Book & website reviews

No pretense at objectivity. Love some books, but I find all have some wisdom about something. Generally, and by no means universally, bread books fall into one of two categories - and these do not agree with the ones I've set forth below. Generally, these books are either (1) here's an easy way to make bread and every bread in this book is a variation on one standard recipe; or (2) here is a progression of bread making from simple, commercial yeast breads to more flours or more complex recipes to sourdough instructions and recipes. For some reason, most of both types also include breads with stuff in them - fruit, nuts, and cheese. I want bread; if I want fruit, nuts or cheese surrounded by bread, I will make a sandwich or just put some on a slice. 

There are good books in both of those categories, even great breads to be made. If I am snarky about anything it is bread writers who assume that the entire day, every day, is available for making bread, as if no one has other things to do. That may be true as a life choice, but one has to deal with loved ones, work, cleaning up after meals and even other pleasures. Maybe I am sensitive on this issue because I tend to be bad at balancing my love for making bread with everything else. It's a constant struggle.

Categories are:
  • Inspiration
  • Getting started
  • Advanced to way beyond me
  • Starter tutorials and troubleshooting

52 Loaves
This is the book to read if looking for inspiration, permission to make mistakes, and a description of a humorous obsession with and a journey about the quest to make the perfect bread, albeit with white flour. He does it all, growing his own wheat, baking in far-flung places, and all with a self-deprecating sense of humor. Will say no more, so I don't ruin the arc of the story. The author also writes the All Things Bread blog

Six Thousand Years of Bread
This book is a treasure of culture, religion and history. I wish that it would go on forever; the writing, the research and scholarship are such a pleasure to read that I savored this as my last reading each evening. I am grateful that the author spent 20 years on this masterpiece, a word I have used only once before to describe anything in my usual reading mix of history, bread, social affairs or fiction (that exception being A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth). If I were to begin writing a book today, it would be the story of the Six Thousand Years author, H.E. Jacob, who sent his notes for the book out of Nazi-era Germany, who saw his history of bread and culture forgotten, and whose book was resurrected at the start of the modern era of artisan bread making.

Six Thousand Years chronicles the history of bread from the Egyptians through the Greeks and Jews, to the Middle Ages, into the French Revolution and into our the United States. One example of the issues examined in detail was the culture wars at the start of the protestant sects, with the question of whether they would accept the doctrine of transubstantiation - whether the communion ritual in church actually transforms the unleavened bread (that's an interesting discussion in itself) into the body of Christ. There are connections drawn between cultural currents and who is milling the grain, making the dough, selling the bread, and the masses purchasing and eating the final product.This is also a book that describes farming and types of grain and the beliefs of the people and their conquerors as history proceeds from one era to the next.

This is not a book of recipes, rather it is more in the spirit of Michael Pollan, yet with a rich tapestry of mythology, religion, government and culture. It is a book that makes me consider never writing anything again because I will never create such beautiful, informative and still poetic prose as H.E. Jacob.  Also incredible and with a story of its own about how the book was basically forgotten and rediscovered.
[Photo: Outside of a bakery in Roswell, N.M. Did not try the alien baked goods.]

Getting Started

Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day
A wonderful book to for someone who is just starting to make homemade bread. The recipes are easy and the authors include lots of valuable helpful hints. Recipes yields are quite large and can be halved. Months into my bread journey and with much experimentation with different bread books and websites, this easy five-minutes-a-day approach and the recipes still yield consistently solid results. 

The recipes can easily be adjusted for using sourdough starter instead of commercial yeast. I have done so and these are among my favorite breads.

I give the authors much praise for foolproof recipes without snobbery. Whenever I have a few ambitious bread experiments that do not go well, I return to this book for some mojo and to remember that I can make some truly fine bread.

There are also instructions for storing dough, usually for up to two weeks, depending on the ingredients. Wonderful troubleshooting information. I have a minor criticism. Like many bread writers, the authors recommend using a pan to pour some water (or ice) into when placing dough in a hot, preheated oven. This technique is designed to create a steamy atmosphere. A la cloche works much better and does not present a risk of severe damage to the oven door. (Yes, the la cloche costs about $60, but if you are developing a bread baking obsession the cost of books and tools will be going above that number.)

