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To Make Bread, Watch The Dough, Not The Recipe

Sourdough loaves made by Fromartz with a bolted white flour from Anson Mills in South Carolina that he says reminded him of the wheat he'd tasted in southern France. (Samuel Fromartz )

Journalist Samuel Fromartz works at home on a quiet street near the Capitol building, in Washington, D.C. He's a journalist, and editor-in-chief of the Food and Environment Reporting Network.

On a recent morning, I went to visit him and found several unread newspapers piled on his front step. "I've been a little busy," Fromartz explains.

He's not too busy to make bread, though.

It's a habit that started two decades ago, when he moved to Washington from New York and couldn't find bread that he liked. Bread-making turned into a minor obsession, as he tried new types of dough, and flour made from grains such as emmer wheat and spelt.

The baguette stumped him, though. "I finally decided that it was impossible to make a decent baguette at home."

Then he landed a rare kind of magazine assignment: Go work in a bakery in Paris and write about it. That led to more such pilgrimages, to Berlin, San Francisco and wheat-growing parts of Kansas, and eventually to a book about them called In Search of the Perfect Loaf.

Fromartz confesses that from a writer's point of view, some of these visits were a little deflating at first. "I was traveling thousands of miles to work with bakers, and if you've spent time with bakers, you'll know that they're pretty introverted. They don't make a great interview if you're a journalist. They're the kind of people who like to work in the middle of the night listening to loud music."

So Fromartz adjusted his expectations. "I decided, if I could just learn one thing from any baker, then the trip would be worth it."

In this, he succeeded. But what he learned is hard to put into a recipe.

He saw how the bakers watched their dough. The baguette maker in Paris, for instance, "would just look at the dough and say, 'Yeah, needs some more water.' Or the loaves would be rising, and to me it looked like they were ready to go into the oven, and he'd look down and say, 'five minutes.' "

The baker was seeing something that Fromartz didn't. Gradually, Fromartz learned to see it, too, at least a little bit.

This is the thing about baking bread, Fromartz says. It's not completely predictable.

Each batch of dough will behave a little bit differently, because the living creatures in it — the yeast or the microbes in your sourdough starter — react to the temperature and humidity in your kitchen, or to the unique characteristics of the flour you're using. So when it comes to key decisions about when to shape the dough into a loaf or put it into the oven, you have to rely on your senses.

"Your eyes, looking at the dough, feeling it with your fingers, and just kind of knowing, because you've baked that loaf 1,000 times, what the dough should look like."

"And what is it supposed to look like?" I ask.

"I hesitate to say this, but it should kind of look alive," Fromartz says. "It shouldn't look like a stiff ball. It should look like it's kind of wanting to continue growing."

In Fromartz's kitchen, we look at a ball of dough. "I would actually prefer if it had risen a little more," Fromartz says, with a note of resignation in his voice. "But it'll still make a decent loaf."

We decide to make a couple of baguettes; also, a round loaf from the same batch of dough. Fromartz picks up the dough, drops it on the countertop a couple of times and then starts to shape it into loaves.

He works quickly, and makes it look easy. The knowledge of how to do this is in his fingers.

A few hours later, they're done. To me, these loaves seemed more than decent. They seemed just about perfect.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The art of baking bread at home barely survived the 20th century. Whether for lack of time or skill, few Americans bake their own bread anymore. Well, you can almost smell the nostalgia in a new book about breadmaking, which suggests the secret to success can't be captured in a recipe. NPR's Dan Charles needed to investigate.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Samuel Fromartz makes his living as a writer. And he works at home on a quiet street near the Capitol building in Washington, D.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

SAMUEL FROMARTZ: Hey.

CHARLES: Your newspapers are piling up.

FROMARTZ: Yeah, I've been a little busy lately (laughter).

CHARLES: Not too busy to make bread, though. He usually does it a few times each week. It doesn't really take a lot of time, he says. In the evenings, he'll mix the dough and put it in the refrigerator to rise slowly overnight. The next day, when he needs a break from the computer, he'll go downstairs to the kitchen and make the loaves.

FROMARTZ: What takes time is the rising. But you're not doing anything while it's rising. So I go back to work.

CHARLES: He started doing this about 20 years ago just because he couldn't find bread that he liked. Then he got a little obsessive, making all kinds of loaves. He struggled for years to make a good baguette.

FROMARTZ: I finally decided, after several years, that it was impossible to make a decent baguette at home.

CHARLES: But then he landed a magazine assignment: go work in a bakery in Paris and write about it. That led to more bakery pilgrimages to Berlin and San Francisco and eventually to Fromartz's new book, "In Search Of The Perfect Loaf." Fromartz confesses, at first, these trips were a little disappointing.

FROMARTZ: I was traveling thousands of miles to work with bakers. And if you've ever spent time with bakers, you'll know that they are pretty introverted. They don't make a really great interview if you're a journalist. They're the kind of people who like to work in the middle of the night listening to loud music.

CHARLES: He wasn't getting great stories or colorful quotes. Some of these bakers, in fact, barely spoke English. So Fromartz adjusted his expectations.

FROMARTZ: What I decided was if I could learn one thing from any baker, the trip would be worth it.

CHARLES: And he did learn. But exactly what he learned is hard to put in a recipe. He saw how the bakers monitored their dough - the baguette maker in Paris, for instance.

FROMARTZ: He just would look at the dough and say, yeah, needs a little bit more water. Or the loaves would be rising, and to me, they would look like the baguettes were, like, really ready to go in the oven. And he looked down, and he said, five minutes.

CHARLES: He was seeing something that Fromartz couldn't. But gradually, Fromartz started to see it, too. And this is the thing that about breadmaking, Fromartz says, it's not completely predictable. Each batch of dough will behave a little bit differently because the living creatures in it - the yeast or the microbes in your sourdough starter - they react to the temperature and humidity in your kitchen or what brand of flour you're using. So when it comes to the key decisions, like when to shape the dough into a loaf or put it in the oven, you have to rely on your senses.

FROMARTZ: Your eyes, you know, looking at the dough, feeling it with your fingers. Just kind of knowing, I think, based on past experience 'cause you've made this loaf a thousand times, what the dough should look like.

CHARLES: But what's it supposed to look like? I ask him, try to describe it.

FROMARTZ: It should - I (laughter) I hesitate to say this, but it should kind of look alive. It shouldn't look like a stiff ball. It should look like it's kind of wanting to continue growing.

CHARLES: Right now, we're looking at a ball of dough. Samuel Fromartz seems a little skeptical.

FROMARTZ: I would actually prefer it if it had risen a little bit more. But it'll still make a decent loaf.

CHARLES: We decide to make a couple of baguettes, also a simple, round loaf.

FROMARTZ: And I'll just, like, flop it down a few times. And then I just fold into the middle to stretch the exterior skin but not compress the interior.

CHARLES: Fromartz works quickly, shaping the dough. He makes it look easy. The knowledge of how to do this is in his fingers. A few hours later, the loaves are done.

FROMARTZ: You know, I think it worked out. They look like you want to eat them, don't they?

CHARLES: They do. Let's eat them.

(LAUGHTER)

CHARLES: To me, those loaves seemed just perfect. Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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