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Book Review: “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice”

GermanFoodie's picture

Book Review: “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice”

I just posted this review to my blog at The German Foodie.

The Bread Baker’s Apprentice”, Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread by Peter Reinhart

“The Bread Baker’s Apprentice” is published by Ten Speed Press, (P.O. Box 7123, Berkeley/CA 94707; 2001. ISBN 978-158008-268-6, 304 pages, hardcover. List price $35.00 plus shipping.

If there is one book I would recommend hands-down for anybody who wants to learn bread baking the right way, then it is “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice”, lovingly called “BBA” on some bread baking forums I frequent.

Reinhart begins with an overview over gear and ingredients, including why some are to be preferred over others. My favorite aspect in this part of the book was the instructions on how to make improvised proofing bowls (p.36). I own several proofing baskets myself and am keenly aware how insanely expensive they are, so this is a good, low-cost alternative.

Most people will be tempted to skip the part about baker’s math (pp. 41), but I would urge them to read on. Baker’s percentages, while odd to get used to, are still the best measurement system when it comes to bread. After using them for a while, just looking at the percentages will tell the artisan baker all he/she needs to know about the general characteristics of the dough.

For anybody who has been wondering about general classifications of certain kinds of bread, pages 46 and 47 contain a graph listing the most popular breads and where they fall, from dough characteristics to rising method. More important to the novice baker, however, is the explanation on the twelve stages of bread, starting on page 48.

I am a strong autodidactic learner, and every good how-to (cook) book should include a section like this. Armed with this knowledge, if you cannot churn out amazing bread afterwards, you should maybe consider another past-time – it does not get any more comprehensive than this.

In this context, BBA includes some very helpful photographs on shaping bread (pp. 72). The one criticism I have here is that Reinhart’s way of shaping pretzels (top of page 80) is – sorry to say it – PATHETIC. I have never seen such a sorry excuse for a pretzel; children can do a better job than this. I would strongly recommend a complete redo of the related photographs.

Yet, this is the only real sore point about this book, which I otherwise love. The formulas are clearly written, and while I would have appreciated a column with grams included in the recipes, at least BBA is listing both volume and weight (the latter albeit in decimal ounces, when most smaller scales I have seen will give them in fractions – but hey, it is a start).

Unlike “Crust & Crumb” (featuring an awkward two-column layout), the recipes are listed in one large column with a tiny side column containing commentary, baker’s percentages and tips. The formulas are written out in clear paragraphs organized in ordered lists, and the first sentence of each paragraph starts with bold letters giving you the first idea of what is coming. Many recipes also include “grace notes” at the end, often disclosing the kind of information you would have to hunt the Internet for, like making your own herb oil for focaccia (p. 163).

Also, many recipes are accompanied by “how to” photographs as appropriate, for example when it comes to shaping the bread a certain way. And speaking of photographs, the majority of pictures included in the book are really nice and in color, unlike “Crust & Crumb”, which relies on awkward drawings for most of its illustrations (with the exception of some color photographs in the center of the book).

It seems inevitable, though, that every cook book contains a few recipes which, for the life of you, will not work, no matter how closely you follow them. BBA is no exception. Just like you would buy a CD for the one single and a handful of other songs you really liked, and accept that the other songs were not really your cup of tea, I guess one has to accept that the same applies to recipe books.

There are a few recipes in this book which I have not been able to replicate ever, no matter how faithfully I stuck to the letter of the formula. Neither have other people I have talked to, which would indicate an inherent issue with the recipe itself, not operator-related error. For some this only meant that some aspects of the method were erroneous, like using a stamp for making Kaiser rolls (p. 177). Interestingly enough, the photograph featured on page 176 shows rolls that have been hand-knotted or (dare I say it?) machined – but there is no way they were baked using a stamp. I should know, because I bought a stamp following what I read in BBA, and more or less tossed it the first time I tried it out. What does yeasted dough do when it is proofed, and later baked, after being stamped? Even when it is placed, as directed on its face for proofing? Exactly.

Other recipes that did not impress me very much were the one for pumpernickel rye (p. 246) or the one for ciabatta (p. 136). But most of those are outweighed by the parts that make this book indispensable in every serious bread baker’s collection – both regarding what I have outlined above, and by some other formulas in this book, like the one for lavash crackers (p. 178) or Vienna bread (p.261).

Get baking! :)

flournwater's picture

"If there is one book I would recommend hands-down for anybody who wants to learn bread baking the right way, then it is “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice”, lovingly called “BBA” on some bread baking forums I frequent."

Pretty much says it all.