The book's sister website, Artisan Bread in 5, posts information about the authors' other books as well, and has easy-to-follow videos that I recommend. The blog posts are much more geared to desserts and dessert breads. The authors have a new book.
It's not for me; I don't want gluten free or dessert breads. The one good addition of this book is that it gives weights for ingredients instead of volume measurements.
Very addictive and has a page for buying bread baking products. Great videos that demonstrate how to make particular breads. They feature an Iowa gentleman who seems like a college professor or a the character in a Jane Austen novel or movie who steers the heroine in the right direction. I have this guy to blame for buying the la cloche and dreaming of a Danish whisk. Good recipes on the site as well.

I am not sure breadtopia should be in the Getting Started section, but Mr. Iowa makes everything sufficiently simple for a beginner. My breads from his recipes - and intense study of the videos - are always good.

Bread Making - Creating the Perfect Loaf from Crust to Crumb
Lauren Chattman, the author of other types of baking books as well, has an approachable style as she goes from basics to involved topics. As she delves into more advanced topics, the author is at her best when explains the differences among many types of preferments (do not be intimiated, that is just a preliminary stage of a dough with more than one time to add ingredients). I like her instructions about kneading, creating a starter, and shaping. Okay, I have not tried the shaping yet. The  one recipe of hers that I have used thus far worked well.

Advanced to way beyond me

The fresh loaf 
THE place to go for specific advice, particularly with difficult bread making challenges. Really like the sense of camaraderie and the willingness to share suggestions. One can spend one's entire life on the forum and the website. This is a bread universe. People are incredibly helpful, knowledgeable and a bit carried away with doughs, hydration percentages, kitchen tools, ovens, etc. Somtimes I feel right at home; other times, in over my head. Tip: Follow @thefreshloaf on twitter for a news feed of what is happening on the forum. Warning: This forum could tempt you to quit your job, stop talking to friends and family, and spend all of your time reading and applying advice and responding to challenges posted on this forum.

 [Photo of my la cloche.]

River Cottage Bread Handbook 
Beautiful, helpful photographs. Wonderful concise advice for someone who knows little about bread making, except that the recipes are better left to someone with a good deal of bread making experience. One downside - and this could be a fault with my brain and not the book - is that the shaping instructions read like a description of the Battle of Gettysburg; after three turns, I was completely confused. Nice kneading suggestions, but have not really followed them. The doughs I have made from the recipes in this book end up extremely wet, as in a thick viscous blob that sticks to your fingers in massive amounts - and that's after extra flour is added. And I used a digital scale so this was not a measuring issue on my part. But I go back for more torture because the breads turn out so wonderful. It's like a bad boyfriend story with messy hands and less heartbreak.

This is a wonderful resource with thorough explanations and many recipes. My one gripe is that most of the recipes with whole grains are less than half whole grains, meaning majority white flour. As a text, this book is solid. Okay, there's some more gripe fodder. There is an emphasis on internal temperatures at every stage of the process and on large yields. Have ignored these, recalibrated recipes for a single loaf, and done just fine, This is a book that begs for writing in the margins and years of re-reading. I like the recipes because they are simple, easy to follow, and easy to adapt once you get the swing of things. The author, Jeffrey Hamelman, a certified master baker at King Arthur Flour, also stars in some King Arthur bread making videos.

Breadtime is thorough, with detailed descriptions of tools, strategies, types of flours, and kneading. I had to put this down as it was so involved. Started to feel lost in a maze of complicated directions. However, when you need those details, it is helpful and encouraging. This is a good book for 100 percent whole grain bread recipes.

[Starting a starter. Rubber band a tool to measure starter's growth. Now that I am completely comfortable with a starter and have been tending to it and using it for about two years, I realize I gave up on the rubber band thing maybe a month into the starter's residence in my kitchen.]

