Friday, January 18, 2013

The Art of Baking Bread

The Art of Baking Bread
Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing (2012)

We are a culture built on bread. With the exception of a few Asian countries where rice is the basic staff of life, every nation in the world has their own creation of ground grain, water and (occasionally) yeast. Well made bread is becoming a luxury in these times of cheap, mass produced loaves – which while conveniently baked, pre sliced and wrapped for the eager sandwich maker, have the taste and texture of an old sponge. Making your own is simple in its most basal sense, but there are myriads of ways to recapture the ancient essence of the craft. Matt Pellegrini attempts to do just that in his book The Art of Baking Bread.
This book is definitely one for all bread bakers, regardless of experience. The first 35 pages are dedicated to ingredients and tools essential for proper bread baking at home, and these are followed by Pellegrini’s Eight Essential Steps of Bread Baking (p. 38) – a visual, baby-step like guide through the basics. Those new to the world of baking bread will find the full colour photographs in the tutorial invaluable. For experienced bakers, this will be old hat, though some of the more “professional” notes as to dough temperature and hydration are more geared towards die-hards or those with pastry school certificates. I was fascinated by the scientific knowledge included in Baking Bread, not so much for bettering my own loaves (though I'm sure it would come in handy) as for the sheer trivia of it all.

Some of the information in Baking Bread seems to be put there purely for the benefit of blossoming bread artisans or pastry students. While I appreciate that there are two “standard” ways to knead dough by hand (stand mixer kneading is left out) and there are as many bread shapes as bakers, the bulk of home cooks are not concerned with calculating dough temperature or hydration more than what the recipe states it should look or feel like. Nor do I know anyone who is about to MacGyver a lame or a proofing box just to churn out a loaf or so a week for sandwiches. But that’s not Pellegrini’s point. Showing how to create the best bread possible is, and bakers will undoubtedly modify and develop under their own circumstances.

This book does have the honour of finally teaching me about the Baker’s Percentage (p. 166), which as a math-hater I failed to comprehend when I saw it in other books or online. Pellegrini is correct in his statement that “the baker’s percentage is much easier to understand one you’ve looked through...the recipes covered” (p. 166). If I took away nothing else from this book, I mentally cemented his thorough, simple lesson and have since been able to apply it to my own loaves.

Pellegrini is passionate about technique and theory, and it shows in spades with Baking Bread. However, the book is not all “talk”. A small section contains simple, yet indespensible, recipes for a variety of dough “types” including basic lean, pre-fermented, enriched and sourdough. With these four basic recipes under your belt as a breadsmith it becomes merely a matter of adding and subtracting ingredients to create almost any flavourful loaf in the world.

Pellegrini’s tone can, at times, be condescending (he goes so far as to call non-converts of kitchen scales “fools”), he does manage to pass along a wealth of knowledge in a book half the size of its competitors. The trivia, techniques, patient coaxing and occasional criticism are nothing short of the treatment a college professor may bestow on a new undergraduate class, and the aim is identical – to bring out the best and forget the rest. If you are passionate about the world of flavourful, wholesome bread and are looking to bring the experience to the home oven, The Art of Baking Bread may just be your required reading.

Available on Amazon

No comments: