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Inside the Olympics of Bread Baking

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Oct 10, 2019

To love making bread as much as Jeff Yankellow does, "you have to be crazy," he says. Jeff's official title at King Arthur Flour is Regional Sales Manager, but we like to think of him as the Chief Flour Nerd. He joins us this week to tell the story of the time he competed for the bread world's biggest prize, to answer listener questions about baking, and to explain why the flour you choose matters.

This entire special mini episode is sponsored by King Arthur Flour, a 100% employee-owned baking company. Visit KingArthurFlour.com/Sporkful to get recipes and discounts on ingredients and baking gear. Right now there’s an extra 25% off their Ridiculously Easy No-Knead Sticky Buns Recipe Bundle and the Carmelized Onion and Brie Pizza Recipe Bundle, both of which come with the ingredients, the recipe, and even a really nice pan. Check it all out!

And if you have a baking question for Jeff and the other flour nerds at King Arthur Flour, contact their Baker's Hotline.

Interstitial music in this show by Black Label Music:

- "Stacks" by Erick Anderson

- "Simple Song" by Chris Bierden

- "A Climb to Greatness" by Will Van de Crommert

- "Iced Coffee" by Josh Leninger

Episode Transcript:

Jeff Y.:                          Baking is so tedious.

Dan Pashman:               What makes it so tedious?

Jeff Y.:                          Same thing every day. In a big bakery, you're probably mixing dough for eight hours straight, or you're shaping bread for eight hours straight, or you're only baking. Like all you do is put bread in the oven for eight hours straight.

Dan Pashman:               So why do you keep doing it?

Jeff Y.:                          We just love it, I guess. You have to be crazy. I mean, you really have to love it. like you're the type of person I think that's even if you've done 10,000 of these baguettes, you want the next one to be better than the last one.

Dan Pashman:               This is The Sporkful. It's not for foodies, it's for eaters. I'm Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. So this entire special mini episode is sponsored by King Arthur Flour. King Arthur called us up and they said, "How'd you like to do a show where you interview a flour nerd?" And I'm like, "Where do I sign?" Because flour is such a basic elemental ingredient, and yet it's something I don't know that much about. So that's how I ended up talking with Jeff Yankello from King Arthur flour.

Jeff Y.:                          My official title is regional sales manager.

Dan Pashman:               Right. But I feel like your job is more exciting. I mean, no offense to all the regional sales managers out there ...

Jeff Y.:                          That's what my business card says. That is not what I do. My unofficial title, I say I'm a baker that sells flour. That's what I do.

Dan Pashman:               You bake a lot of bread.

Jeff Y.:                          Yeah, and that's what I've done my whole life.

Dan Pashman:               I think it's amazing that bread ... I mean, I know that there are more complicated and elaborate breads, but at its essence, bread is so simple.

Jeff Y.:                          Totally. Yeah. Flour, water, salt, and then yeast, commercial or wild.

Dan Pashman:               It's something alive and active. Those are the things you need.

Jeff Y.:                          Exactly. Something to make it rise, leaven.

Dan Pashman:               It's amazing that those four ingredients can come together in so many different ways.

Jeff Y.:                          Isn't it fascinating? I love it. It's funny because I do these trade shows and we set up a table, we're trying to promote King Arthur Flour. Hey, see what we got. And these guys next to me are our sampling prosciutto and these cheeses and gelato and chocolate. And I'm like, I got flour, when you're done.

Jeff Y.:                          Because what is flour before it's transformed? Like you said, it's just white powder. But when it's treated right, it transforms. It's an unbelievable thing. It's just flour, water, yeast and salt. And I think that's what I always loved about bread too, because it's not just the simple ingredients, but all economic situations, like all levels. I think bread is like the foundation of so many meals around the world.

Dan Pashman:               Jeff is one of the most experienced bakers in the country. In 2005, he competed in the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie du Pan. It's the Olympics of bread baking. And just like with the real Olympics, he and his American teammates spent years training for it.

Jeff Y.:                          You get together at least once a month, close to the competition, twice a month for three, four days in a row. And you go through your routine and then, because it's a timed routine. I think right now you get ... It used to be one hour the night before. I think it's two hours the night before to prepare, and then eight hours the day of, to bake these list of breads.

Jeff Y.:                          Another guy does pastries like croissant style things, brioche. And another guy builds a showpiece, artistic piece out of bread. So how these people do sugar show pieces and chocolate, you have to do it with a bread dough. So those are the three categories.

Dan Pashman:               And this person's rehearsed. They practiced the showpiece?

