The Fresh Loaf

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Beth Hensperger's Bread Bible

There are two major bread books titled The Bread Bible. Beth Hensperger's Bread Bible, although a decent book with some excellent recipes, is oddly dissatisfying.

A full review below the cut.

Titling your book "The xxx Bible" strikes me as a serious act of hubris. The implication of the title is that this is the book on the subject, the one that you could replace all of your other books on the topic with. If you are going to call your book "The Something Bible," it ought to be lengthy, authoritative, and complete.

Beth Hensperger's The Bread Bible is lengthy, but is neither authoritative or complete. The subtitle, "Beth Hensberger's 300 Favorite Recipes" really gets to what this book is: a large collection of good recipes.

Her introduction and discussion of technique is minimal. Ninety percent of the book is recipes. Most recipes are handled in one to two pages, which is enough to get across the basics but doesn't really allow space to delve into any depth.

I find the mixture of recipes in this book to be puzzling. They run the gamut from muffins to flat breads to rustic breads to coffee cakes to bread machine breads to pancakes. There is something to be said for a book that discusses breads in general and refuses to be boxed in to a narrow subject matter. But one can't help wonder if some of the recipes wouldn't be better served by spending more than a page or two on them: after all, some bakers spend their entire lives trying to master one or two of these breads.

I also have a few nits to pick with the book itself. To begin with, there are no photos. Photos aren't essential to a good cookbook, I realize, but I find the photos of proper shaping technique and crumb in other bread baking books to be extremely useful.

Another one: instead of following standard cookbook typographic conventions and printing the ingredients below the title and introduction but above the instructions, someone at the publishing house thought it would be clever to print the ingredients in each recipe in a narrow column down the side of the page. One doesn't realize how much one is accustomed to the standard recipe layout until one is faced with a book that avoids it. I find myself losing my place in her recipes quite often, and find

1/2 mild green chile
pepper, such as
Anaheim, New
Mexico, or poblano,
core, seeded, and
cut into thin strips
about one inch long

much more difficult to parse than a standard ingredient layout would be.

The above ingredient brings me to another thing I find irritating about this book. Cookbook authors who harp on their readers for using inferior ingredients drive me up the wall. Most of us don't have unsalted butter on hand at all times, nor do we keep creme fraiche or shallots around the kitchen. We shouldn't be made to feel like disappointments for not doing so. Fine, so my corn meal isn't stone ground or organic, but I can still make a darn fine corn bread. Get off my case.

I've certainly read cookbooks that were a lot snootier about ingredients that this one (Marcella Hazan's "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking" comes to mind... you can practically hear her sighing each time you substitute domestic tomatoes for Italian ones), but their are times I find Hensperger's tone irksome.

I also think that there are better ways of expressing your preference for specific ingredients than including them in the recipe itself. One of the simplest ways to do this is to call out your preference for specific ingredients (such as a specific type of pepper or grind of corn meal) in the introduction to the recipe. Then you can keep the ingredients list clean and unencumbered with unnecessary information. I suspect that most home bakers, like myself, first read the title of a recipe and then scan the ingredients list to see if we have (or can get) all of the ingredients. Keeping that list as free from adjectives and verbs as possible should be of primary importance to the author, even if it means a few misguided souls may substitute inferior ingredients or dice their peppers into cubes instead of strips.

Now, all that said, there are excellent recipes in this book. I've probably baked no more than ten percent of the recipes in here and they have all turned out quite good. I'm pleased to have this book on my shelf, and frequently flip through it when I am trying to come up with an idea of something different to bake. It is an excellent compliment to my other baking books.

I wouldn't recommend this book to a baking newbie, as there really isn't much information on technique or the process of baking bread. But I wouldn't dissuade more experienced folks from picking this book up, as long as they are aware of what they are getting: a large collection of excellent recipes vetted by a top notch baker. With three hundred recipes, there is something for everyone in here.

More reviews of The Bread Bible over at Amazon.

Disagree with my take on this book? Please add a comment!

Beth Hensperger's Bread Bible


Morgon77's picture

I myself have always been rather confused that she decided to call the book "the Bread Bible" Perhaps it's more importantly HER bread bible, and that's the source of the misnomer.

In any case, the above review is correct, the book is greatly lacking in instructions. However, the recipes are excellent...I've used a mix of the instructions from the Laurell's Kitchen book and the Bread Bible to make my bread, skipping some of the extra rises from the Laurell's, but the recipes from the Bread Bible are almost always richer and more flavorful. And easier to adapt.

I took the white bread recipe and created from it about a dozen other varietal breads, like spinach feta and garlic cheddar, and it did wonderfully with them.

However, I agree, unless you're very intuitive, or you have other sources to draw on, this book is not helpful as a starting baker. There's still a fair amount of stuff I'm sure I do wrong (though since I use loaf pans, most of the free loaf shaping advice I've read doesn't come as much in handy). This is really more of a recipe book, not a learning and advancing book.

sugarcreations's picture

 I have it myself and find much of what you say to be true.


browndog's picture

I thoroughly enjoy this book, the recipes are inviting, unusual, diverse, and they work. My quibble is that she devotes many, many pages to quick breads which I rarely make, worse yet food processor and bread machine breads, which if one is aiming for biblicity makes sense, but for me is so much wasted space. If I wanted to machine-make breads I wouldn't want acres of info on how to make bread by hand, and so holds the converse. Maybe she should've just written the Bread Old Testament.





Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

I stumbled across "The Bread Bible" last week. It was lying on my kitchen table with a note, "Can you use this?" At first, I blinked, I hadn't had my coffee yet. I glanzed up to see if there was a hole in the roof. Could this be the BB some loafers makes reference (reverence) to?

I soon discovered there are two books with the same title, different authors. I opened the book... all cups and no metric, so I'm not thrilled, but ever so often I pick it up to read. (I tend to start at the back of a book first...) There are hidden gems in the book, a few typos. It's a good book to start out on if you have a good imagination. Written discriptions are very good and just like most bibles there are no illustrations or pictures.  There is large print.

I get a visual impression this is a two person recipe book: one reads, on stool with coffee mug; the other bakes with apron and flour on fingers.

I don't have a problem with the salt free butter or the amount of salt she specifies.  I add what I prefer.  I buy only salt free butter when i can and am glad she wrote what kind she  uses. (This is also a good indication she has spent time baking in other countries where low salt ingredients are more common.)  I haven't noticed any condesending tones to her writing. (Which does make me wonder about my own writing.)  I've changed the words "sour dough"  to "poolish" in recipes because of dry yeast used.  

At first I wasn't going to keep it, but after a week, it's starting to grow on me.   

Mini O