Artisanal Baking: Keeping It Real
When bread or other baked goods are made by an artisan—created with only a few pure, high-quality ingredients; mixed and shaped by hand; and baked in a hearth oven—every last crumb has soul.
The artisanal baking trend of the past few years left many large baked goods companies wondering how to hurdle all the obstacles in creating mass-produced items that achieve artisan-style quality.
“The aim of early artisan bakers in the U.S. was to recreate the qualities of European breads and pastries,” says Greg Tompkins, director of culinary research and innovation at La Brea Bakery. “The feeling was that a lot of the artistry in baking had been lost with the shuttering of small bakeries and the rise of ‘commodity’ baked goods manufacturing plants.”
What qualities did they wish to bring back? According to bioscientist and master baker David Deblauwe, artisan bread has specific characteristics: natural ingredients, irregular shapes with a distinct crust, and “a moist, glossy open-cell structure that delivers an exquisite taste from a long fermentation process.”
The top criterion for an artisan product, experts agree, is simplicity of ingredients. “The smaller the ingredient list, the more opportunity there is for the real flavors to show,” suggests Mike Lucchesi, vice president of manufacturing at Gonnella Baking Co.
What’s left out is equally important. “Any ingredients supplemental to the recipe added to address manufacturing challenges should be natural and recognizable as such on an ingredient statement,” adds La Brea’s Tompkins.
But, it takes more than pure ingredients to yield an artisanal product. Ensuring artisanal quality by relying on simple ingredients is successful, according to Gonella’s Lucchesi, because that “forces the baker to let time back into” the process. “Fermentation periods of eight hours or more are typical at various stages of production,” he explains. “Stretching out a process from three to 24 hours takes a lot. In that interval, conditions must be maintained for these prolonged periods, especially in make-up and baking.”
Tompkins concurs. “There can be a tendency to default to an ‘it’s good enough’ level of quality and a short-sighted approach of cutting corners to shave time, when time is money,” he says. “Resisting this tendency, especially in the nascent stages of a [smaller] business where cash flow may be constrained, is a tremendous challenge.”
A Matter of Time
Ralcorp Frozen Bakery Products’ Cottage Bakery division bakes true artisan-style bread in a carefully wrought process that, according to Kevin O’Connell, senior director of research and development, invests 12 hours in the levain process (natural leavening); three hours in floor time; five hours in proofing; 25 minutes baking; 20 minutes cool-down; and one hour freezing. For complexity of flavor developed over a long fermentation time, it leavens the dough with a levain of flour and water with no commercial yeast, conditioners or additives.
This process permits another key quality of artisan products: high absorption—the percentage of water in a dough that consists of 100lb of flour.
“Typical commercial white bread and hamburger rolls are made at 60-65% absorption, produced using a ‘straight dough’ method in approximately 120 minutes, start to finish,” says O’Connell. “They’re able to run this fast, because the doughs contain additives, conditioners and preservatives.”
Given the time to “relax” and absorb the water, Cottage Bakery’s doughs have a typical rate of 70-80% absorption, in addition to creating a desired artisanal texture, which also contributes to a naturally long shelflife.
Next, the fermentation process continues, and C02 gas raises the dough as it relaxes. The subsequent step is to shape and mold the dough in a stress-free manner that doesn’t damage it. For bread molding, Cottage Bakery uses a Rheon Stress Free Artisan Bread line manufactured in Japan that, says O’Connell, “lets us run a continuous stream of dough sheet without knocking the gas out of the dough. It weighs that sheet, and the guillotines divide each stream into the final dough pieces that are then rolled or sheeted to the specific shape.”
The loaves are then ready to be leavened or proofed. “Using a long fermentation process, we keep the proof box at 60°F and slowly raise the dough for five hours, producing more enzymes and flavor. We keep it cold to reduce the amount of acid produced, which would cause too sour a flavor. Once proofed, the loaves are then scored, or cut by hand and par-baked in a stone hearth oven that—because the natural levain is not as powerful as a commercial yeast—requires a high initial temperature of 450°F to quickly transfer heat and expand all the gas bubbles in the bread.”
The last step, freezing, is done after a 20-30 minute cool-down. “Our spiral freezers are capable of pulling down the internal temperature of each loaf of bread to below 32?F in 70 minutes or less. The key is to stop any water activity, thereby stopping staling,” says O’Connell. The investment in a spiral freezer, he insists, keeps these breads ahead of their competitors. With a total of 21¾ hours, O’Connell says, “It takes Ralcorp’s Cottage Bakery almost one day to make one loaf of bread.”
The challenge to any artisanal-style food is to retain the qualities of a product made by hand, when the process is no longer truly or completely handmade. David Kamen, professor of culinary arts and project manager for CIA Consulting Services, actually worked on a project between the Culinary Institute of America and Ralcorp to certify the company’s process and identify the criteria for labeling a product as artisanal.
Kamen explains that those criteria include: a large amount of handwork and corresponding high labor costs; commitment to quality ingredients; and, in the case of bread, an effort to use only flour, water, yeast and salt. This makes it difficult to mass-produce.
“With a live product, you have a limited amount of time to mix it, make it and get it in the oven before the yeast gets carried away. Commercial producers use additives, dough conditioners or enzymes to retard the yeast. That’s where the challenge and the differentiation come in,” Kamen avers.
Along with the time challenge comes the ingredient challenge. “An insistence on the highest quality of any ingredient is a good starting point,” says La Brea Bakery’s Tompkins, citing as an example the use of a high-butterfat, European-style butter to create laminated pastries, or hard red winter wheat flour for long-fermentation breads. And, while true artisan foods may use real fruit for flavoring—for example, splitting vanilla beans and scooping out the flavor—doing so requires time and expertise, which impacts cost. The strategy must be to introduce authentic flavors in a less-costly fashion. Vanilla extracts derived from finest quality vanilla beans, sourced from around the world and made without “short-cuts” in manufacturing processes (thus preserving flavor and aroma), can be a perfect substitute.
Manufacturers can use clean label or modified instant starches in formulations to help with dough handling, moisture management and texture, and still maintain an artisanal integrity. In addition, starches can be used in fillings to help with surface appearance, freeze-thaw stability and shelflife. These starch ingredients also offer caramelization for good color.
Natural gums and gum systems—e.g., xanthan, guar and other hydrocolloids—help manage moisture and thus improve the texture and appearance of gluten-free bread. Specialized blends of hydrocolloids can be used to increase moisture and volume, and deliver stabilization and texture solutions. Resistant starch can be used in formulations that need a higher fiber content yet must maintain a white-flour lightness. In fact, in some formulations, resistant starch from corn has been shown to increase volume in a risen baked product by several percentage points. Emulsifying starches are also useful texture preservers for recipes that might call for egg replacement, such as in vegan-certified baked goods.
Also, the right sugar blends can improve texture and inhibit gluten mixture stabilization, resulting in softer texture and increasing strength to the stress caused by machinery. Fructose and other sugars, sweetener blends, starches, protein and fibers all are ingredients in the baker’s toolbox that not only add flavor, but also help maintain texture and retain moisture. Crystallized fructose improves water-holding capacity and so helps retain moisture, which in turn ensures microbial stability that extends shelflife.
When it comes to bread, mass producers are able to develop flavors just as their artisan producer counterparts do, with the use of pre-ferments and sourdoughs, but on a larger scale.
“The use of pre-ferments, based on commercial yeast to make sponges or airborne lactic acid bacteria for sourdough production, requires the knowledge of how to control the fermentation process to develop the right flavor,” says master baker Deblauwe. “Although making sourdough seems a simple and straightforward process, the challenge is to make it consistently, day after day.”
Active baking ingredients based on sourdough can also help bakers increase water levels to achieve high absorption. The resulting open-cell structures are characteristic of authentic artisan products. And, combinations of enzymes and emulsifiers increase the dough’s tolerance and extensibility, lending consistency and preventing product waste.
When longer fermentation times characteristic of artisan breads aren’t possible, ready-to-use fermentation flavors are available in powder and liquid form that offer a variety of taste and texture profiles, with less investment of fermentation time needed to create the flavors. Ingredient makers have developed natural fermentation flavors that range from a yeasty, alcoholic flavor note to authentic Italian durum sourdough flavor or an acidic German sour.
“Consistency is especially critical in bread baking when using pre-ferments,” says La Brea’s Tompkins. “Nowhere is that more important than when using sourdough starters and levains. Even moderate deviation from feeding and fermentation routines will change the nature and efficacy of pre-ferments and, by extension, the quality and consistency of the breads made with them.”
Specialty malts can be used as natural dough conditioners. These are made from 100% pure malted barley. They soften dough and help it retain moisture to increase shelflife. These malt systems, and the all-natural malt extract grain sweeteners made from them, also contribute warm-to-deep, rich colors, as well as a variety of artisanal flavors.
For the foundation of baked goods—grains—bakers have a huge field of choices, from soft wheats, winter wheats, whole grains, rye and numerous ancient grains, such as spelt, kamut, einkorn, quinoa, emmer and amaranth.
“Ancient grains continue to be hot,” says Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies for Oldways/The Whole Grain Council. “Beyond the ever-popular quinoa, we’re seeing more use of grains such as millet, teff and amaranth.” Bakers also are finding that sprouted grains are a way to denote a product as artisan. “These ingredients definitely say ‘I’m not the same old mass-produced product.’ At the same time, they make a difference by offering more health benefits,” adds Harriman.
