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Simple Steps to Artisan BreadsSimple Steps to Artisan Breads

February 1, 2000

14 Min Read
Simple Steps to Artisan Breads

Simple Steps to Artisan Breads
February 2000 -- Foodservice Focus

By: Kirk O'Donnell, Ed.D.
Contributing Editor

  As a young boy, I didn't take much of an interest in investigating the activities of my grandmother's kitchen, but I do still remember the sense of mystery and awe I felt when we shared her homemade bread and rolls - they tasted so much better than anything we could buy in the store. When I reflect on the recent growth of the artisan bread market in the United States, I firmly believe that it's due not only to quality, but also to a certain "mystery" that accompanies these breads. While continuing to learn about baking and helping advance the craft, professional bakers can provide both of these elements, as my grandmother did for me.  Many factors affect the quality and consistency of bread. Most people understand that bread is a simple and common food, but few are aware of the many scientific principles that can be applied to bread production. The factors having the greatest impact on bread quality are ingredients, fermentation and baking procedure.The basics  The simplest breads contain only four ingredients - flour, water, salt and yeast. For artisan breads, however, bakers can also use many other ingredients to add flavor, color, softness, volume or other desired qualities.  Flour is produced by milling wheat. During the milling process, the wheat's bran and germ are separated, and the white interior of the grain is ground into flour. Flour quality depends on the following factors: class of wheat used, climatic conditions during growing and harvesting, variety within the class, milling practices, and handling conditions after milling. The baker makes adjustments in dough mixing time, percentage of water added, fermentation and handling based on the flour's condition. Commercial baking companies keep tight control of flour quality, which is typically measured by determining amounts of protein, moisture and ash, although flour color, which indicates the level of ash, is also sometimes monitored.  Mixing tolerance is a measure of protein quality; a good-quality protein contains sufficient gluten, which allows the bread to hold its shape. If flour quality is poor, a bread will suffer tremendous problems, such as lack of volume, poor texture, lack of symmetry, off-color, lack of keeping quality and other defects. Mixing tolerance is measured by a farinograph and expressed as MTI (mixing tolerance index); the lower the number, the better the mixing tolerance. An MTI of 20 indicates good mixing tolerance.  For artisan breads, the ideal protein content runs as low as 10.5% and up to 13.5%. The actual necessary protein content depends on the type of bread and the finished qualities the baker wants. A lower protein content will give a flatter shape, while the higher ranges give a more rounded shape. Also, low protein content makes the bread brittle, and more protein gives a chewy texture. The standard moisture level for flour is approximately 14%. Ash should run approximately 0.5%.  For variety breads, other types of flour besides wheat may be added, such as rye, corn, spelt or millet. However, these do not contain gluten, and will dilute the bread structure. Adding gluten to doughs containing grains other than wheat is common, especially in a production situation. Alternatively, the level of water can be reduced, although the resulting product will be dry.  In addition to protein, water has an impact on bread quality. Bakers state the amount of water used as a percentage of flour, otherwise known as baker's percent. A good starting point for most breads is 60% water. However, doughs using poor-quality flour need less water. On the other hand, a ciabatta bread should have around 80% water; this dilutes the gluten and gives the characteristic flat shape and open structure.  Water temperature affects dough temperature, which plays a role in fermentation rate and dough handling - the more water, the faster the fermentation rate and the stickier the dough. Water hardness also impacts the fermentation rate and cell structure of bread. A series of tests run at the American Institute of Baking (AIB), Manhattan, KS and published in the American Society of Baking shows that a hardness of 125 to 150 ppm gives the best fermentation rate. Some have found that soft water increases stickiness, and that hard water creates a more open cell structure. For a company running a franchise operation, this presents one reason for differing quality of bread from site to site.  Salt in bread helps control the product's flavor. The amount of salt used is almost always around 2% of the flour weight. Control issues associated with salt are purity and particle size. Also, certain metals retard yeast fermentation. Particle size determines how quickly the salt dissolves, an especially important issue when salt is added at the end of the mix, a technique that shortens the mixing time needed to properly develop the gluten.  Yeast as we know it is a relatively modern ingredient. The yeast strain Saccharomyces cerevisiae, or baker's yeast, was first standardized and commercially produced by Charles Fleischmann in 1868. Yeast is very perishable, and for this reason, it must be handled carefully. Fortunately, instant dry yeast is stable during storage. Once opened, it must be used quickly or stored under refrigeration.  