Jeff Y.:                          Oh yeah, for sure, practice over and over and over again.

Dan Pashman:               Do you get to bring your own ingredients?

Jeff Y.:                          Flour, you have to use that flour, which is provided by the organizers of the competition.

Dan Pashman:               And do you get access to that flour in advance?

Jeff Y.:                          Sort of. Not really. You kind of hear rumors like, oh, it's going to be this flour.

Dan Pashman:               Oh, so you don't know for sure. Wow.

Jeff Y.:                          So the US team has always gone to France one week ahead to practice with French flour before the competition, kind of acclimate a little bit.

Dan Pashman:               So that's what Jeff and his teammates did. They got to Paris a few days early, went through their final workouts, baking all the breads they'd have to make. At last, the day of the competition arrived.

Jeff Y.:                          At that point, you're just high on adrenaline. So basically it's almost like you're all there in front of the bakeries. You're facing these bakeries, four bakeries side by side. All these little mini bakeries that all been set up.

Dan Pashman:               I'm picturing it like a TV cooking competition show.

Jeff Y.:                          Exactly.

Dan Pashman:               The judge says go, and everyone runs to their stations and the teams start baking. Jeff and his teammates had rehearsed so much, they didn't even need to talk to each other. But still, that year conditions were especially tough. The event is held in a convention center and it starts early in the morning before the center is open, so the heat's not on yet. On top of all that, it happened to be really cold that day in Paris, and when the air is very cold, bread rises really slowly. Jeff was trying not to panic.

Jeff Y.:                          Okay. I remember two things. One is, okay, what can I do? Like I remember it was so cold. Like usually I would leave my dough to rise at room temperature. Okay, I have this kind in here, I can put the dough in there. It's warm. And the other thing I remember telling myself, and this I think is super important, just discipline. You're like, okay, do not put the bread in the oven before it's ready. Like just wait, you know, hold your fire. And that's I think just from training and practicing. Like don't get caught up in the moment.

Dan Pashman:               And are you eyeing your competitors?

Jeff Y.:                          You can't see them. So you may hear a little bit, but ...

Dan Pashman:               I judge by the clink of that hand that they might be using an alternative type of flour.

Jeff Y.:                          Oh, I think they forgot to steam their oven. But the thing is you don't know. I always tell people, even these days, you can't control them, so let them do their thing, you do your thing.

Dan Pashman:               Jeff's team finished all the required breads and they were really happy with how everything came out.

Jeff Y.:                          You're just like thrilled. Hug your teammates, because things done right, you know? You're feeling pretty good. You finish on time, because that's one of the big things we're always trained, like finish on time, don't lose points because you were late. And then you just sit and then you wait.

Jeff Y.:                          We went the first day, so there were two more days we get to watch, and basically you're watching, you're sleeping because you're so exhausted. You're just nervous as all can be. There's an award ceremony, and a lot of sponsors and government officials say all their things. So you're just sitting there waiting, waiting, waiting.

Jeff Y.:                          So we're standing up there. All the teams are together. We're all lined up. And then they announced fourth place, third place, Japan is third. So we're down to two teams. From what we had heard, it was either us or the French. So you're sitting there kind of anticipating, waiting for the announcement for who's second. French get announced as second. So when the French are announced, I remember reaching my hand back to grab my teammate, like we knew. And then they announce, USA ...

Dan Pashman:               That's right. They won. Jeff and his teammates were on top of the bread baking world. They rose to the occasion. They were the upper crust, the toast of the town.

Jeff Y.:                          And then you're just like crazy happy. They send some confetti into the air. I remember this specifically, because I was wearing these dress shoes and they were too big or something, and I tripped walking up to the podium. I can remember it like yesterday? I mean it's all good at that point.

Dan Pashman:               That was back in 2005. Today, Jeff estimates he's baked hundreds of thousands of loaves of bread in his life. He is most definitely a flour nerd.

Dan Pashman:               Let's talk about a plain old baguette. How does the flour influence the outcome?

Jeff Y.:                          Okay, so it is the primary ingredient in the bread. I mean that's pretty much what you're eating, flour hydrated with water. The process is controlled by the salt a little bit. So you're fermenting this flour. So, I mean the protein level is going to make a difference. So texturally it's going to make a big difference. And believe it or not, taste, for sure flour can bring sweetness, nuttiness. Sometimes we taste a baguette and it has like this cheese cracker after taste to it, or maybe a little bitterness depending on the type of wheat.

