Homegrown bakers prove their dough to perfection
How artisans and home-bakers are succumbing to the alchemy of flour and yeast to nurture a bread culture in a country fed up with commercial loaves
Every day, I would bring in three sourdough loaves along with butter: a standard loaf, and flavoured ones, like filter coffee bread, or one with panch-phoron tadka (five-spice tempering) in coconut oil," says baker-entrepreneur Sujit Sumitran, recounting his experiences at the Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa, where he led a workshop on artisanal bread, a couple of months ago. “But what surprised me is the number of people who came back every day only because they wanted to taste small slices of the breads."
There’s change afoot in the way urban Indians are consuming bread, telling for a country without a serious culture of yeasted or fermented non-flat breads. What Sumitran—known in certain circles as the bread-whisperer, a tribute to his uncanny relationship with the living things that make up bread—sensed in Goa is a logical step in the pushback to packaged food. As the call for “home-made, handcrafted" grows louder across food segments, bakers old and new are easing access to handcrafted bread through speciality stores and custom orders.
It’s time for the aware crowd to look oven-wards, says Sumitran, given the toxicity levels of most commercial bread. “What people consume today is not really bread, but a lethal cocktail of chemicals," he says. Last year, the Centre for Science and Environment reported the presence of possible human carcinogen potassium bromate and thyroid-endangering potassium iodate, a substance banned in many countries, in various packaged bread varieties from major brands.
“Just as we cook our own food, we should bake our own bread. I do see a renaissance, in fact—a year ago, there were only international social media groups on making sourdough bread. Now we have the Indian Artisan Bread Bakers (Iabb), a 1,700-strong Facebook group with around 50 members who are actively making bread. It has not reached the level of people baking cakes, but it’s only a matter of time," says Sumitran. “Once you start making your own bread, it’s hard to go back to eating commercial loaves."
Bread snobs would nod in agreement: There are few things as sigh-worthy as the aroma of a fresh, handcrafted loaf just out of the oven, with a golden-crust rise, yielding to a perfect crumb as you slice through it. Most agree that it’s the delicate flavour and texture of handmade or home-made bread that does it for them, a depth brought about by baked whole flour, often accentuated by the crunch of seeds and grains. But that is easier imagined than done in our metros: If neighbourhood bakeries are routinely flooded with potentially toxic commercial loaves, naturally fermented bread has simply been the privilege of star-hotel bakery regulars.
Even as more and more enthusiasts get down to kneading, the true bread-baker test, according to purists, is cracking the sourdough code. More than any other kind of bread, sourdough seems to call for a communion with the soul of the baker since it involves working with live constituents that need careful understanding and control for the perfect acid balance or carefully contained “spring".
Fittingly, a sound ecosystem is cropping up both online and offline to inculcate a healthier bread culture. Last year, Thane-based Saee Koranne-Khandekar wrote Crumbs! Bread Stories And Recipes For The Indian Kitchen to help bust bread-making myths, while reviving traditional Indian and European techniques of baking. “In 2013, when I was taking regular baking classes, I saw that there was a need to break down the jargon and make breads more accessible to the average Indian home cook, and I pitched the idea to Hachette India. There was no book explaining bread-making in the Indian context—nobody to tell you that all-purpose flour is just maida, or the fact that a batch of dough proofing in the Delhi winter will take much longer than it will in a Mumbai summer," says Koranne-Khandekar. “The idea was to place the science of bread-making in a local context and combine it with narrative to highlight the evocative nature of bread."
Crumbs! went into reprint six months after being published and Koranne-Khandekar is now part of a growing army of bakers who conduct bread-baking workshops. “I teach both regular breads and sourdough, but insist that beginners start with fresh yeast breads because that familiarizes you with basic techniques and concepts such as hydration, proofing, etc. It also equips you with a certain level of confidence to predict the behaviour of naturally leavened breads."
