Carolina Gold Rice Foundation (“CGRF”)
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.