Still Splitting Hairs

In my previous post, I quoted the following originally from a New York Times article:

Mitchell Davis of the Beard Foundation believes that the bagel, like ketchup, is a product ill served by current food trends. ‘‘The effect of artisanship does not always produce a better result…’

While that article focused on bagels, the same can be applied to bread. Having done a real deep-dive into ancient bread making techniques over the last several months, I’ve developed a sensitivity to innovating too much. As I mentioned in my article, when I bake bread based on traditional recipes, I do my best to stick to the traditional ingredients and techniques.

Take, for instance, the humble baguette. While technically, it has only been recognized as a specific loaf called a “baguette” for only a couple of hundred years, it is steeped in a tradition of French long loaves that date back a few hundred years. And in 1993, the French government ratified into law (known as the Décret Pain) the ingredients that define the class “pain de tradition Française” of which baguettes are a part, as being made of flour, water, salt, and yeast.

That said, there is a little grey area with the leavening agent as Article 2, Section 2 states:

Fermented with yeast suitable for breads (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) and a starter, in the sense of article 4 of this Decree, or either yeast or a starter;

That kind of opens the door to using a sourdough starter to leaven the bread. But the general interpretation of a “starter” seems to be more along the lines of using a poolish, which is a yeasted starter.

Now, why does this even matter to me at all? Simply because what I’ve learned about baguettes is that they’re not defined by their shape, but by their dough. I know, you see a long, thin loaf of bread with diagonal scoring along the length, and you immediately say, “baguette.” And I suppose that to the consumer, it doesn’t matter. But now, when I see “sour” or “sourdough” preceding “baguette,” I know, based on my research, that loaf is technically “pain au levain” or bread risen with a levain.

Furthermore, circling back to “the effect of artisanship does not always produce a better product,” I’ve often found myself innovating for innovation’s sake. It’s not that the end product is bad by any means. But at least for me now, when I call a certain bread a particular type, I want to make sure that I’m not coloring outside the lines.

One of the things I was concerned about when making my baguettes was the mix of flours I was using. I typically use a combination of 60% high-extraction flour and 40% AP flour – both unbleached, so the crumb of my bread tends to be on the brown side. Luckily, the Decret Pain states in Article 2, Section 1:

Made only from a mix of wheat flours suitable for making bread, safe water and cooking salt.

I admit that I’m being a bit parochial. It’s actually a little out of character for me to so strictly observe tradition. If you knew me as a contemporary Catholic liturgical musician, you’d know that I’m not much of a traditionalist. Even in my career as a software engineer, I forged my path in technology as a visionary and innovator.

But with bread, it’s a completely different story. Don’t get me wrong, I have a few different types of bread that I make that are innovations on traditional recipes. But when it comes to making traditional bread, I’m pretty parochial. I have a real “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude.

Some might say it’s limiting. But there’s a lot to be said about mastering the traditional techniques. As I journey forward in bread making (and yes, I have aspirations of eventually doing this professionally), I want to make sure that my technique is steeped in tradition.

Plus, some of the techniques are just downright difficult to master. Take the ancient Italian bread, Pane di Altamura, for instance (shown to the left). This is 100% durum wheat bread from the Altamura region of Italy. It is a very distinct-looking loaf, sporting a pompadour of sorts. The dough itself, like pretty much all Italian bread, is uncomplicated, as is the dough processing. But learning to shape that bread is a different story altogether. It has taken me several bakes to even approach what it should look like.

There are no instructional videos that teach how to shape Pane di Altamura, so I’ve had to watch slowed-down videos, of which there aren’t very many. And though the bread is distinguished by the region where it comes from, different bakers achieve the pompadour in slightly different ways. But luckily I did run across a video that had a close-up view of how one baker shapes his bread and I’ve been using that.

The point to this is that with this particular bread, there’s really no room for innovation. I suppose I could eventually tweak things here and there, but before I can do that, I need to master the basics first.

Speaking of tweaking, a few months ago I had a realization that I got to the point where I was innovating so much that I wasn’t getting consistent results. I was making tweaks everywhere. But it wasn’t until I stopped myself and stuck with a method that I started getting consistent results.

This was evident in my baguettes. I was trying a lot of different techniques and my results, while tasty, weren’t consistent at all. I now focus on two production methods depending on when I want to bake. I use a pointage en bac or slow rise method for flavor development that I learned from Chef Markus Farbinger (which is also my normal two-day method) or, if I want a same-day bake and a more grain-forward taste, I use the baguettes de tradition method that Jeffrey Hamelman presents in his book “Bread.”

But in both cases, I use the same shaping technique that I learned from Chef Farbinger. Now, no matter what dough development technique I use, my baguettes come out looking the same. It’s comforting because as simple as the ingredients are in baguettes, they’re probably the most challenging bread to get right. And shaping is absolutely critical, which is why I use the same technique for both dough production methods. Besides, if it’s good for a master chef, it’s certainly good for me. 🙂

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not at all against innovation. But as with anything in life, you have to be well-versed in the foundational aspects of different bread before you can branch out. But here in America, it’s almost expected to “do your own thing” and there’s this seemingly pervasive attitude to innovate for innovation’s sake. And I think that’s where many people run into the proverbial brick wall or worse – they come up with some pretty funky creations (the funkiest I’ve seen are blue croissants).

At least for me, I do heed those words Mitchell Davis wrote: The effect of artisanship does not always produce a better result.

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