Follow the Leader

FOLLOW THE LEADER

An interview with
Bread Alone’s Dan Leader

bread in the oven

BY ERIC STEINMAN
PHOTOGRAPHY BY PHIL MANSFIELD

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irtually no one in the Hudson Valley remains ignorant of Bread Alone, the artisan bread-baking venture started by Dan Leader, and wife Sharon, in 1983 in Boiceville. From its unassuming production facility on Route 28, the company’s ubiquitous breads became an early symbol of sorts for the region’s culinary re-calibration. Eventually, on certain days, one could almost detect the redolence of Bread Alone in the air and half expect to see a flotilla of baguettes and brioches making their way down the Hudson River toward NYC. Now entering his forth decade of bread baking in the Hudson Valley, Leader remains a stalwart and visionary in the artisan bread movement, with a handful of critically acclaimed books on the subject of bread baking and countless numbers of loaves baked and happily consumed over the last 30 years. I sat down with Leader to discuss the past, present and future of artisan bread baking in the Hudson Valley and beyond.

Dan Leader

EHV: I am interested in the evolution of artisan baking over the last three decades since you began Bread Alone. You started up at the same time when bakers like Steven Sullivan, of Acme Bread Company in San Francisco, and Nancy Silverton, of La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles, were just discovering the craft and developing a market for artisan bread. Looking back, what is the definition of artisan bread and where do we currently reside in the state of artisan baking in the America?

DL: If you look at chocolate, wine or bread, we producers are all facing the same sort of challenge. I think baking is facing a unique challenge. I think we are all facing this battle of how to maintain integrity, competitive edge and a unique perspective and have a business that actually succeeds and pays fair wages. It is not a small thing. We have a 401K plan, we provide paid vacations for our employees, and we pay $50,000 a year in workers’ comp insurance. It is not just, “here is this artisan loaf of bread”; it is everything that stands behind it that keeps a business stable. What good would it be if we were 100% pure to our mission but we went out of business because we weren’t smart and business savvy.

My definition of being an artisan: We want to buy wheat from growers like ourselves, we want to work with millers like ourselves and we want to maintain human contact through every step of the way.We want to have a product that is fairly priced, but competitively priced as well. This is how we stay 100% true to your mission and maintain a solid business model. That said, I think there is a certain thing that American artisan purveyors do, whether it is cheese, wine or bread. We take our ingenuity and do things with it. When I was a chef, the important thing was to travel to France to train. Now French chefs are sending their students to the U.S. to train because they get better training here in the States. There is a certain passion we, as American bakers, bring to things.

pan of bread

EHV: When I look at some of the books you have authored, or when I read the literature associated with Bread Alone, there is an overriding message of integrity. Now, getting bigger and growing your business is not necessarily diametrically opposed to the concept of operating with integrity, but it seems it is more of a challenge to maintain that standard once you exceed a certain size; especially because what you do is artisan in nature. How are you going to address that particular challenge as Bread Alone grows?

DL: Most of the bakers that started when Bread Alone started have either been bought out, sold, commoditized or simply closed down. There are very few who have been on the path that Bread Alone has. We have been struggling with what is the right thing to do, in concerns of stability of the business, in concerns of being competitive, and so I have come up with this idea of becoming the state of the art in artisan baking. Of course, there will be some machines, but the process is essentially handcrafted. If you were to take the skilled bakers out of the equation, the whole thing would fall apart and you wouldn’t have the bread. If you don’t have the right person working the machine, you don’t have the excellence of the final product. The same argument could be made with “is it OK for the farmer to use a combine and a tractor?” Combines and tractors are very sophisticated machines.

EHV: So how does this relate to the actual baking and maintenance of the artisan signature?

