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5 Bakery-Borrowed Secrets That Made Me a Better Baker

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We went to the same bakery every Sunday. It was a short drive from our apartment, a longer bike ride, an even longer jog. We ate ham croissants and rye cookies and seeded bread. We drank too much coffee. We stayed awhile.

Somewhere along the way, we stopped calling it “Sunday,” started calling it, “Boulted Day.” This was better.

Boulted Bread lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. It opened a couple months after Justin and I moved there, summer of 2014. Like most bakeries, Boulted makes breads and pastries. Unlike most bakeries, they also mill the flour for those breads and pastries. Oh, and they built the mill, too.

But I’m nowhere near there anymore.

These days, I live 500-something miles from Raleigh and Sundays are Sundays again. I think about that every Sunday. That when you move, you can take your jeans and books and cast-iron skillet and, sure, even a loaf of bread. But you can’t take the lake by your apartment or the bakery down the road.

So I have a new routine. On the weekends, I still do Boulted Day—but instead of going to Boulted, I bake like Boulted. Or I try. That’s what counts anyway, right?

Here are five bakery-inspired essentials I swear by. And for what it’s worth, you don’t have to build your own mill.

1. Treat all-purpose flour like some-purpose.

At Boulted, they source a variety of heritage, heirloom, and ancient grains, and stone-grind them on-site. Right now, that means milling eight different flours. Which, let’s be real, is a heck of a lot of work! But worth it, co-owner Joshua Bellamy told me, for one thing: “Flavor.” Because you could make a chocolate-studded shortbread, but what if you mixed in some rye? You could make a classic pound cake, but what if you called in einkorn? You could make white bread, but what if you made it blue? Ethiopian blue tinge emmer, that is. “I bought 1,000 pounds of it without a plan,” Josh laughed. And now it’s his favorite ingredient to experiment with.

Make it your own: Buy a whole-grain flour, preferably one you’ve never worked with before. Think spelt or kamut or buckwheat. Now swap it into your favorite baking recipes by substituting 25 to 50 percent of the all-purpose flour. So, if a recipe calls for 1 cup (128 grams) all-purpose, you can adapt that to be 3/4 cup (96 grams) all-purpose plus 1/4 cup (32 grams), whatever you want. I love whole-wheat rugelach, cornmeal streusel, and rye pie pastry.

2. Buy flours like you’d buy flowers: fresh.

Josh can still remember the first time he went to Farm & Sparrow Bakery in Asheville, North Carolina and tasted Dave Bauer’s bread. Bauer is iconic in the industry for championing fresh-milled, locally-sourced flour, but Josh had to taste it to believe it: “You kind of always wonder, in the back of your head, are these things legitimate? Do they actually make a difference?” he said. “But the first time I had a loaf of his bread, it was like—a shock. It was just shocking.” At its most basic, bread is mostly flour and water, with a little salt and maybe yeast. Which means you’re mostly tasting, well, flour. Fresher flour means more flavorful flour. More flavorful flour means more flavorful bread. (Cookies, cakes, and friends, too!)

Make it your own: There are more and more micro mills popping up around the States. There’s also...the internet! Lucky us. Find a mill close to you—or close enough—and order top-notch flour to your doorstep. I’m a big fan of Carolina Ground, especially their whole-wheat pastry flour. And if you really catch the fresh-milled bug (don’t say I didn’t warn you), you can invest in a mill of your own. Mockmill is a popular pick.

3. Double down on leaveners.

Not baking powder and baking soda. The other guys—natural starter and commercial yeast. At Boulted, some breads use one or the other, but the bialys and baguettes use both. Why? “A small amount of starter creates depth of flavor and the yeast helps with structure.” In other words, starter brings tang and twang and personality, and yeast ensures an impressive rise and fluff and puff. While some bakers preach one philosophy over another, Josh says it doesn’t have to be so strict: “The great thing about home baking is, you have ultimate flexibility. You can make anything taste exactly the way you want.”

Make it your own: What can a yeast-risen bread recipe gain from a natural starter? What can a sourdough bread recipe gain from yeast? Give it a whirl and find out. (And psst, don’t worry if it doesn’t always go right—that’s part of the process, too. “In that testing phase, scratching our own curiosities, we have a lot of failures,” Josh said. So be it! If nothing else, bakers should be curious.) If you don’t want to commit to a full-fledged starter, try experimenting with fuss-free preferments: Erin McDowell will show you how.

4. Find your new favorite butter.

In addition to their walk-in, Boulted has two backup freezers filled with—you might want to sit down for this—thousands of dollars of butter. Beautiful, organic, cultured butter. If you’re assuming that this is a lot more expensive than standard American-style butter, you’re right. “But it makes such a big difference,” Josh told me. Like yogurt, cultured butter is tangy flirting with funky. Boulted swears by this for croissant doughs (roughly a third butter! a third!), blitz puff pastry, and pound cakes. “It’s just so darn good,” Josh said. “We can’t ever go back.”

Make it your own: What’s your favorite buttery recipe? Shortbread? Pound cake? Pie dough? (All of the above?!) Treat yourself to a special butter—say, cultured like Boulted, or an ultra-rich European-style, or even a locally sourced variety. Then do a 1:1 swap in the recipe.

5. Ditch “golden-brown.”

I wish I had a nickel for every time a recipe told me to bake something to “golden-brown.” Boulted politely ignores this. Instead, their breads are mahogany-crusted, their croissants deeply varnished, their pie crusts bronzed like they just got back from a month at the beach. Why? Same reason as, well, everything else, Josh said: “Flavor.” Baking at a higher than average heat encourages more dramatic browning and caramelization. Then, when the baked goods cool, all those flavorful components on the crust are drawn back into the center. “If we underbake something, I get bummed out, like we left 10 percent of the flavor on the table.” And how do you avoid going too far? “Well," Josh said, "sometimes we burn things.” C’est la vie!

Make it your own: If a baking recipe tells you 350° F, bump that to 375° F and see what happens. Keyword being see! When experimenting with browning, watching your baked goods—and making sure they don’t get into too much trouble—is crucial. I love an ultra-tan scone or flaky, dark, and handsome hand pie. For bonus points: Brush a cream-based egg wash (figure 1 tablespoon cream per 1 egg) on pastries just before baking. This top-coat encourages even more color.

Photos by Jim Trice

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