Bread revolution on the rise

Bread revolution on the rise – changes in bread-making techniques

Theresa Howard

The adage says that man can not live on bread alone, but these days one would not mind trying.

A movement by bakers and restaurateurs to mix old world processes of long fermentation and natural starters with a potpourri of contemporary ingredients is making loaves upon loaves of high-quality, uniquely flavored breads available to the masses.

Rolls and breads with ricotta polenta, potato dill, sun-dried tomato, red pepper, jalapeno, cheese and raisin pecan rapidly are replacing drab poppy or sesame-topped dinner rolls that once dominated bread baskets.

“People are paying a lot more attention to what they are putting on the table,” said Robert Ozarow, owner of Dallas-based Empire Baking Co. Restaurant operators are becoming increasingly more particular about the bread they serve because a good piece of bread has long-lasting marketing power.

“A bad piece of bread says there is absolutely nothing special about this restaurant,” said Chef Jean Joho, chef-owner of the Everest in Chicago and a partner in the Corner Bakery, a multiunit operation that services a long list of Chicago restaurateurs.

“A lot of people today are still not putting enough importance on bread, and it is the first thing customers eat in the restaurant,” he added. Nonetheless, Joho and a handful of others are pioneering the bread renaissance.

“It is part of a larger revolution of the bread market,” said Empire’s Ozarow, whose outfit services a gamut of operators from Sfuzzi to Houston’s. “It’s like Steve’s Ice-Cream; it’s that same type of phenomenon. People are taking bread and adding things to them.”

But they aren’t adding flavors to just any bread. Many flavorful breads require a long fermentation, in some cases up to 48 hours. “The longer fermentation process creates more flavor, it is the development of flavor over time. It takes hours compared to minutes,” said Tom McMahon, director of the Bread Bakers Guild of America. The organization was founded recently to unite the growing number of bakers driving the renaissance of hearty breads.

What had happened to old world breads was new world technologies. “The bread-making process fell victim to the Industrial Revolution,” Ozarow said. “People said, ‘Let’s make it by machine rather than hand.’ But there are certain characteristics of bread-making that do not lend themselves to machine.”

Although the ingredients for a sour starter may be fairly basic, the process is another story. At Metropolitan Bakery in Philadelphia, for instance, the fermentation process typically requires about 48 hours. “We smash grapes, put them in cheesecloth and submerge them in a flour and water mixture,” said Wendy Born, a partner in the operation in which James Barrett is the chef.

“We leave it for 48 hours, stir the mixture, discard half, add more flour and water, and cover for another 24 hours. We repeat that again, and then you have an active starter.”

Once an active starter is established, baker-chefs continually hold and reuse starter for the next day’s batch. At Burke & Burke in New York City, head baker Alou Niangadou uses a 5-year-old starter for any of his 40 varieties of breads. Niangadou, who is credited with writing the recipe for seven-grain bread, oversees the production of more than 20,000 loaves of bread per week for Burke & Burke’s chain of gourment delis and string of other restaurant operations.

“One of the keys to making bread healthy is to use basic ingredients,” said Niangadou, who pulls 15 pounds from each day’s 50-pound starter to reuse for the next day’s starter.

“Bakers in this country are just catching up to the chefs and organizing as a profession,” McMahon said. “They are bringing breads up to the standard of American cuisine.”

But only a few among the renaissance bakers are moving to bring the two together. “Chefs are looking for more creative things to do with breads like actually serving particular kinds of breads with particular meals,” McMahon said. “But people are more aware of that in Europe. Pairing bread with the entree is a very new concept here in the United States.”

But Everest’s Joho and the Metropolitan Bakery are pioneering that trend. Joho, for instance, schooled in both the culinary arts and baking, has expertise in both areas. “After 30 years I know what flavors go with what,” he said.

As a result, he has written menus that include lamb and whole-wheat bread, rye with beef, salmon with potato dill bread and tuna with olive bread. “What is nice about tuna matching olive bread is that they both come from the Mediterranean, and the textures match,” Joho said. “It is a lot of fun.”

At Metropolitan Bakery, Barrett formulates soups and spreads that can be paired with the breads.

“Strong, clear decisive flavors like San Andre Roquefort and dark toasted walnut bread go just wonderful together,” Born said. “For mild goat cheese, a country white or baquette goes well because you don’t want the bread to overpower the cheese.”

Despite the movement by Everest and Metropolitan, McMahon noted that “there has to be a “sensibility” to the bread.

“When a lot of chefs started experimenting with nouvelle cuisines, there was a lot of trendy things going on. With bread, the well-made, most basic bread will be the most long-lasting,” he said.

COPYRIGHT 1994 Reproduced with permission of the copyright holder. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group