Cooking Class: A true artisan baker

Become a hands-on pro at home and try this easy recipe for sourdough rye bread.

Baking is both a science and an art. (photo credit: MCT)
Baking is both a science and an art.
(photo credit: MCT)
The baking profession was not common until the Roman Empire. Until then, bakers were employees of kings and dignitaries. There were no bakers for the masses, and each household baked their own bread on the hearth.
With the Romans, a new breed of professional baker evolved, albeit limited to the wealthy and the well-connected, as oven construction was costly. A few magnanimous overlords built community ovens for the private use of their vassals, a concept that continued into the Middle Ages.
Commoners prepared their own dough at home and were allotted time to bake their bread in the community oven.
In the 16th century, the village baker emerged and sparked a transferral of roles from home baker to professional baker. It took the Industrial Revolution to finally relegate the home baker to minority status and shift production of bread for the masses to the large, centralized industrial bakeries that proliferated in the early 1900s. It was not until the end of World War II, however, that industrialized baking became the standard that exists to this day.
Baking is both a science and an art. Three hundred years ago, little was known of the science, and bakers relied on the art – experience and knowledge passed down from their predecessors. From Louis Pasteur to the present, much study has been made of the science of baking. Since the dawn of time, man has sought ways to manipulate the basic ingredients of bread – flour, water, yeast and salt. A baker can be compared to a puppeteer manipulating the strings of his puppet.
By cleverly manipulating the “strings,” or ingredients, in his bread, a baker can achieve infinite varieties of texture and flavor.
Armed with this historical background, we can now explore the fundamental difference between an artisan baker and his counterpart, the industrial baker. Both manipulate the baking process to suit their needs. A baker’s life is arduous, and one primary aim is to achieve a sustainable workload, using techniques and technology to make life easier. A baker must also maximize profits by producing as much bread in as short a time as possible. These are common goals of both types of bakers.
It is the philosophy and hence the methods used by each that set them apart.
The underlying principle of industrialized baking is to control or “coerce” the baking process by any means to reduce cost and maximize profit. Industrialized bakeries use any available modern technology to optimize their production lines – mechanized equipment, artificially controlled environments and chemical additives. Advantages of this type of baking are high volume, low cost and consistency. The disadvantages are blandness of taste and less nutritious value in the bread (due to the chemical additives).
The industrial baker’s mission is to take baking out of the home and to centralize it (preferably in his company).
An artisan baker resembles the 300-yearold village baker prior to the Industrial Revolution. Instead of forcing the process, he respects the natural baking process, allowing yeast – usually natural sourdough yeast – to ferment at its own pace, using only basic ingredients and his knowledge and experience (rather than chemical additives) to achieve texture and flavor. He minimizes the use of mechanical equipment, opting for hand techniques and baking in a traditional brick oven. Advantages of artisan baking are tastier, more healthful breads. The disadvantages are higher cost and lower volume. Unlike the village baker of old, the true artisan baker’s mission is to reacquaint the public with high-quality, healthful bread and old-world baking methods. His goal is as much educational as it is entrepreneurial, if not more.
Recent years have seen a resurgence of true artisan bakers around the world, a group of which the writer is a proud member.
As public awareness of health continues to grow, this movement will hopefully expand and effect a reversal of the process and take baking out of the hands of entrepreneurs and return it to the home, where it rightfully belongs.
✔ 1¾ cups white flour ✔ ¾ cup rye flour ✔ ¾ cup sourdough culture (see Grain-Sourdough-for-dummies-317813) ✔ 1 cup water ✔ 2 tsp. salt ✔ ½ tsp. instant powdered yeast ✔ 1 Tbsp. caraway seeds
Mix ingredients and knead for 10 minutes by hand. Dough will be sticky. Leave to rise for 1 hour. Flour lightly, shape into an oval loaf and place in a bread pan. Leave to rise for 30 minutes. Bake at maximum oven temperature (approximately 250°) for 35 minutes.
Master baker Les Saidel, originally from Johannesburg, South Africa, lives in Ginot Shomron with his wife, Sheryl, and four children. He is the owner of Saidels Bakery (, specializing in handmade, organic health breads and the inventor of Rambam Bread. He also works as a consultant in the fields of cereal chemistry, health and nutrition.