Thursday, March 31, 2011

Confessions of a Snob: Two Book Reviews

I recently acquired two bread books: Tartine Bread (from which I have attempted one partially-successful bread) and The Bread Baker's Apprentice. I am going to review both of the books and include a few comments about the value of the books and what I have learned from each of them.
Tartine Bread
Tartine Bread is fantastic. I recommend it most highly as an exceptional bread book. Unlike the science background present in Peter Reinhart's books (especially Whole Grain Breads-- which is great), Chad Robertson introduces bread as more of a narrative. While Reinhart bombards his reader with science, while claiming to want to form a "spirit-of-the-law baker" (Reinhart BBA), Robertson uses pictures, notes about texture, and anecdotes to push his reader toward a more intuitive grasp of bread baking. I do love the baking science, but Tartine Bread manages to do something different that is also fabulous. The writing is engaging and the pictures are beautiful. Sadly, just over half of the book is bread recipes (although the recipes which he does include seem well worth it) and the rest of the book is taken up with recipes for day-old bread, many of which are not to my liking. I would have gladly given up some of the recipes for more variations on formulae or more of Robertson's commentary, but at least the french onion soup recipe looks fantastic (minus the duck fat).

I also learned three vital lessons from Tartine Bread. I am sure that there will be more lessons as I continue to practice this bread, but these are the first three.
For fermentation: bread can rise in a warm, moist environment if you put it in a closed space (like an oven) with a pot of boiling water and this will safely decrease the time it takes for the bread to rise (as I mentioned previously).
For fermentation: There are negative consequences to letting bread rise for too long. According the commentary section, "if you let bulk fermentation go too long, the final rise will be sluggish as the food that fuels the fermentation has been exausted. The glutensin the dough also begin defrading after a certain point due to increasing acidity, which results in a tighter, more uniform crumb"  (Italics are mine. Robertson 75). Although he is speaking about wild yeast, I am almost positive this was part of the problem with my attempt at a 70% White Whole Wheat Pain de Campagne.
For baking: Home ovens, even with methods like Reinhart's Double Steaming method (Reinhart 92-93). This is the reason that I have had so much trouble with inconsistent oven spring, especially since I started using the convection setting on my oven. Modern home ovens are designed to vent steam and the remaining moisture is not sufficient for the necessary oven spring (Robertson 79). I think this was why my artisan loaves had better crumb at my alma mater: our ovens were terrible, so they did not vent steam adequately. This was great for bread baking. My results here have been significantly compromised by this fact (with the notable exception of two loaves of ciabatta that had wonderful oven spring (but even they sprang very unevenly, yeilding strangely asymmetrical loaves). I will at some point acquire a combo cooker, but for now I will use my oven stone and my overturned broth pot in order to provide and enclosed environment for the number of minutes under steam.

I am making my second loaf of Tartine's Basic Country Bread this weekend (the essential recipe can be found here). Wish me luck!
The Bread Baker's Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread
I have been wanting to own or even see a copy of Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice since about one week into my first attempts to make bread. This book has more hype than any other book I know of in bread-baking circles. I have a confession to make: I don't think it's that great. I like Reinhart's work--I love the two Reinhart books I recieved as gifts: Artisan Breads Every Day from which comes my fantastic pizza recipe and Whole Grain Breads which was my first real introduction to bread science. I am just not a fan and I think it's partially because I am becoming a snob. Here are my following objections:
  1. The introduction (Reinhart 1-25) is really self-aggrandizing and annoying. I like bakers talking about their backgrounds (for example, the Introduction to Tartine Bread pages 8-32), but Reinhart just sounds so arrogant.
  2. Out of the 40+ recipes, less than 30% are lean doughs (i.e. doughs without sugars or fats added) and only three are with wild yeast. To me, the most impressive thing about bread is the flavor that can be pulled from the simple ingredients of flour, water, and salt without having to add a whole bunch of "rich" ingredients to enhance the flavor. I primarily make enriched breads/rich breads for holidays and I would not want them lying around on a regular basis.
  3. Reinhart focuses primarily on machine mixing, unlike in his other two works I mentioned above where he seems to give hand and machine mixing more equal weight. Standing mixers are expensive and sometimes ineffective and they take away the kneading of bread which (I feel) is essential to making bread baking a relaxing and interactive process. Not to be cliche, but I feel like I taste my own labor in a wonderful loaf of bread I kneaded myself, which is why I made the bread instead of buying it. I know some doughs, usually high-gluten doughs, require a machine for adequate mixing, bu many if not most of these doughs can be made just as well by hand.
  4. The baking instructions are in ounces. Yes, I know, ounces are a common form of weight measurement. However, grams are much smaller than ounces and weighing by grams on my digital scale is probably more accurate than if I were to weigh the same ingredients in ounces (also, I like using the round numbers rather than e.g. 0.11oz). In Reinhart's later books, he uses volume measures, ounces, and grams which seems like the perfect compromise to me.
  5. There is a lot of focus on shaping. I know aesthetics are important, but I would rather have more instruction on how to make the bread taste wonderful than how to shape it into three different variations on a braided loaf. I want my breads to have wonderful flavor hidden in rustic crunch crusts and which reveal a beautiful open crumb-- it doesn't matter to me whether that bread is in a fancy couronne or a simple boule. Furthermore (and probably more importantly) a lot of the shaping instructions are incoherent, either because there are not enough pictures or because they seem to leave out important steps.
  6. Finally, if one eats with one's eyes before one's tongue (Reinhart says something along these lines), I cannot imagine why there are not only so few pictures of the crumb of the different breads but so few pictures of the final products. many of these formulae have no pictures at all, which is a little worrying.
Despite my objections, I have found some useful advice in The Bread Baker's Apprentice. For example, I assumed that wonderful open crumb could be achieved in any bread if the baker was skilled enough. Apparently (although I cannot find the page number right now), hydration percentage determines the crumb structure and only higher hydration doughs (60-85%) can produce the irregular large holes that I covet. Furthermore, I now know one of the reasons I sometimes end up with very strange looking (almost marbleized) crust, like on the More Sour Sourdough I made this week. Reinhart explains that one should mist the sides of the oven with water, rather than "wet the dough, which causes splotches" (Reinhart 93). I realized that in my attempt to generate steam, I was misting the dough as well as the oven. Much of the baking science was also helpful: the more I keep the chemical processes in mind, the better my bread can be. I can use this science to help trouble-shoot my bread mistakes. Overall, unless you are a king or queen of enriched doughs or are desperate to try shaping your bread in many different ways, Reinhart's Artisan Breads Every Day is a better book because it includes the famous Pain a l'ancienne recipe as well as the amazing sourdough pizza recipe, uses grams/ounces/volume, has a great section on slow, cold, fermentation, and provides a useful index of baker's percentages.