DL: I think we are going to be able to do it better. If you consider true artisan bread, it is about ingredients, it’s about a process, it is about time and temperature and baking control. Right now we are, and have been for decades, baking out of a facility that wasn’t designed to do the sort of volume we have committed to doing.We have a lot of production challenges we face every day because we bake in a facility that is somewhat overcrowded and we don’t have the sort of control that we really need. We are actually going to build rooms, where we can maintain the ideal temperature, ideal. We are actually going to make it a more pleasant place to work. All of the heavy lifting of the peels are going to be done with conveyors. You are not going to be seeing people sweating as much in front of an oven. But you are going to see people baking a lot nicer bread. And breads are still going to be hand-mixed and handshaped.

EHV: You started with this idea of bringing the European tradition to the U.S., in some sense educating people as to what bread could be. Judging from your books, and especially your newest book, Simply Great Breads (Taunton Press, 2011), you have widened out your perspective and have moved beyond that strictly European model. After 30 years of baking in New York State, I am curious how that identity has changed? How does it reflect New York and the Hudson Valley?

DL: I think you could do it in a lot of places. It is a question of where you want to fit into the marketplace. You could probably do it anywhere. I have seen 1,000 bakeries open and close. You have to find the right fit. Our mission is to continue what we are doing—it is a coming of age. Has Bread Alone sold out? I don’t think so. Our ultimate goal to sell really good organic artisan bread to as many people as possible, then yes, we have honored our mission. For me, we would all be idealists, but be out of business. There is nothing American about what we are doing, we are making a truly European product and have been for 30 years.

EHV: Getting back to your books and your efforts to share your baking knowledge: It seems like your writing is largely about empowering the home baker. How do you feel that empowerment works?

DL: People are afraid of fermentation, but people also love baking bread. People unnecessarily look at bread baking as this complicated phenomenon, like a mystery. So the whole purpose of the books was to let people know that they could do this. It is fun, cheap, and if you are going to cook, you might as well bake.

EHV: What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about baking bread?

DL: That baking is complicated. Let me put it this way, people have been baking bread since they built the pyramids, before commercial yeast was even invented. If the human race could bake for more than 2,000 years without the help of modern technology, then how difficult could it be?

STARTING SOMETHING:
A preliminary guide to bread starters

By Dan and Sharon Burns-Leader

A“Starter” is considered to be anytime that you premix flour and water and then use it as an ingredient in the final recipe. It is essentially a pre-fermentation (also called “the mother dough”). I recommend starters that are mixed anywhere from 12 hours to several days before the bread is baked. Quick starters, like the following “biga,” are simple, one-step mixtures.The longer starters, or sourdoughs, will take several days to develop. Once developed, it will need a final preparation specifically measured for the recipe.

Making bread dough using starters takes more time than effort.You will basically be mixing for a little bit and waiting for a long time.What you are waiting for, for the most part, is the formation of a balanced blend of lactobacilli in the culture. However, when you slice your loaf of bread, you will notice that the crumb (the interior of the bread) is moist and glistening and the flavor is deep with the sweetness of wheat. This will be because you used a starter.

Here is a rundown of some different types of starters that are used at Bread Alone.

BIGA

An Italian-based starter, biga is typically made from commercial yeast, organic unbleached white flour and water. This starter is usually mixed 8–12 hours before the final dough is made. Individual recipes give detailed instructions on creating and using the biga.

LIQUID LEVAIN CULTURE

This is a relatively new kind of sourdough, a batter-like culture made from flour and water that is easy to mix and easy to measure out. Liquid levain has a fruity taste and a light, bubbly feel, it is mildly and immediately sour.

STIFF LEVAIN CULTURE

This recipe can be used for any wheat. It is a very firm, traditional French-bread starter. It ferments very slowly, a plus for French bakers who abhor overly sour bread and want to limit the production of acids in their sourdough. In contrast to liquid levain, stiff levain is mild but earthy and not as light on your tongue.

RYE SOURDOUGH CULTURE

German rye sourdough is a thick mixture of spring water and stone-ground rye flour that resembles porridge. Rye makes the fastest-fermenting and sourest sourdough. It is strong and pungent, almost like vinegar.

cooling rack of bread
Most of the bakers that started when Bread Alone
started have either been bought out, sold,
commoditized or simply closed down.


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