The 2011 CHOW 13

Chad Robertson: Making Bread Cool

Not so long ago, we were in the dark ages of home baking. Like our forebears living under the delusion that the Earth was flat, many people thought the only way you could make sourdough was if you knew somebody who had a 100-year-old starter passed down from their great-great-grandfather. A small segment of the population made decent bread with a simplified "no knead" method popularized in the New York Times. But for most people, the good stuff was to be found at the grocery store, period. Until Chad Robertson revealed his secrets.

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SCULPTED ILLUSTRATION LIZ LOMAX

Cofounder of chic San Francisco bakery Tartine and nearby restaurant Bar Tartine, blue-eyed surfer Robertson bakes what many consider to be the best bread in the world. A large, crusty loaf with a crackly exterior and a creamy, almost whipped interior, it doesn't get stale. It doesn't cause bread coma. The taste is a sublime balance of sweet, sour, and umami. People reserve the bread in advance via voicemail, ensuring the bakery sells out of its 200 loaves daily before they're even out of the oven. When Robertson published his Tartine Bread cookbook last year, it was like giving people the keys to the kingdom.

Rather than break you in easy, the book kicks off with a 20-page recipe for Tartine's basic country bread, which includes instructions on how to culture one's own starter from water, flour, and air. If you follow these incredibly time-consuming steps, you will actually come out with a loaf that's nearly as good as Tartine's, and way better than anything you can buy at the grocery store.

The geeky approach of Tartine Bread inspired a new class of people to start baking. Websites compare notes on the country bread, and Robertson has received emails from readers around the world. Just like home-brewing, pickling, charcuterie, and coffee roasting, bread baking is now viewed as a cool challenge rather than a chore. —L.A.

How did you know that making your book more complicated rather than simplified would touch a nerve with home bakers?
My publisher and agent were saying, "Why don't you start out with something simple?" So I started out thinking I'd do a method using commercial yeast, but it was really bland. I love the flavor you get from natural fermentation. I wanted to focus on that, and deconstruct it.

What's next for you?
We're opening up a bread bakery next to Bar Tartine, and I've been traveling around Europe, learning to bake with heirloom varieties of wheat and other grains for my next book. I'm importing those grains, seeing what will grow here, and we're looking at spaces for a stone mill in the Mission [District of San Francisco]. I've been collaborating with Nick [Balla, the chef of Bar Tartine]. I made a buckwheat bread, for instance, and Nick paired it with homemade smoked paprika, a shaved coppa-esque type sausage, and lardo. I'm more inspired by chefs these days than other bakers.

NEXT: LOUISE SLAUGHTER