Before commercial yeast was available, bakers developed a leaven from a highly fermented mixture of water and potatoes, wheat or rye grains. Many craft bakers still produce bread without baker's yeast. This practice, sourdough fermentation, has become more popular in recent years. It involves incorporating wild yeast and bacteria from both the surface of the grain and from the environment. Some people believe that since the fermentation microorganisms come from the surrounding air, that San Francisco sourdough can only be made in San Francisco. While there's some element of truth to that, AIB research shows that, although it's an issue, it's not the number one issue. The biggest influence is the grain itself. For example, using refined flour to start the sour will give less activity than using whole grain, because refined flour's surface has been milled off. Generally speaking, baker's yeast gives a more neutral flavor, while a sourdough culture, especially with longer fermentation, produces more flavor and a chewy texture.Fomenting fermentation  Whether or not a baker uses commercial baker's yeast, the leaven's activity is controlled by time and temperature. Optimum temperature for normal fermentation is between 75° and 85°F, but a slower fermentation that builds more flavor requires temperatures between 55° and 65°F, with slightly lower temperatures if proofing overnight. Other indicators of fermentation, such as pH and total titratable acidity, are also monitored.  Fermentation has a significant impact on the quality of bread. Longer fermentation times produce breads with more flavor, improved eating quality and a distinctive appearance. Once customers taste these highly fermented breads, they're often willing to pay premium prices for them, which is one of the reasons that artisan bakers have been able to enjoy increasing sales as well as increasing unit margins.White Bread vs. Artisan Bread:Whats the Difference? White Pan BreadArtisan BreadExternal appearanceRectangular, uniformVarious shapesCrustThinThickTextureSoftChewyGrainClosedOpenShelf lifeLongShortHot from the oven  In addition to ingredients and fermentation, baking also greatly affects bread quality. Most commercially produced breads are baked in a relatively short time, between 15 and 20 minutes. This short bake allows for maximum softness with a thin crust. On the other hand, many artisan breads are baked much longer, 45 to 60 minutes. A long bake produces a thicker, more flavorful crust.  Most artisan breads are baked with steam, which assists the dough in retaining its symmetrical shape during baking. Steam also adds crispness and shine to the crust.   Many oven styles, such as rack, deck, tunnel and reel, may be used successfully. Some artisan bakers believe they can only make a good bread in a deck oven, because in theory this type of oven gives the best bottom heat. However, good artisan breads can also be made in other ovens; tunnel ovens in particular can give good bottom heat. Steam quality varies along with the type of oven. Typically, a lower headspace gives better steam conditions. Also, the more convection in an oven, the greater the tendency for moisture loss.  Oven choice also depends on which type of end product is needed. For example, breads for sandwiches or pizzas need a good build-up of bottom crust, generated by bottom heat. Real French bread has a significant bottom crust; in fact, French bakers actually bake the bottom so dark it might seem burnt. While this is authentic, it's not something every customer might want.  Although most ovens are powered by gas or electricity, some are wood-fired. This imparts a particular flavor to the bread, depending on which type of wood is used - mesquite, hickory or apple, etc. For artisan breads, a wood fire reinforces the notion of "rustic."Artisan class  Ideally, every artisan baker should have the opportunity to study at the American Institute of Baking, the National Baking Center, the San Francisco Baking Institute or the Culinary Institute of America to learn the finer points of artisan baking. However, for foodservice baking, economics often do not allow employment of highly trained bakers. The foodservice baker is then faced with a dilemma - how can high-quality artisan breads be supplied within the company's cost structure?  To answer this question, we first need to define artisan bread. From the customer's perspective, artisan breads are characterized by the baker's extra effort to make the product a little better. In other words, the word artisan is linked to the notion of pride in workmanship.  How can the customer tell there's pride in workmanship in a loaf of bread? The best way to differentiate an artisan bread is to compare it to commercial white bread. White pan bread is not bad, but certain characteristics differ significantly from those of artisan breads, which should reflect the characteristics of their old-world counterparts. Many artisan breads are based on simply formulated peasant breads that are baked for long times. In this country, rye bread consists of mostly wheat and a little bit of rye flour, which produces a texture similar to that of white pan bread. But German rye bread contains higher levels of rye, up to 100%, and true German pumpernickel contains just rye meal, and no wheat flour. Its texture is very dense, almost like a fruitcake. It's also very sweet, due to a long, low-temperature bake during which naturally occuring enzymes convert starch to sugar.  Artisan breads may also contain somewhat non-traditional ingredients, such as cheese, nuts or fruit - olive-sunflower bread or a chocolate-cherry bread, perhaps. There's an infinite number of combinations, but whether traditional or new-age, the idea is to convince the customer that this artisan creation is a unique type of bread.Making a work of artTo offer true artisan bread, a foodservice operator has seven basic options:Hire a baking company to produce the breads.Purchase par-baked product and bake at the retail level.Purchase frozen dough and finish the process at retail.Use refrigerated dough from a central location and finish at retail.Purchase a mix and produce at retail.Bake from scratch at retail, with training.Bake from scratch at retail, without training.  