A Journey to the Dark Side of Bread
Zachary Golper is the baking brains behind Bien Cuit, a Brooklyn based temple to mahogany-colored, slow-fermented breads that make standard baguettes look and taste positively premature by comparison.
Photo by Scott Brownlee.
Medium-rare might be optimal for a prime piece of hanger steak, but Zachary Golper thinks that we should embrace well-done.
Well-done bread, that is.
Golper is the baking brains behind Bien Cuit, a Brooklyn-based temple to slow-fermented breads, which are often cooked at unusually low temperatures for usually long periods of time. The result is a loaf with a thick mahogany crust that's full of such depth of flavor that standard baguettes look and taste positively premature by comparison.
Last fall, Golper (along with Peter Kaminsky) released Bien Cuit: The Art of Bread, a thick volume chronicling the baker's journey to the dark side of the loaf, featuring recipes that have been tailored to those of us who don't have commercial ovens in our fourth-floor walkups.
To learn more, I called up Golper to chat about baking science, Y2K preppers, and crafting artisan bread in the earthly hell pit known as Las Vegas.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Zachary. You've mentioned that in your pre-baking life, you were friends with people who started becoming obsessed with Y2K and the end of the world. Zachary Golper: That's one of those things where you quietly back out of a conversation and walk away. It was the lot of life that I was in—maybe it was my low income at the time, but the people I seemed to be surrounded by were all convinced that the world was about to be turned on its head. It was a little frightening how people were changing their ethical stance on how to treat other people.
I didn't really dig it. I didn't really like being around that mentality—the willingness to become a worse person based on the fact that things might change and money might not work anymore. I said, "This is not for me. I actually don't think the world is going to change, but I do think it's time for me to get away from crazy people."
And so you ended up working on a farm in Oregon. Yeah, talk about food security. Additionally, it was a group of really peaced-out, mellow people who had no interest in causing harm to anyone. It was a really good time for me in my life—I wasn't doing anything, I was just cooking, bicycling, and playing music. I was just sort of fumbling around and trying to figure out what I was going to do with my time on Earth and it was a perfect opportunity to focus on myself, to learn about how the seasons function with seeds and trees, and how the whole process of organic farming works.
That's where you met your first baking mentor, right? Yeah. I would get this smell wafting into my room at around 2 in the morning. I don't know if you've been in a bakery while bread is baking, but this was completely different. The oven was outdoors, so that air was blending with natural forest air. And the smell of bread baking in a forest is distinct, to say the least.
There was no escaping it. It woke me up, and pretty soon I decided that I needed to learn how to make this stuff. And the guy baking it was not that receptive at first, when I came to ask if I could watch. He just looked at me and said, "No." That was the whole conversation.
He was like a genuine Luddite, the kind of guy who doesn't really carry money or keys. He was a very talented baker, but he was also a carpenter by trade, making chairs and cabinets and stuff like that.
Eventually I asked if I could help, so he started to show me this old process. I was just trying to mimic what he was doing—I didn't know anything about judging doneness or anything. I was just scratching the surface of learning about bread. The methods he was using are age-old—like thousands-of-years-old baking processes. Nothing about it was advanced in any way. It was just stone-ground flour—we grew a lot of those grains—and he was using a sourdough starter for his yeast source, some sea salt, and some warm water. And the weather was so cold that we were forced into slow fermentation, just like most of Western and Northern Europe is. So it was this perfect opportunity to learn slow fermentation, without realizing that I was learning something so valuable.
So with that foundation built, what was your next move in terms of learning about bread? I devoted myself to the art of bread-baking and pastry. I really did nothing else with my time, sometimes working up to 19 hours a day to hone my craft and learn under the best. In the process, I was invited to work in Las Vegas to open a casino hotel bakery as the head baker under Jean-Claude Canestrier, who's a MOF and also a National Pastry Champion and a World Pastry Champion.
