|To Bake or Not To Bake? The Pros & Cons of In-House Bread
Bread baking is a simple enough equation on paper: combine flour, water, salt, yeast, and add some time. But it’s that last ingredient—time—that most often deters experimentation, and the finicky chemistry of yeast and heat can be daunting in its own right. But the flavor, texture, and scent of fresh-baked bread are undeniably seductive, and as with in-house charcuterie, there’s an added value element—that special somethin’ that homemade bread brings to the table.
A day with Carl Schavitz of the Artisan Bread School proved that yes, bread takes time… and patience, and finesse. But like most things in life—from cooking to playing Beethoven sonatas—all it takes is a bit of practice to become familiar with, and eventually master, the nuances. Of course, it takes commitment, too. If Michael Tuohy, the chef of Grange in Sacramento, could give one bit of bread baking advice, it would be “If you don’t want to make it a priority, don’t do it!”
Michael Laiskonis, the pastry chef at Le Bernardin, speaks poetically about the zen-like aspect of making bread: “[It’s] making a connection with a living food that isn't necessarily always under your control. It's as if you are working with the product, creating the right environment in order to let it all happen on its own.”
Despite Laiskonis’ reverence for the process, there isn’t enough space or enough staff at Le Bernardin for him to make the restaurant’s bread in-house (his pastry kitchen’s one oven is kept busy with his desserts). Not to mention, New York has no shortage of excellent local bakeries—Tomcat, Balthazar, Amy’s Bread, Sullivan Street Bakery—to fill the need.
There are no two ways around it: baking takes up space. “For artisan bread you need more time for mixing, fermentation, proofing, and space for boards and couches—it takes room and planning,” says Tuohy. But brioche and foccacia have shorter proof times and can rise and bake on sheet pans, in small spaces, making them good starting points for in-house breads. Foccacia can be made and served the same day, and with a few tweaks, can even double as pizza dough.
At Grange, which opened in December (2008), Tuohy is supplementing his homemade brioche, foccacia, and pizza dough with breads from Acme Bakery. While chef of Woodfire Grill in Atlanta, Tuohy made three breads (focaccia, sourdough, and pecan raisin-honey-molasses bread) daily. By his calculations, the raw cost of ingredients was less than buying it, but when labor and time were factored in, in-house and brought-in came up about even. “But the same argument can be made about having [an in-house] pastry chef,” says Tuohy. “You do it because you evaluate what is a priority and what you’re trying to achieve.”
At RM Seafood in Las Vegas, the priority was serving a traditional New England lobster roll, and so the pastry staff began testing potato bread recipes until they found the perfect combination of lightness, sweetness, and structure. The rolls do double-duty: the restaurant uses them for a seafood slider trio that changes nightly and for the restaurant’s hamburger.
Alinea in Chicago was serving bread from a local bakery until one of the cooks, Mike Carroll, came to the chef with a suggestion. “Mike came to me and said ‘I can bake bread better than what we are serving’,” says chef Grant Achatz. They let him have a go at it, and today, 2½ years later, the bread continues to evolve with the menu. “The whole reason we did it was so that we could do a bread pairing, just like wine. We’re trying to elevate the experience to create a cohesive course. You can’t do that if you’re outsourcing.”
In the last year, bacon doughnuts, coconut toast, fig and allspice scones, orange-caraway bread, and olive oil brioche have been served, each designed to complement a particular course. There’s no special equipment, just the regular Alinea ovens, which Carroll starts using around 4am each day.
Bread was the starting point for Iacopo Falai, who began his career as a pastry chef/bread baker in Florence, Italy. Today’s he’s known as the impresario of a handful of Lower East Side restaurants and cafes that serve some of the city’s best bread (which he smartly sells to a number of other NYC restaurants as well). The constant entrepreneur, Falai initially helped cut his costs by selling his bread directly to the public via a small retail window at his café—a good option for those who want to take on an in-house bread program, but need to cover their costs.
Before opening Falai Panneteria, the bakery/café where he now bakes all of his goods on a large scale, Falai made five varieties of small bread in-house at his restaurant, Falai. His recipe for pane dolce is a simplified version of that early dough, which he shaped into knots around different fillings, like onion, black cabbage, raisin, and more.
What’s the moral of the story? In-house bread can be done without great expenditures of time and cost as long as you start small—a potato roll here, foccacia there. And keep Tuohy’s number one piece of advice in mind: if bread baking is not something you want to devote time and practice to, then stick with your local baker to make the magic happen.