It's Complicated

on the fractal nature of bread baking

[There has yet to be a week since I began writing this newsletter that some horrible event hasn’t gone down somewhere in the U.S. that makes me think I need to take a break from writing about bread and ask you to consider the world we live in instead. This week yet another Black man was killed by a police officer for no good reason, just across town from where another police officer is on trial for killing another Black man for no good reason last year. I’m going to send out my usual bread missive, but I’d like to ask you to please first take the time to read two posts that spoke to me this week: Mo Cheeks’ Let us Live and Garrett Bucks’ Would you like a better country or not?]

I realized recently that I am of two conflicting minds when it comes to bread baking and bread baking instruction. On the one hand, I strive to keep things as simple as possible, distilling methods and recipes as much as possible down to their most fundamental elements. When it comes to my own baking, keeping things simple allows me to bake regularly, despite the general chaos of the rest of my life (in the kitchen and beyond). And when it comes to baking instruction, simplifying serves to avoid overwhelming people with information that could create unnecessary confusion or, worse, send them screaming from the kitchen, never to reach for their sourdough starters again.

On the other hand, I am a nerd 🤓. I love discovering novel-to-me ways of doing things in bread, and I usually cannot resist playing around with them when I do. Ditto for styles of bread that I’ve not made before; I’m always chasing down some shiny new recipe or another, which is why the trail behind me is littered with so many half-finished projects.

I tend to bounce back and forth between these two poles, and for the most part it works, as long as I remain mindful of the need to steer the ship back toward the middle: to keep things simple but not too simple, and to finish at least a few of the projects I’ve begun before chasing after the next bread squirrel that crosses my field of vision.

But working up the curricula for my new online classes recently has forced me to think a little harder about all this. I’m realizing that there is a danger in oversimplifying my explanations, even for beginning bread bakers, because it can give people the false sense that things actually are simple in practice, and that when things go wrong that there are always simple solutions to be had.

Bread baking is fundamentally fractal in nature: The closer you look at it all, the more complex the system reveals itself to be, ad infinitum. That’s true not only because each of the elements of the process—flour, hydration, mixing, gluten development, starter maintenance, fermentation, shaping, baking, etc.—is inherently complex, but also because no one of these elements can really be considered in isolation of the others. There is only a web of interconnected effects that in tandem yield a loaf of bread—pluck on one thread and all the rest vibrate in response. This is exactly what makes bread baking a beautiful and fascinating pursuit—there is always more to study, more to test, more to say. But it is also why it is a such a challenging skill to teach well, as it is almost completely resistant to distillation.

Take crumb structure, for example. Recently I have been reading the book Open Crumb Mastery, by Trevor J. Wilson. I’ve mentioned before how disinterested I am in the pursuit of an open crumb for purely aesthetic reasons—I’d like to keep my peanut butter on my toast and off of my lap, thank you very much—but nevertheless I want to understand the various ways one can influence the internal texture of a loaf. And Wilson is without a doubt the authority on the subject, as the nearly 400-page book makes clear. In it, he considers every aspect of crumb structure and how it is built, from hydration, mixing, folding, fermentation, shaping, etc. Rather than proceeding in a linear fashion, the book has more of a spiral structure, cycling through each element and then doubling back to reconsider each again in light of the information previously presented. It’s a challenging book to wade though, but it’s clearly the only practical way to cover the topic.

If it takes an expert like Wilson almost 400 pages to cover the subject of how to achieve an open crumb, how can I possibly distill it down to anything less than that myself? (The answer is I can not, and so I’ll say that if an open crumb is something you are after, you want to get a copy of this book. It should already be obvious that it is not for beginners, but it’s highly recommended nonetheless, and it is an absolute bargain at 13 bucks.)

All of which is to say that if you want to get better at baking bread, you are probably going to need to learn to live with the complexity of it all, especially if you are at all curious about what is going on under the hood. The more questions you attempt to answer, the more questions that will inevitably arise.

On the other hand, if the idea of all that complexity scares you and makes you contemplate throwing in the towel, don’t let it. There is an alternative route that will get you to a similar place, albeit more slowly: Keep it simple. By which I mean: pick a single, well-constructed recipe (here’s one that comes to mind, but there are loads of others) and stick with it until it becomes second nature; resist chasing after bread squirrels yourself and get to know that one recipe inside and out. By the time you are an expert in it, two things will have happened: You’ll find yourself entirely comfortable with the complexity of bread baking, and you’ll have a long list of questions that will only be answered by expanding your repertoire.