The Fresh Loaf

A Community of Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts.

Is the Bread Terroir Code crackable?

Our Crumb's picture
Our Crumb

Is the Bread Terroir Code crackable?

The recent flurry of chatter about SFSD, Larraburu Bros and Galal et al. highlights curious issues about the terroir of bread.  It occurs to me that bread has a staggeringly more extreme element thereof than wine, cheese or olive oil.  Forgive me if this is obvious and widely acknowledged.  These are new(ish), or at least somehow suddenly more deeply considered, ideas for me.

Whereas it almost takes a bonafide Supertaster to distinguish olive oils from adjacent Ligurian communes, or wines from neighboring Côtes de Rhone estates, almost anyone could distinguish my bread from that made from the same formula and process by my next door neighbor.  Why is this so?  Why is it that bread baking constitutes such a complex nexus of powerful intersecting and interacting factors dictating its outcome as to render each of our products as unique as our respective human genotypes?  I'd wager that even the gentlest nudges of nuture would prevent identical twins from producing indistinguishable breads in a single kitchen.  There's also the inevitable stochastic fuzziness inherent in any bread formula and process not executed by precison-tuned robots.

The utter personal uniqueness of our baked products is manifest every day in the TFL bread browser.  It fascinates me that, from the images, I can pick out a dabrownman, isand66, Danni3ll3, David Snyder, Alfanso or Elsie_Lu bread without having to click the link.  Ok, part of that arises from my conditioning vis a vis the same lighting and cameras in use.  But our breads are like our fingerprints or signatures - no two alike.  It'd be the same as my handing identical pens and paper to all the above bakers and asking them to forge Floyd's scribble of "The Fresh Loaf".  Each would be utterly distinguishable.  Add time, temperature, microbial, ingredient and equipment variation to that and reproducibility flies right out the window.   Are we hopelessly trying to "forge" Larraburu bread? :-)

Danny's community bakes are another example of 1000 flowers blooming from clonal seeds. Granted, everyone there is really encouraged to express her/his own personal take on a common formula, not to reproduce an ideal to the letter.  It's more an exercise of "lets all explore this space", which is the fun and flavorful fascination of it (thank you Danny!).  Yet it would be an interesting variation if everyone was actually encouraged, in a future community bake, NOT to stray from a strictly prescribed formula and process.  I don't have to tell you the outcome(s!) we could expect. 

One upshot of this line of thought is the utter futility of trying to accurately reproduce the character of Larraburu's legendary holey :-) grail.  Please don't get me wrong.  I'm not writing this to troll or diss the efforts eliciting the lively discussion and investigations currently @TFL.  On the contrary.  Just publicly ruminating about it.  We all bake (and braise and grill and stew) guided by a vision, often derived from an image in a cookbook or on a website or TV show.  The memory of a cherished bygone flavor is a powerful and worthy windmill for our personal tiltings.  I certainly do.  We all do.  Go for it.

But given the above musings about the utterly uniquely personal terroir of baked bread, how could any non-Larraburu bakehouse alumnus today possibly reproduce the flavor of a bread that was baked half a century ago at a particular bay area location with particular (mostly unknown, forgotten, scrapped) equipment with a long lost menagerie of microbes, an unknown or effectively extinct water, flour and salt supply, vessels, ambient temperature and humidity by sets of long retired, dead and mostly forgotten hands, eyes, noses and tongues?  How surprising is a result like, "the worst bread I've baked in a decade?" :-)  Well actually, a little.  But maybe that speaks to the immense scale of the challenge of trying to crack the code of bread terroir.  Maybe its quietly telling us You Shall Not Pass.

So why is a bread's character so exquisitely expressive of terroir?  Flour x Water x Salt x Yeasts x bacteria x time x temperature x humidity x hands x vessels x countertops ...?   Fill in some numbers (and factor in the barely knowable nonlinear interactions of those variables) and it becomes combinatorially astronomical.  And convincing.  Here's a hypothesis:  Acceleration, amplification and diversification by high heat.  Wine, cheese and olive oil don't get cooked at 500˚F during production.  Afterward in the kitchen perhaps, but not in the making.  As Michael Pollan has pointed out (highlighting research and scholarship by others), cooking over fire may have accelerated human evolution.  Maybe it's the heat of our ovens that is primarily responsible for launching our breads off in the zillion different directions represented by the endless diversity of our finished products.  But that's probably only a small part of it.

