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Book Reviews: Baking Bread at Home

Fine Cooking Issue 91
Photos: Scott Phillips
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I love bread, all kinds of bread: baguettes, ciabattas, sourdough, white, whole wheat, rye—you name it. But I’m definitely not a bread baker. Or rather, I wasn’t a bread baker. To me, baking bread always seemed like something only experienced artisans or serious home bakers should tackle. But a few weeks ago, something made me change my mind.

Inspired by Allison Kreitler’s super-easy baguettes, I picked up Richard Bertinet’s new book, Crust: Bread to Get Your Teeth Into (Kyle Books, $35), which is the follow-up to his award-winning Dough. Then a review copy of Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Breads: New Techniques, Extraordinary Flavor (Ten Speed Press, $35) showed up on my desk. And the next thing I knew I was baking bread, filling my apartment with the toasty smell of a bakery.

One of the reasons I suddenly found myself with hands in bread dough is that both books make it really easy to bake delicious bread, even for a rookie like me. Not only are they nice-looking books with beguiling photos of crunchy loaves hot from the oven, but both also contain clear directions and plenty of useful process photos that guide you through every step. And both have recipes for easier breads that require only a few simple steps, as well as more complex bread-baking projects that involve feeding a starter for several days before you even think of turning on the oven.

The importance of “working” the dough

In Crust, Richard Bertinet aims to show us how to apply the straightforward bread-baking approach he had illustrated in his brilliant first book, Dough, to slightly more complex doughs, such as sourdough. But fret not. There are also perfectly doable recipes for breads like baguettes and ciabattas, and you don’t have to own Dough to enjoy Crust, as Bertinet reviews his method for working, folding, dividing, and shaping the dough in great detail, dispensing useful tips for preparing the oven and acquiring the necessary tools and ingredients.

Bertinet’s philosophy for making delicious bread at home is fairly simple, at least on paper. It involves creating the right oven environment to allow a nice crunchy crust to form slowly and a method for mixing the dough that incorporates lots of air, producing a light, airy interior. Bertinet doesn’t knead his bread dough in the traditional sense of pushing it with palms and knuckles. Instead, he “works” the dough by lifting it in the air, slapping it back on the work surface, and quickly folding it onto itself many, many times, until it loses much of its stickiness and becomes smooth and malleable. This method takes a bit of practice, but it’s well worth it: The ciabattas I baked were light and airy inside, with a lovely, crisp crust. (The DVD that comes with the book is indispensable if you want to nail Bertinet’s technique.)

The book is divided into five sections: Tools & Techniques; Slow, covering doughs with a slow rise; Different, including bagels and spelt bread; Sweet; and Fact & Fiction, which dispels some common myths about bread. I found only one notable drawback: Bertinet calls for fresh yeast (also called compressed or cake yeast), which can be hard to find in American stores. The good news is that you can substitute instant yeast by using one-third of the required amount of fresh yeast.

A special method for whole-wheat breads

Peter Reinhart’s book focuses on whole-wheat breads of all kinds, from sandwich, country, and multigrain breads to challah, pita, and pizza. His goal is to create whole-wheat breads that are as tasty and satisfying as the white breads we’re more accustomed to. To do this, he uses a method of delayed fermentation, which involves mixing what he calls pre-doughs first and then letting them rest overnight before adding additional yeast and other ingredients to make the final dough. In Reinhart’s words, this “technique initiates enzyme action in some of the dough in order to maximize flavor development before inducing yeast fermentation.”

His pre-doughs can be simple soakers (just flour, salt, and water), mashes (flour and water that have been heated until the starches gelatinize, looking somewhat like cream of wheat), or pre-fermented doughs made with commercial yeast or wild yeast (this is where the going gets a little tougher).

The book includes detailed directions for making pre-doughs and a master formula for a basic whole-wheat sandwich loaf, along with dozens of other enticing recipes and useful tips for preparing a home oven for bread baking and for using an electric mixer to mix the dough. It also has recipes for what Reinhart calls “transitional” breads, made with a combination of whole-grain flour and white bread flour. These recipes may appeal to novices because the dough is easier to work with than 100% whole-wheat dough.

Bakers interested in the science behind making bread will also appreciate Reinhart’s detailed scientific explanations. But don’t worry, you won’t need to brush up on Chemistry 101 to use this book to bake wonderful bread (like the ciabattas and potato bread I tested).

For more of Peter Reinhart’s advice and information on baking bread, check out our Ask the Experts column: Yeast 101.


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