Why This Noma Chef Is Obsessed with Sourdough
After Noma closes, his sourdough will live on.
Perhaps it borders on blasphemy to do an article about Noma and only write about the bread—to only write about something so banal and prosaic when one is referring to a restaurant that shook our culinary foundations and sent the world to Copenhagen on the hunt for Nordic nirvana.
But to ignore the bread as an afterthought would be a mistake. It would mean you haven't understood the ambition that still drives chef René Redzepi and Noma 13 years after it opened on Strandgade 93 in Christianshavn. And you would only make that mistake if you haven't yet become aware of Rasmus Kristensen, the man responsible for making the restaurant's bread.
"I think bread is super cool, because it's nerdy," says Rasmus. "I was told that I need to take ownership of the bread here at Noma because that was the first thing René tasted every day. And bread is the only thing, to be frank, that changes every day. Because with bread, it has 100 percent to do with who is making it."
During the last 2 years, Rasmus worked on creating a bread that has evolved with respect to taste and technique, but that is still based on a sourdough that is at least 10 years old.
"The sourdough needs to come to the new location," says Rasmus. "It has to. I'm not going to start over. It would be a catastrophe. When Noma was in Australia, I kept part of my sourdough at Studio, where one of the chefs kept an eye on it. Some of the sourdough was passed on to Kadeau, and some of it I froze. I also got one of my exes to watch some of it."
But then couldn't it just be taken to Mexico? "Of course, but it wouldn't make sense to use it there. First of all, we're making tacos."
According to Rasmus, he has completely overhauled the bread in the last two years: "If we compare it with the bread we have now, it's two completely different worlds." He has adjusted the recipe, tested grain types, measured temperatures in the kitchen, and Noma has gotten new ovens.
The journey from blob of dough to the slice of bread served at Noma goes a little bit like this: At about 1pm, Rasmus blends a portion of the sourdough with water and some flour mixture, which contains Øland's wheat flour from Kornby Mill, Øland's whole wheat, and an old grain type called sort nøgenbyg ( literally, black naked barley). "It smells like a stable when I prepare it—like walking into a farmhouse," Rasmus says.
Kneading takes an hour in the mixer, and after the dough rests in a plastic container for a couple of hours. "I always have a thermometer in that dough's ass," he adds. "Just to make sure that the temperature is around 26 degrees Celsius." The dough gets "folded" every half hour, and at 4 PM the bread is placed in baskets. At 8:30pm, it is left to cool overnight, and it's ready to be baked at 10 AM the next day.
Every day, when the dough is made, Rasmus sets 25 grams aside. By feeding the sourdough at the right times with water and flour, Rasmus gets the amount he needs to make the next day's bread dough. "This way, a tablespoon of sourdough eventually ends up turning into the 19 loafs of bread the 130 guests each get a slice of. It's crazy. And it's still that fact that gets me hard, even now, when I look at a sourdough. It's magic."
Feeding sourdough with water and flour might not sound like magic, but it's the key to getting the balance of taste in a good bread, explains Rasmus. Since you're working with a living organism, it all has to do with intuition, and not just the recipe. The fermentation and sourness need to be held at a constant by feeding the sourdough at the same times every day, and by keep the water at the same temperature. And one should never, ever fall for the temptation of adding yeast to the dough.
"Yeast is like throwing a hand grenade into your bread," says Rasmus. "So much energy gets spent in such a short period of time that your bread can't keep up. But yeast makes baking so easy. And cheap. No matter what, your bread rises, because yeast has so much energy. The less yeast, the harder it is to bake, and the more water you add, the better it tastes and the harder it gets to bake, because the dough becomes more fluid." And it is precisely the taste that Rasmus has worked on. At Noma, he experiments with cutting down on the acetic acid in the bread—which is responsible for the sharp taste you recognize in rye bread—while increasing the lactic acid, which imparts a softer, almost creamy taste.
On the days when the restaurant is closed, Rasmus takes the sourdough home and feeds it. "I have to. Otherwise it gets out of balance by Monday. I've tried letting it sit and cool Saturday nights, but then the acetic acid still develops. Then it would be more sour on Monday."
For a while, he used his free days to train at Batting Bakery in Ordrup, which might lie outside of the gourmet radar, but it's where Rasmus believes you can get Denmark's best bread ("If you want to try the best and nerdiest bread in Denmark, you need to go to Batting"). Before Noma, he had never tried to bake sourdough bread. It was Rasmus' expertise in desserts—earned through previous stints with Stammershalle in Bornholm and WD-50 in New York, among other places—which led him to Noma, where he now divides his time between dessert production and bread.
Now, the bread has become an obsession that has to do with so much more than catering to the lucky few guests who get the chance to eat at the world's most influential restaurant. For Rasmus, it also has to do with challenging a food culture where industrially made bread has destroyed what has been one of our most important sources of energy for millennia, and challenging a culture where people have quickly jumped ship to choose gluten-free alternatives.
"Gluten intolerance is an invention," says Rasmus. "Gluten has been made into a scapegoat, but gluten is protein, and it's not the problem. The scapegoat is the industrially produced flour and bread. Our bodies can't break down and process bread that's made the way we make it today. We don't get any nutrients."
The problem lies in the chemical bonds that bind all the vitamins and minerals into the grain. In yeast-leavened bread, explains Rasmus, the acidic bonds don't get broken down, which means that we can't take up the nutrients from the bread and that our intestinal tracts instead try to break down the acidic bonds. It means the production of limescale, which leads to constipation and the excretion of waste products through our skin.
The savior is sourdough, he says. "When the pH level of bread goes below four, the acidity from the sourdough goes in and breaks down the bonds, and transforms them into lactic acid and acetic acid, which our bodies can process. And it makes the nutrients easy for us to intake. It's the magic of fermentation."
One can only guess how the bread served at Noma will look when the restaurant is reborn into its new incarnation. Rasmus will see to it that the sourdough survives. Until then, bread will still be served until the last supper at Strandgade 93—one slice per guest, served with butter from Røros in Norway, which has fermented for three days, and which compliments the acidity of the sourdough.
"I won't be whipping any butter with ramsons oil," says Rasmus. "I'm sure it's tasty, but I will beat you down if you add that to my bread. Because then you're ruining our bread."
And that would just be blasphemy.