Mark Stambler painstakingly crafts French breads in his home kitchen that are served by some of L.A.’s top restaurants. And, one of the baking industry’s top trade magazines just named him one of the ten best bread makers in the country. So to learn about bread-making, Rico met him in his backyard, where Mark was baking some in a brick oven, and started things off by asking how Mark got into bread.
Mark Stambler: My mom was not a professional baker either, but she was a patisserie. She came over from Germany and so she knew how to make a wide variety of pastries and cakes, but she would never ever bake bread. So I decided to kind of be like my mom but kind of different, so I only baked bread. I would never bake pastry.
Rico Gagliano: It was like your youthful rebellion. But as the son of somebody who was doing complicated baked goods, how can you stay interested in this, kind of the most basic of foods?
Mark Stambler: Well that’s exactly the reason. It is the most basic food and is probably one of the oldest prepared foods and the fact that it’s just got, essentially, three ingredients — four if you count salt — but basically there’s grain, there’s water, and yeast.
And the process of making dough for bread is just cultivating the yeast in flour and water. It’s the yeast’s food. As yeast grows, it emits gas which expands the dough and it makes sugar, it makes alcohol… unfortunately the alcohol burns off in the baking, but that’s so sad.
Rico Gagliano: Yeah, what a waste.
Mark Stambler: But it does, it just takes years of practice and in my case, a lot of trial and error to sort of get it right.
Rico Gagliano: If you were to give somebody one thing to make their bread great, what would it be? What’s the most important thing?
Mark Stambler: Gene one. It’s used a starter rather than commercial yeast.
Rico Gagliano: What’s the difference?
Mark Stambler: Well, commercial yeast is sort of the dried yeast you buy in a store, it’s prepared yeast, and if on the other hand, you just have access to a starter and all the starter is flour and water that’s been mixed together and left to stand out so that yeast can settle on it and start to grow.
If you use that instead of the commercial yeast, the flavor of your bread will improve remarkably. Particularly if you have whole grain in your bread. White bread… well, it should be demonized.
Rico Gagliano: The look of disdain on your face right now is tremendous for something that everybody eats all the time.
Mark Stambler: Yeah, but only because people really haven’t been introduced to whole grain breads.
Rico Gagliano: Well, let’s do that right now. I can smell this bread that you’re baking right now, it smells fantastic. Tell us what is in the oven.
Mark Stambler: I baked three different kinds of bread, I do a pain levain — it’s sort of a traditional French loaf, one of them that you’ll find out in the countryside, but I’m trying to duplicate the kind of flour that the French normally use wherever.
Rico Gagliano: It’s true, you mill your own flour?
Mark Stambler: I do. I mill my own whole grain flour. I have a little stone mill and I just throw the whole grain in there and I bake with it almost immediately within, you know, an hour or so of milling.
Rico Gagliano: So you do the pain levain, that’s kind of a torpedo shape. It’s not like a baguette, but it’s like a fat torpedo bread?
Mark Stambler: No, no, the thing is that baguette’s not a traditional French bread. The baguette really was introduced only about a century ago by the Viennese.
Rico Gagliano: Sacré bleu!
Mark Stambler: Exactly. Paris loved this bread that came from the Austrians, and so everyone else in France said, “Oh my god, the Parisians really love this stuff, I guess we better like it too.”*
Rico Gagliano: But you’re not going to stain your hands with that non-actual French baguettes. So you’ve got the pain la vin, and what else?
Mark Stambler: Pain levain, and my miche, which in Europe, is usually shaped as a big round, it’s usually a couple of kilos, these things are huge. But people are not gonna buy loaves of bread that big, I make small one–mini miche.
Rico Gagliano: And that’s a round bread, right?
Mark Stambler: It’s a round bread, exactly. And I also do a sourdough rye. And when I first started working with rye, I said, what is this horrible stuff that looks awful, it smells bad, but it makes great bread.
Rico Gagliano: Well as I said, it smells unbelievable. Should we go over there–apparently you keep glancing over there like you’re very panicky because it’s about to come out.
Mark Stambler: It’s time to take it out. Bread doesn’t wait once it’s in the oven.
Rico Gagliano: What is this? What kind of bread?
Mark Stambler: What we’re offloading here is the miche, and the miche I understand from Bon Appetit, is the “it” loaf of the season.
Rico Gagliano: You’re now spraying steam like spraying water, I guess, directly into the oven.
Mark Stambler: Exactly. So, it’s a Hudson sprayer.
Rico Gagliano: What does that do, spritzing them?
Mark Stambler: Ah, cools down the crust so that the interior of it can actually bake a little longer and give a bit more oven spring to it.
Rico Gagliano: Oven spring? Speak English, man.
Mark Stambler: Sorry. Oven spring is the way the loaf expands considerably when you put it in the oven if all the conditions are right. What causes dough to rise is heat. The yeast loves it, they’re just having a wonderful time. Oh, you know we’re producing a lot of gas for you, we’re doing all this stuff, but it’s a little too hot, oh my god we’re all dead. That’s the point where it stops rising. After all the yeast is dead.
Rico Gagliano: So basically the process of making bread is getting yeast lively and happy and then kill it.
Mark Stambler: Essentially, yeah.
Rico Gagliano: You’re a murderer.
Mark Stambler: No, I’m a vegetarian!
* DPD Note: An Austrian did bring the ovens used to make baguettes to France, but it’s not clear whether baguettes themselves are Austrian.