Or maybe it's just that when it comes to wines, cheeses and olive oils, there are only so many orchards, vineyards, pastures, caves, and (increasingly, worryingly, genetically uniform) plant and animal breeds on the planet.  But there are 8 billion of us, each built and driven by 20k genes represented by gazillions of alleles.  Neither us nor our kitchens are clones.  How could we expect our breads to any more uniform than we or they are?

Thanks for listening, if you've made it this far.  Over to you.  Got bread to bake.



dmsnyder's picture

Thanks for this very thoughtful essay. I think you stated many important issues accurately and eloquently.

In bread baking, "everything matters." I have been home milling and baking familiar breads with different varieties of wheat. I don't think my gustatory discrimination is particularly acute, but these different wheats produce very different flavors, even when they constitute only 20% or so of the total flour.

In addition to ingredients, fermentation methods and dough handling, all of which impact the final product significantly, the oven makes a big difference. I have had the "dumb luck" to have an oven that was just what the builder chose to install that is great for bread baking. I know it heats accurately and evenly, but there seems to be something more. Yet, it's no where near the commercial steam injecting deck oven I got to use at the SF Baking Institute.

Anyway, thanks again for this contribution.


Our Crumb's picture
Our Crumb

Thank you David,

I plead cheap and lazy when it comes to not yet exploring wheat varieties.  As they become more accessible with the apparent movement afoot, I'll probably get over it and explore.  I already mailorder big bags of generic hard wheat from Giustos in Petaluma, so maybe I am over it.

Ovens!  I left that out of my A x B x C x etc combinatorial list despite talking about 500˚F heat a few words later.  A yuge factor for sure.  You are indeed lucky with your oven.  I sort of like adapting to less-than-ideal conditions.  I like to think it challenges, and hopefully hones, my chops.  At least that's my excuse for not yet swapping out the 1980's wall ovens that have been in our house since we bought it.  But I know I have a very excellent oven in my future.  Just not yet.

Happy baking, and thanks for reading.


Our Crumb's picture
Our Crumb

Has any vintner or cheesemaker ever tried, much less "succeeded" (a matter of personal, if not juried, taste of course, if not "verified" by GC-MS, etc.), at reproducing the product of a distant, or at least geographically differing locale?  Would any self-respecting one admit to trying?  I'm not a vintner, cheesemaker (beyond ricotta & mozzarella with storebought milk) or olive crusher.  So I don't know.  But I suspect not.  Some, especially cheesemakers, will publicly say, "This is our take on ___<fill in appropriate cheddar, blue etc.>___."  But it would be impossible for a Vermont cheesemaker to literally and convincingly reproduce a Lancastershire cheddar or a Napa vintner to reproduce a Chateau Margaux.  That's the immutable reality (and joy!) of true terroir.  But we bread bakers are always trying to reproduce the Tartine Country loaf or Larraburu's SFSD or an "authentic" French baguette de tradicion.  Don't get me wrong -- it's a good thing.  They are (or were) great breads.  Is it do-able?  Worth trying and adequately do-able, for sure.  But the real deal will always and forever be the real deal, and easily disintguishable from our 'forgeries'.

A necessary disclaimer about my use of "terroir":   I willingly admit it's inappropriate for bread baking if you're at all a strict constructionist.  Terroir refers to (arises from) specific and diverse geographic locations.  Our kitchens really don't count, unless by some transition to the Age of Aquarius (or postapocolyptic hell) we all start truly baking bread "from scratch" by growing our own wheat in our backyards and on our rooftops.  But I think it's safe to assume that the age when true bread terroir was possible is, for better or for worse, well and truly behind us, for good.  So the bread terroir to which I'm babbling on about is geolocationally agnostic, not to be aligned with the true geographic terroirs of wine, cheese and olive oil.


