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A Better Bread

A BETTER BREAD

CUSTOMERS ARE LOOKING FOR ARTISANAL LOAVES, AND CHICAGO CHEF GREG WADE IS THERE TO HELP

When Greg Wade was in culinary school, he didn’t take baking classes. Instead, he studied in the trenches where chefs more typically toil: the savory program. But plying dough with his hands ended up being his true calling.

“It’s a tactile, sensory experience,” says Wade, a James Beard Foundation finalist for Outstanding Baker in 2017 and 2018. “For me, baking became this ritual of growing with your product. It’s something a lot of chefs are intimidated by. It’s alive. It’s scientific.”

Wade, 30, isn’t making bread in a commercial bakery. He is the head baker at Publican Quality Bread in Chicago, where artisanal bread rules.

The bakery opened nearly seven years ago and provides loaves to about 100 Chicago-area restaurants, in addition to the 10 other restaurants in its hospitality group, including Avec, Publican Quality Meats, and Blackbird. The bakery makes around 10 different types of bread on average, including ciabatta, country sourdough, baguette, and dark rye.

Artisanal breads are the next item you’ll be seeing more of in the increasingly popular farm-to-table and organics-driven food movement.

“There’s a shift in our culture to wanting to know where our food is from and how it’s produced,” Wade says. “Artisan bread is a good example of that. When you go to a grocery store and you see the bagged breads, it’s all machines that made that. The artwork and the transparency and the integrity is something that people are looking for.”

For Publican’s Greg Wade, bread making is slow, methodical, and precise.
For Publican’s Greg Wade, bread making is slow, methodical, and precise

Artisanal bread baking is based on a few principles, the most important being the use of natural leaveners instead of commercial yeast as well as ancient and whole grains instead of cultivated wheat.

Making bread this way is slower, methodical, more precise and distinctly in tune with nature. Bakers use wild yeasts and often a sourdough starter, sometimes referred to as a “mother,” to naturally ferment and encourage dough to rise. These processes result in complex, deeply flavorful loaves with dark, crunchy crusts and an irregular-looking crumb (holes are symbols of natural fermentation). The long fermentation, yeast, and bacteria produce bread with more “character, depth of flavor, and lasting taste and aroma,” Wade says.

Crucial to the success of the business, and even to the deliciousness of the bread, he says, is working closely with farmers. The bakery buys the majority of its grains from Spence Farm, an eighth-generation family farm in Illinois that focuses on heirloom and native crops. “We believe soil health leads to plant health, and better quality and tastier crops. And that carries through all the way to us serving it,” Wade says.

And yes, one can make artisan bread at home. First, you need to acquire a sourdough starter or make your own. (And you can choose to use it all, or keep it alive; Publican’s starter is over 20 years old!) Wade suggests baking the dough in a large cast-iron pan if you don’t have a hearth and open flame. “Put the pot with the lid in the oven, preheat it to 450 degrees Fahrenheit with the pot inside so it gets hot. When ready to bake, score your bread, drop it in the pot and bake it for 20 minutes with the lid on, then about another 20 minutes with the lid off or until the desired crust color is achieved. When done baking, remove from the pot onto a cooling rack, then cool as normal.”

As for the future of artisan bread making, it is more emphasis on local whole grains, according to Wade. “It’s how to make better bread,” he says. And in terms of new types of loaves to look for, Wade thinks the artisan way will become widespread “across the board.”

“Burger buns, brioche, hearth breads that are baked in a hearth oven on stone. Hard crusty breads like boule, miche, batard,” he says. “You’ll start seeing enriched doughs for whole-grain pastry.”

Publican’s fruit and nut bread
Publican’s fruit and nut bread.

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