Men Who Cook: For the Love of Dough

I bake with Michael Pollan and get totally jealous of his loaves.

by zach st. george

Michael Pollan making breadPHOTOGRAPHS BY JASON JAACKS

Michael Pollan making bread


Wrestling the rebellious mass of sticky dough into a plastic bowl where it can do no more harm, I survey my formerly pristine kitchen—the counter smeared with gloop, the floor awash in flour, my black fleece sweatpants messed the worst of all—and I blame it all on Michael Pollan.

Pollan’s game is to hang out with food experts and then weave the scene with history and science and inner ruminations into some profound conclusion. A week before, Pollan (who, it seems appropriate to admit before going further, is my master’s thesis adviser) had graciously invited me to his North Berkeley home to let me do something similar: bake bread with him and write about it.

I’ve been baking bread for about three years, although my methods differ considerably from those Pollan describes in his most recent book, Cooked. I read his chapter on baking with some skepticism. In his quest to create the perfect loaf, he gets pretty elaborate, using all whole wheat, folding the dough in special ways, measuring everything with a digital scale. I’m more of an eyeballer: Load some flour into a measuring scoop, toss it into a bowl with water, salt, and starter, mix it up, and let it rise overnight. I use only four tools—a bowl, a measuring cup, a dutch oven, and a cooling rack. The bread I bake is sourdough, with a handsome cross on the top where I slice it with a knife before sticking it the oven. I have a rhythm, the same method every week, and it works. My bread is good, a worthy vessel for peanut butter and jelly. I like my bread. Why mess with that simplicity?

When I show up at Pollan’s door, accompanied by a photographer friend, I’m carrying a bowl of dough that I’d started the night before. The plan is to bake it in Pollan’s oven while he mixes up his own dough and demonstrates his methods. His counter is already cluttered with utensils, sacks of flour, an oven mitt, the morning’s still-folded New York Times, and there, in the middle of it all, a gleaming digital scale.

I look at a picture on the fridge, Pollan in a cowboy hat with an enormous beard—from his time in Mexico after college, he tells me—and then at the clean-shaven Pollan before me, gathering his mixing bowl and piles of supplies.

“Somebody sent me these really cool flours,” he says, pouring from one bag after another into the mixing bowl resting on his digital scale: einkorn, Kamut, whole grain wheat, dark rye—and hemp. “I was at a benefit last night, and these raw hemp seeds were included in the goody bag,” he says. “So what the fuck.”

Pollan spins the bowl with his left hand while he mushes the ingredients—1,000 grams of white flour, 850 grams of water—with his right. It’s completely different from my eyeballed guesstimates, but he plays it down. “I do everything by feel,” he says. “You can see that I’m not using a recipe.” Wet dough can be intimidating, he continues, but it’s the key to good bread. He holds up his right hand, the hand of a Swamp Thing, to demonstrate. He fights the sticky dough off his fingers and covers the bowl with a towel.

The oven is sufficiently preheated, and it’s my turn onstage. I pull the tinfoil off the top of my bowl, revealing my dough: an off-white, slightly grainy lump. As I spread flour over a cutting board and tip the dough onto it, I’m suddenly feeling a little naked. Pollan watches closely as I roll the gummy dough through the flour until it’s roughly the shape of a potato. “Do you use a scale?” he asks.

An Eyeballer

I’ve never been a stickler for exactitude. When my grandfather took up woodworking after he retired, we spent most of our time out in his shop, cutting dovetails and listening to Frank Sinatra. I’d get sawdust all over my pants every time. I enjoyed it, even though my boxes always came out a little shy of square. Even then, I was more of an eyeballer.

I started baking bread a few years ago when I came across a no-knead recipe on the Internet: Just mix flour, water, packaged yeast, and salt, leave it overnight, and bake it in a covered pot. My first loaf emerged from the oven a crustless, rough-hewn lump, but I was delighted. My girlfriend at the time, a charitable soul, congratulated me on my cleverness, though I’m sure that she laughed later. The bread was tasteless and on the wrong end of chewy, but it was cheap, and it gave me a certain satisfaction when I pulled it from the oven: I built this. The girl and I settled into a sort of truce: She bought her own bread, and I continued baking.

Over time, my bread got better. I learned to make sourdough starter, replacing the store-bought yeast with natural leavening that I cultivated in flour and water. I began using less water in my dough, which allowed me to shape the loaves and slash the tops before baking, so they came out looking nice. I replaced a little of the white flour with whole wheat. The bread was dense, and it dried out after a couple of days, but it toasted up nicely and went well with jam.

