When guests walk into our bakery for the first time they are often struck at the deep colors of our crusts. From croissants and financier cookies to our baguettes and miche, even the cinnamon rolls have a range of color from pale white to near black. And many accuse our products of being burned. As one of the primary bakers, I take great offense to this, to the idea that I would be serving to our patrons a product that was in any way inferior. So, what is going on? Why is our bread dark? What’s up with the black? And what does it mean to be “burnt”?
In some cases, the look of our baked goods is a personal thing. Just like some families like their chocolate chip cookies chewy and others like theirs crispy, so to do bakers have a preference for what their breads will look like. At Field & Fire, we feel that the most beautiful our products can be is when their crust explore the range of colors from creamy white to the darkest of browns. The truth is though that something being “burnt” is a personal thing, we all know it when we see it. At Field & Fire, a loaf is burned when extreme carbonization begins to occur. When a black spot is no longer just a “spot”, but it begins to encroach upon the crumb, the inner loaf. A burned loaf of bread will not be black anymore, but will begin to edge into gray and ash colors. To burn something is to transform the organic compounds within the product into carbon containing residues. This will leave a bitter acrid taste in the mouth. Like eating charcoal.
For the food nerds that want to know the science behind it; carbonization happens through a process called pyrolysis. However, before pyrolysis occurs there is another bit of food magic called the “Maillard Reaction”. This reaction takes place in conjunction with caramelization. While caramelizing is an act on sugar, the Maillard works primarily on proteins. The amino acids that make up those proteins break down into simpler acid chains then recombine with other molecules. There are hundreds of thousands of different molecules that occur in differing frequency upon the surface of our bread’s crust that all result in flavor. Everyone of those molecules is packed with flavor.*
There are rumors out there surrounding some of these aromatic flavor molecules, rumors of them being carcinogenic. That is to say, they are known to lead to cancerous tumors. Now, I was truly unaware of such an issue until very recently when a friend had challenged me on the topic, saying that he avoided “dark” foods because they contain higher levels of HCA’s PAH’s (heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) and acrylamide. According to the research however, HCA’s are found within meats, poultry and seafoods.
Think of the difference between a steak grilled versus boiled. Everyone will choose to have their meat grilled, unless of course they have never experienced grilled meat before. If all we ever had was boiled hot dogs then for the first time we eat a ball park frank over charcoal, chances are we won’t like it. We have a large number of Europeans that make their way into our shop and all of them exclaim that they have missed bread like “this”. Breads baked confidently dark, with a crisp crust and chewy crumb, full of flavor.
To us, the perfect loaf will be dark, maybe sometimes black in some areas. But, this is only the surface, like a good pizza, it’s just the thinnest of layers. But, the little bit of black creates curiosity and intrigue in the mouth. This isn’t burnt, this is flavor. In America, we are so used to breads and pastries that are light and void of color, void of depth of flavor, that we now need to retrain ourselves to fully appreciate the multitude of possibilities. To find out once again what real food, real bread actually tastes like. Its a process, and we will get there together.
*There are rumors out there surrounding some of these aromatic flavor molecules, rumors of their carcinogenic nature. That is to say they are known to lead to cancerous tumors. Now, I was truly unaware of such an issue until very recently when a friend had challenged me on the matter, saying that he avoided “dark” foods because they contain higher levels of HAA’s, PAH’s and acrylamide. According to the research however, HAA’s are found within grilled and roasted meats, seafood and poultry and with moderation can be consumed safely. PAH’s, though carcinogenic in nature they are not consumed at a high enough rate to produce negative effects. And the same goes with acrylamide.