Spiritual Lessons On Bread With Peter Reinhart

Everything You Need to Know About Bread

“We are the God of our own dough, providing the context, but we must allow the dough its own free will, with a little guidance from us, to become what it will become.” – Author and expert Peter Reinhart on the role of the baker.

At its core, bread is simply flour, water, yeast and salt. But as Peter Reinhart, author and bread expert, likes to remind us, bread is a transformative food. From the process of making dough to taking a freshly baked loaf out of the oven, bread can be manipulated at the hands of the studied and talented baker. Now more than ever, the baker’s agency plays a major role in both the flavor and nutritional benefit of breads. If you’re looking to get caught up on the world of bread, and learn a few tips from Reinhart himself, read below.

Topics & Trends

Today, bread from around the world can be found in American supermarkets, artisanal shops and gourmet restaurants. Tortillas and European pastries are a given, but Middle Eastern and Indian flatbreads such as pita and naan, or Japanese milk breads, have become equally beloved. Many of these baked goods are sold fresh out of the oven from artisanal shops, and although the term ‘artisan’ is somewhat of an umbrella term in 2018, it is still heralded as the best by many. Reinhart agrees, “It’s important to know, or believe, that “cream always rises to the top,” and so will artisan-crafted products.”

As the country embraces traditional bread from other cultures, bakers and sellers are looking for the best way to make their baked goods taste great and add nutritional benefit to your diet. Recent efforts focus on the implementation of whole grains and ProBiotein. ProBiotein contains dietary fiber, amino acids, prebiotics and proteins. In fact, ProBiotein contains the most valuable parts of wheat, oats, barley and flax, and maximizes flavor. Reinhart agrees, noting that ProBioten is one of the best-tasting breads he’s ever eaten. “Anytime you can add more fiber to food, which serves as prebiotic nutrition for our gut system (our microbiome), I’m on board. ProBiotein is a unique blend of cooked and fermented whole grains that show great promise as a nutritional and digestive positive. In addition, because it has been pre-fermented, it also works as a flavor enhancer for bread dough, almost like a sourdough starter; a little bit goes a long way,” adds Reinhart.

Held in April 2018, the annual International Symposium on Bread points out major developments and conversations about the world of bread too. Reinhart, Executive Director of the Johnson & Wales University International Symposium on Bread, says: “By bringing together leaders from all aspects of the bread community, from artisan to mass production and from farmers to millers, we hope to generate conversation that can lead to new alliances as we explore and create the future of bread.” In this year’s Symposium, experts discussed the growing influence of sourdough bread and the movement to produce artisan quality bread in greater volumes by the application of technology. The discussion also centered around innovation in the field, stirring conversation about studies and the application of microbiology to create better flavor, as well as the growing alliance between farmers, millers and bakers towards a more sustainable grain culture. For more info on the Symposium, write to Reinhart at Symposium@jwu.edu.

There are many more conversations to be had, and exciting discoveries to come. Join the conversation and learn more about this versatile food with Peter Reinhart, below.

Q&A With Peter Reinhart

Q: There are so many different styles and techniques involved in bread-making. Could you briefly explain the 12 stages of bread-making, and which stage you believe is the most important?

Peter Reinhart: The 12 stages is just an arbitrary template and structure developed by bread writers and teachers to describe the various transformations that flour goes through on its journey from the earth to the table (or, as I like to put it, from wheat to eat). There are many versions and variations of this articulation but the stages I like to use are: scaling (ie mise en place), mixing, bulk fermentation, dividing, rounding (pre-shaping), resting (benching), final shaping, panning, final fermentation (proofing), baking, cooling, and packaging (or eating).  The most critical, from a transformation perspective, are “fermentation” (where the dough is brought to life by the leaven) and “baking” (where the living dough is killed in the oven through the application of heat, in order for dough to become bread). However, transformations (that is, radical changes from one thing into something else) occur during every stage and, in the end, it is the choices that the baker makes at every stage that determines the final outcome. These choices often separate the good baker from the excellent one or make the difference between average bread and amazing bread.

Q: Could you explain the stage of fermentation in more detail, and how the process spans over multiple stages until the proofing stage?

RS: The dough, which is really just a kind of clay, mixed from flour, salt, water and yeast (leaven), is brought to life when the leaven, which consists of living yeast cells — which are in the fungi family — infuses the clay and brings it to life. The clay brought to life is proved (thus the term “proofing”) by the growth of the dough, as the yeast cells convert available glucose into alcohol and carbon dioxide, not only causing the dough to rise but to also develop flavor and character or personality. This fermentation is initiated in stage three, but continues all the way through the other stages until stage 10, when the heat of the oven raises the internal temperature of the dough to 138 degrees F, at which point the yeast, and any other living organisms that are also present, such as lactic acid bacteria, die (this is called the thermal death point or TDP). In other words, at this point, the yeast has fulfilled its purpose, to raise the dough so that it can become bread, but the process still requires more baking time in order to complete the full and final transformation from dough into bread. One way I describe this to my freshman students is to say that the loaves go into the oven alive and come out dead, but go in as dough and come out as bread. Another analogy is that a caterpillar goes into the oven but a butterfly comes out.

