The Power of the “Gateway Loaf”: Why You Should Start Baking Your Own Bread
Baking your own bread can be straight-up daunting. Why not just buy it at the bakery instead? What a hassle. Our writer felt the same way until she baked her first loaf—and got hooked.
“For many, the hardest part of becoming a home baker is getting over the initial hump of starting out—dough that’s too sticky, too much flour all over the kitchen, too many hard-to-clean bowls.” —Peter Kaminsky in Bien Cuit: The Art of Bread, co-written with Zachary Golper
You know what? Kaminsky is right. Many of us are hesitant to call ourselves bakers. For my part, I stuck to baking that felt like cooking, such as fruit bubbling into a caramel, or leek bread pudding. I liked to see the action happening right on the stovetop, not being comfortable with the science of baking. I love bread, though, and would buy it at fancy-looking patisseries. Maybe this baguette with the wonderfully dark crust, or those Parker house rolls that looked ready to be slathered with butter.
But I’ve finally crossed the Rubicon and started baking my own, and have made the same excellent no-knead bread recipe eight times in a row. And now I’m insufferably critical of both my own work and that of others. I’ve become that person who muses aloud about crumb structure, or picks up a piece from the bread basket to sniff it. I’ve bought a scale and a Silpat and I am ready to rumble. I’ve found myself thinking about bread when in the middle of a totally irrelevant conversation, making mental notes about something that didn’t work. I’ve yanked all my baking cookbooks off the shelf and dusted them off.
Being a student, it turns out, is still fun: For the no-knead, I’ve learned that I get the best rise from my yeast when I keep the dough covered with plastic wrap, tucked right into the (not in use!) oven, which is the precisely right temperature. After ruining a cotton towel, I now skip the step that suggests I let the bread rise on it, instead using a Silpat so I can more easily flip it into a hot Dutch oven and pop it in the oven.
And Kaminsky was right; my first loaf was a gateway loaf. I was as proud as a kindergartner with her first handmade Mother’s Day card, trotting out any conversational excuse to name-drop my boule. And now that I’ve gotten it to rise properly (in part, because I let it rise for 20 hours rather than 12, the recipe minimum) I’ve begun to nerd out on its hue, allowing it to cook longer and turn a more mahogany brown in order to get it to the bien cuit (French for “well done”) state, rescuing it from its pot just before it starts looking burned.
I have a new, consuming hobby. I’ll have the oven on full blast until summer arrives and my top-floor apartment becomes hot as Hades. I’ll be wrapping loaves in pretty paper with ribbon and delivering them as hostess gifts with good butter or crème fraiche (which is, incidentally, cheaper than bringing a bottle of wine, since a loaf costs a dollar to make). I’ll branch out to baguettes, trying to get mine as lovely and brown as Golper’s are in his Brooklyn shop. I’ll try out Dorie Greenspan’s brioche, since I already love her tarte tatin recipe. And I’ll definitely be making Greenspan’s cannelés (from the same book, and here online)—those gorgeous, rum-laced ridged French pastries that are oh-so-easy to eat handfuls of at a time.
But if all that sounds as overwhelming to you as it did to me a few months ago, start with one easy loaf. You’ll be so encouraged by how much it has bloomed overnight that the next steps—getting it out of its pot, letting it rest more, tucking its corners in a bit, and flipping it into a hot pan—will seem so easy. The hands-on time—as opposed to the resting time—is maybe 10 minutes, which is a dream. It will perfume your house like nothing else. Slice it to serve alongside ricotta drizzled with olive oil. Pile tuna and cheddar on to slices for fabulous tuna melts. Use up leftovers on slabs of it, whether roast cauliflower or spare anchovies or a knob of soft cheese or capers. And until you’ve made French toast using your own day-old bread—I love Molly Wizenberg’s recipe—I’d argue you haven’t really made French toast.
I’ll report back once I’ve tried making those cannelés, but I’m so glad I made the leap.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Martha Stewart Living, Travel & Leisure, New York Magazine, and Epicurious. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alexvanburen.