Crusty, sweet, chewy bread. Who doesn’t like ciabatta lightly grilled and spread with tapenade, or French toast made with challah, sautéed in butter, dusted with sugar, and covered in pure maple syrup?
While it’s been a staple of human consumption for thousands of years, most modern recipes for bread call for flour, water, salt and “active dry yeast.” This type of yeast is made of single-celled living organisms named saccharomyces cerivisiae. Like humans, yeast cells consume oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. When mixed with gluten, a type of protein found in wheat, rye and barley, fermentation begins and the cells expel carbon dioxide, creating bubbles which make the dough rise and give it texture. Without it, you typically end up with unleavened bread, aptly called ‘flatbread’.
Active dry yeast has only been around since WWII, thanks to the Fleischmann Company which dried, granulated and vacuum-sealed the substance, bestowing on it a one to two-year life expectancy. Previously, bakers used fresh yeast which had a very short shelf life. The granules are dormant, like those sea monkeys you ordered from the backs of comic books when you were a kid. Moisture, food, and warmth activate the yeast cells and presto, you are ready to lighten your loaf.
Active dry yeast was a boon as much for reliability as for convenience, but at a price. Bread made with it just isn't as good as it can be. So if packaged yeast compromises quality, how do you make great bread?
You make great bread without yeast.
That’s exactly what the baking team at Balthazar Bakery, a wholesale outlet in Englewood, NJ does. They supply bread to the deliciously hip and fun Balthazar Restaurant in New York City, and have their own line of breads and viennoiserie, pastries made with leavened dough like croissants and brioche. The Bakery's ovens are overseen by bakers Paula Oland and B Young, and connoisseurs regard their bread as simply the best.
“There’s yeast everywhere,” says Oland. “It’s wild yeast. It’s present in flour, in the air, on your skin. For bread, you create an environment where it will thrive. You create a ‘starter.’ Commercial yeast is incredibly potent and reactions happen very quickly. With wild yeast the reactions unfold more slowly over time. The bread is so much better because it slowly ferments. And that slow fermentation develops complex flavors and a variety of textures. It’s an older form of baking. It’s actually the original form of baking.”
The wild yeast and bacteria occurring naturally in the flour and air is all that you need. A ‘starter’ is a living culture that needs food, water, oxygen and constant temperature to ferment and multiply, a process which can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. Paula and B’s sourdough starter is simply flour, water and salt.
You feed the starter with water and flour daily at regularly scheduled intervals. Small bubbles and a mild yeast smell after about three to seven days are its way of thanking you for your care. If after a few days there’s nothing there, well, you’ve killed it. Wash out the bowl and try again. A portion of it is used for baking and the rest is reserved and fed to keep it going. Starters can last for years.
B explains, “It’s just flour, water and salt. What makes it is the nuance of time and temperature. The starter has life cycles and we make interventions at certain points to feed, stir, etc. It’s so simple, but the simpler something is, the more important the steps are.”
This is how breads were made historically, but there’s a good reason that people today use packaged yeast. Using a natural starter can be challenging. The process is labor-intensive and ultra temperature-sensitive.
“If there’s too much acidity the bread breaks down and becomes dense and gummy. You’ve got to pay attention to the miniscule changes,” says Paula.
Even the raw ingredients have to be at the right temperature. For B and Paula, steamy summer days mean the flour in their silo gets too hot and has to be cooled because too much heat kills the yeast. Extreme cold has the same effect. Your starter could be fine one day and dead a few days later.
“Good bread,” says Paula, “is the result of time and attention. A long fermentation allows for a wide spectrum of flavor. The flavors and textures just can’t be achieved with packaged yeast. And you need a good oven, one with consistent temperatures. That will give you a tasty, well-roasted crust.”
Balthazar bakes dozens of types of hearth breads, rustic, hearty and elegant from their signature Pain de Siegle, Pain au Levain, and sculpted dinner rolls. Its breads are beautiful and they taste better than they look. Bread-making here is an art form.
And that’s not because the bakers are straining to be rarefied. B and Paula are aware of tradition and appreciate what’s come before simply because that’s how you make the best bread. Their baking is as much about the absence of pretension as it is the presence of flavor and texture. But it's still somewhat of a surprise to hear that the bakery isn’t even organic.
“We’ve worked with some organic rye, organic whole wheat, some white, even some heirloom flours. It’s not that they’re not good, they’re too expensive,” says Paula. “We work with a mill that has the expertise and resources to provide the blends we need. You need that consistency on a wholesale level.”
The same goes for butter. “We use a regular butter with cultured cream and low moisture that is perfect for us. The organic label is not a guarantee of quality…What’s important is knowing your supplier, knowing the farmers. Clean and local food is more important to us than being certified organic. We know where our ingredients come from, says Paula.”
So, is it worth it to buy bread at your local bakery rather than at the grocery store? Only you can decide, but as B points out “bakery bread is only a little more expensive than store-bought. It’s not like wine where an elite wine is 1000% percent more expensive than the cheapest table wine. The margin on bread is narrow.”
And from the looks of their thriving business, customers seem to agree.
B says, “if you told us five years ago that people would come to this semi-industrial area of Englewood, NJ to buy our bread, I wouldn’t have believed you.”