Carolina Gold Rice Foundation (“CGRF”)
Bake-off Challenge

 

The CGRF Challenged Artisans to Bake a Rice Porridge Bread. But, in the spirit of reality shows, there was a catch: Nobody really knew how it was traditionally supposed to be baked.

Early in November 2016, the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation presented a unique bread baking challenge: bake the once ubiquitous Southern rice porridge bread. There are plenty of historical records so they knew generally what went into the bread but not exactly how to go about concocting it in true Southern fashion. They were still in the dark about how to combine the ingredients, shape the bread, and even at what temperature to bake it. That meant its intended taste and texture was all up for interpretation by the bakers, too.

Rice Middlins Bread was once the most pervasive form of bread in the colonial era in the South, virtually disappearing in the early 1920s. Together with Executive Chef Michael Carmel and the Culinary Institute of Charleston, the CGRF assembled a packed house of bakers, millers, farmers, and culinary professionals eagerly waiting to taste and evaluate over a dozen different breads.

But not just any breads. Glenn Roberts, CGRF board member and proprietor of Anson Mills in Columbia, SC, had curated the roster. Impressive regional breads were included from all over the country. The baker’s dozen of contributors:

Dan Barber and Charlotte Douglas Blue Hill at Stone Barns — Pocantico Hills, NY

David Bauer Farm & Sparrow — Candler, NC

Chris and Marco Bianco Pane Bianco — Phoenix, AZ

Justin Cherry and Sean Brock McCrady's — Charleston, SC

Graison Gill Bellegarde Bakery — New Orleans, LA

Henry Jones Butcher & Bee — Charleston, SC

Thom Leonard Independent Baking — Athens, GA

Travis Lett and Greg Blanc Gjusta — Los Angeles, CA

Scott Mangold Breadfarm — Edison, WA

Alex Phaneuf Lodge Bread — Los Angeles, CA

Chad Robertson The Manufactory — San Francisco, CA

Joe Shea and Chris Wilkins Root Baking Company —
Johns Island, SC

Lionel Vatinet La Farm Bakery — Cary, NC


GROUPING BREADS

Wine tastings proceed from white to red, and art exhibits are organized by styles or themes. We faced a similar task: how to organize the breads into tasting flights.

Then there was the problem of regional palate preferences. The two or three samples in each flight had to be similar enough in other ways — like texture — so that tasters could concentrate on flavors and not show favoritism to the texture they preferred.

Broadly stated, the Southern palate tends toward softer baked goods, like buttermilk biscuits, sponge cakes, and spoonbreads. To a palate raised on foods like those, the chewier breads of New York City or the Pacific Northwest take some getting used to. If you’re not careful, palate preference can trick a taster into liking one sample over another, and then giving it a more favorable rating during the evaluation.

It was a extensive tasting and sorting challenge. In the end, there were five flights, each with two or three breads. Each group demonstrated one key sensory attribute of bread, such as bitterness of crust, firmness of bite, length of chew, and overall grain flavor intensity.

Mise en place for the tasting seminar included (clockwise from top) clearly numbered samples, written instructions for each stage, note taking materials, water, and (off-camera) a spit cup.

Mise en place for the tasting seminar included (clockwise from top) clearly numbered samples, written instructions for each stage, note taking materials, water, and (off-camera) a spit cup.

If tasters knew whose breads they were evaluating, that knowledge could sway their perceptions. To avoid any subconscious bias, the bread samples were not identified during the tastings.

FLAVOR MEMORIES

Each of us has a unique flavor memory. We know what a lot of foods taste like without having them physically present. Our sensory wiring is so strong that, if you read the word coffee, your memory can conjure its bitterness, its earthy notes, and even its weight on your tongue.

Our ability to recall the flavors and texture of bread is much less developed, primarily because we don’t have a shared vocabulary to rely on. Once you learn words to describe those flavors and textures, you can build your own bank of flavor memories. As you develop your palate, you’ll enjoy bread on a new level.

To harvest that innate sensory power when working with a large group of tasters, the key is to establish a scale. On such a continuum, ranked from low to high, three different samples can be ranked, thereby creating a shared reference scale for the individual tasters — a process called palate calibration.

Take bitter, a basic taste present in dark-baked breads of the bien cuit (well-baked) style. Not everyone has the same tolerance for bitter. If you make a habit of eating things like kale, black coffee, and unsweetened chocolate, your idea of bitter is different from someone who takes milk and sugar in coffee, eats milk chocolate, or prefers English peas as a green vegetable.

Below is the scale for bitter that we used. Imagine a horizontal line whose left (very low) anchor is raw peanut and whose right anchor (very high) is tonic water. In the center is dark chocolate.

In one of the earlier exercises, the audience chewed the dark-baked crust of one sample. Using their mutual understanding of the bitter scale, the majority of the audience rated the particular sample’s bitterness intensity as medium-low.