David R's picture
David R

Tom - I was thinking those strict-constructionist thoughts as I started to read, and then was greatly soothed by the explanation at the end. ?

But OK, since you acknowledge it's not real terroir we're talking about with bread but other factors that make each result different, what could those factors be?

First in my mind is experience, both in a good sense and a bad one: Each of us gains a lot from our experiences; some is valuable knowledge and skill, some is "baggage" of false assumptions and bad habits.

Another is physical strength and skill: I'm noticeably clumsy and not particularly strong, and that inevitably affects how I do things.

Equipment: If one works their dough by hand and another uses a mixer, or if one uses Mixer A and the other uses Mixer B, or if another uses Mixer C but does it all wrong, the dough changes. Similarly for ovens, pans, etc.

Surroundings: This is the closest to "real terroir" that we get - climate, weather, heating and air conditioning, air flow, ...

What else?

Our Crumb's picture
Our Crumb

Hi David,

Thank you for accepting my disclaimer about "terroir".  The ground was feeling a bit shaky before it (and I live within walking distance of the San Andreas fault).

I'm sure it's all those factors and more.   Intuitively, there seems to be some serial exponential recursive amplification going on in the execution of a bread process and this inevitably leads to detectable variation among outcomes.  A tiny variation here or there launches the trajectory off in a different multidimensional direction despite strict adherence to "the recipe" downstream.  No going back.  One can "correct" and compensate for procedural or formula variation, but the outcome changes.  I can't imagine how independent professional (non-factory) bakers manage to appease discriminating and demanding customers.  Emerson said something about consistency...

Maybe I'm just flakey (ok, maybe not maybe), but no two of my bakes are ever identical, despite my following more or less the same formula and process every week.  Unlike more creative TFLoafers,  I tend to be more micro-creative about the enterprise -- tweaking add-ins and "toadies".  Blame a spouse who always says, "Stop messing with it!  It's great!" :-)

David S pointed out the obvious:  Ovens.  How can I write about bread variation using the word "oven" only once?  Still, SO much precedes oven loading.  Mixers for sure, including hands and the infinite variation therein, in structure, anatomy, movement, dexterity.  I have long believed that the irreproducibly divine products txfarmer posted here were, and hopefully continue to be, largely the result of an absolutely unique set of hands and their phenomenally controlled and atuned movements.  I'd *love* to see a video of her handling dough.  Nobody could reproduce her results because, I firmly believe, nobody but her is her, so to speak.  So human variation ("experience" as you say) in all its forms and causes -- the nurture I alluded to regarding twins baking the same bread -- that is an incalculable and non-trivial variable worthy of a high coefficient in our equation indeed.

The weekly (same old :-) miche beckons.  Happy baking,


David R's picture
David R

Two-part answer:

  1. Yes, of course, it is 100% crackable.
  2. Do you really want to work that hard? Probably not.

A big part of the "code" that would need "cracking" is regional & family baking lore, and regional & family shared food experiences. Think of the average American home baker and what they learned in early life. Not so fast - one grandmother was Italian, the other grandmother came from Hong Kong. "Terroir" all over the place!

DanAyo's picture

I haven’t seen this post, but I am so glad I stumbled upon it. Your writing has shed light on a truth not readily known, and in all probability, by only a select few. My bread is my bread, and your bread is yours. The truth of the matter is (after reading your post), I’ll never bake Trevor’s bread. And he’ll never bake mine. 

It is a great and worthy endeavor, in my opinion, to strive to bake “the perfect loaf”. An absolute impossibility, but non the less, a great and noble pursuit. But after reading your thoughts on this subject, we are all best served to direct our focus towards “our best bread” rather than Jeffrey Hamelman’s best bread. It just can’t be done. When you sit and think about it, bread is a marvelous and wonderful gift to each and every aspiring baker! No matter how long Peter Reinhart tries to duplicate my tried and tested version of my SFSD, he’ll never be able to really match it. “Eat your heart out Peter” :)

Thanks for the thought...
After reading your post, I feel better about my bread!