12 Tips from The Bread Lab, Where Baking is Like Playing an Instrument

12 tips for bread perfection from The Bread Lab, Washington State University's lauded and innovative baking program.

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Photo: Photo © Repose Media & Sara Theisen

It offers no plump boules or yeasty baguettes. There are no loaves for sale here at all. But this squat, beige building set amid western Washington farmland is one of the most exciting places in the country for bread. Here, some of the hottest culinary names—Tartine's Chad Robertson, Maria Hinesof Seattle's Tilth, Philadelphian pasta maestro Marc Vetri—have come to dabble with dough. And, every year, a who's who of baking—and milling and brewing and any other work that involves the crops from which bread is made—descends for the annual Grain Gathering, a three-day conference with seminars like "Natural Leavening: Practices and Principles" and "Multi-Grain Baking."

Here, gutsy experiments yield unheard-of loaves: a baguette containing buckwheat and, for sweetness, fermented rice; a polygot "horse bread" of hard red wheat, Scottish bran, winter peas, flax and camelina and sunflower seeds.

The Bread Lab, as this place is called, is at the heart of a Washington State University research center set up to help local farmers sell what that they grow. Grains are secondary crops on the Skagit Valley's small, diversified farms; they're planted to replenish nitrogen depleted from the soil by other crops: flowers, potatoes, cabbages. For decades, they were sold cheap on the commodities market—until 2008, when Dr. Stephen Jones came along.

Tall and bespectacled like a middle-years FDR, Dr. Jones is a plant breeder. His job is to revive the heritage grain crops and cultivate the new ones that farmers can make a profit on when sold for milling, cooking, malting, and feed. Part of that work is discerning the most nutritious and delicious application for each breed of grain.

On a recent winter afternoon, as trumpeter swans idled in the fallow experimental fields surrounding the research center, Jones showed off The Bread Lab's latest toy. A pine–framed gristmill with a sifter attached, the Austrian-made Osttiroler looked like the engine of an enormous wooden train set. Within the would-be smoke stack was a pair of granite stones for crushing whole grains into flour. Local milling, as Jones sees it, has potential to make the grains-based part of the crop rotation in western Washington very lucrative.

"The growers wanted me to work on wheat and barley to keep value right here where they're produced," he said. "The farm gate value grown here"—the worth of the Skagit Valley's crops as they leave the farm—"is $258 million. Grain is a real small part of that. Malting multiplies grain's value by ten. Milling buckwheat multiplies its value by ten."

Inside The Bread Lab, Jones' graduate students bent over experiments in grain analysis. Across the room, beside a steam-injected Matador oven, stood a reedy young guy with a close-cropped black beard and frameless glasses. This was Jonathan Bethony, The Bread Lab's former resident baker.

"I make it work for the farmer," said Jones. "Jonathan's job is to make it taste good."

Betony was elbow-deep in a bowl of dough, mixing a levain as porous as a loofah sponge with water—lots of water—and wheat flour. Like all the flours used at The Bread Lab, this one was milled from whole grains.

"We care about nutritional value," said Jones. "A kernel of wheat is one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet. White flour is one of least." That's because to make it, the wheat bran and the nutrient-rich germ are removed, leaving the starchy endosperm and "the nutritional value of a Q-tip." With the nutrients go the flavor. All-purpose flour is shelf-stable, because the flavorful oils in the germ, which can spoil, are gone. But it tastes like nothing.

Still, even artisan bakers have been slow to give it up because it turns out consistent loaves. Locally raised whole-grain flours vary in gluten, their flavor profiles are tied to terroir, and their moisture content changes with the seasons. Each has its own personality.

"It's one thing to breed, farm, and mill a grain, but you're still going to have a world of bakers who don't know how to use it," said Bethony. That's where his work comes in. "These grains are like the gifted and talented. You have to find out what they're good at."

Renan, a French cultivar that thrives in the Skagit Valley, is his favorite for bread. Yecora Rojo, a hard red spring wheat, "has a lingering, buttery aftertaste," he said, good for cookies and scones.

The work is full of surprises. Take Red Russian, a heritage wheat. "A local family showed me a newspaper clip from the 1910s where their farm had set the national record for yield. It was Red Russian," Jones recalled. "So I requested it from the USDA's National Clonal Germplasm Repository. There are 45,000 different wheats there; almost any you'd want have been saved."

Probably because it lacked the gluten strength, Red Russian had failed to make adequate bread. Then the Italian-American chef Mark Vetri visited The Bread Lab and saw the wheat flour on the counter. "He sheeted it out," recalled Jones, "and it was beautiful and creamy. It was a complete accident that we found out it was good for pasta."

This spirit of culinary creativity has made The Bread Lab a magnet for professionals across the country who are interested in locally grown grains. Dan Barber is a fan. He's tapped Stephen Jones to breed him his very own Barber wheat to use at his Blue Hill restaurants.

