I have always had my doubts about the word “delicious,” finding it both enticing and frustrating. Enticing because it conjures up an array of pleasant olfactory and gustatory sensations and frustrating because these sensations remain wholly undefined, cloaked in a veil of vagueness: hearing or reading that an heirloom variety apple is “delicious” doesn’t tell me anything about the taste of the apple, does it? It only tells me that the speaker or writer enjoyed eating it. Good for that person to know, for sure, but no help to me at all if I am trying to decide whether or not I might like it as well.
Having been aware of the emptiness of the d… word for a while, I have made a conscious effort to avoid using it on this blog when describing bread. But of course that meant I needed other words and to my dismay the ones that came to me were not necessarily more descriptive.
Now the task has become easier thanks to Aroma and Flavor Notes for Bread, a tool developed by Michael Kalanty, baker, chef, teacher, sensory scientist (more on that in a later post) and, last but not least, author of How to Bake Bread: The Five Families of Bread. What Mike set out to do, based on his experience working with chefs and bakers all over the world, is to give bakers the words they need to convey the actual aroma and flavor of bread, much as winemakers describe the aroma of wine or coffee roasters that of coffee.
As explained in the accompanying article, the method is pretty straightforward, you start with the crumb and you chew (preferably with your mouth open to better aerate the flavor, so don’t try it on a date!).
First you identify the sourness (or lack of) of the crumb, then the character of that sourness. Smooth and dairy-like or sharp like citrus? As it happened we had been to San Francisco a few days earlier and we had brought back from Tartine Bakery a Rye Porridge loaf. I had cut it in half and put it in the freezer reserving it for a special occasion. This test definitely qualified.
I took one half out, waited for it to thaw, “resurrected” it in the oven at 350°F for about ten minutes, then let it cool down. The kitchen filled in with luscious bread baking aromas. Notice I didn’t say “delicious,” but is “luscious” better? I don’t think so, it conveys judgment, not information. I needed to let go of that mindset and put myself in a evaluation mode.
When the bread was cool, I separated the crumb from the crust and started chewing.
I could taste sourness but what kind? I looked at the orange and yellow infographic : the choices were green apple, grapefruit, lemon or vinegar. Vinegar and grapefruit could be eliminated right away: the one was too tangy, the other too bitter. I briefly thought of lemon but it was too acidic for what I was smelling and tasting. I settled for “green apple.”
On to dairy sweetness: did I perceive an aroma of milk or butter? Not really. The closest approximation to a dairy product I could think of was a young raw milk cheese. I wrote that down. Already I was off the chart and liking it: it felt like poetry with training wheels.
As I continued chewing and aerating my palate, I also clearly identified the flavor of cooked grain. Since I have never had rye porridge, I can’t say that I tasted it but I did taste boiled grain. And it didn’t bring to mind rye as I know it. In fact that bread couldn’t be more different from any other rye bread I have ever had. Interesting…
Moving on to the crumb, the first note I perceived was malt. I clearly discerned “roasted” as well but try as I might I couldn’t identify either chocolate or balsamic. As I chewed I became keenly aware of the fact that I was very much an apprentice in the art of analyzing aromas and flavors. I was tasting things I had no words for because I had never stopped long enough to establish a correlation between language and what I was experiencing. There is definitely a learning curve to the process. In the end it boils down to educating one’s palate. If I try the bread again in a few months after some practice, I will probably be more specific.
I looked at the infograph again. The crust definitely reminded me of a French dark beer, a Pelforth to be precise, which I haven’t had in decades. Funny how the tastebuds remember. I assume American dark beers are not that different. But I understand that, to be really useful, the reference would need to be checked.
At the end here are the words I jotted down to describe Tartine’s Porridge Rye bread. Probably not enough but hey, it was my first time.
- Crumb: malty, mildly acidic (like a green apple), reminiscent of oatmeal and a very young raw milk cheese
- Crust: again malty, roasted, slightly bitter crust reminding me of a French dark beer.
Now doesn’t that tell you much more than if I had just said “delicious?”
Which of course it also was. As well as luscious. Good words for sure as long as they are not the only ones we use. To conclude I would like to thank Michael for generously sharing this tool with us. Seeing how it immediately filled a gap for me, I am convinced it will come in handy for many other bakers, professional or home-based as a way to facilitate dialogue. Thanks to bakers’ math, we already have a good idea of what a bread will be like just from looking at its formula. If the baker adds aroma and flavor notes, we will also know how it will taste. I have a feeling many bakers, especially in the younger generation, will be keenly interested.