Glenn Roberts said, “I was astounded by how many of the tasters agreed with ranking the bread in roughly the same place on the scale. A group of strangers in a room, and here we were agreeing on our sensory perception about a slice of bread.”

professional-certified-speaker-bitter-scale-tasting-bread-kalanty.jpg

A shared reference scale helps tasters calibrate their palates.

Not everyone has the same tolerance for bitterness. If you eat things like kale, black coffee, and unsweetened chocolate, your idea of bitter is different from someone who takes milk and sugar in coffee, eats milk chocolate, or prefers English peas as a green vegetable.

THE FIRST FLIGHTS

The three bread samples in the next flight came from different parts of the country: Washington, Louisiana, and Arizona. Each bread included a percent of the baker’s local wheat, blended with a commercial white flour, such as King Arthur’s Sir Galahad or Sir Lancelot. Not only were the wheat strains from different parts of the country, but each baker had made a unique choice. One had used the local wheat in a soaker, one pre-fermented it in a levain, and one had used a selection of different local wheats to achieve a more complex flavor and a crust that was thick but not leathery.

The sorting task for the tasters was to rank the three samples in terms of overall grain flavor intensity, regardless of the specific flavor notes. In other words, how much “grain-ness” could you taste in each sample? Distinct notes like nutty, malty, grassy, and potato skin needed to be discounted.

As an analogy, the flavor of strawberry in ice cream can be floral and fresh, whereas the strawberry flavor in a fruit leather tastes candied and cooked. And though both foods have strawberry flavor, the audience needs to overlook the different types of strawberry flavor they perceive, and focus instead on which sample has higher intensity, or tastes more “strawberry-ish.” In this case, the fruit leather would have the more intense fruit flavor.

A majority of the audience agreed which sample had the higher grain intensity, so we chose that one to investigate what’s known as the character of the grain. The character is the unique aroma and flavor notes of a food, like the two different characters of the strawberry flavor from above. This step is more challenging, so the tasters had a handout listing the categories of grain flavors, along with a list of terms.

All sensory experiences are valid—there is no right or wrong observation. Attendees record their experiences as they sample each bread.


All sensory experiences are valid—there is no right or wrong observation. Attendees record their experiences as they sample each bread.

The audience detected these notes: mineral, rich soil, potato, and parsnip. These flavor notes share a similar character and are grouped in a family called Earthy. Earthy notes are also found in foods like mushrooms, goat’s cheese, and roasted garlic. A pizza dough made from a wheat strain with an earthy character would pair well with these toppings.

Other families of grain character include Grassy (dry grass, husk) and Toasty (nutty, popped grain). These families of flavor character have been identified in sensory sessions orchestrated by Cornell University, in which several strains of wheat, primarily ones from New York state, were evaluated for sensory attributes, and separately for baking performance.

WHOLE-GROUND GRAINS

Each bread in the third flight included a percent of wheat that was whole-ground. The flour was used either in its entirety or at the baker’s choice. The largest flakes of bran were sifted out and used later to line the proofing baskets.

This flight was all about the crust. There is more opportunity to identify aroma and flavor notes of a grain when concentrating on the caramelized exterior of the bread. Each note in the crust magnifies the inherent flavor of the grain.

When grain is whole-ground, the flour retains the vitamin-rich oils released from the germ, a component which is often sifted away in commercial flour. The oils encourage the formation of what’s called resinous flavor compounds. Imagine crushing fresh rosemary sprigs between your fingers: you experience a similar resonance of the herb’s aroma and flavor. Crust flavors are formed during the Maillard reaction, the browning of proteins in food, like grilling a steak. In bread, the proteins and amino acids align with molecules of starch, sugars, and flavor acids from fermentation. The combinations are many, but the specific flavor notes can be grouped by similarities.

There were other flavor notes in the crust, but they had lower intensities. For the record, there are four other families of crust flavors: Roasted (baked onions, cheese gratin), Fruity (fig, raisin), Toasty (nutty, popped grains), and Sweet (butterscotch, molasses).

CONCLUSION

The final part of the event was less structured. A bread buffet presented the 13 breads that had been used in the tasting. The audience put their new sensory skills to use as they tasted and, more importantly, discussed their perceptions of these breads.

Describing the sensory characteristics of a bakery product enables informed business decisions, guides product development, allows benchmarking, quality control, and the tracking of product changes over time. Most importantly, it is a solid tool for communication with customers and consumers. In the end, it’s all about increasing the enjoyment of the foods we eat. ✹

The Bread Bakers Guild of America is the leading educational resource for artisan bread bakers,
shaping the knowledge and skill of the artisan baking community through education.

A member for many years, Michael Kalanty periodically contributes articles to Breadlines, the BBGA’s quarterly publication. This story tells of a nation-wide call to craft bread bakers to explore how a once-popular bread might best position itself for a comeback.

This story was edited from its original appearance in Breadlines, Vol 27.2 copyright by the Bread Bakers Guild of America.