I don’t know whether he likes playing or even watching basketball. However, in terms of breads and crumb he deserves the title: “His Airness”. No dough is safe from him. No breadloaf without a beautiful crust, breathtaking crumb and amazing ovenspring.
His Open Crumb Mastery has not just opened the crumb of countless people within the baking community (including #brotokoll), but has also helped those people developing the right feeling for powerful starters, proper fermentation, gentle handling and – as a consequence: great bakes.
Lucky us that Trevor J Wilson is joining #brotokoll for a great talk about his passion, his beginnings, his view on current developments, insights from his Open Crumb Mastery and – an outlook on a very special project that might be of interest of all bread baking fanatics.
Happy reading & happy baking!
Trevor, how would you define “open crumb”?
This is a great question, and something I’ve actually struggled with quite a bit. On the one hand, an open crumb implies a certain lightness . . . a certain airiness. But then factory produced sandwich bread is also light and airy. Is it open? Most bakers would agree that it is not. And yet we most certainly expect our open crumb to be light and airy — after all, if it is full of large holes then it must be full of air, no?
That brings us to the next quality of open crumb — alveoli size. Open crumb is noted for its relatively large cellular structure. The crumb should be riddled with holes of medium to large size. These holes should be derived from fermentation, not from dough handling mistakes such as working in large air bubbles while shaping. And they should not be mistaken for the large holes and tunnels that are common in underfermented bread — a type of crumb I call Fool’s Crumb. It may have some big holes and tunnels, but otherwise it is dense and gummy.
So I think we can then safely say that open crumb is a crumb structure marked by a combination of sizable alveoli and that exhibits a light airiness that only comes from a loaf well-risen. This, I believe, is the real reason why open crumb is so sought after — it displays evidence of the baker’s skill in fermentation and dough handling. It demonstrates proficiency in one’s craft. An open crumb is, in short, validation. Proof that we know what we’re doing.
I should also note that open crumb can come in a variety of forms. It can be open and irregular, or open and even. It can be lacy honeycomb or wildly molten. There is no one single type of openness. A baker can develop many different crumb patterns that still adhere to our definition of light, airy, and with moderate to large cellular structure.
Understanding the factors that influence the development of one pattern or another helps us to individualize the type of open crumb we’d like to achieve. Many bakers are simply happy to have finally attained any degree of openness at all. They believe the journey ends at that, and think nothing more of how else they might fine tune their crumb. But why stop there? Why leave to chance what we can determine for ourselves?
The very beginning
What makes you so passionate about it? What was your trigger?
I first became intrigued by open crumb while reading “The Bread Builders” by Dan Wing and Alan Scott. In it, there was a discussion of open crumb and why it was such a mark of quality. Included to illustrate, there were a couple pictures of a cracked wheat loaf demonstrating open crumb. I thought it was just lovely.
It’s funny — looking back on that loaf now it does not appear to be anything special. But that is not a knock against the loaf . . . it is a sign of how far we have come since those days almost 20 years ago. The frontier of what we consider “open crumb” has been pushed further and further with each new generation of bakers. But back then that crumb was something to strive towards.
Why am I so passionate about open crumb? It is because I am passionate about challenge. And open crumb is nothing if not challenging. As I like to say, the joy is in the challenge. After all, if it were easy, what would be the point? Bakers chase after open crumb like a dog chases after cars. If a car is parked, then where is the chase? I do not pursue open crumb because I think it is superior — that is just a matter of preference. I pursue it because it is difficult to achieve. Challenge forces us to grow, it is the impetus to improve. So I pursue open crumb because it makes me better.
Do you often think back to the times as a professional baker? How do you see current changes and developments in the bakery segment – back again towards the artisanal approach and the increasing number of homebakers?
I often miss my days as a production baker. They were the most formative days of my life. There is an aspect of craft that can only be understood when practiced in volume. Baking thousands of loaves a week — for years on end — will teach you lessons about bread that are impossible to learn otherwise. And I’m not just talking about the skill that comes with such practice.
A production baker — one who pays attention, at least — can gain insight that is difficult to come by for the average home baker. For any craft, there are layers of depth that only reveal themselves to those who’ve paid the requisite dues. When you’ve spent over a decade elbow deep in dough for 40+ hours a week, you will learn to understand dough very well.
But that’s not to say home bakers are without skill. Indeed, production baking and home baking are practically two separate skills. I started as a home baker, and when I switched to production baking it was a completely different world. I simply had no ability to handle volume baking. But I learned. Many years later, when I made the switch back to home baking, I was stunned — I couldn’t make a decent loaf for the life of me. It took me time to relearn how to bake bread under the confines of the home kitchen. It is not an easy thing to do. It was like starting from scratch all over again.
