Baking Bread with Michael Pollan

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michael pollan baking bread

Michael Pollan Baking Bread

Using the the word “hobby” as a way to describe an activity has a funny connotation—like you’re maybe a little too enthusiastic, like you spend maybe a little too much time, like it’s a little quirky.

Rock climbing and sailing and playing soccer can be hobbies, true, but here I’m talking about hobby hobbies, where you have no real hope of going pro, activities like collecting stamps and building miniature railroads and crocheting.

Thinking about it now, it seems obvious that baking bread is a hobby (and of that second type), but for a long time I refused to think of it as a hobby or of myself as a hobbyist. So it happened that one morning I wound up standing on Michael Pollan’s doorstep with a ball of bread dough and not a clue what it really was that I was doing.

The best-selling author and Bay Area favorite food guru wrote a whole chapter about baking bread in his most recent book, Cooked. The chapter described his brief apprenticeship at Tartine Bakery in the Mission District and his subsequent efforts to bake the perfect loaf in his own kitchen. His careful approach, using special flours and tools and measurements by weight instead of volume, seemed obsessive and overly complex compared to my own, which idealized simplicity and not measuring. In Pollan’s hands, baking seemed like some kind of hobby. He was my teacher at graduate school; when a classmate suggested that I bake with Pollan as a sort-of journalistic stunt, I was a little embarrassed to admit that I too, baked. But I was also curious to compare notes.

At Home with Michael Pollan

I show up at his North Berkeley home at the agreed-to hour and he ushers me into his kitchen. The plan is for us to bake my bread while he mixes up his own dough and demonstrates his methods. The kitchen counter is already cluttered with utensils, sacks of flour, an oven mitt, the morning’s still-folded New York Times, and there, in the middle of it all, a gleaming digital scale, which I eye warily.

I look at a picture on the fridge: Pollan in a cowboy hat with an enormous beard—from his time in Mexico after college, he tells me—and then at the clean-shaven Pollan before me, gathering his mixing bowl and piles of supplies, and feel further ill-at-ease.

“Somebody sent me these really cool flours,” he says, pouring from one bag after another into the mixing bowl, now resting on his digital scale: einkorn, kamut, whole-grain wheat, rye and hemp. “I was at a benefit last night, and these raw hemp seeds were included in the goody bag,” he says, dumping them in. “So what the hell.”

He spins the bowl with his left hand while he mushes the ingredients. Everything is measured out to the gram, a careful ratio of water : flour, but he plays it down. “I do everything by feel,” he says. “You can see that I’m not using a recipe.”

I’m skeptical. He continues mushing. Wet dough can be intimidating, he says, but it’s the key to good bread. He holds up his right hand to demonstrate, the gruesome hand of a Swamp Thing. He fights the dough off his fingers and covers the bowl with a towel.

The oven is preheated, and it’s my turn. I pull the foil off the top of my bowl, revealing my dough: an off-white, slightly grainy lump. I notice with some dismay that it seems not to have risen very well. As I spread flour over a cutting board and tip the dough onto it, I suddenly feel a little naked. Pollan watches closely as I roll the gummy dough around until it’s roughly the shape of a potato. “Do you use a scale?” he asks.

The No-Knead Hobby

I started baking in college, a part of my general self-education in the kitchen. I picked it up from a no-knead recipe I found online: flour, water, salt, yeast; mix, wait and bam, you’ve got bread. If I had really thought about it, the fact that I’d made it to 18 years old without learning how to cook was a big hint that cooking is a nonessential skill, and that I was only doing it because I wanted to and liked to—that cooking in general is a hobby, which makes baking bread a kind of hobby-within-a-hobby. But that’s not how I thought of it. I thought of it as something good and simple, satisfying and worthwhile in the same way as throwing rocks into a pond or raking up dry leaves. And maybe baking bread was even kind of manly. There is a little-known book, written by a friend-thrice-removed, about cooking as a method of seduction. It’s called Cook to Bang. Baking bread for some reason seemed to me to belong to that (fantasy) world.

This misinterpretation was reinforced when I flipped through a copy of Tartine Bread in a bookstore. Written by Tartine’s founder, Chad Robertson, the book contains not only pictures of majestic loaves with burgundy crusts, but also of Robertson himself. He has a beard and tattoos and he surfs and in the pictures his wife and kid also seem like badasses. It turns out that Robertson devotes much of his book to discussion of measurements and concepts and techniques, to details about the decade he spent learning to bake, and also to arcane facts about humidity and species of yeast. But that day I mostly just looked at the pictures. Baking bread was cool. I was a baker, like Robertson. Except that I didn’t really tell anyone I was doing it. And also I didn’t like to measure.

The bread I made was by no means cook-to-bang material, but it could hold its own against pre-sliced white. Over time I made improvements. I learned to use a sourdough starter, replacing the packaged baker’s yeast with wild yeasts grown in flour and water. I started using less water than my original recipe called for—eyeballing it, of course—which made it easier to shape the loaves and easier to slash them with a knife before baking so they came out of the oven with a handsome cross.

Michael Pollan’s Toast

Eventually the bread was good enough, though it was dense and chewy. I stopped trying to improve it. Who cares? Why bother? After all, what is bread, really, but a vessel—for cheese, for meat, for peanut butter and jelly? Maybe at times I sensed my bread could be improved, but too stubborn or too lazy to do so, I viewed it as you might a hopeless love: better to care too little than to care too much. Maybe by no longer trying to improve my baking, I could suppress the hobby-ness of it.

“I usually use this for peanut butter and jelly,” I tell Pollan as I dump my dough into a preheated pan. We stick my loaf in the oven and set a timer.”

