Thursday, July 16, 2015

Production and Process

Behind every great product lies a great process.  Like this video which shows the process of Sriracha-making or this article about the production process of bagels at Sadelle's, you can see that making a great product is more than about finding the right ingredient, or utilizing a good preparation technique.  For complex processes (like those that involve fermentation), key decision points need to be formalized and made consistent.

One of the things that has impressed me is that though many herald Chad Robertson's Tartine Bread as a Great Leap Forward in breadmaking, few bakeries and fewer home baker's have instituted his methods wholesale with similarly fantastic results.  Even the loaf that was brought back to me from his bakery was very good, though not as jaw-dropping as I had imagined it (it had also flown 2000 miles).

For Robertson's bread, there are several key components that I will detail here that make the very best naturally risen bread difficult to produce on a large (or small) scale: 1) Yeast activity of the starter.  The natural yeast used must be fed and maintained on a schedule so that it is active enough to give the bread a good rise.  Else, the artisan loaves are quite dense.  2) Levain timing.  The levain, or starter that is used reaches a certain ripeness between 8 and 12 hours after is is mixed.  Too short, and the bread will not have good sour notes.  Too long, and the bread will not have any sweet notes.  3) Overnight timing. Because the levain takes 8 to 12 hours to ripen, and the bulk rising time can be about four hours, this bread really needs 16 to 20 hours of attention.  Because most baker's shifts are not longer than 10 to 12 hours, part of the work needs to be done by one set of bakers, and part done by another set.  Anytime one is dividing the work on one product between two teams over multiple shifts, communication and process formalization is of the utmost importance.  The other option is to refrigerate during part of the process, which is not preferred as refrigerated naturally-risen doughs tend to produce more lactic acid (sour flavor) and tend to wipe out the acetic acids (sweet flavor). 4) The mess. Many bakeries and home bakers steer clear of complex artisan recipes because natural starters usually rely on hydration (water content) values greater than 66%.  What this means is that at least 15% and maybe as much as 30% of the flour and water one is working with is somewhere in consistency between a sticky liquid and a paste.  There's a reason why they call it wheat paste - it adheres to everything (including your skin) and is time-consuming to clean.  So just from a logistical standpoint, using rising buckets or tubs that are coated in sticky, soon to be dried bits of hardened flour presents the baking team potentially with hours more work just in clean-up.  So the difference in flavor of the artisan bread better be well worth it!

Read more on Tartine's bread here:

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