Bill Oblock: Baker

9 February, 2011: Bill Oblock: Crumb Brothers Artisan Bread

Logan, Utah. “It’s all in the crumb.” That’s the take home message from a day spent learning the finer points of bread making from Bill Oblock, master baker and owner of the aptly named Crumb Brothers Artisan Bread. While that sounds convenient, and maybe even obvious, I’m here to report that crumb isn’t what the layman (ie., non-baking me) thinks crumb is. Confused? I was too. Yes, crumb does refer to those bits of loose bread that falls from the loaf, from your fingers and mouth, hangs out on your beard and litters the tablecloth (thus necessitating the need for the crumber). But more on that later.

Crumb Brothers’ bakery resides in a modern, architect-designed building customized with geothermal heat exchange and passive solar to augment the heat generated by a large oven. Low-E windows and functional blinds work in tandem to regulate airflow and fills the space with natural light. Outdoor landscaping is primarily native and water-conserving. In these ways, the bakery is a commercial pioneer in Logan, making small demands on the grid and providing an example for local construction projects. This conscientious approach to operation mirrors the approach to creating bread.

When I arrive at the bakery, Bill is settling on the recipe he’s going to use with an experimental stone ground flour he’s received from one of his vendors. He’s only got a small amount of it, and from some online research decides that starting the bread with a liquid leaven in lieu of a stiff leaven (or a combination thereof) will improve its outcome. Because the quality of the bread correlates to the ‘floor time’ it receives, we are quick to get started on what Bill is calling the Petra Italiano, otherwise known as a French leaven style of bread. Sports car, fashion model, or loaf of bread, it just sounds sexy.

The mixing process combines the four basic ingredients that comprises bread: flour, water, salt, and yeast. The manner in which the yeast is presented is known as the starter, which might be an overnight variety created from the mundane instant yeast one can buy in the grocery store or a perpetual starter which is fed/replenished with flour and water for continuous use. Sourdough is known for this latter approach to starters, where the waste product of a friendly bacteria imparts the characteristic sourness.

Bill’s goal is to keep his perpetual starters more on the warm side, closer to room temperature, in favor of a cooler starter one might produce with refrigeration. “A warmer approach encourages a lactic acid response, yielding more of a buttery flavor. Retarding the starter with refrigeration results in a sour flavor.”

Ah, the particular-ness of the connoisseur comes forth. Besides the attention paid to temperature, there is an obsession with ingredients. Bill favors locally sourced organic flour, and takes pride in the fact that the mill he uses generates a premium product to Crumb Brothers’ spec. Because Central Milling Company is right down the street, Bill can play an active role in quality control. This convenience of close collaboration helps the mill as much as it does the bakery.

Once the mixture of starter, flour, water, and salt (and here a bit of malt) comes to rest in the bowl, Bill wets a hand and lifts a handful to the light. He pulls it into a thin membrane for careful inspection, and gazes at the product with the intensity of a tea leaf reader. He pulls some more. Sensing the implicit significance of this moment, and fearful of the potential of my missing something, I lay bare my ignorance. I ask the question: “So, Bill. Is this … Dough?”

Now at this early point in our day, Bill has yet to entrust me with the confidence of a collaborator, never mind a person of reasonable intelligence. The gaze I receive is part reticence, part wonder. I figure I’d best elaborate.

“What I mean is that there is nothing more to do with it, other than bake it. I mean, ultimately, that’s our complete bread in an unbaked form. In other words, it’s no longer in need of anything, the process is complete, so it’s officially dough.”

“Uhhh … Yes.” Bill says.

Clearly I’ve done little to groom my credibility. Bill shifts his attention back to The Dough. Still analyzing, he continues: “But we can’t just bake it.”

“I guess it needs to rise first,” I say. Now I’m really talking shop. “What are you looking at?”

“The protein in wheat, when hydrated, develops bonds in a network with elastic and retractive characteristics.” He gives the dough a bit of a pull. It’s springy. “That’s what gluten is. The more you handle the dough, the denser the bread will be. This, with the amount of water added to the dough, affects the crumb of the loaf.”

The crumb of the …? The plot thickens. I feel like I should know what Bill’s referring to here. I mean, I’ve baked before. Maybe not bread, but I can make a decent scone. My scones definitely have crumbs … Ah well, I figure it’ll become clear.

Bill gathers up the rest of the dough and gently lays it into a plastic tub. He covers the tub with a weathered sheet of plywood, being careful to segregate the tub from other stacks of tubs in the room. Thus begins what Bill calls floor time.

Bill strives for a four-hour floor time, which is quite long when compared to factory bread. Typical factory bread receives no floor time, resulting in a comparatively boring loaf. This crucial period allows for fermentation to occur, where lactic acid generates carbon dioxide as a bi-product. “And this,” Bill emphasizes, “develops flavor and affects the crumb of the loaf.”

Bill starts turning over boards to reveal variations of dough in various stages of floor time. He gently pushes the surface of one mass to demonstrate its lack of readiness; the pliability isn’t quite resolved. The board goes back over, and we move on. I see flatter dough, rounder dough, darker dough, lighter dough. Dough with seeds, dough without seeds. Or is that whole grain? And behind him, assistant mixer Alicia is mixing up a batch of polenta dough. It strikes me as very yellow for bread, and corn-mealy, and Bill agrees that while it is not a purist’s loaf, it is a customer favorite.

