This is my take on the evolution of a person raised on 1950s “convenience” (greatest thing since sliced bread) bread into someone who actually knows what good bread is:
- Buy the same plastic-wrapped, spongy and tasteless stuff your mother loved. Show you can cook by: a) making French toast (sorta), or, b) really fancy, crostini with the “italian” loaf from the megamart shelf.
- Discover that some megamarts have in-store bakeries and buy the “gourmet” bread in paper wrappers baked today (maybe). Now try crostini again. You’ll discover that while megamarts didn’t ship the bread 800 miles, it was made bland to appeal to maximum number of people with cheapest ingredients by the same kid who is a “cook” at a fast food joint. But eventually you’re not fooled any more.
- Go to an old-fashioned mom-and-pop bakery, where they actually get up at 3am to make bread (instant yeast, quick ferment) for that morning (or maybe the mall equivalent). Yep, your grandmother is working there but she didn’t really know how to make bread back in her day anyway (and was too busy to do it any way but the fastest and easiest) and the recipes used date from 1920. Now on the other hand if your Italian great-great-grandmother, who used a hearth to bake, worked there, maybe you’d be in luck. Go back and make bread pudding with this product, but brag about whatever “ethnic” bread they sell that is so special.
- Graduate to one of the highly promoted “artisan” bakeries, like Panera or even Whole Foods store brands. Well, at least these are modern. Probably decent ingredients. But still made by someone trained for three weeks who used to be at Papa Johns (and lost their insurance and hours) and quite possibly from frozen dough made in a plant somewhere and shipped out for baking. BUT, at least you’ll discover what crust and crumb are. Now you can make some crostini from that pretty cookbook you got for your birthday (or maybe even from a blog you found, getting adventuresome there).
- Now, if you’re lucky enough to live within driving distance of a real artisanal bakery (lots talk the talk, few walk the walk) now find out what bread really should be. Note: There shouldn’t be little patterns of dots on the bottom of the loaf. Maybe even talk to the baker, pick up some new wine and cheese, and begin to appreciate the blessings of microbes. You probably won’t make crostini because by now you’ll know what that should taste like, as your taste in restaurants has improved along with your knowledge of bread, and you’ll realize you can’t cook, yet.
- But, it’s time – too many people raving about the bread they bake at home. So get ready, set, go. Buy a fancy bread making machine. Spend lots of money at a “gourmet” store. Make sure to prominently display the machine on your granite counters. But do learn how to use it. (The mix you can buy and the microprocessor and software in the machine will do the rest). Amazing, isn’t it, pretty good, but not quite what you found at that bakery. But sliced white bread from the megamart will never cross your doorstep again and you’ll actually learn how to make good French toast from Alton Brown Good Eats episode.
- But somehow this isn’t quite enough. So you’ve heard of Mark Bittman by now and naturally you read the New York Times to keep up on trends, so now you’re ready for going alone, actually getting some flour on your hands. Jim Lahey to the rescue, but, btw, make sure to buy a silicone mitt for this one (and now your Viking oven will actually be good for something.) The result will amaze you. Yes, you did it. You made something almost as good as you bought at that artisanal bakery where the baker has twenty years of experience. Your bread has crust, it has crumb. Now get bold and try how to do it with something other that white flour (naturally because that’s supposed to be healthy, not because you actually think it will taste better). Of course, you’ve taken cooking classes by now so you actually can make crostini.
- Discover Cook’s Country and America’s Test Kitchens. They re-invent everything. Of course it’s all based on science and experimentation and data recording. Guess what, they think Jim Lahey’s bread sucks. So follow their logic and start adding vinegar. But wait a minute, of course, you’ve read bread books by now (and probably have a collection, some coffee table books you got as gifts for your new hobby and some real books you intend to read cover-to-cover and try everything but haven’t had time yet). Isn’t cold and slow fermentation the new holy grail? Isn’t part of sourdough and cold fermentation about slowing down the microbes that produce lactic acid? You’re getting dangerous now, because you’re starting to think and maybe actually know something.
- So now you’re ready: whole grains, simulated hearth baking, multi-day ferments and mashes, stretch-and-fold, complex shaping, lye baths. You’ve actually now read all those books you’ve got. Most of them are the traditional stuff (yes, you know the difference between poolish and biga now, but why?) A few of your books are the new scientific and experimental approach, that toss out all that stuffy French baking school stuff, like Peter Reinhart. And soon you’re cranking out Pain au Levain and something approximating real sourdough. Congratulations, you’re almost there. And of course you have a blog, plus you comment actively at other bread blogs.
- Now invent your own recipe that actually tastes better than one you got out of a book (naturally you searched all the variants). Reverse engineer the incredible bread you found at that cool bakery in Sonoma county. Stop boring (showing off to) all your friends and just quietly serve them good bread, which, unless they’re at least at step 4 they won’t like because it’s too hard to chew. Now invent your own fusion crostini.
- Of course, in doing all this it’s inspired you at work and now you’re rich too. So you move to the country and actually build a real brick hearth as well as buying a professional steam oven. Go on expensive bread baking tours. Find obscure ingredients in little shops. Grind your own flour, with an expensive mill, since you now know about all the grains and where to find them. Bread is now your life – enjoy!
- Your doctor tells you not to eat carbs, sugars and fats any more. Go back to the beginning and learn to eat bread not fit for a peasant. Now go to the health food “restaurant” and buy sprouts and cucumber crostini with quinoa bread, oh yum and ask yourself if you really want to be alive.
What step are you on?