I can make bread. This isn’t bread in four easy steps or bread in under two hours. It is a bread which requires the careful cultivation of invisible organisms. It is a bread that demands incorporation into your daily routine. It is a bread that instills the knowledge, the feeling, when you bite off a hunk of a warm loaf on your back porch on a cool evening, that there is nothing else in the world you could be eating at that moment that would be better.
This isn’t to say that I make the best bread in the world, far from, but rather that slowly developed bread using wild yeast has a complexity of flavor and aroma that is overwhelming, mind boggling when fresh. This is the kind of bread I make today and it has been a very long time coming.
As friends and family can attest, for years I baked and tinkered and experimented to make bread that I liked. Years passed with me adjusting recipes, nurturing starters, tweaking temperatures, and playing with ingredients. Hundreds of loaves had passed through my oven, but still I was unhappy and had given up. Then several months ago, one man and his book changed everything and after 20 years filled with baking misery I am finally at peace with my bread making. That man is Chad Robertson and his book is Tartine Bread.
A few years ago, after moving to the bay area, I put myself to finding great bread in San Francisco. All my life I had been told of the otherworldly powers of the bakers there, of the deep history, of the ancient starters, of the mythical if cliched sourdough. Months passed as I searched the city, every suggestion followed, no bakeshop passed by, I remained unimpressed. Few breads were outright bad, most were passable and a few were good. Loaves from the legendary Boudin were better than expected despite the place long ago having become a caricature of itself. None though were great. After six months of failure, my disappointed turned to ire, so much so that I would openly deride any suggestion of the city’s bread making prowess.
Sitting in my office one Tuesday morning, word went out that a coworker had brought in croissants from the Mission. Rolling my eyes, I finished an email then headed to the kitchen to inspect them. There on the counter was a brown paper grocery bag full of enormous deeply dark almost rust colored rolls. I reached out and snatched one off of the heap. With a gentle squeeze, the crust responded with satisfying crinkles and snaps. Pinching between thumb and forefinger, I tore off a flaky layer and popped into my mouth.
The world around me halted. The aroma from the still warm pastry danced through my head. Yeasty and bold, yet somehow subtle, complex. A hint of sweetness kissed with tang. An exhilarating crunch softened perfectly by a supple crumb. Not exactly buttery, but full and rich. With satisfaction unimagined and a touch of regret, I swallowed. Opening my eyes, blushing a bit, I knew then I would be having a sordid affair with Tartine Bakery.
Over the years I would pop into the bakery only so often as I dared. The risk was too great in frequent visits rendering the extraordinary commonplace, rendering the everyday undesirable, inedible. But I did go and when there I swooned. Once the penance of enduring the long line was performed, I was presented with some of the most amazing works ever created with flour and water, crusts crisp yet forgiving, crumb firm and assertive while tender, and flavor indescribable. Every trip was an education, a promise of pleasure and enlightenment, a marriage of the familiar with the unexpected. There was then no small pang of sadness in saying goodbye to Tartine upon moving back east.
So it was to my great delight when on Christmas day I unwrapped a copy of Tartine Bread gifted to me by great friends. Unlike the bakery though, the book was no sudden love. It was certainly satisfying in its feel, warm and cushy. The first fifth of the book being dedicated to the adventures of Tartine owners Chad Robertson and Elisabeth Prueitt was both riveting and frustrating. Extolling the virtue and outright superiority of high hydration, or slack, doughs, natural leaven, and what looked like the trendy no-knead technique infuriated me. Sure, slack doughs are fine for the bread pans but maddening to work with. And sure, natural starers are great for sourdough but using them for such things as brioches and croissants was simply inconceivable. And one more book or article telling me that I didn’t have to go through the archaic practice of kneading was enough to make me scream.
And I screamed. A lot. Every recipe calls for natural starter or leaven, and it instructs you how to bootstrap one in 5 short days and with no rigmarole; whole wheat and white flour, water, and time. I’ve bootstrapped starters before and they all evoked cantrips using grapes, or bartlet pears, or turbinado sugars, or organic rye flours no more than ten days old. Kicking off a starter with store bought flours was to me absolutely absurd and I proved myself right. Five, six, seven days would pass and the lifeless slurries were utterly incapable of producing bread. I would rail to anyone who would listen against the hubris of some San Franciscan dilettante who would think that wild yeast anywhere would behave as consistently and predictably as they do in northern California.
I was wrong. It took me going out of town and my wife feeding the thing to get it going. As she took satisfaction in pointing out, I was being too fastidious with it, too controlling. It didn’t like my fiddling and wouldn’t cooperate. I needed to pay attention to it and give it what it wanted not what I thought it was supposed to have. In the literal sense, I had to form a symbiotic relationship with the starter. Take care of it and it will help me make outstanding bread. Feed it and it will feed me.
That was the core principle, not just for the starter, but for all of the breads. Robertson addresses all of this in detail, but somehow I was not open to the philosophy of it. I of course understood the mechanics but until I allowed myself to develop the necessary intuition everything I tried was a failure. After much practise, I was able to develop a rhythm for the process.
Even with working out a sane rhythm, making a batch of bread is a day long commitment. Starting the leaven in the evening will yield bread just in time for dinner the following day, with much of that day spent observing and developing and of course baking the dough. Yet it is without question worth the labour.
The country loaf, simply a flour, water, and salt bread at seventy-five percent hydration, is outstanding, crusty and complex. My baguettes for the first time are not a total embarrassment, not only looking gorgeous but having a rich flavor that, when fresh out of the oven, makes one swear they contain butter. My croissants produce squeaks of delight from the manliest of men. The book’s olive oil brioche, made from the freshest of backyard chicken eggs, is without question, when hot out of the oven, the best bread I have ever put into my mouth. Rich yet light, dark but thinly crusted, and visually stunning. My mother thought she was eating cake when I handed her a slice.
Better still, Robertson’s techniques have re-energized my love of baking. For the first time in years, I’m having fun playing with new breads, new doughs, and new ideas. Naan made with tart yogurt and natural leaven is amazing. My bagels with poolish and leaven aren’t right yet, but are still tasty. And for the first time ever, I am really digging my pizza crust.
After years of reading books, talking with bakers, and experimenting, I had settled in on a style that suited me, that felt right, yet my bread was insipid. I thought I knew a lot about making good bread despite my failures, and I was wrong. It wasn’t until I was able to let go of all my preconceived notions, all of my years of bread making experiences, that I was could accept what Robertson is teaching. A slack doughs does make a tender crumb. You can make amazing croissants with natural leaven. Dutch ovens do give an phenomenal spring. Outstanding bread can after all come from my oven.