Jeff Y.:                          So on a technical level, I mean the flour, there's so many variables. We're talking about temperature, time, mixing, over mix, under mix, over proofed, you know, let it rise too much, too little, over baked, under bake. At one simple level, having the flour the same consistent all the time, is like okay that's one thing I have to worry about. So I mean that's probably your best tool other than technique.

Dan Pashman:               And what about the quality of different flours? On a technical level, what is the actual real difference between a higher quality flour? How is it different or how will the result be different?

Jeff Y.:                          Yeah, I mean it's a big difference. So for King Arthur, we really pride ourselves on consistency and our specifications. So when we say specifications we say this flour will always be between these parameters. We target this percent, plus or minus two tenths of a percent. So what we're saying is this flour is always going to be the same and you can count on it to perform this way. Like different flours for different things.

Jeff Y.:                          So let's say your specification is wider, like four percentage points, not even tenths, but like four whole percentage points, which exists out there. I mean that's huge. Like the flour can be all over the place. It's cheaper, and what the people making it get in return is, they can use any range of flour out there.

Dan Pashman:               What Jeff's saying is that some flours vary widely from one bag to the next. That means you won't get the same results every time. King Arthur takes great care to make sure their flour is consistent. I asked Jeff, what are some other common issues that home bakers run into?

Jeff Y.:                          One of the biggest issues is mixing. When I started to learn baking, like in the nineties, late nineties, there wasn't a lot of access or easy access to good information on baking. And nowadays there's just information all over the place.

Dan Pashman:               Too much information.

Jeff Y.:                          Yeah, way too much. So everyone already coming to class, they're already experts. I'm like, well why don't you teach it? You know? and the thing is, I think, so they get these ideas and then people go way to the extreme. People tend to under mix their dough. fearing that they're going to over mix.

Dan Pashman:               Got it. So there's so much talk out there. I see it in baking instructions often, don't over mix, fold until just combined. And I get like, so delicately. Like is it just combined? I can't tell.

Jeff Y.:                          Exactly. I think that's one of the biggest faults I see at home.

Dan Pashman:               Right, right. So is there a general guideline you can offer people for how to know when they've mixed about the right amount?

Jeff Y.:                          I mean, it does depend on the bread, but for sure you can see the gluten, which is the proteins that form what we call gluten, which gives strength to bread specifically. You'll see it transformed from this really shaggy ... And you just pull on it and it just breaks away. And then as you mix a little more, it tends to have a little bit of elasticity.

Dan Pashman:               Stretchiness.

Jeff Y.:                          Yeah, exactly. And I find my personal opinion is, even a little bit of stretchiness is better than none.

Dan Pashman:               Well, Jeff, I know that one of your jobs at King Arthur is to field calls from professional bakers who are distraught. They need a flour nerd like you to tell them what they're doing wrong. Why are their breads and pastries not coming out the way they want? So we wanted to see some your skills and action here.

Jeff Y.:                          I'm ready? Give it to me. We'll see what we can do.

Dan Pashman:               All right, let's go to the phones. Hi, who's this?

Peter:                          Hi, this is Peter calling from Brooklyn.

Dan Pashman:               Hey Peter. Say hi to Jeff Yankello from King Arthur flour.

Peter:                          Hi Jeff.

Jeff Y.:                          Hey Peter.

Dan Pashman:               Peter, this is your chance. You have the undivided attention of a flour nerd.

Peter:                          Okay, that's great, and I'm in pretty desperate need of help. So I own and run a small bakery called Sweet Pete's, in Brooklyn, and I like to work with a lot of brioche and a lot of French sorts of styles of bread. And I've been trying to make like the perfect French brioche loaf, a simple loaf. But this thing keeps happening where every time I make it, it looks perfect when I put it in the oven, and then when it comes out of the oven, it's beautiful. And then slowly over the 20 minutes since it comes out of the oven, it slowly collapses on itself, and it takes on the shape of an hourglass almost.

Jeff Y.:                          Yeah, caves in on the sides.

Peter:                          Yeah, exactly. And so I've been trying to figure it out. I've tried kneading it more. I've tried changing the formula a little bit and I still haven't quite cracked it. No matter what I do, it seems to cave in a little bit in the middle.

Jeff Y.:                          Yeah. This is a common problem with pan breads. So we assume it's baked enough, right? Like the sides are nice and golden, they're firm. It's not collapsing because of weight.

Peter:                          Yeah, no, they're definitely like golden brown. They seem like they should be able to structurally hold up the thing.

