Baking by Numbers – that's what bakers do

I’ve heard and read professional bakers claim they’re good bakers because they’ve been baking for ‘x’ amount of years.  How does following a recipe make you a good baker?  

The flour bought through a supermarket or if you’re a professional baker buying direct from the miller is a blend.  That means the miller will have chosen different varieties and mix them to make that flour.

If you’ve never come across what a paint-by-numbers kit is, it’s a painting kit which comes with the right colours needed to paint the picture and the picture is outlined.  The kit is designed for little error and if the steps are  followed the painting will be a success.  This is what millers do with your flour.

Millers mix different varieties to make their blend, their grist.  This blend has to be good enough to produce a loaf of bread, to leave the narrowest margin for error in order for the baker to be happy with the results and return to buy more flour.  Like any business the more return sales for the miller the better for his business.  It’s in the miller’s interest to produce a blend that works in most circumstances.

What’s in a blend?

Well, that’s the thing, a lot of millers usually the large ones I’ve experienced see it as their secret blend and are reluctant to give too much detail away.  Small mills I’ve found to be very open not only about what varieties go in, but also about the proportions of the varieties.

What’s wrong with using a blend?

Nothing.  I use a blend.  There’s nothing wrong with using a blend, unless trying to improve one’s skills as a baker.

Using a miller’s blend does not truly challenge the skills of the baker.  Using a blend craftily put together by an experienced miller insuring that it will withstand lots of mixing, proving and still rises, takes away a lot of variables for the baker.  Wheat changes considerably from year to year, the weather and soil management will effect it greatly because it’s a living plant and susceptible to change.

The obsession with formulas ruins your skills

To be a baker for 10, 20, 30 years means nothing if all one has achieved is played around with a generic flour,  a flour blended by the miller who ensures it it will dance at the baker’s command.

Instead of trying to find the ultimate formula using these flours why not try instead to work with interesting flours?

Working with interesting flours automatically forces a baker to work out a formula which will suit that flour.  The flour is in command, it will challenge skills and most likely cause a head ache trying to figure it, bringing out the best flavour and texture.

The loss of skill and loss of interesting flours

If through one’s lifetime as a baker all we’ve done is worked with flours manipulated for us, my question is…where’s the skill?

Bakers who are only interested in flour that will withstand the obsessive mixing have forced interesting flours out of the market.  If following a formula is all a baker knows on generic flour, where’s the skill of taking different and interesting flours and developing a formula around it?

Interesting flours

I’m differentiating between generic blends by mills and the interesting flours some small mills are trying to produce for all sorts of good reasons, climate adaptation, old varieties, new varieties with good flavour.   I’m talking of flours that are not primarily produced for the survival of the mixer or compensating for inadequate skills.  John Letts’ is growing an interesting mixed variety of Heritage wheats, but it could also be an interesting imported flour grown to a particular area for historical reasons for example.

Difficult green flour

Last year when I visited Roland Feuillas and saw the resulting crumb he could produce with green flour using a hybrid stiff levain formula, it opened my eyes to the dangers of using only generic flour blends.  Roland turned green flour with its short-cake-like gluten strands into the same crumb texture we’ve come to expect to today’s standard of a good wheat loaf.

With good skill, so long as the flour has the ability to retain gas it can be turned into bread with the right treatment.  If we don’t develop and adapt our skills to suit these flours we can’t show the public why they are worth buying and eating and therefore keeping alive.

Baking with challenging flours

A bakery in order to financially survive and provide a good decent living for a baker and his workers has to turn out consistently good loaves and I’m not suggesting for bakeries to abandon millers’ generic flour blends, these flours are there to make life easier and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m merely suggesting within a bakery’s offerings to be one loaf which uses special flour, in order to encourage farmers to plant interesting varieties grown for flavour rather than grown to compete with Canadian and Kazakhstan super-duppa strong flours, and at the same time keep a baker’s skill sharp.

We are now use to seeing tomatoes grown for flavour which wasn’t the case a few years ago…why can’t we do the same with wheat?

One of my achievements this year, producing this sourdough crumb using 2010 crop of white stoneground tybalt wheat (low protein) grown in Wales, 2 months after milling.  (100% tybalt in recipe using my normal white roller mill flour in the levain)