Recently, there has been quite a lot of discussion on forums for bread acolytes regarding the how and why of the current trend toward open crumb’s loaves, also named, “holey” bread. My bread pal Don Sadowsky seemed to have some good explanation about this and I asked him to put his ideas together in a piece for this blog. I will be commenting on and expanding this topic in my next post, bringing in the discussion my own ideas (which don’t always coincide with Don’s). Until then, I hope you will find ten minutes of your time to comfortably sit and enjoy this engaging article on my favorite topic, bread.
“OK, admit it. You feel the pressure, don’t you? You have to have them. Lots of them. Big ones and small ones (but mostly big ones!), deep ones and shallow ones, irregularly spaced, hinting at an endless internal labyrinth complete with its own Minotaur. You know what I’m talking about.
Holes. Holes in your bread. The holey grail of artisan baking.
If yours are tiny you want to compensate by buying a really long bread knife. Your baking friends may make all the appropriate noises, they’ll crow about your beautiful crust, or how high your bread rose, but you know they’re shaking their heads at your pinprick misfortune and hoping that it’s not contagious. Meanwhile you look at the gloriously pitted interiors of their breads and you bow your head in shame.
Baker Contemplating Tiny Holes , Edvard Munch, 1893
How did we get to such a state? Does it really make sense that a slice of bread resembling the surface of the moon is prized over one that resembles a piece of cake? (Maybe Marie Antoinette had a point!) Geez, isn’t bread supposed to hold your jam without dripping? Whatever happened to form follows function?
Maybe it’s just bread snobbery, the type of fickle fashion that causes grown up people to walk down the street wearing a Batman costume or for heaven’s sake Crocs (hmm, those have lots of holes too, coincidence?). Who knows, next year the trend might be mysterious crop circles in the crust or tetrahedral loaves. All you need is to hunker down and this whole hole thing will just go away when wide ties stage a triumphal comeback, right?
Actual bread with tiny holes, Don Sadowsky, 2013
Dream on, bakers. Holes are here to stay. They have a long pedigree and are modern at the same time.
If you want to understand this thing for holes you need to go back, way, way back, to the Paleolithic. Consider some poor schlub at the dawn of agriculture eating his breakfast. He wasn’t dining on an airy baguette with fresh butter. No sir, he was putting grain on a stone, pounding it with another stone, maybe mixing it with acorns or chestnuts and water to make a coarse gruel full of grit and unbroken husks that took a digestive system stronger than yours or mine to handle. If there were holes they were in his teeth from the tough food (Paleo enthusiasts, do you really want to go there?).
Well we all know that lightning struck, someone left their gruel sitting around or spilled beer on it, a tall black monolith appeared playing dramatic music, or something, and the bothersome wild yeast that had been munching on our grain before we could eat it suddenly became our friend, pre-digesting the complex starch granules for us and creating carbon dioxide in the process. Millennia before the Montgolfier brothers were floating over France, these gruel balloons, AKA bread, were becoming the breakfast (and lunch and dinner) of champions.
The early breads were pretty flat, and why not? Who could have foreseen the need to support half a pound of meat of dubious origin along with a boatload of wilted lettuce, rubbery tomato slices, onions, cheese-like substance and half a dozen condiments in one hand while using the other to steer a minivan to your teenager’s soccer practice? You just ate your flatbread, and if you were lucky you had a moldy berry or the remnants of last night’s roasted squirrel on the side. In medieval Europe the bread was often the plate, absorbing the drippings of the food that was set upon it, like Ethiopian injera. Who needs big holes for something like that? All you need is absorbency, and even sawdust could give you that (many a medieval bread had its share of sawdust, perhaps the earliest high fiber additive).
I’m dreadfully, mournfully sorry, but at this point I have to interject a few sentences of basic remedial bread science. I promise it won’t take very long. Here goes: wheat flour includes of a whole bunch of starch and a couple proteins called gliadin and glutenin (there’s other stuff in there too, but let’s not complicate things). When gliadin and glutenin are mixed with water they combine to form strands of gluten, which can be strengthened through stirring, kneading, stretching, yoga, whatever. Anyway, when yeast feeds on the starch in the flour it creates carbon dioxide, which expands the dough and is trapped for a while by the gluten, creating lots of chambers in the gluten network, i.e., holes). There, that wasn’t so bad, was it? Hello? Anybody out there?
Back to our story. A preference for holes did eventually develop, and it has a lot to do with wealth and privilege (you’re surprised?). In much of Northern Europe wheat did not grow well in the cool, wet climate, and breads made with rye, millet or other grains of low or inferior gluten were for long the norm, with perhaps some wheat flour thrown in the mix if you could afford it. These breads often baked up dense with very small holes. Pure wheat breads were often a luxury. Further, for long periods of history, before refined flour became more accessible due to eighteenth century improvements in bolting (using cloth to separate components of grain), highly refined flour was expensive, and most wheat bread was baked using flour that was pretty close to whole grain flour. And as any frustrated whole grain baker knows, those little bits of bran in whole grain flour act like tiny knives to carve up the gluten so that the carbon dioxide chambers are not well formed, resulting in a flatter, denser bread with smaller holes, i.e., a brick. Thus even for bread made with wheat flour, the more expensive flour created an airier bread with large holes. So, here we are, big holes mean wheat bread, refined flour, and the trappings of wealth. Everybody wants to feel wealthy, holes are therefore good, case closed, end of story, yes?
Not quite. We’ve only gotten as far as the preindustrial age. Grain is still farmed via human and animal power, wheat stalks, flour, and finished loaves are carried from one place to another without benefit of fossil fuels, and most people still can’t afford fancy bread. Still to come are steam engines, electricity, the acceleration of nearly everything, and those scourges of civilization, commercial yeast and mechanical mixing.
