Once I started waking up at 2:45 AM to tend to my bread at home, I realized that it might be time to take things up a notch.
Even if you’ve filled your kitchen shelves with artisan bread baking books, there is only so much you can learn on your own in four months. While several bread baking reference books helped me move leaps and bounds along my baking journey, I began to see how I could benefit from a formal education.
Why SFBI? It probably won’t come as a surprise that I read about it in Flour Water Salt Yeast, where Ken Forkish describes his own experience as a student there.
When I started thinking about professional instruction, I didn’t have a specific end goal in mind, but what I did know was that a commitment of $20,000 or more for a professional bread or pastry program was not in the cards. Fortunately, SFBI provides the flexibility to take weekend and/or week-long courses over time for a reasonable price. For those who seek a more intensive education, SFBI also offers an 18 week Professional Program.
A couple of weeks of instruction seemed like a good fit, so I decided to enroll in two one-week courses to get my feet wet. The first course was called “Artisan Breads: A Systematic Approach to Bread,” which consists of a lot of hands on time in the lab, as well as lecture material on the fundamentals of bread making, such as the milling process, basic doughs, preferments, and more. While I couldn’t show everything we did in class, I thought I’d share the highlights, thanks to my camera phone.
When Mac McConnell, our instructor at the San Francisco Baking Institute, told my class that we would be primarily making baguettes for the first few days, I found myself both excited and nervous. But before I even had a chance to get my hands sticky, I immediately noticed that I was dealing with very different kitchen equipment. The gas-fired ‘deck’ ovens at the institute are equipped with steam injectors – and one of them even has a fully automatic loader.
The mixers in the lab aren’t exactly like your Kitchen Aid at home. In setting where more than a few loaves of bread are being baked, such as most bakeries, the use of mixers to develop large quantities of dough is absolutely necessary from an efficiency standpoint. There are several types of stand mixers, but the one we use for making bread is called a spiral mixer. With this particular model, a hook rotates while the bowl spins, and the dough is sheared as it hits a bar in the center. We mixed 35 kilogram batches of dough several times per day for the first two days.
We didn’t waste any time moving on to shaping baguettes. After bulk fermentation, it was time for the divide. Mac demonstrated for us:
After a pre-shape and a 25-minute bench rest, it was time for the final shape:
Bread is usually scored with a razor held by a metal aparatus, called a lame.
Here are my first ever baguettes – scored and ready to go into the oven.
Here they are right out of the oven!
Here are some from Day 2. Notice that I used fewer scores and worked on getting the ‘ears’ to pop up, but because I didn’t overlap my scores well enough the bread tore:
Each of these baguettes were made using different mixing methods – short, improved, and intensive (left to right). The short mix requires only five minutes on speed 1, and around 30 seconds on speed 2. For the improved mix, we had the mixer at speed 1 for five minutes and speed 2 for two minutes. For the intensive mix, the most rigorous method, we mixed the dough on speed 1 for five minutes and speed 2 for five minutes. The short and improved mixes needed a few folds to develop the dough, while the intensive mix was already there.
There are several major differences between the final products. The most obvious difference is the crumb of the bread. The more the bread was mixed, the more tight the crumb. The short mix bread clearly had the most open and tender crumb. It is hard to see in the photo with the direct overhead lighting in the room, but the color is also very different. Note the very white color of the intensive mix, compared to the improved and short mix. This is a sign of oxidation, which means less flavor.
We made and tasted several other types of bread of various shapes, but learning how to shape baguettes was the most fun and challenging for me. Mac even whipped up some delicious baker’s snacks too. What a fun week!
Based on conversations with a few bakers I’ve had at this point, there is no iron-clad series of steps that will lead to a successful career in baking. SFBI might have been what Ken Forkish needed to get his start, but each person and scenario is different. But the recurring advice that I have heard is this: don’t bother planning anything out too far ahead of time, because you just never know who you’ll meet or what opportunities will present themselves ·