a wide array of wheat varietals and from different grains altogether, like rye, sunflower, or spelt. Bakers use different blends to achieve unique textures and flavors. At Bein Cuit? “Most of our breads take a blend of three different types of rye and three different types of wheat flour,” said Zachary. “The ultimate goal is to use blends to mimic the whole grain as closely as possible.”
Yeast, a single-cell organism, similar to a fungus, is the living element in bread. Often referred to as ‘starter’ or ‘levain,’ yeast must be fed sugar and water to sustain itself (not so unlike your average American today.) Yeast causes bread to rise when carbon dioxide gas, a byproduct (along with alcohol) of the fermentation process that occurs when yeast digests sugar, is captured by the gluten in the bread in the form of bubbles in the dough that cause it to expand.
When flour, water, salt and yeast are mixed to create dough, fermentation begins. Just as happens in the process of brewing beer or making wine, fermentation occurs when the yeast eats the sugar present in the carbohydrates in the flour. Fermentation produces carbon dioxide, acids, alcohol, and sugars. In creating those gas pockets, or bubbles, in the dough, the carbon dioxide creates the spongy, light and airy texture of the bread. The alcohol, acid and sugar byproducts impart flavors that grow in depth and complexity the longer the dough is allowed to ferment.
All bread at Bien Cuit is made using a process called ‘slow fermentation.’ Zachary gives his bread dough enough time to slowly, naturally, ferment to perfection. “Once the flour becomes humid, or moist, the enzymes begin to act on the starch, breaking it down little by little to reveal the wheat’s protein,” he said. “By simply adding water to the flour and leaving it alone, the proteins that are naturally found in wheat begin to bond together to form gluten. Kneading the dough continues that process – it literally stretches and extends the gluten strands, making them stronger and more elastic.”
“At Bien Cuit, we mix our dough as little as possible. We fold it and shape it and let it proof – just sit and ferment. It’s while it’s proofing that water infiltrates the gluten and forms these tiny little bubbles. The longer you let it sit – overnight or even two nights – the larger and more open the bubbles in the dough become, as they fill with carbon dioxide from the fermentation process. It’s the strength of the gluten that allows the dough to hold those big air pockets. See, if you get a loaf of Wonder Bread and really look at the bread, you’ll notice that it’s all tiny little bubbles – that’s because the gluten was never given enough time to develop to the point where it could handle that much carbon dioxide. The yeast will always create the same amount of gas, but if the gluten isn’t given enough time to grow strong enough to hold it, it’ll dissipate throughout the dough and turn flat.”
Zachary continued to explain that those big air pockets don’t themselves have flavor, but they’re an indicator that the dough has had time to ferment slowly and naturally, a process that imparts much deeper and more complex flavors than you’ll find in mass-produced breads.
So how does Zachary strike that elusive balance between the use of human hands and machines that results in such high quality bread? Small-batch mixing. “We do use electricity. But we’re using just enough mixer power to mimic what we’d be able to do by hand. Because we’re a production bakery, it’s not possible to mix and knead everything by hand. So we use a technique called small-batch mixing where we mix just enough dough that one person can shape it later, allowing for that one person to maintain total control of the dough. This way, we don’t run into the problem that a lot of bakeries do when they mix their dough with huge mixers, producing giant quantities of dough, and then letting it sit in big tubs. That way, the dough goes down the line and whenever it gets to the table, that’s when it gets shaped – it could be on-time, early, late, whatever. Small batch mixing lets you be in control at all times, to really understand what’s happening with the dough as it ferments so you can really own your end product.”