Jeff Yankellow, chairman of the board of the Bread Bakers Guild of America, is a fan. "We need people involved who are teaching people what the bakers want and helping them grow grain and mill flour that's good for bakers," he said. "This is what The Bread Lab is good at."

Chad Robertson is a fan, too. "If you're a baker, you can't afford to make crappy bread two days in a row. You're wired into a schedule, so you don't have the luxury to experiment. That's a reason for The Bread Lab," said Jones. "Chad Robertson can come up and just mess around with Jonathan and not wreck his own production."

Bethony showed off some breads he had been working on. That buckwheat baguette had a crust that tasted strikingly like mocha. The horse bread, its moist crumb punctuated by cooked peas was savory and vegetal. It was a project for Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills. The North Carolina miller was hoping to replicate a loaf of the Old South, made with a field blend of grains and legumes that would have all been grown together. Bethony had achieved it by "respecting each ingredient" and treating them individually. He had soaked, roasted, cooked, and fermented his way to the loaf.

That's what the baker loves about his job. Not only is he helping to give farmers options beyond the big-ag commodity market, but he gets to "really enjoy the journey."

"It's remarkable what you can do with whole grain and come out with something satisfactory," he marveled, pulling apart a dark and earthy buckwheat baguette. "Literally, you take this hard, inedible seed and just crush it, add water, and—boom!—look what happens. That's the miracle of bread."

When you're making whole-grain bread, "it's like you're playing an instrument," Bethony concluded. "You have to learn all your scales, get the muscle memory of all those notes and the relationships between tones in your fingers, ears, and brain. And then when you want to do a solo, you don't just play scales. You know what to do on a certain level. Baking's similar. You just play."

When you're learning, it helps to have a master guiding you. Here, Bethony riffs, oracle-like, on every stage of the process.

1. Ripening: "A starter will adapt to your environment, how you feed it, what your hands are like, your location, what's in the air. It won't be like it was in Romania five generations ago. Your starter will go through a funky stage. People think they've ruined their starter, but it will just do that. It's got its moods. A ripe starter, however, should float."

2. Milling: "Mill it yourself, or find a good mill. Most of the flour on the shelf is rancid. That's why people don't like whole wheat, because what they've known is old. It's gross. I'll have them smell a bag of flour that I know is totally rancid, and it seems normal to them. It's a rotten product. Then I have them smell fresh whole wheat, and it's a totally different product."

3. Autolyse: "You need more water for 100% whole wheat. It's the difference between a brick and a nice crumb. Put most of your water in, mix it together, and let it sit half an hour. It will be completely different when you come back to it, as if a thousand Smurfs funneled in and kneaded the whole time you're away. The flour gains a suppleness just from sitting in there wet."

4. Mixing: "In day-to-day baking, you have to act in a creative way to make adjustments in the moment. You can call it intuition, but it's just your body reading the data. But there are certain foundational principles that need to be pretty precise. I'm still measuring."

5. Kneading: "The wet dough is easier to knead, but it's the kind of dough not to plop out on counter. Keep it in the bowl, and use water on your hands instead of flour. You need to fold and squeeze to develop the gluten. Don't use a mixer; it's not as much fun. Not at all. Get in there with your hands, and squeeze through the dough, harder than you'd squeeze a person."

6. Fermenting: "It takes patience. It takes giving things their due time."

7. Shaping: "When I'm shaping, I use very little flour. When it's wet, it's just a different animal. If you shape it well, it will have nice, even, open crumb. If you're heavy-handed and clump up parts of it, you can create wierd blow outs and bread with no open, empty interior spaces. You need a lot of repetition to get it. You're just building different layers of tension."

8. Final Shaping: "People get hung up on the style of their final shaping, but essentially you're just building the tension. A smooth finish is the key. It will affect your crust structure a lot if you don't have that nice smooth membrane."

9. Proofing: "It doesn't have to be that complicated. This is just flour, water, and salt. The gas that's formed, which is yeast and bacteria feeding on sugars, gets trapped in the gluten network like a balloon and causes the loaf to expand. A linen-lined basket helps to contain and structure it. It shores up the sides. Especially with wet doughs, it's good to put them in some kind of proofing container."

10. Resting: "It should definitely be lively. If it seems dense like Play-Doh, it's not ready. It should be gaseous, light, lively and increased in size. When you touch it, it should dimple in and have some spring back, but not all the way."

11. Baking: "For free-form baking, you need steam or a cloche. The best way is a Dutch oven or a Combicooker, which is like a Dutch oven, but the top is a pan. That's the easiest way to go about it, but it's not as fun. Giant squirt guns, lava rocks—it's amazing what ingenuity home bakers are using. Some like to create a steam cloud, but it ruins home ovens eventually."

12. Tasting: "Don't be too focused on perfection, yet strive for satisfaction. Reflect on what the process is teaching you. Pay attention to details; take note of what you did and what was the outcome, and have fun with that. You only get better."

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