Seizing Control: A Bread Made By Hand is Worth Two from a Box

Featured in the May 2012 issue of Saveur is a neat piece on artisanal breads and the surging popularity of bread-making in America lately. William Alexander’s “American Bread” is a worthwhile read for anyone with an interest in the craft of baking delicious bread or the business of selling it.  The 18-page spread is pretty far-reaching, as it not only introduces some of today’s premier artisan bread bakers and shop owners from coast to coast, but also includes a variety of recipes, tutorials, and enticing photography. All of this is a great source of the necessary know-how, and maybe even some of the motivation, to get you in the kitchen to try your own hand at artisan-style bread baking.

Despite my shortcomings as a baker, I have picked up one bread-making secret, courtesy of a generous customer. Our Ozark Fried Chicken Seasoning makes a great addition to white bread. I use 1/2 tbsp for a one-pound loaf.

I don’t follow food writing religiously, but there are a few publications I try to keep up with, and a few more that I check in on semi-regularly.  Rarely will I read an issue of Food & Wine cover-to-cover. I prefer instead to browse the contents, scan headlines, skim the sidebars. I do so, looking for two things in particular:  tips and pieces of advice that will prove useful in the kitchen, and informative bits that will give me something to talk about at work.  “American Bread” fits both bills.

I came across this piece initially as it was featured on the cover of a copy of Saveur that had been floating around the store for a few days.  I finally picked it up at the insistence of one of my managers, Lonnie, who urged me to see what a real loaf of bread looks like.  He was referring by contrast to various loaves I’ve made at home and boasted about at work, since receiving a Breville bread machine as a gift at Christmas.

My bread machine has been the source of a lot of playful banter over these last months. Mostly I am criticized when I share stories of a well-executed loaf without bringing along any samples (I am forgetful), but there are a good number of employees who simply find the bread machine to be unnecessary, no fun, purposeless, ineffective or intrusive. In the same way that many writers prefer putting a pen on paper to typing on a keyboard, some of the more dedicated bakers among my coworkers have made the case that baking is as much about enjoying the process – the rolling, the kneading and punching – as it is about enjoying the final product.   With regard to that heightened level of intimacy, I typically don’t need it, nor can I really handle it.  I am a very clumsy a baker – I think I am a much more talented cook – so it is often best that my relationships with any goods I am baking remain as impersonal as possible.  This is the one truly great thing about the bread machine.  It reduces the process of making a loaf of bread to that of measuring out its ingredients and waiting.  What is more convenient, efficient, and disaster-proof than that?

That said – and I won’t willingly admit it to my coworkers – the truth is the advantages of baking from scratch are palpably greater than those of baking with a machine.  Indeed, I’ve discovered (or finally acknowledged) that the bread machine accomplishes its mind-blowing convenience by forcing me to relinquish any semblance of control over almost everything about my bread. Rather than happening at my hands and in front of my eyes, the machined bread is mixed and shaped, rises, and bakes inside a closed box.  Consequently, I’ve harvested many an awkward and misshapen loaf, and exactly zero that I would consider worthy of competition.

So, I have some room to improve as a baker.  I suppose I will start by putting my bread machine back on the shelf, and making a spirited attempt at one of the recipes I mentioned from Saveur.  Perhaps by accepting a bit more responsibility for what goes into the oven, I can enjoy a more even and presentable product when it comes out.

Who knows, though?  I really am a terrible baker.

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