Working for him was a great opportunity, not just to learn what he knew about pastry, but because the hotel had put so much money into the bakery. I had an unlimited budget for flours and ingredients. I had these chambers that could change humidity, temperature. They also gave me a reverse osmosis water filter, which neutralizes the water, along with an acidifier, so I could change the pH of the water to whatever I wanted. So if I wanted to experiment with what bread tastes like in Ethiopia, I would get some teff flour and change the pH of the water to what it is in Ethiopia, generally speaking, and then I'd make some injera and try to get to know these different flavors.
Ironically, what I found out was that a pH of 7.2 was perfect for bread-making in Las Vegas—and the tap water of Las Vegas is 7.2.
When you're dealing with local yeast and bacteria, you have to remember that they are local because the environment is suited to them. My staff and my chefs discovered is that when we were working with flour that was as local as possible—and that was from California at the time—and we were using water at 7.2 pH, we were getting the best results.
How did you start baking bread bien cuit? What brought me to the darker baking of the loaf was when I began to work with sugar. I began to understand caramelization, and it made sense to me that the Maillard reaction is essentially a caramelization of proteins—and there's a lot of protein in bread. If I could enhance the Maillard reaction, I could get a much deeper flavor from the crust.
That was reinforced by a memory I had of my time in France. I had no money then, so I had to live largely off of bread and cheap goat cheese. I would go to the bakeries and I would always ask for breads to be plus obscur—I wanted them darker. And I started listening to the people around me, and they were asking for the same thing, but they would say bien cuit—well done. I knew that's what my palate preferred, and I knew that I liked that texture.
When I was in Vegas, I was working with slow fermentation and really started to test the limits of it. What I found was that the marriage of fermenting things at a slow rate at a cold temperature and then baking them at a lower temperature for a longer period of time would produce far, far more flavor than any other method I had encountered. It all sort of pieced together around the same time, but I had done a lot of experimenting to get there, especially in Las Vegas. I think it's a horrible city and I don't know what there is to do there. I would pretty much just stay at the bakery and do research and figure out how different grains fermented at what rates, and what temperatures did they peak their flavor at, and what temperature and what time did they plateau and begin to decline—and in the decline, which grains produced which types of flavors. Are certain ones more acidic? Are certain ones alcoholic flavors that can be used in another dough?
Where did you take all of that research after Vegas? I was offered a job at Le Bec-Fin in Philadelphia, and it was a great opportunity to work for one of the best restaurants in the US. But when I got to Philly, the water was just awful and the conditions for working were awful. We didn't have local flour and my budget was ridiculously small. Nonetheless, I had the opportunity to get better at my craft because I was confronted with so many challenges. I had to really figure out how to make that work. Given that I was working for Georges Perrier, I felt that this stuff had to be the best. I don't look back on it fondly, but I did learn a lot—being forced to make bread under difficult conditions.
And from there, you decided to open your own bakery. When it was time to open Bien Cuit in Brooklyn, I had been through so much, I knew what I wanted to make, what kinds of flavors I wanted to design, what kind of grains I wanted to use. Even though things were very hard in the beginning, it was easy on a certain level—on the craft level. I already knew how to make everything I wanted to make. I knew that certain fermentation methods, while they may be happening in New York, were not happening on a commercial scale. It would be something new to the market and give us some value as a neighborhood bakery, and potentially as a wholesale bakery.
Were finicky Brooklynites surprised by these well-done breads? The loaves that you find at the artisan bakeries around here are still golden brown, not this mahogany color that yours reach. Definitely. We got a lot of people saying, "Wow, that's really dark." But we trained our staff to explain what bien cuit means, to try to comfort the customer and let them know, "It's going to be OK, you're probably really going to like this."
But it did not take long to take off. We had some very faithful people who began the process of word-of-mouth, and by Christmastime we had a pretty substantial following.
You said you opened Bien Cuit already knowing what you wanted to make. So have you stopped experimenting? No, not at all. I think that the more I get involved with responsible farmers, the more interested I am in getting grains that might not be that popular to be more appealing to bakers, so that they're not scared of them just because they have low protein or something. In baking—in doing it really well, that is—it's all about flour blending. So I enjoy figuring out the ratios and going back to a farmer and saying, "Your wheat is awesome. If you want to talk to some local bakers, here are some recipes that use it."
Thanks for speaking with me, Zachary.