I have been avidly baking bread for about 2 years now. Over this time I have done a great deal of experimentation with ingredients and process. It’s very easy to get caught up in the limitless potential variables and lose touch with the basics of baking great bread. Recently I got the chance to do an introduction to bread baking workshop at Babette’s Bread. This was my opportunity to revisit those all-important basic techniques and be reminded of exactly why I love baking bread so much.
Babettes Bread is a small artisan bakery which supplies a small number of outlets with a range of different traditional bread. In addition to this owner and baker, Babette Kourelos runs a wide variety of workshops aimed at the home baker. The workshops range from introduction to bread baking, intermediate topics on French or Italian bread, specifics such as hot cross buns, and more advanced techniques as well as sourdough baking. There really is something for everyone.
Babette’s bakery is set in the heart of Maboneng, one of the most vibrant areas of Johannesburg. You get a sense of the hustle-and-bustle energy that makes the city so special. The energy spills over into the notion of artisan produce, of pushing back against bland food and reclaiming the ability to produce for ourselves which is so easily given up at the altar of convenience.
Babette’s passion is palpable. Her answers are all underpinned by stories, experiences and anecdotes collected during her years of curiosity, admiration and passion for bread. She is able to generate a sense of excitement around any aspect of the baking process. She truly gives you a sense of how amazing it is that four humble ingredients can come together to form something so beautiful and inspiring.
Why bake your own bread?
Bread baking can seem overwhelming from the outside. There is a sense of immense skill and experience (and some dark magic) required to produce those beautiful classic loaves you may have seen in some artisanal stores or on international travels. It is true that baking mastery requires an understanding and feel for working dough and controlling a wide range of factors which influence the final product. This takes thousands of hours to develop and is the realm of the professional baker. However, it is also true that the basic steps of baking are relatively easy to master and, with a little instruction; one could soon be producing excellent bread at home.
There are so many advantages to baking your own bread. First and foremost there is nothing better than the smell and taste of freshly baked bread. Imagine that smell with the added pride of knowing you baked it yourself. Then there is the complete control you have over ingredients and process. This means you can bake bread to your specific preferences and be comfortable knowing exactly what went into your bread. These days almost everything we buy contains ingredients meant to shorten production time or extend lifespan. Baking your own allows you to produce bread with greater nutritional value, easier to digest, and full of flavour.
The best things in life take time
Bread has been unfairly demonized over recent years, mostly because the industrialized mass production loaves we find on supermarket shelves are so far removed from real bread. Bread should consist of four ingredients: flour, water, salt and yeast. I challenge you to read the ingredients listed on the packaging of most supermarket bread. These contain almost 20 ingredients which have been added to fortify flour which lacks nutrients, artificially develop flavour, preserve the bread, and dramatically speed up the process.
Time is the really the crux of what separates good bread from the bad. Long, slow fermentation develops flavour, texture and improves the nutritional value of bread. Fermentation time can be anything from 6 hours to 48 or more! Generally speaking, the longer the fermentation time the more flavour is developed – obviously within reason.
Commercially, longer processing means higher cost. So quality artisan bread cost more than the basic loaf of sliced white bread. This limits the potential of the former to be a replacement for the latter. However, the basic ingredients described above are not expensive, and with a little investment in developing the basic skills of a baker, it is feasible to bake all your bread requirements at home.
Each of Babettes workshops takes you through the full set of processes involved in baking bread. This includes mixing the base ingredients, developing your dough, fermentation, shaping and baking. The physical steps are separated by discussions over each aspect of the process. This makes for a dynamic learning experience and allows plenty of time to ask questions.
Each participant gets to do each process step with their own piece of dough. This, of course, means that each participant finishes the workshop with a beautiful loaf of bread which they produced.
The atmosphere is very relaxed and fun and means all the participants settle in, laugh and discuss their progress. Any errors made along the way can easily be corrected. The wonderful part of the group learning environment is observing how each participant’s dough behaves. This is a fundamental part of baking – understanding that each loaf you bake will behave differently and the job of the baker is to react to this. So don’t panic about things not looking the same as the person next to you, or as the steps in the recipe or video, you saw online. Your dough, and subsequent bread, is unique to you.
In addition to the bread which you bake to take home, you may have your first shaping practice in preparing bread to have for your lunch. This is served alongside a wonderful spread of cheeses, charcuterie, Mediterranean style roasted vegetables, olives, pestos and more. Delicious home-baked snacks such as rusks and banana bread are also available for snacking, along with drinks from the coffee shop on site.
Why you should do a baking course?
I hear so many people say that they want to try baking or learn how to do it properly. Quite often people have had bad first experiences trying to follow an online recipe.
Bread baking is a tactile experience and you need to engage all your senses to learn what the dough is doing and understand what it needs. But first, you need to recognize what the nature and implications of each sensation are. The value of being guided through the process while you develop experiential knowledge of these sensations is irreplaceable.
This is what a bread course offers you. The chance to see, smell, touch, taste and hear each aspect of the baking process, coupled with the chance to learn from a hugely knowledgeable and experienced baker like Babette.
Ultimately, baking bread is a matter of controlling a few key factors. Even if you make a few mistakes you will likely still produce a good loaf of bread to enjoy, and you will know what to fix the next time. You require minimal tools to get started, and the feedback time is very short, so you can develop your skills very quickly and be baking great bread in no time. Then there is a whole world of bread styles and baking techniques to keep you interested for many years to come.
All the while you can fill your home with the sweet smell of fresh-baked bread, and fill your belly with wholesome nutritious goodness, the way bread is meant to be.