Interest comes from a cross-section of society: “There are all sorts of people signing up for the classes—mothers who want to feed healthier bread to their families, people who are looking at baking as therapy, bakers who want to exploit bread-making as a commercial option, men who want to step into the kitchen but not make roti-subzi," says Koranne-Khandekar.
Browse through Iabb on Facebook to figure out just how seriously some of them take their starters and loaves. On any given morning, its newsfeed is studded with photographs of handcrafted sourdough loaves, as members try their luck with kneading and proofing their dough and proudly display the results. There are regular “bread challenges" to encourage members to experiment with local ingredients, and push the envelope.
The aim of Iabb, says Bengaluru-based Samruddhi Bhat-Nayak, who founded the group in September 2015, was to create a genuine bread culture in India. “I lived in Germany for a few years, where I grew interested in breads and ended up doing a diploma in bread baking. Over there, you are spoilt for choice when it comes to flours. Now I am trying to work with local flours, while also attempting to get farmers in Uttarakhand to grow grains like spelt and rye, which work brilliantly in bread," says Bhat-Nayak, who, apart from conducting workshops on all kinds of breads across the country, also customizes loaves on order.
Her loaves remind Clarissa Fernandes, a home baker herself, of the crusty, rustic bread she grew up eating in Goa and, later, encountered while living in Dublin. “After settling down in Bengaluru, I didn’t want to buy the sliced bread sold in plastic packets. So every week, I drop in at Samruddhi’s house to pick up a loaf. As I walk up, I can smell the fresh-baked bread she has made for me. I rush home with a pack of butter and have to have a few slices immediately," she says. “I don’t mind paying much more than I would for a regular supermarket loaf for the rustic feel of Samruddhi’s bread, or the joy of bringing home bread in a paper bag."
There is, certainly, more space for artisanal bread to shine and make its presence felt, with the swelling trend of European-style pâtisseries, cafés, gourmet “food halls" and speciality organic shops. Delhi-based Jeneva Talwar of The Artful Baker views this as a dynamic space, growing every day. In 2012, Talwar ditched a career in acting for one in pastry and breads and flew to France for a nine-month course in pastry-making in a little village near Lyon. She returned to set up her pâtisserie in late 2015. And in a little over a year, she has three stylish outlets in Delhi.
“The clientele at my pâtisseries are well-travelled Indians as well as expats looking for a taste of home. So our sourdough, ciabatta and cereal breads sell out quickly. The many different croissants and pain au chocolat is something they return for," she says.
That is also the story of Bengaluru’s Café of Joy, where former finance consultant Joy Basu, a Germany-returned diploma-holder in bread-making, experiments with a range of breads. Lining the shelves at her café in Whitefield are beautiful multi-millet, multi-seed loaves (with ragi or finger-millet and bajra or pearl-millet flours and flax, pumpkin, poppy and sunflower seeds), sesame sourdough bread, monkey bread (a soft, sticky sweet bread, often sprinkled with cinnamon), date and wholewheat loaf, among others. “I notice that people don’t want a white loaf any more. While commercial wholewheat bread would be 10% atta, we do 50-100% atta, customizable to what the clients want. People clearly want more control over what goes into their loaf," says Basu, whose café does bread deliveries too, dropping off different kinds of loaves three times a week to regular subscribers.
There are stories like Basu’s everywhere, in the metros and smaller cities, with enthusiasts charmed by the idea of taking up the bread challenge. In Gurugram, where new fads quickly find takers, learning bread-making is the thing to do this season. Baker Anubha Garg, who runs the baking institute Melting Momentz, says 90% of her respondents want to sign up for bread workshops these days; baking cakes is somewhat passé. “If you think about it, for a home-baker breads are pretty low on investment. All you need is a weighing scale, yeast and flour," she says.
No short cuts
So taking the plunge is easy—or so it seems—but regular bakers say keeping at it is the real challenge. And there are simply no short cuts to a proper sourdough.
