Table bread is expensive and a good bit of it gets thrown away. Flour and yeast are ten times cheaper than quality bread. There are not many make vs. buy scenarios with a gap like that. But baking bread is cool, especially if you can do it well.
Go to a restaurant, sit down and order, out comes the bread. You were focused on decisions—appetizer, entrée, wine, beer, cocktail. Oh yes, here’s the bread. Curious, skeptical even, you look, sniff, and maybe there is a thought about white carbs. Is it good? Is it real bread or something that comes out of a white box that imitates real bread? Is it from a legit, artisan bakery nearby? Or do they make it themselves?
You inspect. Even if your chef switch is off, you do it without realizing it. The crust and crumb structure are telling. Is the crust aggressive or does it just look like a crust? Are the yeast bubbles in the crumb very small and uniform? Terrible bread that at best was fired hot enough to give some bland crunch. Are there lots of big bubbles and some really huge ones? Generally, a sure sign that it is pretty far over proofed. Still, significant over-proofing would point to a bakery that is smaller than a factory, maybe even the restaurant. Non-uniformity of shape and size would also point away from mass production. A darker crust on the bottom tells you that the baking surface and the oven’s ability to radiate heat is not quite up to the task.
If you see perfect-looking, crusty, well-developed bread with a great yeasty nose, you are very often seeing bread from a local artisan bakery. The imperfect version is often made in house. Either way, you give the restaurant a positive nod. They care enough to serve good bread.
Over the years, I have wanted to do in-house table bread, but instead I leaned toward bread from local artisan bakeries or specialty purveyors with frozen product that is remarkably good. In-house bread would be flawed and inconsistent. I could imagine diners smirking and saying, “Oh it looks like they make this here,” and maybe admiring us just for the effort.
A few years ago, I worked shifts as a shaper for a well-regarded Pawtucket, R.I.-based bakery. I gained experience and confidence through repetition. I started to think we could do bread and have it be relatively unflawed. I wondered what it would take, besides a willingness to commit to the effort.
Why do it? Table bread is expensive and a good bit of it gets thrown away because it is hard to predict how much you will need. Flour and yeast are ten times cheaper than quality bread. There are not many make vs. buy scenarios with a gap like that. But baking bread is cool, especially if you can do it well. My fellow cooks would find it cool, and so would the diners.
I got some help from a really good bread baker, who offered great ideas on how to turn a standard double stack oven into a bread oven. We took three full-sized sheet pans and lined them with half-thickness fire bricks. They mostly fit, in their staggered pattern, but a couple had to be halved or shaped a bit with a chisel. It only took about twenty minutes. These brick sheet pans are placed in our lower convection oven, set to low fan, 450 degrees, at least an hour before the bake. The pans are about 35 pounds and hot, hot, hot. But if you need the oven, regular style, right away after the bake, you can take them out onto a speed rack. With these brick pans the oven radiates. Crusty breads are baked directly on the bricks and the results are excellent. For an injection of steam at the beginning of the bake, I throw a scoop full of ice cubes onto the oven floor and close the doors.
Other equipment needed are a digital scale, a dedicated speed rack with a proofing cover, a few wood boards and couches (pronounced cooshes), a mixer (that you already have), a full peel and a skinny peel.
For a starter, we chose a biga. Bigas are fairly dry, unlike a soupy poolish, so the yeast has to work harder. The slow moving biga has a longer window of acceptable usage, which is needed in a busy restaurant kitchen with many variables. Bigas only need 8 or so hours, so you do not need to plan too far ahead. A closing pantry cook or pastry plater can make a biga in just a few minutes. From a biga, you can spin final mix in the AM, and by 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon have completed bread. The variety of possibilities includes: ciabatta loaves, ciabatta rolls, multigrain, sofiata and baguette, many of those with variations like seeds, olives, roasted garlic, cheeses, etc. And these breads are coming out of the oven an hour or two before dinner service, as opposed to bakery bread that is completed in the wee hours of the night before.
Most of the steps are just a few minutes. Here is a typical day:
9:00am – Check the biga. If there is not one made or if it has gone too far, choose a same day bread, like rich and sweet au lait rolls. If the biga looks good, spin final mix. (Takes about 15 minutes, some of which is keeping an eye on the mixer.) A six-minute mix on speed 1, followed by a six-minute mix on speed two is a great rule of thumb. Make sure the speed two mix leads to a glossy dough that can be stretched into a little window with your hands (You can actually see through the window, which only occurs if the dough has enough strength.) This is the most critical step.
10:00am – Do a fold (1 minute)
11:00am – Do another fold (1 minute)
Noon – Check for shape readiness (1 minute)
12:30 – Shape rolls, loaves or baguettes (Most days take about 15 minutes. Baguettes take a while—we do those rarely)
2:00 – Check that it’s ready for the oven. Bake if ready. (25 minutes)
10:00pm – spin tomorrow’s biga (5 minutes)
If you want to start baking table breads, ciabatta is the best dough to work with. It is easy, very wet and very forgiving. Even when the timing of ciabatta steps suffer because of kitchen activity, it still makes a pretty darn good bread. It is versatile. You can add olives or cheese or the like with minimal adjustments (olives are wet—reduce the water a smidge; cheese gunks up your bricks—put parchment over the bricks.) The shape of a ciabatta loaf is not spectacular, but it is being sliced for the basket anyway. If you use the cut and couche method, it makes great little crusty rolls, quick and easy.
I hope that some readers will bake bread more often. If you do it regularly, it starts to get easy. If you need a specific recipe or any help, email me at [email protected].