The Slow Rise of a Breadmaking Star

By Lawrence Biemiller

Providence, R.I. -- "It's 2:15 -- is anybody still mixing?" Peter Reinhart calls out above the general din of the bakery classroom. Five teams of freshmen are at work this afternoon on three different breads each -- baguettes, cranberry muffins, and croissants -- and not everything is going smoothly. One group has put too much water in its baguette dough, and Chef Reinhart has already been called over twice to advise -- first when the dough was just a sticky, shaggy mass in the bowl of an 80-quart Hobart mixer ("You definitely need more flour," he said patiently), and then again when it was a somewhat-respectable mass on the group's stainless-steel worktable ("Now just stretch the dough out and fold it over").

Meanwhile, students in another group have discovered that someone in the morning class mistakenly took their butter block from the walk-in. They have started fashioning a replacement -- a foot-square, two-inch-deep slab of butter around which they will fold their croissant dough. Later they'll roll the layers thin, fold them on top of one another, roll again, fold again, and so on -- creating a fine lamination of dough and butter. All around the room, worktables are cluttered with kitchen scales and notebooks and dough scrapers and muffin tins and boxes of plastic wrap. On the far wall, exhaust fans are droning above the big ovens as they heat up. Students are ferrying utensils over to the sinks, and darting in and out of the walk-in, and peering and prodding tentatively at their doughs, as if they might bite back. "We're getting behind schedule here!" Mr. Reinhart calls out, moments before a metal mixing bowl clatters loudly to the floor.

Mr. Reinhart's 22-day course, "Introduction to Bread and Rolls," is a centerpiece of the baking program at the Johnson and Wales University campus here. The class meets four afternoons a week and covers a wide variety of breads, from traditional boules and baguettes to challah, dinner rolls, focaccia, brioche, doughnuts, croissants, and Danish. Along the way, students learn both traditional and innovative techniques for making yeasted breads, sourdough loaves, simple pastries, and even quickbreads -- those leavened with baking powder rather than yeast.

But what Mr. Reinhart speaks about most passionately are the slow-rise techniques for which he has become a nationally known advocate -- and with which he won the James Beard Foundation's National Bread Competition in 1996, wowing the judges with a "wild country yeast bread." A dough that includes a strong dose of yeast and rises quickly depends for flavor on ingredients like butter or sugar or cheese. But the kind of slow rise he champions in his five bread books uses less yeast and allows a dough to ferment. Enzymes in the flour begin breaking down its complex starch molecules, releasing trapped sugars, he explains. The yeast consumes some of those sugars, giving off ethanol and carbon dioxide as digestive byproducts. The ethanol evaporates during baking; the carbon dioxide leavens the bread. The rest of the sugars become flavors on the tongue and, through caramelization, color in the crust.

For some breads, such as the baguettes his students are making today, he recommends a poolish -- a batterlike mix of water, flour, and a little yeast that ferments for several hours and is then refrigerated overnight before becoming the basis of a dough. For others, he prescribes mixing and kneading a doughlike biga, which is also refrigerated overnight before more ingredients are added. Unlike many recipes for home bakers, which typically call for an hourlong first rise followed by a 45-minute second rise, Mr. Reinhart's recipes are full of 90-minute or two-hour rises, sometimes interspersed with 30-minute rests. His breads are not five-hour projects but two- or three-day commitments.

Part of what students learn in "Introduction to Bread and Rolls" is how to plan for and manage those commitments. Like professional bakers, they know days in advance what they'll be making, and at the end of each day's session they weigh out all the ingredients -- the mis en place -- for doughs they'll assemble the next time they meet. They also learn "baker's math," with which they can scale ingredient amounts up or down as necessary. In baker's math, the weight of the flour is always given as 100 percent, and the weight of other ingredients is given accordingly. Mr. Reinhart's formula for ciabatta, for instance, calls for 178 percent biga, 100 percent bread flour, 4.1 percent salt, 1.9 percent instant yeast, 83.3 percent water, and 22.2 percent olive oil, for a total of 389.5 percent. (The formula for biga, mixed beforehand, is 100 percent bread flour, 0.49 percent instant yeast, and 66.7 percent water.)

