In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine. North Carolina is filled with incredible bakeries where professional
In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine.
North Carolina is filled with incredible bakeries where professional bakers craft crusty loaves of sourdough perfect for hearty sandwiches, flavorful focaccia, and soft, flaky croissants. But to make amazing artisan bread in your own kitchen is — as any home baker can attest — a learning process.
“One of the things I say to beginners is, ‘Don’t let anyone know what you’re going to make, tell them it’s going to be a rustic bread, so there’s no judgment,” says Lionel Vatinet, master baker and founder and owner of La Farm Bakery in Cary. “The aroma of the bread and the baking will make you the king or queen of any meal.”
We asked Vatinet and two other experts — Joshua Bellamy, co-founder of Boulted Bread in Raleigh, and Christian Oertel, baker at Guglhupf Bakery in Durham — to share their best tips for novice bakers — and some of their favorite recipes.
Master baker and founder and owner of La Farm Bakery
Co-founder of Boulted Bread
Baker at Guglhupf Bakery
Lionel Vatinet: In France, by law, you need to go to school until you’re 16 years old. My mother was very clever and knew that, for me, school was more of a playground than anything else. When you’re 16, you can either go into a trade or you go to a university. My parents said, “We want to support any decision that you make so you don’t have any regrets.” So I went through the process of university and I went through a trade that I liked: electricity. But during that time, I went to a bakery, and I really loved it. It was early morning, and nothing really mattered to me except for the smell and the energy. The path of a baker was to join a guild, which requires you to leave your own family and learn a trade. I decided to leave, and now it has been a magical thing for 40 years.
Joshua Bellamy: After college, I moved up into the mountains to work at a wilderness therapy camp, and I picked up baking to relieve stress. I got a recipe from the internet that looked easy enough, but the first loaf of bread that I baked was tremendously bad. There was a feeling of embarrassment because, you know, bread is so ubiquitous. But it was also an epiphany for me because I realized that I could get into it and that there was a lot to figure out with room for improvement.
Christian Oertel: I’m originally from Germany and I grew up in a household that was in the baking business, and we had a bakery at home. So I kind of fell into baking. I wasn’t sure at the time that it was what I wanted to do with my life, but that’s how I got started.
Lionel Vatinet: That there are really only three ingredients. And that everything is alive. You must study if you want to get better at baking bread. One of the ingredients every single time you bake is the weather. You need to adapt to the weather. The reason is that yeast is very sensitive to temperature change. In the beginning, you are a robot, and you only follow the recipe. You need to be able to distinguish your ingredients and note the consistency of the bread. After this, you want to adapt to the weather — but not right away. Only when you have more experience.
Joshua Bellamy: You have to be patient and understanding with yourself. We didn’t have Instagram when I started baking bread, but I can imagine a world where if I baked some bread that didn’t look like somebody’s on Instagram, I’d be pretty frustrated. Baking bread is certainly about the destination, but to me, it’s more about the journey.
Lionel Vatinet: Flatbreads and focaccia. Focaccia because of how little shaping is involved. These are very straightforward breads to learn.
Joshua Bellamy: There’s something called the “No-Knead” method, which was popularized by Mark Bittman with The New York Times, in conjunction with Jim Lahey. That was the first good loaf of bread that I ever baked — I suggest people start there.
Joshua Bellamy: At Boulted Bread, we predominantly use fresh-milled flour for our bread. Using flour that is as fresh as possible is important so that you can get the most flavorful bread. I would say that my favorite grain is einkorn, one of the first cultivated grains ever. It’s extremely flavorful and smells amazing.
Christian Oertel: Personally, I like whole wheat and the dark kernel of wheat within that. I also like seeds such as sunflower, flax, and pumpkin that give the dough a lot more flavor.
Joshua Bellamy: I always tell home bakers that their job is way harder than mine. We have a bigger oven, mixers, and a mill. At home, you usually just have all-purpose equipment. But you can still make really great bread at home. First, you need to gather your ingredients and scale them, then knead the dough or develop the gluten. My favorite way of doing this is called the “stretch and fold method,” which means that periodically throughout the fermentation process you fold the dough over itself. If your fermentation process is long enough and you give the dough enough fold, then you’ll develop appropriate gluten strength. Next, there’s a shaping process in which you shape the dough into whatever form you prefer. I usually recommend that people retard their dough overnight, which means that after you shape it, you put it in the proofing basket and stick it in the refrigerator for 12 to 24 hours. This retards the fermentation and allows for less yeast respiration, building up more flavor over time. It also makes the bread easier to handle so that, once you take the dough out of the fridge, it will be easier to score before you put it into the oven. Finally, you’ll want to get some steam into your bread, either with a lidded Dutch oven or through steam injection. This will keep the outside of the loaf moist, allowing for proper expansion and a nice brown crust.