Today’s home bakers are making bread of a quality that commercial bakers of the past could only dream of. It is a new day and the bar has been raised. The spread of information between bakers has become viral. We keep no secrets. As we become more and more connected, our rate of learning keeps accelerating. I see home bakers today — after just a few months experience — baking bread of a quality that took me years to accomplish. Admittedly, I was a slow learner. Still, it never ceases to amaze me.
Some of these outstanding home bakers will eventually go on to start their own bakeries and become the next generation of commercial bakers. They will bring with them the techniques they’ve learned from those who came before, and they will improve upon them and eventually share their refined methods with the rest of the world. It’s a never ending positive feedback loop.
For this reason, I see a very bright future for the bread baking world. The current crop of bakers are expanding in all sorts of fascinating directions. I see a growing trend towards local and heirloom grains. Many bakers are now even milling their own flours — something only a dedicated few ever did in the past. Whole grains and sprouted grains are growing in popularity. Artistic scoring and stenciling are becoming ever more prevalent and imaginative. Bread is no longer just the staff of life — it is now the very expression of the baker who makes it. A piece of soul baked into every loaf!
What do you think about knowledge, insights and results of homebakers in general?
Insight and knowledge are interesting things. They are unique to each of us. What I learn in my days baking will be different than what you learn. Though much of our knowledge will overlap, there will also be distinct insights that each of us discover apart. No two bakers will ever share the exact same experience.
Today’s home bakers are really pushing the envelope. Maybe they always were, but in this age of interactivity and social media the amount of knowledge that is being shared is unlike anything in the past. And as a result, the quality of bread the average home baker produces has grown exponentially.
I have personally learned a ton from today’s home bakers. Things I may have never noticed in a million years have been made available for me to study and absorb thanks to their efforts. It doesn’t matter if someone has been baking for 30 years or just 6 months — if they’ve learned something that I haven’t, then I am happy to be their student. Nobody knows it all. Those who approach the craft with an open mind will always outpace those who believe their way is the best and only way.
With that said, home bakers — in my experience — generally tend to be more open minded than commercial bakers. There are, of course, a variety of reasons for this — some more valid than others. But the end result is that much of the creativity and innovation in bread these days actually originates from the home baking community. Home baking has become a massively popular hobby — many would call it their passion — and the more and more folks that join in, the greater our collective wisdom grows. That just excites me to no end!
Let’s talk about sourdough: which is your favorite recipe for building a powerful sourdough from scratch?
I don’t really have a favorite recipe for creating a starter from scratch. Pretty much any recipe will do. In general, it’s best to start with organic whole grain flour (especially rye) when first making a starter because it contains a greater concentration and diversity of microflora, and is more nutritious for the yeast and bacteria. Therefore you’re more likely to find success that way. But to be honest, I’ve made plenty of successful starters with nothing but plain white flour.
The key to creating a starter is not so much the flour, the recipe, or the method, but rather learning to understand the signs. Of course, if you’ve never made a starter before — or if your experience is limited — then you may not understand which signs to look for. This is why so many bakers have trouble making new starters — it’s not that they are using poor flour or an incorrect method, it’s just that they don’t know how to read the signs and to adjust their method accordingly.
If you can’t read the signs then you won’t know what your starter is asking for, and if you don’t know what your starter is asking for then how can you provide it with what it needs? Guessing may get the job done eventually . . . if the baker can ride it out that long. But sensible action based on knowledge and understanding is much preferred I think.
It would require an actual full-length post (and then some) to truly do justice to this topic, and so I expect that I will create a guide on my blog as an accompaniment to my next book when it comes out. But I will say this . . . beware the false positive. This is what often gives folks so much trouble.
This false positive is an initial burst of activity that typically happens on the 2nd or 3rd day after the starter has been created. Novice sourdough bakers get very excited when they see their brand new starter bubbling away so quickly. But excitement shortly turns to disappointment as the activity soon stops and the starter goes quiet again. This is a normal and healthy part of the starter creation process, but new sourdough bakers often think that their starter may have died. And after several more days of refreshment with no apparent activity to show for their effort, they may just give up entirely and throw the new starter away.
It’s a shame because the false positive is simply activity that is caused by the first wave of colonizing microorganisms. They are ill-suited for long term adaption in the starter environment and therefore die off quickly — which is why the starter soon goes quiet again — but their brief period of activity helps to initiate the acidification process that is necessary to select for those correct organisms that will eventually take up permanent residence in the starter. Once the false positive has run its course, the starter is just that much closer to being ready for use. So do not despair if your brand new starter had an early burst of bubbly activity only to soon quiet down and appear lifeless — it does not mean your starter has failed, it means your starter is making progress.
