My father’s passion, for a few years of my childhood, was growing prize chrysanthemums.
I remember watching him in the garden, painstakingly pulling brown or misshapen petals from the blooms with a pair of tweezers. Or wrapping the flowers with tissue bags, or building an elaborate sheet plastic roof over the plot.
In later years, we uncovered his chrysanthemum notebooks, which detailed watering schedules, insect treatments or feedings, along with dates, times, and results.
He was a medical doctor and brought his scientific method to bear on this pastime. He got results, too, winning multiple prizes in local competitions. To this day, our cutlery drawers are full of silver spoons — prizes — engraved with phrases like “Best Bloom in Show, North Vancouver Amateur Chrysanthemum Association, 1961.”
He was a competitive fellow, my old man. He won a lot of prizes. A few of the club members eventually suggested he not enter so many of his flowers, so others could have a shot at winning something. I think he left the club entirely soon after. He needed to excel. To him, there was no point in holding back. It had to be all or nothing.
He grew chrysanthemums for a few years afterward but eventually stopped.
Scientific bread-making vs. intuitive
I did not inherit my father’s fierce competitiveness. I often find myself, though, turning to scientific method and technology when it comes to bread-making. A bit of science provides some useful knowledge. But intuitive bread-making is ultimately a more enjoyable, relaxed approach.
And one I am finally beginning to depend on.
My @happymonkbaker Instagram feed is densely populated with bakers and home bread-makers and includes hundreds of bread shots and videos of people’s shaping techniques.
A favorite image or video is the “crumb-shot,” a picture of the interior structure of a given piece of bread. We are supposed to be impressed with the size of the air holes and gluten structure. An “open crumb,” a deep mahogany crust colour, elaborate scoring patterns on the crust — these are all marks of a baker’s skill and mastery.
Here is a typical Instagram caption attached to a bread photo:
Loaf from yesterday’s cut video. 80% bread flour, 20% whole wheat, 80% hydration, 2% salt, Leaven was 100% hydration, whole wheat, young (4 hours), and comprised of 10% of total *dough* weight (60g for a 600g loaf). Hand mixed via Rubaud Method for 10 minutes. Bulk for 3.5 hours, low 80s F, with coil folds at 60 minutes and 120 minutes (around 40% rise in volume).
This caption makes perfect sense to a bread nerd such as myself. It tells me everything I’d need to know if I wanted to replicate the bread in the picture. It is a complete shorthand recipe and method for a loaf of bread.
Bread bro’s rule, dude!
There is a school of modern bread makers that thrive on this precision approach to bread making. They believe they can make better loaves, with better oven spring, better crumb structure, better crusts following a scientific, technology-driven method.
There is a pejorative term for them: “Bread, bro’s.”
I’m probably a bit of a bread bro.
The term was made famous in an article published last year in the online “Eater” magazine. It was titled: “Do You Even Bake, Bro?”
The article suggested Silicon Valley tech workers had fallen in love with sourdough and were seeking to apply their technology-driven aesthetic to bread making. They held they could make bread better with their testosterone tech approach. In other words, they were “disrupting” the 6,000-year-old craft of making bread.
The article also suggested that the sourdough trend was mostly male-dominated. Equally skilled women bakers were overlooked by the brash posturing of the male hobbyists.
A little science helps
I’ve been making sourdough bread for much of the eight years I’ve lived on Pender Island. I’ve amassed a library of bread books, studied them, watched countless YouTube videos, corresponded with other bakers on the Internet, and made a few friends in the process.
Let me say that nothing could be simpler to make than a loaf of bread. Four ingredients: flour, salt, water, yeast.
Anyone can make bread with a little practice. You don’t need a 38-page recipe and method to make a loaf of simple country bread, as is the case with the Chad Robertson tome, Tartine Bread. That is the book that turned me into a sourdough bread bro.
Like my father and his chrysanthemums, I was convinced that if I followed the Robertson method, a scientific approach, I could produce loaves of unparalleled beauty and taste.
If my dough was 78ºF at the end of mixing, if I performed six sets of coil folds on the dough during bulk fermentation and if I proofed my bread for 16 hours before shaping and baking, I could produce loaves identical to the ones that came out of Robertson’s Tartine Bakery in San Francisco.
A few times, I came close. Most of the time, I fell short of my ideal. The crumb wasn’t open enough. There was a gummy layer at the base of the loaf. The underside of the crust was scorched.
There is no mystery to a great loaf of bread
All the while, Jennifer proclaimed the bread to be the best she’d eaten. Dinner guests raved. Friends and neighbours were delighted with the samples I offered.
My bread making has developed into a more intuitive approach than scientific — less “bread bro,” more feminine. I no longer need to measure the temperature of my dough to know it’s time to shape it. I can tell by the feel of the dough that the gluten structure is proceeding nicely and that the dough is rising.
It’s easy to see now that the data-driven scientific approach was useful only to a point. As I learned more about dough through experience, I found it less helpful to follow dough temperatures, hydration rates, and enzymatic activity in sourdough culture. The joy of making bread is listening to the dough, finding new ways to develop flavour, creating beautiful looking loaves.
Science took me so far, but I am gradually finding my way back to the old ways.