Sarah Black introduced New York City to ciabatta in the early ‘90s when she began making the Italian-style bread from the Tom Cat Bakery in Long Island City for her baking company Companio. “[Baking] definitely taught me patience growing up,” she says while laughing.Black combined her prior training in paper making with her passions for architecture and for baking to become one of the foremost authorities on bread making.
In her new cookbook, One Dough, Ten Breads, Black shares her expertise, focusing on the physical interaction between the dough and bread maker. She treats the dough as a building block, coaxing readers to develop instincts for how the dough should sound, look, and feel through her instruction. Her method emphasizes tapping into these instincts, and trusting them, rather than relying on precise measurements (although those are included in her recipes).
The book showcases what Black knows best — ciabatta. This malleable dough with a complex interior structure can be used as the basis for everything from pizza to crackers. From there, Black explores 10 different foundation breads, sharing recipes for a Provençal pizza made with her focaccia recipe, as well as a lavender-scented, whole-wheat sandwich bread recipe.
We had the opportunity to chat with Black about her new cookbook, and what she has learned about baking over the years.
The Daily Meal: Can you tell me a little bit about what inspires you to bake? And how you found your way to bread baking?
Sarah Black: Truthfully, it was because I failed at other jobs in the food industry. I tried my hand at being a line cook, and I was really slow; I tried being a pastry cook for Danny Meyer at Union Square Café, and I did okay until we were reviewed [by the New York Times], and then the whole dynamic changed. I didn’t know how to do production, and pastry was more of a science, so it was really a difficult, challenging time. But all along, I had been experimenting with bread at home, using Carol Field’s book, The Italian Baker.
I found that I liked bread, and it seemed to like me, so it was a good combination.
[Baking] definitely taught me patience growing up — Sarah BlackYou are famous for your ciabatta, what makes that style of bread so special?
It’s a bread dough that has a lot of water in it — it is a highly hydrated dough. I had been a craftsperson in papermaking [prior] to [baking], so it was very familiar for me when I started working with these very wet doughs. I love how I could manipulate the dough to form these beautiful, interior crumb structures. So it was more that I was building bread, instead of making bread. I was sort of fascinated with the whole architecture of the bread. Not so much about eating it — just building it for a while.
How did that determine the recipes you chose to include in this book?
That is a really good question — no one has asked me that. I think it came down to how I learned about making bread. So I wanted to start by using just one dough, and evolving that in a simple and logical way, because I wanted people to see how to work with their hands and how to understand dough in a way that I had never understood it before, until I started writing this book.
How does this book break down the very skilled process of bread making for readers?
I think that our goal, and I give my editor full credit for helping me, [was to] design tips along the way (in each bread chapter) to hopefully bring the reader along in using their senses to [help him or her] to understand the process. You learn by doing, so if you can get someone started, and they start making note of what they hear and see and feel, it really grounds the learning process.
You mentioned architecture as an inspiration. What inspires your creative shapes when you are “building” your breads?
My great-grandfather was an architect, and my father had been an artist before his career in advertising, and I had studied painting, so I loved the geometrics of trying to make a beautiful interior structure that would hold up. I guess the science of fermentation began to come into play when I [wanted to know] how to make the structure rise perfectly.
What tips would you share with first-time bread bakers?
My best tip is to just start. It is the first chapter in the book, “Getting Your Hands in the Dough,” but if you are not afraid of failing — because I always tell everyone, “you will fail” — it is the best way to learn, and it is also fun because it takes the pressure off of making the perfect bread. Just get in there, have fun, and enjoy the process. You learn so much before definitions and before science — you can really learn so much just by [following] instincts.
What is the ultimate takeaway?
Just do it [laughs]. But really, I would say 99 percent of the students I have taught in my class are there because they are scared. I think the ultimate takeaway is to just jump over that line. Mix up some flour, water, yeast, and salt, and [then] just feel your way through it.
Anyone who has another skill, whether it be sewing or cooking or gardening — all of those hand skills — translates to bread making. They should be aware that it’s not [as] foreign as they think it is.
Want to try a recipe?