I’m considering my strategy into addressing this crumb thing when Bill announces that we now have down time, because the dough can’t be rushed. Not at Crumb Brothers. Later on, after lunch, we will form and, at last, bake. Until then, would I care to see the mill up the road?

On the way to the mill, which takes all of five minutes to drive to, I learn about the origin of Crumb Brothers. In 2002, friends Josh Archibald, John Reichert, and Bill Oblock combined their passion for hand-crafted, artisan bread making with a commitment to build an environmentally and socially responsible business in Northern Utah. Bill’s unique slant as a successful restaurateur provided a solid foundation on which to do this; in fact, his commitment to the bakery’s success predicated closing one of the top restaurants in Logan.

“The restaurant lifestyle owns you. With a wife and two young daughters, I was ready to pursue a better quality of life in a similar field.”

It seems that Bill has achieved that. No longer needing to work ungodly hours in conventional food service, and able to approach the work day with a pleasant predictability in a field ripe for refinement and growth, Bill has been able to build a strong reputation in the region, with a growing demand for Crumb Brothers bread in greater Salt Lake City and beyond. Josh and John have since bowed out of active duty, leaving Bill as the owner and head baker. Now the bakery is more of a family business. Wife Diane does bookkeeping, brother David handles sales, and even his daughters chip in seasonally to join other college students and several full-timers as assistants on the floor.

After the mill field trip (a walk back in time which proves yet again that they don’t build machines like they used to) and a photo op on the roof, we break for lunch. In Crumb Brother’s adjoining cafe, I join some old friends for one of the best turkey sandwiches of my life. The secret? It’s the bread, silly. I had a killer ciabatta. It’s got tooth, texture, flavor, tug … I could go on.

In the closing throes of my sandwich ecstasy I am gathered once again by Bill, who announces that forming is about to commence. We make our way to the kitchen. On the floor, flanking both sides of a large table, is bread manager Kevin Willeto and a team of college students readied for … some kind of big process.

Bill takes up a spot next to a gal with a dough knife and a scale, and suddenly they’re off: no sooner is a massive mound of dough laid out like some kind of offering does the gal start lopping off large chunks of it, hefting them onto the scale and adjusting weight with smaller bits, and then heaving the final revision toward the center of the table, where one of the supporting players grabs it with flour-dusted hands and lays it quickly-yet-oh-so-gently into a round whicker basket, and then re-dusts hands just in time to collect the next glob of flying dough. In minutes the process is complete, and the scores of baskets are transferred to rolling racks.

This batch of loaves will be Polenta Jack and will retain the roundness determined by the baskets. The next batch of dough, Sunflower Oat, will be laid laterally between folds of linen couche (cloth), resulting in an elongated oval loaf, and so on.

“And now we bake them?” I ask.

There are snickers.

“Not these loaves,” Bill says. “These have to proof for awhile.”

What’s that? I’m thinking maybe I have time for an afternoon coffee.

Bill continues: “We strive for a six- to eight-hour period on the proofing racks before baking. Proofing achieves maximum volume and the development of interesting flavor components.”

I definitely have time for an afternoon coffee.

Bill flips the cover back on one of a small army of proofing racks. “But we’ll bake some loaves that are finished proofing, and the Petra will be ready soon.”

So much for the afternoon coffee.

Over the next hour, Bill empties proofed loaves of various shapes onto a large gurney and preps them for their respective durations in the oven. Many are split with a razor blade to control bursting and enhance curb appeal. Bill and Alicia work fast, and it’s very exciting. Finally, after the textbook goal of perfect golden is attained, Bill uses a massive peel to remove the loaves. There is a particular grace to the whole proceeding, but nothing beats the beauty of the completed loaves. They are like little sculptures … sculptures that smell amazing.

Bill wipes his hands on his apron and grabs one each of five cooling loaves. “Follow me,” he says.

We make our way to a small tasting kitchen just off the hallway to the main floor. Bill puts the loaves on a large cutting board, and with a long, serrated knife slices through golden crust and into the steamy tenderness of warm French leaven. He slides a small dish over to the cutting board. It holds a quarter stick of butter–room temperature, still in its wrapper. But not for long.

“This is not only the inspiration for the name of the bakery,” he says, spreading a knife full of butter across the white of the bread. “It’s what we strive to perfect with every loaf.”

The butter disappears into the slice like slow magic, the delicate, fibrous voids in white embracing the golden fat. Delicious. The crust has a delicate crack to it. This is surely why someone invented the word crust in the first place. And then the velvet and tang of the white, and its perfect resistance to chewing. Then it occurs to me… The white? No, the crumb! I understand!

The crumb is itself sublime, but, then, it suddenly serves to emphasize the toastiness and snap of the crust. And so forth, the crust elevates the crumb. Like a double helix of taste and texture, this simple yet elusive construct–bread–is here a journey, and that journey is a revelation.

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2 Responses to Bill Oblock: Baker

  1. C. Weed says:

    I think this is my fav so far… I have a weakness for pasta & bread! Made my mouth water looking at those pics!! Wanna head out to buy a loaf of French Bread or pumpernickel. Awesome pics! First class!!!

  2. Joshua Archibald says:

    Bill Oblock has been an inspiration at so many levels for me for so long. I love you buddy. Diane, Dave, and Jan too. I am inspired by yall’s vision, work ethic and commitment quality. Thank you for showing me the value of process. It matters.

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