In addition, bakers can differentiate their products through the use of heirloom varieties of flour and seeds, as well as trending flours, such as rice, pea or tapioca.
The most important quality of the flour is consistency—especially in high-speed operations with no time for making adjustments. Particle size affects how flours perform—how they hydrate and mix, and what textures they produce. Purchasing flour from a company offering a selection of particle sizes can help ensure the flour performs consistently. Spring wheats are a good choice for adding strength to help dough tolerate the abuse of machining. However, they can need slightly longer mix time and possibly more fermentation to condition the protein. Some millers provide grain blends in the form of whole-grain flours or processed grains (cracked, crushed, chopped, cut or whole kernel) that can help them achieve a desired flavor, texture or nutritional profile.
Minimally processed grain ingredients let bakers bypass the pre-soak step and directly add whole grains to dough. Because they’re heated to the point of eliminating any enzyme activity, there’s no dough breakdown from enzyme reactions. These pre-gelatinized ingredients, available in a variety of forms from whole kernel to flour, can be added directly to a dough matrix for a rustic, artisan look.
“To produce artisan-quality bread, you need to create texture and a supple dough,” says Ofer Eliav, marketing manager of GreenLite Food Ltd. The Israeli company was formed three years ago as the artisanal, gluten-free division of Eytan’s Bakery Ltd. Having rapidly captured more than half its domestic market, the company is coming this year to the U.S. with its pre-baked, fully baked and frozen rolls, baguettes, bagels, buns, cakes, sandwich breads and rustic loaves.
GreenLite’s challenge of staying on the artisanal path while remaining gluten-free relies on what Eliav calls “3,000 years of experience” in making baked goods that adhere to the very strict dietary rules of the Jewish Passover. Greenlite uses customized flour systems composed of potato flour, plus (depending on the item) flours from soy, rice, corn and other grains without gluten. The facility is certified-kosher, of course, but also at 5ppm or less gluten.
“Artisan bread-making requires a more personal touch to the production line,” says Eliav. He acknowledges that this approach has “implications in terms of cost,” but notes it is compatible with a vision to “bring consumers tastes and smells that were not part of their menu before.”
Greenlite is a good example of how it might be necessary to adopt and adapt techniques to meet particular needs.
“You have to find a technique to make production faster while keeping up with quality,” says chef Francois Payard, of Francois Payard Bakery. “Instead of creating individual round fillings for a round pastry or cake, we can make a full-size sheet pan and cut squares to fit inside the pastries.” There’s no waste, less labor and increased efficiency. Such techniques, he says, allows the bakery to lower the price of cakes and pastries without lowering the quality.
“There is success in doing the correct things the same way day after day after day,” says La Brea’s Tompkins “Automation will help to a point, but should be used only when it does not sacrifice quality or good baking practices” of the artisan. Besides, a perfect appearance isn’t always the best strategy when it comes to artisan-style products.
“The product should look irregular,” says Oldways’ Harriman. “For example, [letting] a loaf of crusty bread brown a little unevenly or split at an angle.” And, even the packaging can suggest an artisan sensibility. “It should reflect art and tradition, rather than slick modernity,” she says.
Just Add Eggs
Numerous ingredients can help bakers produce delectable baked goods with artisan appeal. “Sugar, fat and leavening aids are added to tenderize products, because they shorten gluten strands,” says Walter Zuromski, corporate chef for the American Egg Board. “Additives, too, are sometimes used in flour to help control the outcome of the crumb,” says Zuromski. “Oxygen is added to flour to strengthen the gluten, so it will be more elastic, and potassium bromate is added to make a more elastic dough easier to handle, once fermented, and produce a wider crumb when baked.”
Eggs, Zuromski explains, are a useful natural aid, because they “provide aeration and also help form emulsions, building structure for stability, tenderizing products, retaining moisture, increasing nutritional value, and even improving flavor and color.” He points to how dried and liquid egg products are available in modified products to help increase these characteristics and maintain a baked product’s integrity when packaged.
The proper handling of eggs can be a leading challenge to larger production operations, according to Stephen Sollner, an instructor at AIB International School of Baking. “Egg processors have provided a great service to the baker by shelling eggs, followed by pasteurization to provide a microbial-safe ingredient. They also provide the baker with many different forms of eggs that give flexibility. [Some examples include] frozen whole eggs, frozen yolks and whites, sugared yolks, and powdered whole eggs, yolks and whites.” Egg yolk, in particular, says Sollner, “plays a major role in the richness in an artisanal baked good, so producers might benefit from the use of fortified whole eggs—those with additional yolk added for additional richness.”
Egg products also are useful when it comes to addressing safety issues. “Powered egg products help minimize handling issues in larger plants,” says Sollner, “and egg processors have developed shelf-stable eggs by adding sugar and reducing the water content.”