This book was written by Joe Ortiz of Gayle's Bakery in Capitola, California and published eleven years ago. At the time, the `Library Journal' said that good books for the home baker are few and far between. In 1993, Ortiz' book was just on the crest of renewed interest in artisinal breads. At the time, the most noteworthy books on artisinal bread baking were Carol Field's `The Italian Baker' and Bernard Clayton's `The Breads of France'. Peter Reinhart had written the small, quirky `Brother Juniper's Bread Book' which was long on one big idea, but not very detailed about some other aspects of baking. Bernard Clayton's giant `The Complete Book of Breads' did not even cover two of the three main types of yeast rising bread methods. It was more concerned with giving good, easy home recipes for a wide variety of different breads based entirely on `La methode directe' or the direct method. Therefore, Ortiz' excellent bibliography contains mostly works written in French.
In the last eleven years, a number of excellent books on artisinal bread have been written and published, especially by Peter Reinhart, Nancy Silverton, and Rose Levy Beranbaum. I have not read or reviewed Reinhart's award winning `The Bread Baker's Apprentice', so my favorite artisinal bread text before today was Beranbaum's `The Bread Bible'. Ortiz' book has just taken it's place. Beranbaum's book is almost twice as long and has a long introduction on ingredients and general techniques, but her presentation of the differences between the three major methods for yeast bread making simply do not succeed in making the subject quite as clear, as interesting, and as convincing as Ortiz' book. Beranbaum's book is still a great work with recipes for lots of types of breads that Ortiz does not cover. Before becoming too enmeshed with praise for Ortiz book, I must say I have taken a quick look at `The Bread Baker's Apprentice' and it appears to be the equal to `The Village Baker' on many points and may offer illumination on subjects Ortiz does not cover completely.
The heart of Ortiz book is simple artisinal bread made with flour, water, salt, and yeast. In some Tuscan bread, even salt is left out leaving three ingredients. In many breads, the yeast is captured from the ambient microflora, leaving but two ingredients added by the baker.
The thing that Ortiz makes so clear is the distinction between the three main methods for using yeast to leaven bread. The oldest method responsible for true sourdough breads, and the method most clearly characterizing `artisinal' baking is what the French call the `levain' method. With regional variations, this is THE method for rising dough until the production of brewer's yeast in 1810, a conversion which became complete with the production of baker's yeast in 1900. The `levain' method required at least 24 hours, as long as you had a viable starter. To create a starter required another four to seven days.
The direct method of leavening with commercial baker's yeast reduced production time from 24 hours to seven (7) or eight (8) hours. The problem is, breads made with the direct method simply did not taste as good or keep as long as levain breads, which benefited from the creation of acids as a byproduct of the natural fermentation. Hence, we get sour doughs from natural yeast fermentation.
The solution to improve the taste of breads without relying on the long and somewhat unreliable levain method was the invention of the sponge method or `Pain sur poolish', possibly named by the fact that it was invented by Polish bakers in Paris. This method creates a sponge from baker's yeast and flour on one day that rises overnight, when it is combined with more flour to form the dough. The overnight rising creates some of the acidic fermentation byproducts to give some of the sourdough tang. The brioche family, including challah is made using the sponge method. Italian bakers use a similar method, calling their version of a sponge a `biga' which is best for high gluten breads with a high water content for ciabatta and like breads.
Giving us an understanding of these three major approaches to yeast leavened bread may, itself, be worth the price of admission for this $20 paperback, but there is much more. True to the title of the book, the author' main focus is to give us an understanding of the traditional local professional baker, and to enable us to reproduce what this baker can do. To tell the full story, Ortiz gives recipes for many traditional breads as they may be done at home AND as they are done in the professional bakery. The professional recipes follow the same format used by other books for the professional baker such as Gisslen's `Professional Baking' and the recent Culinary Institute of America's `Baking and Pastry'.
In spite of the heavy use of French sources, Ortiz gives full coverage of Italian, German / Austrian, Italian, and American artisinal methods. That's right, American artisinal baking, headlined by the justly famous San Francisco sourdough. The only thing I miss is a reference to any special microflora native to the San Francisco area that makes this bread so distinctive. My hunch is that it is all due to the mist off the bay. In the section on American breads, Ortiz cites a large number of artisinal bakers, almost all of which are on the Pacific coast (that mist again) or in New York City. As the list is eleven (11) years old, I would verify any locations before getting into the car. Thankfully, I know that Zabar's in Manhattan is alive and well and still credited with having the best bread in New York City.
If you are interested in understanding serious bread baking basics, this is the book for you. Be warned, this is not simple quick stuff, but worth the read even if you never open a pack of Fleishman's yeast.