Our Daily Bread Matters
When I opened Vetri in 1998, I spent a lot of time shopping. Once a week, I went down to the vegetable market near the Philly sports stadiums, picked up fresh fish from Samuels and Sons, and stopped by the Italian market on 9th Street. Emilio Mignucci was always there, and he’d fill me up with the best cheeses from Italy. I usually got parking tickets, but it was so worth it to see and taste what I was buying.
I always got my 00 flour at Di Brunos. They had the blue bag of Gran Mugnaio that I recognized, the one that I had used in New York when I was the chef at Bella Blu. I didn’t know much about flour then. I just knew that my pasta was good, and this was the stuff that I used. Nothing else really mattered.
I didn’t know that much of the wheat in that bag was probably imported from America, ground into 00 flour in Italy, and sold back to us. I didn’t know that “00” really only means that it’s ground super-fine; it has nothing to do with protein content or how fresh it is. That flour had probably been ground and bagged up months if not a year before I bought it. But it didn’t matter. That was the flour I knew, the flour I was used to.
Around the same time, I started buying produce from Green Meadow Farm. The farmer, Glen Brendle, was a big, burly man. He would gather local vegetables, fruits, dairy, and meat from the Amish farmers around Lancaster and truck it to the city. Thursdays became my favorite day of the week, when Glen’s truck rolled up with some of the best food from southeastern Pennsylvania. He had a list of everything that he had faxed—yes, faxed—to us on Mondays. We had to fax back our requests by Monday night for Thursday delivery. He always had freshly milled flour on the list, but it wasn’t my 00 flour in the blue bag from Italy, so I never ordered it.
For the next ten to fifteen years, restaurants evolved, and a new term, “farm to table,” became code for a serious chef who was truly in tune with the landscape of his or her area. Better and better products were becoming available. Farmers were raising more animals on pasture, and fisheries were fishing more sustainably. Since then, understanding the impact of our food choices on the environment and being champions of a sustainable ecosystem have been of the utmost importance to chefs. I am willing to spend more on a pig that’s raised on mother’s milk or fed apples and acorns. Give me that beautiful line-caught fish. Take my money. Hand over that grass-fed beef and that axis venison that roamed free on a ranch.
In the past two decades, and especially during the pandemic of 2020, the whole world’s awareness of food has grown tremendously. If you care about where your food comes from, what’s in it, and the consequences of what you cook and eat, you pay attention to your choices. And there are so many great choices available today. From heirloom tomatoes to organic milk, it has become easier than ever to buy food that is more flavorful, better for the environment, and better for our health. Everything has evolved. Except for one thing . . . flour.
The truth is, most American flour is still stuck in the 1950s. At home, most people reach for a bag of refined all-purpose flour. At restaurants, some very talented chefs go to great lengths to source premium vegetables, fish, and meats, but they make breads, desserts, and pastas with flour that is so old and processed that it has lost almost all its flavor. Not to mention the impact of massive commodity wheat crops on our soils. And our health.
But all that is changing. Better flour is becoming more available. By changing this one basic ingredient—flour—the flavor and quality of pastas, breads, and pastries improves dramatically. Boom! Just like that.
That’s why we wrote this book. It seems that now, more than ever, people are rediscovering the joys of baking bread, and we are so excited to share these incredible breads with you! We show you everything we’ve learned about baking bread with fresh flour. . . . the recipes, the techniques, the little tricks . . . everything. It’s not hard. These days, lots of farmers and millers are selling fresh flour (see page 284 for a regional directory). Or you could buy whole grains at your local grocery store and grind them in your own kitchen. It’s like grinding whole beans for coffee. Anyone can do it. There are all kinds of affordable stone mills available today, and some even attach to your average stand mixer.
