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james 10-04-2008 12:03 PM

How to improve bread baking
I am looking for a little advice. I want to improve my bread baking, and take some classes and learn better technique, but I feel like I fall into a gap. I don't think I am ready for a professional baking course (and I'm not even sure there is anything close), and I'm not sure I would learn much from a baking basics class. I have already taken a couple of those.

Any ideas? For our serious (pro) bakers, how did you build up you expertise?


Dutchoven 10-04-2008 01:23 PM

Re: How to improve bread baking
Ours was acquired by trial and error along with lots of reading and research. What about a workshop with CJim? or something at the SanFrancisco Baking Institute?

james 10-04-2008 02:06 PM

Re: How to improve bread baking
Those are both good ideas. We talked a while ago about setting up something with Jim in California. We should pick that back up for Spring 09.

I will contact SFBI and see what they have going -- San Francisco is 2 hours drive, but they may have Monterey contacts.

Dutch, I've been reading the Hamelman for all the science and technique behind bread (in addition to the formulas). There is so much to learn.


Dutchoven 10-04-2008 03:59 PM

Re: How to improve bread baking
Always more to learn...don't go too far and lose that elusive "feel" for your many variables expecially for home bakers...

CanuckJim 10-06-2008 11:51 AM

Re: How to improve bread baking
Dutch, James,

When I started giving workshops years ago, I was insane enough to lecture to crowds of twenty or so. Didn't work very well; too impersonal. Then I decided to restrict class size to six; too crazy. I now only take on four people at a time for two days so everyone gets a very real chance to handle the various doughs and try all the shaping techniques. The structure I use is to work from the very wettest of doughs to the very driest.

In order to take on more people, the classes would have to be extended over more days. There is absolutely no substitute for handling the various doughs, including high hydration pizza. Otherwise, I suggest reading the books and looking at videos. So far, this approach has worked very well indeed. In my experience, a lot of the students--even those with considerable experience--tend to make their doughs too dry. This is not a good approach, even with a home oven, but it definitely does not work with a WFO. Wood firing begs for higher hydration, and the result is greater oven spring, volume and caramelization.

Many people seem stuck on the idea that you have to follow a particular formula to the letter. I try to point out that what you're after is a certain feel to the dough, as Dutch says. The time of year, elevation, part of the continent, humidity level, type of flour, mixer variables, etc., etc., all demand that you must be flexible when working with a formula. This takes experience, of course, but getting real hands on instruction at the start is essential. Once you've got the "touch," you can take it anywhere.

My approach is a personal one, of course, but it's been worked out over time, modified and tweaked repeatedly, until I've gotten a workable system in place.

I always try to get an advance idea for how much experience a workshop participant has, so I can tailor my approach. There have been a lot of people through Mary G's over time, from complete novices to Cordon Bleu graduates and bakers with thirty years experience on gas decks. Universally, the response has been that small groups, an emphasis on dough handling, plus oven management have been invaluable.

The restricted size of the classes means I can modify my approach as required. Can't speak for other workshop structures, but what I'm doing is not an "institutional" course, as such, nor is it a basic course. Although it's only two days right now, I do feel--with a lot of positive reinforcement--that once you learn the doughs, shaping techniques and oven management, there is nothing you'll be worried about tackling.

One participant, a rancher from Texas, suggested that I make a "refresher" video for people to take with them after the class. This is a priority for 09.

I'd really like to pursue the idea of setting up something in CA for next year. Is it poll time:D ?


james 10-06-2008 04:34 PM

Re: How to improve bread baking
Hi Jim (and everyone),

Let's start thinking about the best way to put together a group for lessons with Jim in California Spring 09. We need four people, two days and a wood oven. Jim and I are talking off-line to make sure the dollars and cents line up for him, and we will put a program together.

If anyone wants to jump in with a time and place -- let us know.

One option is the FB oven at Ramekins in Sonoma.


james 10-06-2008 04:37 PM

Re: How to improve bread baking
One more thing. I really agree with Jim's comment on touch. You can read (and read and read) the best bread books and look at all the photos, but I am feeling in need of having a pro on hand to watch what I do, feel what I am doing and help me develop that "touch".

I will not give up!

Dutchoven 10-06-2008 06:51 PM

Re: How to improve bread baking
The Bread Baker's Apprentice on Amazon...$50(?)
Bread Kit from King Art's catalog....$100(?)
KitchenAid Pro Mixer on Ebay....$369(?)
Understanding bread making and getting the "FEEL"....PRICELESS

nissanneill 10-07-2008 01:59 AM

Re: How to improve bread baking
Hey James,
I'll put up my oven and facilities if you and/or Jim want to come 'down under' to hold a similar course!! You will of course need to poses one of those 'Certificates of Competence' to qualify!


FigliodiMariaeGiovanni 10-07-2008 07:32 AM

Re: How to improve bread baking
No offense to our Aussie brethren, but I'm putting New Jersey first on that list!:D

I must share something with you all. I have a restaurant background and as a kid my first job was washing dishes in my dad's Tavola Calda, which translates into steam table. My mom would do the cooking and all of our family members helped launch the business. We even had an in-law who was a baker from Naples. Giuseppe lived to be 90 and baked until his last day on this earth. I wish that I had watched him more closely! But I did pick up a few tips from him.
Being young and inquisitive I marveled at the workings of it all. I longed to be in the kitchen. As I got into my teens I lost the fervor in favor of female chasing so I lost touch for a while. By the time I had 'found myself' my family had moved on to other things and alas I made a choice to import leather products to the USA from Italy. Big departure from the food business. "Regrets, I have a few...."
Those days seem so important to me now, and I agree with most of the sentiments on here. There is a feel that no book can teach you. We are all passionate about this craft so that proves that we want to do it right. I think too much information has ruined this world and I apply that to baking as well.
James, you only have to see the smiles on people's faces to realize that what you make is from the heart and is delicious. I have had so many people tell me that the bread I make is awesome, all done by hand. I am not an artisan [yet] but I have to believe that our products are made 'con amore'

I want to start a trend of oversimplifying the world, but I think that FornoBravo enthusiasts have beat me to the punch. What I mean is, so much technology yet so much confusion. This forum proves to me that doing things 'old school' is a far better approach.

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