With more than 20 years experience, Chad Robertson of San Francisco's Tartine Bakery is a true breadmaking virtuoso. Here, he names the five qualities that separate an amazing loaf from a mediocre one. Click to read more of Robertson's amazing bread knowledge in F&W's Masters series.
Crust: I don’t like pale breads, because you miss out on all the flavors of a caramelized crust. I also like a strong contrast between a crisp crust and a tender crumb. When I see a bread that doesn’t have an interesting crust, I’m not all that compelled to taste it. Ideally, I like see a range of colors—some dark parts, some golden, some light. If the crust was all dark, it would all taste toasty and burnt and be too overpowering. But if there’s a little of this and that, it’s in balance. It’s like a steak on the grill: You want some black bits, but you don’t want it to be charred all over. And if it’s pale, it’s going to be totally bland.
Big bubbles: Big bubbles in the crumb are a sign of all the other qualities: You can’t get an open texture if you overwork the dough, if the starter’s too sour, if you haven’t cut the loaves properly, if you don’t steam the oven. When I see a loaf with big holes, I can already tell it was made well without tasting it.
A glossy interior: When you cut into a loaf and it looks super-glistening, super wet and shiny, some people will think it’s underbaked—people have said this about my bread. But if you press it, it will be moist or wet to the touch, but it bounces back because the starch is hydrated and gelatinized. It’s fully cooked, it’s just wetter than people are used to.
A mildly sour taste: This is just my personal preference, but I prefer breads that aren’t too sour. I love the flavor of some acid, but I tend to agree with the traditional French view that bread is a daily part of the meal, meant to go with whatever you’re eating. You don’t want the bread to be so acidic that it’s clashing with the food. You also don’t want the acid to overwhelm the more subtle grain flavors in the bread. I can tell when my leaven is at just the right stage: The whole baking room has no vinegar smell at all, just this sweet lactic smell. That’s when I know the final bread will be exactly what I want.
The flavor of the grain: More and more I’m finding that the quality of the grain and the freshness of the milling are huge factors. I’ve eaten a lot of loaves that look beautiful, and have all the ideal characteristics of an ideal loaf, and have very little flavor. Different wheats all taste a little bit different—kamut’s very sweet, spelt’s a little nutty, red wheat has a bitterness that can be nice. It’s nice to be able to taste those qualities in the bread.
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