Generally speaking, material costs will be reduced, and labor costs increased, when moving from option 1 down to option 6. The most costly option is number 7, because quality will suffer and business will be lost.  If hiring a baking company, specific standards must first be established. Communicating with the baking company about the size, shape, color, flavor, texture and shelf life of the breads to be purchased is vital. Because artisan bread cannot maintain the optimal crust character for more than 6 to 12 hours, frequent deliveries are essential when buying fresh artisan bread.   Using par-baked bread gives more flexibility in terms of delivery frequency. The manufacturer handles the mixing, fermentation and baking, up to the point where the starch gelatinizes, at approximately 170°F internal temperature. At the retail level, the bread is simply baked until it achieves the desired color. For artisan breads, typically a lean formula, the parbake process is around 400°F, and the second bake depends on the shape - a long, narrow bread can be hotter, about 475°F, while a big, round shape should be baked at a lower temperature to warm the center.  Baking the bread a second time presents the retail baker with both advantages and disadvantages. On the positive side, reheating allows the bread to regain the qualities of fresh-baked bread - a crispy crust, fresh-baked aroma, and no problems with staling - at the point of sale. On the other hand, a greater degree of moisture is lost compared to once-baked products. In terms of equipment, the retail store needs only a freezer, a retarder and an oven, and if par-baked product is delivered at least once per week, only an oven. Since the bread is already baked once, the retailer doesn't have the flexibility to change the shape of the product. On the other hand, in many cases, the supplier can provide the shapes needed according to the retailer's specifications.  If a retailer uses frozen dough, the baker must be able to both follow the directions and demonstrate creativity. Although this seems contradictory, in reality, the person at store level needs to know under which conditions it's best to do one or the other. It's a good idea to start by following the directions at 100% compliance, however - doing what the manufacturer recommends ensures a consistently high-quality product.   If the goal is an artisan bread that the customer is sure to believe required extra effort, the baker must then make that extra effort. Using distinctive toppings such as poppy seed, oatmeal or sesame seeds is an effective strategy. Another possibility is imitating the artisan's habit of "slashing" the top of the dough immediately before baking. This knife cut is the signature of artisan bakers, and if done correctly, the appearance of the baked loaf will improve. A retailer may also consider some creative strategies in proofing and baking to allow more fermentation, if time allows. However, it's best to discuss creative ideas with the frozen-dough supplier to save experimentation time and help avoid any potential problems.  Refrigerated dough gives less flexibility in terms of time. It must be baked within 24 to 48 hours, or it will develop a loss of leavening ability, as well as off-flavors. In contrast, frozen dough often has a shelf life in excess of 12 weeks. Within this window of time, a baker has more options for creativity with refrigerated dough than with frozen dough. Also, refrigerated dough is normally produced with fewer additives than frozen dough.  Bakers using a mix should stifle their creative urges when mixing the dough. Baking technologists have formulated that mix to perform according to a balance of ingredients, and changing the procedure or make-up upsets this delicate balance. If the process is altered, however, it's a good idea to consult the mix supplier to discuss ideas about fermentation, make-up and baking. And remember, all mixes are not created equal.   If baking from scratch, beware of the temptation to cut costs too far. Untrained personnel will not be able to produce high-quality products without technical assistance. If lucky, customers might make it known in such a case that quality has slipped, although it's more likely they'll take their business elsewhere, to an operation that makes the extra effort.  In summary, the foodservice baker can simplify artisan breads by defining quality, then choosing the right combination of training and partnerships to produce high-quality artisan breads with that element of "something extra" that sets them apart, and perhaps even allows them to rival grandmother's in taste, texture and artistry.  Kirk O'Donnell, vice president of education at the American Institute of Baking (AIB) in Manhattan, KS, completed his doctorate in education at Kansas State University, Manhattan. He received an MBA from Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi, and a bachelor's degree in baking science and management from Kansas State. Prior to his current position, O'Donnell served as director of bread and roll production for the AIB. He has also served as production manager and plant manager for the HEB Grocery Company, San Antonio. His particular area of interest is improving the skills of those working in the baking and allied industries.
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