There’s nothing like freshly baked bread and pastries made with fresh flour. They taste so good! The best part is that at Vetri, all our breads are baked in a regular home oven. No fancy equipment. So, if you’re new to bakingplease don’t be intimidated. All you need is an oven. Start with an easy dough and bake a simple pan loaf, like Potato Bread (page 110). If you have a baking stone and a little experience, try a bread like Artichoke Fougasse (page 87) or Olive Oil Durum Rolls (page 121). If you’re already in the sourdough habit, dig in to Omni Bread (page 169) or Chocolate Rye Sourdough (page 189). There’s a lot to explore here.
We organized the bread chapters from easiest to hardest, starting with simple yeast breads, moving on to enriched yeast breads, then sourdough breads, and finally enriched sourdough breads that tend to be a little trickier. We also use freshly milled and whole-grain flours in quick pastries like Hazelbutter Cookies (page 224) and Lemon Durum Cake (page 215). And we didn’t limit the book to bread alone. The Eat chapter includes recipes for foods made with leftover bread, like Panzanella (page 246), and foods that go well with bread, like Cultured Butter (page 264). Ever try making your own butter? It’s not hard and it’s the best thing on freshly baked bread. And finally, if you’re already a serious baker, try our recipe for Panettone alla Vetri (page 275). This is by far the most challenging and rewarding bread you’ll ever make. That’s why we devote an entire chapter to it.
In Mastering Bread
, there are chapters detailing each step of the bread-making process: mix, shape, and bake. We also explain the science of fermentation in its own chapter, so you get a sense of what’s going on inside bread dough from the moment you start mixing. But bread science is only useful if it helps you make a better loaf. Honestly, the best way to understand all that invisible alchemy is to get in there and do it. That’s why we included a huge variety of breads—more than fifty-five recipes that demonstrate all the basic principles. Some quick and easy breads use dry yeast and are ready the same day. Some use sourdough starter and develop deep flavor over a long, cool fermentation period of one to two days. We included an “active time” estimate in every recipe so you get a sense of how long things will take. Most of the breads don’t require much actual hands-on work; they just take time to ferment while you can do other things. Best of all, none of these breads requires traditional kneading. You can mix our doughs in a machine or by hand, and when you’re hand-mixing, a few folds are usually all it takes for the dough to come together. Whether you’re new to bread making or a seasoned baker, don’t worry too much about things being perfect. Mastering bread is not about perfection. Imperfection can be beautiful! It’s about paying attention and being open to constant improvement. Maybe read a little about the principles, then bake some loaves. Read, bake, and then repeat. The bread you make will be worth it. Fresh bread can be so incredibly satisfying to make and eat, especially when you share it.
Sharing has been one of the best things about writing this book. Our focus on better flour has connected us to an entire community of farmers, millers, and bakers in our region and around the country. There’s a whole world of people out there improving the quality of American wheat and trying to make better bread. Look for their stories throughout the book. These relationships and people have been life-changing for us, and we want to share them with you.
There’s no doubt that the pandemic of 2020 caused all kinds of changes all over the globe. But during the many disruptions, there was another seismic shift quietly taking place, one that began many years ago. In America, at least, we are living through a big change in one of our most fundamental American foods—our amber waves of grain. Better, healthier, more flavorful, more nutritious wheat is becoming more available to everyone. Wheat was the first food that our country centralized, industrialized, and produced on a massive scale. Mass-produced bread soon followed. But, as we’ve learned with tomatoes and countless other foods, industrialization isn’t always the best thing for our soil, our water, our food, and our bodies. Growing food is differentfrom manufacturing cars—because we eat food. Flavor matters. Less processing matters. Nutrition matters. Entire civilizations were founded on wholesome grains and breads. Our daily bread is worth caring more about—especially now. It’s comforting to know that even during tough times, when you might not be able to find dry yeast or bread flour in stores, you can always bake nourishing loaves with sourdough starter and freshly milled grains.
Copyright © 2020 by Marc Vetri and Claire Kopp McWilliams with David Joachim. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.