Learning from the shared practice of bread making


Tonight I started making a new loaf of bread. The one I made this morning is gone. As I began I reflected that what once terrified me as a mysterious challenge has become a practice I can tackle with confidence. Mastery is still a long way off, but the practice has its rewards.

Making bread is a simple practice but one with remarkable options for complexity. The simplicity begins with ingredients. There are only four required – flour, water, yeast and salt. However each of these is a natural product and yeast is a living organism. Variations in flour, temperature and vitality of the yeast interact with the practice of kneading, rising, shaping and baking to introduce complexity. Additional ingredients, processes and time spin bread off in other complex ways.

The complexity means there is a lot to learn and learning from the practice of masters is invaluable. My first loaves were flat and inedible. My own starter was weak, I lacked a grasp for developing the structure of the gluten and I was unaware of what to do when my following of recipes went awry, usually through some minor error of mine.

Here’s a few examples of how I learned from studying the practice of masters:

  • My master sourdough recipe came from the Fabulous Baker Brothers with accretions from all my reading. 
  • A sourdough course at the Brasserie Bakery gave me a better hands on appreciation of kneading and a better starter. 
  • I learned about letter folds to improve the dough from the recommendations of many recipe books. 
  • The Bourke Street Bakery’s Bread and Butter Project cookbook introduced me to a new effective kneading technique for the amateur
  • No knead recipes helped me to understand time and wet dough was my friend and trained me in the ability to plan a loaf ahead.
  • I worked out how best to slash and steam loaves in my home oven from the advice of others and my own experiments. 
  • Reading widely on styles of bread helped hone my confidence to build my own recipes and fix those that drift off track. Particularly useful were The Bread Bible, the Italian Baker, Nordic Bakery and Local Breads 
  • I have become a keen watcher of bakers at work from my lock pizza store to videos online.

If you reflect on the diversity of these influences, you will understand that my loaves aren’t copies of anyone of these sources. They draw from each in different ways, often at different times.

Complexity means each person needs to develop their own unique practice to leverage their opportunities and meet their own needs. There isn’t always a simple to follow recipe when techniques need to be learned. Experimentation is required to make sense of the practice and to make our own changes to make those practices suit.

However, we don’t do that learning and experimentation alone. We stand on ‘the shoulders of giants’ if we connect and learn from those masters around us. However, I can only learn from others if they are prepared to work out loud and share their approach. That working out loud is not all a free gift. I have paid for courses, a library of books and bought a lot of bread in my quest to learn.

The practices of the Responsive Organisation are far more complex than bread making. They involve the purposes, concerns and perspectives of many people in pursuit of common goals with agility and an external focus on customers and community. Sharing and building from our shared practice will help all of us to develop success. Working out loud fuels this learning and connection.

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