Crackers: The Evolution of Bread

February 15, 2018

Slide from a presentation by Hubert Chiron

I was drawn to baking because of the lack of truly great bread around me. When you don't have fresh bread, all you can do is imagine it. I imagined baguettes as the most perfect expression of flour, water, salt, and yeast and I set out on a journey to chase that perfection.

My love of baguettes has not waned, but I have learned a lot about this idea of perfection. I have learned that bread is a temporary thing. There is no such thing as perfect bread, just perfect moments. And I learned that bread making has not been perfected, it is continually evolving and transforming. This knowledge has freed my mind and allowed me to explore and push the boundaries of what we can achieve with flour, water, salt, and yeast.

Hubert Chiron and  at WheatStalk 2014In 2014, I attended Wheat Stalk, a gathering where bread bakers from across the country share ideas and advance the cause. There was a presentation on traditional French baking by Hubert Chiron (he literally wrote the book on French bread) demonstrating what it takes to make a traditional baguette: the type of flour, the shaping, the size. In the words of Master Baker Jeffrey Hamelmam, "The simplest breads are the most difficult to produce... properly made, it is magnificent; poorly made, it is insipid and bland." This was a great way to begin, and a little bit intimidating.

American bakers have never been stuck in tradition and have been free to break the rules and see where it takes us. My next workshop was taught by Craig Ponsford and was an exploration of high extraction flours. These are nearly whole grain flours, a type that would never be used in a traditional baguette, yet that is exactly what we made for our tests. They emerged from the oven with a great texture and wonderfully complex flavor, and who happened to come by the kitchen at that very moment? Hubert Chiron. He tasted and was very pleased, commenting that perhaps the French classic could be improved.

Boom! That was the moment for me. I saw the evolution of bread happening before my eyes. In fact, in the next couple of years, more and more French bakers are trying out new flours and new techniques.

Nearly every culture on Earth has developed a traditional food from flour, water, and salt, resulting in endless variations. Once you open your eyes and your mind to the possibilities, there is a solution to nearly every situation. So, what is our situation today?

  1. We are constantly on the go, with very little structure to our schedule
  2. We are used to getting everything we want on-demand
  3. We have turned bread into an indulgence because we keep hearing how "bad" it is for us

In order to make bread fit into our difficult lives today, chemists have helped bakers to make it quicker, last longer, and fit trendy dietary requirements. None of this has resulted in better bread, but we eat what is available and only later realize that it might be doing more harm than good.

I knew there had to be a better approach, but first we would have to get away from the nostalgic vision of Grandma whipping up some piping hot yeast bread, serving it up slathered in butter still steaming from the oven. If this is what you want, you can still have it (I will show you how in a future post), but if you want the supermarket to sell it to you, we have to get the chemists involved.

At the end of each day, it would break my heart to see any bread left on the shelf knowing that the next day I would go through the same thing, and if I didn't someone would come in and ask and I would have to say, "No, come bake another day." That's no way to make happy customers! Surely I am not the first to face this challenge. I was certain that there must be an example of flour, water, and salt being used to create something with a longer shelf-life. Then it struck me: sailors!

Sailor and hardtack

I am Portuguese. Exploring is in my blood. I baked my first loaf of bread at sea. I knew from reading maritime history that sailors were fed crackers, or hardtack, on voyages lasting for years. They were kind of hard, and not very tasty, but it was a starting point. The other piece of the puzzle I learned from baking naturally leavened bread. Sourdough is a natural preservative, enhances texture, and best of all, adds wonderfully complex flavor.

It took some time to get it down. The local farmers market was a great venue for direct feedback. From this simple beginning I have added all sorts of seeds and grains to the sourdough to bring out surprising flavors. Along the way many customers have become hooked along with me and my wife. We find a way to work them into nearly every meal of the day!

I changed the sign on my building from "DeRego's Bread" to "DeRego's Sourdough Crackers." I quickly learned that nobody reads signs. I also learned a lot about people's relationship with bread and how deeply it is tied to memory. They continue to come in my front door and ask if I make some obscure bread from their childhood and very rarely will they get on board when I explain that what they really want is a sourdough cracker.

Some problems I can't solve, but when the problem is wanting to eat better food that fits into a busy lifestyle, I can get the conversation started. One taste usually seals the deal!

I have sold many bags of Naturally Fermented Craft Beer Grain Crackers and shipped them to customers in nearly every state!  I will tell you all about how the beer grain got involved and how it might save the planet in an upcoming post. For now, I hope you will open your mind and you mouth and try new things and keep eating better!

References:

Les Pains Français, by Phillipe Roussel & Hubert Chiron

 

Bread: A Baker's Book of Techniques and Recipes, Jeffrey Hamelman