Lionel Vatinet: One thing about baking that you must understand is that you need to weigh your ingredients. A cup system is not accurate at all. There are complications with the American system, so just use the scale. When you have a liquid and a solid and you put them on a scale, there will be no issue. One of the other tools is your hand. I am a believer that there is beauty in work when you can use your hands as much as your brain. You also need a general all-purpose oven or even a wood-fired oven, and a blade to score your bread, (or a knife).
Lionel Vatinet: I would say that you can “feel it out” when you’re experimenting. That is one of the beauties of being a baker, we feel, and we feel a lot. Not emotionally, but about what we feel in our hands and how we react to the weather. Is the bread going to be stiff or sticky? Will it react differently to the weather? By the way, if you don’t like “sticky,” don’t make bread. If it’s not sticky, then it’s going to be dry and will feel like Play-Doh.
Joshua Bellamy: I always think about the poet E.E. Cummings in relation to measurement. He knew the rules of punctuation and grammar and had an understanding of them before he developed his style of writing, which went against those rules. In that way, I think that you have to know the rules before you can bend or break them. There’s a lot to be said about learning to walk before you can run.
Christian Oertel: Looking for consistency in the flour quality, the form of the dough, and in the ingredients. Seasonal temperatures can affect how fast or slow the dough develops and rises, which can be quite a headache. You eventually understand how the dough reacts to certain things, and you can add yeast or sourdough to counter those effects.
Joshua Bellamy: I think it’s that you might be shooting for an ideal that you won’t always reach. Keep in mind that you can’t force your narrative onto the dough and that you have to let the dough do its thing within a reasonable set of parameters.
Lionel Vatinet: Anything that can bring fiber to the bellies of people lacking fiber. My favorite kinds of bread now are multigrain and whole wheat, and I know that when I eat these breads, my kids can eat them as well, and it makes me happy. I was raised eating toasted bread with butter and honey throughout my youth, so I give this to my kids also. We are not missing bread in the house often, but sometimes we forget to have bread at home, and we all cry when that happens.
Joshua Bellamy: I’ve always loved baguettes. When I visit a bakery, I always look at a baguette first because it can tell you a lot about how a bakery or a baker approaches his craft. At Boulted, we have a recipe called Levain, which has three ingredients: Turkey Red flour, water, and yeast. When we get that recipe right — by thoroughly fermenting it and giving it the opportunity to fully express itself — it’s the most flavorful bread that we have. My 9-year-old son doesn’t love the crust as much as he loves the inside of the bread. When we’re eating dinner, I’ll gently toast a thick slice of bread in a frying pan with a little bit of olive oil or butter. When you get it a little crisp to each side, the interior of the slice gets all the oil inherent in the fresh-milled flour that we use. I end up with an almost custard-like slice of bread which is a perfect receptacle for butter. It’s a good accompaniment to almost everything. OK, it might be a little bit weird with ice cream, but it could still be good.
Lionel Vatinet: Working at night is an incredible process because you see the “birth” of the bread and the “killing” of it — because you’re baking it, which creates an incredibly magical smell. To smell the bread makes you salivate, and to see the sunrise in the morning is a beautiful thing to do.
Christian Oertel: I’ve traveled quite a bit, so I always look for bakeries when I’m somewhere else. It’s great to see that there are so many different ways of baking out there. There is such a variety to it that I can never stop learning, and I’m fascinated by that.
Joshua Bellamy: There are a million different things that I love about baking. I love sweeping up the flour at the end of the day — there are many magical things about it on a daily basis. I grew up watching my dad build houses and enjoyed seeing a wooded lot turn into a home over the course of six months or a year. It’s kind of the same thing with baking. You nurture bread throughout the various stages of its life and then it goes home with someone and makes them happy. And you get to see the whole thing again the next day.