The Quest for a Great Loaf of Bread

A spare-time curiosity morphs into a full-blown obsession

Among the aging pro­fes­sional chefs of the world it is said you must use your head more and your body less. High-pressure kitchen jobs are for the young, with long hours on your feet, extreme tem­per­a­tures and fre­netic shifts that can cause sleep­less nights and wicked hang­overs. But even as we may find our­selves fur­ther from the stove, we under­stand there is always more to learn. I’ve heard it called “rein­venting your­self,” but it’s really accepting that you are a life-long student.

Crossing over into the unfa­miliar is common, though unset­tling, for pro chefs. Take baking, for example. Not all chefs are bakers, and not all bakers are chefs. And bread bakers are dif­ferent from all the rest.

Some chefs dabble in “chef desserts,” pro­ducing the safer dishes of crème brulée, bread pud­ding, cheese­cake and panna cotta. I call them safe because most chefs can exe­cute these dishes without much dif­fi­culty. However, the Sweet Kitchen, as it’s some­times known, is a whole study unto itself. Pastry and dessert-making employ a very dis­ci­plined rou­tine with pre­cise mea­suring and weighing in place of dashes and dol­lops, spoon­fuls and sprigs. This is why the quartet of flour, water, yeast and salt can be so per­plexing to those in search of the per­fect loaf of bread.

I recently embarked on such a quest at home. It started with wanting to try out a pop­ular tech­nique that involved leaving out the heavy lifting, or kneading. The idea is that rough-textured dough, not smooth, can yield rustic-style breads that many covet. I began fol­lowing the exact direc­tions around Christmas time, changing only one ele­ment of the process with each loaf I baked. I recorded the changes and results, employing an almost sci­en­tific approach. Now, three months later, the cur­rent recipe resem­bles nothing like my orig­inal. I have read two books on bread and am weekly adding the tools of the trade of great bread baking to my kitchen. I am hooked. What began as a curiosity has mor­phed into a full-blown obsession.

The vari­ables are numerous: strains of yeasts, wet dough versus smooth, pre-heated cast iron pan or baking stone, proper steam injec­tion, first rise, sec­ondary rise, room tem­per­a­ture, long-ferment, starters, unbleached flours, bas­kets versus free-form, scoring. And they all affect those four simple ingre­di­ents and how they com­bine to give you the sim­plest, arguably oldest of kitchen byproducts.

As I cut into each loaf, I find myself fre­quently revis­iting the Pixar foodie film Ratatouille, in which Colette says: “How do you tell how good bread is without tasting it? Not the smell, not the look, but the sound of the crust. Listen. [pressing the bread in her hands] A sym­phony of crackle! Only great bread sounds this way!” Indeed, bread baking can be visceral.

The desire to per­fect another dimen­sion of your craft can leave you feeling both hum­bled and com­pletely restored at the same time. As with many things in life, we are all on our own journey, at our own pace. In the kitchen, you may be way ahead, you may be behind, but always keep moving for­ward, because when you’re done learning, you’re done.

Robert Lhulier is exec­u­tive chef at the University and Whist Club in Wilmington.

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