"I've found I love teaching," says Mr. Reinhart, 53, a friendly and easygoing man who taught at the California Culinary Academy for five years before coming to Johnson and Wales in 2000. But he didn't learn about bread baking in a classroom himself. Like so many others, he made his first baguettes using "the six pages of instructions in one of Julia Child's cookbooks," he says. "She made you punch the dough down a second time," he recalls. "That extra rise makes a huge difference in extracting the flavor from the wheat."

At the time, he had started cooking for other members of a nondenominational, nontraditional religious order he had joined as a lay brother in 1974, soon after graduating from Boston University (the order has since affiliated with the Eastern Orthodox rite). Assigned to find a money-making venture that would also serve as an outreach project for the order, he teamed up with another member -- she's now his wife, Susan Reinhart -- to open Brother Juniper's Cafe, in Santa Rosa, Calif. Mr. Reinhart taught himself more and more about baking bread, and the loaves the cafe sold became so popular that he and his wife opened a bakery around the corner, selling as many as 2,000 loaves a day.

They bought the business from the order, to which they still belong, but eventually he and his wife "ran out of gas," Mr. Reinhart says, and in 1994 they decided to sell Brother Juniper's. But in the meantime Mr. Reinhart had published Brother Juniper's Bread Book: Slow Rise as Method and Metaphor, which established him as an advocate of slow-rise doughs.

Four more books have followed. Two have won the Beard foundation's cookbook-of-the-year award -- The Bread Baker's Apprentice (2001) and 1998's Crust and Crumb: Master Formulas for Serious Bakers. In 1997, he contributed to the bread section of the newest Joy of Cooking, which includes recipes for poolish breads and other slow-rise staples. He has worked as a consultant for several companies that produce more than 100,000 loaves a day. He is now finishing up a book of pizza recipes for which he visited pizzerias throughout the United States. "It's very simple to make great pizza dough if you just make it the day before," he says. "Pizza's a simple food. It's not rocket science. It doesn't take any more work to make it great than to make it average."

Certainly greatness is what he's trying to teach his students to aim for. "Because of the TV chefs, becoming a cook has become something noble. It's not a fallback anymore," Mr. Reinhart says, standing by the ovens in a white jacket and chef's toque. He adds that in his class, the goal is to produce world-class bread. "Sometimes we can do it day after day," he says, "sometimes only once." He has the students only for a month, after all, and that's not much time to convey the method for bread, much less the metaphor. "I've learned I have to repeat things three to eight times. I've learned not to take things personally when they don't get it." On the other hand, he enjoys watching as his students learn what to look for in a good loaf. "They go out with friends and start complaining about the bread at restaurants. It fires them up."

Following a midafternoon lecture on fats, the students begin shaping their baguettes. They roll the dough into torpedo shapes, let them rest 10 minutes, and then gently roll and stretch them thinner and longer. At a table by the walk-in, Mr. Reinhart demonstrates shaping for one group, deftly lengthening the dough and at the same time giving its surface a tension that will help form the crust.

Then he goes from table to table tasting cranberry muffins. He says he grades not only on the quality of the "product" students produce, but also on their work skills, professionalism, initiative, and ability to collaborate with others. He requires them to keep detailed notebooks illustrated with photographs they've taken -- the information they collect this way, he hopes, will help them for years to come, whether they're working in restaurants, hotels, catering companies, or small, "artisan" bakeries. For their final exam, they will bake for three days in a row.

Late in the afternoon, the students gently transfer their baguettes to a canvas conveyor in front of the ovens. With razor blades fitted onto handles, the students score the tops of the loaves, and then one opens the oven door while another pushes the loader foward and rolls the loaves off onto the oven deck. Soon a scent so delicious that the fans can't capture it all wafts across the worktables and drifts past the bins of flour and caresses the Hobarts. The day has not turned out so badly after all. "Let's leave that oven on," Mr. Reinhart says. "We may have some time to make cookies."

Copyright © 2009 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published February 21, 2003.