A loving ode to the risen loaf as much as it is an in-depth guide to the technical and artistic side of bread making, Reinhart's book begins with a mini-tutorial, written in a clear, easy-to-follow manner, on the science of bread. Don't be afraid: Reinhart, a renowned artisan baker in his own right, is an instructor at one of the most prestigious culinary schools in the world; barring the opportunity to sit in on one of his classes, this tutorial allows for more than ample understanding of the processes at work and play behind the rising dough.
Reinhart divides the bread-baking process into 12 stages, from preparation to eating. Pay close attention to his discussion on fermentation. He is an advocate for the delayed rise, made possible through the use of refrigeration. Rather than waiting for an hour or two while the bread rises, he suggests refrigerating the dough overnight in order to allow the maximum release of glutens and sugars from the wheat, thereby giving the finished loaf more flavor and complexity.
As a result, the majority of the recipes — or formulas, as he calls them — take two and sometimes three days from start to finish, and require the use of a pre-ferment. As the name implies, this is nothing more than a previously prepared portion of dough that has already fermented. Mixing this with a batch of newly made dough, Reinhart explains, has the effect of immediately aging it. This additional step gives the finished loaf a flavor and complexity well worth the wait.
The Bread Baker's Apprentice is the first bread-baking cookbook I have ever read from cover to cover. It is comprehensive and detailed without overwhelming. In addition to learning how to bake favorites like French and Italian bread, pizza and focaccia, and three variations of white bread, Reinhart also includes directions for making everything from ciabatta to cinnamon buns — almost 50 formulas total.
While I have tried most of the recipes— repeatedly — I have yet to attempt baking any of the sourdoughs. As a close baker friend put it, preparing a sourdough starter is like taking care of a small child: It must be “fed” with flour and water, and watched closely over the better portion of a week while natural, airborne yeasts ferment. These airborne yeasts, which differ from region to region, give sourdough bread its unique flavor, which is why a true sourdough from San Antonio is different — not better or worse — than one from San Francisco.
As much as bread baking is a precision science, it does leave room for adaptation and improvisation. Like a culinary alchemist, Reinhart encourages experimentation. To duplicate the hard crust of artisan bread, Reinhart suggests heating a pan full of water in the oven and spritzing the loaf with a spray bottle during the first few minutes of baking. This combination effectively mimics the steam baths produced in top-line ovens. In place of a baking stone, I use my cast-iron comal. I like to toss in a handful of whole-wheat flour to compensate for the nutritional void of bread flour, and to lend the dough more grain. Tricks like these duplicate the taste and texture of hearth-baked, wood-fired, artisan bread.
Biting into the crisp, hard crust and the soft, delectable inside takes me back to those long nights and glorious meals amidst unopened cans of olives and dishes waiting to be washed. And knowing I made it myself makes homemade bread taste better than anything I could find at the store. Even more fulfilling is the satisfaction I get from sharing it with others.