Local Breads
Written by Daniel Leader, the author of the book and owner of the New York bakery chain, Bread Alone, Local Breads explains well the value and science of sourdough cultures, summarizes local bread practices in European countries, and provides recipes for whole grain breads from Western and Eastern Europe. Leader provided a cheat sheet after the book was published to rectify a number of small, but significant, recipe errors. I'm not quite sure why he did not go all the way and leave out commercial yeast entirely in the recipes as most call for sourdough starter anyway. Also Leader thinks like the commercial baker that he is, so that one receives adjustments for home bakers rather than the one-at-a-time orientation. Still, he tries and the recipes are a nice mix. I've only tried one so far, bread #77, and it was fantastic both times I made it (warning: as usual I changed the recipe substantially).

Starter tutorials and troubleshooting

My sourdough starter page might be helpful. I relied on the following as I was getting started with my own natural yeast development.

The Art of Baking with Natural Yeast
This book is engaging and makes sourdough baking feel approachable. One caveat is that the authors recommend using an already healthy starter from someone else or sending away for dried or live starter. Probably good advice as starting one's own can lead to obsession and not always success. Many recipes also in the book. One of the authors writes a blog about starting and maintaining natural yeast starters, even sending - at no cost - natural yeast flakes. There is one post with detailed advice about starting with the author's live, dried yeast flakes and natural yeast troubleshooting. The sourdough starter advice is adequate with decent troubleshooting suggestions.

Please note that I have not tested the starter recipe and instructions for a bread machine.

Though this book is all about natural starters and ingredients, it takes the fast lane for generally quick rises for starter breads and does not include recipes with any preferments. Kneading is required. I tried the Grammy bread recipe with some variations in terms of starter amount and timing, but the bread came out great. Two tries at other recipes in the book turned out decidely mediocre, but I did not follow the recipes sufficiently to take that as any statement on those recipes. 

Tartine Bread Experiment
The author of the Tartine Bread book, which I confess I have not read, writes a post with detailed instructions and photographs to walk one through the starter process. This blog's starter instructions were sufficiently rational and encouraging that went right home and immediately applied the suggestions. Two suggestions in the post made me see my beginner's mistakes. (1) To get a starter off the ground, use spring water. Tap or filtered water - left out for at least 24 hours - will be fine once the starter is established. (2) If the kitchen is cold, put the embryonic starter on the fridge in a box or container. This way the starter will have a happy, warm place to develop. [Note to self: Perhaps winter was not the best season to jump into this process.] Used these instructions and my starters (wheat and rye) progressed from a limping beginning to active, bubbling, glamorous jars of glop. Author's book is on my wish list of books to buy.

Wild Sourdough
Like many bread recipe books, this one has a theme. Repeated in every recipe are the timing of four to six hours, kneading (with rests) and a massive amount of starter, 100 or more grams per loaf. My main beef against the book is that I'm not home all day to accommodate the timing. To be fair, there is a page of advice for adjusting the timing to a more usual lifestyle. I really like some of the suggestions about letting the dough rest, figuring out your oven's eccentricities and the relaxed attitude. The author also has a blog and classes - in Australia. 

I must admit that I usually end up changing these recipes in some major way, usually because I do not tend to have on hand 250 or 300 grams of a particular or any kind of starter. I'm also not good about the timing in these recipes and I have yet to incorporate the suggestions for adjusting the timing. I do my own on the fly and generally all works out well. 

The Art of Fermentation
This book is not so much a cookbook of fermented foods and cultures as a review of the different types of cultures that exist and generally how they are made and tended. The book also looks at fermentation history in terms of climate and food preservation prior to refrigeration and freezing (though those were somewhat available strategies in colder climates for much of the year). In addition to sourdough starter cultures for bread doughs, the author, Sandor Katz, explores yogurts, fermented vegetables, beer, cheese, and more. The point of view is that fermentation is good, healthy, and we should use these ancient methods as much as possible in place of modern, fast-factory production. Please be aware that this is not a how-to book - at least it was not for me. The book lacks detailed instructions for equipment and processes for making many of the foods mentioned. 

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