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Bottleneck at the refrigerator!

fermenting dough baskets

I have a refrigeration problem.

Last week, I had orders for more bread than my fridge could handle. My second-hand fridge that is devoted solely to bread production can hold up to 24 loaves in a squeeze. I once tried 26 and it wasn’t pretty. It’s at full capacity.

Sourdough sleep-over

Why do I need refrigeration for Happy Monk bread? Because it’s sourdough. A long, slow rise in the fridge extends the fermentation process and develops flavour. Even instant yeasted breads benefit from longer fermentation and that process can be greatly extended by refrigeration.

All our breads spend the night in the fridge, a minimum of 12 hours. Longer, if I can manage. I could easily leave the dough baskets out on the kitchen counter, and, under the right conditions, they might rise enough to bake in two or three hours. They’ll bake out fine, but you won’t get that slight sour in the sourdough. The long ferment also accentuates the flavours of the grain … the Red Fife wheat, the rye or spelt that go into our breads.

Yum! Excuse me, while I go slice some of that bread right now!

Production work-arounds

It’s not a bad fridge. The temperature control is good. It’s accurate and it stays steady through the night. It’s just that there isn’t enough room. The Happy Monk Baking company has outgrown it.

There are some quick fixes, like the rye breads. The dense rye breads we’ve made ‒ Mountain Rye, the Danish Rugbrøt, and this week’s Baker’s Choice Russian Rye ‒ don’t need the long cold fermentation. Rye behaves differently and depends on a form of gelatinization to hold the air bubbles that result from the sour culture mixed with the flour and water. Thus, there is no need for a long ferment in the fridge. The dough is often ready to bake in an hour or two after final mixing.

Rye bread also benefits from a long cooling, so baking it the day before delivery allows it to properly firm up.

In search of the perfect fridge

Staggering the baking schedule can alleviate the bottleneck caused by the lack of fridge space, but the fact is I need a second fridge or a bigger one. Thus, I turn to or craigslist, scanning the ads for something that fits my specific needs and price.

This is also a growth decision for the Happy Monk Baking Company. Do I opt for a used residential fridge that gives me 75 percent more storage capacity, or a used commercial fridge that doubles or triples storage and offers finer temperature control? Do I want to expand the business, work longer, harder? Or stay with the status quo?

A baker I know in Bellingham WA finds her production bottleneck at the oven. Sophie Williams, a much younger and more ambitious baker than me, said when her orders spike, it means spending sixteen, eighteen, twenty hours in the kitchen. Those hours will wear a baker down over the long term, even a strong-like-ox, 30-something baker with energy to burn.

When Sophie’s orders recently went through the roof, she reached her breaking point. Despite being “obnoxiously frugal”, she went out and wisely bought herself a second oven. “No [effing] way am I getting into this again,” she said. You could hear the desperation in her voice. She wants a Sunday off!

How much growth?

The Happy Monk oven, Mildrith, holds 12 to 15 loaves at a time and will bake three loads of bread on a single firing. I am NOT at the breaking point with her! If I increase my fridge storage to 40 or 50, I’ll simply adjust my baking schedule to allow a second firing of Mildrith. If Happy Monk bread orders expand beyond that, I’ll think about building a second oven and hiring another baker.

And that may be a long time coming!

Sophie’s company, by the way, is Raven Breads. She calls it a “small, bicycle-based bakery” that makes breads and pastries for a farmer’s market, a bread subscription business, a CSA enterprise and is “on the menu” at a number of food establishments in Bellingham. She is inventive, ambitious, inspiring and a superb writer. Please check out her web site (see link above) and drop by the Saturday Bellingham Farmers Market to say hello if you’re in the neighbourhood.

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