Classes

Loafing in School

Two hours; two beers; two pounds of freshly milled flour; one sourdough starter; more cheese, pizza and focaccia than I could eat; and a lot of knowledge. It only cost me $35, but I think I ate, drank, and learned a lot more than the price I paid.

On Wednesday, I attended the Fair Food Farmstand’s “Food School” class dedicated to sourdough bread baking with Philly Muffin’s Pete Merzbacher. Although I have been baking sourdough bread for some time, I still came away from this having learned some very important things that have already improved my break baking:
– The tight, even “crumb” of a typical sandwich loaf or the airy, irregular crumb of a ciabatta are functions of gluten development. The more developed the gluten is, the more uniform the crumb.
– My greatest weakness in bread baking, loaves that spread out rather than spring up, is most likely a result of the dough being too wet.
– Because a home oven loses so much heat when the door is opened, preheat your oven higher than the temperature at which you are going to bake. Then, reset the temperature once you have actually put the bread in the oven.

Pete is not a believer in using spray bottles or pans of water to “steam” dough in home ovens. Pete is a believer in baking in a cast iron pot (a la Jim Lahey’s no-knead method). The pot serves two important functions. One, related to the previous point, it will maintain a consistent heat for your bread. Two, by trapping steam released from the dough as it bakes, it will function in very much the same way as a professional baking oven that injects steam. In fact, Pete said that while he can easily tell a loaf baked in a home oven using a pan of water as compared to a professional oven, he would be hard-pressed to do so when comparing a loaf baked in a cast iron pot as compared to a professional oven.

Throughout the class, the good people of the Fair Food Farmstand plied us with PBC beer and tons of local cheese with pizzas and focaccia at the end. Pete was personable and patient with a class of students with extremely varied levels of experience. Most importantly, he tolerated my incessant questioning about my own issues and about using local grains. The sourdough starter came from his own bakery, as did the whole-grain flour he had milled himself that day.

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