Sunday, January 15, 2017

Helpful Books on Bread Baking

tl;dr (that's internet for "executive summary"): If you want to make really good bread with minimal effort, go for Jim Lahey. If you want the next step after that, so you can make great bread with a bit more effort, go for Ken Forkish.

This post discusses some of the bread books I've used, and the pluses and minuses I've found. I hope it's of interest to you, and if you decide to buy any of them I hope you'll use the links here, because Amazon says they will give me a small kickback.

My aunt, Barbara Walker, taught me to make bread when I was about eight, in her kitchen in Ossining, NY.  I probably made it a couple of times and then stopped, but I remember unearthing the recipe one Christmas maybe three or four years later and making bread for all my friends and dropping off loaves at their houses. Apparently after that I was known to my friend Margy's grandparents as "the boy who made the bread."  There was kneading, and rising, and punching-down, and a bunch of stuff to do.

Fast forward several decades... in my desultory quest for an easy way to make bread at home, I got a bread machine.  It did all the mixing, kneading, baking.... everything. It sat on the counter and made bread for me. There was a weird little blade at the bottom that did all the work, and when you pulled to the loaf out of the teflon pan you often pulled the blade out with it, and then you had to extract the blade from the loaf, leaving a weird hole in the bottom of the loaf that would then leave a weird hole in a surprisingly large proportion of your slices. Or it would stay in the bottom of the loaf pan and you would have to fish it out by hand and clean it, and you'd still have a weird hole in a lot of your slices.  And the loaves had a kind of weird shape, boxy in a taller-than-they-are wide way.  And they weren't much better than what I could get at the supermarket.  I think that machine is sitting in my basement to this day.

In 2006, Mark Bittman publicized Jim Lahey's no-knead bread recipe (which I you through in this post, including what to do for folks who don't have an appropriate pot).  I'm not sure exactly when I heard about it, but when I got interested in 2010 and started googling "no-knead bread," I found the 2007 book, "Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day," by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë François:

OK, this is actually the second edition of the book that I got, but if you want this book you should definitely get the second edition, because the recipes in the first edition measured ingredients only volume, not by weight; you can read my opinion (rant) on the subject of weighing your ingredients here (tl;dr: I'm in favor of it).

Part of why I started here is that the Lahey method requires a "dutch oven": a big covered pot that you can put in your oven at 500°.  I didn't have one.  AB5, as this book is sometimes abbreviated, replaces the pot with a pizza stone (or baking sheet if you don't have a pizza stone), and uses a pan of water to generate the steam that you need in order to make a great crust. This point of technique is something of a great divide in the no-knead world, but the good news is that they seem to be almost completely interchangeable; all the recipes I've tried it with work fine either way. If you want a loaf in a shape other than a big round "boule" you are better off with the pizza stone.

I was really happy with this bread. For a while. It smells great, both while baking and out of the oven. It looks beautiful. The crust is really great. But "artisan"? Maybe not. First of all, the "crumb" (the word that bread guys and gals use to describe the inner part of the bread that isn't crust) was disappointing. Not much in terms of those cool irregular holes that I like, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me. Just because they are trendy? Maybe. Maybe not. And the taste was kind of... meh. I also got their "Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day" (it, too, has a new edition). It has more whole-grain recipes, and it did get me started on putting seeds on top of the bread, but otherwise it didn't add much.

This is when I started to kind of pile up the bread books. My wife got me Chad Robertson's exquisite volume, "Tartine Bread."  The pictures are beautiful. But as I recall, you are supposed to start by spending months making your natural levain (sourdough starter), and whole thing looked incredibly labor intensive... not the something-for-nothing (or at least something-for-what-seems-like-relatively little) approach I was looking for. So it has mostly sat on my shelf, though if we kept books on the coffee table I suppose it would be a good candidate.

My next outing was Jeffrey Hamelman's "Bread" (now in its second edition, pictured here). Hamelman is now a teacher and the director of the bakery at King Arthur Flour, and his book is aimed more at the professional than the home baker. It is filled with drawings, rather than glossy photos. I refer to it every so often, I'm not sorry I bought it, and some day I may use it more, but it didn't really kick my bread up to the next level I was looking for.

I was hoping Peter Reinhart's "Artisan Breads Every Day" might do that. Here was a world-class baker trying to come to terms with the no-knead techniques he (and others) had initially pooh-poohed. How can you start with a no-knead recipe, add some steps, and improve the bread in a way that makes those steps worth it?

Reinhart adds extra steps of "folding" into the bulk fermentation process. I may not have been doing it right, but for me it didn't add much to the finished product. That was around 2012. I think my baking dropped off around then.

In 2015, I ran across a review of Samuel Fromartz's "In Search of the Perfect Loaf," published the previous year. Part history, part memoir, part recipe book, it's a book I really enjoyed; if you're interested in bread, it's worth reading, though the self-congratulatory tone can occasionally be annoying.

