Michael Kalanty ’74 is the director of the Bread Baking Program at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in San Francisco and a bakery product developer. His second book, How To Bake MORE Bread, will be published in September. We asked him for tips on baking the perfect loaf of bread.
Q: You were a math major at Bucknell. How important are measurements in your kitchen?
A: I was drawn to math because of its precision. I stayed with it because at higher levels, it’s a branch of philosophy. When I design a line of cookies, breakfast breads or pizza dough for bakery manufacturers, I rely on mathematical thinking. The innovation process is a lot like trying to prove a theorem.
Q: What tip can you offer a novice home baker?
A: Buy a digital scale and weigh your ingredients — especially the flour. Flour is the wild card. It responds to the environment: it absorbs humidity and packs more or less densely every day. A pound of all-purpose flour fills slightly more than three measuring cups in humid weather at sea level. In the Rockies in winter, the same pound fills 4½ cups.
Q: Have you ever made a serendipitous mistake while baking?
A: Early in my career, I was called away after I’d combined all the ingredients for a 10-pound batch of baguette dough — I just left it in the mixer and never turned it on. When the shapers took it out an hour later, they were amazed at how light and airy their new apprentice had made the dough. It’s a misconception that bread dough requires lots of kneading. I’ve reduced suggested kneading times by half ever since.
Q: What ingredient is always in your cabinet?
A: My sour starter — I’ve been nurturing it for more than two decades and use it in lots of unexpected places. For example, when I soak steel cut oats in water overnight so they’ll cook faster, I add a teaspoon of sour starter to develop their natural sweetness and complex grain flavor.
Q: What’s the most overlooked bread out there?
A: The bread you could be making at home that you’re not because you think you don’t have time. Whether it’s multi-grain slider rolls for summer barbeques or sandwich bread for the kids, most breads can be made in one evening or spread over the course of two days — mix the dough one day, shape and bake it the next. Overnight in the refrigerator, dough ferments slowly and develops more flavor. Make bread fit your schedule, not the other way around.