“I’m going to make you a piece of toast,” he declares, pulling out the remnants of his last loaf—thick and dark-crusted, picture-perfect, full of bubbles of all sizes. It looks a lot like the pictures in Tartine Bread. I feel a twinge of unease.

Pollan returns to his dough. He carefully measures out a dose of salt and a splash more water, and works them into the dough with his hand. His fingers come away less swampy than the last time—the yeast in the sourdough is converting starches to sugars, and strands of gluten are forming, creating an internal scaffolding.

The toast pops up and he spreads it with almond butter. It’s crunchy on the outside, still moist in the middle, subtly sour, dripping with the creamy butter. I wonder about my bread in the oven, surely going sideways on me.

While it bakes, we hang around, talking. In Cooked, Pollan also picks up on the sexy side of baking, although his attention is less on the bakers than on the dough itself. “In your book,” I say, casually as I can manage, “you compare freshly risen loaves to, I think, asses.” He laughs. When he was at Tartine with Robertson, he says, he’d seen a row of uncooked loaves, “all touching one another. He just stacks them up and they look gorgeous, like … you know … ”

“One of those Hawaiian tourist shop postcards?”

“Right, you got it.”

In the backyard of my grandparents’ old house, my grandpa had a woodworking shop. It smelled like sawdust and varnish and paint thinner; the walls were covered with every kind of chisel, mallet, saw; the wood plank floors were cluttered with benches and tables. We’d disappear into the shop for hours, listening to Frank Sinatra and cutting dovetails and getting sawdusty.

Grandpa was a slow worker, partly because he was old, but mostly because he was careful about measuring. I sometimes got impatient. Once, after he’d gone back into the house for the night, instead of waiting for him to help me cut a board to size using the tool that would’ve been best for the job, but which I didn’t know how to use, I went ahead and used a different tool. When I took the board inside and proudly showed him my work-around, though, he got pissed and said in a high voice that I should’ve been patient and that I’d probably dulled the tool and did I know how much those blades cost? There was a right way to do it, and I hadn’t done it.

The Bread Continuum

My baking date with Pollan was beginning to feel the same way. Instead of the even exchange of ideas I’d imagined, I was mostly just feeling schooled. “If people only knew how simple baking bread is, maybe more of them would do it,” I suggest, a last attempt to defend my false ideals.

“Well, look, the normal average person doesn’t even have time to cook dinner and put it on the table,” he says. “I think they need to start with more basic things than baking bread. Just feeding their kids real food is a good start. But then you get the hobbyists.” I can feel myself disagreeing—I’m not a hobbyist! “You know,” he continues, “you can go out to the woodshop or you can bake bread in the kitchen. It’s part of that continuum.”

And then the timer rings. We tip my loaf out onto a cooling rack. Surprisingly, it looks better than usual, a deep mahogany, with blackened ridges where I’d scored it. “Sounds good,” he says, when he taps the bottom of the loaf and it gives a sturdy thunk. Maybe too sturdy. “It’s definitely dense.”

Pollan turns once more to his dough. He wets his hand and digs his hand in under it, stretching up long folds over its top. It’s grown even more cohesive, and his hand comes away almost clean—but not completely. “Do you get dough on your pants?” he asks, checking his black jeans.

“Always,” I say.

“It is messy,” he says. “Let’s not tell anyone.” For a moment I am reminded my grandpa’s woodshop and sawdust on my pants. Then Pollan cuts into my bread. “Ooh. Nice. It smells really good,” he says. He takes a bite. “Nice. Mmm. The crust is amazing.” Then he pauses. “How much salt do you use?” In grams? It’s clear to me, right then, that while raking leaves and throwing rocks into ponds are good and simple and probably even worthwhile, they are also not hobbies, things to work at and hold up and be proud of, even if working at it in the first place was a little quirky. And that’s what baking bread is. And it is clear too that with hobbies, as with anything you really love, it is better to care too much than to care too little.

The next day, I receive a text message. “Came out pretty nice,” Pollan writes, below a picture of two loaves. They’re dark brown, with artful white spirals of flour and perfectly crusty slashes revealing a golden-red interior. I zoom in on the pictures, staring for a while. I wonder whether Pollan learned to surf when he was in Mexico after college, whether he has tattoos he doesn’t show. Then I click back through my own photos until I spot one of my loaves. Zooming in again, I stare, feeling deeply unsatisfied.

Over the next week, I find myself thinking of bread in idle moments, of crust and crumb, of exotic flours and raw hemp seeds. One morning I decide to mix up some dough using more whole wheat and more flour than ever before. I turn the dough every hour, as Pollan did. When I dump it out onto the counter and try to shape it, though, I became a Swamp Thing! I must have measured incorrectly, made a mistake in my eyeballing. I try turning it the way that Pollan did, but it clings stubbornly to the counter and to my other hand. I flip it onto its back, but it sticks there, too. I look around helplessly, goobers of dough hanging off both hands, and fight it back into the bowl, where it can do no more harm.

I brood while it bakes and glare at it when it arrives from the oven 45 minutes later a shapeless, artless blob, utterly un-seductive. I let it cool, resenting its deformity. But when I cut it open I’m surprised to find it’s lofty, full of holes of all different sizes, moist, flavorful; it’s the best bread I’ve ever made.

But, I think, it could probably still be better. Later, I catch myself thinking about digital scales. How much do those things cost, anyway?

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Baking with Michael Pollan was published in the Summer 2015 issue. © 2015 Edible San Francisco. All illustrations © 2015 Dan Bransfield.

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