I made my levain (sourdough starter) following the instructions in this book (more on that in another post, I hope), and it has been going strong ever since. Sam Sifton's 2016 piece on sourdough starter in the NY Times included a sourdough variation on Lahey's original no-knead recipe, and that was enough to get me to try out the Lahey bread-in-a-pot technique (since I didn't realize the pot was not essential).

So in March of 2016 I bought Jim Lahey's "My Bread." The structure of the crumb was a significant improvement over the bread I had been baking before, with more of the irregular holes that I was looking for. When I did Sifton's sourdough variation, I came up with a loaf I was finally happy with. That was the bread I mentioned to my colleagues in the post I mentioned above.

If you're looking for a book to start with, I'd say this is the one. As I mentioned, you can use these recipes even without a dutch oven. And when you want bread that is more flavorful, you can modify the recipes to use sourdough starter. Sam Sifton's Times piece, mentioned above, has instructions for getting started with sourdough starter, in addition to a sourdough version of the Lahey recipe.

Aside from pot-vs-pizza-stone, the main difference between his bread and AB5 seems to be that Lahey uses a long overnight rise (or "bulk fermentation") with a lot less yeast. I think the dough is a little less wet, which makes it a bit easier to work with.  It isn't more time-consuming, but it does demand more planning ahead; I don't mind that but not everyone will agree. If you are doing the sourdough thing, you need to get your starter out of the fridge and feed it the morning before, so that demands even more advanced planning.

That is pretty much where things stood until Christmas 2016, when my stepson Walker gave me a copy of Ken Forkish's "Flour Water Salt Yeast." I thought, "Gee, I already have a stack of bread books, what's going to be new in this one?" But when I made the bread... wow, it was just, well, better.  This is what I was hoping for from Peter Reinhart's book but didn't manage to get. Forkish has run his own legendary bakery in Portland, but he clearly put a lot of work into tuning these recipes and making sure they work for the home baker.

Like the AB5 folks, he has breads you can make in a single day, but he, like Lahey, advocates for longer slower rises, which make for more flavorful bread. So I started with his "Overnight White Bread," which he points out is very similar to the Lahey recipe. Even without using sourdough starter, this bread was several notches up from what I'd been making. The appearance and the crust were comparable, but the flavor was much better than any other commercial-yeast bread I'd made.  The crumb had a lot more irregularity even than the Lahey bread, and there was something creamy—almost custard-like—about its texture that I had admired in great restaurant bread but had never come close to.

So what makes the difference? The biggest change seems to be that, like Reinhart, he folds the dough during the main rise.  The second difference is that he adds an "autolyse" period of 20-30 minutes after the flour and water are mixed, before the salt and yeast are added. The third is that you warm the water, and use less yeast. And fourth, the dough is wetter, so I had to get used to dealing with that (either by keeping my hands wet, or floury, depending where I was in the recipe); it's actually not that hard to get used to.

It's still not terribly time consuming, but with the autolyse and the folding there are definitely more steps, so that you need to be present for about a two hour period after you start mixing the dough; you can't just mix it up in five minutes and drop into bed. One strength of the book is that it gives examples of schedules that you can use for each of the recipes, and it encourages you to experiment with your own variations.

Another strength is that it is very self-contained: it has recipes using commercial yeast, but also tells you how to make your own starter, and includes starter-only recipes and also hybrids of starter and commercial yeast.  Finally, it has a whole section on pizza, which I haven't even branched into yet, but am looking forward to. [Added later: my one complaint about the book (and believe me, it's rare for me to have only one complaint about a book) is that he make using starter more complicated than I believe it needs to be, so I wrote a post explaining how to do it more simply.]

Finally, I suppose no list of bread books would be complete without mentioning a book I don't own, Raymond Calvel's 1990 "Le goût du pain." Professor Calvel (1913–2005) is one of the figures responsible for the renaissance of the French bread-baking, which went into serious decline after the 1940s; he introduced the "autolyse" period mentioned above, and he is cited in almost all of the books I have discussed here. The English translation ("The Taste of Bread," pictured here) is expensive ($99 on a good day) and said to be flawed, but even on, the French version is actually more expensive (like €250). Apparently Hamelman's book is the closest we have. Interestingly, although Calvel has a short entry in Wikipedia, he has no entry in


  1. Excellent read!!!! I also love Jim Lahey's No-Knead Bread recipe. I do have a ceramic coated cast iron dutch oven and it comes out superb if I may say so myself, even in my deficient oven (as in restaurant quality). As a life long bread maker; somehow it connects me with souls from another time, I am excited about reading Flour, Water, Salt Yeast . Thank you!

    1. Glad you liked it, let me know how it goes!