Book Review - The Bread Baker’s Apprentice

Some folks collect postage stamps, scrap booking stamps, model airplanes, toy trains, or wood planes. Lately, I collect books that somehow relate to flour mixed with water and heated to a high temperature. Since catching the bread bug, I have accumulated a bookshelf of them and most folks that find the need to buy me a gift, know one of the myriad from my Amazon wish list is a safe bet.

As I have collected, I have come to look for three very specific things when evaluating the greatness of a new addition to my bread cookbook collection. First and foremost, the bread recipes have to present the amount of flour by weight. As I pointed out in my post about making bread, unless you have the weight of flour, you cannot control the hydration. Without the weight, the ability of a person to execute a recipe for the first time with any degree of success is highly suspect.

Second only to having the weight of the flour is having pictures of the final outcome. While not a show stopper for basic breads, anything that is unusual or exotic should have a picture. If a person cannot find it at any local grocery, there should be a picture. Third, the recipes should be accurate and well tested. Inaccuracies in the types of ingredients, the ingredient amounts, or the procedure really detract from the enjoyment of trying a new bread recipe. I have reached a point where if I cannot get a success after the second or maybe third try, it is doubtful I will try the recipe again.

Using these general principals, I thought it might be fun to share my take on various bread related cookbooks that I have acquired. Some I learn from, some I bake from, and others just have an interesting narrative. There is no better place to start than with the book that started my bread obsession.

My wife gave me this book as a present one Valentines Day. Now every time she complains when we have to wait to go out until I put another fold in the dough I tell her it’s her own damned fault. On the other hand, she doesn’t complain much as long as there is frequent challah for PBJ’s.

Peter Reinhart is a teacher and prolific writer on the subject of bread baking with numerous other books to his name. While I have not read them all, this is the one that consistently comes up as the best of his offerings as well as one of the best all around books on bread written for the aspiring home bread baker. It is so well known, it is routinely just referred to by the acronym BBA. Probably the truest measure of the fundamental place this book has in the baking lexicon is the ongoing BBA Challenge. In the same spirit as those who attempt to make every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, bakers around the world attempt to bake every bread in the BBA.

It is well thought out with the first third of the book explaining the materials, equipment and processes needed to make good bread at home. The rest of the book has a nice broad selection of recipes (formula in the vernacular) that cover a pretty complete survey of the bread spectrum. The formula are well outlined and each one has a picture of the desired outcome. I have not tried all the them, but the ones that I have usually turn out well after the first or second try. Most times, when things don’t turn out, it is not the fault of the book but of me missing a step or taking liberty with the process.

I have to admit, I don’t use it as often as in the past. However as I write this, flipping through it again reminds me of just how excellent it is and I should really revisit some of the formula. It does however remain the one book I routinely recommend for anyone just starting out. In my opinion, anyone seriously into making bread at home should have a copy. To not is to either pretend you are serious or miss out on something very important.

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