Q: Could you explain the stage of benching in more detail, and how it relates to the more spiritual side of baking?

RS: Benching is a rest period between the preliminary shaping and the final shaping. The rest period allows the gluten, which is protein and, thus, the muscle of the dough, to relax just enough so that the dough becomes easier to extend into its final shape. At the metaphorical level, which we’ve already begun to see shaping up in the description above, benching is like taking a deep breath and releasing any tension, just enough to make us (or the dough) more flexible and effective as we move forward.

Q: There are two very different sides to bread-making: the technical and the romantic. How do you hope to teach your students, and future bakers around the world, to become a spirit-of-the-law baker, using both their technical understanding of the process and romantic creativity?

RS: In any craft, passion is a necessary but not sufficient cause for the achieving of excellence. It helps to keep you going when things get tough but, without mastery of the craft itself — the skills, the repetitions, the knowledge of the why as well as the how — the romance will eventually dissipate. But it certainly can provide the motivation to keep one going. As we’ve often heard, it takes at least 10,000 hours of practice to achieve any sort of mastery in anything, and that’s a lot of hours. You have to really love something in order to commit that much time and energy to it but, in the end, once you master the fundamentals and basic skills through practice and repetition, a whole new level of creativity can open up allowing you to take the craft, whether it be bread baking or any other activity, into a very creative and soul-satisfying expression. Look at the Iron Chefs on TV; what they come up with on that show is mind-boggling and way beyond the skill set of most culinary students or chefs. But, because of the countless hours they put into mastering the craft of cooking, they make it look almost effortless and seem to bend and break rules as they go. But, before you can break the rules of any craft you have to first master them. I think the Judeo Christian tradition, as it plays out in both the Old and New Testament, is a great description of how you first need to master the letter of the law (the rules, so to speak), before you can fully practice the spirit of the law.

Q: Can you cite an experience or lesson in your own life that expanded your understanding of bread-making?

RS: Shortly after writing a couple of bread books I won a competition that got me a free trip to Paris to study with five bakers. One of them, Philippe Gosselin, showed me his method for delayed fermentation, using an overnight method that no other baker in Paris was using. He was even mocked by those who, like him, were taught at the prestigious baking schools, for not following the time-honored method they all learned. That is, until he won the award for best baguette in Paris. Then, of course, everyone wanted to copy him and many have tried. That was a good example of how a trained master baker figured out how to bend the rules to create something new and amazing. But, for me, the real lesson came when I had to try to explain to my own students why the method worked so well. I didn’t know enough, at the time, to properly explain it but it forced me to go deeper into the science of dough and fermentation and to discover the role of enzymes to help improve the release of sugars from the starchy flour and, before long, I had developed my own method for delayed, cold fermentation dough. The experience was one of connecting the dots, and it helped me to understand how little we apply ourselves to doing this, connecting the dots. But, when we do a whole new level of creativity opens up.

Q: There is no doubt that our country as a whole is moving towards healthier eating and living. What does this mean for bread-making? Can you explain how you work with whole grain, and how that impacts the art of bread-making?

RS: There’s no question that the world is opening up to the importance of whole grains and, at the same time, bakers are learning how to make better bread with it. There is also a lot of development in the sprouted grain movement, which enhances the nutrition and flavor value of whole grain. Also, farmers are working with wheat breeders to develop regionally specific strains of wheat that perform better in particular climates and landscapes, so all of this points to the never-ending search for better and better ways to make bread. After all, bread is under attack by some dietary gurus and it’s not the first time bread has been vilified (and not without cause, I should add). Each time, however, bakers, millers and farmers responded to the challenge by finding ways to make it better and also better for us, and the whole grain movement is a good example of this.

Q: How do you recommend that bread-lovers, bakers or future bakers become more familiar with bread-making? Would you recommend taking a trip abroad, to places like France, where baked goods reign supreme?

RS: It never hurts to travel and experience the great breads of the world. But, there are so many good bakeries around this country now that you may not have to travel far to find a good apprenticeship opportunity. There’s no substitute for working in a high-quality bakery and simply learning how to do it, though culinary schools also are very helpful in transmitting this knowledge. Also, the Bread Bakers Guild of America is the most valuable organization for ongoing education and workshop opportunities, so I suggest that anyone serious about bread join the Guild.

Q: What’s your favorite type of bread?

RS: My favorite bread will always be Struan, a multi-grain harvest bread originally from Western Scotland. It was the bread on which I built my bakery, Brother Juniper’s, over 30 years ago and, to this day, I still believe it’s the best toasting bread in the world. Not only do I love the flavor but I also feel a strong emotional connection to it because of what it symbolizes in my own life; the word Struan actually translates from Gaelic to mean, “A convergence of streams.” That pretty much sums up why I think it is the metaphor of me.

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