Chef Eric Kayser can tell you the story behind a loaf of bread simply by listening to it. While the image of a grinning Frenchman with his ear pressed against a baguette to determine the crackle quality of its crust might look insane, it is anything but. Kayser, the internationally renowned baker with a slew of bakeries spanning multiple continents, is obsessed with good bread. The Daily Meal spoke recently with him at Maison Kayser; he was in New York for the opening of his first Brooklyn bakery, about what makes a quality baguette.
The first item on your to-do list, he said, is to gather top-notch ingredients. His baking team never uses preservatives, sugar, or butter when they bake bread. The “no-no” list of ingredients not allowed in his deck ovens is longer than what he actually uses to make bread: salt, yeast, water, unrefined, organic flour, and a long fermentation process.
“People need to understand how to find a good baguette, and the number one ‘tell’ is color,” Kayser said. “A brown baguette is good. It means it’s caramelized, and that’s when all the flavors come out. When you see white or light-colored bread, it was usually made in a factory.”
The next part, he says, is the distinctive shape of the baguette. All of Maison Kayser’s baguettes are formed with two pointy, blackened ends, “the better for sharing with!” Kayser explains with a chuckle.
“We need to smell the bread now,” he said, sticking his nose deep into the crispy crust of the baguette. “You can smell dozens of different flavors just with one whiff.” Chef Kayser also points out the importance of air bubbles on the inside of the baguette: The air bubbles, he says, makes for a chewier texture with “pull” and dexterity, as opposed to the bland, uniformly soft texture of the white bread masquerading as an authentic baguette.
As for beginner mistakes, he said, he’s seen plenty, especially when it comes to observing home cooks who do not have the equipment of a commercial bakery or the expertise of a master baker.
“A baker is like a chemist. You can’t just mix the ingredients and put them in the oven,” he said. “You need to understand how the weather is, what the dough is doing. Pay attention to the air temperature. Is it humid? If you put too much water in the dough it won’t mix. If you don’t put enough that also won’t work.”
He takes a bite of a baguette in front of him, and as predicted, it’s perfectly crunchy, with flakes of caramelized crust crumbling all over the table. He’s an expert. But then again, Kayser knew he would be a professional baker since he was three years old, so the life of sweltering ovens and flour-covered hands has always been a part of him.