  1. You have finally convinced me that I want to try to make a loaf of bread for myself...can you recommend an easy first recipe? I love the round rustic loaves you've been making, but I need an easy one.

  2. First off...yay! I am really excited that you want to make bread. it's fun and wonderful (and you actually have a MUCH better climate to do it in than I do).

    Two possible recipes for a first-timer:
    There is a Challah recipe I really like (the easiest bread I've ever made-- and measures in volume). It makes four 1lb loaves so you might want to either half it or give some to your neighbors). Challah is an enriched bread and won't have that crunchy rustic crust.

    The first artisan bread I ever made was Bread Cetera's Pain de Campagne. It came out beautifully when I made it, it's wonderful, and I highly recommend it. I would offer a few words of advice on the recipe:

    -If you don't have (or don't like) rye flour, use whole wheat.
    -The mixing technique he recommends may feel like a hassle, but is excellent and it give the bread a nice, open crumb because it aerates the dough without over oxidizing it. In simple terms, it works.
    -Make sure the temperature of the water is hot but not scalding, you don't want to kill the yeast. If you used dry active instead of instant yeast (which I did), mix the yeast into the water before you put it in the dough.
    -Make sure wherever you are letting the bread rise is nice and warm (75-85 degrees F) so that you don't have to adjust the recommended rising time, but not as hot as an oven. People recommend laundry rooms, etc. I put mine in a cold oven with a small pot of boiling water next to it (which seems to maintain it between 80-85 degrees F as long as I change the water about every hour).
    -The bouton d'ore shape is pretty, but I have never been able to make it work. Try making a simple ball, streching the surface tight as you roll it (without squeezing to hard) and let it do it's final rise in a bowl lined with a very heavily floured dishcloth. In this case, make sure you score the dough before you put it in the oven.

    If you don't have...
    -banneton, use a bowl lined with a very heavily floured dishcloth
    -lame (french scoring blade) use a clean exacto knife
    -peel, use an upside-down cookie sheet with either oven-safe parchment paper (which will go with the bread into the oven) or lightly oiled and moderately floured to slide the bread into the oven
    -stone or a combo cooker, use either a clean unglazed ceramic tile or a parchment lined/floured cookie sheet. If you have a combo cooker, you don't need a peel. Just turn the bread out of the bowl directly onto the less-deep side of the combo cooker and score it in there.

    To make steam in the oven for the first ten minutes (vitally important), note these things:
    -Most ovens are meant to vent steam. If your oven does not do this effectively (like my one at school), just place a metal (not glass) oven-safe container with water into the oven under your pizza stone or baking tray with water in a minute or two before you put the bread in and take it out when after the "steam" is done (usually 10-15 minutes)
    -If your oven does effectively vent steam (like my current oven), either use a combo cooker (heat it up with the oven, then put the bread in it, and leave the lid on for the time which needs steam and then finish the bread without the lid) or use an overturned oven-safe pot or bowl or dome to enclose the bread on the stone or sheet (no gaps). In either of these circumstances, no water is needed to generate steam in the oven. The bread will do it on it's own. Remove the pot/bowl/dome once the steaming is done.

  3. Thanks! The Challah sounds more my speed, but I've been envying your crusty loaves. I'll have to see how much I'm up for. I'll let you know how I do.

  4. Definitely let me know! The challah is really nice, especially toasted with brie. It can also be made into lovely croutons or thick-sliced french toast.