Josey Baker (yes, his real name) is the type of guy that if you have known him for five minutes, you feel you have known him all your life. In fact you don’t even have to have met him in person to know him. Long before I did, I read his book, Josey Baker Bread: Get Baking – Make Awesome Bread – Share the Loaves, and I felt I could have recognized him anywhere from his voice alone. And it wasn’t even an audiobook!
In fact it was the e-version of his book. I had been debating whether or not to get the print version for one of my sons who, at the time, had expressed an interest in baking his own bread. Lest you think it went anywhere, let me tell you right away, it didn’t. The loaf he made from a box kit remains his one and only (as far as I know). So I never bought the print version of Josey’s book. But I still think my son would have loved it. Very Californian, very laid back… Just bread advice from one surfer dude to another. He would have been hooked. But it wasn’t meant to happen. Oh well!
I did meet Josey Baker in person later on at a couple different Grain Gatherings, notably the one where he performed a memorable pas de deux with Jonathan Bethany from the Bread Lab. And of course I get to see him whenever I stop by The Mill, his bakery at 736 Divisadero in San Francisco. Which isn’t as often as I would like because of the distance.
But who is Josey Baker? Let’s ask him. “I am just a fella who started baking bread at home one day, fell totally in love with it, and decided to turn it into my job.” His mission from the start? “Figure out how to make bread better and how to make more of it.” The rest, as they say, is history.
Josey started with a piece of starter a friend had left with him. Two and a half years later he had quit his day job and opened his own bakery in San Francisco. He now has a staff of ten (all between the early twenties and the early thirties.)
Josey grew up in Vermont. He has a Bachelor in Science Education. When the bread bug bit, he was writing elementary and middle school science curriculums (teacher’s guides and children’s books) at Berkeley. He says that his interest in education is a tremendous help in business and more specifically in working with his staff. It helps him promote a shared vision and understanding of the process as well as instill “a culture of curiosity.”
Responsibilities within the team are more diluted now than ever before. For instance on the rye shift, one person does it all from start to finish.
Josey is the first to say that his bread has evolved over the years. He has posted photos of his first loaves on his blog and they look nothing like what you see today at the bakery.
I asked Josey what had changed. He explained that at the beginning, they worked with old dough (pâte fermentée), meaning that they reserved a piece of dough everyday to use as a starter in the new batch the next day. They mixed in the morning (between 7 and 11) using an overnight starter that had been built around 4 PM, with salt.) While the levain fermented for 18 hours, bulk fermentation was 3 to 4 hours. For a while, they added poolish because the sourdough was too acidic. The reason they divided very early in bulk was to get a milder flavored bread. The shaped loaves proofed overnight in the fridge and were baked the next morning.
Today the bakery uses an 18 hour-overnight seed (not yet levain). The seed is mixed at 3 PM with high-extraction flour and 3% inoculation. The levain itself is fed at 6 AM. Mixing occurs between 8 AM and 10:30 AM (between 20% and 75% goes into the first mix which ferments for 1.5 hour). The percentage of levain decreases when the dough has to wait longer.
The bakers mix three doughs (two country and one whole-wheat) every morning, a gluten-free one (for the “adventure bread”) four days a week (I forgot to ask to see the GF bread, so, no picture, sorry!,) the 100% rye (dark mountain rye) four days a week and pizza dough two days a week.
All breads are mostly whole-grain, some 100% so. Josey gets his wheat from Fritz Durst in Yolo Country and from Community Grains, his rye as well as type 70 white flour from Central Milling, occasionally other grains as well. Sources for einkorn have varied in the past two years. A few months ago, the bakery started using a red wheat which is only 9.5% protein and requires 108% hydration. That grain just soak up the water. It has become a favorite.
I tell Josey that I have heard people complain that his bread is too dark, even (dare I say it?) burned.
He laughs and replies: “Yeah, well, Sometimes the bread does look burned. But it is baked dark on purpose. The truth is that in 98% of cases the breads are baked very dark because they taste better that way. Not only that but there is so much water in our doughs that in order for the bread to cook completely, it needs to bake that long.” He chuckles: “Every once in a while though, the bread is really burned. So I tell my customers: ‘Just try it. If you think it is truly burned, we’ll give you a different loaf.'”
Time to wrap up. I ask Josey what is important to him as a baker.
The Mill mills four hundred pounds of whole-grain flour every day (a ton and a half a week). In Josey’s mind, that mill is what sets his bakery apart. His is the only bakery in San Francisco to use that much freshly milled whole-grain flour (75%). The flour is used unsifted.
Why would a baker add to his workload by milling his own flour? The answer is on Josey’s blog: “Whole grain flour starts going bad the moment it is milled. Compared to white flour, which is all starchy endosperm, whole grain flour contains bran and germ, which oxidize and degrade rapidly. As we use mostly whole grain flour, we have a deep interest in using it when it’s as fresh as possible. How to have the freshest flour possible? Mill it yourself.”
Otherwise, Josey’s motto has remained the same since I saw him perform that famous pas de deux at the Grain Gathering in 2015: as a baker, always remember to go for Whole (grain), Wild (yeast), Wet (dough), Slow (fermentation) and Bold (bake).
If you like what you just read and live in or near San Francisco, you may consider taking a class at the bakery. The Mill has been offering classes every week for close to a year, almost all of them sold out.