Jeff Y.:                          Yeah. So the other thing we see a lot with something like this is sometimes the dough tends to be too strong. So basically it's so strong that it's pulling in on itself as it cools, and that's what's causing those sides to ... They're not so much collapsing as they're pulling in from excess strength. So you get good rise in the oven?

Peter:                          Yeah, no, I get great rise.

Jeff Y.:                          Probably what I would recommend is we need to weaken the dough up a little bit. I think it's a sign of excess strength.

Peter:                          Interesting. I would have thought exactly ... I assumed I was doing the exact opposite, that I wasn't making it strong enough, that it wasn't able to support itself.

Jeff Y.:                          Yeah, because it rises really well, the texture is probably, it's light, fluffy I assume.

Peter:                          Yeah. No, it's great. Yeah, it just looks terrible.

Jeff Y.:                          Yeah. I know it's probably not over mixed, but are you giving it any folds or anything after mixing?

Peter:                          I mix and then I prove for an hour and then it goes in the fridge for two hours. And then I take it out and I laminate it twice. I do two letter folds.

Dan Pashman:               Laminate is like you roll it out and then fold it over, and then roll it out and fold it over.

Peter:                          Yeah, exactly, typical, like how we make croissant. We think of that technique.

Dan Pashman:               Right, that's how you get those like little thin layers inside.

Jeff Y.:                          Yeah, exactly. So maybe you don't ... With croissant, we're doing it with butter in between, but in this case maybe you're building excess strength in that process. Maybe the dough is strong enough but maybe that lamination is making the dough too strong.

Dan Pashman:               Wow. And it's so counterintuitive, because ...

Jeff Y.:                          Yeah, a lot of bread is like that, like so hypocritical.

Dan Pashman:               Damn you bread.

Jeff Y.:                          Yeah, exactly.

Dan Pashman:               All right, thanks Peter. Good luck with that brioche. Feel free to send some samples in care of The Sporkful.

Peter:                          Sure, sounds good.

Dan Pashman:               All right. Take care.

Peter:                          Take care.

Dan Pashman:               Do you have a question about baking for the folks at King Arthur flour? Well, their professional bakers are available seven days a week via phone, email, and chat. We'll put a link to the King Arthur Baker's hotline in the show notes. And when you call, it may be Jeff who picks up. My guess is he'll have an answer for you. But like a true flour nerd, he's also never going to stop asking questions.

Dan Pashman:               Is there one loaf of bread that sticks in your memory as the closest to perfect that you ever made?

Jeff Y.:                          That's a good question. I hadn't thought about that one. I don't know if there's any one loaf, but I think at times, it's almost like as you grow as a baker, your targets somewhat change. The more we fail, the better we get.

Dan Pashman:               Thanks to King Arthur for sponsoring this episode. You know, they're not just a flour company, they're a baking company. Find recipes, products, and discounts at kingarthurflour.com/Sporkful. And remember, King Arthur Flour is made with the highest specifications in the industry, from the highest quality wheat, and never with bleach. They have a whole team of folks just like Jeff working to ensure their flour has the optimal protein content for the results you want. That makes your bread rise higher, your cakes more moist, and your pizza crust chewier. And as an employee owned V Corp, King Arthur Flour is committed to the best interest of its customers, community, the environment and employees. Folks like Jeff.

Dan Pashman:               Well, Jeff Yankello, technically your title at King Arthur Flour is regional sales manager, but to us you'll always be the chief flour nerd.

Jeff Y.:                          I'll take that title. I like it. Done.

Dan Pashman:               Visit kingarthurflour.com/sporkful to get recipes and discounts on ingredients and baking gear. Try your hand at baking with help from King Arthur. And right now there's an extra 25% off their ridiculously easy, no-knead sticky buns recipe bundle. It's got the ingredients, the recipe, it's even got a really nice pan. And the sticky buns are gooey and doughy and so good. Again, you can find all that at kingarthurflour.com/sporkful.

Dan Pashman:               If you want to hear more episodes of this podcast, subscribe to The Sporkful today, wherever you listen. This show is produced by me along with associate producer ...

Ngofeen:                      Ngofeen Mputubwele.

Dan Pashman:               Our engineer is ...

Jared:                           Jared O'Connell.

Dan Pashman:               Music help from Black Label Music. Our editor is Peter Clowney. The Sporkful is a production of Stitcher. Our executive producers are Chris Bannon and Daisy Rosario. Until next time, I'm Dan Pashman.

Shalita:                         I'm Shalita from Wallkill, New York, reminding you to eat more, eat better, and eat more better.

Speaker 8:                    Stitcher.

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