Those in it for the passion know there is much joy in the process. “Baking sourdough bread is not rocket science—it’s just like making dahi (curd)—but it requires persistence and commitment. It’s not a fad, since it needs intrinsic motivation and discipline. For me, bread-making is a deeply meditative space to be in. You are playing with something that is 100% natural and, unlike cooking, you are working with ingredients that are alive," says Sumitran. “It’s like the dough is talking to you, and that’s why many people call it alchemy."
Delhi-based home baker Arpita Chatterjee, who started She Bakes Sense, an orders-only baking set-up, last year, was driven by this alchemy and the urge to feed her young son only wholegrain, healthy bakes. She struggled initially to get a loaf done for the family, juggling custom-paid orders and the various responsibilities of parenthood, but found a way around it. “Now I have a set schedule for my weekly bakes. I do slow overnight rises, shape and proof my breads while my son is in playschool. I found it important to have a fixed schedule with bread, otherwise it’s easy to let go of it."
There are other challenges, like procuring the right kind of yeast. Fresh yeast is not easy to come by in local markets. Many bakers have to make do with active dry yeast, which doesn’t always result in a great rise. “I used to buy small packs of fresh yeast but then I would have to be very careful with storage. Relatives coming down from abroad would indulge me with jars of instant yeast, and this I would use sparingly and intelligently to make it last! Now, of course, it is much easier to find good-quality yeast in neighbourhood baking supplies stores and gourmet grocers," says Koranne-Khandekar.
Flours, though, remain largely uncharted territory. While bakers are experimenting with ingredients other than wholewheat—such as semolina and spelt—a plethora of other indigenous flours are waiting to be explored, from kuttu (buckwheat), ragi and amaranth to many varieties of rice. Another challenge, says Bhat-Nayak, is that the local wheat flour is not high in gluten, which makes it difficult to shape loaves.
Those who have put their money on artisanal breads say it’s going to be a task to scale up, do more than four-six types of bread at a time. “Ideally, you need a café or a pastry shop to hold up the bread business," says Talwar. It’s still early days. The first rise. The romance of homestyle loaves is thick in the air. It’s as fitting a moment as any to make your own bread—and eat it too.
The best artisanal breads
Honey ferment-sesame wholewheat bread, German country rye buns at The Altitude Store, Mehar Chand Market (Thealtitudestore.com)
Ciabatta, cereal bread, French peasant at The Artful Baker, Khan Market (011-4350 8332), Saket (8130641199), and DLF Mall of India, Noida (9953492461)
Multi-cereal brown baguette at Delifrance-The France Cafe Bakery, DLF Phase 2, Gurugram (0124-4059647)
Spinach and Parmesan, rye bran and barley, ‘ragi’ and buttermilk loaves at The Rolling Pin, Indiranagar (9591565536) and Lavelle Road (9900435673)
Roasted tomato focaccia, almond croissants and multigrain pullman loaf at the Mag St Bread Co (Scootsy.com)
Orange raisin, olive, gluten-free loaves at the Old Madras Baking Company, Alwarpet (044-42084422)
The sourdough low-down
Till about the 1950s, bread in Europe was customarily crafted using natural culture—just like yogurt or ‘idli/dosa’ batter—which resulted in a ‘sourdough’ loaf. This is nothing but bread made using a home-made starter—a simple mix of flour and water, left to ferment over several days. This mixture needs to be fed regularly with fresh flour and water as it works with atmospheric yeast and continues to ferment, till it is ready to be used in a dough and help it rise. This process packs a loaf with nutrition: Naturally occurring lactic acids make minerals and vitamins more easily available to the body, while keeping insulin in check and improving glucose tolerance. The characteristically tangy, teasing flavour of such a loaf is heady and addictive.
A low-investment option for those trying it at home, sourdough loaves cost upwards of Rs100 if sourced from a bakery since they are made in numbers far lower than chemically accelerated, machine-manufactured bread.