One Month a Baker

hand mixingHey all, Nicholas here, checking in from the retail counter. Nearly a year and a half ago, I started my journey in the locavore food scene when I began to work at the retail front of Field & Fire bakery, in the Grand Rapids’ Downtown Market. To be truthful, my experience was rather limited in the world of baking prior to that, but I was confident of my guest service abilities and painfully tired of the hotel side of the hospitality industry. I was looking for work in a small business dynamic, looking for something a little more earthy, even primal. When the opportunity came up to join the Kibler’s organically principled, locally driven bakery, I jumped at it. A year into the experienced, when I was asked to cross-train in the back of house, I jumped just a bit more slowly.

shaping doughI think a quintessential bakery holds a place in our heads, drummed up from a storybook land with streets made of cobblestone. A wooden sign hangs over the doorway, with looping script announcing ‘Bakery’ to the town. Inside, perhaps there’s a display counter boasting an assortment of simple looking pastries, or linen-lined baskets filled to bursting with breads of all shapes and sizes. Somewhere, just out of sight, a fire crackles and breathes to life a scent that can only be described as “good”. Sacks of flour are stacked everywhere you look, rolling pins set into the walls as decoration. You get the picture, it’s almost some primal image that exists mostly for all of us.

When you think about what happens in the bakery itself, you imagine a fast paced environment and a lot of giant-armed individuals aggressively kneading large piles of dough. At least, I did. I wasn’t exactly thrilled on the idea of an upper body workout hours before dawn, but at the very least it would be an interesting experience. Turns out, that’s an entirely different style of baking, that really has nothing to do with the way we shape our artisan loaves.

hand_shaping_flax_smallHere’s a breakdown of the baker’s morning routine, start to finish:

  • Clock in at 3am (truly wished that this was a joke when setting my alarm for 2:15 in the morning, but, alas, do what you have to)

  • Make sure your mixing bins are clean and begin adding pre-scaled ingredients, water and sticky sourdough starter included. Have you ever experienced a heightened sense of smell in the morning? I was totally shocked by the smell of our pre-ferments and it definitely took some getting used to. In my experience, it all smells waaay better after it’s been baked.

  • Once the dough has all been mixed (with your bare hands, mind) the bins are sorted and stacked according to the amount of time necessary for them to rise/ferment, and a system of timers are set for each stack of doughs to be folded. This is where the magic starts to happen, and what begins to replace that image of kneading dough. Again and again these doughs will be folded over the next couple of hours to slowly build gluten and tension, which will eventually make it less sticky and pliable enough to shape into individual loaves.

  • It’s not even 5am yet.

  • Croissants are being shaped somewhere else in the bakery. This is a complete world packed into the broad industry title of ‘baking’. I only ever had a hand in mixing the dough to contribute the this process, and I’m actually pretty thankful for that. Pastries are picky little things, and actually really intense.

  • Until this point, I’ve been holding my own just fine, however, once the last timer has gone off and the last of the doughs have been folded, my sense of urgency in the workplace was cut off at the knees as the bakers prep for the next step in the process, pre-shaping. This is probably as close to kneading dough as you can get, essentially turning large bins of dough into smaller sized rounds for individual loaves and buns. And for someone, up until that point, that had never touched dough before, this is incredibly challenging. I wish I could afford you more detail on this experience, and the actual shaping of the loaves later on, but all I can say is you need to be there, and you need to feel it. Shaping doesn’t just make the bread look pretty, it’s helps create that signature dense crust we all rave over, and the process itself is all about building an outer layer of tension around the still soft and ooey-gooey center of the dough.egg_shell_tower

  • It’s nearing 9am, and breads and pastries that were shaped the previous day have been baking in the oven for some time now. That good-smell is in your face and truly a welcome change to the tangy odors of bubbling sourdough.

  • Now’s the time for the final shaping process, and this is the most intimidating part of the experience. Like pre-shaping, I wish I could give you more detail, but man, it’s all in the hands. Asking questions did absolutely nothing for me at this point, but watching was everything. Due to the nature of dough (read: the unrelenting sticky nature of dough) it’s important to keep your movements fast and precise. I learned how to shape boule, batard, baguette, and ciabatta (which doesn’t really count, because you kind of just flop the dough around in loose flour and call it good), but of all things to present a challenge to me, buns were the most difficult.

  • Once all of the bread has been shaped, you’re in the home stretch of the bake day. While most everyone else in the world is just settling into their second cup of coffee, we start closing out the shift by scaling out all of the ingredients needed for the next morning. Once everything has been baked for the day, chopped wood is stacked into the oven and set aflame to warm the oven for the next day.

  • There are more dishes to do than you’ve ever seen in your own kitchen, guaranteed.

  • A thorough sweep and mop of the floor, and suddenly the work day is over, roughly around 11am.

bakers_levain_smallReally, the entire experience is not anything like that romanticized idea of a bakery in our heads. It isn’t flippant or cute, and for the first hour and half of the day, it does not smell good at all. But it is precise, and everything is quantified and correlated within an 8 hour shift. And one thing that stuck out to me so invaluably was repetition. What I just described happens every single day, and varies only when a specialty bread rears its head once or twice a week. I don’t know that I would have been able to spend an entire month baking if that weren’t the case.