A Thing of Beauty

“I usually use this for peanut butter and jelly,” I tell Pollan as I dump my dough into a preheated pan. “I’m going to make you a piece of toast,” he responds, showing me remnants of his last loaf—thick and dark-crusted, picture-perfect, full of bubbles of all sizes. We stick my loaf in the oven and set a timer for 20 minutes. I feel a twinge of unease.

Pollan starts the next step on his own dough, carefully measuring out a precise dose of salt and some water. He works them into the dough with his hand, which comes away less swampy than the last time. The yeast in the sourdough starter is quickly transforming the bowl of disparate ingredients into a cohesive blob, held together by strands of gluten.

The toast pops up. I take a bite. It’s goddamn tasty—crunchy on the outside, but still moist in the middle, with a subtle hint of sourdough. Doubting my own bread-making style even more, I wonder about my loaf in the oven, which is no doubt collapsing sideways on me.

While it bakes, we hang around, talking. “In your book,” I say, “you compare freshly risen loaves to, I think . . . asses.” He laughs. When he was interviewing a professional baker in San Francisco, he says, he’d seen a row of uncooked loaves “all touching one another. He just stacks them up and they look gorgeous, like . . . you know.”

“One of those Hawaiian tourist shop postcards?”

“Right, you got it.”

Keeping It Simple

Gradually, I stopped trying to improve my bread. It was good enough. I’d mix it up at night, often after a weekend trip to the bars, and in the morning I’d throw it in the oven. It came out a little different every time, depending mostly on how much whole wheat or rye flour I tossed in with the white flour—and how long I’d spent at the bars. Still, I’m surprised by Pollan’s answer when I ask him about the future of bread baking. “If people only knew how simple baking bread is, maybe more of them would do it,” I suggest.

“Well, look, the normal average person doesn’t even have time to cook dinner and put it on the table,” he says. “I think they need to start with more basic things than baking bread. Just feeding their kids real food is a good start. But then you get the hobbyists.” I find myself disagreeing—the idea of being a hobbyist doesn’t mesh with my image of myself as a baker or with the whole idea of keeping it simple. “You know,” he continues, “you can go out to the woodshop or you can bake bread in the kitchen. It’s part of that continuum.”

The timer rings, and we tip my loaf out onto a cooling rack. It looks  surprisingly better than usual—a deep mahogany, with blackened ridges where we scored it. When Pollan taps the bottom of the loaf, it gives a sturdy thunk. “Sounds good,” he says. “It’s definitely dense.”

Pollan turns again to his dough, wetting his hand and then digging under the dough to stretch long folds over its top. The yeast in the sourdough culture is binding it together, and his hand comes away nearly clean—but not completely. “Do you get dough on your pants?” he asks, checking his black jeans.

“Always,” I reply.

“It is messy,” he says. “Let’s not tell anyone.” I envision my grandpa’s woodshop, and the sawdust on my pants. Pollan is a hobbyist, I think. But what am I?

Pollan cuts into my bread. “Ooh. Nice. It smells really good,” he says. He takes a bite. “Nice. Mmm. The crust is amazing.” He pauses. “How much salt do you use?” I can’t really say.

Bread Envy

The next day, I receive a text message. “Came out pretty nicely,” reads the caption below a picture of Pollan’s two loaves. His bread is dark brown, with white spirals of flour from the proofing baskets and perfectly placed slashes that reveal a golden-red interior. I zoom in on the pictures, staring for a while. Then I click through my own photos until I spot one of my loaves. Zooming in, I stare again, feeling deeply unsatisfied.

Over the next week, I find myself thinking of bread in idle moments, of crust and crumb, of exotic flours and raw hemp seeds. One morning I decide to mix up some dough using more whole wheat and much more water than ever before. I turn it every 45 minutes throughout the morning, like Pollan did, instead of letting it do its own thing, and then stick it in the fridge. That night, I fall asleep thinking of rows of luscious loaves lying on beach towels beneath swaying palms.

Early the next morning, I dip my hand into the dough, and scoop it onto the counter. But I become a Swamp Thing! I must have measured incorrectly, miscalculated my scoops. I try turning it the way that Pollan did, but it clings stubbornly to the counter and to my other hand. So I flip it onto its back, but it sticks there too. I look around helplessly, goobers of glutinous dough hanging off both hands, and force the recalcitrant mass into the bowl. Then, once again, I survey the mess.

When I pull the bread from the oven 45 minutes later, the shapeless blob reminds me of that first loaf I’d baked. I let it cool, all the while resenting its deformity. But then I cut it open—and it’s lofty, full of holes of all different sizes, moist, flavorful. It’s the best bread I’ve ever made. But, I think, it could probably still be better. Later, I catch myself musing about digital scales. How much do those things cost, anyway?