Bake

5 Bakery-Borrowed Secrets That Made Me a Better Baker

August  1, 2018

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.

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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.

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Top Comment:
“On the butter front, I learned from the baking club that not all recipes work with higher fat butter (BraveTart recipes are almost all designed for American butter), and I learned the hard way that a higher baking temperature in super buttery doughs, like Tartine's croissants, made the butter leak out during baking. Same batch of dough behaved much better baked at a lower temp. Just something to keep in mind for those baking experimenters out there. ”
— Stephanie B.
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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


VIOLET BAKERY'S NO-YEAST CINNAMON BUNS

What are your most special baking tips and tricks? Share 'em in the comments!

23 Comments

Rachel M. September 14, 2018
I live two blocks from Boulted (I know...morning bun jackpot!) and have always wanted to go down and talk to the owners about their process and inspiration. Loved reading about it here! Now once they reopen after this darn hurricane, I'm going to have to see if they'll sell me a pound of some freshly milled flour!
 
Author Comment
Emma L. September 14, 2018
Hi Rachel! Soooooo jealous. I was there a couple weeks ago and ate *many* morning buns. And they usually have bags of flour for sale! Def worth experimenting with :) Stay safe in the storm!
 
Natalie L. August 28, 2018
LOVED this article! It reminded me that my daughter and I were supposed to try a croissant recipe this summer. We lived in Switzerland for over 4 years and are desperately missing the European croissants and pain du chocolates. Might you have a tried and true recipe for either to share? For butters, I have access to Whole Foods and Trader Joes for higher quality choices. Appreciate any guidance 😀
 
Author Comment
Emma L. August 28, 2018
Thanks, Natalie! Here's a great recipe for homemade croissants: https://food52.com/recipes/23984-homemade-croissants
 
Natalie L. August 28, 2018
About to show my amateur level on pastry making...what's roll-in butter refer to in this recipe? Is it just a roll of butter? Salted? I saw that in Whole Foods 😀 Thx again!!
 
Mike W. August 23, 2018
Fantastic information.<br /><br /> I took all the Pre-Ferment options and placed them into a spreadsheet so all I have to do is input the original 4 ingredients and the percentage of Pre-Ferment I want to try and it gives me all the values for the Pre-Ferment and final dough.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. August 23, 2018
Wow! That sounds like my kind of spreadsheet.
 
Stephanie B. August 13, 2018
Hi, I'm Stephanie and I have a bread problem (here I imagine a room full of baking addicts saying "Welcome, Stephanie). After reading this, I did a little more research on freshly milled flour and home milling options, and within a week I got myself a little Mockmill stand mixer attachment, and three different types of wheat to keep the multitude of flours in my pantry company. Total game changer on the bread flavor front! I'm still working out kinks on how fresh milled flour handles hydration and shaping, but the taste! I'm in bread heaven, thanks for the tip!<br /><br />On the butter front, I learned from the baking club that not all recipes work with higher fat butter (BraveTart recipes are almost all designed for American butter), and I learned the hard way that a higher baking temperature in super buttery doughs, like Tartine's croissants, made the butter leak out during baking. Same batch of dough behaved much better baked at a lower temp. Just something to keep in mind for those baking experimenters out there.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. August 13, 2018
Hi Stephanie! Thanks for sharing this. That's so awesome to hear that you got a milling attachment. Love that you can notice the flavor difference—and totally hear you about the adjustment process. Commercial flour is so standardized, we can trust it to always act the same, but fresh-milled flour has its own personality :) And great note re: butter. Some recipes are more open to change than others!
 
Susan W. August 12, 2018
I live in bakery heaven. There is one in my town, three in the adjacent town and a fifth in the town just to the north of the adjacent town. Guess what? They all make their own croissants from scratch and, lately, the croissants have been very, very dark.<br /><br />They look burnt. Plus, contrary to what Josh says, they lose flavor rather than gain. Maybe, it is because the flavor is unpleasant.
 
Joycelyn August 12, 2018
Wonderful article! Helpful as well as a wee bit heart tugging regarding happy memories, that some amongst us don't always have. <br />Reminds me a bit of many years ago when my friend and I used to attend Weight Watchers once a week & after the final weigh in etc., we'd go across the street to a popular restaurant & order their awesome house salad and a small glass of white wine. <br />Never once did it ever cross our minds the salad had more calories & fat than a burger and fries! : )<br />
 
Robin August 12, 2018
Little things make the biggest difference! I always learn something on Food 52. These ideas are excellent.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. August 12, 2018
So glad to hear that—thanks, Robin!
 
ustabahippie August 12, 2018
Lovely, but sounds super expensive. <br /><br />
 
Eric K. August 12, 2018
"These days, I live 500-something miles from Raleigh and Sundays are Sundays again. I think about that every Sunday." Emma, I love this line. I wonder what my "Boulted Day" is. I used to go to yoga on Sundays, I think, near my old apartment (there was a bakery below it, which always seemed counterintuitive, or perfect).
 
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Emma L. August 12, 2018
Thanks, Eric! And ha—I used to go to a gym right next to a Panera. That's when I realized I don't like gyms, but do like pumpkin muffin tops.
 
Food E. August 12, 2018
I am fortunate to be a resident Raleigh native and it is places like Boulted that continue to make this a wonderful place to live. No week is complete without their bread. I am sorry you are so far away but have found a way to 'keep' it with you.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. August 12, 2018
Aw! So glad you stumbled upon this.
 
lindamc August 4, 2018
I basically do this already—as a New Yorker I am lucky to have access to Greenmarket Grains—but I love the way you integrate an approach to baking into the broader context of your life and experience. Fresh and original! Thanks!
 
Dale August 3, 2018
Who ARE you people at Food52? Every time I read one of your articles I feel as if I’ve been on a luxury vacation. Inspiring, inviting and exciting. Thank you💕
 
Author Comment
Emma L. August 3, 2018
Aw! Thanks, Dale!
 
Eric K. August 12, 2018
Aw, love this comment.
 
Nancy August 2, 2018
Wondeful variations on a theme and ways to shake up bread-making. Thank you...;)