Kayser says: 'You can't make good bread in a bread machine; that bread has no taste'
Kayser says: 'You can't make good bread in a bread machine; that bread has no taste'

How to bake bread: French master baker Eric Kayser offers 10 tips for raising a perfect loaf

Choose your ingredients carefully, and don't watch the clock...

Nina Caplan
Friday 08 May 2015 20:40

1. Choose your ingredients carefully

Kayser cares passionately about using pesticide-free wheat, flour freshly stone-milled ("steel removes all the trace elements"), water that is pure, and unrefined salt – the kind that comes in flakes or crystals. He has taken this credo around the world. So why is there no Maison Kayser in the UK? We can't make a decent baguette to save our lives. "That's because there's not enough water in your dough. And no natural yeast." He is looking at opening in London, but this, too, is a question of resources – human, in this case. "London, you know; I need to do it myself."

2. Eat fresh bread immediately

"When we opened in Hong Kong, some people would come in on boats, they had lots of money, and they would buy a huge amount of brioche, say, or bread. They didn't realise how quickly it would go off!" The Japanese had a similar problem: they would buy bread rolls as presents, then the recipients would take them home and keep them for a few days. "And the Japanese, you know, they have sensitive gums, so trying to eat these hard rolls would really hurt."

3. Don't watch the clock – fermentation takes times

"People are too crazy now. Me, I take my time," says Kayser. "You can't make good bread in a bread machine; that bread has no taste, it's not good for your life, your children or your stomach. You need to let nature do her job." He recalls a beautiful pitta bread he once ate in Lebanon – "It was natural yeast, left to ferment naturally. Really, you need 10 hours to ferment, although I've noticed it is a little quicker if you have good water, without many chemicals."

4. Use the best-quality water you can

The word whisky is a corruption of the Scottish Gaelic uisge beatha, or "water of life", and the Scots know well how important the water is to the taste of their whisky. Why should bread be any different? "There was one guy using mineral water in his bread," says Kayser. A great idea for taste, but not very economical: "[His business] lasted three months!" Still, Kayser uses softeners to purify water for his bread, and admits that in an ideal world we'd use mineral water, "though think how it reaches you – in plastic bottles!" Bread, like life, is a series of compromises.

5. Don't throw away your stale bread

Most bread-eating cultures find a use for stale bread: in Spain, it's migas, a dish of stale bread and chorizo; Italy has the bread salad panzanella; we have apple charlotte. In France, there's white soup: "Add cheese and big chunks of stale bread to chicken broth, blend so it becomes thick… children love it!" The French also "gratinate" – not a real verb, but it should be. "Take a rolling pin, crush your stale bread, then add the breadcrumbs to everything! They're great in mashed potato, or with cheese and cream as a gratin on top of scallops or potatoes."

6. We could learn a lot from our ancestors

In the past, few people would have had an oven, so they would pay the baker to cook things other than bread as the oven cooled from 250C to 200C. "Chicken and vegetables for an hour-and-a-half, or lamb and carrots for two hours. It was very sociable, and sustainable! I'd like to bring that back," says Kayser. Until he does, bear in mind that you can do the same thing in your own oven at home, popping the dinner in while the bread is cooling – then mopping up the former with the latter.

7. Baking must be a hands-on activity

When Kayser opened his first shop, in the rue Monge in Paris, in 1996, he wanted to knead the bread by hand, and he insists that this is one element every home baker needs to get right, "as the hands receive essential information on the progress of the dough's development". Unfortunately, commercial bakers are prohibited from hand-kneading by ever-more stringent health and safety laws – another reason why everyone should learn to bake their own bread.

8. Making good gluten-free bread is hard – but possible

"The first time I tried to make it, I didn't realise the dough would be so liquid. I was in shock: all my life I have kneaded bread! With this, you have to ladle it into a steel mould. I was a little frustrated because I love to touch the dough." You can make gluten-free bread using all sorts of things – rice, buckwheat, chickpeas – but gluten provides the bread's internal structure, "so you have to find a substitute". What's his? "It's a secret!" Clearly one that works: Maison Kayser supplies bread to the French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, who is coeliac.

9. You don't have to go organic

Kayser used to, but it was too expensive; now, he prefers CRC (Culture Raisonnée Controlée): these flours are more strongly pigmented and "provide exceptional nutritional value as well as pleasing colours and flavours of both crumb and crust", he says. This attention to detail is partly how he was won his many fans – when he found himself at the 2007 G8 conference, Nicolas Sarkozy and George W Bush often tried to talk to him about bread: "Angela Merkel couldn't understand why, but it's simple: they love my bread!"

10. Home truths

Kayser dislikes the habit supermarkets have of baking bread in one place then transporting it in ovens that allow the claim that it is home-made. "It tastes of cardboard." The old ways are the best, he feels: some millers have started to use ancient wheat varieties again, and he's delighted. You have to pay a lot of attention to the dough, as their gluten networks are more fragile, but it's worth it to avoid the bland, mass-produced feel: "There needs to be soul in the loaves!"

'The Larousse Book of Bread' by Eric Kayser is published by Phaidon, priced £24.95

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