These Tips Will Make You Want to Ferment
The age-old process of using the yeasts and bacteria around us to create depth of flavor in ingredients has been increasingly adopted in menus across the country. For chefs, bakers, and brewers, fermented products—from rutabagas to rye loaves—can add a new dimension to an existing dish or provide an entire platform for a business. And all it takes is a little patience.
At Publican Quality Bread in Chicago, making a loaf is about a 60-hour process. Each week, nearby Spence Farm freshly mills and delivers grains, and head baker Greg Wade, who was a finalist for this year’s James Beard: Outstanding Baker award, gets to work.
“There’s a lot of life in the flour, and we mix it just with water, and that will start fermenting naturally in about 24 hours,” Wade says. “It brings a lot of enzyme activity and a little more sweetness that gives you some organic acid development, which makes up the really good flavors and aromas of bread.”
The fermenting mix sits overnight before it’s combined with a 17-year-old sourdough starter that is fed three times daily and rested for four hours without salt, which leads to what Wade calls a “soft, supple, dough.” Then, salt is added, and the dough further matures as the yeast continues to break down complex sugars and carbohydrates, before it goes into a hearth oven and yields bread that is more easily digested and nutrient-dense.
Two-stage fermentation brings buttery and rich flavors through lactic acid at higher temperatures and sharp, vinegar notes through acetic acid at colder temperatures. All of which, Wade says, leads to a more well-rounded loaf of bread. “A lot of commercial bakeries use dough conditioners and emulsifiers and things like that, and it makes the dough behave a little bit differently from the get-go. We need to actually ferment the dough to make it mature, workable, and airy and fluffy,” Wade says. “You’re getting a much healthier product because all of these complex chains of proteins and carbohydrates are being broken down prior to us consuming it.”
Publican wholesales its bread to restaurants across Chicago, and while the long fermentation has required some acclimating for restaurant operators, Wade says they have all been supportive of the bakery and its commitment to ingredients. Publican—along with Spence Farm—is focused on education to create a market for these small grains.
“All the restaurants we sell to really support this mission and have enacted it themselves. Any restaurant in Chicago that’s not sourcing from local farms is not really [relevant]. Even eight or nine years ago, you’d see the farm names across the menu, and now they’re kind of getting away from that because of course it’s coming from local farms,” he says. “We always invite the chef here to the bakery and show them the process and everything. What they’re not used to is the long fermentation process—a chef is usually able to order something tonight for tomorrow. But I can’t make our bread in eight or nine hours; it takes 60 hours.”
Publican communicates with Spence Farm at the beginning of each growing season on what grains they would like to use so the farm can plant and plan accordingly. While the bakery primarily focuses on wheat and rye, it also uses other grains from the farm like buckwheat, barley, and oats.
“We start from the ground-up and make sure we have healthy soil; if the soil is healthy, then the plants will be healthy,” Wade says. “It’s a dynamic process. We want to make sure that it not only works for us as a bakery, but that it also works on the farm. We want to be working with our community; we want to be working with our vendors; we want to be working with our staff. We just want to get back to a more wholesome, community-oriented lifestyle.”
Inspired by Heritage
At Sub Rosa bakery in Richmond, Virginia, baker Evrim Dogu, who was also a semifinalist for this year’s James Beard: Outstanding Baker award, takes a similarly rustic approach to bread-making. Pulling inspiration from Turkey—where his parents were born—Dogu, along with his sister, has created a small-scale bakery that focuses on bread and pastries. He fell into the profession after beginning long-fermentation baking as a hobby.
“It’s kind of a way of pre-cooking, whether you do it with meat, vegetables, or—in our case—bread,” Dogu says. “I fell in love with it because it’s just using flour and water. There’s something in the purity of that. Making a leavened bread from flour, water, and salt fascinated me. It has everything it needs to become bread on its own.”
Much like Wade, Dogu uses the yeasts that are naturally present on hands and in the air to ferment the bread, which he says creates a more complex product than a single-strain commercial yeast intended to ferment as quickly as possible.
“You have a few different strains that are vying for primacy and then you also have a large number of beneficial bacteria that are growing alongside,” he says.
Sub Rosa offers bread and pastries, but not a full menu of soups, salads, and other items, a practice which Dogu says is common in Turkey and the Middle East. The breads integrate ingredients like aromatic Nigella seeds and regionally prevalent grains such as “Bloody Butcher” corn and rye.
In pastries, the bakery uses classic Middle Eastern flavor combinations—like pistachios and sour cherries, greens and Feta with pepper flakes, and ground lamb with cumin as fillings—which are combined with Italian or French dough.
“Those doughs are excellent and underrepresented in Turkey, and then I think that the flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean are underrepresented in the West, so it’s kind of a nice little medium place,” Dogu says.
While Sub Rosa is a small operation—producing a little more than 2,000 breads and pastries per week—it has plans to increase capacity to meet customer demand, plus increase its wholesale and catering business.
Dogu says there is often a three-pronged approach to sourcing grains for breads, which requires decisions case-by-case. “[It’s] local and regional versus well-grown and organic versus heirloom and special variety. If you put those three things [together] and have to weigh them all, it’s a constant game,” he says. “I’m going to choose this special variety, but it’s grown in Montana. Or, I’m going to choose this organic grain, although it’s not that special or interesting, but it’s nicely grown and it’s really clean. Or, I’m going to use this local grain, although I had to pick through it and it’s not well grown. … In the long term, we have to come up with creative solutions to reinvigorate localized food systems, and I don’t think that just means within 100 miles.”
Sub Rosa mills its grains in-house and bakes breads in a wood-fired oven, using residual heat for the pastries. “It literally goes from our mill room, which is in our backyard, into the mixer, and then we make our tart dough from it. So the flavor of the spelt: We all taste it; we all see how it flakes, how big it rises, what the flavor is like, and how it compares. It’s really interesting to do a side-by-side comparison to the starchy, white roller-mill flour,” Dogu says. “We try to incorporate our own flour into everything we do because it is so unique, the flavor is subtle and wonderful, and once you get used to it, it’s really hard to go back.”