Open Crumb Mastery
Your crumbshots and breads are known and famous worldwide. Open Crumb Mastery – how did you come up with it?
It was really just an answer to one of the most common questions that bread bakers have — how do I get an open crumb? You see this question posted all the time in forums and social media. And with the ever-growing popularity of Tartine-style breads this question has become all the more common and pertinent.
The problem is that the answers frequently given to this question are usually entirely wrong. Most often, the answer given is to simply increase the hydration. The problem with this answer is that hydration is only one single variable among many that affect crumb — and it’s not even the most important. Indeed, this advice is usually counterproductive because those asking the question are often newer or less experienced bakers. Telling a new baker to just make wetter dough leads only to flat bread and frustration.
What was missing from all these conversations about open crumb — whether on the forums, or even in the books promoting this ideal — was depth of discussion. It became obvious that the only way this topic could ever be done justice was to be covered in a book of its own. A book that was highly focused on this one subject alone, one that dug deep into all the variables, not just hydration.
I figured since no one else had written such a book, I might as well get started. I thought it would probably just be a short ebook, a pamphlet really — maybe 50 pages, if that. My naivety was probably a good thing. Had I realized from the start how long the book would become — how big the project would turn out to be — I may have never started it in the first place! But by the time I realized this was going to be a full-length book, it was too late. I’d already come too far to quit!
What is most important while working with the book?
Understanding that open crumb is achieved through skill, not by reading books — and therefore this book is not a panacea. This book provides knowledge, but it does not provide skill. No book can. Skill can only be achieved through practice. Through action. This book is intended to provide a foundation of clear understanding regarding the variables that contribute to crumb structure, and how to manipulate them in order to achieve whatever crumb you desire. But that knowledge can only be properly utilized by practiced hands, and therefore practice is paramount. This book flattens the learning curve, but it does not level it completely.
I would also add that this book is packed with many different layers of insight. Many of these insights will stand out to the reader immediately, but others may be hidden to those without a certain degree of experience. So I would highly recommend that the baker return to the book every so often for another reading. Perhaps once or twice a year until they’ve gleaned all the information from it they can. The more experience one has when reading this book, the more “Aha!” moments they will realize, and therefore it will be beneficial to return to it as one’s experience grows.
Any special recommendation for #brotokoll followers and their homebaking challenges with open crumb?
Practice, practice, practice. Achieving open crumb is a skill, and like all skills it takes practice to attain. The more experience you gain, the better crumb you will be able to accomplish. There are no shortcuts. You should focus developing your skills in fermentation and dough handling because they will provide you with the greatest return for your efforts — for it is fermentation and dough handling that are responsible for building the majority of a loaf’s crumb structure. Hydration is nothing but a distant third.
The new project
Rumours say that there is an upcoming successor of Open Crumb Mastery: would you tell us what the focus will be?
Rumors are correct! Just as Open Crumb Mastery was written to address one of the most confusing and asked about topics in bread baking, my next book is being written to address that other most confusing and mysterious subject . . . sourdough fermentation itself.
Specifically, it will be a deep dive into aspects of sourdough baking that are typically only glossed over in other books. These topics — including starter maintenance routines, seed ratios, inoculation percentages for bread, flavor development and manipulation, recipe creation, troubleshooting and starter rehabilitation, etc. — may not seem all that sexy on the surface, but they are the foundation of successful sourdough baking. This book will answer the many questions bakers have in these areas — it will fill in the blanks — and when taken together with my previous book the two will provide a complete framework from which the modern day sourdough baker can operate with confidence. Together, these two books will take the baker out of the realm of guesswork, and into the realm of craftwork.
Shortly summarized – what are the main parameters to be met, in order to achieve an open crumb loaf?
It’s all about proper fermentation and dough handling. There are no specific parameters that will guarantee open crumb. Indeed, open crumb can be derived from a very wide range of differing parameters. Some bakers achieve open crumb following one method, other bakers achieve it by following a different method. But the common thread that connects all open crumbed loaves is that they have been well-fermented and well-handled. So I guess you could summarize it by saying that the main parameters to be met in order to achieve an open crumbed loaf are competence in the art of fermentation and skilled dough handling.
Thank you Trevor for this interview and your time – it is an honor to have you on #brotokoll. i am already looking forward to a follow up talk about your new book. Good luck!
Open Crumb – Step by step
It is a beautiful journey and believe me, you will enjoy every single step of this trip until this very special moment, when you hold your first airy and light open crumb bread in your hands. Check out the Open Crumb tutorial of our #brotokoll Sourdough Series . HERE you will find all the basics you will need to know. And if you are ready to “bake” all these inputs into practice – take a look at the recipe “Lime Story”.