The San Francisco Baking Institute is actually located in South San Francisco, which is a separate city from San Francisco, not merely a geographical description of where it is in the city. This community is home for a lot of biotech companies; in fact, the institute sits amid the large campus of Genentech, Corp., one of the industry’s leading edge players.
The building is essentially a warehouse, with two large production areas that extended from floor to ceiling, and a two-story office build-out against one wall, with the classroom accessed via an external wooden staircase. One of the production areas was devoted to our baguette class and the other to a macaroon class. Most of us were wondering why macaroons should take two days to learn, but they probably thought the same thing about baguettes.
They provided breakfast and lunch for us, featuring items made somewhere in the facility, such as fresh croissants, morning buns, scones, and panini. While most of it was very good, I found the pound cake dessert inedible and surreptitiously slipped it into the garbage. I had read online that they also supplied wine, but there was none to be found while I was there.
There were 16 of us in the class, and the skill level ranged from complete novice to professional bread bakers. The structure of the course consisted of an alternating sequence of classroom and lab, starting with the classroom. Most of the classroom time was devoted to discussing bread baking theory, geared towards the student who knew nothing about the subject.
Our baking goal for the first day was to make three types of baguette, one with no preferment, but a 3 hour fermentation, one with a poolish, and one with a sponge. We didn’t do any kneading or machine mixing; we just mixed the ingredients in a tub with our hands until incorporated (20 baguettes worth), and then folded 3 times every 45 minutes, followed by an uninterrupted fermentation for 45 minutes. Then preshaped, 30 minute rest, shaping, 30 minute proofing, followed by scoring and baking in their steam-injected deck ovens.
The baguettes were narrower than what I’m used to making, maybe 1.5 inches in diameter fully baked. The dough weighed 350 grams, compared with 400 g that King Arthur bakes. All of them were very good; only by tasting them side by side could you tell the difference among them. The crumb very open when sliced horizontally, although this was less evident when traditional vertical slices were taken.
The second day was sort of a repeat of day 1, except we did some baguette variations, using sesame seeds, added bran, and some other grain types. I won’t further describe them.
What did I learn?
Not a whole lot. I didn’t find the classroom portions very educational because I’d read all the relevant books; I probably could have given the same lecture the instructor did, although I’d have probably needed some notes. However, I took this as an opportunity to grill the instructor with questions about what we did in the lab. Interestingly, he was a bit dismissive of many of the artisan techniques I brought up, such as extended cold fermentation, or preferments older than 12 hours. I’m sympathetic to this point of view, because I sometimes question whether people would taste the things they say they do if they were blindfolded. But still, I suspect that artisan bakers know one or two things that don’t find their way into the production baking worldview that he came from. And some of his views were idiosyncratic, such as “never use active dry yeast”; I was amused to remember that Amy’s Bread says “never use instant yeast”, so their two opposing recommendations cancel each other out.
I was a bit intrigued with the folding-only method of mixing. I have actually produced hundreds of loaves this way, but gradually decided that I wasn’t getting enough dough strength and it took a long time, to boot. And to be honest, I think the same symptoms showed up during this class. When scoring the loaves, the dough stretched and tore, rather than separating cleanly, which is a clear sign of overproofing. While the cuts opened pretty well in the oven, they were less pronounced that what I was able to get at home, where I incorporate some mixing.
My main goal was to improve my shaping ability and I’m not sure I did that, but I did develop an increased confidence that you can final shape the baguettes pretty aggressively without destroying an open crumb. You simply can’t produce the very thin baguettes that we did without some heavy pressure on the dough as you’re stretching it into the baguette shape. Another interesting tidbit he offered was to keep the hands flat as you’re rolling the baguette; what makes this point interesting is that other sources say the key is to keep the palm and fingertips on the surface of the counter, leading to a cupped hand. Clearly, both techniques work if they’re both “key”.
There was one change that I had already made to my fermentation procedure before coming to the class, but the class confirmed the importance of it: ferment the dough in a wide, flat container, preferably rectangular, rather than tall and narrow Tupperware type containers, or bowls. The reason is that the shape of the dough as you dump it on the counter needs to lend itself to be divided into shapes of the proper dimensions that can be readily shaped into a baguette. You can’t do that with a big, round mass of dough.
More than likely, the only change I will make to my previous baguette procedures is to make the narrower baguette; the improved crust-to-crumb ratio makes it a more enjoyable eating experience.
Overall the course was exceptionally well-run, with great facilities and friendly, knowledgeable people. The instructor even gave us his email address when we left, saying we could send him questions, an offer he assured us never expired.