Are All Bakeries Equal?

by Les Saidel - August, 2013

When you walk into a bakery, any bakery, you expect to find freshly baked bread and pastry. That is part of the experience, the sight of freshly baked bread, the wonderful aroma and even the feel, as a fresh loaf springs back under your fingers when gently squeezed. This is what customers expect from a bakery and this is what all bakeries (if they want to stay in business) provide.

However, is the bread you are buying really "fresh?"

In the following article I will expose you to some of the insider secrets of the baking business and expose the "tricks" bakers use to provide their customers with a "fresh" loaf.

First we need to start with definitions. What is a truly fresh loaf of bread? The answer to that seems simple and it really is simple. If you are a home baker you know exactly what a freshly baked loaf of bread is. It is bread made from scratch - measuring or weighing the ingredients, mixing and kneading the dough, leaving to rise, shaping into a loaf, leaving to rise again and then baking in the oven. Fresh from scratch, that is a truly fresh loaf.

Most people just assume that this is what they are getting when they buy a loaf of "fresh" bread from a bakery. There are a number of bakeries which provide such a loaf, but their numbers are dwindling and we will soon see why.

Bakeries are divided into 3 main categories. First you have the major chain bakeries, next the smaller neighbourhood bakeries and finally the artisan bakeries (like ours).

The major chain bakeries definitely manufacture fresh bread as per our definition above. They have humungous production line facilities that churn out freshly baked breads by the thousands every hour. These facilities usually operate around the clock to supply bread to the masses and it is a safe bet that the bread delivered to your local supermarket by the major chain bakeries every morning are freshly baked from scratch at most within the previous 24 hours. It is very unlikely that you will receive a loaf baked by a major chain at a local supermarket or outlet that has been baked in the last 6 hours or less. The truth is that the difference to the consumer between an industrially baked loaf after 5 hours and after 18 hours is almost indistinguishable as it contains preservatives and other additives to maintain its freshness and retard staling. The "fresh" bread you are buying in the supermarket manufactured by the major chains is really at least 10 hours old or more.

Another industry has sprung up which does not produce fresh bread, but rather frozen dough. This is a huge, growing industry that (like everything else in the food industry) is becoming centralized to a few major players. These factories supply frozen dough to the second category of bakery - the neighbourhood bakery (or even the supermarket bakery section). Using equipment leased from the frozen dough company, these smaller bakeries allow the dough to rise and then bake it on the premises. You will often see signs in these bakeries - "baked on the premises", misleading you into believing that the bread was baked from scratch on site, when in fact it was not. These bakery owners actually know very little about baking, other than taking dough out of the freezer, proofing it (letting it rise) for the allotted time and then baking it for the allotted time as per the manufacturers' directions. They are really glorified shopkeepers.

It is partially true - these breads made from frozen dough are "baked" freshly on the premises, but the baking stage is only the final one in the process. Another thing they omit to tell you is that to enable the frozen dough process to exist on a commercial basis, i.e producing frozen dough that has a 3-6 month shelf life or more, numerous additives (chemicals) need to be added to the dough to facilitate this deviation from the natural process.

Frozen dough is becoming more popular because any small cafe or neighbourhood bakery can now offer "freshly" baked bread without investing a huge amount in equipment or skilled labour. The end product is practically indistinguishable from a "freshly baked from scratch" product, except to experts.

Because legislation prevents small cafes or neighbourhood bakeries from preparing their own dough unless they adhere to prohibitive standards, this is the only viable, legal option left to them. Obviously this legislation was formulated under pressure from the lobby of the major players in the food industry which precludes any conceivable competition and has virtually eliminated the concept of a neighborhood baker as we once knew it, (being the major threat to the major chains because of their improved quality), forcing them instead to become dependent on supply of frozen products manufactured by these conglomerates.

The final type of bakery, or artisan bakery, is the only other bakery in the 3 categories that produces "fresh bread baked from scratch", although some combine fresh baking with frozen techniques (like Saidels Bakery). Depending on the size and style of the artisan bakery and their method of sale, they either prepare fresh breads from scratch on a daily basis, or they use frozen techniques.

Saidels Bakery, for example uses a combination of fresh from scratch and frozen techniques, allowing it to produce with limited manpower (only two people) over 50 different types of baked products every week, numbering in the thousands of individual items. Saidels Bakery uses a technique called partial baking, which unlike frozen dough, freezes the bread after it has risen and been partially baked. Frozen dough is frozen before the rising stage.

The partial baking technique involves baking the bread only 80% of the bake, freezing it in a special freezer called a shock freezer or blast chiller which quickly freezes the product down to -35 degrees C (like a microwave heats up food quickly but in reverse). These frozen, partially baked (or par-baked) products are then held in holding freezers at -18 degreec C until the day of the sale. They are then defrosted and placed in the oven to complete the final 20% of the bake. They come out almost as "freshly" baked as a "fresh from scratch" product. Par-baking is very big in America and Europe and is preferred over the frozen dough process because it requires less equipment and it requires less (or no) chemical additives to facilitate the process.

Par-baking hasn't caught on here in Israel yet, perhaps because on a scale of 1 - 100 in degrees of perceived freshness by the consumer, where "fresh from scratch" is 100, frozen dough is 96% and par-baked is about 92%. Since the population in Israel has been reared from birth to love light, fluffy, airy breads, this 4% may be a major factor in customer satisfaction and may provide an explanation as to why it hasn't caught on here.

In Saidels Bakery we use par-baking because it is the only way we can produce a wide repertoire of products with limited manpower and more importantly because it requires no additional chemicals to facilitate the process. We use it predominantly with our whole grain, health breads which are kept in frozen storage for less than 10 days anyway (we have a large turnover rate), requiring no chemical additives and the difference in freshness is imperceptible as it is a whole grain bread and therefore not in the same category as the "feather-light" breads in which the difference may be slightly noticeable. These we bake "fresh from scratch". This allows us to bake the entire week, starting on Sunday and open our store on Fridays with thousands of items.

Unfortunately the above may dispel many of the illusions you have about "fresh" bread and bring you to the realization that if you really want a "fresh from scratch" bread as per our original definition, you have to make it yourself at home, which we strongly encourage you to do.

Saidels Bakery is not in the business of selling bread, it is in the business of selling healthy bread and raising your awareness to the health aspects of baking so that ultimately you will eventually bake yourself at home. That is our mission and we will continue to supply both products that raise awareness and also products for home baking (such as organic flours and artisan baking equipment) that will try reverse the shift from home baking to industrial baking that has occurred in the last century and restore baking to where it rightfully belongs - in the home.

Les Saidel


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