An active sourdough starter can generate lots of large bubbles in the dough which if you’re skilled or lucky will remain in the finished bread. And as all schoolchildren are taught in every classroom around the world as soon as they’ve finished crayon master class, the very idea of yeast was unknown to bakers until comparatively recently. You had to keep a starter, feed it, and add some to your new dough or it wouldn’t rise, but no one had any idea that the starter contained tiny yeast packets smaller than fleas which unselfishly made the whole process work while dying in their uncounted trillions, without ever achieving celebrity chef status. The starter took skill to use and maintain, and its performance was not always predictable. But pesky people like Leeuwenhoek and Pasteur insisted upon doing science, and before you knew it people knew lots about what yeast did and how to grow and sell it in a form that would keep for weeks without feeding and would give reliable results when used. You could add a ton of yeast and have your dough rise very quickly to get a bread that tasted like, well, yeast. And here’s the big thing: you could measure the yeast and figure out how much to add to get your dough to rise in the desired time. Planning and calculations led the way to industrial baking, and that pokey old sourdough could be consigned to the rubbish heap. How exciting!
Back in the day it was common for gargantuan amounts dough to be mixed in a huge trough, with some poor soul at the bottom of the ladder having the unenviable job of stirring, folding and lifting the damned thing over and over. It made for sore backs but good bread. But in the early 20th century rapidly developing electric motor technology found its way to bakeries, and within a few decades bread could be mixed and kneaded very quickly. Add a large amount of yeast, and suddenly you could get your loaves into the oven a mere hour after mixing them. Sports cars were careening along the roads, jet planes were breaking the sound barrier, galaxies were hurtling to the outer edges of the universe, why not bread made at the speed of light?
However, there was a problem (there’s always a problem). Bread mixed mechanically mixed and yeasted to rise like a rocket did not develop the subtle flavors created by long fermentation. The crust was a pale (literally) imitation of that on a country loaf or Parisian baguette. Not that this stopped the bread from being a complete success as far as profits went. Endless ranks of modernized folks abandoning the leisurely ways of their ancestors embraced the new, mechanically sliced, plastic packaged loaves available any time of day from the grocery down the street. The ever-expanding and vertically integrated millers and nationwide baking companies could put the dough in the oven almost before they mixed the ingredients together. They were producing bread that had tiny, uniform holes, teeming conformist holes that would work quietly at their desks in their gray flannel suits and disappear into the background. Who had time for an open crumb? Who wanted individualized, outspoken loaves? No one wanted to be associated with the Bread Menace. Even the holy temples of the French boulangeries were occupied by the tiny hole counters, and bread consumption in France was down.
I have to admit to a shameful thought crime during that period. My grandfather owned a bakery, and I loved the challahs, bagels and half moon cookies he made. But his white bread had holes in it, while the supermarket bread did not. Ignorant brat that I was, I thought there was something wrong with my grandfather’s bread. At least I had enough sense not to complain to him, and only later learned the error of my ways.
But we all deserve a little redemption, which in this case came in the form of the Summer of Love/hippies/back to nature/healthy but tasteless food in campus coops/rediscovering roots/distrust of corporations/Boomer and later children with lots of education, wanderlust, no compelling hurry to join the rat race and a willingness to follow an uncharted path. Plus a lot of Old World bakers such as Lionel Poilâne who all along had been ignoring or even actively resisting the baking-industrial complex.
That resulted in
1. A generation who wanted more out of their food, whether it was an unfocused desire that food be “natural”, or strong and informed (sometimes ill-informed) opinions about what was healthy and what wasn’t.
2. Committed young bakers such as Chad Robertson and Daniel Leader, who made multiple pilgrimages to Europe to learn from the masters and then came back to the U.S. to create their own unique breads and introduce them to Americans with disposable income. These bakers helped swing back the factory-supermarket bread aesthetic towards, as Robertson talks about in Tartine Bread, “a big loaf, baked dark with huge holes.”
Please note: there’s nothing in this post-modern mindset about loaves made from highly refined wheat flour being the king of all breads, suitable for princes and bankers. In fact, artisan baking prizes whole wheat, rye, and a myriad of ancient varieties of wheat for their taste and nutrition. And nobody advertises their artisan bread as preferred by 4 out of 5 venture capitalists. (Unfortunately the economics of slow and small-scale baking means that the poor can seldom afford to buy real artisan bread, but that is a topic for another day.)
Still, all this history did lead to our current baker’s obsession with holes. Bread made with refined wheat by a skilled baker was lighter and airier; other, coarser grains could not compete. The bread eaten by the wealthy and powerful was considered better, holes and all. The new crop of artisan bakers either never lost the older open crumb aesthetic or picked it up from their European mentors. And an open crumb is now seen as desirable in many breads baked with grains other than wheat, so that the ability to get big holes using low or weak gluten ingredients gives rise (no pun intended) to all kinds of oohs and ahs, even when such bread was traditionally baked dense.
So finally we’re done, you can stop reading and go back to cute cat pictures with funny misspelled captions in block letters, right? Sorry, just one more thing. It may be a tad inaccurate to imply that all home bakers aspire to an open crumb with irregular holes. Not only is there a substantial group of folks who hate having jelly leach through the holes and onto their laps (or their kids’ laps), but there are plenty out there who do not view open crumb breads as fine china, delicate but desirable. Many like their closed crumb breads just fine, thank you, and would prefer if their fellow bakers stop proselytizing in their holey zeal. To those people I say I completely agree with you – except when my bread comes out full of big holes, in which case you’re just wrong.”
Thank you Don!!! To be continued soon with more discussion about bread and holes. By the way, what are your ideas about this topic, dearest reader?